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Book Review: “The Great Fire”, by Lou Ureneck

By on June 28, 2015
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

Smyrna’s (Izmir’s) destruction by fire and sword during the horrible month of September 1922, in the wake of the retreating Greek Army has been the subject of many a book.  While many are the heroes and many more the villains of this terrible chapter in human history, Lou Ureneck’s work focuses on the key roles played by Americans in this Biblical disaster.

“The Great Fire”, by Lou Ureneck

“The Great Fire”, by Lou Ureneck

The book’s subject is the desperate mass of humanity trapped on Smyrna’s tiny waterfront, between the onslaught of the Turks, and the politics, the prevarications, the sins of omission and commission of the “Allied” ships in the harbor. The book’s protagonists are Americans; after all Ureneck is an American author, albeit with partial Greek ancestry, and his fascination with the American role in both the disaster and the miraculous rescue of so many desperate refugees comes through vividly. He covers the Americans, their biographies, prejudices, aspirations with the precision of an investigative reporter. The fact that you know something of the tragedy and triumph in advance does nothing to diminish the turn-paging power of Ureneck’s prose.

What you learn in detail is that the Americans’ involvement in the area was considerable and long-standing, either as Protestant missionaries in the Ottoman Empire, or as tobacco and carpet merchants; American cigarettes were in large part from Turkish tobacco.  With the end of World War I, American naval power kept an eye both on its missionary nationals, and on its lucrative trade interests, which began to include petroleum. Key protagonists come from both the missionary and commercial camps.  While Ureneck writes poignantly yet objectively about the manifold Turkish atrocities, he reserves special praise or blame for his own countrymen.

There is first the hero, a diminutive Methodist pastor, a zealous Yankee from upstate New York, Asa Jennings.  A man racked with illness, Jennings arrived as deputy director of Smyrna’s YMCA, just as the Greek Army’s defensive lines outside of Smyrna were crumbling. The newly ensconced Jennings family’s first impression of their new home was a defeated Greek army trudging past their porch on its way to the sea, followed closely by Greek refugees.  Though stricken by fever every day, in the sweltering heat of the Aegean summer, he set about leveraging the moral, economic, and military clout of the American flag to gather refugees, in particular women and orphans, in American-flagged safe houses.

Lou Ureneck

Lou Ureneck

As the rapine, slaughter, fire and disease threatened to exterminate well over a quarter of a million refugees, this sickly American missionary, aided by a Southern Gentleman US naval officer, Halsley Powell, assorted Greeks and others, not least the tough yet gentle US navy Seabees, pulled off what can only be called a “righteous con.”  Combining Yankee ingenuity and humanitarianism, bribing where necessary, stretching the truth of his authority and American naval commitment, Jennings commandeered empty Greek merchant ships on a nearby Greek island, using this unclear and indeterminate mandate.

Christened an “admiral of the Greek fleet,” Jennings and cohorts used these ships to remove over 250,000 hapless Greeks and Armenians from Smyrna, who would otherwise have been added to the huge statistics of the dead.  By the time the “con” was discovered, the operation’s success ratified it retroactively. In fact, it became the model for rescuing other Greek refugees stranded in Asia Minor. It is only a mild hyperbole to say that the rescue of Asia Minor Greeks owed to the ingenuity and humanitarian impulse of a feverish, five foot Yankee.

Then there is the villain, an American “military-industrial complex archetype”, Admiral Bristol, the US High Commissioner in Constantinople (Istanbul), at that time occupied by the Allies. As with Jennings and the other American protagonists, Ureneck deconstructs the man in order to provide an insight into his personality. Did his upbringing, lower middle class, in a Pennsylvania factory town full of Italian and Balkan immigrants, account for his bias against darker “races,” or was it his career ambitions? He was well connected to Washington and Corporate America, was he just narrowly focused on these interests?

What is clear is that the relief and missionary communities sought Bristol’s removal, as did the British. His sins of commission and omission both contributed to the disaster and hamstrung the humanitarian effort. He openly hated Greeks, calling them the worst “race” in the region. He delayed attempts to aid the refugees, emphasized Greek atrocities and Turkish goodwill, and hamstrung the latter day attempts from Washington for a more proactive role. Ureneck both in prose and his book signings is clear that he reserves a special disdain for Bristol, though Jennings, in practicing and preaching his Christianity, forgave Bristol and worked with him in later stages to effect American-assisted evacuations of other Asia Minor Greeks.

“The Great Fire” is a fine introduction to an American audience about a key genocide at the start of the twentieth century. It is both a cogent, coherent history to contextualize complicated events, as well as a riveting exploration into humanity and the American psyche. As he wrote, “America in 1922 was no longer the America of 1914”, and as America went from Great Power to Superpower, the Jennings and the Bristols, as emblematic American stereotypes, would appear time and again in American foreign policy.

Finally, what is perhaps most poignant about the book is what is not said. It is 2015, and once again minorities, often Christian, are again in existential danger in parts of what was once the Ottoman Empire. While perhaps lacking the sheer drama of the quayside of Smyrna, the plight of Syrian Christians, of Kurds, of Yadizis stranded on a mountain, reminds us that genocide, fire, sword, and rape remain tools of the trade, and in American foreign policy of today, the Bristols seem to outnumber the Jennings.

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.