Nazi Germany had its state-sponsored Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”) against its Jewish citizens in 1938, and the Turkish government repeated the feat against its Greek, Armenian, and Jewish citizens less than two decades later, on September 6-7, 1955. The riots were orchestrated by an array of Turkish security organizations, both official and clandestine, with the active participation of extreme nationalist groups shepherded by the governing Democratic Party (1950-1960) and government-controlled trade unions.
The process of Turkification that started at the turn of the twentieth century had entered the economic field after genocide and ethnic cleansing had been executed in 1915-1922, during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. The forcible population exchange between Turkey and Greece (1924) exempted the Greek population of Istanbul. In the Republican period, discriminatory policies against non-Muslim citizens included laws excluding non-Muslims from certain professions, campaigns to impose the Turkish language, the anti-Jewish pogrom in Eastern Thrace (1934), the Wealth Tax of 1942, and the recruitment of army work battalions during World War II. In a report on minorities, the Republican People’s Party (which ruled from 1923-1950) stated in 1946 that its goal was to leave no Greek in Istanbul by the 500 th anniversary of its conquest (1953).
Turkish-Greek relations soured after 1953, when Greek Cypriots began their armed struggle for Enosis , the annexation of Cyprus—under British mandate—by Greece. Greece appealed to the United Nations to demand self-determination for Cyprus in 1954, while Great Britain wanted to solve the dispute without taking it to the U.N. Security Council, and leaned on Turkey to counter Greek claims.
An anti-Greek propaganda campaign started in 1955, with the main Turkish newspapers agitating public opinion along nationalist organizations. The British convened a tripartite conference in London with Turkey and Greece (August 29-September 6, 1955), which fell apart when news broke of the bombing of the Turkish consulate in Salonica (Greece), adjacent to the house where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born.
The bombing was organized by the Turkish consulate with the knowledge of the Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry. Oktay Engin, a university student in Salonica, carried out the explosion. He was arrested on September 18, but after his alibi the initial charge of executing the attack was dropped to incitement. After spending nine months in detention, he escaped to Turkey in September 1956, before the Greek courts sentenced him to three and a half years in prison. He would be later promoted by the Turkish Interior Ministry.
News reports of the bombing were first announced by radio in Istanbul in the early afternoon of September 6, and the daily İstanbul Ekspres , associated with the Democratic Party and the National Security Service, repeated them in print. The insinuations that the Greeks were behind the bombing became the trigger for a protest rally on the night of September 6 as cover to gather the rioters, most of who had been trucked into Istanbul in advance. The homes and workplaces of Greeks and other non-Muslim communities had been identified beforehand. Owners of Turkish shops had been told the day before to put Turkish flags on their windows; the shops without flags were destroyed or damaged. According to witnesses, the mob was furnished with a list of addresses.
The riots started in Taksim Square by 5 pm, and rippled out through Beyoğlu (Pera) during the evening, with smashing and looting of non-Muslim property. A correspondent for the French daily France-Soir wrote: “Everything happened as if the agitators had divided one by one the neighborhoods of the minorities, even the streets. I followed the arsonists for hours. When they arrived in front of a store, they asked for the owner. When the latter appeared, they asked: ‘Where’s your passport?’ If the owner of the passport was Greek, or even Armenian or Jewish, the looting started. Through the whole night, I heard from this frenzied mob a word that seemed to have been forgotten for a long time, giaour ” ( giaour “infidel”).
The police was ordered to hold a passive stance and leave the mob to roam the streets freely. The function of the Turkish militia and police was not to protect the lives and properties of the victims, but to preserve adjacent Turkish properties, except in a few cases where police officers prevented criminal activity. The fire brigade, whenever it reached a fire, claimed that it was unable to deal with it. According to a cable to the U.S. Department of State by the American consul general, “the destruction was completely out of hand with no evidence of police or military attempts to control it. I personally witnessed the looting of many shops while the police stood idly by or cheered on the mob.” The riot died down by midnight with the intervention of the army and the declaration of martial law.
On the morning of September 7, a mob overran the İzmir National Park, where an international exhibition was taking place, and burned the Greek pavilion. Next, it completely destroyed the church of Saint Fotini. The homes of the few Greek families and officers were then looted.
After the events, a total of 5,000 people were arrested, some nationalist leaders were taken to court, but nobody was convicted. There was an attempt to implicate Turkish Communists in the riots, which fired back. Attempt by Greece to bring the issue to the U.N. and NATO fizzled due to the lenient attitude of Great Britain and the United States towards Turkey within the context of the Cold War.
Estimations of victims are varied, with a number of 30 to 37 Greeks as most likely. Moreover, 32 Greeks were severely wounded. The mobs beat and injured many people, destroyed and vandalized cemeteries, dragging the dead in the streets. Some 200 Greek women were raped. It was also reported that Greek boys were raped and that a priest was burned alive. Many Greek men, including at least one priest, were exposed to forced circumcision.
The material damage was considerable, including 5,317 properties (4,214 homes, 1,004 businesses, 73 churches, 2 monasteries, 1 synagogue, and 26 schools). According to the Istanbul police, 3,836 Greek (2,572), Armenian (741), and Jewish (523) businesses were destroyed. The American consulate estimated that 88% of the businesses were non-Muslim (59% Greek, 17% Armenian, and 12% Jewish), as well as 92% of the homes (80% Greek, 9% Armenian, and 3% Jewish).
Estimates of the economic cost of the damage varied from the Turkish government's estimate of 69.5 million Turkish liras (equivalent to 24.8 million dollars) to the Greek government's estimate of 500 million dollars. The Turkish government paid 60 million Turkish lira of restitution to those who registered their losses.
The pogrom greatly accelerated the emigration of Greeks and Armenians from Turkey. The Greek population of Istanbul decreased from 65,108 to 49,081 between 1955 and 1960. Overall, the Greek population of Turkey declined from 119,822 persons in 1927 to about 7,000 in 1978, and some 2,500 according to current estimates.