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Greek Policy in Asia Minor after the Caucasus Front

In most Western histories of the First World War, the Caucasus Front is mentioned in one or two
paragraphs, if at all, while the Russo-Turkish confict never merits extended consideration. Its military
import was restricted, and it did not immediately influence the general course of the war. However the
Caucasus Front's opening was crucial in the unfolding of the diplomatic moves that eventually led to
the secret agreements on the fate of Constantinople and the Straits, thence to the agreements of Saint
Jean de Maurienne and Sykes-Picot, and ultimately to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. For
the Western powers the acceptance of the Russian demands on the Straits was a full reversal of the
position that they had earlier imposed through the Crimean War. But for the tsarist empire it was a
mixed blessing. As A.J.P. Taylor succinctly noted, the 1st November of 1914, when the Entente
powers declared war on Turkey after the bombing of Odessa [28 October]

was in its way as decisive a date in European history as 6 September, the day when the Germans had
been stopped on the Marne. The first settled the fate of the German [534] military monarchy; the
second that of the old Russian empire. There could be no quick victory for Germany after the Marne;
therefore she would be ground down by the superior forces gradually brought against her. Russia
gradually ceased to be a Great Power after the closing of the Straits. She could not nourish her armies
without supplies from the west; and the route through Archangel and, later, Murmansk was no
substitute for the Straits. On 18 December the Russian commander in-chief, Grand Duke Nicholas, had
to inform his allies that Russia's munitions were exhausted and that henceforth she must stand on the
defensive; the most she could hope was to keep on her feet while Great Britain and France somehow
won the war. /535

Ineffectual as the tsarist and ottoman armies proved against each other, they opened the way to a new
round of mass conflict among the multiethnic inhabitants of the Caucasus and the northern shores of
Anatolia. And here Greece came to the fore. In Asia Minor lived, scattered among the other
populations and especially near the shores, more than two million Christians adhering to the
Oecumenical Patriarchate, the Romioi, speaking a range of dialects, some of Greek and others of
Turkish origin; among their males Greek national consciousness had advanced with strides in the last
decades of the nineteenth century. In the Black Sea area they included compact masses of Pontians, no
less martial types than their neighbours. The opening of the Caucasus Front stirred them to action, like
their neighbours of course.

The Greek kingdom had been competing with the tsarist empire for the allegiance of the Romioi, and
the prospect of sovereign change naturally moblized them. In the territories of the Ottoman Empire
Greece and Russia posed on the one hand as protectors of the Romioi, the Armenians and the other
Christians, and on the other hand as competitors. They were of course two powers of a quite different

order, but Greece counted on the support of the British and the French, who needed it as a
counterweight to Russian and Italian expansion. This led in the following years to an adventurist
policy, whose basic parameters Greece could not control, and eventually to the Catastrophe of 1922,
which included the defeat of the Greek army in the hands of the turkish nationalists, the destruction of
the thousands year old Greek communities of Asia Minor, and the exchange of populations that
uprooted more than two million persons from their homes. In a while we'll say more about these issues.

Conservative historians tend to ascribe national antagonisms, that became more and more pronounced
since the nineteenth century, to putative primordial hatreds and imaginary national identities going
back almost to the times of Noah. There are more elegant explanations though. As the tsarist and the
ottoman empires were being incorporated into the capitalist world-system, a process that culminated in
the course of the nineteenth century, nationality, religion, and the always invoked but so elusive
"civilisation" became politically crucial factors. Ideologies spread among the masses of the empires,
that pitted ethnic group against ethnic group. The 'national', 'religious', or 'civilizational' virtues and
hatreds that they preached gave them functional resemblances to the social darwinism that spread in
the same time in Europe and America. This was a novel and most dangerous development. As the great
Immanuel Wallerstein remarks,

