Refugees, Locals and “The” State: Property Compensation in the Province of Izmir Following the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of 1923

9Refugees, Locals and “The” State


Property Compensation in the Province of Izmir Following the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of 19231


Ellinor Morack


THE MUTUAL AND compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey marks a crucial event in the demographic, economic and social history of both countries. Signed on 30 January 1923, the agreement between both governments sealed the fate of about 800,000 Greek-Orthodox citizens of the Ottoman state (known as Rum) who had involuntarily left Anatolia and Thrace between 1912 and 1922, banning them from ever returning to their homeland again. Those who were still in place were also forced to emigrate to Greece. The same rules were applied to the Muslim population of Greece (including those who had already left during the Balkan Wars), which was to emigrate to Turkey. Exceptions were made for the Greeks living in Istanbul (including Greek citizens who were known as Yunan in Ottoman Turkish), the Muslims of Western Thrace, and the Rum island populations of Imros and Tenedos at the mouth of the Dardanelles.2


As an internationally sanctioned forced migration, the exchange helped to legalize and make permanent the ethnic cleansing of the Ottoman Greeks that had taken place during the Balkan Wars, World War I, and the Turkish War of Independence.3 By providing Turkey with about 400,000 Muslim immigrants, it helped to replace at least some of the lost non-Muslim populations, but the exchange involved not only people. A crucial part of the agreement dealt with the appraisal and indemnification of all the property, whether rural or urban, movable or immovable, owned by the “exchangeable” populations. It was this part of the exchange that turned out to be most problematic.4 According to the exchange agreement, a Mixed Commission comprised of Greek, Turkish, and neutral members was supposed to deal with the gigantic task of registering and appraising all property of the exchanged, and provide them with documents stating its value. The receiving state would then indemnify them with property of equal value. At the end of the process, the values on both sides should have been balanced with the difference being paid in gold currency. This plan, however, was never implemented. The Greek and Turkish delegations at the Mixed Commission spent years discussing possible appraisal schemes only to eventually drop the idea altogether in the Ankara agreement of 1930, which formally ended the exchange.5 Rather than the Mixed Commission, it was national legislation and its implementation by local administrations that shaped compensation policies. While Greece depended heavily on international aid and the League of Nations, Turkey managed the task alone.


Studies of the population exchange in Turkey have generally focused on settlement of people, paying very little attention to the accompanying policies of property distribution and indemnification for “exchangees” (mübadil in Ottoman Turkish). Yet, it is this aspect of the exchange that connects “exchangees” to a much broader issue in early Republican history, namely, the project of economic “Turkification” (the forced transfer of economic resources from non-Muslim to Muslim hands).6 This endeavor clearly mattered not only for those chosen few who made fortunes by taking over Armenian- and Greek-owned companies and landed estates.7 It also involved countless humble people who took part in the boycott movement that started to target first mainland Greeks and later Rum from 1909 onwards.8 Moreover, many Muslim refugees and homeless people were settled in houses of both Rums and Armenians between 1912 and 1922.9 Their desire to keep this stolen wealth possibly was an important reason for widespread Muslim support for the Turkish War of Independence (of which the Greco-Turkish War forms a part).10 Legal or illegal occupation of such property became the subject of a lively debate after 1922, especially in Izmir (where the great fire of September 1922 destroyed most of the inner city) and the surrounding towns, some of which had also burned down.11 At first, the debate mainly targeted the Ministry of Finance and its local branches, which evicted people from Rum and Armenian houses in order to auction them off.12 However, in many cases an eviction was impossible because the occupants themselves were soldiers, policemen, or other state officials.13 Illegal occupation of houses and agricultural land (often by state employees, such as policemen and officers) continued to be a major headache for authorities trying to settle exchangees from 1923 onwards.14 There is, however, no detailed, source-based study dealing with this problem that takes into account both exchangees and locals. This article provides a first step into this direction, thus making an important contribution to a better understanding of local politics and state-society relations in early Republican Turkey.


