Nansen's solution: Revisiting the Turkish-Greek population exchangeby Şener Aktürk*

April 30, 2013, Tuesday/ 18:18:00

Some 90 years ago, on May 1, 1923, Turkey and Greece began to “exchange” their Christian and Muslim subjects, following a mutual agreement on population exchange signed on Jan. 30, 1923.

The exchange resulted in one of the greatest population movements of the 20th century: 1.25 million Christians, or 1/10 of Turkey's population at the time, had to leave Turkey for Greece, and 500,000 Muslims, or 1/10 of Greece's population at the time, had to leave Greece for Turkey. The social, economic, cultural and religious landscapes of the two countries were radically and irreversibly changed. Never again could you see dozens of Muslim representatives in the Greek parliament, or hear the call to prayer from the minarets of the dozens of mosques in Crete, Thessaloniki and Ioannina. Never again would you hear church bells across hundreds of Christian villages in Cappadocia or have Christian mayors in towns and cities across Anatolia.

Fridtjof Nansen, the well-known humanitarian activist and Norwegian explorer, played a key role in formulating and implementing the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. In a way, the compulsory population exchange was Nansen's brainchild and as such Nansen had a decisive but rather little known impact on the fate of millions of people in Turkey and Greece who are descendants of the exchanged populations in 1923-24. Nansen received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work on behalf of displaced people. This is what the Nobel Prize website had to say about his key role in the Turkish-Greek population exchange:

“In 1922 at the request of the Greek government and with the approval of the League of Nations, Nansen tried to solve the problem of the Greek refugees who poured into their native land from their homes in Asia Minor after the Greek army had been defeated by the Turks. Nansen arranged an exchange of about 1,250,000 Greeks living on Turkish soil for about 500,000 Turks living in Greece, with appropriate indemnification and provisions for giving them the opportunity for a new start in life.”

A thoroughly illegitimate arrangement

The Turkish-Greek population exchange has been regularly lauded as a success and even as a peaceful model that can be emulated in other parts of the world. On its 90th anniversary, however, one has to have the courage to confront the historical reality. Nansen, the Venizelos government in Greece that called for his help, and the Ankara government in Turkey which agreed to the exchange together undersigned a thoroughly illegitimate arrangement that deprived 1/10 of the Turkish and Greek population of their most basic right of citizenship as well as their residence and possessions in their ancestral homelands.

With the population exchange, the Greek and Turkish governments at the time eliminated the strongest political opposition to their parties in their respective societies, although neither the media nor the academic community recognizes this rather obvious fact. Greek Muslims consistently voted against the Venizelist parties in Greece and instead supported conservative, royalist parties closer to King Constantine. Likewise, most Turkish Christians were opposed to the nationalist government in Ankara and sympathized with the conservative, anti-nationalist parties. With the population exchange, Athens and Ankara got rid of their political opponents, who also happened to be their biggest religious minorities.

Imagine if a Republican government in the United States decided to exchange its African-American minority in the United States with the Caucasian minority in South Africa in order to "peacefully" solve, once and for all, the racial problems that the two countries have been facing. Not only would liberals, democrats and humanitarians decry such a plan as utterly inhumane and despicable, but Democrats would immediately recognize the political motivation of the Republicans in deporting a minority that votes 90 percent Democrat, moreover, importing in their stead, a right leaning white population that is likely to vote overwhelmingly Republican! The Turkish-Greek population exchange had very similar political repercussions, but until today, it has been hailed as a model of peaceful conflict resolution, earning Nansen a Nobel Peace Prize, whereas it certainly did not serve the cause of democracy or peace but rather pushed both Greece and Turkey down the path of authoritarianism and radical ethno-religious nationalism.

The classical retort in defense of the Turkish-Greek population exchange has been that most of these people were already displaced, but that is plain wrong. In fact, prior to the exchange, half a million Greek Muslims were not displaced at all, but rather, they became displaced as a result of the population exchange. Most Greek Muslims were peaceful and law-abiding Greek citizens, who duly paid their taxes, voted in elections, and obeyed the laws of their country, Greece. They had nothing to do with Greece's ill conceived and failed campaign to occupy Anatolia but they were made to pay for the Greek defeat against Turkey in 1922 by being permanently deported from their homes. Many, such as the Cretan Muslims, were ethnically and culturally Greek, only spoke Greek, didn't speak Turkish, and wanted to stay in Greece as Greek citizens, but they were all deported because of being Muslims.

On the other side, while it is true that up to a million Christians left Anatolia with the retreating Greek armies in 1922, at least several hundred thousand remained, especially along the Black Sea coast and Cappadocia, and many of those did not collaborate with the Greek occupation at all. In any case, Nansen's moral duty should have been to enable and expedite the peaceful return of displaced persons to their homelands, not to make their displacement permanent and irreversible. Today, when commentators note with alarm the rise of the far right in Greece in the aftermath of the economic crisis, or when observers are puzzled as to why Athens is the only EU capital without a mosque despite having 200,000 Muslim residents, or when a negligible number of Christian missionaries are demonized in the Turkish media, the background to these troubles can be found in how these two nations were defined 90 years ago on the basis of one religion only, followed by a mutual exchange of their religious minorities.


*Şener Aktürk is an assistant professor of international relations at Koç University in İstanbul, and is the author of “Regimes of Ethnicity and Nationhood in Germany, Russia, and Turkey” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), which received the 2013 Joseph Rothschild book prize given by the Association for the Study of Nationalities and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, New York.