Lourens Crielaard on the surprisingly contrasting narratives in Dutch media coverage of the Great Fire of September 1922 in İzmir/Smyrna.
A hundred years on, the question of who was to blame for the Great Fire of Smyrna or İzmir remains a highly sensitive and controversial topic. Greek and Turkish commemoration of the Turkish capture of the city could not be more different. In Greece, the fire is mourned as part of the ‘catastrophe’ of Asia Minor, whereas in today’s Turkey the event is celebrated as Izmir’s ‘liberation’.
The events of September 1922 attracted a great deal of attention from international newspapers, especially in countries that ranked among the so-called Great Powers. The Netherlands was not one of these, and remained neutral in the war, maintaining close economic relations with Smyrna, where there was a long-established Dutch community. Dutch newspapers expressed outspoken and often starkly contrasting views on the events surrounding the Great Fire.
Two examples may suffice. De Telegraaf published a front-page article on 17 September 1922, reporting that: “The Levant’s metropolis has gone up in flames. The Turk remains the same through the ages. Murders and burnings are to him the jewel of war.” De Telegraaf was already one of the Netherlands’ most widely read newspapers– as it remains today. It continued in a similar vein, noting that the Turks had massacred Armenians and expelled around 400,000 Greeks from Thrace within a few months. De Telegraaf labelled this “one of the most gruesome misdeeds in world history.” The journalist condemned Kemal for “bringing the Christians of Asia Minor under Turkish oppression once again.” The destruction of Smyrna and its many victims showed his true nature.
An opposite view is found in an article published roughly a month after the fire, in the October 25 issue of Het Nieuws van den Dag voor Nederlandsch-Indië. This newspaper was widely read in the Dutch-East Indies and had a conservative profile, often denouncing Indonesian anti-imperialism. At the same time, it regularly voiced dissatisfaction with the Dutch colonial administration. The article in question is signed by “K.W.”, most probably the initials of K.W. Wybrands, an influential author renowned for his sharp, critical and highly personal contributions: examples of so-called tropenstijl that characterized European journalism in the Dutch East-Indies at that time.
For Wybrands Sèvres had been an Allied diktat: “Their peace – it is high time to replace it with another, more reasonable and natural peace – could never and will never be preserved, except by inflicting destruction and death.” He welcomed the fact that Smyrna/İzmir was once again in Turkish hands. Wybrands blamed the British for the Greco-Turkish War, denouncing any foreign presence in Turkey: “In Turkey, the British are at least not alone. However, it would be even better if they were not there at all, if all the Allies would go away and leave the Turks peacefully to their own fate.”
In both articles, the capture of Smyrna served to make a broader point. According to De Telegraaf, it was a prime example of Turkish barbarity that brought misery to the region’s Christian inhabitants. Wybrands on the other hand took the opportunity to sneer at the British and their global colonial presence. The contrast shows us how the Dutch press highlighted different elements of the same event. De Telegraaf sympathized with the Greeks as fellow Christians, whereas Het Nieuws van den Dag supported the Turkish right to self-determination, free of British interference.
These conflicting viewpoints were paralleled in contrasting Greek-Turkish perspectives that still dominate: on the one hand a focus on the Fire’s catastrophic humanitarian consequences, on the other visions of triumph and redemption. The events of 9 September 1922 highlight the fine line between ‘catastrophe’ and ‘liberation’, and it will be interesting to see how Greece and Turkey choose to commemorate the upcoming centenary.
FEATURE IMAGE: AYDIN ERKMEN, THE TURKISH ENTRY INTO IZMIR IN SEPTEMBER 1922, OIL ON POPLAR, 1922. SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
 Leyla Neyzi, ‘Remembering Smyrna/Izmir. Shared History, Shared Trauma’, History & Memory 20.2 (2008): 106-127 (106).
 See for instance, ‘Ongerustheid in Smyrna. Hollandsche Ingezetenen Ongerust’, De expres, 8 September 1922; ‘Nederlanders te Smyrna’, De Volkskrant, 29 September 1922.
 ‘Smyrna’, De Telegraaf, 17 September 1922: “De Metropolis van de Levant is in vlammen opgegaan. De Turk blijft zichzelf door de eeuwen heen gelijk. Moorden en branden zijn hem het sieraad van den oorlog.”
 Ibid: “[..] vormen een der gruwelijkste wandaden uit de wereldgeschiedenis.”
 Ibid.: “[..] heeft hij opnieuw alle Christenen van Klein-Azië aan de Turksche verdrukkingen ter prooi gebracht.”
 Mirjam Maters, Van zachte wenk tot harde hand. Persvrijheid en persbreidel in Nederlands-Indië 1906-1942 (Hilversum: Verloren, 1998), 36-39.
 Ibid.: “Hùn vrede – het wordt hóóg tijd er een anderen, meer redelijken en meer natuurlijken voor in de plaats te stellen – kon zich en zal zich nimmer kunnen handhaven, als alleen door het zaaien van ruïne en dood.”
 ‘Izmir, Istamboul, Edirne’, Het Nieuws van den Dag voor Nederlandsch-Indië: “In Turkije zijn de Engelschen tenminste niet alleen. Het zou echter nog beter zijn als ze er heelemaal niet waren en dat alle geallieerden heengingen en de Turken rustig aan hun lot overlieten.”
This is the fifth of a series of blog posts contributed by university students as part of their assignments. Lourens studies history at Utrecht University.