Those few scholars dealing with the details of property distribution to exchangees have used records (tahsis defterleri) that were drawn up by local settlement authorities at the very beginning of the settlement process.15 Organized in tabular form, these registers convey the impression of accuracy and order. However, recent research has shown that an internal investigation in the province of Manisa, which was performed in 1927, actually found the registers to be largely fictitious.16 On a general level, we already know that property compensation remained highly contested, creating large amounts of red tape and keeping local courts busy well into the 1930s.17


The historiography of the population exchange in Turkey continues to be plagued by a certain state-centeredness.18 While scholars are interested in the immigrants’ experience, they have found very few sources produced by non-state actors, such as exchangees themselves.19 Oral history projects only started in the late 1990s, too late to record the memories of people who had immigrated as adults.20 On a conceptual level, there is an ongoing tendency to focus on the central state’s agenda and to assume that the state was the most important (if not only) force driving social change—in this case, the settlement and compensation policies for exchangees.21 Very much like contemporary critics of the settlement process in Turkey, historians of the exchange usually explain the gap between laws and their application, with corruption, incompetence, or lack of funds, in short: a lack of state power.22 In this view, the state remains a monolithic abstraction whose practices perpetually fall short of fulfilling its own promise of perfect, rational administration.


This article takes a different approach to the “failures” of settlement and compensation schemes. Taking up Joel Migdal’s state-in-society model, it arguesthat the early Turkish Republic, like any other modern state, was characterized both by “the image of a coherent controlling organization in a territory” and through the “actual practices of its multiple parts.”23 Seen from this angle, various practices in the application of law do not necessarily appear as corruption or other forms of “weakness” on the part of state agencies.24 Rather, they can be understood as results of multiple, and at times contradictory, objectives of various institutions and people, both within the state apparatus and in the surrounding society. In fact, it may at times be difficult to distinguish between “state” and “society,” as their boundaries, especially on a local level, tend to blur.


Very much like the “state,” law can hardly be conceptualized as a single, rational body of rules which, once written, are simply implemented. Societies have an impact on legislation which may start to make itself felt even before specific laws are written. The Ottoman Land Code of 1858 is a case in point: Far from being simply a reaction to Great Power demands, it includes many provisions that can be read as reactions to the needs and practices of Ottoman society: Legal practice in the Ottoman Empire had already started to regard land as a commodity, and the new law merely codified this idea.25 On the other hand, its writers were careful to accommodate older, collective forms of land-use.26


Modern times have seen a proliferation of laws that normalize behavior rather than punish it. These types of law (for instance those regulating welfare policies) encourage certain types of behavior and discourage others, often penetrating the most mundane realms of everyday life—they are tools of governance.27 As such, they must remain flexible and adjustable to popular demands or to the necessities arising in administration.28 This type of law is accompanied by a flexible notion of legality, which does not emphasize the application of universal principles, but rather tends to find temporary solutions for particular problems, especially in matters concerning resource allocation.29


This article analyzes the implementation of property compensation laws for exchangees as a case study for this type of legality, which arguably had repercussions for central state legislation. The relevant laws were often changed and re-written, a fact which in itself suggests a certain degree of responsiveness and flexibility towards popular discontent. Based on a conceptualization of the “state” as multifaceted and of law as responsive to popular demands, this article studies how laws for exchangee compensation were implemented in several small towns and villages in the environs of Izmir. In order to do so, it makes use of administrative correspondence produced by two central state agencies (namely, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Finance) and the provincial administration (valilik) of Izmir. These letters also provide some insights into the activities of village and regional councils, and crucially, into the demands made by local people. The perspective of the exchangees is studied through petitions that were sent to the settlement office (which was a part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) at Ankara. Given low rates of literacy, these texts were often written by or with the help of petition-writers. While not representing the voices of the petitioners themselves, they can certainly provide us with an idea of what petition writers knew about the legal categories and rules in place, and how they—probably together with their clients—interpreted them.30


Taken together, laws, bureaucratic correspondence, and petitions allow us to discover the complicated relationship between legality and legitimacy: They make it possible to study how administrations actually applied settlement and compensation laws. Most importantly, they offer clues as to objectives that were not formulated in positive law, but nevertheless were regarded as legitimate. Petitions, on the other hand, help us to understand how people made sense of law and administrative practice. These questions are discussed first with regard to the supposedly privileged status of exchangees (as opposed to other groups) and then to the administrative procedure of property allocation to them. Laws pertaining to compensation schemes and settlement policies were drawn up very hastily during the first months of the population exchange and later underwent frequent changes. Many of these changes can be read as reactions to popular protests, suggestions, and claims which did not only surface in newspapers and the parliament, but also in individual petitions that have been preserved in the Republican Archive in Ankara.31 Taken together, petitions, administrative texts, and laws allow us to study the complex relationship between administrative practice, popular notions of justice, and the law, each of which arguably had an impact on the others.


