Britain’s Role, the U.S. Response and Lessons for Today
September 13, 2005
Britain opposed freedom and democracy for Cyprus following World War II and bears the original and primary responsibility for the post-World War II tragedies that have befallen Cyprus. While other colonies were gaining their freedom, Cyprus was told by the British Minister of State for Colonial Affairs Harry Hopkinson, during a House of Commons debate in 1954, that “[t]here can be no question of any change of sovereignty in Cyprus” and that “there are certain territories in the Commonwealth which, owing to their particular circumstances, can never expect to be fully independent.”
Following the Hopkinson “never” statement, Greece decided to bring an application for self-determination to the 1954 UN General Assembly session on behalf of the people of Cyprus. Britain opposed the application. Although Turkey had renounced all rights to Cyprus in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, Britain claimed that the presence of an eighteen percent Turkish Cypriot minority was an obstacle to a solution. Britain called for a tripartite conference among Britain, Greece and Turkey which was held in London in late August and early September 1955 to discuss the situation in Cyprus. The conference ended in failure. Britain, however, accomplished her objective: greater Turkish involvement in the matter to blunt the Greek Government’s efforts on behalf of self-determination for the people of Cyprus.
The Turkish government, to demonstrate its interest in Cyprus at the time of the tripartite conference, planned and organized riots against its Greek citizens and residents in Istanbul and Izmir. It exploded a bomb in the Turkish Consulate in Salonika, Greece, and a false report was spread that Kemal Ataturk’s birthplace had been bombed and destroyed. The following account from an article by John Phillips in Harper’s Magazine in June 1956 describes the carnage:
“On the fifth of September 1955, a bomb exploded under singular circumstances inside the Turkish Consulate at Salonika in Northern Greece. The Turkish press and radio, over which the government is influential, blared out the incendiary and false report that the nearby birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, a sort of Turkish Mount Vernon on foreign soil, had also been destroyed. The events of the following day (September 6, 1955) in Turkey were planned and executed with the same discipline the Nazis used in their onslaughts on the Jews. Squads of marauders were driven to the shopping area in trucks and taxis, waving picks and crowbars, consulting lists of addresses, and the police stood by smiling. Greek priests were reported circumcised, scalped, burned in bed; Greek women raped. The Greek Consulate was destroyed in Izmir. Just nine out of eighty Greek Orthodox churches in Istanbul were left undesecrated; twenty-nine were demolished. Ghouls invaded the huge Greek cemetery where Patriarchs of Constantinople are buried, opened mausoleums, dug up graves, and flung bones into the streets; corpses waiting burial were lanced with knives. There had been no comparable destruction of Greek sanctuaries since the fall of Constantinople.
The Turkish government did its best to keep the world from knowing. A familiar heavy hand fell upon the press, and editors who criticized Premier Menderes were jailed again.”
The New York Times on September 7, 1955 reported the riots in a front page story but did not do an adequate follow-up of the events nor any investigative reporting.
On September 13, 1955 the New York Times stated that “The amount of damage has been assessed unofficially at $300,000,000.” U.S. Senator Homer Capehart, who was in Ankara at the time, said the riots were “ghastly and unbelievable.” He estimated the damage at $500 million. Turkey said it would pay compensation to the victims. It paid very little to a limited number of victims over a drawn-out period of years.
If you add interest at 5% compounded annually for the 50 years since 1955, the amount owed to the victims would be several billion dollars.
There was very little coverage in the rest of the American press and media and little has been written in the U.S. about this barbarism by the Turkish government since Mr. Phillips article.
Now, 50 years later, we have an exceptional account of the catastrophe by Dr. Speros Vryonis, Jr., one of the world’s most eminent scholars of Ottoman and Byzantine history. His magesterial work: The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul, was published this year by greekworks.com of New York. It numbers over 700 pages.
Dr. Vryonis devoted many years to the research and writing of this extraordinary book. He dedicated the book to Demetrios Kaloumenos the photographer for his two-fold contribution. First his copious photography, done under dangerous circumstances, and for his personal record of the events. He graciously acknowledged the financial assistance of the Michael and Mary Jaharis Family Foundation without which this monumental work would not have become a reality.
