The Greeks regret the population exchange with Turkey

Eastern Europe Institute

Review number 14 from May 3rd, 2004




Reviewed by: Stefan Ihrig (Berlin)


Contrary to the widespread view in the West that no literature, and especially no critical literature, on sensitive topics such as minorities or Ataturk's time should be published in Turkey, there have recently been a number of publications dealing with such topics. For example, in the last few years three books have been published that can be classified under “oral history”, two of which deal with the minorities living in Turkey (here: Jews, Greeks and Armenians) as well as the problem of the Greek-Turkish population exchange employ.


İskender Öszoy's book İki Vatan Yorgunları is a collection of interviews with Turks who moved to Turkey as part of the population exchange in 1923. These interviews had previously appeared in various Turkish newspapers, including Cumhürriyet. The speakers here experienced the exchange as young people and describe their old homeland, the relocation and their situation in the Turkish Republic. Already the title Those who are tired of two countries, but also Yaşar Kemal's foreword (title: Separating people from their homeland is like tearing their hearts out) and the quotations used as subheadings (“Between two calls to prayer are two homelands”; “That Herz stayed in Saloniki ”;“ You [the Greeks] also went crying ”;“ Home in dreams ”) let you feel that contemporary witnesses speak here who are still suffering from the experience of forced resettlement. Typical of the perceived lasting loss is the report by a Turkish woman near Saloniki, from which the details that she herself emphasized are to be reproduced here.


She says that her mother tongue is Greek, even though she comes from a Turkish village. Only her father could still speak Turkish. One day the few Greeks living in the same village were forbidden to speak Turkish, so that what was actually a Turkish village had developed into a Greek-speaking village over time. When the population exchange began, some Greeks from Anatolia arrived in the village of the contemporary witness before she and her family had left it. She remembers that the Greek girls didn't speak a word of Greek. Turkish was their mother tongue. Her interview closes with the following sentences: “Ataturk brought us here. We love Ataturk very much. We are in Turkey because of him. But I miss our village, my home is Saloniki. "


The assessment of “the Greeks” by contemporary witnesses is very interesting. In almost all cases, the proximity to the Greeks and the behavior of the Greeks towards the Turks are portrayed as very positive. The Greeks coming from Anatolia are usually described as very friendly to the Turks who have not yet emigrated. There are exceptions here - in one case it is described that newly arrived Greeks from Izmir wanted to kill the Turks still living in the village - but here too it is Greeks, namely the neighbors from the village, who saved the Turks.


In Özsoy's book it becomes clear that the Turkish contemporary witnesses concerned perceived the population exchange as a coercive measure that uprooted them. It is clearly Greece, which is here occupied with the word Vatan (homeland, fatherland). However, when reading some contemporary witness reports, it becomes clear that the loss of homeland had in a way already begun before the population exchange and that the worlds of the Greeks and Turks in Greece had begun to diverge more and more from each other. But the feelings of loss and compulsion outweigh the reports Özsoy has collected. It seems that negative memories of the Greek homeland are largely ignored by contemporary witnesses. In the appendix of the book we also find the Turkish-Greek protocol on population exchange.


The two books by Yahya Koçoğlu, on the other hand, focus on the non-Muslim minorities living in Turkey - that is, Greeks, Jews and Armenians. It is true that, among other things, the Syrian Christians in south-east Turkey, but as Koçoğlu (2003) also regrets in the preface, he could not find any “Süryan” who were willing to give an interview.


