Turkey’s Foreign Policy is Inflaming Greek Historical Memory

Tensions ran high across the Aegean on March 25, 2019, as Turkish fighter jets zoomed towards the Greek prime minister’s helicopter. Greek fighter jets intercepted the Turkish planes before they got too close to the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, preventing any further escalation. Although Tsipras was left unscathed, this incident is part of a pattern that his government has been forced to confront in what has been a hawkish month for Turkey. Turkey is perhaps being defensive due to the growing alliance between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, but history may also play a strong role in Turkey’s recent aggression. The two countries, nominally NATO allies, have a centuries-long acrimonious history replete with ethnic tension, massacres, and deportations. The jet incident is only one piece of the Turkish government’s recent aggressive foreign policy towards Greece. Throughout the past month, Turkey has specifically raised the specter of several of the worst points in Greek-Turkish history: the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Greek Revolution, the burning of Smyrna and its aftermath, and the bifurcation of Cyprus into Greek and Turkish halves. By doing so, Turkey has taken an increasingly antagonistic stance towards Greece that paves the path for poorer relations between the two countries.


Greek Revolution

Before the Turkish jets interrupted his flight, Tsipras was heading to the Greek island of Agathonisi to celebrate the anniversary of Greece’s 1821 uprising against Ottoman rule. Ever since the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century, the Greeks had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Although there were earlier attempts at revolt, 18th century Greek political philosophers such as Rigas Feraios and the ideas of the French Revolution spurred some Greeks to contemplate freedom from the Ottomans. In particular, the Filiki Eteria, a secret society dedicated to liberating Greece, raised the flag of revolt in modern Romania, and although the Greeks were quickly defeated on this front, the fires of revolution had been sparked in southern Greece as well. The ensuing revolution led to ad hoc guerrilla forces on the Greek side pushing Turkish forces out of the Peloponnese and raiding Turkish settlements. Turkish losses led the Ottoman Empire to bring in reinforcements from Egypt, which in turn led the Great Powers of Great Britain, France, and Russia to intervene on behalf of the Greek revolutionaries, ultimately forcing Turkey to recognize the independence of a small Greek state. The Greek Revolution succeeded in creating the first independent modern Greek state in 1832.

Although the Turks had ruled over the Greeks, the Greek minority had generally fared well under Ottoman rule, with the Greek elite enjoying privileged economic and political positions. The Greek Revolution utterly changed those dynamics. During the revolution, the Ottomans hanged the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople and carried out infamous massacres such as that against the inhabitants of the Greek island of Chios, which left thousands of noncombatants dead and sparked international outrage. In return, the Greeks slaughtered their Turkish neighbors in the Greek Peloponnese. In addition to formal armies, militias and mercenary bands also ravaged the Greek countryside, attacking Greek and Turk alike. While the casualty records for the Greek Revolution are poor, thousands were killed and thousands more were displaced.

The revolution set the tone for Greek-Turkish relations to come. The Greeks in Constantinople lost their once privileged position and were viewed with suspicion by the Ottoman authorities. The now-independent Greece centered its national rhetoric on the reconquest of other Greek lands from the Ottomans. This natural antagonism all but assured poor relations between Greece and the Ottoman Empire.


Catastrophe of Smyrna

Following the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Entente authorized Greece to occupy Western Anatolia. The Greek army made its headquarters in the city of Smyrna, now known as Izmir. Greek forces, eager to recapture all lands inhabited by Greeks, over-expanded into Anatolia and were thrashed by the troops of the new Turkish nationalist government under Mustafa Kemal, better known by his later sobriquet, Atatürk. In 1922, Atatürk’s forces descended on Smyrna, raping and slaughtering the inhabitants and setting fire to the Christian part of the city. The remaining Greeks and Armenians huddled at the docks as fires and bloodshed engulfed what had been their homes for centuries. In the midst of the Turkish triumph, tens of thousands had been killed and the once proud city was burned to the ground.

On March 18 of this year, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lauded the people of Izmir for “throwing the infidels into the sea” back in 1922. The Turkish sack of the city, which was destroyed in an orgy of fire and blood, was one of the worst moments in Greek-Turkish history and spelled the end of Greek efforts to recreate the Byzantine Empire of old on the bones of the Ottoman Empire. The Greek army was destroyed, the disaster at Smyrna was burned into the minds of the Greek populace, and any possibility of Greece conquering the remnants of the Ottoman Empire disappeared forever. The Greek government was outraged that Erdoğan would use this contentious history as mere political rhetoric. His comment ignores the damage to the Greek community, instead framing the victory as a holy war.

