Theater of Cruelty

Nansen Skammen

Fridtjof Nansen has the lead role in the story of Norway as a peace nation, but his greatest statesman achievement is a disgraceful chapter in European history.


[Turkey] October 20, 1922: "Twenty-five kilometers of carts, which are drawn by cows, oxen and dirty water buffaloes. Next to it are worn, sturdy men, women and children, with scarves on their heads. They walk unwillingly beside their earthly possessions ... It's a quiet procession. No one makes a sound. All they can do is keep going. "

This is how the author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) describes the scenes that take place in the border area between Turkey and Greece in the fall of 1922. Greek families with roots in Turkey, roots that extend several thousand years, are torn up by the root, stem and branches and prayed. about "coming home". Not necessarily because they speak Greek or have particularly strong feelings for Greece, but because they stand out with a different religious conviction than most Turks.

In Greece, the same thing is happening. Entire cities are being emptied. Many of those sent away do not even have a background from Turkey, but from other countries subject to the ancient Ottoman Empire. It does not matter. They are Muslims and have little or nothing to do in Greece. They are also going "home" – but they are not looking forward to it.

The architect

1,6 million people were forced to flee in the years 1922 and 1923. And at the center of it all we find the Norwegian, the polar hero and the diplomat Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930). Nansen was working intensely to put an end to the conflict between Turkey and Greece at this time. Then came the message from the Norwegian Nobel Institute. Nansen was named the world's foremost peace prize, partly because he was trying to find a more permanent solution. He found it. Unfortunately, some have said.

On January 30, 1923, the Lausanne Convention was signed, with Nansen as inventor and architect. The text reads: "From May 1, 1923, forced exchange shall be made by Turkish citizens of Greek Orthodox religion and resident in Turkish territory, and by Greek citizens of Muslim religion and resident in Greek territory". According to Nansen's cinema, Roland Huntford, this was "probably the greatest he accomplished as an international statesman". The solution has also been compared to other major companies in world history, such as the extermination of Jews in Spain in 1492 and the expulsion of the Huguenots from France in 1685.

Invasion. It should be said that the conflict between Turkey and Greece was latent long before Nansen entered the scene. Some may consider setting the starting point for the conflict of antiquity, with the first Greek settlements around the Black Sea and Asia Minor. Others will choose the Turks' conquest of Constantinople in 1453, or the Greek War of Independence in 1830, when Greece freed itself from 400 years of Ottoman "yoke".

Perhaps it makes the most sense to start in the wake of the First World War, when the Greeks launched a major offensive against one of the losers, Turkey. The dream of a "Great Greece" had a renaissance, and Greece wanted Smyrna / Izmir back from Turkey. On May 14, 1919, Greece, with allied help, attacked. They recaptured the city, but the Greeks were more ambitious. In two attacks in 1920-21, Greece broke loose on the western part of Turkey.

As the Greeks were on their way into Constantinople, however, the Allies set foot. At the same time, President Mustafa "Atatürk" Kemal (1881-1938) came to power. He went on a counter attack in August 1922, and captured Smyrna / Izmir back. The Greek soldiers took their legs, and with them the civilian population fled. Kemal declared that the Greeks were no longer wanted on Turkish soil. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were on their way to Greece. The world became a spectator of a Greek tragedy on Turkish soil. Someone had to act.

Great Power Considerations

That's when Nansen wakes up. He goes to the League of Nations and demands that his mandate for the Russian refugees be extended to Greek refugees as well. It gets approved. But what should he do? The international community can intervene and demand that people of Orthodox origin also have a place in Turkey. Or Greece could welcome the Greek refugees and leave it at that. But, with the Balkan wars in mind, Nansen believes that ethnic conflicts within a nation-state are sources of conflict and war.

As Bruce Clark and Mark Mazover document in Twice a Stranger respectively. How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey (2006) and Salonica. City of Ghosts. Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 (2004), however, Muslims and Orthodox lived more than well with each other in both Greece and Turkey for hundreds of years. The heads of state, on the other hand, were of a different opinion, infected as they were by modern European nationalism. Also the Norwegian historian Berit Tolleshaug, who has written Fridtjof Nansen. A Norwegian hero in a Greek tragedy? (2001), believe there were other, more relevant explanations than ethnic confusion that underpinned the conflict: “The ethnic contradictions that led to a mass exodus of nearly one million Ottoman Greeks were therefore not primarily the result of fundamental tensions between Ottoman Greeks and Turks. The brutal rise of Hellenistic civilization was primarily due to the policies of the young Turks and the consequences of the Greek Megali Idea performances [the dream of Greater Greece, ed.], As well as short-term superpowers. ”

Journalist Bruce Clark puts the shovel into the gap between the political elite and most people in Twice a Stranger. There are stacks of books discussing the legal aspects of the forced exchange of people, but few have taken the time to ask those who experienced it. The trauma has continued to be a living part of the consciousness of the Greeks and Turks since 1923, and some of those directly affected are still alive. One in four Greeks today comes from the Ottoman Greeks.


The answers that come back when Clark asks older Turks and Greeks what they think about the exchange is that it was the only way out. Often, when Clark asks them if they miss their homeland, they answer no, sir. But, Clark writes, if you go home with them and look at the pictures hanging on the walls and taste the powdered coffee a little, you get completely different answers. In a Greek with a Turkish accent or a Turkish with a Greek accent, in a house in Greece that once belonged to Muslims or in a house in Turkey that once belonged to Orthodox Greeks, in a city that was once unknown to Greek or Turkish , they tell how it really was.