In the introductory chapter Dr. Vryonis describes the Greek community of Istanbul on the eve of September 6, 1955 who numbered about 100,000. Under the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne regarding the exchange of populations, the Greek population of Istanbul and the Muslim community residing in Western Thrace were exempted from the exchange process. From about 300,000 Greeks in Istanbul in 1922, the number in 1955 had fallen to about 100,000. They had achieved some limited success under exceptionally difficult circumstances and years of discrimination and harassment by the Turks who repeatedly violated the terms of the Lausanne Treaty.
In chapter one Dr. Vryonis describes in detail the existing and newly organized institutions that were the instruments of destruction used by the Menderes government in the pogrom of September 6-7, 1955.
In chapter two Dr. Vryonis depicts the events of the nine hours of the pogrom, from 5:30 p.m. on September 6, 1955 to 2:30 a.m. on September 7, 1955, which destroyed the Greek community of Istanbul. “Pogrom” is defined as government instigated and organized violence against an ethnic minority.
He writes: “the events were traced to the five geographical areas in which they transpired….The pogrom’s intent was twofold: first it was a planned and successful effort to destroy the forty-five Greek communities spread out over the vast area of greater Istanbul and its environs; second, it served certain domestic and foreign policies of the Menderes regime.”
The government brought many thousands of Turks from Asia Minor and Thrace to join the pogromists in Istanbul. They were “provided with the crowbars, acetylene torches, clubs, spades, pickaxes, dynamite, and gasoline (for the planned arson) that would be the tools” of the destruction. (p. 99) Approximately 100,000 Turkish citizens participated in the pogrom. (p. 68)
Dr. Vryonis describes the system of attack in three waves. The first wave broke down doors and windows and moved on to the next store, dwelling or church. The second wave fell upon the contents and the third wave finished the work of destruction both inside and outside a building but not before it had thoroughly looted the property. (p. 546)
The material damage to the Greek community was enormous:
- 1000 homes destroyed and 2500 partially destroyed and all were looted;
- 4000-4500 stores were looted and destroyed or damaged;
- Thirty Greek males were killed; and
- 200 Greek women raped.
The damage to the Greek Orthodox churches was enormous and is documented in detail by Dr. Vryonis in chapter five:
- of the 83 Greek Orthodox Churches, 59 were burned and most others suffered serious damages to the icons and ancient paintings of great value;
- the tombs of Patriarchs were destroyed;
- Christian cemeteries were defiled.
In chapter three, Dr. Vryonis examines “the pogrom’s damages, both moral and material,” and in chapter four he details “the efforts of various organizations or individuals to put a financial value on them.” Turkey took actions to limit and reduce the claims for damages and paid only a small percentage of the reduced claims over a period of eleven years.
Menderes official version of what happened was broadcast by radio on the evening of September 7, 1955. It was replete with falsehoods and he tried to blame the communists.
British role and responsibility
Britain had made strenuous efforts in 1954 and 1955 to change Turkey’s policy of being neutral towards Cyprus and to get Turkey on its side despite the terms of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 in which Turkey had renounced all rights to Cyprus. Britain successfully pressured Turkey to change its neutral position and support Britain in the UN and at the Tripartite conference in London. British Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan led the effort. Dr. Vryonis states that “Macmillan prevailed upon Turkey to alter its policy on Cyprus and make vigorous representations as to its claims and rights on the island.”
Prior to August 1955, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mehmet Fuat Koprulu had declared that Cyprus was a British concern and not a Turkish concern. On August 24, 1955, Prime Minister Menderes replaced Koprulu with Fatin Fustu Zorlu, a virulent anti-Greek and anti-minority zealot.
In a British Foreign Office memorandum of September 14, 1954, at a time when Greece was bringing its appeal for self determination for Cyprus to the UN and the British were courting Turkey to change its neutral stance on Cyprus, a British official stated: “ A few riots in Ankara would do us nicely.”
Dr.Vryonis writes: “[t]he facts that have come to light are sufficient to suggest that, by the early fall of 1954, the British government may have made vague, informal references on the desirability of some demonstrations in Istanbul as a political barometer of public, and violent, Turkish sentiment on the subject of Cyprus.”
