Mark Levene makes the case for a paradigm shift in genocide studies.

Mark is Professor Emeritus in Genocide Studies at the University of Southampton.

How should we understand the Asia Minor catastrophe as encapsulated in the Smyrna paroxysm of September 1922? As a specific tragedy inflicted on Greeks, Armenians and other peoples?  As an aberration from moral and international legal norms? Or as something else; an indicator of the trajectory of twentieth-century travel, of system dysfunction, even of the cul-de-sac condition of human society in its Anthropocene twilight? On 13 September 1922, four days after the Turkish army’s arrival in the cosmopolitan port city of Smyrna, most of it began to go up in flames.

We know what happened in the subsequent ten days to those who had not already been extinguished in the flames, murdered, raped or marched off for a slower, lingering death in the Anatolian interior. And we know how their paroxysm on the narrow waterfront between death in the inferno, or death by drowning was caught on the cameras of the many foreign media witnesses from the safety of the array of international ships anchored in the harbour.

What I see, as I stand on the deck of HMS Iron Duke, is an unbroken wall of fire, two miles long, in which twenty distinct volcanoes of raging flame are throwing up jagged, writhing tongues to a height of a hundred feet.  All Smyrna’s rich warehouses, businesses and European residences are burning like furious torches… an intensely glowing mass of yellow, orange and crimson fire, the sea glowing a deep copper red.

George Ward Price in the Daily Mail

Ward Price’s term “holocaust” was taken up by other eyewitnesses. Indeed the prevalent feel was of something more than even Greek tragedy. Was this “Smyrna holocaust,” a premonition of the end of the world, as in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, Pieter Breughel the Elder, or the English apocalyptic romanticist, John Martin?

One hundred years on that notion of holocaust, even apocalypse, poses challenging questions. Memories of searing loss, catastrophe, ethnic cleansing and genocide are not just a matter of communal memorialisation. They demand broad international recognition. But a standard historian’s approach might instead begin with a search for context, processes, patterns, which might link Smyrna to wider issues of causation and with it a necessity for some deeper historical underpinning. Even before the conflagration, Arnold Toynbee proposed in his Western Question in Greece and Turkey that the exterminatory violence in Asia Minor and the Balkans was part of an accelerating pattern since 1912, which was worse than during most of the previous century, though, since 1821, itself worse than than the entirety of  the period from 1461 to then.

Toynbee was not coy from calling out the culprit, this destabiliser of the Ottoman world, namely nationalism, and that would seem to be confirmed not only in the destruction of the age-old multiethnic fabrics which accompanied these wars of Ottoman succession but in the more concentrated timeframe from the Greek entry into Smyrna in 1919 through to its denouement in September 1922  in which were forged not just Turkey as modern nation-state but coevally Greece. After all, subsequent to this moment at the apogee of the “unmixing of peoples” both polities could gear themselves to nation-state building confident in the great power imprimatur which Lausanne had provided.

One could take this further and argue that the Smyrna holocaust reset the entire liberal world system towards an acceptable people reordering within cultural homogenised nation-states as the indispensable and hence inviolable political touchstone upon which state developmentalism might cohere within a Western-led international political economy. Westphalianism to be sure but combined with the necessity for population deportations, excisions and exchange of unwanted groups as the price for the well-being of a truly global, technically streamlined oikoumene. Think of the entire sequence from the 1937 Peel proposals for the partition of Palestine through to post-Yalta, and post-British partition of India’s forced population removals, and one might have the measure of Smyrna as a waystation.

A normative approach to history, as even to genocide, assumes not just a human past to be interpreted but one in which contemporary historians will still have the benefit of the doubt of their descendants. That can no longer be taken as given. Natural historians have been consistently warning for more than thirty years that anthropogenic disruption of biogeochemical earth cycles is taking us to the brink of civilisational collapse. In place of endless history, unfolding into the future, we instead inhabit what the scientists have designated the Anthropocene.

Supposing we were to return to the idea of the Smyrna holocaust as a waystation, but in a much longer time frame, one through which we might chart a species trajectory towards its own self-induced annihilation.

Controlled fire, as we know, is at the heart of the human story, towards civilisation, towards the light. It is both creator but also destroyer. In the Hebrew scriptures consuming fire is a repeated motif especially in relation to those who incur the wrath of Yahweh. Setting fire to the dwellings, sacred sites and persons of those who stood in the way of empire building projects was no new civilisational innovation at Smyrna anymore than at Urfa in 1895 when 3000 people were burnt alive in the Armenian cathedral during the Hamidian massacres.