As a direct result of the clear victory of the Turks at Smyrna, Greece and Turkey entered into peace talks, concluding, among other things, to consolidate their ethnic nationals. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) stipulated that Greece’s Turks would move to Turkey and Turkey’s Greeks would move to Greece. The transfer uprooted millions. The new transplants lived in abysmal conditions for years, especially in Greece, which absorbed twice as large of a population as Turkey. Even in today’s Athens, the neighborhood of Nea Smyrni (New Smyrna) speaks to the life changing effects of the population exchange. Although today Nea Smyrni is fully incorporated into Athens, it began as a quickly thrown together settlement for refugees from Smyrna after 1922. The name alone reminds Greeks that just a few generations ago their ancestors lived in what is now Turkey.

Although the Treaty of Lausanne moved almost all the Greeks and Turks to their respective nations, it carved out two exceptions: the Greeks in Turkish Istanbul and the Turks in Greek Western Thrace would stay put. Today, a small Turkish minority remains in Western Thrace. Earlier this month, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavuşoğlu, criticized Greek treatment of its Turkish minority. Cavuşoğlu claimed that the Greek government does not allow the Turks living in Greece to call themselves Turks and has restricted the religious rights of Muslims in Greece. This is partially true, as Greece has placed restrictions on its Islamic Sharia courts, the only ones in the EU. Meanwhile, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the Greek minority in Turkey has endured harassment by state officials and restricted access to individual freedoms. Cavuşoğlu’s comments highlight those Turkish and Greek minorities still living in the opposite country, and at the same time reminds both nations of the trauma of the population exchange.

A History of the Ottoman Empire from 1923 to Today, published Bakiş press in 1956


Alongside the bitter memories of revolution and forced population transfer is the persistent tension over Cyprus, in which both Greece and Turkey have strong interests. The island of Cyprus, inhabited by both Greeks and Turks, became independent from the United Kingdom in 1960 and was quickly engulfed in the power politics between Greece and Turkey. Following fourteen years of tenuous unity, a coup attempt by the Greek government led to Turkish occupation of the northern half of the island. The subsequent turmoil led to a de facto splitting of ethnicities akin to that of the Treaty of Lausanne. Ethnic Greeks fled south to the independent state of Cyprus while ethnic Turks moved north into the Turkish-controlled half of the island. Turkey has maintained control of the northern half of the island ever since, despite international condemnation.

Turkey effectively stymied reunification talks last year, and on March 25, the Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, claimed that Cyprus is in Turkish territorial waters. Greece still maintains strong interests in Cyprus and renewed Turkish aggression at this end of the Mediterranean only adds another historical flashpoint to recent Turkish hawkishness.


Hagia Sophia

On a more symbolic level, Erdoğan struck at the spiritual soul of Greece when he announced last month that Turkey could potentially change Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. The Hagia Sophia was for centuries the largest and grandest church in Christendom, the crown jewel of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire. When the city of Constantinople, now Istanbul, fell to the Ottomans in 1453, it was immediately converted into a mosque. In 1935, Atatürk converted it into a museum and it has remained as such ever since. Changing this once most holy of Greek churches back into a mosque brings up memories not only of religious conquest, but also of Greece’s failed recapture of the great city and church, a dream that died in the fires of Smyrna.


Smyrna, 1922.

Burden of History

The growing bonds of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel may have sparked Turkey’s recent aggression towards Greece, but Turkey is playing with centuries of ethnic animosities. Turkish actions in March have brought some of the worst moments in Turkish-Greek history back into the minds of both Greeks and Turks. The pointed remarks or actions in regards to the Greek Revolution, the Smyrna catastrophe, Cyprus, and the Orthodox Greek spiritual center of the Hagia Sophia have struck at Greek pride and reminded both countries of the weight of their historical conflicts. It is hard enough to ignore the burden of this history of bloodshed and ethnic hatred, let alone when Turkey actively reminds both Greeks and Turks of it.

Greece has so far tried to reduce tensions, with the Greek government repeatedly stressing that it values friendly relations with Turkey. However, Turkey’s actions remind both countries of the burden of the fraught history that they have and that the national tensions between both countries are not far from the surface. Such tension-fueled aggression could risk actual military conflict. At the very least, it certainly reestablishes the traditional distrust and enmity between both nations.



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Michael Goodyear

Michael Goodyear is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. He has an A.B. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago where he studied Greek and Turkish history. He has been published in a variety of academic and general-interest publications, including Le Monde diplomatique, Subaltern States, and the Michigan Journal of International Law.