OPINION - Greek propaganda, falsification of history

What happened in 1919-1922 in the occupation zone extending from Izmir to Ankara, from Edirne to Mugla and Antalya, actually is clearly documented with all historical evidence

Haluk Selvi  | 08.09.2023 - Update : 08.09.2023
OPINION - Greek propaganda, falsification of history

- The author teaches history at Sakarya University in Türkiye's Black Sea region


The Greek occupation of Western Anatolia after World War I and the events that occurred during this era continue to be a subject of debate. Greece and its supporters in the Western public portray the events as if Turks are responsible for the catastrophic incidents. In fact, they are even pressuring the parliaments of EU countries, particularly the US Senate, to pass resolutions claiming that the Turks committed "genocide" against Greeks and try to pressure the Republic of Türkiye in an attempt to find a partner in crime and lessen their moral burden. Discussions of the Greek occupation of Western Anatolia in 1919 and the events that took place during this period still continue. Greece and its supporter, the Western public, paint the Turks as if they were responsible for what happened in this process.

What happened between 1919 and 1922 in the occupation zone extending from Izmir to Ankara, from Edirne to Mugla and Antalya, actually is clearly documented with all historical evidence. Greece's and the Greek lobby's behavior in this way is seen as a part of a historical continuity.

For Greek lobbyists, the events presented as the so-called the "Pontic or Greek genocide" begin with the idea of the "expulsion of Turks from Europe" and has continued up to the present day. Evaluating events within this historical continuity reveals how evidence and data have been professionally distorted by the Greek and Western public opinion to shape the narrative.

The status of Greeks in the Ottoman Empire

From a historical perspective, in the early 19th century, the Greeks were the largest non-Muslim population within the Ottoman Empire, making up about 15% of the population. They were dispersed throughout the country and held privileged positions in trade, diplomacy, and state administration. Greek merchants, who conducted almost all of the empire's foreign trade, had agencies in all Ottoman ports and major European port cities. They possessed a substantial trading fleet of around 600 ships and were armed to protect themselves against North African pirates.

The Ottoman Empire had delegated the authority to appoint priests and preachers to Greek priests of the Orthodox churches under its rule (including Serbian, Bulgarian, and Romanian). Until the era of revolts, religious services in these churches were done in Greek, and Greek priests were considered an elite group among other nationalities.

In fact, for about a century (approximately from 1720 to 1820), administrators from the Fener Greek community in Istanbul were appointed to govern the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (present-day Romania). This practice led to the formation of a Greek elite class in Romania under Ottoman rule.

The status of the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire was the result of a historical process dating back to the arrival of the Turks in Anatolia. As rulers, the Turks ensured religious, economic, and cultural freedoms for the Greeks as for all non-Muslims.

Rediscovery of Greeks as a political tool

On the other hand, during the era of the Enlightenment in Europe, Greek literature and the concept of ancient Greek democracy caught the attention of liberal and nationalist diplomats. There was a widespread belief that the Greeks, who had once established great civilizations, were living under Turkish rule, and this situation needed to be ended as soon as possible. These discussions took place in various forms in writings, oral discussions, and the parliaments of various countries.

Powerful states, especially Russia, aiming to influence world politics through the Balkans and establish dominance in the Mediterranean, began to take an interest in the fate of the Greeks living in Ottoman territories, especially in the Morea (Peloponnese) Peninsula. In Britain and France, the birthplaces of liberalism and nationalism, intellectuals from all classes showed sympathy for the Greeks and prominently featured them in their works. Greeks and Turks were almost personified as Zeus and Hades in public opinion.

Seeing the helping hand extended from the West and the North, the Greeks utilized the Filiki Eteria Society, a secret group they established in Odesa, Ukraine in 1814 with the support and encouragement of Alexander Ypsilantis, an advisor to the Russian czar, as a means to break free from the Ottoman rule. The first uprisings against Ottoman rule began in 1817 and spread to the Morea in 1821. Following the 1828-29 Ottoman-Russian War, the Treaty of Edirne was signed, leading to the establishment of an independent Greece.

