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Population Exchange in Greek Macedonia: the Rural Settlement of Refugees 1922-1930

February 1, 2009


Population Exchange in Greek Macedonia: the Rural Settlement of Refugees 1922-1930

By Elisabeth Kontogiorgi

Clarendon Press (Oxford) 2006

Reviewed by Melina Grizo*

Over a decade ago, an anthropological study of Greek Macedonia conducted by scholar Anastasia Karakasidou resulted in violent reactions from Greek nationalists, and also generated great interest among the community of Balkan researchers. In her book, Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nationhood in Greek Macedonia 1870-1990 (University of Chicago Press, 1997), Karakasidou pursued an inquiry into the ethnological origin of certain rural inhabitants in Greek Macedonian and challenged the myth of the Greek national homogeneity of the region.

Elisabeth Kontogiorgi centers her analysis a bit differently. She is concerned specifically with the issue of Greek refugee settlement in post-Ottoman Macedonia, but unlike near-contemporary presentations she considers the political and the diplomatic intricacies of the time merely as one of many other significant factors at work. (Some of these useful contemporary works include: Stephen P. Ladas’s The Exchange of Minorities: Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1932; E.G. Mears’s Greece Today: The Aftermath of the Refugee Impact, Stanford, Calif. and London, 1929; and Henry Morgenthau’s I Was Sent to Athens, New York, 1929).

Nevertheless, she does show how European diplomats considered the compulsory exchange of population as the only way to maintain a lasting peace between Greece and Turkey. Despite the grandiose rhetoric with regard to minority issues that prevailed in the 1920s, the European Great Powers thus permitted a process that was tragic or at least traumatic for most of those affected.

For Kontogiorgi, the work of the Refugee Settlement Commission and the national governments which were involved is but a part of the question. Her main contribution lays in her efforts to pursue a detailed inquiry of the multiple aspects of the settlement, with research supported by numerous statistics from various sources.

A number of archival sources are cited in the book, most from the Greek archive collections, but also others from the Public Records Office in London, the League of Nations Archives and the US State Department. The author’s research also draws on varying historical sources, such as the writings of diplomats, administrators and members of the Refugee Settlement Commission, as well as the contemporary media.

This research is largely based on English and Greek sources; the bibliographies available in other regional languages are not represented. However, the material from the Greek archives and Greek historiography in general make this study valuable for the diverse community of Balkan historians who do not read Greek and who thus do not have access to sources not translated from that language.

Elisabeth Kontogiorgi begins her book by introducing the reader to the geography of Macedonia, its economy and history, and the various people who lived there (Part I). After explaining the political and diplomatic background of the issue, she moves with ease among varying aspects of the problem, pursuing an inquiry into the work of the Refugee Settlement Commission, the history of land ownership in Macedonia, (Part II) the social, political and ethnological impact of the migration (Part III) and its economic aspects (Part IV).

Population Exchange in Greek Macedonia would have probably benefited had the author dedicated more space to a general analysis of the minority problems in the period after World War I in regards to their regulation under different international treaties. Still, she makes an effort to explain the role of the League of Nations, which undertook the responsibility of planning and undertaking the resettlements, but left its financing to governments, banks and individual economic organizations, on an ad hoc basis.

The main value of the book lies in the detailed analysis of the less obviously political aspects of the problem. A separate heading is dedicated to the refugees, who came to Greece in large numbers from different parts of Turkey, with a varying professional and cultural background and who even spoke varying dialects of the Greek language. Their misery upon arrival is well illustrated by the accounts of all sorts of witnesses, diplomats, journalists and politicians.

For example, Ernest Hemingway wrote on their exodus in October 1922, describing the long trail of refugees as comprising “twenty miles of carts drawn by cows, bullocks and muddy-flanked water buffalo, with exhausted, staggering men, women and children, blankets over their heads, walking blindly along the rain beside their worldly goods” (p. 56).

The second part of Population Exchange in Greek Macedonia concerns the land reforms in Greek Macedonia in the years after the Greek-Turkish War. It begins by providing insight into the Ottoman system of land tenure and continues with an analysis of the Greek postwar legislation on the land reform, the partitioning of the big estates and their redistribution to the refugees under the patronage of the Refugee Settlement Commission.

One interesting section in this part is the chapter on the migration’s demographic aspects. In 1912, the Greek population of Macedonia was recorded as being 42.6 percent. With the expulsion of Turks and Slavs, in 1926 it amounted to 88.8 percent (p. 100). The region’s general demographic growth was equally dramatic; due to the wars and general instability, Macedonia had become sparsely populated, and the arrival of the refugees was generally beneficial, according to the author.

However, there seemed to be another reason for this rapid growth. Namely, as the legal regulation of the land reform stated that only married couples could obtain land, the rate of marriage in Macedonia rose extremely fast. Contemporary sources claimed that Greece, otherwise a country with one of the lowest birthrates in Europe, had obtained a high fertility due to the ‘superior biological characteristics’ of the refugee population. Still, after the process of land distribution ended, the levels of marriages and fertility fell.

