Reflections on the book "The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955."
Fifty one years ago this month, a terrible disaster was inflicted upon the Greek population of Constantinople. Historian Speros Vryonis, Jr has chronicled this horrible event in his massive book of 659 pages titled The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955 and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul (New York: Greekworks.com, 2005).
Others have written glowing reviews of this volume, and it is not my intention to replicate their praise, nor evaluate it from an historian's perspective. However, after reading every page of the volume I am struck by the many levels of meaning from this volume for all kinds of people living today.
I will begin with just a cursory summary - if that is possible! Then I will ask the Hellenic Voice reader to reflect with me on the meaning of this 51 year old event for Greeks, Turks, Christians, Muslims, Westerners, Easterners, Greek-Americans, all Americans, and U.S. politicians and statesmen.
What is the book about? The book is a most detailed account of the two days in September of a thoroughly planned, pre-meditated, well-executed, concurrent attack by specially selected rioters in every Greek neighborhood in and around Istanbul, and some other parts of Turkey, which successfully destroyed practically all Greek-owned and run businesses, cultural institutions, and churches. Vryonis shows that the pogrom was organized and executed in all its details by the Prime Minister Menderes and his Demokrat Party. The impact of those two disastrous days was to demoralize the Greek population as well as -to a lesser extent- the Jewish and Armenian populations of "The City." Its consequences are well known. From a population of about a quarter of a million Greeks, both Turkish and Hellenic nationals, only a few thousand remain in Constantinople today. Part of the pogrom was to promise full reparations and in practice to do everything possible to frustrate payments. On the one hand the goal was to remove as much as possible of the over three millennia Greek presence in what is now Turkey, and in particular the seventeen century Orthodox Christian existence there. As it played out, it sought to rid Istanbul and all of Turkey of nearly all minority presence. In this it was eminently successful.
One other thing about the pogrom: it was also vehemently anti-Christian. The volume has 90 black and white photographs, the majority of which show the destruction caused by the rioters and many of these are actual photos of the churches whose interiors were devastated or which were burned and totally destroyed. In the name of Islam, priests were humiliated, persecuted and in some cases beat, physically hurt and killed. If you don't want to read the whole volume, I recommend strongly that you read the "Conclusions" beginning at page 541, and then Chapter Five "The Attack on the Greek Orthodox Church." You will be appalled at what you read.
With that totally inadequate description, I would like to seek to draw some lessons, some meaning from this event. I begin with the Greeks in Constantinople, but also for our people who find themselves in minority situations throughout the world. It is clear that the Constantinople Greek community had resources, institutions such as schools, hospitals, clinics, literary and educational organizations, and other institutions to live as an island in the midst of the Turkish majority. Not having been part of it, I cannot know if this stance may have been necessary because of the circumstances. But, I wonder if a greater effort was made to appropriate Turkish national identity, at least on the surface, may have changed the climate. Vryonis points out, interestingly, that only a few of the Greeks of Istanbul possessed Turkish flags. The lesson is that when in a minority situation, the temptation might be to live isolated from the national life of the majority, but wisdom calls for a presence and a measure of identity with the nation in which we live as a minority.
What is a lesson to be drawn from this event for Turks? The subsequent government criminally tried and condemned Menderes and members of his Demokrat party, not so much what they did against the Greeks, but for violating the constitution which theoretically protected minorities. Nevertheless, minority rights are still slim in that country. A flagrant example is the closing of the Halki Theological School. No nation that restricts the right of a religious body to train its leaders can be called democratic in spirit and practice. Turkey has a long way to go in protecting the civil rights of its citizens.
Can anything to be learned by Christians in general from the pogrom? Though some Orthodox are virulently anti-Ecumenical, something of great importance arose from these events. The only strong voices in protest for these events did not come from the British or American or French or German governments. It was the Church of England and the World Council of Churches that raised their voices to a pitch which brought the light of public scrutiny on the terrible events. In spite of our differences, whenever there is injustice and other forms of minority persecution, all Churches need to point the spotlight of condemnation and compassion in their direction. The holocaust in Darfur is just one example.
