New visitors to Istanbul are often struck by the incongruity of a city that possesses such a rich heritage of Greek architectural remains and historical associations, but which today is almost totally devoid of living Greeks. Throughout the great city, tourists on their way to such attractions as the Süleymaniye Mosque or the old Byzantine city walls encounter magnificent but empty Orthodox churches, boarded-up Greek schools without students, and Greek graveyards full of faded photographs and flowers but no mourners. Such markers of absence run like a stratum of burned earth through the neighborhoods and suburbs of Istanbul, hinting at a past cataclysm but giving the visitor little clue as to what happened.
In his latest work, The Mechanism of Catastrophe, the renowned Byzantinist Speros Vryonis, Jr. provides an essential key to understanding what happened to the Greeks of Istanbul by showing how a single night of calculated cruelty on 6 September 1955 devastated the community and triggered wholesale emigration. The book, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the events it describes, is all the more important a contribution inasmuch as most other histories of modern Turkey either pass over the events of 6 September 1955 in silence or else misrepresent them as a spontaneous overflowing of public anger against Greece. Vryonis presents instead a compelling argument that the riots of September 1955 were nothing less than a state-directed pogrom against the Greek community (and, less directly, against Armenians and Jews as well). The Turkish prime minister of the time, Adnan Menderes, and other members of his Democratic Party (Demokrat Parti) are accused in the book of deliberately orchestrating the violence in an attempt to re-direct popular discontent away from their failed economic policies and underline the vehemence of Turkey's new opposition to the mooted unification of Cyprus with Greece. Against those who admit that the Turkish government might have had some limited involvement in the instigation of the riots but that it then lost control of events, Vryonis insists that Menderes and several key ministers planned the attacks in detail and were firmly in control of the mobs when the worst of the assaults were being committed.
Although the most important Turkish primary sources remain unavailable to historians, Vryonis has put together the most authoritative account of the [End Page 333] events currently possible, relying on a wide range of sources including accounts by Greek and Turkish eyewitnesses; British, Greek, and American diplomatic reports; articles in the Turkish press; and the Decisions (Kararlar) and Opinions (Gerekçeler) of the Turkish military tribunal that reviewed the events in 1960. On the basis of these sources, Vryonis shows how the Menderes government created a pretext for the violence by staging a bomb attack on the compound in Thessaloniki, Greece which contained the Turkish consulate and the family home of Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish state. Once news of the bombing reached Turkey, as many as 100,000 "protesters" materialized at key points throughout Istanbul and certain other cities, armed with hammers, iron bars, and other tools that they had been given beforehand. Although Vryonis makes only fleeting mention of events elsewhere in Turkey, he painstakingly reconstructs the movements of pogromist gangs in Istanbul and its environs as they fanned out in search of Greek homes and businesses. The vandals were not only guided by agents of the state to pre-selected targets, but they maximized the damage inflicted by attacking in three distinct waves with each new group ensuring that their predecessors had left nothing of value behind. The conclusion that the attacks were premeditated is reinforced by the observation that the police and the army openly gave encouragement and assistance to the looters and by the fact that they issued advance warnings to many Muslim Istanbulus so that they might avoid the harassment soon to be visited upon their Christian neighbors.
The Mechanism of...