Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 5, 2013

Smyrna: the Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 2:36 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition April 5-7, 2013
A Review of “Smyrna: the Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City”

When Madness Swept the Mediterranean


In my one and only visit to Izmir to meet my wife’s relatives, we walked along the quay to see some of the picturesque city’s landmarks including the statue of Mustafa Kemal that looked toward the sea. My wife’s cousin Ceyda, the daughter of a General assigned to NATO and a rock-ribbed Kemalist, paused in front of the statue to inform me that this was where their war of independence was won. The quay, from which the city’s Greek population was literally driven into the sea, is as important a symbol of that country’s birth in the early 1920s as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is to an American.

Although I have been very critical of Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s “Empire”, I am tempted to agree with their argument that the nation-state is a toxic formation when I think about Turkey’s origins over the mountains of Armenian, Greek and Kurdish skulls. Like the Native American corpses that are vomited up at the end of “Poltergeist”, that’s the chilling spectacle you get in the powerful documentary “Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City” that opens on April fifth at the Quad in New York. With previously unseen photographs and film footage, the city is revealed in both its cosmopolitan glory and the immolation in 1922 that changed the character of the city forever. Henceforth it would be referred to by its Turkish name—Izmir—just as Constantinople would be known as Istanbul.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/05/when-madness-swept-the-mediterranean/


  1. Early 20th century Smyrna had a lot in common with Shanghai. They were both colonial cities. Shanghai had earned the nickname of “Adventurer’s Paradise.” The vaunted “tolerance” suited Western moguls who controlled commerce and industry. Not for nothing did American residents of Smyrna name their gated community “Paradise.” Their Standard Oil Company thrived in the city and their factories employed thousands. They brought along the usual “humanitarian” goodies of churches and schools. When the tide began to turn against the Greeks, the fat cats of Paradise got busy doing deals with the men of the coming regime in Constantinople. For them the tragedy of Smyrna wasn’t a trip to Hell. It was only a change in their business plan.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 5, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

  2. In the early hours of an August morning in nineteen twenty-two, the Turkish Nationalist Army under the command of Mustafa Kemal Pasha attacked the centre of the Greek army at Dumlu Punar on the plateau two hundred miles east of Smyrna. By the following morning, the Greek army had broken and was in headlong retreat towards Smyrna and the sea. In the days that followed, the retreat became a rout. Unable to destroy the Turkish army, the Greeks turned with frantic savagery to the business of destroying the Turkish population in the path of their flight. From Alashehr to Smyrna they burnt and slaughtered. Not a village was left standing. Amid the smouldering ruins the pursuing Turks found the bodies of the villagers. Assisted by the few half-crazed Anatolian peasants who had survived, they took their revenge on the Greeks they were able to overtake. To the bodies of the Turkish women and children were added the mutilated carcasses of Greek stragglers. But the main Greek army had escaped by sea. Their lust for infidel blood still unsatisfied, the Turks swept on. On the ninth of September, they occupied Smyrna.

    For a fortnight, refugees from the oncoming Turks had been pouring into the city to swell the already large Greek and Armenian populations. They had thought that the Greek army would turn and defend Smyrna. But the Greek army had fled. Now they were caught in a trap. The holocaust began.

    The register of the Armenian Asia Minor Defense League had been seized by the occupying troops, and, on the night of the tenth, a party of regulars entered the Armenian quarters to find and kill those whose names appeared on the register. The Armenians resisted and the Turks ran amuck. The massacre that followed acted like a signal. Encouraged by their officers, the Turkish troops descended next day upon the non-Turkish quarters of the city and began systematically to kill. Dragged from their houses and hiding places, men, women and children were butchered in the streets which soon became littered with mutilated bodies. The wooden walls of the churches, packed with refugees, were drenched with benzine and fired. The occupants who were not burnt alive were bayoneted as they tried to escape. In many parts looted houses had also been set on fire and now the flames began to spread.

    At first, attempts were made to isolate the blaze. Then, the wind changed, blowing the fire away from the Turkish quarter, and further outbreaks were started by the troops. Soon, the whole city, with the exception of the Turkish quarter and a few houses near the Kassamba railway station, was burning fiercely. The massacre continued with unabated ferocity. A cordon of troops was drawn around the city to keep the refugees within the burning area. The streams of panic-stricken refugees were shot down pitilessly or driven back into the inferno. The narrow, gutted streets became so choked with corpses that, even had the would-be rescue parties been able to endure the sickening stench that arose, they could not have passed along them. Smyrna was changed from a city into a charnel-house. Many refugees had tried to reach ships in the inner harbour. Shot, drowned, mangled by propellers, their bodies floated hideously in the blood-tinged water. But the quayside was still crowded with those trying frantically to escape from the blazing waterfront buildings toppling above them a few yards behind. It was said that the screams of these people were heard a mile out at sea. Giaur Izmir — infidel Smyrna had atoned for its sins.

    By the time that dawn broke on the fifteenth of September, over one hundred and twenty thousand persons had perished; but somewhere amidst that horror had been Dimitrios, alive.

    — From “A Coffin For Dimitrios” by Eric Ambler (1909-1998), published in 1939; a book Alfred Hitchcock called “hypnotically fascinating.”

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — April 6, 2013 @ 5:10 am

  3. Thanks for this, Manuel. I was going to include this passage but did not feel like going over to Columbia to take the book out, nor was this passage included in the Google books file. Here’s my review of this great book by one of my favorite novelists:


    Comment by louisproyect — April 6, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

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