It is perhaps a piquant irony that it was barrels of Standard Oil petroleum, the new energy source of the  contemporary automobile age, which gave to the Smyrna holocaust its particular intensity and odour. Fast forward twenty-one years to the Allied area bombing campaign of Germany and we can see how the focused use of high explosive bombs and oil-based incendiaries were designed to exponentially outdo anything the Turks could muster. Meticulously prepared by British and US strategic planners, the eight day fire-bombing of Hamburg in July 1943, consciously designated as Operation Gomorrah, was intended to maximise heat intensity which resulted in typhoon-style wind speeds of 150 miles per hour and street temperatures of up to 1,400 degrees fahrenheit. With oxygen literally sucked out of air raid shelters and replaced with carbon monoxide, not less than 37,000 Hamburg inhabitants were asphyxiated to death or incinerated along with some 60 per cent of their city.

The advent of the atomic age confirmed that technological prometheanism had surpassed itself. The night before the very first atomic test, codenamed Trinity, on July 16th 1945, Manhattan Project scientists took bets as to whether the explosion would ignite the atmosphere and so incinerate the planet. The consequences of these giant experiments in unleashing cosmic fire, as a rule only began to cause concern when radioactive contamination started to boomerang against its protagonists. An underground French test in southern Algeria which spectacularly misfired in 1962 leading to the contamination of leading government VIPs did cause a scandale, not the fact that thousands of nomadic Tuareg and other local people were either killed outright or suffered excruciating illness and lingering death from the many tests in the region.

Does the hierarchisation of the world’s peoples, or the fact that it is primarily indigenous communities who are taking the full brunt of Anthropocene corporate and state efforts to gobble up what remains of the planet’s wildernesses, detract from the memory of Greek and Armenian immolation in Smyrna?

Not at all. It might remind us that as Gaia’s own fiery riposte to human transgression becomes all consuming she will not discriminate between rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, the white, the yellow and the brown. As global warming accelerates mother earth towards a scientifically forecast sixth extinction, holocaust, genocide and ecocide blur into omnicide. In June 2021 a group of 24 scholars issued a statement in The Journal of Genocide Research calling on fellow colleagues to recognise the necessity of a paradigm shift in the field as a consequence of the now perpetual climate emergency. The statement drew attention to the forces which created the conditions for modernity, not least through colonial conquest and predation and with them the arrival of a hegemonic world system, the interrelationships between ecocidal and genocidal warfare waged against peoples and planet included.

Genocide causation indeed is closely intertwined with aggressive, developmental drives most keenly pursued in elite-led, technologically assisted, nation-state building projects. Megali Idea was just one casualty on a contemporary road littered with vaulting ambition. To which ancient Greeks in their greater wisdom gave the name hubris. And for which the riposte was always nemesis.

As Gaia’s blowback is now unleashed against us, not least through fire and water, humanity’s last hope, species wise, may be to heed those who call on us for a redirection of our energies. Toynbee in his valedictory work Mankind and Mother Earth urged Man to seek not a material mastery over his non-human environment but for a spiritual mastery over himself.

What is both alarming and paradoxical about the dysfunctional human eco-system we inhabit is that despite all the scientific warnings there is no palpable evidence that the story will change. As the wheels come off the planetary train the most likely response of nation-states will be a case of combatting the symptoms not the causes of dysfunction. Attempting business as usual is likely to result in ever greater efforts to shore up the state itself, especially its territorial borders. Growing demotic, indeed increasingly shrill majoritarian demands for a state of exception or siege to guarantee diminishing food and fresh water security, plus of course fossil fuel energy supply from wherever in the world that can be extracted, is likely to equally involve a sharp, even savage state and or societal singling out and marginalisation of communities who, for whatever historic reason, or ongoing prejudice, are deemed unworthy of the state’s succour – and hence outside its universe of obligation.

 In the wake of Smyrna and the Asia Minor Catastrophe, one and half million traumatised refugees who were designated as fellow-countrymen were able to find sanctuary in Greece or Turkey. But set against the terms of twenty first-century biospheric catastrophe such numbers will seem not just minuscule but equally overwhelmed by the fear that most of the refugees will not be people like us.

Saving our souls against the others will carry with it violence on a scale as yet hardly imaginable. Genocide will not diminish. The dead will continue to be unequal in their final paroxysm. But Gaia’s dominion will be absolute.

Is there at this late hour, a different path we might tread, one to which genocide scholars might contribute an iota of their knowledge and acuity?  While there is still life the possibilities in fact remain endless. But they will need to be built on a firm base of reconciliation with ourselves and mother nature. A renunciation of our place in the firmament as some God species, a repentance for what we have done, a recognition à la Lemkin, that the human family is made up, like nature itself, of a mosaic of symbiotically intertwined parts: an oikuomene, geared towards replenishment of a plundered Commons, made up of diverse, multiple communities, together with others, in paths of  reciprocal, non-violent coexistence, without predation, welcoming the stranger, working in the creation of a genuine commonwealth on earth : might this be a worthy task for us in this very special, possibly end time and space we inhabit?

This post is an edited version of a paper presented at “The Age of Catastrophe and the Destruction of Coexistence: Expulsions, Deportations, and Genocides, 1912-1924”, a conference held in Kalamata, Greece, 1-4 December 2022.

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