by Christopher J. Walker, The Weekly Standard

The Weekly Standard
September 1, 2008 Monday

Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam's City of Tolerance by Giles
Milton Basic Books, 464 pp., $27.95

The destruction of Smyrna--modern Izmir--in 1922 was one of the
great atrocities of the early 20th century. A great trading city of
western Anatolia, a place of wealth and civilized values, vibrant
with culture, was reduced to ashes, and perhaps 100,000 of its
multiethnic population, especially the Greeks and the Armenians,
were either drowned, burnt alive, or bayoneted by the army of the
new Turkey or its irregulars.

How could this be? This question is answered with a searing
truthfulness by Giles Milton in his energetic and terrifically readable
narrative of the events, Paradise Lost.

Smyrna had had a Greek population since about 1000 b.c. It was one of
the cities which claimed to be the birthplace of Homer. The Ionian
cities of the eastern Aegean seaboard, of which it became the most
important, were (apart from Athens) the most civilized cities of
ancient Greece, where poets, philosophers, and painters flourished
and created the unforgettable heritage of classical civilization,
which became civilization for all of us.

Its importance continued in Ottoman times, when the Greek genius had
transformed itself into a talent for commerce and shipping. Smyrna's
commercial significance continued into modern times, with the
establishment of foreign consulates in the city from the 17th
century--of which the English was arguably the most important. By the
early 19th century vast palaces were being built in the suburbs for the
city's merchant families, who lived in a style of unrestrained luxury.

These expatriate families, of whom the leaders were the English
Whittalls, were known as "Levantines." They were tolerated by
the Ottoman authorities: The unwritten deal was that they could
do virtually what they liked, and make as much (untaxed) money as
they wished, but that they would support the Ottoman Empire in any
political dispute it had with the powers of Europe.

Smyrna was virtually untouched in World War I. The Ottoman Turkish
governor was enlightened, and spent much time disobeying or evading
orders from the extremist ruling group in the imperial capital. The
city saw no real warfare. Even in the post-1918 period, following the
Ottoman defeat, things started to return to normal, with the return of
extravagance and display for the families of the merchant houses. At
this time Smyrna had a Greek governor, similarly enlightened and
opposed to ethnic politics.

The city's problems started at the peace conference. Here Giles Milton
is at his best, because he shows us the many-sidedness of the causes
of the catastrophe which overcame the city. He does not foist one
single answer on us. Often people try to reduce historical causation
in the eastern Mediterranean to a single cause--usually "nationalism"
or "Islam"--but history is more complex, as Thucydides demonstrated.

The catastrophe at Smyrna had many causes. Among them were the
irresolute and disputed aftermath of World War I, with its conflicting
secret imperial deals, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George's
simplistic support for the Greeks, the moody manner in which the
Italian delegation had stormed out of the Peace Conference upon
realizing that they were to be denied spoils, the weakness of the Greek
army in Anatolia (combined with the craziness of the manner in which
it had overreached itself in campaigning eastwards), the punitive
ethnic singularity of the Kemalist vision, and the pitilessness of
the irregulars attached to the Turkish army.

All these elements combined to bring about an inferno of destruction
on those terrible days in September 1922.

One can go further and say that there was little overt nationalism in
the area, unless it was stoked. Most of the population realized that,
as inhabitants of a trading city, they depended for their livelihood
on serving people of all nationalities. Nor was there much place for
Islam. Since the 1908 Young Turk revolution, the Ottoman Empire had
been growing secular and positivistic, downgrading religion. Smyrna,
a maritime trading city like Beirut, Alexandria, Trieste, or Marseille,
was too busy making money to be devout. The conquering army of 1922,
like its leader Mustafa Kemal, creator of the new Turkey, owed nothing
to religion.

The issue has been problematic for Turkey's modern historians, and
for nations and people who wanted to be Turkey's friends. For a long
time the myth persisted that the Greeks and Armenians burnt their
districts themselves. The eyewitness accounts that Milton gives us
here show that this view is unsustainable: The barrels of kerosene
were unloaded, guarded, and directed by Turkish troops.

Politically, the landing of the Greek army in Smyrna in May 1919
has also been characterized as the Allies' attempt to "carve up"
Turkey. This, too, was based on uncertain political logic. It was
certainly a grave political mistake. But "Turkey"--the Kemalist
republic--at that time did not exist. There was only a defeated Ottoman
Empire. Smyrna and its surrounding region had, according to Woodrow
Wilson's principles, a reasonable, though not watertight, claim to
be a liberated Greek area rather than a still-imperial Turkish one.

One question to which Milton's devastating narrative seems to demand
an answer is: How did the Turkish troops coordinate their activities
with the irregulars, who performed the work of death, looting, raping,
killing, and burning? What was the chain of command? It appears that
a number of the Levantine observers of Kemal's capture of Smyrna were
entirely taken in by the smart uniforms and impeccable drill of his
army as it entered the city. The ladies loved their military elegance.

The account in Paradise Lost makes us ask: What was the connection
between those fine social and military manners, and the murderous,
horrific violence perpetrated on the streets? Kemal's revolution,
though widely acclaimed, had a massive shadow side.

Who are the heroes and villains of the story? The heroes must be the
Americans Asa Jennings and Esther Lovejoy, who at incredible risk
to themselves sought to rescue hundreds of thousands of stranded
refugees on the city's quayside. There was a good cast of villains,
beyond those who rolled barrels of kerosene along the city's streets:
chiefly the commanders of the Allied warships in the harbor, who with
precise bureaucratic cowardice and cruelty refrained from any action
of humanity which might alleviate the condition of the starving,
frying mass of humanity, threatened with murder by the local militia,
on the grounds that any humane action might he construed as endangering
Allied "neutrality."

The British poured boiling water on desperate refugees who swam up to
their vessels. And Admiral Bristol, the representative of official
America, a man whose liking for the Turks led him to despise and
detest members of the other communities, insisted that American
reporters cable home reports favorable to the Turks. (Fortunately,
they stopped obeying him and reported what they saw.)

There is not much in the way of a moral to be drawn from the frightful
narrative of Smyrna's inferno of destruction--except for the need
for ordinary humanity in extraordinary circumstances, and for the
best intelligence at all times. It would also seem advisable to
distrust those, like Lloyd George, whose politics are driven by a
schoolboy view of good and evil. Giles Milton's account, by reason of
its forthrightness, its brilliant use of hitherto- unseen archival
Levantine sources, its feeling for the day-to-day life of the city,
and its devastating quest for the hidden truth, seems also to lay to
rest some of the ghosts of that shocking and shameful event.

Christopher J. Walker is the author, most recently, of Islam and
the West.