Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 7, 2014

From Both Sides of the Aegean

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Greece,Turkey — louisproyect @ 12:52 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition March 7-9, 2014

Maria Iliou’s “From Both Sides of the Aegean”

In the Wake of the Ottoman Empire


It would be hard to imagine a documentary making more of an impact on the mind, the heart and the eye than Maria Iliou’s “From Both Sides of the Aegean: Expulsion and Exchange of Populations, Turkey-Greece: 1922-1924” that opens at the Quad in New York on March 21.

When I ran into Ms. Iliou before a press screening at the Quad on Tuesday, she described her new film as a follow-up to “Smyrna: the Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City”, a film that I reviewed for CounterPunch almost a year ago.  The first paragraph of that review referred to my personal connection to the terrible tragedy of September 1922:

In my one and only visit to Izmir to meet my wife’s relatives, we walked along the quay to see some of the picturesque city’s landmarks including the statue of Mustafa Kemal that looked toward the sea. My wife’s cousin Ceyda, the daughter of a General assigned to NATO and a rock-ribbed Kemalist, paused in front of the statue to inform me that this was where their war of independence was won. The quay, from which the city’s Greek population was literally driven into the sea, is as important a symbol of that country’s birth in the early 1920s as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is to an American.

As in the first film, Iliou draws upon a treasure trove of historical photos and film footage, interviews with academic specialists in Greek and Turkish history, and reminiscences of the children and grandchildren who were driven from their homeland both through naked terror and through “legal” decisions made at the top by cynical politicians. Given the pain—both physical and emotional—visited on the Greeks and the Turks, the distinction between illegal and legal becomes moot.

While the film would be of particular interest to someone like myself, it has a universal message for those who cannot but be aware of the toxic after-effects of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims fought to defend statehood claims like vultures fighting over dead meat.

full article


  1. Can’t wait for the DVD to be released

    Comment by Harry Monro — March 7, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

  2. Note that between the beginning of the first successful Greek national uprising against the Ottoman Empire in 1820 and the 1920’s, Greeks and Turks killed each other virtually every day, with continual daily low-level violence punctuated by occasional full-scale war.

    After 1923 and the exchange of populations (aka “massacre and ethnic cleansing”), while relations between the Greek and Turkish nation-states were often tense, there was no war. The whole process ended then.

    The main exception to this was Cyprus, where the British colonial takeover in the 1870’s froze the ethnographic situation, with Greeks and Turks mixed village-by-village and sometimes street-by-street and house-by-house, rather like Crete before its union with Greece. As soon as the hand of the British Empire started to weaken after WWII, they started killing each other again, ceasing only in the aftermath of the Turkish invasion of 1974 and the wholesale exchange of populations (aka “ethnic cleansing and massacre”) which followed.

    Of course, if Cyprus had been given to Greece (which the British nearly did several times for reasons of their own) there would be no Turks on the island at all, not living ones at least, and if it had remained part of the Turkish state after 1923 they’d have killed or expelled all the Greeks. There’s nobody but Greek Christians (or post-Christians) and tourists in Crete now.

    There are two points here.

    First, the reason the Balkans were an ethnic patchwork in the Ottoman period — the joke was that a chameleon put on a color-coded ethnographic map of the area would explode — was not because everyone was a multiculturalist, sitting around the campfire sharing recipes and folk-dances and singing kumbya in a grand display of convivencia.

    The reason was the imposition of Ottoman imperial power; empires are usually the reason for situations like that.

    The Ottoman Empire in particularly was an absolutist confessional state, in which the Ottoman elite oppressed everyone, but non-Muslims much more than anyone else. When the iron fist of control crumbled, so did the situations it had imposed. (Vide Yugoslavia and then Bosnia in the 1990’s.) The Empire’s Christian territories had been taken by the sword and held the same way; from their p.o.v. the Empire was an evil alien oppressor that robbed and humiliated and tormented them every day, and they hated it — and everyone associated with it. There was never any doubt about who was the “ruling millet” under the Sultan-Caliphs, and when the uprisings came, they paid the price. This was often orchestrated by politicians and governments, but it also represented genuine, spontaneous mass feeling. You can’t demagogically whip up a feeling that isn’t already there, you can just activate it.

    Second, the difference between the victims and victimized in the 200-year-long process of Ottoman retreat was not morality, but opportunity.

    In 1915 the Turks set out to exterminate the Armenians within their boundaries, and they did (and did a similar number on the Greeks and Chaldaeans/Assyrians in the following period).

    They did this in the belief that if the Greeks and Armenians won, Turks (and other Muslims) within their boundaries would suffer equivalent fates, and that no amount of oppression would restore the pre-modern status quo under which Christians accepted subordinate status and didn’t struggle for self-government on national lines.

    In this they were probably, in fact almost certainly, correct.

    Note that Armenia is nearly entirely Armenian, and Greece nearly entirely Greek, and that this is radically different from the previous ethnographic situation — Greeks were a minority within the boundaries of current Greece in 1820 (even the area around Athens wasn’t Greek-speaking) and Armenians were probably a minority in what’s now Armenia. About a third of the population of Turkey today is descended from refugees driven out of the Balkans and the Caucasus during the Christian -reconquista-.

    Note that I’m not saying, as apologists for the Turkish government do, that the massacre was “justified”, when they’re not denying that it occurred at all.

    I’m saying that thinking about it those terms is divorced from the real world(tm), and will lead to a continuous series of unpleasant surprises and grossly unrealistic analysis.

    This refusal to acknowledge that the situation is one of X vs. Y, not Good vs. Bad, is why credulous Western observers always end up gobsmacked when the previous “good, virtuous, suffering oppressed Group X” goes on a massacre spree when it gets the chance.

    Wringing one’s hands and saying people shouldn’t be like that is sort of futile, though believing that “this time it’ll be different” and swallowing the promises of “good, virtuous suffering oppressed Group X” is even worse.

    As Marx put it, human beings make history… but they don’t make it “just as they please”.

    Comment by S.M. Stirling — March 11, 2014 @ 1:28 am

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