Does history repeat itself in the Middle East?

Some thoughts by Theo Pavlidis (June 6, 2002)

It seems that, at least in the Middle East, history does repeat itself. I will argue the position that the current Middle East conflict is in reality a conflict between the United States and French-led Europe with Israel and the Arabs serving the role of proxies in much the same way as Greeks and Turks served the role of proxies for England and France (plus Italy) respectively during the 1919- 22 conflict about the control of the Middle East Oil.

Both of my parents were from amongst the million and a half refugees from Turkey who fled to Greece in 1922 and I had grown up listening to the stories of the "lost fatherlands." However I never heard of anyone wanting to go back. Not only would it have been a distraction from efforts to build a new life, it would have also caused the refugees to return to an unfriendly environment. Therefore I was quite puzzled by the Palestinian demand of the "right of return" for the refugees and I decided to do some additional reading on the history of that period. I had read several books in Greek and, of course, I had heard a lot of oral history but until now I had not read any books in English. It took me awhile to find one but finally I located The Smyrna Affair by Marjorie Housepian [MH71] (A reprint of this book [MHD98] is available from amazon.com.)

Reading the book made me lose interest on the particulars of refugee story quickly because a far more horrible story was unfolding. The Greek-Turkish war of 1919-22 was not really a war between the Greeks and the Turks. That war was really a conflict between the British (using the Greeks as proxies) on one hand and the French and Italians on the other (using the Turks as proxies). The prize was the oil of Mosul (which was then part of the Ottoman empire and it is now part of Iraq). At some point the British curved out Iraq out of the Ottoman Empire and made sure that it included the Mosul oil fields. Once they had the oil, there was no need for them to continue supporting the Greeks. The result was a major disaster for Greece. (Even though the Turks "won" that war, they also suffered grievous consequences.) I had heard and read before about foreign influences in the Greek-Turkish war but I had never realized that foreign interests instigated the whole war. For sure, Greece had politicians (irredentists) who wanted to invade Turkey but in opposition to them there was a political movement urging a "small but honorable Greece." It is probably not a coincidence that Ion Dragoumis, a major Greek anti-irredentist (i.e. opposing war against Turkey), was executed in July 1920 by paramilitary forces. [TD77]. The motive for his assassination has never been fully explained. In short, it is unlikely that Greece would have invaded Turkey without strong British encouragement and support.

The West instigated also the expulsion of the Greeks and Armenians from Turkey. The motive there was not oil but control of the Turkish economy. The Ottoman Empire was a feudal state and its commerce was largely in the hands of minorities (as it is often the case with feudal states). For example, according to the Turkish historian Uner Turgay (cited by Grigoris Troufakos [GT94]), in 1884 the city of Trabzon (a major port on the Black Sea) had 130 commercial enterprises involved in imports, exports, insurance, and shipping. Only eight (8) of them were owned by Muslims, the rest were owned by Christians, Greeks or Armenians.

It is very difficult to document charges about events that are happening behind the scenes, but here is some anecdotal evidence. I have heard from my parents and other relatives that Greeks and Turks lived very well along each other. The official Greek line has been that the Turks oppressed the Greeks and other minorities but the truth was far more complex. The Ottoman Empire was indeed oppressive but oppression had to do more with socio-economic status than religion or ethnic origin. Not only many of the middle class jobs in commerce and in crafts was in the hands of minorities but members of minorities held also high positions. One of my great- grandfathers (a Christian Greek) was a feudal landlord and a tax farmer as well. (Tax farmers are notorious for oppression.) I read some place that it was a deliberate policy of the Ottoman emperor (the sultan) to have some non-Turkish feudal lords (Greeks, Serbs, Arabs, etc) to dilute the power of the Turkish nobility who might otherwise have designs on the throne. While the Turks had clearly a privileged position in the Ottoman Empire, the empire was truly multi-ethnic. Thus the severe prosecution of minorities was a late phenomenon, after the Ottoman Empire came under the rule of a party ("Young Turks") who were pro-Western. The expulsion of the Greeks and Armenians also hurt Turkey in the long run because they lost many skilled people. I have a personal story to that effect: One of my great uncles went to Turkey about 30 years after the expulsion and visited his old hometown. He was around 30 when he had left so he had several Turkish friends. He found the people and the town in abject poverty. His old friends told him: "When you left you took with you God's blessing."

If the Greek-Turkish conflict of 80 years ago was really a conflict between European powers that left the two countries in bad shape what can we say about events in the Middle East today?

Could it be that Europeans (led by the French) want to push the United States out of the Middle East? Since Israel is clearly a U.S. ally could it be that the Europeans use the Arabs as proxies? I do not say that there are no Arabs who want to see Israel eliminated. I claim only that such people may be encouraged by Europe. It seems that in this conflict Britain is largely pro-U.S., or, at least, neutral. Obviously, hard evidence is hard to come by. Maybe 50 years from now researchers will find it in the archives of European governments. So here is some indirect evidence in no particular order.