In his first book (Koçoğlu 2001) the author lets young people from the minorities have their say. In his second book (Koçoğlu 2003) it is the older generation who talk about their life in the Turkish Republic and about the end of the Ottoman Empire. Both books also offer the reader a short thematic introduction, for example in the book on the young people an introductory chapter on the history of the minority concerned and in the book on the elderly some information articles as insertions at various points in the text on the key moments for all or individual minority groups. These key moments include the so-called “Armenian resettlement in 1915”, (1) the “Incidents of 1934” in Thrace, (2) the Varlık Vergisi (“Property Tax”), (3) the “Incidents of the 6th and 7th centuries” September 1955 ”(4) as well as the collection of the 20 years (20 Kura Askerlik). (5) In the various reports we learn about the experiences of the individual contemporary witnesses, especially with regard to these key experiences. Selecting representative aspects from the multitude of reports presented here is hardly possible due to the diversity of contemporary witnesses with regard to ethnicity, social origin, position and age. But it is certainly worth mentioning a report on the anti-Greek riots of 1955, in which the contemporary witness emphasizes that the riot activists were not their own Turkish neighbors, but were Turks who were brought from suburbs by truck to Istanbul city center. Here, too, the immediate neighbors are perceived as protection rather than threat.


The reports of the younger interviewees are kept in the form of a uniform interview type. They provide information about experiences in the military, language skills in the minority language and other aspects of their situation in Turkey. It is worth mentioning that the majority of both older and younger minority members see themselves primarily as “Turks” and only secondarily mention their minority identity.


All three books are of the greatest interest to everyone who is interested in Turkey, the minorities there, but also more generally in Turkish nationalism, the end of the Ottoman Empire and the unmixing of peoples (6) in the Balkans. Particularly in view of the dwindling number of Greeks in Istanbul - aging and emigration mean that they are estimated to be around 1500-2000 today - it is important to allow contemporary witnesses of this group to have their say before the group as such stops working exists. (7) The same naturally applies even more to contemporary witnesses of the Greek-Turkish population exchange. All three books are aimed at a very broad audience in Turkey and it is to be hoped that they will help to arouse greater interest in such publications there, and thus perhaps lead to further comparable collections.


Stefan Ihrig

Email: [email protected]


Editor: Heiko Hänsel

Email: [email protected]



(1) 1915 Ermeni Tehciri.


(2) On July 3, 1934, anti-Jewish riots broke out in various cities in Thrace, which led to most of the approximately 15,000 Jews living there leaving the region.


(3) Tax of November 11, 1942, which, among other things, had the aim of financing the army, which was kept permanently mobile at the border due to the threat posed by the German troops. Although this tax was formulated as a general measure, it was applied almost exclusively against the minorities. As a result, many had to sell their property and some had to go to labor camps. In the works on Turkey of the 1930s and 1940s, the role of Turkey as the alleged savior of the Jews from Nazi persecution is repeatedly referred to, but the discriminatory measures such as the Varlık Vergisi or the incidents in Thrace are hardly or not at all addressed. So z. B. at Shaw, Stanford: Turkey and the Holocaust - Turkey’s Role in rescuing Turkish and European Jewry from the Holocaust. Basingstoke et al. 1993. However, there are already a number of literature on Varlık Vergisi that has largely been ignored in the West: e.g. E.g .: Balı, Rıfat N .: Bir Türkleştirme Serüveni - Cumhurriyet Yıllarında Türkiye Yahudileri 1923-1945 [A turkization adventure - The Jews of Turkey in the years of the republic 1923-1945]. İstanbul 1999; Aktar, Ayhan: Varlık Vergisi ve `Türkleştirme’ Politikaları. [The wealth tax and the "Turkishization policy"]. İstanbul 2000; Akar, Rıdvan: Varlık Vergisi Kanunu - Tek Parti Rejiminde Azınlık Karşı Politikası. [The Wealth Tax Act - The policy against minorities in the time of one-party rule]. Istanbul 1992.


(4) 6-7 Eylül Olayları - Riots against the Greeks in Istanbul after it became known that a bomb had been dropped on Kemal Ataturk's house in Thessaloniki. After these incidents, many of the Greeks who remained after the population exchange left Turkey.


(5) At the beginning of the Second World War, all non-Muslims born between 1895 and 1915 were suddenly called up for military service with 48 hours' notice.


(6) Brubaker, Rogers: Aftermaths of Empire and the Unmixing of Peoples. In: Ethnic and Racial Studies 18 (1995), H. 2, pp.189-218.


(7) "Loxandra's heirs - the 'last' Greeks facing an uncertain future". In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of February 2, 2004, p. 17.