The lasting legacy of the 1955 pogrom

On the night of September 6, 1955, a Turkish demonstration – supposedly against an act of arson on the house in Thessaloniki where Kemal Ataturk was born and which later proved to be an act of provocation – turned into a full-scale attack on Greeks and their property in Istanbul. Turkish citizens, soldiers, police and gendarmes looted Greek schools, churches and cemeteries. Jews and Armenians also came under attack. Speros Vryonis Jr’s book on those events, «The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community in Istanbul,» was originally published in English by in 2005. It is now out in a Greek edition from Hestia, translated by Lefteris Yiannakoudakis and edited by Panayiotis Soultanis. At the time of the pogrom, Vryonis was 27. He was at Harvard, studying the emergence of the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor. The events came up for discussion at the Dumbarton Oaks Center of Byzantine Studies, but, as Vryonis told Kathimerini, «there was an atmosphere of indifference or even hostility toward the victims of the pogrom.» The British and American media reflected the official positions of their governments, speaking of the «suppression of troublemakers.» The young historian kept the news reports and embarked on research that was to last half a century. The American edition of the book came out when discussion of Turkey’s EU accession was coming to a peak. «The Greek edition came out just as tension was rising in Turkey over northern Iraq.» Vryonis attributes such events to the «legacy of the pogrom.» Asked to describe that legacy, Vryonis said it was a series of events. «After the September events, the army’s dominance of political life in Turkey came well and truly to the surface. In May 1960, a military coup unseated the Adnan Menderes government, which was deemed responsible for the 1955 pogrom, and which paid for it with the hanging of Menderes and two of his ministers. «Until then, the army had ruled the country from behind the scenes, but since then it has come out into the open. The National Security Council, formed then, is institutionally and in practice the government body that takes all the decision in Turkey. It is the voice of the military.» Vryonis added that when Menderes founded the Democratic Party in 1946, it was a key moment for Turkey, which until then had only one party. «The Americans had applied pressure for Turkey to acquire an opposition party. In 1950, Menderes became prime minister.» Vryonis believes Menderes succeeded because he appealed to farmers, who were closer than urban, Westernized Turks were to Islam. He built a lot of mosques and strengthened the relations of the state with the leaders of the Dervish groups that represented traditional Turkey and the majority of the population. Those groups had been the first to suffer from persecution by the army and Kemalist bureaucrats, who seized their property. «Just think,» said Vryonis, «for decades the army published a list of Turkey’s enemies, local Islam and Greece took it in turns as first and second on the list.» The most obvious legacy of the September events, according to Vryonis, are the expulsions of Greeks from Istanbul 1964 and the subsequent violation of Greek air space. The expulsions were based on a secret law by which Turkey confiscated Greek property and so drove the Greeks out. He explained: «I call the law ‘secret,’ because it was deliberately not published in the Government Gazette in order to avoid the 90-day period in which the legality of a law can be challenged according to the constitution, which protects private property. «But the police occasionally published a list in a local newspaper in the Dardanelles with the names of Greeks whose property was confiscated on the pretext of public works, such as road construction. Gradually, the violations increased, then came the issue of northern Cyprus and the systematic removal of the Greek population of Imvros and Tenedos. «Turkey achieved two things: The implementation of the Treaty of Lausanne concerning the Greek Muslim minority and the destruction of the Greek community in Turkey.» Yet another legacy of the pogrom, in Vryonis’s view, is the increase in homegrown terrorism in Turkey. «That’s when it began, as the state itself hatched para-state terrorist organizations. Now there are anti-state terrorist organizations as well. All together there are around 67 of them. In Turkey the war against domestic terrorism is thought to have been lost.» Vryonis links the general crisis in Turkey to those issues: «The violence and the military coups in Turkey, with all their murky consequences, have their origin in Kemal, but were instituted after the 1955 pogrom.» Compensation Just as Turkey describes its actions against Armenians, Pontians and Assyrians as «acts of self-defense,» it has never officially accepted that there was a pogrom. This affects the vexed issue of compensation. «In the second edition of the book in the US,» said Vryonis, «I have included the opinion of Dr Alfred de Zayas, secretary of the UN Human Rights Committee. Using my book on the pogrom, de Zayas and the UN committee set a precedent related to war crimes in former Yugoslavia so that there would be no statue of limitations for such crimes. «Note that Turkey has been bound since 1950 by its signature on a UN treaty on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which was adopted in 1948 to 1951.» De Zayas sees the pogrom as part of an ongoing practice against various minorities by the Turkish state. Initial estimates made by Turkish and foreign banks of the damage done in the pogrom amounted to 1-2 billion Turkish liras, but in 1956 the Turkish government lowered that amount to 60 million. Of that sum, the Menderes government allotted 10 million in compensation to religious organizations and churches, both Greek and Armenian. «Before 1956,» said Vryonis, «the patriarch of the time had lowered the compensation demand to 45 million. When Cemal Gursel came to power in 1960, he arbitrarily cut another 3 million from the 10 million. Five years had gone by since the pogrom, yet the issue of compensation had still not been settled. «I know that by 1966, 4.5 million liras had been paid in compensation for damage to secular buildings and property, but the lira had lost value and as time passed the government kept gaining. In the end, the damage was paid for by the victims, not the perpetrators.» Returning to the legacy of the September events, Vryonis includes among them the repression of Turkish citizens today. «They are the first to suffer. Last year I counted 61 trials of Turkish citizens for breaking the law on insulting Turkishness.» A many-sided career Speros Vryonis Jr was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1928 to parents from Cephalonia. He studied at Harvard, where he later taught. He was director of the G.E. van Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA, a professor at Athens University and the founding director of the Alexander S. Onassis Center for Hellenic Studies at New York University, from which he retired as emeritus Alexander S. Onassis professor of Hellenic civilization. Vryonis has written widely on Greek history and culture from antiquity to the present day, as well as on the relations of between Greeks and the Slavic, Islamic and New worlds. Vryonis is a Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Scholar, as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Medieval Academy of America and the American Philosophical Society.