The Turkish Kristallnacht

This article was originally published on 7 September 2015 in Politico. The original can be found Here.

By Aykan Erdemir

ANKARA — A belated commemoration — 60 years late, in fact — was held on September 6 at Istanbul’s Panagia Greek Orthodox Church. It was in memory of the victims of the 1955 pogrom targeting the Polites, short for Konstantinoupolites, namely the Greeks of Istanbul.

This was the first divine liturgy-cum-memorial service ever to remember what’s known in Turkey as “the events of September 6 and 7.” In what some refer to as the “Kristallnacht in Constantinople,” 71 churches, 41 schools, eight newspapers, more than 4,000 stores and 2,000 residences were looted or destroyed overnight. The human toll and suffering were even more catastrophic, with more than 30 dead, 300 injured and 400 raped. As one Greek Orthodox community leader recently argued, the greatest damage of the pogrom was to the ideal of equal citizenship in Turkey, not only for the Polites but also for the country’s other non-Muslim minorities.

The 1955 pogrom was not a clash of civilizations pitting Muslims against Christians. On the contrary, amid rising Turkish-Greek tension over the future status of the then British colony of Cyprus, the riots were carefully planned by the Turkish government to cleanse Istanbul of the approximately 100,000 Polites, who were excluded from the Turkish-Greek population exchange of 1923-24. Chauvinist thugs, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, happen to be an imperfect tool for social engineering. As one assailant told a Greek Orthodox victim of the 1955 pogrom, the thugs had permission “not to kill but only to break things.” By the time martial law and curfew were declared in Istanbul the next day, however, the death toll exceeded 30. Of the stores looted by the out-of-control mobs, only 59 percent belonged to the targeted Polites, with the remaining establishments belonging to the Armenians and Jews.

In an era of vastly expanded communication, the Turkish state is no longer capable of keeping a lid on dirty secrets of the country’s past.

This crime against humanity on such a scale has, until recently, been swept under the carpet in Turkey. As is also the case with the 1934 Thrace pogroms against Turkish Jews and countless pogroms against the members of the Alevi faith, the 1955 pogrom targeting the Polites has not been part of Turkish school curricula. Turkey’s Greek Orthodox families have also refrained from discussing the issue even in the privacy of their homes out of fear, as one friend has said to me, that “the walls have ears.”

Fortunately, the times and generations seem to be changing in Turkey. In an era of vastly expanded communication, the state is no longer capable of keeping a lid on dirty secrets of the country’s past. Turkey now has a plethora of organizations and initiatives dedicated to uncovering past atrocities and making amends with persecuted minorities, whether it’s the Armenians, the Greeks, the Syriacs, the Jews or the Alevis. Last year, for example, a blogger made 210 graphic photos of the 1955 pogrom available online, conveying the savagery of the atrocities to wide audiences better than any written text can do. Just a decade ago, an exhibit of some of these photos in an Istanbul art gallery on the 50th anniversary of the 1955 pogrom was attacked by far-right thugs. In the battle of ideas, young hooligans with sticks fail to be a match for Turkey’s new middle classes armed with servers, blogs and smartphones.

Grassroots enthusiasm for equal citizenship and pluralism in Turkey is indeed praiseworthy. It is, however, still the responsibility of government officials to move things forward so that events like the 1955 pogrom are never repeated again. The Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), unfortunately, has had a very ambivalent attitude vis-à-vis Turkey’s minorities and their fundamental rights and freedoms. In 2011, then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s restitution decree for minority foundations was seen as an inadequate but nevertheless positive step for improving the conditions of Turkey’s minorities, including the Greek Orthodox community. Unfortunately, there seem to be major shortcomings in the content and implementation of the decree, as various minorities continue to complain about their unresolved claims.

Sixty years after the 1955 pogrom that devastated their community, Turkey’s Polites continue to live a precarious life.

To make matters worse, AKP officials, just like generations of politicians before them, see Turkey’s minorities as pawns to be traded for additional rights for Turkish Muslims abroad. The Halki Seminary of Istanbul, a leading Orthodox institution for training clergy, has remained closed since 1971, and Erdoğan has made it very clear that it can be back in service only when a mosque is open for service in Athens. Such complete disregard for fundamental rights and freedoms of Turkey’s minority citizens and an unashamed tit-for-tat policy have prompted members of Turkey’s Greek Orthodox minority to protest their status as “hostages of the state” to be bartered for the Turkish Muslim minority’s rights in Greece.

Sixty years after the 1955 pogrom that devastated their community, Turkey’s Polites continue to live a precarious life. There are still occasional attacks, such as the arson attempt at Istanbul’s Hagia Triada Greek Orthodox church in June, but the Turkish-Greek rapprochement, no matter how flawed, seems to have made life easier for the Greek “hostages” of the Turkish state. Although far from ideal, this modus vivendi appears relatively agreeable within the perspective of the ongoing carnage and mayhem in the Middle East and North Africa. It is unlikely, however, that what appears agreeable to Turkey’s authoritarian politicians would be acceptable to the new generations who are unwilling to settle for anything less than full fundamental rights for all residents of Turkey, without exception.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a nonresident fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He currently teaches at Bilkent University, Ankara.