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Sunday, September 01, 2002


Old Memories, New Histories: Greeks and Turks, 1890-1924

A workshop at Haverford College, April 19-20, 2002

At this particular historical moment, it is all the more apparent that both identity and memory are political and social constructs, and should be treated as such. We can no longer afford to assign either the status of a natural object, treating it as “fact” with an existence outside language. Identities and memories are not things we think about, but things we think with. As such they have no existence beyond our politics, our social relations, and our histories. We must take responsibility for their uses and abuses, recognizing that every assertion of identity involves a choice that affects not just ourselves but others.
– John R. Gillis, “Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship,”
Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, p. 5.

Rational discourse becomes possible only after the discovery of the other.
– Seth Benardete, “The Poet-Merchant and the Stranger from the Sea,” The Greeks and the Sea, p. 60.

On April 19, 2002, the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship at Haverford College, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center, hosted a day-long workshop on Greek and Turkish historiography organized by Alexander Kitroeff, who teaches history at Haverford (and is a regular contributor to The workshop sought to present an overview of the historiographies of these two peoples to Haverford students taking a course on the end of the Ottoman empire taught by Alexander Kitroeff. The five participants, Greek and Turkish scholars whose work focuses on historical writing about Turkey and Greece, discussed historiographical developments in each country, and the different ways in which the history of one country was encompassed by the general historiographical framework of the other one. Peter Pappas and I were invited to attend the workshop, and to comment on the proceedings and provide a journalistic perspective on the issue of historiography, together with Turkish journalist Murat Belge.

Before commenting on the presentations and subsequent discussion, I want to mention the academic affiliations of the workshop’s participants. The two Greek historians, Antonis Liakos and Sia Anagnostopoulou, teach in Greek universities, while two of the Turkish scholars, Caglar Keyder and Resat Kasaba, teach in American institutions. In addition to being a journalist, Murat Belge also teaches comparative literature in Turkey. Although this may seem to be of no particular interest, it does signify a trend in the study of modern Greek and Turkish history. With very few exceptions, the study of modern Greek history is not part of the curriculum of American universities; it is in Greek and European academic institutions and research centers that the most significant and original historical research and debates in modern Greek history are taking place. Turkish history, however, is an established field of study within American history departments.

In discussing the development of national historiographies, the participants generally described a process that shifted from the construction of a linear narrative (connecting the nation-state to its presumptive historical past and origins) to recent revisionist approaches, in which identities are presumed to be fluid, and the two regions are examined in terms of a continuous process of conversion and diversion. Caglar Keyder focused on the emergence and development of Turkish nationalism as a reaction to the competing nationalisms of the Greeks and Armenians. Antonis Liakos and Resat Kasaba presented broad overviews of the development of Greek and Turkish national historiographies and the distinct stages of this process; they dealt in particular with interpretative approaches that focus on ethnic communities and interethnic relations within the Ottoman empire. Sia Anagnostopoulou discussed the Greek Orthodox population of Smyrna as part of a multiethnic and multicultural complex within the overall cultural, social, economic, and political space of the Ottoman empire.

Smyrna and the violent break-up of its civic life in 1922 were the focal points of the discussion that followed the presentations. Antonis Liakos referred to Anagnostopoulou’s picture of Smyrna as a city in which various ethnic and religious communities were constantly involved in a process of social, economic, and cultural conversion to raise the question of how a total civic collapse can occur within this particular multiethnic and multicultural structure. The question is fundamental in understanding the construction of regional identities within an Ottoman framework, but it was never answered properly during the workshop.

Kasaba referred to the dangers of attributing “a thoroughly multiethnic and multicultural” character to the Ottoman empire, and to the contrasting perceptions of the millet system, but there was no detailed elucidation of either issue. One has to read Kasaba’s “Izmir 1922: A Port City Unravels” (in Modernity and Culture: From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, pp. 204-29) in order to begin to understand the complexity of the situation. The article is paradigmatic in its presentation of the subtleties involved in writing the history of a nation.

The millet system has been analyzed differently by Greek and Turkish historians, respectively, to explain the relationship between the Ottoman empire and the Greek Orthodox population of Asia Minor. Turkish historians perceive the millet system as having provided different ethnic and religious groups with cultural and religious autonomy. Greek historians, however, have viewed the millet system as a mechanism of oppression (by depriving non-Muslims of full citizenship) and as a way partially to account for (if not fully explain) the destruction of the Greek community of Smyrna. Nonetheless, the millet system cannot explain the sudden destruction of the intercommunal character that distinguished Asia Minor for over four centuries.

In the article mentioned above, Kasaba points to four different factors in Smyrna’s destruction. The first – and most insignificant – one was personal resentment and hatred, which in some cases triggered atrocities against particular individuals and their families. The three main reasons for the city’s complete collapse were the competing nationalisms of Greece and Turkey; the large involvement of soldiers who were complete outsiders to the social, cultural, and economic structures of the area; and the Turkish nationalist administration’s suspicion of Smyrna’s Armenian and Greek communities.

Surveying the discussions and publications of the last few years, one notices the common perception in both Greek and Turkish historiography of the Ottoman empire as multiethnic and multireligious. Both approaches seem to follow the same methodological lines in their emphasis on anthropology and ethnicity. Furthermore, the renewed emphasis in historical studies on microhistory has resulted in much attention on both sides on the local. It seems to me, however, that the microhistorical mode of inquiry has resulted in researchers ignoring larger historical and political factors. Both Liakos and Kasaba mentioned a number of scholarly works whose methodological perspective is based on the assumption of the multiethnic and multireligious nature of the Ottoman empire. Still, I wonder to what extent the recent modest flurry in this approach is conditioned by the improvement in the political climate and the attempts at rapprochement that have taken place in the last few years between Greece and Turkey.

The last participant, Murat Belge, was asked to comment on how historiography can have a broader impact. Belge, who has been repeatedly harassed and punished by the Turkish authorities for his views, stayed away from this question, but, in my view, he offered the most poignant remarks of the day. Issues of competing historiographies and identities, he said, don’t seem to be everyday concerns for the average Turkish citizen. Greeks are simply seen as part of a commercial network in which Turks must participate. For Belge, Turks are ready to embrace an interaction with Greeks as part of their lives. But he concluded his remarks by wondering whether or not Greeks are as eager to embrace such an interaction – and commitment.

In retrospect, Belge’s question seems to be justified. In a discussion with the Greek scholars after the workshop, remarks were made regarding the “privileged” position of Greeks vis-à-vis the Turks. One person noted that “we” (that is, the Greeks) had managed “to jump at the last minute on the European Community train,” thus securing a privileged position for Greece – and leaving its neighbors “behind.” And although the comments seem to have had an economic context, I got the feeling that they smacked of cultural superiority as well.

It is a shame that this workshop was not open to the general public. The Greek American community has wasted considerable financial resources and time in arguing against academic appointments in Turkish history in American universities. Such appointments have been and continue to be considered as propaganda tools in the hands of the Turkish government. This workshop would have presented Greek Americans with a very different picture.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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