22 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (33) Genocide

The monument on Mikrasiaton Square in Rethymnon commemorating the Greek Genocide in Asia Minor 100 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

In every corner of Rethymnon, it seems, I stumble across reminders of the Greek Genocide in Asia Minor a century ago.

These reminders come are found in street names and placenames, from Smyrni Street beneath the slopes of the Fortezza, and Mikrasiaton Square in the heart of the old town, to Tsesmes, the suburban village on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon, beside La Stella Hotel, where I was staying for the past two weeks.

Mikrasiaton Square (Πλατεία Μικρασιατών) has been transformed into the biggest square in the heart of the Old Town. Its name recalls the refugees from Asia Minor, who were known as Μικρασιάτες or Mikrasiates, people from Minor Asia.

The Greek genocide (Γενοκτονία των Ελλήνων, Genoktonia ton Ellinon) was the systematic killing of the Greek Christian population of Anatolia or Asia Minor, during World War I and its aftermath (1914-1922).

The wholescale massacre of people and communities was carried out systematically on the basis of religion and ethnicity. It was instigated by the Ottoman government led by the Three Pashas and intensified and systematised by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The genocide included massacres, forced deportations, death marches, expulsions, summary executions, and the destruction of Greek cultural, historical, and religious monuments. Up to a million Greek people living in the Ottoman Empire and its successor the Turkish Republic were murdered and died in this period.

By late 1922, most Greeks in Asia Minor had either fled or were murdered. The majority of survivors fled as refugees to Greece, adding over a quarter to the population of Greece at the time.

The refugees who arrived in Rethymnon first found shelter in the area now known as Mikrasiaton Square. Many found shelter in the Church of Saint Francis (Agios Franciskos), which had been used as an imaret or poorhouse during the Turkish era; others found homes in outlying villages such as Tsesmes, which takes its name from Cesme, north-west of Smirni (Izmir).

The refugees from Asia Minor integrated quickly into to the local population, bringing with them their arts, crafts and creativity, and actively contributing to the revitalisation of the local economy.

Today, Mikrasiaton Square is an attractive plaza, filled with strolling families, playing children and tourists taking selfies in front of the minaret and domes of the Neratnzes Mosque. There are bikers and skaters too, park benches and attractive restaurants. In pre-pandemic times, this was a popular venue for open air concerts and live music.

Some abandoned buildings might have blighted this square in the past and become typical recipients of graffiti and painted scrawls. But instead, an imaginative initiative has attracted the talents of street artists, adding to the attractions of the square.

The buildings around Mikrasiaton Square include some of the town’s most important buildings from the Venetian and Ottoman periods, such as the House of Culture, the Nerantzes Mosque, the former Venetian Church of Agios Franciskos (Saint Francis), now housing temporary exhibitions of the Archaeological Museum, and the Historical and Folklore Museum of Rethymnon.

The new monument on the east side of Mikrasiaton Square recalls the Asia Minor catastrophe and is an initiative of the descendants of those refugees who arrived in Rethymnon a century ago. It is five meters long and four meters in high, and depicts the horrors of burning homes, death marches, murders and grieving mothers.

The names of the towns in Asia Minor that had sizeable Greek majorities until a century ago are inscribed on the monument, beginning with Symrni, and including Tsesmes, Ephesus, Pergamon, Miletus, Iconium (Konya), and Sardis … many of them Greek-speaking cities long before Saint John wrote from Patmos to the Seven Churches in the Book of Revelation.

Smyrni Street beneath the slopes of the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Before the word genocide came into legal use, the destruction of the Greeks of Asia Minor was known by Greeks as ‘the Massacre’ (η Σφαγή), ‘the Great Catastrophe’ (η Μεγάλη Καταστροφή), or ‘the Great Tragedy’ (η Μεγάλη Τραγωδία).

Ataturk provided a ‘model’ for genocide for the Nazis. Hitler once declared that he regarded himself as a student of Ataturk, and described him as his ‘star in the darkness.’ Ataturk and his new Turkey of 1923 constituted the archetype of the ‘perfect Führer’ and of ‘good national practices’ for Nazism. Nazi propaganda emphasised the ‘Turkish model’ and continuously praised the ‘benefits’ of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

At the height of the Holocaust in World War II, the word ‘genocide’ was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. He formed hybrid word by combining the Greek word γένος (genos, ‘race, people’) and the Latin suffix -caedo (‘act of killing’).

Lemkin was a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, and in his writings on genocide he detailed the fate of Greeks in Turkey. In August 1946, the New York Times wrote: ‘Genocide is no new phenomenon, nor has it been utterly ignored in the past … The massacres of Greeks and Armenians by the Turks prompted diplomatic action without punishment. If Professor Lemkin has his way, genocide will be established as an international crime.’

Genocide was declared an international crime in international law in 1948. Last week (13 September), Greece marked the 99th anniversary of the ‘Catastrophe of Smyrna’ (Izmir), when Greeks were forced to flee the city when Turkish forces set fire to it. The great fire of Smyrna began on 13 September 1922, and lasted nine full days and nights until 22 September 1922, 99 years ago today.

The monument on Mikrasiaton Square recalls the genocide of the Greeks of Asia Minor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Yesterday: Hypocrite

Tomorrow: Cinema.

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