Greeks, Turks, And The Burdens Of History

By
Joseph V. Montville

December 1999 - The nineteenth century French historian Ernst Renan wrote that a nation is "a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors." Though pessimistic, this aphorism conveys some basic truth about the importance of history--and myth--to national identity. And it highlights the enduring phenomenon of nationalist animosity in international relationships.

Against this background of received wisdom, Greeks, Turks, and their friends are assessing the impact of "earthquake diplomacy" on the future of their relationship. The anticipated new round of talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in search of a solution to their conflict and the December European Union summit in Helsinki, where Turkey's candidacy for membership will be considered, are seen as tests of the new mood of hopefulness.

Cynics, who constitute a healthy plurality, if not a majority, of the foreign affairs commentariat, believe that the era of post-earthquake good feeling will evaporate quickly when Greeks and Turks confront the seemingly intractable issues dividing their peoples in Cyprus. They point to the demands of Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash that Turkish Cyprus be recognized as a sovereign state as an insurmountable barrier to agreement, for example.
But the cynics would be wrong to undervalue the importance of the impressive surge of gratitude of ordinary Turks for the speed of the Greek rescue teams and their devotion to saving Turkish lives immediately after the August 17 earthquake struck. The Turkish press and broadcast media responded with unabashed praise and affection for Greece's generosity of spirit.

One Turkish daily ran a banner headline, in Greek letters, which said simply, "Thank You, Friends." When an earthquake struck the Athens area on September 7, Turkish rescue teams rushed to be the first foreigners on the scene. The Greek government and media reciprocated the gratitude.
In political-psychological terms, both peoples launched a process that could reverse decades, if not centuries, of dehumanizing attitudes and negative stereotypes that each held toward the other. The common feature of antagonistic ethnic relationships all over the world is that each side degrades the human worth of the other. Thus, each side will typically see the other as untrustworthy, crude or barbaric, sexually licentious, devious, physically unclean, violent, shallow, infantile--and this list goes on. The dehumanization process reaches its peak as groups, tribes, and nations prepare to go to war or to justify violent repression of a despised minority.

We are all aware of how Bosnian Serbs rationalized the rapes and cold-blooded torture and murders of Bosniak Muslims. Hitler and his Nazi propagandists referred to European Jewry as vermin that needed to be destroyed to protect the purity of the Aryan race. That he used Xyclon-B gas in his death camps for high-efficiency murder intensified the insult, if that is possible, because the chemical was ordinarily used to exterminate roaches and other undesirable insects.

But even the most civilized nations are capable of dehumanizing other races. Few of us remember or speak about the fact that the United States government distributed color posters of Japanese soldiers caricatured as monkeys during World War II. Or that the British media ran similar drawings of Irish Catholics as knuckle-dragging apes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Dehumanization is ugly, natural, and predictable when relations between groups and nations become tense. In fact, even in democracies, rightist demagogues systematically nourish their voter bases by using insulting and degrading epithets and images of the enemy of choice.

This is why the popular outpouring of compassion of Greeks for Turks and then Turks for Greeks is so significant. Psychologically, when the Greek teams raced to Turkey, they were telling Turks that they are precious, valuable human beings, worth every effort that can be made to save their lives. When the teams rescued children, the message was even more profound. It said that your children are the future of your country, and we must do everything possible to save them. The Turks heard this message and raced to Athens after its earthquake to return the favor and convey their commitment to the preciousness of Greek life. The memory of these events will stay with both peoples for a long time to come.

One need not be a cynic, however, to wonder how long the warm feeling can last in the face of the inevitable stresses on national life in both Greece and Turkey from economic, demographic, or environmental factors. Another natural and predictable rule of human nature is that, when people worry about their material well-being, getting and holding jobs, or having a future, the milk of human kindness begins to curdle. And the search for scapegoats begins. The traditional enemy is there for the blaming.

Thus, the genuine but inevitably transitory mass emotions Greeks and Turks feel at present need to be given structural support so that they can endure. Both the Greek and Turkish nations have committed aggression against each other and have suffered traumatic losses throughout their history, sometimes at the hands of each other, other times at the hands of others.

Almost always, such losses engender a profound sense of injustice in the victim nation, which becomes a part of national identity handed down from generation to generation. And, for psychological reasons, each nation feels compelled, even if unconsciously, to correct its received injustices.

There are important new ways to begin healing the wounds of history through carefully facilitated dialogue. For example, questions of how Greek memories of the destruction of Constantinople in 1207 A.D., by Latin Europeans, commingle with the eventual Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 A.D. can be explored.

This is only one of hundreds of issues that could be examined in a "walk through history." But this example is timely because the intense, popular Greek opposition to the NATO bombing of Christian Orthodox Serbia this year is directly linked to the memory of injustice associated with the razing of the heart of Christian Orthodoxy by false Crusaders from Venice, Genoa, and Pisa.
In other areas, Greek and Turkish business leaders continue to develop cooperative relationships, despite the occasional setback. A working group of Greek and Turkish media representatives is designing joint projects.
An initiative I admire greatly has Greek and Turkish university scholars running a seminar on "Shared History: The Burning of Smyrna." Together, they are walking through history, taking account of and documenting the pain and loss of Greeks, Turks, and Armenians in this tragedy of 1922. This is an important step in the long-term process of healing the wounds of history.

Joseph V. Montville is director of the preventive diplomacy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.

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