Aug 9, 2012

Nikos Deja Vu - The Constantinople Pogroms of 1955 and the tragic expulsion of the Greeks

Constantinople Pogroms of 1955
The tragic expulsion of the Greeks

The 1955 Constantinople Pogroms by Turkish mobs: They attacked mostly Greeks, but also the Armenians, and Jews. An estimated 15 were killed. More than 3500 homes and 5000 shops were destroyed . It was the end of the Greek community's significant presence since the ancient times.

The 6 September 1955 was a very black day indeed. A day when thousands of organized Turkish mobs targeted mainly the Greek community but also other minorities in Constantinople with the clear intent to do as much harm as possible. They burned, looted and destroyed thousands of previously marked and identified businesses belonging to Greeks and also to Armenians. They desecrated cemeteries, attacked 72 churches, hundreds of homes, killing at least 15 innocent people. Even more tragically, these pogroms put an end to any significant Greek presence in the city since thousands of years. The numbers of Greeks dropped rapidly after these attacks and today there are fewer than 1500 mostly elderly Greeks left. 

It was the end of what was left of an all encompassing and historical Constantinople-Constantinople. These 1955 attacks were dubbed the "Greek Kristallnacht", echoing the tragic night the Jews and their businesses were attacked by Nazi thugs in 1938 in a prelude of much more serious assault hat followed.(Kristallnacht or Crystal Night refers to the piles of broken glass strewn on the sidewalks and streets after the Nazi attacks on November 9, 1938).
Who could have designed such an outrageous attack on unarmed and unprotected minorities in the metropolis and how come the authorities did not intervene and let the rioters execute their plans with such vast magnitude and total impunity?

September 1955: The rioters did everything to destroy the maximum possible within the shortest period of time. They knew that the police were not about to intervene, but had to act fast nonetheless. Their message to the Greek community was "We are throwing you out Now". These savage perpetrators were the most "active" in the Beyoglu/ Pera area. They damaged much more than just property: They killed what was left of Constantinople's cosmopolitan spirit and history.
The Constantinople Pogrom are also known as the Constantinople Riots, or the Σεπτεμβριανά in Greek and the 6-7 Eylul Olayları in Turkish (both literally Events of September). It was a pogrom directed primarily at Constantinople’s 100,000-strong Greek minority. Jews and Armenians living in the city and their businesses were also targeted in the pogrom, which was orchestrated by the Demokrat Parti-government of Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes along with the political, bureaucratic and military establishment, that is mysteriously called Dervin Devlet or the Deep State. But how did it all start and why?

Prior to the actual pogroms, the tensions between Greece and Turkey had risen to new heights over the Cyprus impasse. Tensions were boiling over on both sides as the Greek Cypriots National Organization of Cypriot Fighters (known as EOKA) were engaging in an open armed struggle against the British colonial powers in order to achieve the unification of their Island with Greece. Cyprus was the issue but the relations between Turks and Greeks needs no introduction. These Greece-Cyprus unification campaigns were of course totally unacceptable to Ankara. Turkish anti Greek nationalist sentiments were rising as high as the economic inflation in Turkey... The Turks were furious and various groups were staging all kinds of protests against the Greeks and their apparent support of the Cyprus unification plans and actions. The tensions were very high indeed, but the actual pogroms needed a sparking plug to light the fire fueled by this explosive mixture of misinformation, cheap propaganda, political manipulation, religious intolerance and plain ignorance.

The needed spark plug was indeed missing, but the Turkish authorities or Services did their job and devised a workable plot: A bomb was sent secretly from Turkey to the Greek city of Salonika and set to target Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's birthplace in that city. That building was serving as the Turkish Consulate at that time. The news of such an intended "Greek" or "Rumeli" attack on Ataturk's sacrosanct birthplace (and Turkish consulate) was surely a very convenient way for the authorities to start the planned pogrom in Constantinople against the local Greek population. The "Greeks are attacking Ataturk and Turkey" was a pretty good slogan or rallying cry to start the attacks in Constantinople.

The actual riots started at 5.50pm on Sept. 6 1955, when thousands of these rioters arrived mainly to the Beyoglu district. They were mostly bused or taxied from the western Anatolia. There are reports that at least 500 of them were from the Eksisehir area, along with their party officials and "technical support" and "supervision" staff. They were all promised money for their efforts as well as booty and the satisfaction of "teaching the enemy a historical lesson".

The mobs were also well equipped and informed with specific lists of addresses to attack. Some businesses or homes were even pre-marked to facilitate the targeted attacks. The hundreds of rioters were divided into 40-50 men contingents and dispatched to various areas along with their band leaders. On the ''logistics'' front, buses belonging to municipalities were parked in strategic locations in order to hand out hammers, crowbars, gasoline and others tools of destruction to these rioters.

1955 pogroms: A destroyed and desecrated Greek cemetery after some friendly visit from the mob acting to inflict the most damage to the community in the shortest possible time...
The rioters soon started to smash everything they could. They destroyed the metal doors, ransacked, pillaged and set on fire everything on their lists. The looting was incredible: businesses were totally emptied of their merchandise, stolen goods taken away in trucks and the locations destroyed. Churches, stores, apartments, cemeteries: nothing was spared. The attackers came wave after wave, did their damage, and left. The second wave, the third wave, while the police or the army were nowhere to be seen. After all, this was a governmental plan, even though executed by "civilians" as a popular outburst against the Rumeli (Greek orthodox) "enemy" within the Turkish Republic. "Death to Gyavurs" and "Kill the Greeks" were the most common slogans chanted by these provincial henchmen.

