Greece and Legacies of Violence

By Meghan L. Morris*

 

In the month of July, the United Nations Refugee Agency recorded 50,000 refugees arriving in Greece by sea. This is more than the number of migrants arriving in Greece in all of 2014. Most are fleeing war and violence in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, with 70% of those arriving in July coming from Syria. The vast majority of these migrants arrive on the Greek island of Mytilene (Lesvos), which is just six miles off the coast of Turkey.

These migrants are arriving in a country already suffering from years of austerity, with more to come. After seven years of crisis, thirty percent of the Greek population is now below the poverty line, and 26% is unemployed – up from 7.8% in 2008. Greece just reached an agreement with its creditors for a third bailout, which promises more austerity and, many argue, will simply continue Greece’s suffering.

This family of Syrian refugees arrived in Greece when the boat they were traveling in to Italy sank in the Aegean Sea. The father, Yusef, was a doctor, and his wife a pharmacist before they were forced to flee Syria. Photo credit: SpaceShoe

This family of Syrian refugees arrived in Greece when the boat they were traveling in to Italy sank in the Aegean Sea. The father, Yusef, was a doctor, and his wife a pharmacist before they were forced to flee Syria. Photo credit: SpaceShoe

Migrants arriving on the beaches of Lesvos exhausted and hungry are greeted by a population that has little to spare, and a government that is under-resourced for the task of housing, feeding, and processing paperwork for the thousands arriving each day.

Both Greece’s economic problems and the migrant issue have, at different points, been framed as posing risks to the stability of Europe. The prospect of Grexit sent some speculating about the potential collapse of the euro, and even as a threat to the European Union writ large. Others have regarded the failure to deal with migrants entering Europe through the Mediterranean as a threat to the European project and the “noble idea” of civility and peace behind it.

Greek protesters rally against austerity measures. Photo credit: desbyrnephotos

Greek protesters rally against austerity measures. Photo credit: desbyrnephotos

Both Greece’s economic problems and the migrant issue have, at different points, been framed as posing risks to the stability of Europe. The prospect of Grexit sent some speculating about the potential collapse of the euro, and even as a threat to the European Union writ large. Others have regarded the failure to deal with migrants entering Europe through the Mediterranean as a threat to the European project and the “noble idea” of civility and peace behind it.

But what if we considered these problems not simply as a threat to a notion of peace undergirding the European project, but also as part and parcel of that project’s related legacy of violence?

Lesvos, along with most of what is now Greece, was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century the early 20th century. In 1912, it became part of the Kingdom of Greece as a result of the First Balkan War. My great-grandfather Michael, who lived in Lesvos, identified himself in ship’s logs in 1911 as a citizen of Turkey – and in 1913 as a citizen of Greece. In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne ended the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies, and further defined the borders of the new Turkish Republic with Greece, Bulgaria, Syria, and Iraq. This border delimitation granted Greek sovereignty over Lesvos.

The new borders of Turkey and Greece established by the Treaty of Lausanne.

The new borders of Turkey and Greece established by the Treaty of Lausanne.

The Treaty of Lausanne, however, was not just about defining Turkish and Greek sovereignty. It was also about cementing the borders of Europe. These borders were geographic, slicing through places like the straits of Mytilene between Turkey and Lesvos. They were also religious. A key component of the agreements signed in Lausanne in 1923 was the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, which was conducted along religious lines. With few exceptions, Orthodox Christians living within the new Turkish borders were forced to resettle in Greece, while Muslims living in Greece were expelled to Turkey.

Approximately two million people were made refugees through this exchange. One of them was my other great-grandfather, Christos, an Orthodox Christian living as an Ottoman citizen in what became Turkey, from which he was expelled. Many Orthodox refugees moving west to Greece, however, died as a result of hunger and disease in the move, while others were massacred. Christos, wanting to avoid this fate, instead went south to Jordan and Lebanon – also former Ottoman territories – where he labored for a number of years until he was able to take a ship to Greece. He settled in northern Greece, which suffered from Nazi occupation in World War II. The Greeks paid dearly for this occupation, through forced loans to the Nazis from the Bank of Greece, as well as widespread death and destruction. They then suffered the violence of the Greek Civil War. Christos, displaced yet again by the Civil War, eventually settled in the Greek city of Thessaloniki (Salonika).

The waterfront of Thessaloniki. Photo credit by: linmtheu

The waterfront of Thessaloniki. Photo credit by: linmtheu

Debates around Grexit and migrants often frame Greece as (Christian) Europe’s problematic edge. But as Mark Mazower describes in Salonica, City of Ghosts, for centuries places like Thessaloniki were vibrant, cosmopolitan Ottoman centers where communities of Jews, Muslims, and Christians thrived. Events such as the expelling of Muslims through the Treaty of Lausanne, and the extermination of Thessaloniki’s Greek Jews by the Nazis during World War II, were part of the violent creation of an Orthodox Christian Greece. This Greece, in turn, could be part of modern Europe, gifting to Europe its legacy of democracy in exchange for membership.

The continuing crises of the Greek economy and surges in migrants do, indeed, put aspects of the European project in question. But perhaps, rather than simply lamenting the threat to European peace and stability, it is worth considering the fact that these crises are also the legacy of the violent making of the continent. A continent whose borders are so new that there are people living in Greece today who were born Ottoman citizens – just like the grandparents of Syrian migrants arriving now on the shores of Lesvos, who are judged by the foreignness of their citizenship, and of their faith. And a continent whose legacy of war throws into question exactly who owes what to whom, as debates around Germany’s unpaid wartime debt to Greecedemonstrate.

Viewed through this lens, it is perhaps less surprising that the European project would produce ongoing violence today – of austerity, of poverty, and of exclusion. If indeed there is also a “noble idea” undergirding the project of Europe, it is high time for that idea to reach the shores of Lesvos, where Greek citizens and migrants alike would welcome its promise of prosperity, and of peace.

 

*Meghan L. Morris is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and an Affiliated Researcher at Dejusticia (the Center for Law, Justice and Society)

Photo credit: Syrian refugees flee to Turkey. Photo credit: EC/ECHO