The American reaction
On September 18, 1955, 12 days after the devastating attacks against the Greek community of Istanbul and when there was sufficient evidence of the Turkish governments involvement, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wrote almost identical letters to Greek Prime Minister Alexandros Papagos and Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. These letters, in effect equating the victims with the victimizers will “live in infamy.”
The British Foreign Office applauded Dulles’ action in sending common letters to the Greek and Turkish governments. Mr. J. A. Thomson of the Foreign Office Southern Department wrote on a Foreign Office copy of Dulles’ letters the following:
“This message has produced a lively resentment among the Greeks. But it no doubt will do good in the long run. It is satisfactory that Mr. Dulles has reversed the earlier line of the State Department which blamed the Turks and favored the Greeks.
The [British] Secretary of State has sent a message to Mr. Dulles expressing his appreciation of his appeal….”
Lessons for today
The Turkish military made no objection to Prime Minister Menderes actions. The Chief of Staff of the Turkish military promised Menderes protection. On May 27, 1960 a military junta took over the government for a number of reasons in a basically bloodless coup. It then arrested and tried Prime Minister Menderes and his cohorts, found them guilty with a few exceptions and executed Menderes, Zorlu and others.
The military’s direct intervention into the political life of Turkey tightened the government’s grip on the Greek minority and the other minorities– the Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Alawis, Assyrians, Christians and others. Dr. Vryonis writes that the military:
“intensified its suppression of the rights and freedoms of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as of the country’s citizens as a whole” and “proved itself to be a worthy successor to the oppressive regime of the Young Turks. The demographic decline of both the Greek and Jewish communities in Turkey during the latter half of the twentieth century was a direct result of the Menderes and post-Menderes policies and persecution of minorities….
Indeed, the entire history of the last fifty years of Turkish society is tied to the imperialism of the Turkish general staff, which has successfully utilized its forces to impose its territorial aggression and conquest. In effect, the spirit of the pogrom of 1955, whose motive force was the final destruction and expulsion of the Greeks from Istanbul, was continued and finally consummated by successive governments and the activities of the Turkish general staff…General Cemal Gursel proved to be a vigorous and willing heir to the pogrom’s spirit…Furthermore, after the invasion of Cyprus in 1974…these policies were reconceived to carry out the ethnic cleansing of the Greek Cypriot majority in the occupied north. This policy, intended to Turkify northern Cyprus, was attended by willful destruction that strongly resembled the acts perpetrated by the Menderes government against the Greeks of Istanbul. This ethnic cleansing was also applied later, with U.S. weapons, in the destruction of Kurdish villages of southeast Anatolia, which reduced the region to a semi-desolate landscape.” (pp 558-59)
Dr. Vryonis discusses the 198-page 1976 report of the Commission on Human Rights of the Council of Europe in which the commission found Turkey and its army guilty of repeated violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. He quotes the January 23, 1977 London Sunday Times statement on the report: “It amounts to a massive indictment of the Ankara government for the murder, rape and looting by its army in Cyprus during and after the Turkish invasion of summer 1974.” The U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger aided and abetted Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus.
Dr. Vryonis importantly points out that Turkish policy against the Greeks has added the Aegean. “In the last two decades, the policy of Turkish military aggrandizement has shifted to the Aegean Sea and the Greek islands there. The build-up of land, air and naval forces (including numerous landing craft) has been accompanied by various claims on Greek islands, demands for their demilitarization and increasing violation of Greek airspace, including civil-aviation corridors.”
Dr. Vryonis concludes his study as follows:
“Although the pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, occurred half a century ago, its legacy is caught up, even today, in a larger web of regional and international interests. This web is, indeed, the key to understanding important parts of this ongoing history. The ‘success’ of the Turkish military behemoth during the last fifty years has, in fact, made the Turkish state a persistent violator, not only of the human and civil rights of its minorities, but also of those of its vast ethnic Turkish majority.”
No book review can do justice to Dr. Vryonis’ monumental study. It must be read in its entirety to obtain the full impact of the catastrophe that destroyed the Greek community of Istanbul and the lessons for today regarding Cyprus and the Aegean.
Gene Rossides is President of the American Hellenic Institute and former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury