September 6, 1955: The pogrom against the Greeks of Costantinople

The Istanbul pogrom, also known as the Istanbul riots or September events, were organized mob attacks directed primarily at Istanbul’s Greek minority on 6–7 September 1955.

The riots were orchestrated by the Tactical Mobilisation Group, the special operations unit of the Turkish Army set up as Operation Gladio’s Turkish branch the Counter-Guerrilla (another Operation Gladio-related organization), and the National Security Service, the precursor of today’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT).

The events were triggered by the false news that the day before, Greeks had bombed the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki, in northern Greece—the house where allegedly Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had been born in 1881. A bomb planted by a Turkish usher at the consulate, who was later arrested and confessed, incited the events. The Turkish press, conveying the news in Turkey, was silent about the arrest and instead insinuated that Greeks had set off the bomb.

A Turkish mob, most of which had been trucked into the city in advance, assaulted Istanbul’s Greek community for nine hours. Over a dozen people died during or after the attacks as a result of beatings and arson. Armenians and Jews were also harmed. The police remained mostly ineffective, and the violence continued until the government declared martial law in İstanbul and called in the army to put down the riots.

According to most sources, between 13 and 16 Greeks and one Armenian (including two clerics) died as a result of the pogrom. However, a number of deaths were never recorded due to the general chaos, so estimates vary. According to a number of some sources the total death toll is estimated to be at least 30. Apart from the thirty identified victims, an additional of three unidentified bodies were found inside the shops, while three burned bodies were found in a sack in the region of Besiktas. Moreover, 32 Greeks were severely wounded. Men and women were raped and islamized by force, and according to accounts including those of the Turkish writer Aziz Nesin, men, including a priest, were subjected to forced circumcision by members of the mob. Moreover, an Armenian rite Christian priest died after the procedure. Priests were also scalped and burnt in their beds and Greek women raped.

The material damage was considerable, with damage to 5317 properties, almost all Greek-owned. Among these were 4214 homes, 1004 businesses, 73 churches, 2 monasteries, 1 synagogue, and 26 schools. Over 4,000 Greek-owned businesses, 110 hotels, 27 pharmacies, 23 schools, 21 factories, 73 Greek (and other Christian) churches and over a thousand Greek-owned homes were badly damaged or destroyed. The American consulate estimates that 59% of the businesses were Greek-owned, 17% were Armenian-owned, 12% were Jewish-owned, 10% were Muslim-owned; while 80% of the homes were Greek-owned, 9% were Armenian-owned, 3% were Jewish-owned, and 5% were Muslim-owned.

The pogrom greatly accelerated emigration of ethnic Greeks from Turkey, and the Istanbul region in particular. The Greek population of Turkey declined from 119,822 persons in 1927, to about 7,000 in 1978. In Istanbul alone, the Greek population decreased from 65,108 to 49,081 between 1955 and 1960. The 2008 figures released by the Turkish Foreign Ministry placed the number of Turkish citizens of Greek descent at 3,000–4,000; while according to the Human Rights Watch (2006) their number was estimated to be 2,500.

Some see the attacks as a continuation of a process of Turkification that started with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, rather than being a contemporary, bilateral issue. To back this claim they adduce the fact that roughly 40% of the properties attacked belonged to other minorities. The pogrom has been compared in some media to the Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany. Historian Alfred-Maurice de Zayas has written that in his view, despite the small number of deaths in the pogrom, the riots met the “intent to destroy in whole or in part” criterion of the Genocide Convention.

Tensions continued, and in 1958–1959, Turkish nationalist students embarked on a campaign encouraging a boycott against all Greek businesses. The task was completed eight years later in 1964 when the Ankara government reneged on the 1930 Greco-Turkish Ankara Convention, which established the right of Greek établis (Greeks who were born and lived in Istanbul but held Greek citizenship) to live and work in Turkey. As a result of tensions over the Cyprus issue, Turkey prohibited all commercial dealings by Greeks holding a Greek passport resulting in the deportation from Turkey of around 40,000 ethnic Greeks. They were allowed to take with them only 20 kg of their belongings and cash of 22 dollars. Moreover, the property they left was confiscated by the Turkish state ten years later.