Paradise Lost in the Flames of Smyrna: An Interview with Giles Milton

Over 100 people gathered at the Glendale City Hall on Monday to hear renowned British journalist and author Giles Milton speak about this newest book "Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922." The audience which was made up of Greeks, Armenia’s and numerous other Los Angeles area residents was attending Milton’s only Southern California appearance during his United States book tour.

Milton’s book is the most recent to attract international attention and acclaim for chronicling the horrendous tragedy of the burning of the Aegean port city of Smyrna in 1922 in the waning days of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

After the book signing, we sat down with Milton to discuss his book, and the fateful destruction of the most affluent Ottoman city and the only one in Asia Minor with an overwhelming Christian majority population comprised of Greeks, Armenia’s and Levantine Europeans.


Allen Yekikan: Talk about the process of researching your book. What sources did you turn to? Did you use any Turkish sources?

Giles Milton: My intention was to tell the story through the eyes of witnesses ‘s people who were actually there at the time. I traveled to Athens and Turkey in search of survivors who were in the city in 1922.

I found two men, both in their nineties, who had crystal clear memories of life in Smyrna before the catastrophe. One was Greek and one was Levantine ‘s an Englishman whose family had lived in Turkey for centuries.

I also used a number of Armenian accounts which are not widely known. The testimony of Krikor Baghdijian, who watched the Turkish army set fire to the Armenian quarter, is not widely known. And I had translated into English the account of the Armenian bishop of Smyrna, Bishop Tourian.

Turkish sources were much more difficult. I spent time in Izmir trying to collect information, and with some success, but this is a sensitive story in Turkey and few people were willing to be in contact with me.

A.Y.: What inspired you to write about this topic?

G.M.: The story of Smyrna is little known in Britain or America, even though there are many elemen’s that are extremely relevant to us today. Genocide and ethnic cleansing ‘s both of which occurred in Turkey at this time ‘s are still with us ‘s think of the Balkans and Rwanda.

And I was also interested in the idea of Smyrna as the prototype of our own modern cities ‘s multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan. It alarmed me to see just how quickly such a diverse city ‘s where Greeks, Armenia’s and Turks had lived as neighbors and friends ‘s could be destroyed. There are lessons for us to be learned in this.

There is also the question of great powers intervening in the affairs of a foreign country. In Turkey, Britain and America used a proxy (Greece) to carry out their foreign policy. Nowadays, those same to powers intervene with their own armies. If we had learned lessons from Smyrna, the mess in Iraq might never have happened.

A.Y.: Talk about the character of Smyrna as a city before it was burned to the ground. What was the tone and temper of city life during the genocide?

G.M.: Time and again in the Greek archives, you read of the different communities living alongside each other in peace and harmony. They played in the same football teams, went to each other’s weddings etc. Yet with the rise of nationalism, all this came to an abrupt end. Centuries of friendship was torn apart in the space of a few months. I am referring specifically to Smyrna; the communities did not always get along so well elsewhere in Turkey. Of course, Smyrna was dominated by the Greeks; the Greek population was more than double that of Athens. The Armenian population was far smaller but very influential. The Armenia’s tended to be rich and well educated. These were the two communities that suffered the most during September 1922. Murder, rape, deportation were commonplace.

A.Y.: Talk about the events that led up to the burning of the city and the massacres.

G.M.: The trouble for Smyrna can be traced back to its demography. The majority population was Christian and these people supported the Allied powers during WW1. This made life for them extremely uncomfortable, given that the Ottoman Turkish state was on the German’side. At the war’s end, a spate of attacks on Greeks led to the Allies allowing Venizelos to pursue his dream of uniting all the Greeks in Asia Minor into a new and revived Greater Greek empire. The drawback to Venizelos’s policy ‘s which was willingly ignored by the Allies – was the fact that the Greeks, though numerous, were a minority in every part of Turkey except Smyrna.

A.Y.: What happened in Smyrna in 1922?

G.M.: The Turkish forces entered the city and, at first, order was maintained. But very soon, discipline broke down. First the irregular forces – and then the regular army ‘s began to behave with great brutality. The Armenian quarter of the city was the first to come under attack. Armenia’s were killed, raped and their houses were destroyed. After a few days, the Armenian quarter was torched ‘s and soon after this, the fire spread to all other areas of the city except the Turkish quarter.

A.Y.: Can the burning of Smyrna be considered part of the larger Genocide of Armenia’s and Greeks?

G.M.: The burning of Smyrna is part of the same chapter of history that was the Armenian genocide. ‘Turkey for the Turks’ was the slogan; in an age of nationalism, there were no longer any place for Turkey’s ‘troublesome’ Christian minorities. It is perhaps ironic that Ataturk’s republic, built along democratic, secular lines, was founded upon the expulsion of all the minority groups of the old Ottoman Empire.

A.Y.: Where did the refugees go after the city was burned?

G.M.: The refugees, abandoned to their fate on the quayside, were either killed, deported, or rescued by a small number of extremely brave individuals. Among them was Asa Jennings, an American YMCA worker, who managed to bring a fleet of ships into the bay and rescue tens of thousands of Greeks and Armenia’s.

