CULTURE

Reissue of work on the refugees of Asia Minor

Some books flash brightly and then disappear; others quietly gain influence over time. And selected others are brought back because changed circumstances require that their lessons be relearned. This is the rationale that led Hurst and Co. of London to reissue, after some 40 years, an earlier study of Greece’s Asia Minor calamity and its many consequences: Dimitris Pentzopoulos’s «The Balkan Exchange of Minorities and its Impact on Greece» (2002).   Originally a doctoral dissertation at Princeton, this book has acquired new life as Greece is quietly revolutionized by up to a million new inhabitants, mainly Albanians, and sought out by others daily, tragically, floundering offshore in leaky craft. Yet the book remains a scholarly work of that time in the vein of learned Greeks abroad in the mid-20th century. He regards this most passionate of subjects with a discerning eye and a respect for written sources, and lets the record, rather than his prejudices, guide his way. Perhaps it helps that he was a close observer of Greece’s new Asia Minor community while not physically a part of it. Pentzopoulos examines the consequences of a modern Greek tragedy, set politically with the Lausanne Convention of 1923, which initiated a long struggle by native Greeks and newcomers to cope with the resulting societal upheaval. It complements another authoritative work, «Ionian Vision» (whose author, Michael Llewellyn-Smith, another historian-turned-diplomat and a former British ambassador in Athens, writes the new preface here), which is more of a diplomatic/great power study. Pentzopoulos first surveys the background, politics, and machinery of the resettlement, then examines the ethnological, economic, political, social, and cultural implications of incorporating 1.5 million people into a poor country as foreigners in their own land. It was a defining moment for Greece, ending foreign dreams of the Great Idea, politically discordant, economically wrenching, and sociologically daunting: a large-scale human tragedy with few resources anywhere to handle it. The League of Nations had more responsibility than power as Fridtjof Nansen, the first commissioner for refugees, grappled with it; private organizations like the American Red Cross helped, yet were similarly overwhelmed by the problem’s immensity. Three elements were key: Repatriation from Asia Minor was treaty-based, officially making them refugees, not migrants; the transfer was obligatory and permanent, not voluntary or temporary; and they remained culturally distinct, stemming from their propagated self-view as the «purest Greeks,» unblemished by the barbarian invasions but brought down by uncontrollable modern circumstances. If it was a collective problem, it was also an individualized one. Prejudices were reinforced by proximity as the refugees were resettled in vast shantytowns in the hearts of Athens and Thessaloniki; they suffered loss of status, intense nostalgia, and despair along with displacement. In describing the challenge, Pentzopoulos prefers the term «symbiosis» to «assimilation,» that is «the living together of two fundamentally similar and yet varying social groups.» It took many decades (along with a depression, a world war and a civil war) to reach such symbiosis. Interaction was hindered by subtle and mutual resentments and a thousand small differences, from the kinds of cigarettes they smoked to their speech inflection. The newcomers were socially more liberal and «worldly»; came from thriving communities in Anatolia, looked to Constantinople rather than Athens as their spiritual home; and brought a business acumen that eventually put some native Greeks out of business. Both sides thought the other was gaining unfair economic advantage through e.g. public housing allowances, and the poor conditions radicalized many of the refugees. Pentzopoulos stresses the long-term impact: the Hellenization of Macedonia and Thrace, new concepts of nation, established borders, even speeding the general adoption of demotic Greek and changing the literary focus from romanticism and poetry to realism and novels. The forced transition was ultimately liberating; «out of the ashes of Smyrna a new phoenix arose in Athens.» He concludes that the transfer of populations was actually feasible international policy, even if his subjects might not have sympathized with such an observation – nor with his experience-aided view that the problems, while huge, were actually «not very different from the ones that confront most modern nations.» Yet this disaster paved the way for greater national progress than seemed possible in the shock and darkness of 1922. Greeks will find much valuable history here, while non-Greeks will find it helpful in grappling with modern Greek complexities, even if it occasionally reads like the academic study it was and is.