The Turkish Tragedy
By John Dewey
Published in The New Republic, November 12, 1928
The tragedy in Turkey is more extensive than the sad plight of minorities. Those who have the patience to refrain in the Near East from a premature partisanship are likely soon to arrive at a state of mind in which all parties are so much to blame that the question of assigning responsibility is at most one of quantities and proportions. But a deeper and fuller acquaintance with the sufferings of all these peoples brings with it a revulsion. One becomes disgusted with the whole affair of guilt. Pity for all populations, minority and majority alike, engulfs all other sentiments- except that of indignation against the foreign powers which have so unremittingly and so cruelly utilized the woes of their puppets for their own ends.
The situation in Turkey with respect to Turks, Armenians and Greeks alike meets all the terms of the classic definition of tragedy, the tragedy of fate. A curse has been laid upon all populations and all have moved forward blindly to suffer their doom.
It is a tragedy with only victims, not heroes, no matter how heroic individuals may have been. There are villains, but they are muffled figures appearing upon the open stage only for fleeting glimpses. They are the Great Powers, among which it is surely not invidious to select Russia and Great Britain by name. It is easy to become a fatalist in the presence of the history of Asia Minor and the Balkans; any one who would write history in terms of Providence is well advised to keep clear of these territories.
We were in Bursa, the seat of the Ottoman power before the capture of Constantinople, one of the most beautiful and in natural promise most prosperous of the cities of Anatolian Turkey. As we walked the streets we passed alternately by the closed shops and houses formerly kept by Greeks and Armenians who are now dead or deported in exchange for Turks in Greece, and by the ruins of buildings of the Turkish population burnt by the Greeks in their retreat. We saw business houses which had changed hands back and forth, the Greeks seizing the property of Turkish merchants and compelling the latter to flee the city when they were in power, and Turkish merchants in present possession of trades and commercial institutions formerly belonging to Greeks. There was a jumble with no outstanding fact except that of general suffering and ruin. It struck me as a symbol of the whole situation, only on a smaller scale and with less bloodshed and rapine than is found in most parts of the Anatolian territory.
The valley of “Green Bursa’ was full of flourishing tobacco crops. Even they had a voice speaking indirectly of misery. A few years ago no tobacco was grown in this region. It was introduced by the Turks expelled from Macedonia now precariously occupied by the Greeks-precariously because Serbs and Bulgars both claim it in the name of nationalism with Turks nourishing resentment in memory of their long and industrious residence from which they have been violently expelled. Thus the flourishing tobacco told the same tale as the declining silk-cocoon business, the latter languishing because it was the industry of Greeks now forced to remove. I know nothing which speaks more urgently of the common tragedy than the fact that the cruel exchange of populations by the half million, this uprooting of men, women, and children transferring them to places where they do not want to go and where they are not wanted, has seemed to honest and kind persons the only hope for the avoidance of future atrocities.
Bursa serves also as a symbol of another phase of the situation. We passed through the Jewish quarter, and found the Jews still in possession of their homes and property, the more flourishing perhaps because of the total absence of their former commercial competitors, the Greeks and Armenians. Unbidden the thought comes to mind: Happy the minority which has had no Christian nation to protect it. And one recalls that the Jews took up their abode in “fanatic” Turkey when they were expelled from Europe, especially Spain, by saintly Christians, and they have lived here for some centuries in at least as much tranquility and liberty as their fellow Turkish subjects, all being exposed alike to the rapacity of their common rulers. To one brought up, as most Americans have been, in the Gladstonian and foreign-missionary tradition, the condition of the Jews in Turkey is almost a mathematical demonstration that religious differences have had an influence in the tragedy of Turkey only as they were combined with aspirations for a political separation which every nation in the world would have treated as treasonable. One readily reaches the conclusion that the Jews in Turkey were fortunate that a Zionistic state had not been built up which should feel strong enough to intervene in Turkish politics and stimulate a separatist movement and political revolt. In contrast, the fate of the Greeks and Armenians, the tools of nationalistic and imperialistic ambitions of foreign powers, makes one realize how accursed has been the minority population that had the protection of a Christian foreign power.
Unfortunately the end is not yet, even with the completed exchange of populations, and the accompanying misery of peoples at least temporarily homeless, often unacquainted with the language of their home-kin, with thousands of orphans and beggared refugees, as numerous among the Turks as among the Armenians and Greeks, even if our Christian benevolence, still under the influence of foreign political propaganda, does not hear so much about or experience the same solicitude for Turkish woes. The end is not yet because, in the case of the Armenians at least, the great powers have not even yet become willing to refrain from experimenting at their expense. One can hardly blame the Greeks in their unsettled and unstable condition for asking that a considerable portion of the deported Armenians be again deported, this time from Greek soil. But what shall we say when we read that already at Geneva a plea has been made for the creation of the Armenian “home” in Caucasian Turkey-a home that would require protection by some foreign power and be the prelude to new armed conflicts and ultimate atrocities? Few Americans who mourn, and justly, the miseries of the Armenians, are aware that till the rise of nationalistic ambitions, beginning with the ‘seventies, the Armenians were the favored portion of the population of Turkey, or that in the Great War, they traitorously turned Turkish cities over to the Russian invader; that they boasted of having raised an army of one hundred and fifty thousand men to fight a civil war, and that they burned at least a hundred Turkish villages and exterminated their population. I do not mention these things by way of appraising or extenuating blame because the story of provocations and reprisals is a futile as it is endless; but it indicates what happened in the past to both Armenian and Turkish populations when the minority element was taken under the protecting care of a foreign Christian power, and what will recur if the Armenians should be organized into a buffer state. Nor is it likely to be better in “little Armenia”, if the Armenians of Latin Catholic persuasion are deposited between the Turks to the north and Syria to the south, which is, according to newspaper reports, to be the French policy in connection with their mandated territory.
If human wit is baffled in seeking constructive measures which shall transform the tragic scene into one of happiness, history at least makes clear a negative lesson. Nothing but evil to all parties has come in the past or will come in the future from the attempts of foreign nations to utilize the national aspirations of minority populations in order to advance their own political interests, while they can conceal and justify their villainous courses by appeal to religion. After all the Turks are here; there is a wide territory in which they form an undisputed majority; for centuries the land has been their own; the sentiments have gathered about it that always attend long habitation. Whether we like it or not, other elements in the population must accommodate themselves to this dominant element, as surely as, say, immigrants in America have to adjust their political aspirations and nationalistic preferences to the fact of a unified national state. If a fiftieth of the energy, money and planning that has been given to fostering antagonisms among the populations had been given to searching out terms upon which the populations could live peaceably together without the disruption of Turkey, the situation today would be enormously better than it is. Whether the European great powers have learned the lesson that their protection and aid is a fatal and tragic gift, there is no way of knowing. But it is at least time that Americans ceased to be deceived by propaganda in behalf of policies which are now demonstrated to bring death and destruction impartially to all elements, and which are nauseating precisely in the degree that they are smeared over with sentiments alleged to be derived from religion. Finally, if slowly, the Turks also have been converted to nationalism. The disease exists in a virulent form at just this moment. It will abate or be exacerbated in just the degree in which the Turkish nation is accepted in good faith as an accomplished fact by other nations, or in which the old tradition of intervention, intrigue and incitation persists. In the latter case, the bloody tragedy of Turkey and the Balkans will continue to unroll.