Witnesses to Witnessing: Records of Research at an Archive of Refugee Testimony

Part of the Anthropology, History, and the Critical Imagination book series (ACHI)


With its clear “before” and “after” graphically captured in grainy black-and-white photographs and film footage of Izmir (Gr. Smyrna) in flames, the 1922 “Asia Minor Catastrophe” (Mikrasiatiki Katastrofi), as it is usually called in Greek, presents itself as the quintessential event of modern Greek history. In 1919, Greek troops had invaded Asia Minor with the aim of fulfilling the nations so-called Megali Idea, or “Great Idea,”1 to expand its territory and population by “redeeming” the lands and peoples of a historic Greek Empire. Three years later, Turkish armies under the command of Mustafa Kemal, who later took the name Atatürk, would decisively rout Greek forces, sparking the mass exodus of the ethnic Greek communities of Asia Minor2 and precipitating the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Following these dramatic events, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne stipulated a compulsory population exchange—the first in modern history—between Greece and the newly established Turkish republic.3 In reality, though, the treaty described and ratified, rather than set in motion, a massive population movement that, for the most part, had already taken place in violent and chaotic circumstances.4 Ultimately, as a result of the “Catastrophe,” at least one and a half million Greek Orthodox and 400,000 Muslims were expelled from their homes and resettled in Greece and Turkey, respectively.


Informant Report Refugee Background Historical Writing Folk Song Greek Society 
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  1. 5.
    See K. Koulouri, “‘Catastrophe,’ ‘Campaign’ and ‘War’ in School,” To Vima, Sunday, September 1, 2002. Although the events of 1922 were always included in Greek history textbooks, Koulouri notes that the 1983 textbook represented a turning point in the representation of the “Catastrophe” because of the amount of material presented and the fact that refugee testimonies were included along with information about political and military history.Google Scholar
  2. 11.
    See A. Liakos, “The Ideology of ‘Lost Homelands.’” To Vima, September 13, 1998.Google Scholar
  3. 20.
    In Turkish public culture, the fate of Muslim refugees from Greece also was a nonsubject until quite recently. No analogous discourse on lost Greek homelands developed following the refugee crisis, which is usually referred to in Turkish rather prosaically as the miibadele (“exchange”). In Turkey, refugees from Greece, like those from other neighboring Balkan countries who fled to Turkey at this time, are not even known as refugees, but simply as “migrants” (muhacir) with no indication given of their place of origin. This profound silencing can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that the events of 1922 represented a triumphant victory for the Turks; stories of suffering and loss were incompatible with a national narrative proclaiming the glorious formation of the modern Turkish state. In the past fifteen years, though, against the backdrop of an internal war against the Kurdish minority, there has been a growing Turkish scholarly as well as popular interest in the “missing” minorities of the former Ottoman Empire. The population exchange has been the subject of several contemporary novels, such as F. Otyams 1985 Brother Pavli,Google Scholar
  4. F. Çiçekoglus 1992 The Other Side of the Water Google Scholar
  5. A. Yorulmaz’s 1997 The Children of War Google Scholar
  6. K. Yalçins 1998 The Entrusted Wedding Trousseau Google Scholar
  7. E. Aladağ’s 1997 Sekene and 1999 Maria: The Pain of Migration. For more on the population exchange from a Turkish perspective and on the cultural politics of Turkish representations of Self and Other through the “Greek,” see An (1995), Iğsiz (2000), Milks (2001).Google Scholar

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© Penelope Papailias 2005

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