Twice a stranger: the children of Lausanne

Whether we like it or not, those of us who live in Europe or in places influenced by European ideas remain the children of Lausanne; that is to say, of the convention signed on a Swiss lakeside after the First World War which decreed a massive, forced population movement between Turkey and Greece.

A bold opening, to what is one of the best books I have ever read by Bruce Clark.  Put it on your list for understanding the modern history of Greece and beyond.  …there are still many people inside and outside the Balkans who would like to see the ‘Lausanne principle’ reapplied; for example, by allowing Bosnia to break up into one or more states, or by dividing up Kosovo.

It is a serious legacy.

For the remainder of the century, the memory of the giant Greek-Turkish exchange was a powerful influence on policy makers all over the world. It was taken as proof that it was possible, both practically and morally, to undertake huge exercises in ethnic engineering, and proclaim them a success. Massive population exchanges, agreed by governments over the heads of the ordinary people, became a conceivable and often attractive option for world leaders. As the history of the 20th century shows, the temptation to use such methods is especially strong in certain types of political or geopolitical situation. For example, it can arise where one form of imperial authority (from Soviet communism to British colonial rule) is collapsing; or when a new nationalist power wants to consolidate its authority; or when a new strategic order is being created in the aftermath of war.

The beauty of the book is that after shooting off these bold claims, the author takes a quite different tack.

All over Turkey and Greece, you can see the physical remnants of a world whose component parts seem to have been broken apart, suddenly and with great violence. On remote hilltops in the heart of Anatolia, there are gutted shells of stone whose original, sacred purpose is revealed only by a few streaks of ochre paint on an inside wall; the last remains of a Christian fresco. In a nearby village, amid the wandering livestock and muddy tracks, you can often find a sturdy building of two or three storeys, now used as a hayshed or stable but clearly designed for some nobler purpose. On enquiry this turns out to be the remains of a school where Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians were taught to be a little more Greek by teachers dispatched from Istanbul or Athens. And in the stark, featureless towns of northern Greece, the evidence from buildings is equally startling and puzzling. 

And he doesn’t just cover the topic with flowery prose.  It is the human stories that make it real for the reader:

Believers in a traditional Hellenophobia-Turkophobia would have stared at the sight of the Mytilene Greeks spreading farewell meals for their departing neighbours, and later accompanying them to the quay, where Christians and Mohammedans, who for a lifetime had been plowing adjacently and even sharing occasional backgammon games at village cafes, embraced and parted with tears. Then, seated on their heaped up baggage, with their flocks around them – the women weeping, the children hugging their pets, the gray-bearded babas all dignity, as is their wont – the Mytilene Muslims set forth for unknown Turkey.
– National Geographic magazine, November 1922

The book has the magical ability to transfer us from the touching episodes between people, to international diplomacy in the same page:

At the beginning of October 1922, a young Turkish officer called Kemaleddin went down to the harbour of a deserted Aegean port and bade an emotional goodbye to a distraught Greek woman. As he did so, he murmured the name of one of his three sisters who had been killed recently by the Greek army in his home town of Bursa. He also promised the Greek woman, Agape, that he would do whatever he could to ensure the safety of her eighteen-year-old brother, Ilias, who was one of the 3000 Greek men and boys from the town who had been taken prisoner, supposedly to engage in forced labour. This encounter between Kemaleddin and Agape, recounted by her many years later, was the culmination of a poignant human story which unfolded against the background of the momentous, and for many people, unspeakably painful events which took place that autumn on the western edge of Anatolia.

If schools in both countries were serious about education, this book would be compulsory reading.  For a Greek it is shocking to read about the masses of Muslim populations and their expulsion, yet:

In today’s Ayvalik, there are not many people with detailed knowledge of that period. If a local person wants to talk history, it is more likely to be the history of Crete, and of what it was like to be a Muslim there. Among Cretan Muslims, the memories they cultivate most strongly are almost a mirror image of those cherished by the Orthodox Greeks. The moments which official Greek history celebrates, they lament – and vice versa. In their collective memory, the advance of Greek nationalism is an unfolding tragedy.

Clark not only has a great understanding of modern Balkans but a unique capacity for empathy:

These deportees were given no choice in the matter. Nobody asked them whether they would have preferred to stay put, with all the attendant risks of being a small minority in a state where the majority was bent on affirming its domination. Nobody asked them how they felt, or to which nation or community they felt most attached. The personal feelings of the people involved were the last thing considered by the politicians who decreed the population exchange. What they wanted – and this was not an ignoble desire – was an arrangement that would be durable and minimize the risk of further war, either in the immediate future or in a subsequent generation.

As if this coctail was not good enough, the author also has an uncanny ease in attaching the past events to current developments:

Religions, languages and national traditions that used to co-exist now live separately, because no new terms of co-existence could be found. For better or worse, the Sultans provided a sort of shelter under which Muslim sheikhs could receive the faithful in Salonika, and Christian mystics could work their miracles in the villages of Cappadocia. When that authoritarian roof collapsed, people on both sides of the religious divide had to flee for their lives.

The sad fact is that multinational empires have given way not to multinational democracies but to sharply defined nation-states; and the process of redefinition has often been a violent one. 

 

Leave a Comment