The conclusion, Clark writes, is that national ideology has worked beyond all expectation. It is taken for granted that it is a good thing to come "home", even if you do not recognize yourself and are considered a second-class citizen because you have lived with the "enemy". You may have been born multicultural, but you will die as monocultural. If the chorus gets refined enough times, you quickly start singing along. Turkish and Greek schoolbooks are full of unkind words about the arch-enemy, but folk songs, novels and films strikingly express a longing for reconciliation and reunification, Clark writes.

People are slow. Perhaps it is because the architecture opposes the official ideology. Both Greece and Turkey are full of reminders of their hybrid culture. Ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Greeks loudly debated where the Muslim athletes could pray. They ended up building a temporary barracks in the participant village. In the debate, no one mentioned that the center of Athens, among other things huser a 500-year-old mosque that was once important. It could easily have been restored. According to Greek conservators, around 2300 Ottoman monuments in Greece are waiting to be refurbished, but the authorities are letting them fall into disrepair – in the hope that it will hasten collective amnesia.

Out with Turks and Jews.

This is also the backdrop for historian Mark Mazover's acclaimed Salonica. The city is Greece's second largest, is located in the north and is often called Thessaloniki in Norwegian. Many Jews, Greeks and Turks once lived there. This is no longer the case. Now there are most Greeks in the streets. The Turks disappeared in 1923 as part of the population exchange. The Jews had to leave the city in 1943, because the Nazis said so, even though they had been an integral part of the cityscape since coming from Spain in 1492.

The book is a useful reminder that the world is a whimsical place. For 500 years, tolerance, pragmatism and mutual respect prevailed in the city. Then came modernity, and vips – left Thessaloniki stands as a monument to a world that is not moving towards more globalization, but towards more nationalization.

Nansen was a child of his time, and he, like many others who had been grounded in the idea of ​​Athens as the cradle of civilization, considered that the consideration of Greece outweighed the consideration of Turkey. He was then also formally appointed to the mission by the Greek authorities and allies.

The Greeks were offered financial compensation, so that they could cope with the massive immigration of so-called compatriots. It wasn't enough. Many Greeks in Turkey fled for their lives. That was not the case for Turks in Greece, although Mazover claims it was the Greek terrorization of Muslims a few years earlier, including in Thessaloniki, which created the corresponding reaction from Atatürk. It is plausible, should we believe his cinema, Andrew Mango (Atatürk from 1999). Atatürk was born in Thessaloniki and took his military education there. The family had to flee to Turkey in 1913, the year after the Greeks took over the city. The mood wasn't exactly cheerful in Greece in 1922 either, but 400 Muslim Greeks had to move for one simple reason: There had to be room for the new arrivals.

1,2 million Greek refugees

There is a hint of uncertainty about who came up with the proposal first. Clark believes Fridtjof Nansen and former Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936) came up with the idea at the same time. Mark Mazover more firmly declares that it was Nansen. The Greek ex-prime minister has himself argued the same, as was the British ambassador to Constantinople. Tolleshaug agrees. Most other sources also point to the Norwegian as the most central player from start to finish. At the end of the year 1924, the exchange was done roughly. Greece had 1,2 million refugees, while Turkey had 400.000 Muslims. It was not until the 1950s that the authorities in Turkey and Greece opened up for the new inhabitants to move back if they wanted to.

The Lausanne Convention set a precedent. In 1937, the British urged the Jews and Palestinians to act as flexibly as Greece and Turkey had done in 1923. Nazi Germany negotiated several agreements on forced exchange of people with the Italians, and with the Russians from 1939 to 1941, again with reference to Lausanne. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt were also directly inspired by the Turkey-Greece conflict when, after World War II, they moved 12 million Germans from Eastern Europe to what later became West Germany. The exchange of people between India and Pakistan in 1947 was not rooted in an international agreement, but the motivation and rhetoric were easily recognizable. 1923 was a tragic year in European history, but it continued to haunt the world for many decades afterwards.

Forced exchange of people is no longer an acceptable way to resolve conflicts. UN human rights emphasize the individual at the expense of collective identity, and UN Resolution 194 (III) states that refugees displaced in the course of war have the right to return.

Nansen did not know this. He probably thought he was doing a good deed. He was naive and did not understand that his international reputation was being used by the Greeks and the Allies. So perhaps they are right to refer to our national hero as the forerunner of Norwegian peace work. Naivism, also called idealism, is still the guideline of Norwegian foreign policy, and Norway is still abused by major political actors in a game we often do not have an overview of, also called realpolitik. And yes, we are still convinced that personal relationships and individual actors can clean up problems the UN does not create. Please note if the players are Norwegian. But, as history from 1923 shows – the recipe has its weaknesses if the actors have inadequately developed views of culture.

Harmful culture mixture

Today it is uncomfortable to think that people can be forcibly relocated because they are of a different religious opinion. The world is full of countries where religious and ethnic minorities live side by side. In Northern Ireland – why not just forcibly move all Protestants to the north and all Catholics to the south? No that does not work. It violates international driving rules, and it violates human dignity. And first and foremost, it breaks with the idea that people of different origins can live peacefully side by side. The exchange in 1923 was forced, not voluntary. According to several of Mazover's sources, only "fanatics" wanted to move to Turkey. Most were already at home.

Although people's exchanges are no longer practiced, we are still convinced that cultural mixing is harmful, and the authorities regulate the demographics of the world based on suspicion. We do not want too many Muslims in Europe, and we are reluctant to say that Turkey belongs in the EU. Nansen was a child of his time and we are his grandson.

You may also like