Turkey’s Forgotten Islamist Pogrom
25 Σεπτεμβρίου 2009
By: Alyssa A. Lappen
In 1955, a little-known war was launched on the Greek population of Istanbul.
For 50 years, historians, diplomats and state department officials have touted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as a great secular leader in a predominantly Muslim region, whose policies modernized and democratized Turkey, shaping it into a Western-style state. But Ataturk was western only insofar as he implemented the Turkification of Gobineau, wherein he substituted the Turks for the Aryans, whose ideology had terrible results in the rise of European Nazism. Regardless, in 1955, barely 17 years after the dictator’s death, a little-known pogrom, driven primarily by Islamic fanaticism, targeted the Greek population of Istanbul, with the intent of driving non-Muslims from Turkey.
From 1950 to 1960 Turkey experienced a profound reawakening of Islam, which the government and Demokrat Parti (DP) of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes both exploited and encouraged. Today, the policies Turkey set in motion in that pogrom remain in sway.
According to Speros Vryonis Jr.’s landmark new study, The Mechanism of Catastrophe, the September 1955 government-orchestrated pogrom against the Greek Orthodox community “included the systematic destruction of the majority of its churches,” monasteries and cemeteries. Published this month by Greekworks.com, the work subtitled The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul shows that riots which destroyed 4,500 Greek homes, 3,500 businesses, 90 religious institutions and 36 schools in 45 distinct communities, resulted not only from “fervid chauvinism, or even [from] the economic resentment of many impoverished rioters, but [from] the profound religious fanaticism in many segments of Turkish society.”
American, British and Greek diplomats all agreed that the violence was “indicative of religious fanaticism,” a fact with which even some Turkish commentators concurred.
A towering intellect and scholar of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, as well as modern Turkey, Vryonis witnessed reactions to the pogrom in 1955, after beginning his dissertation work at Harvard’s Byzantine center at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. Newspapers reported violence targeting the Greek community of Istanbul and suggested the state department was pleased at “how the Turkish government had taken it in hand very quickly and restored order,” Vryonis recalled at a recent New York City lecture to introduce the book. He recoiled at the table talk of British and American scholars at Dumbarton Oaks, expressing the view that the Greeks had gotten what they deserved.
Vryonis questioned how riots could erupt so suddenly and violently as to destroy a whole community. Furthermore, at nearby St. Sophia Cathedral, the Greek archbishop described tens of thousands of people with no homes, no clothes and no food. The diametrically opposite perspectives concerned one and the same event. Vryonis, however, trained in chemistry, physics and Greek and Latin classics, “put it aside. I was not ready. [Studying this] demanded a knowledge of Turkish. It demanded a good knowledge of Islam, it demanded a familiarization with modern Greek history.” Fifty years later, at 76, he has written the definitive work on the events. The work has the power to alter official U.S. positions on Turkey, if only policymakers will read it.
Actually, the discrimination against the Greek, Jewish and Armenian populations of Turkey had begun much earlier, during the First World War. “The attitude towards the minorities was not something new in 1955,” Vryonis says today. “It had a long tradition that was inherited from the Young Turks [who] took over as the Ottoman Empire was faltering, lost the Balkan wars, got in the losing side in the First World War, [perpetrated] the genocide of the Armenians and [moved] the Greeks … from the area of the Dardanelles at the urging of the German general Otto Liman von Sanders….” who unsuccessfully assumed the Ottomans’ defense and ordered the Greeks to be swept away from the Sea of Marmara.
In the 1930s, Ataturk developed racist theories that all history and languages flow from Turkish history and language. Ever since, the Turkish state has “believed that there should be one language, one nation, one culture, one religion,” says Vryonis.
Kemalism effectively established the “Turkification of Gobineau’s theory of the racial, and therefore civilizational, superiority of the Aryans.” These ideas included the Turkish Historical Thesis (Turk Tarih Tezi) and the Sun Theory of Languages (Gunes Dil Teorisi). The former holds that the history of Turkey as known today doesn’t consist merely of Ottoman history, but is much older and in fact dispersed culture to all nations, including the Greek classical nation, the Hittites, the Chinese, the Romans and all European nations. The latter holds that Turkish was the first language ever spoken by humans, and is the foundation for all other languages, be they classical Greek and Latin, Romance languages or even Anglo-Saxon tongues. (What is more astounding are those historians, including Bernard Lewis, who apologize for this supremacist line.) 
