November 4, 2016

1955. The Aftermath of the Istanbul Pogrom

The September Riots
A man walks through the rubble in Beyoğlu district of Istanbul in the aftermath of the anti-Greek pogrom in September 1955
The text is been adapted from a report cabled from Beirut to Edward R. Murrow in New York.
Bill Downs

CBS Beirut

September 1955

(New York: for Murrow, et al. Dateline Istanbul, filed from Beirut)

Istanbul still wears a hangdog look. It is suffering from an emotional hangover of remorse even two weeks after the tragic anti-Greek riots.

A Turkish man in the street walks past hundreds of wrecked stores and shops and refuses to look at victims repairing windows and looted shelves. Turkey's NATO troops patrol the streets with fixed bayonets, and a midnight to 4 AM curfew is strictly enforced.

The glass rubble has been cleaned up, and raided Greek cemeteries and churches have been tidied—but the city is far from recovered from the reaction to a single night's directed anarchy and backwash tension—fear prevails. Some Greeks are still afraid to sleep in their own beds, and even Turks look askance at each other—as if afraid that the nightmare might be started again.

The Menderes government disavows any responsibility for the admittedly well-organized plot in Istanbul and Izmir which wrecked upwards of eighty percent of Greek businesses—but the government does not take responsibility for the breakdown in police and public order that allowed the mob to do its work for four hours.

Whether or how deeply government figures were involved in the depredations cannot be determined, but the government's embarrassment can be measured by the ouster of the interior minister, three generals, and the Izmir police chief. Menderis personally launched a relief fund to aid Greek victims, and the government promised compensation. The Greeks estimate $350 million in damage, which is ten times the loan that the government is trying to borrow from the United States to bolster Turkey's ailing economy. How the Menderes regime can keep this promise to pay compensation is not clear.

The current confusing and recriminating internal situation only serves to underline the international repercussions which have revealed a major diplomatic mystery that stretches from Ankara to London.

The mystery begins about August 25, the eve of the Turkish-Greek conference in London regarding Cyprus. In Ankara, the Turkish Foreign Office allegedly handed the British an "informal" note protesting alleged Greek mistreatment of the Turkish minority on Cyprus. Turkish newspapers carried the report, although the exact contents have not been disclosed.

The next day Menderes spoke at a dinner for the departing Turkish delegation, saying "Cypriot Turks will not go undefended" if action is taken against them.

In London on August 27, the British Foreign Office issued a statement that the Turkish note had warned of a Greek plot to massacre Cypriot Turks on the following Sunday. The interesting part is that the massacre plot allegations were not aired in Turkey until they were released by the British.

Meanwhile in Istanbul, the government admits it relaxed its anti-demonstration ban in order to allow the National Student Federation to hold a meeting on the Cyprus question. Such meetings are a standard Middle East political technique of taking controversial issues to the streets and usually ending when steam is blown off.

However, on the evening of September 6, something had been added to the demonstration. For several days rumors circulated that the demonstration would be something special. Istanbul newspapers which usually print one addition managed to print extras on the bombing of the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki.

There have been isolated instances of Turkish employers telling Greek proprietors that they will be out of business within the next day. Government spokesmen admit that ransacking began in at least sixty places sprawling throughout Istanbul simultaneously, and this could not have happened without a master plan. Police and Army troops who were later called in failed to act with decision, since it was known that the government okayed the student demonstration.

Although some four thousand have been arrested and an investigation has been underway for two weeks, no one admits to knowing who was behind the plot. Government spokesmen are now dropping the original charges that it was communist-inspired. They said it will take six months to complete the investigation—whereafter a special session of parliament voted to extend martial law for that same length of time. The government's explanation is that it "was well known that rumors of the August 28 massacre on Cyprus were circulating," significant in connection with the London announcement. Interestingly, in its shocked reaction to rioting, the Turkish government has not even gotten around to denying the Greek charges that a Turkish fanatic bombed its own Thessaloniki consulate.

The government realizes that the damage to Turkish prestige is the greatest since the riots that occurred on the eve of the International Monetary Fund conference to stop the government's campaign to attract foreign loans capital, which was seriously hurt by evidence of instability. Inferentially, the British and Turkish case before the United Nations on Cyprus has also been hurt by the backfire of demonstration.

However, there is no evidence of any change in the Turkish stance on Cyprus, and the riots make settlement even more difficult.

What has been most seriously damaged by the uprising is Western unity. National prides and ancient hatreds are now involved, and will continue to be for many years until anything like mutual trust can be established.

The United States' interests and commitments in this part of the world have involved us in a strange and mysterious diplomatic game which is being played by experts, largely with America's ante.