Recollecting the Istanbul pogrom in the light of East Med crisis

The Istanbul pogrom started on the evening of Sept. 6, 1955, when mobs took to the streets of Istanbul and raided the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish districts, destroying and looting the non-Muslim places of worship, homes, businesses, cemeteries and schools. 

The events were triggered by false reports that the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, in the Greek city of Thessaloniki had been bombed. Some 4,200 houses, 1,000 businesses, 73 churches, one synagogue, one monastery, 26 schools and 5,300 other places, such as hotels and bars, were attacked during the evening of Sept. 6 and early hours of Sept. 7. 

71 churches, 41 schools, eight newspapers, more than 4,000 stores and 2,000 residences were looted or destroyed overnight. The human toll and suffering were even more catastrophic, with more than 30 dead, 300 injured and 400 raped.

Turkish authorities had engaged in regular incitement of public opinion against the Greek minority in connection with the ongoing dispute over Cyprus. 

Greek Cypriots were fighting an armed revolt against British colonial rule aimed at enosis, union with Greece. The Turkish Cypriot community opposed the enosis movement, as under British rule the Turkish Cypriot minority status and identity were protected.

Turkish Cypriots begin to pursue taksim, partition in Turkish, and union with Turkey. With Ankara's support, they formed an underground paramilitary organisation, the Turkish Resistance Movement, whose declared aim was to prevent union with Greece, prompting periodic outbreaks of inter-communal violence.

A student movement calling itself Cyprus Is Turkish was particularly virulent in creating anti-Greek propaganda. On 28 August 1955 the largest daily newspaper, Hürriyet, threatened that ‘‘if the Greeks dare touch our brethren, then there are plenty of Greeks in Istanbul to retaliate upon."

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the north in response to a Greek Cypriot coup aiming to unite the island with Greece. Since then, the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus has controlled the southern two-thirds of the island, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, only recognised by Turkey, the northern third.

At ten minutes past midnight on 6 September 1955, an explosion occurred in the courtyard of the Turkish Consulate in Thessaloniki, a building adjacent to the house where Atatürk was born. The press immediately blamed the Greeks and published photos of the house that purported to show extensive damage. Later at the Yassiada trial against Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, it became known that the explosion had been carried out by Turkish agents under orders from the Turkish government.

Currently, tensions between Greece and Turkey have further soared over competingclaims on hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean, with both sides holding conflicting views of how far their continental shelves extend in waters off the divided island of Cyprus.

Erdoğan on Saturday said Athens will “come to understand that Turkey has political, economic, military might needed to cast off immoral maps and documents imposed by others."

He added that Greece was “either going to understand the language of politics and diplomacy, or have painful experiences in the field.”

Sixty-five years after the Istanbul pogrom that devastated their community, Turkey’s Greeks continue to live a precarious life amid escalated tensions between Ankara and Athens. 

Despite all this, grassroots interest in equal citizenship and pluralism in Turkey is indeed praiseworthy. It is, however, still the responsibility of government officials to move things forward so that events like the 1955 pogrom are never repeated again.