When inequality was the norm, there was no need to make any further distinction than that between
those of different rankgenerically, between noble and commoner. But when equality became the
social norm, it was suddenly crucial to know who was in fact included in the all who have equal
rightsthat is, who are the active citizens. The more equality was proclaimed as a moral principle,
the more obstaclesjuridical, political, economic, and culturalwere instituted to prevent its
realization. The concept of citizen forced the crystallization and rigidificationboth intellectual and
legalof a long list of binary distinctions that then came to form the cultural underpinnings of the
capitalist world-economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: bourgeois and proletarian, man
and woman, adult and minor, breadwinner and housewife, majority and minority, White and Black,
European and non-European, educated and ignorant, skilled and unskilled, specialist and amateur,
scientist and layman, high culture and low culture, heterosexual and homosexual, normal and
abnormal, able-bodied and disabled, and of course the ur-category that all of these others imply
civilized and barbarian. In the nineteenth century, the so-called middle classes came to dominate the
Western world, and Europe came to dominate the world. When one has achieved the top position, the
problem is no longer how to get there but how to stay there. The middle classes nationally, and the
Europeans globally, sought to maintain their advantage by appropriating the mantle of nature and
virtue to justify privilege. They called it civilization, and this concept was a key ingredient of their
effort. In the Western world, it was translated into education, and education became a way of
controlling the masses. And on the global scene, starting with Napoleon (but adopted subsequently by

all the other European powers), the concept of civilization as an ideology . . . became unashamedly a
form of cultural imperialism

The diplomatic aspects of Greek policy in these years have been presented most cogently by George
Leontaritis, and they will not occupy us here. I want instead to focus on the dialectic between popular
mobilization and power nexus choices that, in the decade after the opening of the Caucasus Front, led
to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the so called Dichasmos that was a low level civil war in
Greece, and also to regime change, the destruction of untold lives and the dislocation of millions of
persons in the area, and to a profound social transformation in Greece itself connected to the arrival or
around one million and a half refugees.

"In the days of Metternich, and even afterwards", A.J.P. Taylor noted about the era of the First World
War, but he could well be talking about our own days, "statesmen had feared that war would produce
'revolution' and revolutionaries had sometimes advocated it for that very reason. Now they were
inclined to think that war would stave off their social and political problems". So the Ottoman Empire,
instead of searcning for ways to solve peacefully its huge problems, went for broke and chose to side
with the Central Powers, attack Russia, and cleanse its unruly minorities, first and foremost the
Armenians. The commotions in its northern part that followed the opening of the Caucasus Front,
combined to the ferocity and imbecility of some of its leaders, like Enver Pasha, brought an escalation
of state violence that led to the extreme crime of the Armenian Genocide and also to the destruction of
many other peoples of the empire, and finally to the end of the empire itself.

The war in Caucasus started and finished unconnected to the big battles raging in the same years west
and south of it. This was no accident. Twenty years of Franco-Russian military talks had brought no
common war plan or aims, nor did the Russian military leaders discuss their strategy or coordinate
their operations with the French and the British. They did not really have forces to spare against the
Ottomans, and control of the Bosphorus Straits, which was the only real prize for them in the region,
was elusive whether through military or diplomatic means. But the opening of the Caucasus Front
meant that, whatever the local outcome, the peoples in the area could hope, or fear, in a sudden change
of their political and economic position, for the better or the worse.

The Romioi who sided with Russia, perhaps the majority in the regions around the Black Sea, do not
concern us here. The rest however, and especially those who saw a chance for Greek expansion in Asia
Minor, pressed the Greek government to intervene in the side of the Allies, and so give them hope that
they might be among the winners in the new status quo. This would not be easy, even though it had
become possible exactly by the opening of the Caucasus Front.

First of all, Greece was too occupied with imposing its rule on the so-called New Lands, that is the
extensive lands it had just taken from the Ottomans and Bulgaria in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, in
Epirus and Macedonia, whose economy was undeveloped and whose population was polyethnic.
Furthermore, the reigning King Constantine was not only an absolutist and militarist of the Kaiser
Wilhelm school, but he was also a personal friend of the Kaiser and he had married the Kaiser's sister,
Queen Sophia. He had placed himself at the centre of the ruling power nexus, and meant to impose his
will on foreign policy, whatever the Prime Minister wanted. The Prime Minister was the charismatic
Eleutherios Venizelos, a liberal nationalist statesman from Crete, whose ambition was to 'create the
Greece of the Two Continents and Five Seas'. Drawing his strength mainly from the rich Greeks of the
diaspora, and also from the masses of irredeemed Greeks, he was determined not to let the chance pass

Between 1915 and 1922 Greece had what has been termed the first phase of the National Schism, or
Ethnikos Dichasmos. One side, led by King Constantine and boasting most of the traditional oligarchy
and the powerful politicians, opted for the victory of the Central Powers but could not intervene at their
side, because Greece was too vulnerable to the Entente navy that controlled the Mediterranean. The
other side, gravitating to the Liberal Party under Venizelos, attracted mostly the so-called New Men,
that is professionals and other newly rich people who usually did not belong to big political families.
The Liberals wanted to risk the war on the Entente side. Gradually the conflict was polarized, and even
the opposite camps attracted different social interests.

