Language, Religion and the Treaty of Lausanne

Bruce Clark

The impact of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne between Turkey and Greece resulted in legalised ethnic cleansing.
Greek and Armenian refugees in Athens
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The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

Do languages constitute nations, or do nation-states constitute languages? That is one of the recurring questions in modern history, and it is not simply an intellectual brain-teaser. Languages, and the national passions they can stir, cost lives. To take only the most recent example, one of the pretexts for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was the defence of the ‘Russian-speaking population’ (russko-yazichnoye naselenye) from the linguistic hegemony of Ukrainian. Yet this language-based argument had serious limitations: it turned out many of the Ukrainian state’s proudest defenders have been people whose sole or preferred language is Russian.

Linguistic dysphoria – a community’s sense that its own language is disrespected or banned – can spark nationalist uprisings; and whenever a revolutionary or state-building project is successful, imposing and, if necessary, constructing a standard version of the national language is generally one of the first priorities. At any rate, all that has been true in the modern era, whose characteristics include education for all, mass literacy and communication and universal civic obligations. It is easy to forget that in the pre-modern era, other categories, such as loyalty to a religion or a dynasty, were far more important in determining who sided with whom. To a monarch in medieval Europe, or to a caliph, it was of little importance what language his subjects spoke amongst themselves as long as they were loyal in matters of religion and could be relied upon to fight.

Almost a century ago, a diplomatic bargain was struck which reflected an odd mixture of modern and pre-modern ideas about language and identity. This was the Convention on Population Exchange agreed between victorious Turkey and defeated Greece, and endorsed by the League of Nations. The two countries agreed on a massive swap of minority populations – using religion, rather than language or consciousness – as the sole criterion for compulsory deportation. It was agreed on 30th January 1923 and then incorporated in the Treaty of Lausanne the following July. At the heart of the accord were the following fateful words. Subject to certain carefully defined exceptions, it was decided that:

As from 1st May, 1923, there shall take place a compulsory exchange of Turkish nationals of the Greek Orthodox religion established in Turkish territory, and of Greek nationals of the Moslem religion established in Greek territory.

To a modern sensibility, it seems extraordinary that a world body with responsibility for peace, the precursor of the United Nations, should endorse such an arrangement. Hundreds of thousands of people were being told: regardless of what language you speak or who you think you are, you will now be deported to another country because you practise the ‘wrong’ religion for the place you now live. Yet the use of religious affiliation as the defining criterion did correspond perfectly to the Ottoman order from which new states were being created. In the cold-blooded calculus of state-building, the two countries were doing each other a favour, and helping to ensure that both would have religiously uniform populations. More than 95% of the population of Greece would henceforth be Orthodox Christian, and an even higher proportion of the new Turkish state’s citizens would be Muslim. To achieve this tidy state of affairs, it was agreed that the one million or so Orthodox Christians already in flight from Turkey would abandon all hope of returning, while the 200,000 who remained in Turkey would have to leave as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, nearly 400,000 Muslims would be transferred from Greece to Turkey. This had some paradoxical consequences. The Orthodox Christians who moved to Greece included at least 100,000 whose only or main language was Turkish. These Turcophones included devout Christians who lived in the heart of Anatolia, in the stark and beautiful landscape of Cappadocia where some important events in early Christian history unfolded. As of the beginning of January 1923, all the main parties in Lausanne (the Greeks, the Turks and Lord Curzon, the British chairman) agreed that the Cappadocian Christians would be spared from the exchange, but eventually they too were swept up in the general deportation.

The Turkish delegation at Lausanne

On the other side of the Aegean, the paradox was equally sharp and painful. Among the Muslims shipped to Turkey from Greece, tens of thousands spoke Greek as their sole or main language. Most people in this heading were Cretan Muslims, whose material culture was very similar to that of their Christian Greek neighbours. There were also people from Greek Macedonia – including Muslim families whose embrace of Islam had often been recent or superficial – who were bilingual in Greek and Turkish, sometimes with a preference for the former.

Whichever direction they were migrating, the exchanged people found themselves in countries and emerging political orders where there was little tolerance for diversity of any kind. Along with the material and practical problems of adapting to a new land, they were under pressure to learn and adopt the language of their host country, and as far as possible, forget that they had ever spoken anything different. They all found themselves incorporated in nationalist projects which aspired to encase the entire population in a single one-size-fits-all straightjacket. In the new Turkish republic, the language was purged of Arabic and Persian loanwords, and the theory was developed that all the world’s languages descended from Turkish. As Kemal Ataturk mapped out a new definition of Turkishness to which all citizens were expected to conform, speaking the national tongue was a minimal obligation.

In the Greek case, the drive for homogeneity came to a head under the regime of General Ioannis Metaxas who took power in August 1936 and claimed to be developing a ‘third Greek civilization’ in succession to classical Hellas and Christian Byzantium. It is striking that in both countries, the Lausanne exchangees were seen, from a strategic viewpoint, as comparatively docile and unproblematic elements of society. The assimilation of these newcomers was seen as a certain and irreversible process, whatever the immediate problems.

For the Greek state, bigger challenges to homogeneity were posed by the Slavophone and Albanian-speaking Cham populations of northern Greece. The advent of Anatolian Orthodox Christians, who had in a sense nowhere to go except full Hellenization (given that Turkey did not want them and Greece did want them), was regarded as a geopolitical asset. What they were, in terms of language or consciousness, was seen as less important than what they – or the community’s leaders – wanted to be; and there seemed no doubt that they would aspire to be Greek. Their destiny had, after all, been determined by two states. There was little chance of these newcomers becoming a fifth column for any other country.

