Half-Infidels

Mark Mazower

  • Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey by Bruce Clark
    Granta, 274 pp, £20.00, March 2006, ISBN 1 86207 752 5

‘Live your myth in Greece,’ the Greek National Tourism Office urges us. This summer’s posters feature a young couple, children running along the beach behind them, while an anonymous columned temple hovers implausibly in the Aegean haze. Greece, it seems, has no history except ancient history. In Turkey, too, you can swim in the morning, and climb up to the theatre of ancient Pergamon the same afternoon. But how many of those who do so ever give any attention to those other ruins, of 19th-century neoclassical town houses, which dot the back streets of nearby Bergama? Ayvalik, down the coast, is also full of them, some restored and turned into hotels, others ready for demolition. For within living memory, Ayvalik was a Greek town, just as Mytilene, across the bay, was home to thousands of Muslims.

Abandoned villas, mosques and churches can be found across the Aegean, and for the archaeologist of modernity they provide a rich source of information about the upheavals that shook this part of the world in the 20th century. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed and was succeeded by nation-states, the region became a laboratory for brutal new forms of statecraft. Diplomats thought the unthinkable, and millions of people were uprooted by international fiat in the first organised population exchange of the century. Leaving their homes behind, Christians and Muslims became Greeks and Turks, and were encouraged to forget their past. The historian wonders if it had to happen; the politician asks whether it worked. But the stories provided by the now elderly refugees – ‘Lausanne’s children’, as Bruce Clark calls them – shed a different light on the legacy of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

If these modern ruins now force themselves on our attention, it’s because of what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. ‘The hour of Europe has dawned,’ Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jacques Poos, exulted in the spring of 1991. And so it had, though not in the way he meant. He believed he had brought the fighting in Yugoslavia to an end; in fact, it had scarcely begun. Over the next few years, the Bosnian Serbs, in particular, familiarised us with the idea that the mass flight of refugees might be a deliberate goal, rather than an accidental by-product, of nationalist war-making. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 no longer seemed so distant, and Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing – whether pushed through in the heat of battle, or outlined in the blueprints of would-be peacemakers – invited comparison with many of the century’s other involuntary movements of peoples.

Europe has a long history of ethnic cleansing and forced resettlement. As romantic nationalism made its way eastwards in the 19th century, to the region between the Baltic and the Aegean, the allegiances and expectations which held the old empires together were loosened. Newly founded nation-states in the Balkans, indifferent to the wishes of their Great Power sponsors, stirred things up by highlighting the suffering of their ‘unredeemed’ brothers. Under Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germans and Poles fought to stamp their national imprint on the land (applying methods of rural colonisation that the Prussian Zionist Arthur Ruppin exported to Ottoman Palestine). Austria-Hungary found it hard to digest the Slavs it had swallowed when it occupied Bosnia in 1878. But the greatest upheavals took place around the Black Sea. Between the Crimean War and 1914, hundreds of thousands of Circassians, Tatars and other Muslims fled the Russians for the safety of the Ottoman Empire.

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