The Liberals united the prominent Greeks of the New Lands and of the Otoman Empire who hoped to
be incorporated in Greece, emboldened not only by the Caucasus Front, but also, later, by the Callipolli
expedition and the Allied advance in Palestine and Arabia. Next to them they included merchants,
industrialists, soldiers, and representatives of the organised labour and also of the poor peasants who
were at that time being squeezed out of the big landed properties, or ciftliks, of Thessaly and the New
Lands. The Royalist party was formed mainly by established bankers and traditional landowers and
politicians, plus the church hierarchy and the bulk of state functionaries, but its mass base was mainly
to be found among the small proprietors of Southern Greece and the poor of all places, who did not see
any advantage in imperialist policy.1 They were for the same reason tacitly supported by the socialists,
who were just then beginning to organize at the national level.

It has been proposed that the National Schism represented also a conflict between a supposedly state-
oriented bourgeoisie, that strengthened the King, and the so-called free enterprise bourgeoisie who supported
Venizelos (George Th. Mavrogordatos, Stillborn Republic. Social Coalitions and Party Strategies in Greece,
1922-1936, University of California Press 1983). However no sufficient empirical data have been adduced to
bolster this hypothesis, and at any rate its explanatory power remains weak. My opinion is that in the National
Schism we had a conflict between two opposing political projects rather than tow clearly delineated social

The National Schism was the particular form in which the social and political convulsions of the First
World War crystallized in Greece, but it was not a particular Greek phenomenon. The empires of the
Tsar, the Sultan, the Kaiser and the Holy German Emperor experienced real revolutions in the same
time, while a similar schism, and at comparable levels of intensity, between the Agrarians and the
bourgeois parties appeared in Bulgaria. On the other hand, internal conflict was more easily contained
in Romania and Serbia.

While Russia was undergoing its own revolutions, in 1917, polarization in Greece came to a head. In
the previous years the Royalist side had repeatedly exploited the king's institutional power in ways
contrary to the constitution, thwarting Venizelos's foreign policy initiatives and even bringing down his
government. Repeated elections showed that mass support remained more or less evenly divided, but
with clear regional differentiations -the Royalists were strongest in the rump Old Greece, that included
the capital, Peloponnese, and the Ionian Islands, while the Liberals' power was mainly in the New
Lands, bordering Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, plus the region of Thessaly, where poor peasants
organized to expropriate the landowners. Ethnic and national minorities in the North, Muslims and
Bulgarians included, opted clearly for the Royalist side. The refugees from the Ottoman Empire, who
were a demographically significant factor, were Venizelist almost to a man. They were countered by
the fascist Reservists (Epistratoi), who had been created through initiatives of the Royalist army High

While political tensions worsened and conciliation became less and less elusive, each side tried to
organize its own mass following. Regional differentiation of support meant that a breakdown of the
state was not out of the question, and indeed a Liberal coup in Thessaloniki led to the creation of two
separate and enemy states. An Allied blocus of the Greek ports caused untold hardship to the
population of southern Greece. The rift was not at all healed when the Royalists organized a bloody
pogrom of Liberals and refugees in Athens, in November 1916, and also the official excommunication
of Venizelos by the church, complete with medieval curses repeated by the clergy in every village and
town. Venizelos himself was denounced as a Jew and a Free Mason. Liberals prevailed however, a few
months later, thanks to open French support, and reunified the state in May, 1917. Their determination
to prosecute the war led to even worse polarization, as the conservatives actively resisted the draft and
organized mutinies in the army, that were harshly repressed.

As we know, the war in the East continued after the signing of the armistice in the West. The Greek
expedition in Ukraine, undertaken in concert with the Entente in early 1919, ended ingloriously with
the victory of the Red Army, but the same Greek troops were immediately sent, in May 1919, to
occupy the vilayet of Smyrna, in Anatolia. They did so, not without a good measure of cruelty, that
went against the orders of Venizelos himself, and naturally alienated permanently the muslim
population, and ultimately contributed to the Greek defeat.

