(The Other) Milton’s (Other) Paradise Lost (3 cents)

The Ottoman city of Smyrna (now Turkish Izmir) was perhaps the wealthiest city in the Empire prior to World War I, and clearly the most cosmopolitan. The largest ethnic group in the city were Greek, not Turkish, and there were considerable numbers of Armenians and Jews, as well as large numbers of Europeans (mainly, but not exclusively, Brits) and Americans. While some of these western ex-pats lived in the center of the city, most lived in one of a number of wealthy suburbs. The Americans lived for the most part in the suburb of Paradise, so named because its residents thought it descriptive of their community. In 1922, along with much of Smyrna and environs, Paradise was destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

“Paradise Lost” is the story of the last days, and the destruction, of Smyrna. It’s author, British historian Giles Milton, has written a fascinating and tragic account of these events, and his book was named “Paradise Lost”.

The Ottoman Empire, like the Austria-Hungarian Empire which abutted it, contained numerous and varied ethnic groups. Until the 1830s, it included present day Greece, and ethnic Greeks were prominent throughout most of the western Empire, including Istanbul (where the home of the Greek Orthodox patriarch was located), Smyrna and places in between.

In Smyrna, the various ethnic groups tended to get along with each other without much conflict. The city was the busiest Ottoman port, and its beauty and mild climate attracted hordes of tourists. Its European ex-pats were not short timers; many had been there for generations, although some retained their ethnic citizenship.

When the First World War broke out, the Sultan decided to ally his empire with Germany and Austria, while the Greeks joined the allies. Allied nationals throughout the Empire felt themselves living on enemy territory (Armenians of course were the ultimate victims of the war), except, apparently, in Smyrna, where a progressive governor kept everything together in spite of what was going on everywhere else. Milton describes war time Smyrna as a place where you didn’t know anyone was fighting.

It wasn’t until peace was declared that the problems in Smyrna really began. Two concurrent events were underway: the Congress of Versailles, setting the terms of the various peace treaties, and the attempts by Mustafa Kemal and his Young Turks to replace the Sultan, terminate the truncated empire, and found a Turkish republic. In addition to fighting Kemal (the future Ataturk), the Sultan and his representatives were confronted with a Greek government which was interested in expanding the Greek polity into the other parts of Ottoman lands where ethnic Greeks lived. This of course would include Smyrna. While many of the Versailles delegates may have questioned the Greeks, one who didn’t and supported them wholeheartedly was David Lloyd George. And of course he was a crucial supporter.

After much debate, it was decided that the Greeks could govern Smyrna, and the Greek navy came into the port and took control, and a Greek governor was appointed, someone who was not neither as progressive or liberal as his Turkish predecessor, and who stoked rivalries and resentments between the various ethnic groups in the city.

It did not seem that the Turks had the power to dislodge the Greeks from the city, and the Greeks wanted to ensure their long term control. Foolishly, perhaps, they decided that the only way to do this was to expand the land under their jurisdiction to the east, and they sent their army in that direction. Because of the general demoralization and demobilization of the Turkish army, the Greeks were able to gain ground quickly, and the further they went, the further they were determined to go. They pushed the Turkish army now under Kemal’s control to the edge of the Anatolian plateau, but the final battles on the hills bordering the plateau were very tough on the Greeks, who were not used to nor prepared for that type of topography.

With the Greek’s exhausted, the Turks were able to regroup and as fast as the Greeks had advanced to the east, the Turks now traveled west. Clearly, the Greeks were not happy retreating, and they took their displeasure out on the inhabitants of the various Turkish towns they traveled through on the way back towards Smyrna – looting, killing, burning and raping as they went, and building up an enormous taste for revenge on the part of the Greeks.

Behind the Greeks came the Turks, much to the surprise of the inhabitants of Smyrna and suburbs. Although the Turks claimed that they would be treating all inhabitants with respect, just the opposite happened. Whether it was the policy of the Turkish military leaders, or if it started with rogue Turkish soldiers going out of control, everything soon turned to chaos and the experience of the rural Turks was replicated many times over as virtually the entire city was burned, hundreds of thousands of civilians attacked and killed, and an equal number left homeless at the port with nowhere to go (until a Greek/American rescue effort was unleashed, which is a fascinating story itself, and an eventual Turkish-Greek agreement to exchange the remaining Greek nationals for the Turks living in Greece).

An extremely harrowing story, and one that need not have occurred. Paradise Lost indeed.

(Today, of course, if you visit Izmir, you visit a beautifully sited, delightful city, prosperous, with beautiful restaurants and hotels. Nothing remains to teach you about what happened in the 1920s, and no one goes out of their way to fill in the gaps. If you have been to Turkey, or are planning to go, and want to read a little before you take your trip, this book should be on your list. It is also a good companion to Louis de Bernieres “Birds Without Wings”, one of the best novels I have read in recent years.0

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