A Review of Salonica: City of Ghosts by Mark Mazower

I picked up this book with particular interest because I was born in Salonica (in 1934, a child of parents who were refugees from Asia Minor) and I started reading it and enjoying it because it provided explanation for the names of places and it filled gaps in the stories I had heard from my parents. However, pretty soon that enjoyment turned into annoyance and then into anger. Mazower makes a big deal about the fact that the Greeks have not preserved any memories of the Moslem Turkish presence in the city. In an ideal world he might have had a point. But how about the Turks preserving memories of the Greek presence in Istanbul (Constantinople), Izmir (Smyrna), Bursa (Prussa), and many others cities in Turkey? After all the Turks had been in Salonica for barely 500 years (1430-1924) while the Greeks had been in the cities I listed above for over 3000 years. I was told by a recent visitor to the small town of Kermira in Turkey (the birthplace of my paternal grandmother) that one of the Greek churches there has been converted into a stable. At least the Greeks did not convert any mosques to stables in Salonica.

It is a sad reality that ethnic/religious cleansing had been practiced in large scale in the remnants of the Ottoman empire for most of the twentieth century and continues even today in Iraq. Why put the spotlight on Greece who after all got the worse of the bargain. They had to absorb over a million and a half refuges from Asia Minor while Turkey had to absorb less than half a million Moslems from Greece. Also the exodus of the Turks from Greece was fairly orderly while many of the Greeks from Turkey had to literally flee for the lives. My maternal grandmother had to pick up her children and leave their house in a hurry (my grandfather was away on a business trip) to avoid been slaughtered by Turkish irregulars. At least they were lucky that they (and most of the other Greeks of their town) could walk towards a Greek held area while those in Smyrna had nowhere to go but the sea (see "The Burning of Smyrna"). Mazower claims that the Greek refugees from Asia Minor never spoke about their suffering - I do not know where he got that impression. I grew up hearing detailed accounts of the suffering not only from my parents and other relatives but also from other refugees.

Mazower makes also a big deal about the Greek policy of Hellenization of Salonica after 1912 and how it affected unfavorably the Sephardic Jewish community there. But his attitude is not really favorable to the Jews. Mazower's bête noir is nationalism and that includes Zionism (Jewish nationalism). Indeed, on page 439 the following sentence occurs.

"The history of the nationalists is all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendezvous of a chosen people (my emphasis) with the land marked out for them by destiny."

This seems to be out of place because the Greeks never call themselves the chosen people and for them there was no issue of rendezvous with the land because there was always a large Greek population in what is now Greece and no significant immigration of Greeks from outside the territory of Greece for the first century of the existence of the modern Greek state. The large immigration of 1922-24 was forced on the Greeks from Asia Minor who left their old homelands unwillingly. So either the author has misjudged completely the Greek situation or, more likely, he is taking a shot at Israel. In short, any good words for the Jewish community of Salonica, are to be used, in effect, to make later a case against Israel.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where nationalism did not exist but, unfortunately, this is not the case. Ethnic identity seems to be rooted in the human psyche and it is too pat to dismiss it by attributing nationalism to 19th century ideologies. It would be nice if the Ottoman empire had been modernized without a break up in a multitude of states, and if all the ethnic groups lived in harmony instead of the horrendous ethnic strife that took place. (My late father was of this view. When he died, I found amongst his files, his Ottoman citizenship papers that he had saved for over half a century.) But it did not happen and it is unfair to single one or two of the states that emerged from the Ottoman empire break up for the offense of nationalism. Interestingly when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, it was also broken up into a multitude of states. Also ethnic/religious strife is not limited to the Middle East or Eastern Europe. It exists in such places as the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain and the Quebec province of Canada, to say nothing of Northern Ireland.

His bias against nationalism causes the author to downplay the strength of the Bulgarian ethnic identity which results in the weakness of his coverage of the "Macedonian struggle." He makes the argument that Bulgarian ethnic identity would not have risen except for the religious issue of the Bulgarian exarchate. I think Bulgarian nationalism went well beyond the religious issue. The Macedonian struggle was a a three way conflict between Greek and Bulgarian bands and Turkish gendarmes and I have both read about it and heard oral history from people who were present in that conflict (the "struggle" was at its peak about 30 years before I was born, therefore participants were old men, but still alive when I was a young adult). As the Ottoman empire was collapsing the various people living there were asserting their ethnic identities and trying to carve out territories. The trouble was that the populations were geographically mixed. Many of the Greeks lives in the cities including some that eventually became part of Bulgaria (such as Philipoupolis) or Serbia (such as Monastir) while many of the Slavs were farmers in the countryside, including in areas that eventually became part of Greece.

Mazower seems to admire the multi-ethnic character of the Ottoman empire and think of it as an enlightened policy. Unfortunately, the truth is quite different. It was not enlightenment but a policy of divide and conquer that motivated the preservation of ethnic diversity. While all these diverse groups lived under the Ottoman sultan, the authorities made sure that each group eyed the others suspiciously.

There seems to be a patronizing attitude by the author about the "exotic" people and places he describes. As a person who has a close connection with this "exotic" city I found the book far too condescending.

If you can take the political commentary with a grain of salt you may find the book interesting reading.

The book covers the history of the city from 1430 (the year of the final Ottoman conquest) to 1950 (the end of the Greek civil war). Because the city had resisted the Ottomans the conquerors treated the population harshly killing many and selling others to slavery. The result was a depopulated city, so that when the Ottomans allowed the Jews fleeing from Spain to settle there, the actions was more than a philanthropic gesture. Quickly, the city became a major Jewish center with the majority of its population Jews while the Greek Christian population was less than a quarter of the total. The rest were Muslim Turks. Mazower covers the life in the city in the ensuing years and with considerable detail starting in the mid-nineteenth century. He deals both with good aspects of life in the city and the bad ones, such as the frequent plagues, crime, and Ottoman government corruption.

The 19th century brought many changes to the city. The prosperous Jewish and Greek merchants welcome western ideas and pushed for secular education taking it away from, respectively, rabbis and priests. In both groups, religious leaders fought back by soliciting support from amongst the poorer elements of their communities. (Apparently, not too different from what is going on in 21st century America.)

In 1908 the Young Turk revolutions took place amidst high hopes for equality amongst all ethnic groups and democratic government. However, such hopes were quickly disappointed and the situation for non Moslems became worse than it had been under the old regime. The volatile situation was resolved by the Balkan wars that ended up dividing most of the European lands of Turkey amongst Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria. In 1912 Salonica became part of the Greek state to the delight of most of its Greek inhabitants and the dismay of most of the others. The Jews of Salonica found themselves in a delicate situation, having been the neutrals in a war between Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks. The book covers the problems of the transition and how the Jews had to deal with Hellenization.

Finally, the majority of the population of the city became Greek following the "population exchange" of 1922-24 between Greece and Turkey. The books gives extensive coverage to the problems of the refuges that started with the Balkan wars and culminated with the arrival of the Greeks from Asia Minor. It concludes with period of World War II and the ensuing Greek civil war. A whole chapter is devoted to the genocide of the Jewish community of Salonica by the Germans that includes a discussion about the difference in the fate of the Jewish communities of Salonica (less than 5% escaped deportation) and Athens (close to 50% escaped deportation).

Note: This is a greatly expanded version of a brief review that I posted earlier on Amazon.

Theo Pavlidis
November 20, 2005