Although Turkish scholars like Taner Akcam and Fatma Muge Gocek reject these racist theories—still taught in Turkish schools—they founded the basis for discriminatory laws passed against Greeks and other non-Muslims during the 1930s and later. In 1932, for example, law 2007 barred entry to a large number of professions of Greek citizens of Istanbul (etablis).
Under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which provided boundaries for modern Turkey and arranged population transfers between Greece and Turkey, the Greek “settlers” were allowed to stay in Istanbul without prejudice. Nine years later, Turkey violated the treaty with impunity, imposing a series of 31 crippling laws to reduce Greek political, legal, economic and cultural strength. Some 10,000 Greek citizens were deprived of their livelihoods as tailors, merchants, photographers, carpenters, doormen, lawyers, doctors and realtors and forced to emigrate, penniless, to Greece.
In 1941 and under Turkish Prime Minister Sukriu Saracoglu in 1942, the Turkish government and minister of foreign affairs, figuring that the Germans would emerge victorious from World War II, began the mass deportation of minority men aged 18 to 38. The forced labor battalions of the so-called 20 generations of Jews, Greeks and Armenians were meant never again to see the light of day.
Modern Turkey also inherited the religious discrimination against non-Muslims from the Ottoman empire. Thus in 1942, Saracoglu’s government established the varlik vergesi, a capital tax so onerous as to impose financial ruin on the community.
“Taxpayers who do not settle their debts within one month from the date of posting of notice will be compelled to labor until they have completely settled their debt, in any part of the country in public services of an unmilitary character or in municipal services, according to their physical ability,” the law required, according to a 1943 report in the New York Times by C. L. Sulzberger. 
“Not long after Varlik was applied small numbers of defaulters were arrested and after a few days’ detention sent by train to Ashkale in Eastern Anatolia [the Turkish “Siberia”] to work on the roads,” Sulzberger’s report continued.
The first groups were those assessed more than 100,000 lira who had paid little or nothing of their indebtedness. The government’s position was that no one was taxed more than he could afford to pay, that failure to do so was evidence of unwillingness to pay and that the full penalties of the law must therefore be enforced.
To date not many more than a thousand persons are believed to have been subjected to this drastic penalty. Many of them are wealthy and prominent citizens. Almost entirely they come from the minority Christian and Jewish populations. Their labor on the roads can hardly have been much use, but some of them have managed to scrape up funds and pay and have then been released while the example of the remainder frightens the rest of the minority population as an inducement to pay at all costs. 
The tax was set at confiscatory rates—Greek Orthodox at 156 percent of annual income, Jewish at 179 percent, and Armenian at 232 percent—compared to the 4.96 percent annual income tax suffered by Muslim Turks, according to a Times editorial, and applied to everyone, including minority bell hopes and taxi drivers. At least one Turkish newspaper spoke of “liquidation” of the minority mentality and their populations, by inducing them to leave Turkey. 
Since these taxes were temporary, Vryonis sees no parallel with the punitive jizya (poll) and karaj (land) taxes on legions of earlier generations of non-Muslim dhimmis. To this observer, however, the laws, their intent and result strongly resemble the ruinous jizya and karaj taxes. Like them, the varlik vergesi effectively deprived the community of its wealth, imposing severe penalties if Greek and other non-Muslim citizens did not pay within fifteen days of its promulgation. In the end, massive numbers of minority property and businesses were transferred to Muslim hands, much as khalifs in earlier eras had expropriated them, forcing non-Muslims often to convert to Islam to survive.
Not surprisingly, between 1924 and 1934, Istanbul’s Greek population fell by two thirds, from nearly 300,000 to 111,200, according to Vryonis. By 1955, the number of Greeks had dropped another 24 percent, to 85,000. “This is by way of background, by way of ideology, by way of the nature of the Turkish state, which we should add remained military and dictatorial,” he says.
In 1954, the matter of Cyprus became entwined with the fate of Istanbul’s Greek minority. That year, Turkish foreign minister Mehmet Fuat Koprulu declared that his government had no interest whatever in the outcome of a Greek plea to the international community for Cypriot independence. But within a matter of months, at the prompting of the British government (which then controlled Cyprus), Prime Minister Menderes ousted Koprulu, installed foreign minister Fatin Rustu Zorlu in his place, and turned a 180 degree about-face on the issue. The armed campaign against Britain by the Greek National Organization of Cypriot Fighters elicited howls of indignation from the Turkish press, which joined the battle cry of the Cyprus is Turkish Association, known as KTC for its Turkish acronym.