Exchangee Settlement and Property Compensation: A Priority over the Needs of Other Groups?


The task of settling incoming refugees in Turkey was at first assigned to a special Ministry for the Population Exchange, Repairs and Settlement Affairs (mübādele, imār ve iskān vekāleti), which was established in November 1923. When the relevant bill was discussed in the National Assembly, the newly appointed minister Mustafa Necati Bey, made the following statement: “I will settle refugees wherever I can. This is the right of the people who are subject to the population exchange.”32


At a first glance, the minister’s statement seems to imply that the settlement of exchangees had priority over the housing needs of other groups. The freshly established ministry was indeed empowered to evict people who were currently living in abandoned property houses (including those paying rent for them) in order to settle refugees. These refugees, however, also included various groups other than exchangees, such as people who had fled from countries other than Greece and those who had left their houses due to wartime destruction.33 The minister’s statement propagated a privileged status for exchangees that was not (yet) part of positive law. It is, however, important to note that he spoke both of “people who are subject to the population exchange” and of “refugees” in general. His statement may well have been directed not so much against the interests of other refugees but against a rivaling institution, the Ministry of Finance, which had been collecting rents from refugees who had been settled in “abandoned” property of Rums, Yunans, and Armenians since about 1913. The possible eviction of these people, and their replacement with new refugees, therefore, threatened this source of revenue. (The law which spelled out the competences of the ministry of the exchange actually went on to discuss with how the loss of these rents would be dealt).


A distinction between exchangees and other people in need only became part of positive law in the Spring of 1924. Issued on 13 March 1924, Law No. 441 regulated the distribution of “real estate (emlâk) that is abandoned and therefore currently under control of the government.”34 Here, it was explicitly stated that only property “owned by people not subject to the exchange” (mübadeleye gayri tabi eşhasa ait olup)35—i.e., Armenians, and Greeks who were not Ottoman citizens—would be distributed among people who had lost their homes during the war, according to their losses (hedmü tahrip veya harp dolayısiyle ihrak edilmiş olan emlâk sahiplerine, muhtaç olanlar tercih edilmek şartile, zayiatlarının derecesi nisbetinde tevzi ve temlik olunur). About a month later, on 16 April 1924, a law (no. 488) regulating the terms and administrative procedure for the distribution of property to mübadil followed.36 It stated that exchangees would be given property whose value would not exceed twenty percent of the sums inscribed in the documents they had brought with them from Greece. Pending the completion of the population exchange, they would only receive temporary and revocable property rights and would not be allowed to make any but petty alterations to it. Neither were they allowed to mortgage land or houses received in the course of this preliminary procedure (§7). The law did not assign a particular kind of abandoned property to them.


The first-mentioned law (no. 441) for locals foresaw that full, private property rights (mülk) would be granted through the procedure of temlik. The procedure for exchangees was different: They were only given preliminary, revocable usage rights which did not allow them to alter the property or mortgage it. The administrative procedure through which these limited rights were granted was called tefviz. This terminology points back to pre-modern Ottoman land law, which conceptualized almost all agricultural land as state-owned (miri), merely allowing for the transfer of usage rights—this transfer was called tefviz.37


Both laws taken together suggest that locals, at least by Spring 1924, were better off than exchangees. Not only was “their” law issued first, but they were eligible for full property rights—if only for Armenian abandoned property, which was relatively scarce in Western Anatolia. (The reverse was true for Eastern Anatolia). Exchangees, though only receiving revocable rights, had reason to expect that they would eventually be given more than just twenty percent of their rightful claims.


