THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee (ANEC)
The Catastrophe of Smyrna (September 9-22, 1922)
Smyrna was the second city of the Ottoman Empire and its Armenian population, together with most Armenians from Constantinople, had been spared deportation in 1915. But in 1922, after the success of the Kemalist movement, Armenians and Greek residents were not spared. According to American Consul General George Horton, before the fire of 1922 there were 400,000 people living in the city of Smyrna, of whom 165,000 were Turks, 150,000 Greeks, 25,000 Jews, 25,000 Armenians, and 20,000 foreigners from Italy, France, Great Britain, and the United States.
Greek troops had landed in Smyrna in May 1919. The Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922 ended with the complete victory of the nationalist army headed by Mustafa Kemal. On September 9, 1922, the Kemalist troops occupied Smyrna. Four days later, on September 13, the fire began. It continued for nine days. Estimated Greek and Armenian deaths resulting from the fire and massacres range from 10,000 to 100,000.
The fire completely destroyed the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city; the Muslim and Jewish quarters escaped damage. There are different claims about who was responsible for the fire; however, numerous eye witness accounts singled out uniformed Turkish soldiers setting fire to Greek and Armenian homes and businesses.
The Smyrna Catastrophe Painting by Vasilis Bottas
The testimony of Fatih Rifki Atay, a well-known Turkish writer, editor, Parliament member, and close friend of Mustafa Kemal, is quite important:
“Gavur (infidel) Izmir burned and came to an end with its flames in the darkness and its smoke in daylight. Were those responsible for the fire really the Armenian arsonists as we were told in those days? … As I have decided to write the truth as far as I know I want to quote a page from the notes I took in those days. ‘The plunderers helped spread the fire… Why were we burning down Izmir? Were we afraid that if waterfront konaks, hotels and taverns stayed in place, we would never be able to get rid of the minorities? When the Armenians were being deported in the First World War, we had burned down all the habitable districts and neighborhoods in Anatolian towns and districts with this very same fear. This does not solely derive from an urge for destruction. There is also some feeling of inferiority in it. It was as if anywhere that resembled Europe was destined to remain Christian and foreign and be denied to us.’
“. . . If there were another war and we were defeated, would it be sufficient guarantee of preserving the Turkishness of the city if we had left Izmir as a devastated expanse of vacant lots? Were it not for Nureddin Pasha, who I know to be a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic and rabble rouser, I do not think this tragedy would have gone to the bitter end. He has doubtless been gaining added strength from the unforgiving vengeful feelings of the soldiers and officers who have seen the debris and the weeping and agonized population of the Turkish towns which the Greeks had burned to ashes all the way from Afyon.
“. . . At the time it was said that Armenian arsonists were responsible. But was this so? There were many who assigned a part in it to Nureddin Pasha, commander of the First Army, a man who Kemal had long disliked . . . .”
Despite the fact that there were at least 21 Allied warships and other ships in the harbor of Smyrna, the vast majority, citing "neutrality," did not pick up Greeks and Armenians who were forced to flee from the fire, and Turkish military bands played loud music to drown out the screams of those who were drowning in the harbor and who were forcefully prevented from boarding Allied ships. A Japanese freighter, however, dumped all of its cargo and filled itself to the brink with refugees, taking them to safety at the Greek port of Piraeus.
The catastrophe of Smyrna became the last link in the Turkish genocidal chain that had unfolded in 1915.