  • When the 9/11 attacks occurred there was applause for the attackers not only in Arab countries but also in Europe. That reaction prompted Oriana Fallaci to write the piece "Anger and Pride." This article is particularly critical of the French and Italians for not supporting the U.S. after 9/11.
  • There have been far more anti-Semitic events in France than in England even though England has a large Moslem population as well. I doubt that immigrants of any kind living in the margin of the society (or even being in the country illegally) would become involved in violent political action that provides no profit for them. However such people could do such violence under the prodding of the authorities. Thus even if the anti- Semitic acts in France are carried out by Moslem immigrants, they are likely to have official encouragement. Those of you who have seen the movie "Z" may recall how Greek police used groups of "marginal" people to commit political violence. The French could very well be doing the same. (Please note that the movie "Z" is based on a true story, the assassination of the Greek leftist politician Lambrakis. He was supposed to have been killed in a traffic accident, but then it was found that the driver of the vehicle had police connections and the unraveling of the conspiracy brought down the government.)
  • France is probably the only country in the world that does not accept the use of English as a lingua franca (pardon the pun). As a computer scientist, I have taken part in countless international conferences where all proceedings were in English. Only once, in a conference held in France in 1991, there was a demand that all presented papers should include an abstract in French. (Our French colleagues were embarrassed by their government's action and were very helpful to help us compose the abstracts.)
  • The worst of the "Middle East crisis" came after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Europeans no longer needed the U.S. support against the Soviets.
  • On May 9 there was an op-ed piece in the NY Times pointing out the European roots of Arab anti-Semitism.

If this theory is correct, then the pro-Palestinian European attitude on humanitarian grounds is not entirely sincere. While some individuals may have truly humanitarian motives, these need not the motives of European officials.

Once we accept that French-led Europeans are acting deliberately against the United States in the Arab/Israeli conflict, we can see under a different light a lot of other events. There have been several incidents where European companies supplied weapons technology to Iraq and these have been explained on oversight or corporate greed. There have also been several European outcries in favor of Iraq on humanitarian grounds. While the virtue of human pity and the vice of human greed are real, there is an additional explanation. That European governments want to use Iraq as a "hit man" against the United States and its Arab allies. It makes a lot of sense (albeit criminal sense). In the nuclear age it is very dangerous for a country to launch a nuclear attack against another. What better solution than to find a third party who is willing to do the dirty job. If the third party is led by a megalomaniac dictator with disregard for his own subjects, it might go along.

If you think that the theory I propose flies in the face of the friendship between United States and Europe, think again. The 1919-22 conflict between Britain on one hand and France and Italy on the other occurred right after World War I when these three countries had been close allies (part of Entente) against a group of countries led by Germany. In essence, the 1919-22 war was a fight amongst the victors over the spoils of the 1914-18 war. Anyone who has read history knows that international alliances keep changing far more frequently and ruthlessly than alliances amongst organized crime families. Another example (besides the 1919-22 "Greek-Turkish" war) is offered by James Pool [JP97]. He attributes Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler not to na´vetÚ but to the fact that he was more worried about France (as an antagonist of England) than about Germany. He was striving to achieve a balance in Europe between France and Germany. Certainly, he exhibited poor judgment, but he was not naive. Overestimating the military strength of France it was not as bad as believing that Hitler was a honest person. Incidentally, the quick collapse of the French in May 1940 was a surprise to most Europeans. A lot of people had overestimated French strength.

Clearly, we cannot know what is in the mind of European leaders, at least not until historians get access to secret archives in, say, 50 years from now, if ever. Today we can only say that world events are happening as though a French-led Europe is actively hostile to the United States. (After all, it will not be the first time that the French had illusions of grandeur.) I do not want to imply that the policies and attitudes of the United States are necessarily beyond reproach. I am only saying that some of its European "allies" may not be as clean as they seem.

Acknowledgement: This essay is a recapitulation of several e-mails that I sent to friends and it has benefited from the comments and encouragement I received.

Books cited

[MH71] Marjorie Housepian. The Smyrna Affair, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971.

[MHD98] Marjorie Housepian Dobkin. Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City, 1998. This book is a reprint with a new introduction of the 1972 London edition of [MH71].

[TD77] Thomas Doulis. Disaster and Fiction: Modern Greek Fiction and the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922, Univ. of California Press, 1977, p. 20.

[GT94] Grigoris Troufakos. Preface to the 1994 Greek Translation of Henry Morgenthau's I was sent to Athens, Doubleday, 1929. (Title of London edition An International Drama.)

[JP97] James Pool. Hitler and his Secret Partners, Pocket Books, 1997.

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