‘Murder in Salonika, 1876’ by Berke Torunoğlu

‘Murder in Salonika, 1876’ by Berke Torunoğlu

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
‘Murder in Salonika, 1876’ by Berke Torunoğlu ‘Murder in Salonika, 1876: A Tale of Apostasy and International Crisis’ by Berke Torunoğlu (Libra Books, 2012, 20TL, pp 136)


The “Salonika Incident” of 1876 is described in Mark Mazower’s excellent history of the great port city as “one of the most notorious – and misunderstood – episodes in [its] history.” The turmoil that broke out after a young Greek’s conversion to Islam resulted in the murder of the city’s French and German consuls by a Muslim mob and a diplomatic crisis between the Ottoman Empire and the European powers. Berke Torunoğlu’s meticulously researched account has much to teach about this flash point incident, but it is still far from faultless. Torunoğlu spends much of his time challenging the prejudiced 19th century European interpretations of the episode, and the Great Powers’ flagrant exploitation of it, but his zeal to “correct” the historical narrative results in some critical blind spots.

Stephana was the name of the Bulgarian girl at the center of the controversy. After losing her father at the age of 12 or 13, she lived in poverty with her mother and two brothers in the small village of Bogdantza, in present-day Macedonia. According to her own statement, she willingly embraced Islam soon after the death of her father, almost certainly influenced by her Muslim neighbors. Her mother was persistently opposed to her daughter’s conversion, but Stephana was abducted and carried away to a Muslim household, (probably that of her rumored Muslim lover). In order to become a Muslim she needed an official document that only the Ottoman authorities in Salonika could provide, and after arriving at the city’s train terminal she was again kidnapped, this time by a mob of Christians who overwhelmed the police officers escorting her.

Both sides saw Stephana as embodying the honor of their community, which needed to be protected against their enemies. The next morning, as rumors of the violation and abduction of a Muslim girl by Christians spread, a Muslim crowd began to assemble in front of the local governor’s mansion, demanding that she be returned. Soon after it had swelled and become even more restless, French Consul General Jules Moulin and German Consul Henry Abbott were approaching the vicinity of the government seat, and the situation boiled over. The two were drawn by the crowd into a nearby mosque courtyard and then trapped inside the building, surrounded by the angry throng. Desperate diplomatic efforts continued outside for hours, but the mob eventually broke through the police line and bludgeoned the two consuls to death. Although Stephana had been handed back and was being rushed to the scene to assuage the situation, it was all too late, and by the time she had got there the two consuls had already been killed.

The aftermath of the murder was unsurprisingly messy, with the European powers manipulating it to humiliate the Sublime Porte as much as possible. Spurred by the rabidly anti-Turkish press reports back home, the Europeans mercilessly pressed home their advantage to gain maximum leverage over the Ottomans, demanding that the perpetrators be immediately identified and that harsh punishments be handed out. This is described by Torunoğlu as “post-facto politicization,” but the fact that the mob targeted the European consuls in the first place shows that such incidents were politicized from the beginning. Ordinary Muslims in Salonika had come to associate the European consulates with cases of conversion from Islam to Christianity, as well as the various privileges increasingly being enjoyed by Christians over Muslims in the city. When combined with the historic tides of Christian rebellion and Muslim expulsion from the Balkans in the preceding years, Salonika was a tinderbox waiting for a spark. As the author writes, “the nature of the political environment combined with [the] inner dynamics of the Ottoman Balkans [to] transform the event into an international crisis.”

Torunoğlu takes aim the hypocrisies at the heart of the European response, but, as in most cases of “writing back,” he goes too far. It’s true that many Turkish accounts of the incident have been much less balanced, but he’s also selective in the facts that he chooses to marshal. For example, while the book examines the historical landscape leading up to the incident, it doesn’t once mention the fears among the city’s Greek subjects of a repeat of the widespread and indiscriminate massacres of Christians that took place in the early 1820s, a trauma that deeply shaped their own attitude and behavior throughout the crisis. Still, while at times the book succumbs to some unbalanced score-settling, there’s still a lot to learn from its lively account of an important yet relatively little-known incident.


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William Armstrong