Eventually, KTC and its press cohorts shifted public attention from the Greek Cypriots to the Greeks of Istanbul. But it was up to the DP and the government to organize the roughly 100,000 necessary students, labor unionists and other rioters and transport them to Istanbul to destroy, in a matter of nine hours, the homes and businesses of 85,000 Greeks scattered through 45 hilly square kilometers in areas hard to access from one another. The pogromists came equipped with lists of Greek addresses to target, though the Armenian and Jewish communities were also hit. Armenians lost 1,000 stores, 150 homes, three churches and four schools, while Jewish residents lost 500 shops, 25 homes, and suffered damage to one synagogue.
All the evidence is that the 1955 pogrom was well organized. “We have independent accounts of Turkish newspapers, of the Greek consulate official, and this is very important, of American[s], that there were [three] systematic waves of destroyers,” says Vryonis.
The first wave—identified by the Turkish newspaper Milliyet and confirmed by the foreign press and Greek officials—destroyed metal doors and barriers to all churches, houses and businesses. They smashed all obstacles to entry. The second wave commenced pilfering and the pillaging. Those who had foresight came with trucks so as to systematically loot and carry off their booty. “But the basic job of the second wave was to begin the destruction of the houses, the apartments, the church, the stores, and then to move on, just as the first wave moved on very quickly,” says Vryonis, as did the second. The third came some time later to finish off the marauding.
“Greek businesses were pilfered or destroyed,” says Vryonis. “Stealing of food stuffs and destruction of grocery stores and the food industry was rife, and thereafter produced a food shortage in Istanbul. The price of eggs rose 6 times, while tobacco rose 20 percent. Most bakeries were utterly destroyed. People had to wait in line even for a piece of bread. In the houses, food was looted or else destroyed by pouring gasoline. Houses were no longer habitable. People had nothing to eat and no where to sleep. Mattresses were literally cut into shreds.”
British and American officials, to the extent that they expressed opinions, generally attributed the pogrom to two factors: “simultaneous self-erupted nationalist and economic motivations.” Certainly, notes Vryonis, there were elements of nationalism, a force in Turkey since Ataturk. As to economic resentment, the living standard of Asia Minor peasants compared to that of Istanbul minorities like night to day. But pogromists came well-equipped with pickaxes, shovels, wooden timbers to serve as battering rams, acetylene torches, gasoline, dynamite and large trucks full of stones. How could a spontaneous eruption occur when security people, secret police, municipal police and the armed services were everywhere?
The third factor (unmentioned by officials), and the genuine underlying cause, Vryonis notes, was religious fanaticism. He continues:
The churches suffered massive destruction…. Most of the reports denied that there was any religious fanaticism. An interesting thing about the American ambassador’s report, Mr. [Avra] Warren. It was made up of disjointed reports of several other diplomatic servants in Istanbul who saw what happened. [Warren was in Ankara.] In Ankara, there were a few demonstrations, but there were no Greeks there. He didn’t see it. And he said there was no evidence of religious fanaticism—if you [except] 70 Greek churches that were destroyed.
…I couldn’t make heads or tales of that. So I decided that this was a scissors and paste report, because earlier he talks about the disgusting and beastly manner in which religious sanctuaries were desecrated. Desecrated is a purely religious term. It involves the violation of that which belongs to divinity, and pollution is a refinement of it. It means despoiling that which is sacred, and the soiling in this case was urination and defecation—defecation on the alters, urination in the communion cups….. [We] had several independent accounts of the destruction of the huge cemetery at Sisli, where they not only took the time to destroy it, but took the corpses out from mausoleums, and also desecrated them, and left in a very large number [of cases], defecation on each of these remains.
So if you look at the church cannons, …you are violating God’s property. Now what is God’s property? …That which has been consecrated by religious ceremony. You can have a building that is going to be a church, but until the liturgy is performed in it, until it is consecrated, it is not sacred. Before an icon is consecrated in any manner, it is just a picture, if you don’t like it you can rip it up. The same with the sacred vestments, but once they enter into the liturgical ritual, these things are forbidden, they belong to God. And if you take in all these aspects, if you look at all the photographs, the piercing and removing of the eyes of Christ, the cutting and removing of His hands, by which He hangs on the crucifix which is a constant in the Constantinoplitan church, if you look at mockery, the mockery of putting priests’ sacred garb on their donkeys, and the use of the metallic elements on their garbage collectors, the fanaticism is very important, and it coincides with the rise of Islam.