Some of the few uplifting stories in the book involve individuals who ‘s at great personal risk ‘s went to the help of others. It reminds one that even in momen’s of great darkness, some people are capable of going beyond themselves and making huge sacrifices.

A.Y.: Did anyone come to the rescue of the city’s christian inhabitants?

G.M.: The western commanders were under strict orders to rescue only their own nationals. This was because the Allied powers had realized that Turkey had won the war and they hoped to strike rich trade deals with Ataturk. They did not wish to be seen to be helping the sworn enemies of the Turks. There are horrific accounts in my book of the British commander ordering his ship’s band to strike up music to drown out the screaming of the Greeks and Armenia’s trapped on the quayside.

A.Y.: Your book tells the story of the city’s burning from the perspective of its Levantine community, which is a wholly new perspective. Talk a bit about that. Who were the Levantines?

G.M.: I wanted to tell the story, where possible, from the Levantine point of view. These were wealthy Europeans who had lived in Smyrna for two centuries; they did not care who ruled the city as long as they could continue to make money. As such, they are impartial witnesses. From everything I read ‘s both their own writings and those by Americans in the city ‘s it is without question that Smyrna was burned by the Turks.

A.Y.: During your lecture you spoke about an American presence in Smyrna, can you talk about that a bit?

G.M.: There was a large American presence in the city. They were involved in the oil business, and trading, as well as humanitarian projects (school, orphanages etc). They loved the city so much that they named their colony Paradise, from which my book takes its title.

A.Y.: Did any one stay behind after the burning or was there a deportation of the refugees?

G.M.: A few Levantines returned to Turkey after the fire. The Giraud family, who were very important, returned; their house was one of the few not to have been burned. But most lost everything and chose to rebuild their lives elsewhere

A.Y.: Did any of the Levantine families seek–or are there any currently seeking–reparations for the confiscation of their lands and properties by Ataturk’s armies?

G.M.: Yes, one of the families, the Girauds, are engaged in a battle to get financial compensation for land that was confiscated from them by the new Turkish republic. It will be an interesting test case, especially as they have all the legal documen’s, dated back to 1900, proving their legal ownership of the land.

A.Y.: What is the significance of the burning of Smyrna in the context of Ataturk’s nationalist movement to secure a "Turkey for the Turks"?

G.M.: The fire signaled, loud and clear, that in the new Turkey, there was no place for ethnic minorities. Ironically, Ataturk’s wife was a western-looking, well educated and extremely modern product of Smyrna!

A.Y.: How is the history of the massacre and burning of Smyrna remembered and told in Turkey? Is there any controversy surrounding this episode of Anatolian history?

G.M.: According to most Turkish historians, Smyrna was burned by either the Armenia’s or the retreating Greek army. It is almost impossible to publish a book in Turkey saying otherwise.

A.Y.:Talk about your attempts to publish the book in Turkey?

G.M.: Many Turkish publishers were interested in my book but said it would be impossible to publish. One publisher, Inkilip, made an offer ‘s only to retract it two weeks later saying it would have to be heavily censored. But at last I have a publisher in Izmir who said he will publish the book in its entirety. I am delighted that it will therefore be available to a Turkish audience as I believe it brings to light important new source material and an important new angle.

A.Y.: What was the response to the burning of Smyrna in the Western Press, in the United states and other European nations?

G.M.: Muted. The liberal elite in America ‘s particularly the newspapers ‘s were appalled by the conduct of the establishment. But the politicians did what they wanted to do ‘s and also did everything they could to control the flow of information from the city. It was very hard for journalists to be allowed in; those that were given permits were under strict orders, not unlike the ’embedded’ journalists of today.

A.Y.: Why would you say that the burning of Smyrna has, by and large, been ignored by the West? What is its greater historical significance?

G.M.: The story has been ignored by the west because, I suspect, no one comes out of it very well. Britain and America displayed extreme cynicism in their policy towards the city. It was real-politik at its most brutal. Nor do the Greeks come out of the story too well. Their army certainly committed outrages as they retreated in disarray, while the Turks were obviously responsible for the torching of the city. It was in no one’s interest to publicize these facts.

A.Y.: Talk about your book tour.

G.M.: I have been in Boston, Washington (Capitol Hill), Ohio, LA, San Francisco and New York. The talks have been extremely well attended; in Washington, a number of Turks came along to argue their point of view and distribute documen’s charting atrocities committed by the Greek army. They did not accept the version of events as recounted in my book and there was a certain tension between Greeks and Turks in the room.

A.Y.: What message, theme, or idea do you want your readers to take away from reading the book?

G.M.: That we must confront history, not deny it. That is the only way we will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Some Turks criticize my book for being ‘8anti-Turkish’. This is ridiculous. It is one of the most impartial accounts ever written about the events of 1922. In Britain, we have made great efforts to look back at our history and admit that we often committed appalling acts. Our youngsters must know about these things ‘s or we will do them again.


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