The pogromist were not instructed to kill, but they still managed to kill more than 15 through beatings and arson. In total 73 churches, 20 factories. 1000 homes and more than 20 schools were attacked over and above 5000 properties looted, burned or destroyed. The majority of attacks were in Constantinople but there were also attacks elsewhere, like Izmir. Exact statistics are impossible, because statistics need data collection and no data was collected of course...The riots officially ceased after midnight, or more precisely at 2.00 am. of September 7, 1955 when the Turkish Army finally moved in and kindly urged the rioters to leave. Martial law was also declared, but all this was already too little to late. That military intervention was like the final act of the burlesque tragedy-comedy. The curtain came down, and another very clack chapter was written in the history books. 

Five years later, the Prime Minister of the day Adnan Menderes and his hard-line Foreign Affairs minister Fatin Zorlu were arrested along with other Demokrat Parti. They were arrested and put collectively to trial after the Army took powers and deposed the Government on 27 May 1960. Menderes was jailed in the island of Yessiada near Constantinople where he faced various charges and a trial, including accusations about the organization and execution of the Constantinople pogroms. The military trials were not "open", but it is reported that Minister Zorlu's lawyer claimed or admitted that the pogroms were all orchestrated and that effectively countless thousands were brought to Constantinople from areas in a radius of 60 km around the city.

Menderes was found guilty and executed at the gallows on 17 September 1961 on the island of Imrali. He was pardoned posthumously in 1990, his remains moved to a private mausoleum and even had an International Airport (Izmir) renamed after him! (Note: it is interesting that presently P.K.K. leader Abdullah Ocalan is the lone prisoner on this infamous island of Imrali, in the sea of Marmara where Menderes was executed).

The 1955 rioters in very celebratory mood during their rampage while, below the Greek Patriarch Athenagoras is inspecting and lamenting in a desecrated Orthodox church in Constantinople. He was a lonely figure indeed and did not get much help or protection. The condemnations were not enough to rebuild all the destruction and halt the forced exodus of his flock.

Being married to a woman from Constantinople, I have heard and seen enough to fully grasp the very deep shock that the 1955 riots caused and still do. My late father- in- law Vahan used to say that the 1955 pogroms were as devastating as any other event, shaking not only the Greeks, but also the collective psyche and insecurity feeling of Jews and Armenians, prompting massive immigration in the months and years that followed these pogroms.

Although the Greeks had lost Constantinople in 1453, the conquering Ottomans  had not expelled the Greek community. Various restrictions were put in place but life went on for a considerable community that prospered throughout the centuries and greatly helped the development of the City. The establishment of the Greek state in 1829, the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922 were low points of course in Greek-Turkish relationships. In the 1930's the situation got even worse as very restrictive and racist laws were passed against the minorities, such as trade restriction, church and school jurisdiction limitations etc. The straw that broke the camel's back, however, was the Cyprus problem and the Constantinople riots that followed.

The Greek community fell from  more than 100,000 to under 1500 within a few years. When I dared to enter the Ortakoy Greek Orthodox church on a Sunday morning church "rush hour", this important church was completely empty. Not a soul except a young apprentice deacon saying prayers in Greek. Upon noticing me, he was so surprised that he slowly walked behind the altar to notify his senior that someone had in fact entered their church and was attending the mess. Subsequently they were both staring at me with suspicion while performing their duties, until I did the sign of cross and obviously appeased their worst fears.

My father in law Vahan who left Constantinople as a direct result of the Pogroms used to joke: "Today, it is much easier to find a Giraffe in Paris than a Greek in Constantinople". A sad fact that Constantinople owes to the orchestrated pogroms of 1955.

The Greek Consulate in Constantinople attacked in 2008 during protests against some Greek Government's internal policy. Workers clean red paint sprayed on the Consulate, which is located on Istiklal Caddesi the exact scene of the 1955 riots.


The Armenian Patriarchate in Constantinople (Kum Kapi) is now under 24/7 police protection. The Patriarchate and the Constantinople Patriarch Moutafian himself were lately said to be on an underground group hit list. After conquering Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans allowed the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to remain in the city. In 1461 Sultan Mehmed II also invited the Armenians to establish their own Patriarchate as part of the Millet system. The Byzantines and Armenians always considered each other as heretical (since the split that occured at the council of Chalcedon in 451 a.d.) (photo: Krikor Tersakian)

The Istiklal Pera pedestrian street today, the neighborhood where most of the 1955 riots occurred: How many of these vibrant and happy looking youth actually know much about the tragic events that happened right there? Most of the younger generation did not know much about these tragic attacks until a movie called "Guz Sancisi" (by young Turkish woman director Tomris Giritlioglu) was screened in local theaters to great public surprise and success. (Photo: Krikor Tersakian, 2009)

Déjà-Vu in 2009: Constantinople’s Christian cemeteries are still being desecrated, despite the ugly 1955 legacy. This particular one is in historic cemetery near the ancient Valukli Monastery located outside the ancient walls of Theodosius. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (pictured) visiting the desecrated cemetery, surely wondering what more can still go wrong. 90 tombstones bearing a cross were destroyed. Some attacks may be driven by hatred while others have economic reasons, instigated by real state developers who badly want the cemeteries or church properties for their projects (Photo: Nikos Manginas) - © Krikor Tersakian, 2009

Nikos Deja Vu

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