September 11 is now, for all of us, a tremendously emotive date, so much so that it is surprising when one comes across seismic historic events that did not take place in New York and Washington in 2001 it brings one up short. September 11 1922 is one such date.
I've been reading and thinking about the birth of modern Turkey, to one extent or another, for 20 years or so, and it's a credit to the power of this book that it captured my attention and served very well to keep my attention through a day in a Budapest airport riven by crowds, strikes, and the aftermath of altogether too much hospitality the night before.
Giles Milton's telling of the fall of Smyrna intermingles the broad sweep of the long First World War with individual tales, first of opulence, then of heart rending atrocity. Smyrna is portrayed as a bucolic pleasure garden destroyed in an orgy of vandalism by a victorious Turkish army, and as such this should read as a classic tale of 'good and evil'. Interestingly however, Milton cannot achieve such a simplistic conclusion, and ultimately this is the real strength of the work.
There are villains in the piece, but none of them were directly responsible for setting fire to Smyrna in September 1922; indeed at no stage is an attempt made to seriously posit that the fire that engulfed the city was a consciously taken political decision. Instead the reader finds complicity further afield. Smyrna ultimately was not destroyed by Turks, it had, after all, flourished under Ottoman rule and the decentralised Ottoman system of government allowed it to function freely through the First War. Instead the megali idea of Venizelos (and Milton accurately links this etymologically to the concept of megalomania on p.38), supported energetically by Lloyd George. Cast in this light the destruction of Smyrna is only the most tangible instance of the willful attempt to smash the Turkish state at Sevres.
None of this excuses the atrocities perpetrated in September 1922 and the wholesale ethnic cleansing that took place in the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish war, stains that persist to this day, however the broad sweep of Milton's work helps understand why tragedies occur, and why simplistically assigning blame is seldom the correct course of action.