|(October 22, 2012, Washington, D.C., Oak Hill Cemetery)--There are occasions -- usually sad ones -- when looking backward helps us to see forward; when, by refreshing a memory, we fulfill the obligation never to forget. This is one of those occasions.
Today, AHI commemorates an event that shook the world ninety years ago -- the destruction of Smyrna, an event that lives in Greek memory as the “Katastrophi” -- the Catastrophe.
Beautiful Smyrna, the commercial heart of the Ottoman Empire, was a sparkling two-mile long crescent at the end of a huge natural harbor on the Asia Minor coast of what is now Turkey. It could accommodate the largest ships. It was where the wealth of the East -- figs, raisins, tobacco, rugs, licorice -- was transhipped to the West.
From ancient times, and through the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman ages, the city remained essentially Greek. The later centuries saw the advent of Armenian, Turkish, Jewish, European, and American influences, but through it all the predominant spirit remained Greek.
Image courtesy of James Marketos, Esq.
By 1919, the Allied winners of World War I -- England, France, Italy, and the U.S. -- were still arguing over how to divide up the defunct Ottoman Empire, which had sided with Germany. In May that year, the Greek army was permitted to land at Smyrna and establish an administrative zone. From there, the Greek army pushed eastward into Anatolia, the Turkish heartland. There, the Greek army reached a standoff with a nascent Turkish nationalist army led by a disaffected Ottoman army officer, the charismatic hero of Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal.
Then, in 1922, came the Catastrophe. War-weary, over-stretched, and under-supplied, the Greek army buckled when Kemal pounced in late August. In a matter of days he drove the Greek army all the way back to the Aegean Sea. Swept along with the Greek army were tens of thousands of panicked Greek farmers and villagers, fleeing for their lives with whatever they could carry on a moment’s notice. They all headed toward Smyrna and the hope of evacuation. But when they reached Smyrna, they discovered there were only enough ships to evacuate the army.
So on that sparkling crescent beside the sea, they camped for days in squalor and fear and searing late-summer heat, expecting extermination as soon as the Turkish army reached Smyrna. Babies were born on the pavement. Despairing refugees jumped to their deaths in the deep harbor.
And all the while, Allied warships, pledged to neutrality, watched from their anchorages as an immense humanitarian tragedy rapidly unfolded a few hundred yards away.
When Kemal’s army arrived in Smyrna on September 9, the looting, rapes, and murders began. They started in the Armenian quarter and then spread through the Greek portion of the city. This drove even more people to the narrow sea-front. Then, on September 13, a fire started in the Armenian part of the city. A strong breeze blew the fire away from the Turkish quarter and quickly spread it to the rest of the city, driving still more horrified thousands of Greeks and Armenians to the harbor where they were now trapped between the raging flames at their backs and the harbor in front. And still the Allied warships watched as the refugees on the sea-front were subjected to unspeakable atrocities by Turkish soldiers and residents.
After four days, the fire burned itself out. Beautiful Smyrna lay in ruins. Thousands of Greeks and Armenians had perished, either in the fire, or through slaughter in one form or another, or through simple exposure. Hundreds of thousands of others were eventually evacuated. But either way, the Twentieth Century’s first holocaust effectively ended the Christian presence in Asia Minor.
What does George Horton have to do with all this?
He was there, serving as U.S. Consul-General. Before Smyrna, he had held posts in Athens and Thessaloniki. He loved everything Greek. He married a Greek woman, assisted in the revival of the Olympic Games, translated ancient Greek poetry, and gave lectures and wrote books about modern Greece.
He remained in Smyrna after the fire started and spent the last hours before his evacuation signing passes for those entitled to American protection and transportation to Piraeus.
Four years later, he wrote a book testifying to the horrors he had witnessed. The book’s title, The Blight of Asia, unabashedly refers to the abominable behavior of the Turks.
Horton’s book is one of the few contemporary accounts of the destruction of Smyrna and the events that led to it. His outrage can be sensed on practically every page. He indicted the Turkish army for deliberately starting the fire. For Horton, the fire and the other horrific events in Smyrna were merely “the closing act in a consistent program of exterminating Christianity throughout the length and breadth of the old Byzantine Empire.”
He equally condemned the Allied Powers for allowing the Smyrna catastrophe to unfold without any effective resistance. They did nothing as thousands of innocent civilians perished in plain view, shamefully elevating their selfish political and economic interests over the plight of the beleaguered Christian populations of Asia Minor.
Horton was one of the very few eye-witnesses who was willing to “go public” about what had happened in Smyrna. Most others were cowed by fear of retribution, or simply remained silent in order not to jeopardize valuable economic concessions, property interests, or political alliances with the new Turkey that emerged from the ashes of late 1922.
He also drew the world’s attention to the gruesome consequences of Allied inaction. Horton firmly believed that if the Allied commanders who witnessed the tragedy unfolding in front of them had stepped in and emphatically told Kemal there should be no massacring, none would have occurred.
For such reasons, Horton has ever since been revered in the hearts of the Greek nation.
Thanks to George Horton, we know the truth about what happened in those dreadful days in Smyrna ninety years ago. But Horton’s testimony is useful not only for learning what happened in the past, and it is relevant beyond Greeks and Armenians. His experience is obviously dated, but it speaks directly to the problems that plague us today. Repression, terror, and savagery still exist in virtually every corner of the globe. So do injustice and hypocrisy. As long as these things exist, George Horton’s example will remind us of why we must not shrink from speaking out against them wherever they are found.
For such reasons, it is fitting for us to commemorate the destruction of Smyrna here at George Horton’s grave.
May his memory be eternal.