A revealing story was told to account for the awkward fact that many of the new arrivals in Greece were speakers of Turkish. As the Turcophone migrants explained it, their ancestors had in centuries past been presented with a brutal dilemma by the Ottoman masters: they must forfeit their language or their religion. As zealous Orthodox Christians, they chose to keep their faith and surrender at least tactically to the linguistic power of Turkish.

In both countries, it is interesting to note that the Lausanne exchangees were never the principal targets of a drive to homogenize. It would be more accurate to say that they were caught up in the wash of a much larger and more contentious drive for uniformity. The Turkish authorities were generally optimistic about the prospects for assimilating non-Turkish but Muslim newcomers, as long as they were willing to learn Turkish and adopt Turkish consciousness. The newcomers from Greece fell squarely into that category.

The authorities perceived a greater problem in integrating non-Turkish but Muslim groups already established in Anatolia: Kurds, Circassians, Laz and so on. As for the small non-Muslim groups who remained in Anatolia, (Armenians, Jews and the Greek Orthodox of Istanbul who were excluded from the exchange), the official attitude was erratic: sometimes they were invited, under certain conditions, to be full citizens of the new republic and sometimes they were excluded.

It is revealing to study the rhetoric of a campaign entitled: ‘Citizen, Speak Turkish!’ which was fostered both by officialdom and by grass-roots organisations. One of the campaign’s main targets was the Jewish community which continued to speak Ladino, a medieval form of Spanish which they had spoken since their forebears fled from Iberian persecution in 1492.

Amidst a vast linguistic maelstrom, the Lausanne migrants from Greece were seen as a comparatively minor problem, because it was anticipated that they (or at least their children) would learn Turkish as quickly as possible. Thus a columnist in an Izmir newspaper argued that while ‘the (Greek-speaking) Cretan immigrants … might be forgiven for not speaking Turkish’ the Ladino-speaking Jews had no excuse for their slowness to adopt the official tongue. The columnist urged readers to be kind and helpful to the Cretans and teach them Turkish, while anticipating linguistic stubbornness from other groups like the Ladino-speakers.

So much for the nationalist ideology in both countries, which ensured that the younger generations in both migrant communities fully mastered the host language and it was often progressively forgotten, perhaps deliberately forgotten, that any other tongue had been spoken in the family.

But what of the human realities which nationalist ideology always tries to suppress when they are inconvenient? In both countries, traces of the linguistic awkwardness created by the Lausanne agreement could still be discerned in the early 21st century. For example, there were villages in the west of Greek Macedonia where very old people were more comfortable in Turkish than Greek – while adamantly professing their loyalty to the Greek state and above all to the Orthodox Christian faith.

In Turkey, meanwhile, the persistence of some knowledge of Greek – even in the second and third generation – in a handful of Cretan-settled locations was remarkable. That was particularly true in the port of Ayvalik, opposite the island of Lesbos, and the adjacent resort known as Cunda in Turkish and Moschonisi in Greek. Still, knowledge of Cretan-accented Greek was always combined with perfect Turkish and a strong loyalty to Kemal Ataturk and the ideology of the Turkish republic. The best-known personality of Cretan origin in that locality was the novelist Ahmet Yorulmaz (1932-2014) who was happily bilingual in Greek and Turkish and always insisted that people should be grateful to the architects of the population exchange for saving the Greeks and Turks from their worst impulses.

In Greece, the political scientist Nikos Marantzides has made an intensive study of migrants from the town of Bafra in north central Turkey, who settled in northern Greece. He notes that in the first generation of Turcophone refugees, many women never learned Greek. The men learned Greek in the hard school of military service. They were on the receiving end of barbed comments from fellow refugees who came from other parts of the Black Sea region: people from Bafra were not real Black Sea Greeks, it was claimed. By the early 21st century, in many families of Bafra origin it had been forgotten, deliberately or otherwise, that some immediate forebears had known no language except Turkish. Yet the amnesia was not total. As late as 2003 it was possible for a journalist from the BBC Turkish service, Ayca Abakan, to visit villages in northern Greece and find elderly people who – while emphasising that they were devout Christians and loyal Greek citizens – happily relapsed into Turkish and sang Turkish songs.

When Renee Hirschon, the social anthropologist, was doing her research into Anatolian refugee communities in Piraeus in the 1970s, she noted that half a century after the Lausanne agreement, many of her Greek interlocutors remembered Turkish – albeit as a second language – and combined bitterness over their expulsion with a certain nostalgia for a pre-modern world in which languages and religions co-existed.

But at least obliquely, these interviewees also confirmed the Ottoman logic which made religion a natural dividing line along which a population exchange could be organised. Compared with Greek society as a whole, her interlocutors were exceptionally attached to the Orthodox Christian faith and had an articulate understanding of its theology. ‘The Turks were jealous of us because our religion is beautiful,’ as one wistfully said.

In a sense, though, the logic of the Lausanne negotiators has been borne out. Consciously or otherwise, they calculated that linguistic ‘idiosyncrasies’ could be ironed out within a generation, especially among people whose loyalty to the host nation was not in question because they had literally nowhere else to turn. From the state-builders’ point of view, religious differences were likely to be a more awkward and enduring problem – even if the state under construction was a notionally modern one which offered equality under the law to all creeds. In theory, religious tolerance is a hall-mark of a modern state; but building a modern state looked much easier if that principle was not put to the test, because there were no, or hardly any, minorities to tolerate.

Bruce Clark is a journalist and author and winner of the 2007 Runciman Award for his book, Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey. His latest book is Athens: City of Wisdom.

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