On Nov. 29, 2022, I had the upmost honor of being invited to watch the United States premier of Smyrna at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with the Greek Genocide Resource Center. For the past several years, I have conducted research on various genocides and massacres and have traveled to various nations to conduct forensic anthropological research on them, with a focus on the late Ottoman Empire genocides.
The events of Smyrna, also known as the Smyrna Holocaust in the Greek community was the culmination of not only the Greco-Turkish War, but also what remained of the 3000 year old Hellenic community of the Ionian region of Asia Minor. The film explores the once thriving merchant city into its collapse, which still leaves scars in the Greek community and a level of distrust between both Athens and Ankara.
The movie opens up explaining how Smyrna was the cultural epicenter of the Ottoman Empire where Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Jews, and Levantines all lived in peace for hundreds of years. Despite the century’s long peace, there was a calm before the storm—hatred had brewed against the Greeks of the city as the Hellenic Kingdom had expanded its borders in the Balkan Wars and Anatolian Greeks had hoped they would eventually unite with their motherland.
Turkish citizens started to grow resentment towards the Smyrna Greeks, as they were the wealthiest in the city compared to the Muslims who didn’t have the opportunity to advance much in the empire aside from military conscription. The Young Turks and the Kemalists would later use the socioeconomic issues to their advantage, as Anatolian Greeks were increasingly seen as “fifth column” akin to the Armenians in 1915.
As Ionian Greeks in Smyrna were largely spared from the genocide until 1922, the movie highlighted other massacres that took place, such as the Phocaea Massacre of 1914 and Greek refugees from Bursa in Central Anatolia who came to the metropolis for safety. The Greek Genocide had started in Eastern Thrace in 1914 and would eventually make its way across Asia Minor where many Ionians would not know the horrors until it was too late.
Despite highlighting the Greek Genocide, the movie also showed the horror of war and the continuous cycle of violence. The Greco-Turkish War was filled with massacres from both sides as Hellenic troops razed Turkish villages during their Asia Minor Campaign in revenge for prior Greek massacres and in return, the Kemalists took their revenge on their counteroffensive all the way to the Smyrna, which the Armenian and Greek Quarters were set ablaze. This was emphasized in a dialogue during the movie between two of the main actors, one Greek and the other Turkish who the latter was heartbroken at the massacres but in the end died alongside protecting the Smyrna family he served.
What caught my eyes the most regarding the movie was that it explored power dynamics during the Greek constitutional crisis, dirty geopolitics, and how the Entente secured their own interests in Turkey at the expense of the indigenous Christians. As Greeks of Asia Minor supported a territorial annexation to their homeland of Greece, the Hellenic Kingdom had other ideas.
Behind the scenes, there was a power struggle between the Venizelos faction which was for the Megali Idea and pro Anglophile and the royalists, the latter which was more pro neutral and Germanophile that didn’t care much about the Anatolian Greeks. Towards the end you can see this by how the Soviets armed the Kemalists, while the British, French, Italians, and Americans did nothing to stop the sacking of Smyrna to keep their ‘interests’ in Turkey.
The tragedy of what happened to Smyrna would later be seen in the historic and multicultural city of Sarajevo. The heart of the Balkans, Sarajevo incorporated Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats, Jews, and others and the city once thrived under Ottoman rule akin to Smyrna. Ethnic tensions would see most of the city destroyed, and even though rebuilt, you can still see scars of the massacres that took place in the Bosnian War.
Overall, Smyrna is a powerful yet tragic movie, based on the events at the final stage of the Greek Genocide and Greco-Turkish War. Today, descendants of the Greek community of Asia Minor commemorate the tragedy and the once unified presence of Greeks and Turks of Smyrna remains broken with grievances and an animosity that unfortunately will not go away any time soon.
The Greek Government, which has took precedence to recognize separate regions of the genocide in different days owes it to the victims of not just Smyrna, but Bithynia, Constantinople, Caesarea, Cilicia, Trebizond, Nicomedia, Adrianople, and other to recognize their own genocide as universal. One thing that has kept the world from recognizing the Greek Genocide is due to Athens not recognizing it themselves, and therefore telling their people and the world that they have not taken educating the world of their tragedy seriously.
[The Great Fire of Smyrna, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”