Twice A Stranger: Greece, Turkey and the Minorities They Expelled, by Bruce Clark (Granta Books, 300 pp., £20)

When empires break up, they leave a terrible mess behind. Ordinary people then become the victims of the ambitious and unscrupulous successors of the former imperial rulers, who themselves often proved less than tender-hearted about the fate of those ordinary people. Distilling centuries of experience in this regard, the Romanian peasants had a characteristically pithy proverb: A change of rulers is the joy of fools.

The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was highly productive of horrors, for reasons hard to summarize succinctly. It has taken me many years to appreciate what my history masters at school tried to make me understand about something they called the Eastern Question. I always wondered why it was not possible to put that question simply, for example in the form “What is the capital of Bulgaria?” and to answer accordingly, with a fact. Now at long last I have begun to see, albeit as through a glass darkly.

The Ottoman Empire’s long and tortuous decline, caused by intellectual and technical stagnation relative to European dynamism, resulted in the slow attrition of its European territories. In order to arrest the empire’s obvious decline, the Ottoman Turks could adopt one of three strategies: pan-Islamism (the Sultan, after all, was Caliph as well), Turanianism (pan-Turkism), or what was in effect Anatolian Turkish nationalism. The tide of the times seemed to suggest that the third strategy was the solution, since the Young Turks, above all, believed that it had been the force of ethnically-exclusive nationalism that had allowed the Serbs, the Bulgarians, the Rumanians, the Greeks (and even, eventually, the Albanians, who were predominantly fellow-Muslims) to break away from the empire and form supposedly modern states of their own between 1821 and 1912. Moreover, the era’s great European powers appeared, no doubt deceptively, to owe their greatness to national homogeneity. It was time for Turkey to follow suit.

Yet no part of Turkey was ethnically or culturally uniform. It is true that after the Ottoman Empire lost its European provinces, Turks became a majority in the remainder for the first time in centuries. Until well past 1850, the majority of Ottomans were not Muslims, let alone Turks. A kind of ramshackle tolerance held sway—based on custom and Islamic law regarding people of the Book rather than on Enlightenment first principles—in which minorities such as the Greeks of Asia Minor and the Armenians bought exemption from military service with higher taxes but could sometimes flourish economically, making them the empire’s richest inhabitants.

Turkish nationalism swept away this semi-tolerant multiculturalism as an anachronism. In the process, minorities had to assimilate—become Turkified—or face expulsion or, in the case of the Armenians, death.

The Ottoman Empire allied itself in the First World War with the Central Powers, and suffered defeat as a consequence. An irredentist and nationalist Greece, egged on by Britain, took advantage of the situation to try to create a Greater Greece. It landed troops at Smyrna (one half of my wife’s family descends from Smyrna Greeks, who, during one of the periodic Ottoman persecutions of Greeks earlier in the century, took refuge in France, where one pioneered the French cinema industry). Not content with occupying Smyrna, the Greeks advanced into Anatolia, committing terrible atrocities en route, until Kemal Pasha’s resurgent Turkish nationalist army crushed them utterly.

In the ensuing peace settlement, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, Greece and Turkey agreed to a mutual exchange of populations, irrespective of those populations’ wishes: Greece forcibly expelled 400,000 Turks, while the Turks expelled 1 million Greeks. The nationalists of both countries wanted ethnically uniform countries, though a few Turks received permission to remain in western Thrace, and a few Greeks in Istanbul.

In the splendid and moving Twice A Stranger: Greece, Turkey and the Minorities They Expelled by Bruce Clark—a journalist whose background in Northern Ireland allows him to understand, in his flesh and bone as it were, the deep complexities and ironies of communal antagonisms—we hear about the human costs of the population exchange agreed to by the nationalist leaders of Greece (Venizelos) and Turkey (Kemal Pasha, known as Ataturk). It is a well-written, skillful, and subtle blend of high politics and personal testimony from the victims of that policy. The author’s desire to record that testimony before no one can record it—for of course, the population-exchange survivors must soon die, as all survivors of the First World War have now died—is a noble one, above praise. He has performed a real service to the world.

In deciding who was a Greek and who was a Turk, the criterion used was religious: a Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christian who knew no Greek was thus a Greek, and expelled to Greece; while a Greek-speaking Muslim who knew no Turkish was Turkish, and expelled to Turkey. Even when those expelled spoke the language of their country, they seldom felt entirely at home in their allegedly “national” homeland. On the contrary, they felt a strong sense of nostalgia for the “enemy” country that they had left behind, where life had been far from a catalogue of misery and hatred; for, as Clark amply demonstrates, the Greek and Turkish nationalist assertion that Greek and Turk could only have antagonistic relations was simply not true. But it was a necessary tenet of nationalist historiography.

And yet, at the same time, there is no doubt that the horrible exchange of populations, that inflicted so much suffering, did lead to a certain international stability for a time. Good fences make good, if not necessarily amicable, neighbors; and only a few years after being at daggers drawn, Ataturk and Venizelos feted one another.

The stability that resulted from the exchange of populations is now under threat, however, as Clark points out, though not from Greco-Turkish confrontation. With massive immigration into Greece from everywhere from Africa to China (to say nothing of retirees from Britain), Greece is no longer an ethnically or religiously homogeneous country; and Turkey’s application to join Europe, if successful, will force the greatest change upon it since Ataturk’s reforms.

This book not only moves by the power of the narratives it contains, both Greek and Turkish, and informs through its succinct summary of a history we have mostly forgotten; it also raises profound questions of political philosophy, especially concerning the relation of communal and national identity to polities. No subject could be more contemporary or more filled with paradox: for example, it would not be mere sentimentality to assert that the Habsburg Empire was in many respects a lot better than anything that succeeded it, at least for a time (the great Austro-Jewish writer, Joseph Roth, spent his last years declaring undying loyalty to his one and only sovereign, the Emperor Franz Joseph, who slept for more than 60 years on an army cot from a sense of duty), though it would not be easy to justify that empire from philosophical principles, first, second, or third.

This is not a book for those seeking easy answers to the world’s problems. It is an eloquent call to those dual, but often antagonistic gods, humanity and realism.


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