November 28th, 2007 Headsman
On this date in 1922,* on the morning after a revolutionary tribunal held them liable for treason in the catastrophic Greek loss of Smyrna, six former high-ranking political and military officials of the Greek government were shot in Athens.
The long-running national conflict between liberals and monarchists had boiled over during World War I, setting the stage for increasingly bitter internecine conflict played out against the backdrop of a misbegotten foreign adventure.
As the Ottoman Empire — Greece’s neighbor and historical rival — collapsed in the aftermath of the world war, Athens under liberal colossus Eleftherios Venizelos set her sights on a vast pan-Hellenic domain spanning Constantinople, western Anatolia, and the Black Sea coast.
In 1919, backed — even pushed — by the British, Greece occupied Smyrna, a multiethnic economic hub in Asia Minor. But cruelty towards the Turkish population sparked immediate resistance which soon blended insensibly into the burgeoning Turkish National Movement, already on the path towards its destiny of forging the modern state of Turkey.
As the Greek army pressed outwards from Smyrna, it became drawn into full-fledged war. In 1920, the Greek government turned over (as it was often wont to do) and under the ascendant monarchists whose irredentism was not to be upstaged “fantasy began to direct Greek policy” — like a quixotic scheme to march on Constantinople rather than hold a defensible position. Greece’s European allies and sponsors began to cut bait.
Far from threatening Constantinople, the Greeks suffered one of their greatest disasters — the “Catastrophe of Asia Minor”, when Ataturk drove them back to, and then out of, Smyrna, emptying the once-cosmopolitan city of thousands of Greek (and Armenian) refugees fleeing a sectarian carnage. Some swam out of the burning city only to be refused aid by ships of nations unwilling to be drawn into the affair politically.
In the dismayed Greek capital, anti-monarchist officers who had been purged by the new government revolted and rounded up the opposition’s leadership. “The Six” who faced public trial for treason included three former Prime Ministers:
With two other ministers of state and a general, they comprised all but one member of the offending monarchist government, a bloody thoroughness the New York Times compared to Robespierre. Western governments temporarily broke off relations.
After the day’s bloody deeds, Venizelos returned from exile to conclude the war on Turkish terms, including “population exchange” — fragrant euphemism — to solidify each government’s demarcation as a nation-state and ratify the destruction of Smyrna (renamed Izmir) as a multiconfessional melting pot.
Today, Smyrna is largely forgotten by those to whom it is not intensely remembered — and among the latter, its meaning is ferociously contested. To Turks, a chapter in their founding expulsion of foreign occupation; to Greeks, the calamitous end of the ancient Hellenic presence in Asia Minor; to each, a touchstone for one another’s atrocities; to others of a less parochial frame of mind, a parable of the perfidy of an entire enemy faith, or a subplot in the great game for Ottoman oil, or as Henry Miller conceived it writing in the antechamber of the second World War, the avatar of a stunted and cynical moral sense among European powers that would lead them to their next great reckoning:
Even the most ignorant yokel knows that the name Attila is associated with untold horrors and vandalism. But the Smyrna affair, which far outweighs the horrors of the first World War or even the present one, has been somehow soft-pedalled and almost expunged from the memory of present day man. The peculiar horror which clings to this catastrophe is due not alone to the savagery and barbarism of the Turks but to the disgraceful, supine acquiescence of the big powers.
Smyrna, like the Boxer Rebellion and other incidents too numerous to mention, was a premonitory example of the fate which lay in store for European nations, the fate which they were slowly accumulating by their diplomatic intrigues, their petty horse-trading, their cultivated neutrality and indifference in the face of obvious wrongs and injustices.
*Greece did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1923, the last European country to do so — so the date in Greece on the day of the execution was actually November 15.
Also on this date
- 1828: James "Little Jim" Guild
- 1721: Cartouche, French bandit
- 1783: Johanna Catharina Höhn, by Goethe's vote
- 1871: Louis Rossel, Théophile Ferré, and Sergeant Bourgeois, Communards
- 1950: James Corbitt, the hangman's mate
Tags: 1920s, 1922, ataturk, athens, dimitrios gounaris, eleftherios venizelos, greco-turkish war, henry miller, imperialism, irredentism, izmir, kemal ataturk, nationalism, nikolaos stratos, november 15, november 28, petros protopapadakis, smyrna, treaty of lausanne, turkish national movement, world war i