Reading the Fifth Chapter, but also throughout the whole volume, event after event showed the ire and hatred by Muslim Turks for people of other faiths, Orthodox Christians and Jews in particular. There are, to be sure, some touching stories of Muslim Turks defending Christians from the violence of other Muslims. But by and large, the majority expressed rage at the Infidels. Almost totally absent was a respect for non-Muslims; there was an almost total disdain for minorities. This is not a Turkish phenomenon. The most recent rantings of Al Quaeda's Alman Al Zawahari on television, threatening all Americans to convert to Islam or suffer the wrath of Al Qaeda is cut from this same cloth. Many Muslims repudiate this reading of their religion, but it is clear that numerous Muslims buy into it, and that what is preached in many Mosques conforms to it. The voices of those Muslims who believe that as minorities in western countries they should be protected, should also proclaim that minorities in Muslim dominated countries should be protected in their rights to exercise their civil and religious lives.
Westerners, whose views are saturated with the kinds of values embodied in the U.S. Constitution, should not be naïve about how others in the East view them. What is almost self-evident in the West, such as "individual rights" is abhorrent to those who in the East whose social vision is based on tribal group-think. Democratic values, it will surprise many Westerners, are repugnant and detestable to the militant suicide bombers active in Iraq and throughout the world. For them "truth" is Islam which is by definition, "submission." No wonder there are problems of confrontation of world views in the Near East.
These Easterners need to learn that theirs is not the only alternative in a complex world. In the 21st century, you cannot force people to convert to Islam by threatening to kill them! I come back to the Pogrom of 1955. It showed that even in a "secular" predominantly Muslim Turkey, the civilized requirement of tolerance and respect for minorities was a scarce commodity. Often people ask what the Koran says. That is not the most important question. What the Imams say that the Koran says is more important! The texts are always interpreted. What is preached in the Mosques needs to change. The Jihad message of violence, contempt and rejection of those who do not believe in Islam is not acceptable in civilized society.
How should Greek-Americans be informed by this book? Well, reading it will make every Greek American understand the suffering of our beloved Ecumenical Patriarchate, and to do everything in our power to support it in the antagonistic environment in which it finds itself. But further, Greek-Americans, or, if you like, Americans of Greek descent, need to be alert and responsive to act in support of the Patriarchate. Now, more than ever, the kinds of initiatives sponsored by the Archons of our Greek Orthodox Archdiocese need popular reinforcement. The defense of minority rights over there, as well as over here, needs to be an ongoing priority. We shouldn't forget, we are a minority, too!
One of the tragedies of the 1955 pogrom was the indifference of the American State Department and the British Foreign Office to the suffering of the Greeks of Constantinople and Turkey. The injustice perpetrated against the Greeks of Constantinople was minimized, swept under the rug, and essentially ignored by both countries for political purposes related to Cyprus. The terrible truth about "Turkish value" to American interests became clear when the Parliament of Turkey refused permission to the American military to enter Iraq by way of Turkey. But much more important is that such realpolitik tarnishes the moral stature of the USA. America aspires to be a shining beacon of truth, justice, democracy and human values. But, when we ignore justice in the pursuit of raw political power, such behavior does our nation no honor. American statesmen and politicians need to take account of our basic principles and to embody them in the policies of our nation. If for ourselves we proclaim the dignity of the principle of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in an environment of freedom, should that not also inspire our foreign policy?
The Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, over fifty one years ago has all but disappeared from the world's consciousness. Professor Vryonis is to be commended for recording it, in all its horror, for posterity in this remarkable volume. Every freedom loving person should be grateful to him. But in those fifty one years hundreds upon hundreds of similar explosions against minorities throughout the world have taken place. Thousands upon thousands in Asia, Africa, the Americas and elsewhere have suffered similar expressions of human intolerance. Perhaps for some, the record of these two days in 1955 may serve to curb the violence and increase the tolerance.
Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired Priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA for 30 years. He has written monthly Guest Editorials in The Hellenic Voice for the past three years.
This article first appeared in The Hellenic Voice. Reprinted with permission.