The third, and probably most intriguing part of Population Exchange in Greek Macedonia is dedicated to the social, political and ethnological impact of the refugee resettlement process. The author pays special attention here to the issue of political and national considerations. She explains the place of land reform in Macedonia in the general agenda of the Greek state, and its efforts to solve problems related to agriculture through it.

After analyzing the work of the Commission entrusted with refugee resettlement, and its diplomatic, political and financial aspects, she moves to a consideration of resettlement’s social impact. Kontogiorgi offers numerous examples of friction between Macedonia’s poor pre-existing inhabitants, and the even poorer refugees who were resettled there. Further on, she continues with an analysis of the Greek state’s motivations and strong efforts to populate its northern borders with Greek-speaking refugees. This was intended, she upholds, partially for security reasons, as these parts of Macedonia were a frequent target of the IMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) bands, and a potential source of dispute with Greece’s northern neighbors.

Equally interesting is the author’s account of the kind of political propaganda carried out in Greek Macedonia during the refugee resettlement period. Here she explains how the Agricultural Party, as well as the Communists, failed to attract sufficient supporters, and how the Venizelist and Anti-Venizelist camps skillfully exploited the conflicts between the old inhabitants and the newcomers.

Interestingly, although the Convention for the exchange of the population was signed by Eleftherios Venizelos himself, he was not held responsible for its tragic results in the eyes of the refugees. Thus, they regularly supported him in the elections. The anti-Venizelist camp sought to stir up the pre-existing population by darkly insinuating the alleged perils of the ‘refugee dictatorship’ and advocated an interruption of the payment of grants. Their press described the refugees as lazy and unproductive.

Still more interesting perhaps is the author’s analysis of how the settlement of Greek-speaking refugees impacted the nation-building process conducted by the Greek state in the region of Macedonia, which it had acquired less then a decade before their arrival (in 1913). The Turks from the newly Greek areas moved to Turkey and the ‘Slavophones’ (as Kontogiorgi calls them), especially those from eastern Macedonia, largely moved to Bulgaria.

The Greek government thus was presented with a unique opportunity to settle the Greek-speaking refugees on the lands vacated by these prior inhabitants. The new ethnological map of Macedonia which emerged encompassed Greeks from all four major regions of origin: Asia Minor, the Pontus, eastern Thrace and the Caucasus. It was simply a matter of time before all of these people acquired a clear Greek national identity.

The fourth and final part of Population Exchange in Greek Macedonia is dedicated to infrastructure and logistics. It shows how the rural settlement was planned by the state and how the former Turkish chifliks were populated. The health services, animal husbandry and land use were organized. The names of the villages and rivers were exchanged for Greek ones (p. 293).

Population Exchange in Greek Macedonia makes for a worthwhile read for those interested in Balkan history in general, as well as for specialists in migration studies and issues of nationalism. As the Conventions for the exchange of population have been largely considered from the point of view of political and diplomatic history, this book offers fresh insight from another perspective. It considers the consequences of a purely political inter-state agreement in the context of issues of land law, demography, nation-building and infrastructure development.

Readers of Balkan history accustomed to simple political accounts may find it somewhat bewildering to read about topics like the impact of the refugee resettlement on agriculture and animal husbandry. However, this embodies the main quality of the work, as it shows lesser-known aspects of the forced migration and its impact on the land where the refugees were settled.

Nevertheless, Population Exchange in Greek Macedonia would have been more complete if the author had dedicated more space to those who were obliged by the Greek government to leave the region. Despite its title, the work merely mentions the Neuilly Treaty and the Convention which arranged for the exchange of population between Greece and Bulgaria. Other exoduses are left unmentioned.

The demographic change which occurred in Greek Macedonia became possible due to the legally voluntary, but in practice obligatory removal of the Slavic population from that region. The author does not deal either with the complicated issue of the nationality of this population – merely calling it ‘Slavophone,’ in the best tradition of Greek nationalist historiography.

In short, this book draws a portrait of Macedonia, its sad history and the refugees who settled it. It is a book that studies an episode of unparalleled suffering, even measured by the standards of Balkan history. It shows how the landscape of Macedonia was allowed to change, with the League of Nations’s approval of the forced migrations, the determination of the Greek state to encompass the refugees in their own nation-building processes on the northern frontier, and the conduct of the political parties. The reader obtains a thorough insight into the problem, starting from the consideration of the diplomatic cabinets to the ordinary people’s struggle for daily survival.

……………………………………. guest reviewer Melina Grizo,  PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the Law Faculty Justinianus I in Skopje, Macedonia, and concentrates on diplomatic history and EU law. She also holds a  postgraduate degree in EU law from the University of Oxford.

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