Tonight 65 years ago, the beginning of the end of Greek Istanbul

6 Sep

There’s toooooons of other social media references out there today, but I couldn’t let it pass without my own contribution — especially this year and these days.

Below are what were originally footnotes to a post from 2014 which you might want to check out in its entirety: “Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013“:

*** “Speros Vryonis The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom Of September 6 – 7, 1955, And The Destruction Of The Greek Community Of Istanbul is a magisterial life’s work and piece of historical journalism that covers the one night of September 6-7, 1955 in which a pogrom organized by Adnan Menderes’ Demokrat Parti destroyed practically the entire commercial, financial, ecclesiastic, educational and domestic infrastructure of the City’s Greek community.  I had put off reading it for quite a while — because the subject matter is upsetting and it’s long and detailled — but I was really impressed when I finally did.  I hadn’t realized the exact extent of the damage: 4,500 Greek homes, 3,500 shops and businesses (nearly all), 90 churches and monasteries (nearly all), and 36 schools destroyed and 3 cemeteries desecrated.  I hadn’t known that so many homes had been destroyed, leaving a large part of the community of then 80 or 90,000 or so homeless and destitute and that, as opposed to the traditional account of one old monk being burned alive, some 30 people were actually killed and many raped — others even circumcised.

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The Menderes government initially, and stupidly, tried to portray this as a spontaneous outbreak of nationalist fervor against Greeks over growing Cyprus tensions, but it was actually an extremely well-planned and executed military manoeuvre (every Turk, after all, is a soldier born) carried out and directed by local cadres of the Demokrat Parti who knew their neighborhoods and its Greek properties and institutions well and through the use of Anatolians brought in from the provinces; I guess they were afraid that local İstanbullus, who knew and lived with these Greeks, would not be as easily destructive, though the record of how the city’s Turks did act during the riots is hardly edifying.  As all products of the nationalist-militarist mind, the plan was an extremely stupid move as well.  It brought the economy of Turkey’s largest city to a virtual standstill, at a time when the country was in deep economic doldrums to begin with, by ripping out its retail heart, so much of it being in the hands of Greeks and other minority groups, and in the immediate aftermath there were chronic shortages of basic supplies in the city because distribution networks had been completely severed and even bread — so many bakeries being Greek and Epirote, especially, owned — was hard to find.  It temporarily made Turkey an international pariah (though in that Cold War climate that didn’t last too long) and eventually played a role in bringing the Menderes government down and costing him his life — thought that all is well beyond the scope of this post, this blog and my knowledge.  Vryonis’ analysis is brilliant if you’re interested.

After the financial decimation of the community by the Varlık Vergisi, the “estate tax” of the 1940’s, when discriminatory taxation against minority groups had wiped out many, and sent many of those who couldn’t pay to forced labor camps, Greeks had bounced back to dominating the retail business of these central neighborhoods in less than a decade – only, of course, to have it all definitively trashed a few years later.

It’s become axiomatic that the riots were the beginning of the end of Greek Constantinople; the community struggled and tried, but this time things were shattered — physically and psychologically — beyond repair.

**** The Greek Daemon, “daemon” in the Roman sense of the word of animating genius — “To daimonio tes fyles” — is the idea that Greeks are resourceful enough to prosper anywhere and under any conditions — Patrick Leigh Fermor’s belief in their ability to “spin gold out of air” — and the repeated tragic setbacks and almost immediate comeback of the Greek community of İstanbul after nearly every catastrophe to befall it in the twentieth century tempts one to believe in its truth.  Thus, one of the most poignant elements in the Constantinopolitan story is their almost masochistic refusal to leave — what it took to finally make the vast majority abandon the city they loved so much was just too overwhelming in the end however.”

Some photos:

Plebe resentment, with the sick glee of hatred, in action.

And Greeks come out of hiding the next day — stoic and classy and in heels — to pick up the pieces of a life’s work, or at least try.

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