World War I and the ‘Katrastrofi’ (Catastrophe)
When the war broke out in the summer of 1914, the Greek King Konstandinos (Constantine), whose wife was the sister of the German Kaiser, insisted on neutrality by Greece, but the allies pressured Greece to join with them against German and Turkey, holding out the carrot of land in Asia Minor, where large populations of Greeks lived, especially in the coastal cities of Konstantinoupoli (Constantinople) and Smyrni (Smyrna).
There were also Greeks living in the inland areas of Kappadhokia (Cappadocia) and more up by the Black Sea, the latter called Pontic Greeks ( from the old Greek word for sea, Pondos).
Venizelos, the Prime Minister, wanted to join the Allies, and the prince, Alexander, who replaced his father Konstantinos when he left Greece in 1917, was also in favor of this, the goal being liberation of the Greeks ain both Thrace and Asia Minor. Venizelos set up a revolutionary government in Thessaloniki, and in 1917 Greece entered the war in the socalled ‘Macedonian campaign’, allied with the British, French, and Serbians.
With the defeat of Turkey and Bulgaria, Greece occupied Thrace and Venizelos demanded the largely Greek region of Smyrni (Smyrna) at Versailles. With the acquiescence of the Allies he moved troops into Smyrni in May of 1919, his stated purpose the protection of the half million Greeks living there, but the following year he lost the elections in Greece and monarchist factions took over around the same time that support from the Allies vanished, some say because they did not want to alienate the Turks.
A nationalist movement was gathering force under Mustafa Kemal (later known as Kemal Ataturk), and when the Greek troops marched on Ankara in the autumn of 1921, they were routed by Kemal’s army, pushed back to the city of Smyrni, where many were massacred, along with Armenians (the other Christian race which had suffered large-scale genocide in 1915, though modern Turkish leaders still refuse to acknowledge this).
There is also much denial to this day that the fire that razed the city of Smyrni after the Turkish massacre of Greeks and Armenians proceeded apace within it, was deliberately set by the Turks.
What is well documented is the fact of Allied ships sitting in the harbor and refusing to let those who had escaped the massacre and jumped into the sea aboard, even backing off from the heat of the fire that raged in the city, and could be felt even at some distance in the harbor. It should be stated that atrocities had also been committed by the Greek army against Turkish villagers during the march towards Ankara, something which is not often acknowledged by Greeks.
It is also known that despite the Greek army that remained in eastern Thrace at that point , Britain, which had been Greece’s only support from the West, pressed Greece to accept Attaturk’s terms, detailed in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, stipulating the formalized exchange of religious minorities between the new republic of Turkey under Attaturk (who had dissolved the Sultanate) and Greece.
Greece, a tiny nation with a population of only five million, and which had been engaged in warfare for an entire decade, was forced to accept 1,400,000 Christian refugees, in exchange for expelling 390,000 Muslims to the new Turkish nation. Some of the refugees had left earlier, knowing what was coming.
The Greeks from Asia Minor, who had left with only what they could carry with them, and arrived hungry and destitute, were often seen as aliens by those forced to receive them in their communities, their accents and ways quite foreign even when they spoke Greek, and there were those who spoke only Turkish as well. Enormous shanty towns sprang up around Athens, Piraeus and other cities, and large agricultural estates in Thessaly, Evvia, Crete and Lesvos (Mytilini) were divided up and redistributed to refugee farmers as well as to Greek tenants.
Though the hardships, including disease and extreme poverty of the refugees in Greece is difficult to overstate, there were also the positive effects of stimulation of the country’s industry (almost non existent at the time), and the enormous cultural contribution of the music brought by the newcomers, with sophisticated musicians and singers who had been leading figures in the urban musical tradition in Smyrni (known as Smyrneika).
This music overlapped in the 1920s and early 30s with the music known as rembetika ( and sometimes even referred to as early Rembetika) though the instruments included some that had been played formerly in Asia Minor, but not in Greece). The classic Rembetika music that supplanted the earlier ‘Smyrneika’ by the 1930s, was musically very different , in that it centered around instruments that had fixed frets (bouzouki, baglama and guitar), even though the bouzouki and baglama were basically variants of the Turkish saz, whose frets were movable, which allowed for the playing of microtones involved in Anatolian modes connected with Persian, Arabic, Byzantine and Turkish modal systems. Certainly too, the focus in the Rembetika that preceded the World Wars on hashish and hashish dens (called ‘tekes’) , and the many songs related to hashish smoking (hasiklidhika), comes from Anatolia (Asia Minor), where hashish, and the water pipe in which it was smoked, was legal and accepted.
In 1920, King Konstandinos was restored to the throne, after his son Alexander died of a monkey bite, though he soon abdicated (being invited to do so by Venizelist army officers, who then executed six of his ministers, blaming the administration for the Katastrofi) . Factions within the army ruled during most of the following decade, with a republic proclaimed in 1924 along with a series of coups and counter-coups. In 1928 Venizelos returned to power and it was then that he instituted educational and economic reforms, though much hampered by the Great Depression, which had serious financial repercussions as he had borrowed abroad and could not renegotiate loan terms. This combined with the abandoning of the gold standard by England, resulted in devalued currency in Greece. He was defeated by monarchist elements in 1933, his supporters responded by staging a coup in 1936, though unsuccessfully, and was exiled to Paris, dying there a year later. A rigged plebicite a year later restored George II to the throne, who appointed the right wing general, Ioannis Metaxas as prime minister, who, nine months later, usurped the government in dictatorial fashion. Metaxas set up a fascist government which imposed censorship of the press and imprisoned or forced into exile left-wing and trade union opponents, set up a state youth movement and secret police.