Pogrom against the Greeks in Istanbul

The Darkest Night on the Istiklal

For the first time, an exhibition in Turkey deals with the pogrom against the Greek minority in 1955. It seems as if Turkey has begun to come to grips with this dark side of its past. By Christiane Schlötzer

Istiklal Street in Istanbul (photo: dpa)
The Istiklal Street – today a popular shopping mile – was scene of the "Turkish Saint Bartholomew’s Night"

​​Istiklal Street is Istanbul’s main artery – a shopping mile and the focal point of a popular strolling district. Hundreds of bars and restaurants have settled here and on the adjacent jumble of narrow streets. In recent days, the predominantly young, pleasure-seeking public that comes to the area every night has been confronted by a series of large-format placards in the middle of the Istiklal. They show the boulevard covered in broken glass. The images are part of an exhibition recalling the darkest night on the Istiklal, once known as the Grande Rue du Pera.

Fifty years ago, on the night of 6 September, 1955, screaming hordes armed with axes and dynamite rambled along the Istiklal. They burned and plundered stores and businesses belonging to the local Greek community. The mob attacked mainly Greek-populated areas throughout Istanbul, destroying more than 4000 shops, over 70 churches, and 30 schools. Priests were beaten up and even cemeteries were desecrated.

It was a night of shame for Turkey. Now, half a century later, images of this night, the likes of which have never been seen in Istanbul, are being shown on the Istiklal. There are photos of women, wearing the billowing dresses of the 1950s, smashing storefront windows with bats. Many of the pictures had been taken by the secret police; others were confiscated from foreign reporters at the border.

Documents preserved for 40 years

They were all collected by a military judge, who, in 1956, failed in his attempt to bring the perpetrators to trial. Fahri Coker, the upright judge who was prevented from administering justice, privately preserved the 250 photos and numerous documents for 40 years. He then bequeathed them all to the private Istanbul historical foundation Tarih Vakfi on condition that nothing would be published until after his death. Coker died in 2001.

Dilek Güven, a young Turkish historian, stumbled across the practically forgotten bundle of papers. After completing her studies in Germany, she was puzzled by her country’s reticence to come to grips with its own past. As a result, she decided to research the events of 6 September. Without the work of this persistent doctoral student, the exhibition would probably never have taken place.

"Arrest the usual suspects" was the motto of then Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, who in 1955 immediately blamed the Communists for the pogrom. After a military coup in 1960, Menderes was himself put on trial. In order to give their regime the veneer of democracy, the generals decided to re-examine the dark events of 1955.

Secret allies of Ankara's enemies?

During the trial it became clear that the governing Demokrat Parti, the DP, had organized the attackers and had carted them to the city by train and ship. Preparations involved a racist propaganda campaign, which poisoned public opinion and intensified latent hostilities.

This wasn’t the first time that minorities fell victim to hostilities in Turkey. Practically since the foundation of the republic by Kemal Atatürk in 1923, Turkey has been haunted by the paranoia that its minorities, primarily the Greeks and Armenians, were really secret allies of Ankara’s enemies. This anxiety, nurtured by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, has time and again been instrumentalized in Turkish politics.

Ankara then staged an event to fit the pattern. On the eve of 6 September, there was an attack in Thessaloniki on the house where Atatürk was born. This provided the final spark to set emotions aflame. Although the ringleaders did not distribute weapons to the mob, the pogrom ended with around 30 deaths, hundreds of injured, and scores of raped men and women.

"A few riots in Ankara would do us nicely!"

Menderes had hoped the instigated riots would draw attention away from his failed liberal economic policies. On 7 September, he even declared a state of emergency. But according to author and witness Aziz Nesin, this in itself does not provide a full explanation for the Turkish Saint Bartholomew’s Night.

Istiklal Street in Istanbul (photo: dpa)
There are currently only around 2000 Istanbul Greeks still living on the Bosphorus

​​As early as September 1954, a British diplomat had noted that "A few riots in Ankara would do us nicely!" At the time, British colonial power on Cyprus was being strongly challenged by the Greek resistance movement EOKA. London hoped Turkey would provide help. Ankara’s foreign minister at the time, Fuat Köprülü, wanted nothing to do with the matter. Cyprus is not a Turkish issue, he said.

However, the conciliatory Köprülü, who testified against Menderes during the 1960 trial, was replaced in late July 1955 by the agitator Fatin Rüstü Zorlu. He secured the support of the nationalist organization Kibris Türk Cemiyeti (Cyprus is Turkish), which formed the core of the attacking mob.

Relations remain delicate

In 1955, the Greek minority, which could trace its roots on the Bosphorus back to Byzantium, became, for the first time, hostage to the still unresolved Cyprus conflict. The majority of Istanbul’s 100,000 Greeks were finally forced to abandon the city at the time of the next Cyprus crisis in 1964.

Today, the Greek flag waves in front of a stately building on the Istiklal. The building houses the Greek Consulate and its presence here has high symbolic value. Greek-Turkish relations are currently relatively relaxed, yet remain delicate.

Even in Greece, the sinister events of 1955 have long been held quiet. Athens wanted to maintain a Greek presence in Istanbul, if at all possible. Yet, there are currently only around 2000 Rum, as the Istanbul Greeks are called, still living on the Bosphorus.

In 1955, some 90 percent of the businesses on Istiklal belonged to Greeks, Armenians, or Jews. In the furor of the night, their stores were ransacked by a mob motivated by nationalism and envy directed against the successful minorities.

The current exhibition on the Istiklal has met with a great response by the Turkish media. CNN Türk has even produced a brutally honest film about this night of shame. It looks as if Turkey has finally begun to come to grips with its past.

Christiane Schlötzer

© Qantara.de 2005

Translated from German by John Bergeron


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