The Greeks in Istanbul were a longstanding, thriving community comprised mostly of families of merchants. In 1955 their population was about 100,000 and they were a prominent class in the city.
Prime Minister Adnan Menderes (1950-1960) was playing the Muslim card a lot, causing irritation in the country’s Kemalist establishment. The thousands of mosques built during his prime ministership are proof of that.
At the time Istanbul, and Turkey as a whole, was not as prosperous as the Greeks, while the nationalist fever was rising, as the Greek Cypriots demanded their union with Greece. The rich Greeks of Istanbul were the perfect scapegoat.
It was a good occasion for the Turkish leaders to distract the public from its problems, turning it against the prosperous Greek minority. On August 28, 1955, Menderes publicly claimed that the Greek Cypriots were planning massacres against the Turkish Cypriots.
In essence, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes decided to turn his people against the prosperous Greeks, blaming them for all the woes of the Turks. Much like Hitler had turned most Germans against the prosperous Jewish communities in Germany in the mid-1930s.
The terror unleashed against the Greek community of Istanbul on September 6 and 7, 1955 is very much like Nazi Germany’s Kristalnacht.
The occasion for the Pogrom against the Hellenism of the city was given on September 6, with the explosion of a makeshift mechanism at the Turkish Consulate in Thessaloniki, which was and still is housed in the house where Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, was born.
The perpetrator, Oktay Engin, was arrested by Greek authorities. He was a Muslim student from Komotini, who later became a hero in Turkey. He was honored in Turkey and appointed provincial governor. Years later, in an interview with Eleftherotypia newspaper, he denied any connection with the incident and considered himself a victim of the Greek authorities.
The blast at Ataturk’s home caused only minor damage to the building’s windows, but Turkish newspapers took advantage of the situation. Following government instructions, they magnified and distorted the event. Headlines such as “Greek terrorists destroyed Ataturk’s paternal home” of the Istanbul Express and the publication of a series of fake photos of the incident sparked “spontaneous” demonstrations in Taksim Square in the afternoon of the same day.
At 5 o’clock in the afternoon, a raging crowd of 50,000 people turned against the Greek properties in the Pera district. The looting lasted until the morning hours of September 7, when the Army intervened, as the situation was in danger of spiraling out of control. Until then, the authorities remained apathetic, when they did not facilitate the looters. Menderes’ Democratic Party, which controlled the unions, played a catalytic role in the rioting.
Large numbers of protesters were transported from West Asia Minor for free, in exchange for a $ 6 fee, which was never given to them. Four thousand taxis transported them to the scene of the riots, while trucks of the Municipality of Istanbul were deployed in parts of the city, loaded with axes, shovels, bats, pickaxes, hammers, iron crowbars, and petrol cans, necessary tools for the mob who attacked the Greek stores with slogans “Death to the giaourides”,(faithless) “Break, tear down, he is giaouris”, “Slaughter the Greek traitors”, “Down with Europe” and “Let’s march against Athens and Thessaloniki”. The anger of the mob was not spared by some shops owned by Armenians and Jews.
Men and women were raped and according to the testimony of the famous Turkish writer Aziz Nesin, many priests were forced to be circumcised, with one of the victims being an Armenian priest. Sixteen Greeks lost their lives and 32 were badly injured.
Violence against the Greeks took place not only in Istanbul but also in Izmir. On the morning of September 7, Turkish nationalists set fire to the Greek pavilion at the Izmir International Fair. They then destroyed the newly built church of Agia Fotini, while looting the homes of Greek soldiers serving at NATO Headquarters.
The Papagos government tried to make the issue known internationally, but without any significant results. The Americans and the British were unwilling to put pressure on Turkey, a valuable ally during the Cold War. NATO allies advised Greece to forget about the incident.
Only the World Council of Churches from international organizations demanded an explanation from Turkey for the destruction of 90 percent of the Orthodox churches in Istanbul. However, in August 1995, the U.S. Senate called on President Clinton to declare September 6 Pogrom Remembrance Day.
The Pogrom against the Hellenism of Istanbul resulted in the death of 16 Greeks and the injury of 32, the death of one Armenian, the rape of 12 Greek women, and the rape of an unspecified number of men (who were forced to be circumcised).
Also, the rioting caused the destruction of 4,348 merchant stores, 110 hotels, 27 pharmacies, 23 schools, 21 factories, 73 churches, about 1,000 houses owned by Greeks.
The financial cost of the damages amounted to $150 million, according to international organizations, while the Greek government estimated it at $500 million. Economic destruction and fear forced thousands of expatriates to emigrate to Greece. Of the 100,000 Greeks in 1955, only 2,000 are in Istanbul today.
Later, the Turkish state, through President Celal Bayar, promised compensation for the destruction of Greek property. At best, reparations did not exceed 20 percent of the claims, given that assets had depreciated dramatically.
Many details about the September riots came to light in 1961, during the trial for the ultimate betrayal of ousted military Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, who did not escape the gallows.
The book of eminent Greek-American Byzantine scholar Spyros Vryonis “The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955 and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul” (Greekworks.com, New York, 2005) also provides valuable information.