Of course, the government was involved, says Vryonis, as the 1960 and 1961 trials at Yassiada proved in their brief consideration of the matter. Contemporary newspaper and eyewitness reports (which the book provides) also describe government assistance given to pogromists during the riots as their organizers shouted “Cleanse the fatherland of the infidel!” and “We do not want infidels’ merchandise in our country.” Official vehicles also transported the pogromists after they had finished their grisly work.
But while Menderes and several of his ministers were hung, they lost their lives for violating Turkey’s constitution, not the destruction they wrought on its Greek and other non-Muslim citizens. For these crimes, not a single man was punished, according to Vryonis.
The Islamization set in motion via discriminatory laws and violence, before and during the pogrom, has continued ever since, with constant pressure on the non-Muslim communities. Having lost everything, the Greek community began to emigrate. In 1964, the Turkish junta forced a very large number to leave or turn over their businesses to Turks within a certain number of hours, says Vryonis. They were taxed, though they were leaving, and their accounts were blocked. Furthermore, intermarriage between Greek citizens and Turkish Greeks was taxed when all marital property was decreed to belong to the “settlers” —making it easier to confiscate.
Today, the Greek residents of Turkey, mostly in Istanbul, number only about 1,800, according to Vryonis, and property rights continue to be so much a concern that the European Union is pressuring Turkey to implement legal changes. Of course, these are cosmetic at best.
“The society has already declared that the identity of Turkey is Islamic,” explains Vryonis. M. Hakan Yavuz discusses the situation in Islamic Political Identity in Turkey. The state apparatus tried to enforce Kemalism, limiting the power of Islam, albeit not insofar as minorities are concerned. “But the Turkish version of Islam is undergoing a revitalization which has successfully challenged [secularism],” says Vryonis. “Most of the provincial universities, for some time, have had major student organizations that are Islamic, that are not recognized by the authorities, but the authorities in the provinces are often Islamists.”
Indeed, the majority of Turks are believing Muslims, a factor that emerged after the 1994 elections, when the Islamist Welfare Party won landslides in the mayoral elections in Asia Minor. Vryonis questions how the military can continue to bar Islamists from entering the officer corps. “It may be that has already happened,” he adds, “the dam has already broken and we don’t know. Once that happens the show is over.”
This matters, since the U.S. has armed Turkey so mightily. It has “the largest military establishment in the Middle East, Africa and Western and Northern Europe,” Vryonis says. “They have a big advantage when it comes to the buildup of tanks, jets, and this involves updating the armaments in Cyprus. The question is into what hands will all of this fall?”
The answer was perhaps previewed in 2003 when the Turkish government refused to allow the disembarkment of 62,000 American troops to open a front in northern Iraq. In Iran, Vryonis points out, U.S. weapons fell into the hands of the Khomeiniites when the Shah fell.
As to whether Kemalists are inherently all Muslims, Vryonis cannot assess the psychology of each person. “But if you look at the example in Iran, they executed the chiefs of Savak, and told the other ones to stay …and watch what they were doing.” Within the Turkish government, he says, groups are said to have split, some working closely with Russia, others with China, and still others focusing on the European Union.
A final issue concerns the Islamic army itself, Vryonis says. “[It] is not a homogeneous entity. [Islamists] tend to win elections by attracting people who are dissatisfied with this or that or the other,” says Vryonis. Even Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “in order to survive, wears about 4 or 5 or 6 masks. One is for the European Union, one is for Greece, and that changes, another is over the Israeli Palestinian issue another is for the military…. The state department never solved these problems.” But clearly, Vryonis says, Islamists “want a powerful Turkey and they want it to be more powerful than it is now.”
The lesson to be taken from the 1955 pogrom is that little, if anything, has actually changed in Turkey.
 Vryonis Jr., Speros, The Turkish State in History: Clio Meets the Grey Wolf (1993 ed), p. 67.
 Vryonis Jr. Speros, The Turkish State in History, pp. 57-78.
 Sulzberger, C.L., “Ankara tax raises diplomatic issues,” New York Times, Sept. 12, 1943, p. 46.
 “The Turkish minorities,” New York Times, Sept. 17, 1943. p. 20.
Alyssa A. Lappen is a former Senior Fellow of the American Center for Democracy, former Senior Editor of Institutional Investor, Working Woman and Corporate Finance, and former Associate Editor of Forbes. Her website is www.AlyssaaLappen.org.