The first legal text that explicitly reserved a certain class of abandoned property for exchangees was issued in October 1924. This regulation (talimatname), stipulated numerous exceptions to the rules issued in April.38 According to §11, people who were not mübadil, but nevertheless held [abandoned] property, would be allowed to rent it on condition that they were actually controlling it (fiilhal vaziyet olmak) and if the property was either owned by Armenians or not needed for mübadil (mephus emval Ermeni emvali metrukesinden bulunmak veyahut mübadil ahalinin ihtiyacından fazla olduğu tahakkuk eylemek). The condition of de facto control over a piece of property makes it very clear that this regulation was aimed at legalizing the widespread illegal occupation of abandoned property. In March 1926, this rule was changed from rent to purchase by mortgage, with a law clearly stating that it only applied to property “abandoned by people not subject to the population exchange,” i.e., Armenians and Greek citizens. These houses and fields would not be claimed back by the state from people “apart from those subject to the exchange, who have a legal right to settlement and have already been settled.”39 Non-exchangees would be allowed to purchase real estate according to the rules of the law of obligations (borçlanma kanunu) issued in January 1926. The property’s 1915 value would be transferred to the custodian accounts of the former owners, the rest of the money being distributed to the respective administrative units (idarei hususiyelere ita olunur).40


The Application, Case One: Exchangees Against Locals in Urla, 1927


On 17 January 1927, three refugees sent a telegram from the town of Urla, forty km south of Izmir, to the Minister of Internal Affairs in Ankara, Cemil Bey:


In contradiction to procedure, fire-victims (harikzedegân) from the village of Kuşçular are still living in the abandoned property houses in Urla. Your state order for their removal to their village has not been put into effect, making it impossible for exchangees to be settled and bringing them into a most terrible condition. It has been decided to let the fire-victims stay until March. Due to this, the exchangees, who, according to the law, have a legal right to be settled, will face the danger of dying in the streets. We, therefore, ask for [your] mercy in this matter. Urla: Mustafaoğlu Musa, Ismailoğlu Hüseyin and Şerif Hüseyin of the Mübadil from Kavala, in Urla.41


The text mentions all the actors usually involved in such disputes: the exchangees (mübadil) and local people whose houses had been burned down towards the end of the Turkish-Greek War (harīkzede). (Today, there is a village called Kuşçular only three kilometers distance from Urla. If this was the village mentioned in the petition, the locals would really not have been strangers at all). Both groups’ common objects of desire were “abandoned property houses” (emvāl-ı metrūke hāneleri), houses, as this petition makes clear, to which the mübadil considered themselves to have a legal right, but found occupied by the harīkzede. The petition points to the law and its violation on three different levels: It states that the harikzedes’ dwelling in the houses is “against procedure” (hilāf-i usūl), that the minister’s order for their eviction was not implemented (emr-ü devletleriniz icrā edilmediğinden), and, finally, argues that the exchangees had a legal right to the houses in question. Their claim is further supported by an argument of need: the danger of dying in the streets.


In this case, the state agencies involved were Izmir’s provincial administration and the settlement directorate (iskân müdürlüğü) in Ankara, which was part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. (The Exchangee Ministry had been dissolved in 1924). The other telegrams included in the file tell us more about the background of this story: In a telegram dated 15 December 1926, the governor (vali) of Izmir, Kazim Pasha, appealed to the settlement directorate concerning this matter. According to his letter, an imperial decree (emirnāme-yi hümāyūn)42 issued in 11 September 1926 ordered that the harīkzede be allowed to stay. Local agencies, therefore, tried to accommodate as many people as possible, often by squeezing several families into one house. This practice, however, still left fifty mübadil families “out in the open.” One hundred and fourteen houses continued to be occupied by harīkzede, including employees of the state (memūr) and army officers (zābıtān). The vali pointed out that it was absolutely necessary to return as many harīkzede as possible to their villages in order to make room for the mübadil. He asked the central settlement agency to give orders to that effect to “the local” (mahallına)—possibly the local settlement office.


The Ankara settlement directorate answered in December 1926, stating that it was “necessary to remove the harīkzede from the houses in Urla, bring them to surrounding villages and place the exchangees in the emptied houses.”43 Apparently, this order was communicated to the local authorities, but met with resistance by the harīkzede. As the governor reported in another telegram to Ankara, they had successfully turned to a local court, arguing that there was in fact a decree favoring them, and, moreover, that the exchangees were actually not homeless at all. Both the district governor (kaymakam) and the municipality (belediye) had supported the harīkzede, again leaving the provincial governor unable to enforce their eviction. The last letter in this file was written on 1 February 1927. In it, the general director of settlement affairs (in Ankara) declared that the harīkzede must be evicted by 15 March 1927, and requested information regarding the number of people who would have to be resettled.


In their petition, the three refugees from Kavala argued that they had a legal right to be settled in abandoned property houses. How did they come to such a conclusion? Apparently, the Ministry of Internal Affairs had previously decided in favor of the local harīkzede