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Professor Spyros Vryonis

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The Turkish Pogrom of 1955

Professor Spyros Vryonis, eminent Byzantinist, gave a lecture at the building of Palaia Vouli (the Old Parliament), organized by the Scholars’ Association, concerning the Turkish pogrom of the Constantinople Greek community of 6-7 September 1955.

He began his lecture focusing on the wave of democratization and support of human rights that has become prominent in the last twenty-five years. Professor Vryonis reminds us that democratic states pursued these goals with fervor domestically, but on an international level these goals were pursued grudgingly, and only when they happened to coincide with those states’ national self-interest. He used his introduction as a means of contrasting Turkey’s democratic aspirations to the reality of the events surrounding the Turkish pogrom that wiped out the Greek community in Constantinople.

Vryonis explains the Turkish pogrom in relation to three important factors:

1) the general position of the leaders of the Greek minority community in Turkey
2) the Greco-Turkish relations in light of the Lausanne Treaty and of NATO, and
3) the character of the Turkish government as made evident by the continuing and increasing friction, conflict and crises between the two countries.

Overall, the Turkish pogrom is portrayed as a culmination of national policy concerning ethnic minorities that emerged after the Asia Minor crisis of 1922-23. After the Asia Minor catastrophe, Kemalist Turkey began an anti-minority policy that aimed at wiping out all of the minorities within the country –with especial focus on the Greeks, Armenians and Jews.

Vryonis asserts that the pogrom was organized in part by the Menderes government and illustrates the Turkish government as being both illegal and terrorist in nature. The highest officials of the Menderes government organized the pogrom, while it was executed by members of the local branches of the Democratic Party. Leaders of the local branches of the Democratic Party had the important duty of organizing party members, arming them and transferring them to Constantinople using government transportation to take part in the pogrom. However, most of those who participated in the pogrom lived in the city and were taken primarily from the poorer working class areas of the city. The event that Vryonis cites as being the catalyst for the pogrom was the bombing of the Turkish Embassy at Thessalonica on the morning of 6 September. At 6:05 am the next day, Turkish attacks on Greek businesses in Constantinople began and by evening, three waves of attacks had transpired. Masses of four to five thousand people participated in the destruction of the largest, most beautiful and most historical portion of the city.

Eyewitness accounts of the pogrom detail the destruction of the Greek quarter and the terror and violence suffered by the Greek community. Vryonis presents three different accounts: one by a corporal, a writer/journalist and finally from a doctor. They describe the bombings and burning of the various businesses and residences of the Greeks as well as the attacks on the Greeks throughout the area. The corporal details how Turkish national pride was manifested at the very moment when the Turkish mob was attacking and pillaging the buildings. The journalist also relates the terror and violence which was inflicted on the Greeks themselves. He attests to the raping, beating and killing of Greeks. Finally, the doctor corroborates the journalist’s account of rapes and continues with the depiction of the dangerous conditions that the Greek community faced. Churches and schools were destroyed, Greek cemeteries were violated and Greek Orthodox priests were accosted.

International reaction to the pogrom was marked by gross misinterpretation of the event and its causes. The formal position of the United States absolved the Turkish government of any responsibility for the pogrom and presented instead an alternative explanation –that the poor masses plundered and robbed the rich- that did not distinguish between Turks and Greeks. Many historians blamed the new organization of Hikmer Bil, which was disbanded and the members of which were arrested and imprisoned immediately after the pogrom.

Professor Speros Vryonis dispels these aforementioned explanations and delineates both the causes and events of the Turkish pogrom from various sources and archives. His thorough research enables his audience to understand the actual facts of the pogrom and places responsibility for the organization and execution of the pogrom squarely on the shoulders of Turkish government leaders.

Katerina Lagos

Note: The book The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul (ISBN: 978-0-9747660-3-4)by Professor Speros Vryonis of New York University was published by in New York in 2005.

Professor Spyros Vryonis

Speros Vryonis, Jr., is one of the most eminent Byzantinists of his generation. After a distinguished career at UCLA, he became the founding director of the Alexander S. Onassis Center for Hellenic Studies at New York University, from which he retired as emeritus Alexander S. Onassis professor Hellenic civilization.

Prof. Vryonis' extensive work on the history and culture of the Greeks from Homer to the present, and on their relations with the Slavic, Islamic, and New Worlds, includes the seminal The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century; Byzantium and Europe; Studies on Byzantium, Seljuks and Ottomans; Byzantium: Its Internal History and Relations with the Islamic World; and Studies in Byzantine Institutions and Society.

He has also edited, among other volumes, Aspects of the Balkans: Continuity and Change (with Henrik Birnbaum); Essays on the Slavic World and the Eleventh Century; Islam and Cultural Change in the Middle Ages: Individualism and Conformity in Classical Islam (with Amin Banani); and Islam's Understanding of Itself (with Richard G. Hovannisian).

Prof. Vryonis is a Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Scholar, as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Medieval Academy of America, and the American Philosophical Society.