A Greek perspective on Cham history

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times July 31, 2015 08:34

A Greek perspective on Cham history

Greek historian Eleftheria Manta

Greek historian Eleftheria Manta

Greek historian Eleftheria Manta, who has authored research about Albanians in Greece before WWII, speaks about the history of Chams in Greece and the background of how Muslim Albanians were made part of population exchanges with Turkey and the climate behind the Chams’ forced deportation to Albania at the end of WWII.

Interviewed by Ben Andoni

Why is there so far no real dialogue between Albanian and Greek historians about the Cham issue? Your publication, for example, has just few Albanian sources, and Albanian publications also don’t rely much on Greek sources.

As you already know and has been written in the Prologue of the Albanian edition of the book about the “Chams of Epirus”, the Albanian text is a translation of the Greek original written and edited in 2004. No alterations have been made in the text since.

The Albanian books I have studied and which you can find in the Bibliography in the end of the book were the only then existing books on the issue. Albanian (and Greek) historiography have later made great progress on the matter.

As I pointed in the first Prologue of the book: “I hope that, with the passage of time, new archival collections, Greek and other, will see the light of publicity and illumine with new data aspects of the issue, which until now had remained obscured.” I believe that my book was a contribution to the dialogue that began to flourish afterwards”.

Your study uses the title: ‘Muslim Chams’. Doesn’t it sound a bit prejudicial?

The choice of talking about Muslim Chams was not a matter of prejudice, but simply a technical one. Meaning that since the documents (Greek, English, American, Italian, German and Albanian) I had in possession gave me a lot of information about Muslims of Albanian origin, and just a few hints about Christians of Albanian origin I couldn’t form a clear image about what have happened to the second group in the long term. So, in order to protect my scientific approach and to avoid any misunderstandings, I limited myself to the group about which I had more and most certain data to elaborate.

Greek state did not pay much attention to the Chams before population exchanges with Turkey. Why was it that the Chams only become an issue in 1923?

As historians usually say, there is not an “IF” in history; things have happened the way they have happened and all we can do is to try to understand why.

Before 1923, Greek state had so many other problems to attend, that the Albanian population of Epirus was not its first priority. Internal and diplomatic conditions were so highly uncertain by then that there was little room for any interest about local populations (and Albanians were not the only example of that kind).

You have used a rich bibliography, a valuable one. However, it seems lacking in depth for Albanian sources, although a lot of books on Chameria have been published in Albanian. Is it difficult for Greeks to explore Albanian archives? What about Greek archives? Which archives have been more helpful in your research?

Additionally (from the first question), yes I had problems in reaching Albanian archives, which I couldn’t study except the documents edited by Kalliopi Naska (an excellent work by the way, but ending on 1939). I had the opportunity to study in the National Library in Tirana, several times.

All the other European archives were easy to approach and were very illuminating.

Albanian governments have made proposals for population exchanges since before WWII? Should we see this as a very harsh measure? Why did the Greek state not show the same attitude for the Chams as Albania for the Greek minority?

Exchange of populations is always a severe measure, and Greek side considered it as such, especially after 1923.

As far as concerns minority populations, there isn’t any question of ‘parity’. Such approaches can easily conduct to ‘quid pro quo’ policies. Minorities’ rights should be protected according to international law and this is the ultimate principle.

In your first chapter, you underlined that Chams, in interviews with an international commission in 1924, declared massively that they were of Turkish origin and also they wanted to be involved in the population exchange procedures, except a few who self-declared as Albanians. Do you have more evidence based on different sources on this point? Can you clarify this point more for Albanians?

As you can notice, bibliographical notes about the subject you mention are multiple: From publications already know years ago, to official documents form the League of Nations, and to documents edited by Albanian historians also.

Nevertheless, it was a common conclusion from both Greek and European officials then that national consciousness was still not cultivated among Albanian populations of Epirus. Religious feelings were stronger: as I say in a line “they felt more Muslim than Albanian.”

The exemption from the exchange and the developments of the next two decades played their role in the alteration of their national consciousness.

There had been pressure on the Cham property rights since the 1920s. What motivated Greek authorities in this?

The arrival in Greece of the refugees from Asia Minor in 1922 necessitated the taking recourse to a radical rearrangement of the land, through which all properties, including Albanian, were expropriated. Under the government of Theodore Pangalos (1925-6), during a period of relative normalization in Greek-Albanian relations, a treaty “On the Establishment of a Consular Service” was signed between Greece and Albania, Article 3 of which gave the Albanian citizens the right to get better compensation treatment than the Greeks, analogous to that which the Greek government would have had in store for the British, French and the Italians. However, keeping in mind that the total extent of Albanian lands which had been expropriated was especially large, the economic load for the Greek state would have been unbearable. For this reason the Greek parliament did not vote in favor of this specific treaty. In the meantime, Greece had overturned the military regime of Pangalos and the next legal government was not disposed to be so yielding to the Albanians. This resulted in freezing the issue of the Albanian lands into a state of limbo for the whole of the mid-war period.

