Yaprak Gürsoy explains how the collective trauma of war and conflict between Greece and Turkey still permeates their perceptions of each other, and themselves.
Yaprak is Professor of European Politics and Chair of Contemporary Turkish Studies at LSE.
January 30, 2023 marked the centenary of the exchange of populations agreement, signed between Greece and Turkey at Lausanne. A century on, conflicts in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean still feature prominently on the agendas of both countries. Tensions exposed in episodes such as the Imia/Kardak Crisis of 1996 (main image) are usually seen as a case of an uneasy peace threatened by hard power and national interests. Reflecting on the past century, however, it is worth looking beyond these realist concerns, and consider other reasons behind the current animosity, themselves reinforced by the memory of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century wars.
Decades of conflict, starting with the Greek independence war in 1821 and culminating in the Greco-Turkish war in 1919, can be thought of as collective trauma, which can be defined as a horrible and shocking episode that causes a community to experience intense emotions. Yet traumas are also events that reveal how one’s sense of belonging to (and feeling secure within) one’s community was actually misplaced. As scholars such as Jenny Edkins and Emma Hutchinson have persuasively argued, through this revelation, collective traumas can dismantle groups and provide opportunities to reconstitute and imagine new communities. Collective pain through traumatic events forms new surfaces and borders that can establish the basis of these new communities. The shared memories and narratives of the trauma are then passed down to generations who continue to remember the pain and suffering. In these ways, collective traumas underpin national identities.
CARTOON BY ILIAS MAKRIS, FROM EKATHIMERINE, 7 MARCH 2018. COURTESY YAPRAK GÜRSOY.
Seen from this perspective, it is not surprising that many nation states were built through wars, and remember and commemorate these foundational traumas as part of what makes them who they are. In the case of Greece and Turkey, more than any other historical episode, it was the collective trauma of their wars and conflicts with each other that constituted their current collective identities. Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1831 and gradually expanded into Ottoman territories, until the First World War. Following the Sèvres Treaty ın 1920, Turkey fought its War of Independence mainly against Greece and established its western borders against its neighbour.
In this sense, Greek and Turkish identities were constituted against one another. Narratives of these episodes of collective trauma form the basis of their negative perceptions. The two nations remember who they are through the glorious memories of their wars. For both countries, this is a celebrated self-identification that hides their own nation’s violence and atrocities. Instead of facing their own culpability, Greeks and Turks alike remember who “the other” that caused the pain was. Thus, they put the blame almost entirely on each other, while recalling and demonising the enemy as part of their self-identification.(1)
CARTOON BY GOTIS ŠLŪSKA, AYKIRI.COM.TR. COURTESY YAPRAK GÜRSOY.
In its typical narrative of the Greek “self” vis-à-vis Turkey, Greece is a nation of at least 3000 years. Modern Greeks are the direct descendants of the Ancient Greeks through the Byzantium Empire, which was dismantled by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Greece was separated from its European origins by the Turkish yoke – a memory that underpins current perceptions. Turkey is viewed as aggressive, with neo-Ottomanist and expansionist goals, which include controlling the Aegean, encapsulating the islands and taking over Cyprus permanently.
The common Turkish perceptions of Greece mirror these narratives. It is remembered that the Greek state once propagated the Megali Idea (1850-1922) and aimed to unite all Greek-speaking populations. The general belief is that Greece still desires to turn the Aegean into a Greek lake, leave Turkey landlocked and unite with Cyprus through the EU. In this narrative, Greek aggression is enabled by the West and especially by the European powers.
The memory of the wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has shaped Turkish and Greek identities and their perceptions of one another. While the Lausanne Treaty ended the war and guaranteed an uneasy peace for a century, it did not erase the memories of the wounds that were opened through trauma.
The anniversary of the exchange of populations is perhaps the best time to reflect on this joint pain. On 30 January 1923, both the Greek and Turkish governments agreed to force around 2 million people to leave their homes. This agreement is a reminder of the pain of the past generations caused mutually by both sides. The history of the Greek-Turkish wars is one of common grief and sorrow. Rather than claiming that one’s pain surpasses the other’s or comparing traumas, after 100 years it is now time to reconstitute Greek-Turkish relations based on the history of their shared sufferings.
 For examples, see Hercules Millas, “National Perception of the ‘Other’ and the Persistence of Some Images” in Mustafa Aydin and Kostas Ifantis, eds, Turkish-Greek Relations: The Security Dilemma in the Aegean (London: Routledge, 2004); Umut Ozkirimli and Spyros A. Sofos, Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey (London: Hurst, 2008); Alexis Heraclides, “The Essence of the Greek-Turkish Rivalry: National Narrative and Identity”, GreeSE papers 51 (London: LSE Hellenic Observatory, 2011).