This came after three more years of no-holds-barred war, and after Venizelos lost the elections and the
restored Royalists sent in 1921 the Greek army to invade central Anatolia, and thus cover the void left
by the Caucasus corps, that had retreated behind the old russian frontier. After the expeditionary corps
was stopped, a little before the gates of Ankara, its destruction was a matter of time. Its disorderly
retreat to the Aegean shores was accompanied by atrocities against the populations, committed by both
sides. The Pontians were left to fend for themselves until they were exchanged with the Muslims of
Macedonia and Epirus, according to the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne between Greece and
Turkey, signed in July 1923.

This treaty, whose provisions were denounced at the time as horrible, actually gave the model for
many other population exchanges or expulsions that would follow in the coming decades. The penalty
for defeat in the twentieth century was much more horrible and total than anything they had
experienced in all the previous centuries. National states proved much more intolerant to dissent than
empires, and populations that did not conform to the new norm were now facing eviction or even
extinction. The twentieth century, the Century of War as Gabriel Kolko has called it, would prove the
cruellest in history. It was no coincidence that it would witness the third and last wave of capitalist
expansion, that turned us all into slaves of capital, and most of us into slaves of the capitalists too. But
let's return to the moral of the story we've just followed.

The war decade of the early twentieth century, that lasted in our area from 1911 to 1922, left almost
everyone defeated. Deranged generals like Enver Pasha massacred their own armies and everybody
else they could lay their hands upon, innocent and less innocent civilians suffered untold massacres,
violence, and hardships, economy and the social fabric were torn for decades to come. Greece as well
as the Ottoman and the Russian Empires, after engaging in wars of choice, saw not only their own
lands ravaged and their populations molested and expulsed, but their social regimes upturned. Leaving
aside the fate of Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate were dissolved, while in 1924 Greek
socialists and nationalists abolished the monarchy, that till then counted a life of almost one century.
Both Kemal's Turkey and the Greek Republic retained the institution of private property, but citizens
belonging to other nations or alien ethnic groups were often expulsed or expropriated, or both. In
Greece landowners were destroyed and their ciftliks were distributed to the indigenous or refugee
peasants, but bankers, industrialists, shipowners and other capitalists found their position strengthened
by the end of the war, and conditions propitious for the start of a new round of capital accumulation. In
Turkey the ex Ottoman rulers had to undertake now the functions of the destroyed Greek and
Armenian bourgeois classes.

The Great War, with its tens of millions dead and the untold physical and moral damage it caused,
ended the illusion of progress and punctured the self-serving myth that Europe had reached a higher

stage of civilization. Its causes being structural, it could have been fought at a slightly different time
and with a different conclusion, but it could not have been avoided. A hundered years after its
beginning, it still haunts Europe, a continent suffering from excess of capital and boasting too few poor
people, and therefore in dire need of another war, that will destroy a part of the capital and create the
poor who will work for almost nothing to make profitable the rest of it. The integration of Western
Europe having advanced, the candidates for destruction seem to be located in the East, and the war will
be pitiless, as far as we can judge from the smaller war ravaging now the Ukraine. Immanuel
Wallerstein, the ex president of the World Sociological Association, notes that the terminal crisis of the
capitalist world-system, in which we have entered since the 1970s and which may last a few decades
more, will be marked by violent ups-and-downs, as the system reaches its asymptotes and oscillates
wildly. Strong nerves are needed as we are walking in this fog, climbing a precipitous mountain in
which any fall may be fatal. We do not exactly know from which straits we'll pass, but we need, as he
put it, the ability to always see clearly what lies just ahead of us, so as not to fall in the abyss, and also
a determination not to lose our general orientation, not to be distracted from our long term goal, never
to forget the destination that will often be out of our immediate view. I believe that a society governed
by the needs of the people and not the reproduction of capital is a worthy such destination. The
alternative might be something much worse than what we have now, like the re-feudalization of the
world and the creation of a dystopia ruled by Washington, entertained by Hollywood, policed by
Blackwater and nourished by Monsanto. This is not a future, i think, worthy of free men and women.

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