The Istanbul Pogrom of 6–7 September 1955 was perhaps the most violent event in a long history of persecution, racism, and hate against indigenous peoples in 20th century Turkish society since genocides of the regions minorities in 1915. On 6–7 September, Rum-Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Syriacs in Istanbul and many other Turkish cities were subjected to hate speech and violent attacks — a premeditated pogrom.
As a result of the pogrom, 12 people were killed and 300 injured. According to official records, 4,214 houses, 1,004 businesses, 73 churches, 1 synagogue, 2 monasteries, 8 ayazmas (sacred springs), 26 schools, and many cemeteries were smashed, severely damaged, and plundered. Officially, 60 women were subjected to sexual assaults. Unofficial accounts put the number closer to 400.
The instigators and perpetrators in the violent mobs walked away unpunished. Thousands of Rum-Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Syriacs felt forced to leave Turkey, fleeing the violence and oppression.
What happened? How did the 6–7 September Pogrom begin?
On 6 September 1955, the pro-Republican People’s Party newspaper Istanbul Ekspres published an article with the headline “Atamızın evi bombalandı” — “Our ancestor’s house was bombed”.
The article said the ancestral house of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Thessaloniki, which served as a Turkish consulate, had been bombed. The Turkish press took over the news and made insinuations that Greeks planted the bomb. The Istanbul Ekspres article caused upset and anger among Istanbul’s Turkish population, who took to the streets. The pogrom began on the evening of 6 September with the attack on Haylayf Patisserie owned by a Greek citizen in Istanbul’s Pangaltı neighborhood. In a short time, violence by orchestrated mobs spread all over Istanbul and the country.
In Greece, alleged National Intelligence Organization (MİT) agent Oktay Engin and consulate employee Hasan Uçar were arrested on 18 September. Oktay Engin was charged with carrying out the attack which was reduced to incitement after he presented an alibi. He was able to escape to Turkey. Despite being sentenced to three and a half years in prison by a Greek court, Engin was not extradited. In 1992–1993, he made governor of Turkey’s Nevşehir Province.
Sabri Yirmibeşoğlu who served on the “Tactical Mobilization Group” during the 6–7 September pogrom said about the violent events that, “6–7 September was an operation by the Special Warfare Bureau and very well organized. It achieved its purpose.” Yirmibeşoğlu rapidly rose in the ranks of the state bureaucracy. Between 1988–1990, he was a member of the General Secretariat of the National Security Council.
Sixty-five years have passed since the 6–7 September pogrom. In that time, hundreds of thousands of Rum-Greeks, Armenians, and Syriacs have left the country, fleeing a state mentality of denial and Turkish nationalism. Their numbers, once in the millions, have dwindled to an estimated 100,000. For those that remain, the fears of 65 years ago still linger.
Except for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), no political party dares to address the issue.
As a society, Turkey has not dared to face the biggest pogrom in the modern history of the Republic. The instigators and perpetrators are still to be officially identified and tried, the loss of life and property to be determined, the material and moral losses to be compensated. Hate crimes against Rum-Greeks, Armenians, and Syriacs continue to this day.
Turkey needs to confront its past for Rum-Greeks, Armenians, and Syriacs to have a future in Turkish society.