On the other hand, economic situation in Greece was far from satisfactory for all rural populations during the inter-war period. The Albanian lands’ problem just deteriorated their situation. The improvements of the 1930s, after Venizelos’ initiative, gave a short-living solution to the problem, but subsequent Greek governments overturned all previous positive settlements.

The Greek state showed a different attitude when Mr. Venizelos was in power? Was this simply out of good will?

Venizelos’ policy was aiming at a broad improvement of inter-Balkan relations, including Greek-Albanian ones. So, resolving some of the most serious existing problems was a prerequisite for the success of this policy.

How did the local administration function in the territory inhabited by Chams during the previous century. Is this administration also responsible for the problems with the of Chams’ property, schools, etc.?

There are indications that in many cases local authorities had their own views about how to treat Albanian issues in Epirus: distractions, tergiversations, arbitrariness, were usual phenomena.

In your book, noted that Chams’ resistance began even before the arrival of the fascists. Why did the Greek government not try to solve their problems? What are the reasons behind some Chams’ cooperation with the invading forces?

There is not any meaning of the word ‘resistance’ before the Italian and German occupation of Greece in 1941.

The groups of Albanian Chams that collaborated with Italians and Germans aimed at, first, retaliating former oppressions suffered by Greek authorities under Metaxas dictatorship; second, improving their economic and social status by annexing Epirus to the new Albanian state under fascist control. They believed in Italian promises for the creation of a ‘Greater Albania’ that would include all Albanian populations in the Balkans.

Do you have exact names of who these Cham fascist collaborators were? Do you think it is normal to label the entire population as collaborators?

As a researcher and a scientist, I personally never accepted opinions characterizing all Albanian Chams as collaborators indiscriminately.

I always strongly supported the fact that “the vast majority of the Albanian population did not participate in arbitrary acts”; these were committed by groups armed by Italian and German authorities and led by prominent and well-known Chams (names are referred to in my book). Nevertheless, Albanians welcomed and supported Italian and German occupation as a promising new situation and aspired to an alteration of Greek-Albanian borders.

Your book notes that Zervas appealed to Cham formations to unite with Greek forces against fascists. Did some Chams join the Greek resistance?

This isn’t quite clear still. It seems that, as officers of the Greek Communist Party and ELAS admitted, Chams were not persuaded by their vision of self-determination after the war. Only in the Philiates area they managed to gather some support in order to enforce the anti-fascist front.

On the other hand, I think that Chams didn’t trust Zervas’ promises either.

On the contrary, as the last orders of the Chams’ leaders indicate (July 1944) they were determined to fight to the death “for the liberation of Chamuria”.

One of the orders given to Zervas to deport the Chams allegedly came from the Allies. You have a reference to a certain Woodhouse who said “They (the Chams) got what they deserved.” Are the Allies to be condemned for the deportation of the Chams too?

History is not a court to ‘condemn’ or to ‘excuse’ anyone. Our goal is to understand what had happened and why. So, I can say that that was an Allied decision of strategic importance, aiming to facilitate operations against the Germans in Epirus. And that is the context in which we have to place all the events of those days.

And, as I state in my book, by quoting C. Woodhouse’s assessments it doesn’t mean in any way that I concur with them.

Who conceptualized Congress of Chams in Albania? How were they able to organize such an event at a chaotic time? Who sponsored it?

I’m not quite sure about that, since I lack any positive information. But it seems that it had the support of the Albanian communist leaders of that period, who tried to take advantage of the developments for their own strategic moves towards Greece.

As far as I know the participation was limited.

Is it true that Enver Hoxha too asked for a population exchange, to get rid of the Greek minority? Could this have happened?

There isn’t any information about it, at least as far as I know. For Enver Hoxha and the Albanian communists, the Chams comprised a controversial, if not suspect community, but useful as much as they could serve his political and propagandist goals.

How can the Greek people (as stated in your book), have such hatred against the Cham population as a whole?

This is not true and as I said before I don’t like to use general and unfair characterizations including peoples’ thoughts and feelings indiscriminately.

A lot of Greek people in Epirus suffered by the violent acts that Cham armed groups perpetrated during Italian and German occupation (a fact that is usually covered by silence by Albanian historiography, which limits itself in describing Albanian suffering by Greek government’s, Metaxas’ or Zervas’ acts), so they had their reasons for not wanting Albanians to return after the war.

On the other hand, there were a lot of cases of friendly coexistence and even mutual help between the two communities when that was necessary.

Is it possible for their current property quest to find a solution?

This is not a question for a historian to answer. It is a matter of international law and practice.

Why does the Greek government refuse to discuss the Cham issue with the Albanian authorities

You can ask the Greek government.

Is there any common ground among Albanian and Greek historians on this issue? Is it possible to have a dialogue at a certain point?

See the answers in the question one, but scientific dialogue can comprise everything.

Why did you take this research on? Have you shed any new light on this matter?

Because as I state in the Prologue of the Greek edition, I believe that the history of the Cham population of Epirus was a forgotten issue which for quite a few decades was covered under a shroud of silence and virtually ignored, voluntarily or involuntarily, by Greek historiography. So, it was an intriguing challenge for me to confront with.

If I managed to illuminate the problem, this is not for me to answer. You will be the judge.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times July 31, 2015 08:34