Throughout the Greek revolt, all the churches in Europe viewed it as being like a Crusade. The English writer Lord Byron, who had great sympathy for the people of Greece and their cause, came to the Morea to support them. Although no formal war was declared, Britain, France, and Russia preempted any Ottoman attempts to quell the disturbances and, in the 1827 Battle of Navarino, destroyed the Ottoman fleet. The establishment of the Greek state with the support of a major power and European public opinion provoked other Christian communities living within the Ottoman Empire.

The primary modus operandi of the Greek committees was resorting to violence, spreading false reports of massacres, misleading the public, and mobilizing religious sentiments in key European centers. European public opinion played a significant role in enabling these actions.

The attempt to de-Turkify the Peloponnese

During this period, significant massacres were carried out against the Turks living in the regions of the Morea, Navarino, Tripoli, and the Aegean islands, leading to migrations from these areas. On Sept. 23, 1821, after the city of Tripolitsa (Tripoli) fell into the hands of Greek rebels, a massacre took place in which more than 10,000 Muslims and Jews lost their lives. The British historian Walter Alison Phillips, in his book The War of Greek Independence, 1821 to 1833, described how for three days, the city’s inhabitants were butchered by a savage mob, without regard for age or gender, and how people were tortured before being killed. He also wrote that communities of Muslim masses were slaughtered like animals in the nearby mountains. It was now difficult to believe that the once-thriving Turkish population of the Morea Peninsula had existed. Among these families were wealthy farmers, merchants, and officials who had lived here for four centuries and considered these lands their homeland. These people were intentionally, brutally killed by their neighbors, and those who committed these acts never felt remorse.

The most tragic aspect of these events was that European public opinion, religious institutions, diplomatic centers, and governments remained silent about these massacres, which would continue until 1922. Some even believed, said, and wrote that the Turks deserved it.

The worst of these massacres occurred during the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, where they were widespread across the entire Balkan region, with Muslims targeted by Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgarians. The mastermind behind these events was Russia, with support from British and France. In his work Death and Exile, historian Justin McCarthy wrote that between 1821 and 1922, more than 5 million Turks were expelled from their countries in the Balkans, and over five-and-a-half million Turks either died in battle, succumbed to hunger or disease as refugees, or were killed. Both Ottoman and European population statistics clearly reveal the changes that occurred over the century.​​​​​​​

Battle for the Megali Ideal

During this process, the crises faced by the Ottoman Empire and every lost war were seen as opportunities by Greece. After the Balkan Wars, Greece gained significant portions of Macedonia, including South Epirus and Thessaloniki, as well as some Aegean islands. Greece also annexed the island of Crete during this time. The uprising in Crete gave rise to a new Greek national hero: Venizelos.

At the outbreak of World War I, Greece was led by King Constantine, with Prime Minister Venizelos in office. The main factor behind Greece's entry into World War I was the opportunity to gain new territories in western Anatolia, which aligned with the historical idealism of the Megali Idea (the idea of reviving the Byzantine Empire). Venizelos, who was initially hesitant to participate in the war, attempted a failed coup against Constantine and withdrew to Thessaloniki, where he established a de facto government. Supported by Britain and France, he fought against Bulgarian and Turkish armies on the Macedonian Front.

Finally, in 1917, Britain and France occupied Greece, deposed King Constantine, and placed his younger son Alexander on the throne, effectively appointing Venizelos the country's leader. They forced Greece into the war against the Turks. Russia, Britain, and France also did a similar thing when Greece gained its independence, appointing Otto from the Bavarian House as king to govern the incapable Greeks.

The fire that broke out in Thessaloniki on Aug. 18, 1917, during Venizelos' sole rule, completely transformed the city's socio-cultural structure. The fire, which lasted for 32 hours, consumed an area of a million square meters (32% of the city), rendered 9,500 houses uninhabitable, and left 72,000 people homeless. The fire particularly affected areas with a dense Turkish and Jewish population. After the fire, the affected area was expropriated, and Greeks were resettled there. As a result, the city's population makeup shifted against Turks and Jews, and Thessaloniki turned into a Greek city. This act of burning initiated a tradition that would continue from the 1820s until the 1970s and was also applied in September 1922 in Izmir.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu.​​​​​​​

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