- Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey
Bruce Clark's book, which I read in its excellent Greek translation, published in 2007 by POTAMOS Publications, makes for powerful reading for several reasons. It offers a collection of personal stories by a number of those who were forced to leave their homeland, on the basis of the population exchanges agreed between Greece and Turkey between 1922 and 1923. These stories are deeply moving, not only for the Greek or Turkish reader, but for anyone who tries momentarily to imagine what it is like to be uprooted from their life and compelled to lead a new one in their "own" country.
Without Clark's work, these accounts would have soon passed to the realm of family stories, along with millions of others never documented, as very few of those directly affected are still alive. They tell of the lives of people before the exchange, the inhumane conditions under which they were transferred, and the immense difficulties they had in their new countries. In particular they also reveal the fallacy and arbitrariness of the criteria used as the basis of the population exchange: While the theory behind the exchange was the creation of ethnically homogenous societies and the prevention of ethnically motivated conflicts and instability within those countries and, as a consequence, between them, the main criterion used in the great majority of cases was religion, not ethnicity. Those who belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church were supposed to move to Greece from Turkey, while Muslims who lived in the newly created Greek state were supposed to move to Turkey. The consequences were often deeply nonsensical, including the displacement of peoples that lacked working knowledge of the national languages of their new home countries. There are many variations of such strange situations, which the book describes eloquently.
Importantly, Clark reveals the deep connections running between the communities who lived for centuries under the Ottoman Empire and the simplistic efforts of both countries to eradicate them in order to forge new "imagined communities." The past realities of centuries of peace among people of different religions and languages and their common histories and cultures were suppressed for decades in both countries. Education and propaganda have played a huge role in achieving this. In an objective fashion, Clark points out that there were some positive outcomes. However, very grave financial, political, and above all humanitarian consequences affected between one and a half to two million people, and disrupted long-term prospects for peaceful interchange between Greece and Turkey. [End Page 826]
Finally, Clark describes the role that powerful countries, international institutions of those times (the League of Nations, the international donors, and in particular, Fritjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees) and the political leadership of Greece and Turkey played. Clark concludes that often the fate of the actual people concerned was trumped by political considerations, including the consolidation and re-birth of modern nation-states and the retention of power in the Middle East. Yet the book also mentions the incredible work of a number of individuals, such as Nansen, Henry Morgenthau, and a few others, who powerfully used their diplomatic and political skills to save lives and help people start anew, despite the counter productive political aims of this period. The resonance with situations around the world at present is sobering.
A human rights lawyer may miss somewhat an analysis of the extent to which this population exchange, agreed upon by the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, was in fact legal then. It is clear that it would not be today. The pioneering work on population transfers, the prohibition of arbitrary displacement and internally displaced persons provide a solid basis for this conclusion.
Perhaps it does not matter anymore for those millions of Greeks, Turks, Muslims, Christians, and others, who have either passed away or are very old now, but Clark gives us much to think about. Can aspiring to create ethnically homogenous societies, especially in the context of the creation of new states, possibly bring peace and prosperity...