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The untold story of Erik Colban and the Greco-Turkish population Exchange

Mads Drange (master student - University of Oslo)

A couple of years ago, a Fridtjof Nansen biography triggered my interest for the Greco-Turkish population exchange. The controversial agreement came about after the war between the two countries in 1922, and was an attempt to solve a pressing refugee crisis. The exchange was, however, also a result of strong nationalist currents on both sides of the Aegean Sea, and forced more than 1,4 million people to settle in a new country. Nansen had become involved in the conflict through his work for the League of Nations, and last summer I visited the League of Nations Archive in Geneva to find out more about exchange agreement for my MA thesis at the University of Oslo. Beneath follows a short glimpse into my current project.

On November 17th 1923, Erik Colban and Huntington Gilchrist from the Minority Section of the League of Nations, met with Secretary-General of the League of Nations Eric Drummond to discuss a matter of great urgency. The Secretary General had recently received a letter from the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs about alleged Greek violation of the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange Agreement, and the Minister wanted Drummond to take action.             

According to Turkish reports, Muslim farmers in Macedonia had been forced to leave their farms to make room for Greek refugees before they had been able to sell or bring along their properties. With winter approaching, they were now stuck on the Macedonian plateau without food and shelter, waiting to be transported to Turkey.                                               

According to the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the Greco-Turkish population exchange should be carried out under the supervision of a Mixed Commission consisting of Greek, Turkish and neutral members. One of its most important tasks was to oversee the liquidation of properties, and to make sure that the people who were forced to leave got compensation for the immovable properties left behind. However, according to the Turkish Minister, this was not going particularly well. In his opinion: “The impotence to which this organization (the Mixed Commission) is being reduced by Greece is unquestionably likely to impair the prestige enjoyed by the League of Nations in the eyes of the world, and to put confidence in the League to a severe test”.

The last two decades, a lot has been written about how the agreement came about, and what it entailed for the people involved. Greek and Turkish historians have tried to understand why the two governments agreed to a forced population exchange which involved at least 1,4 million people, and how this enormous transfer of people effected the economy, politics and culture of the two states. Others have tried to understand the motives behind the support from the Great Powers, and especially Great Britain. To many, it has also been seen as a puzzle how Fridtjof Nansen, the great humanitarian, could be one of the architects behind an agreement which forced people to migrate based solely upon their religious affiliation.                                         

Even though much has been written about the background and the consequences of the agreement, little has been written about the actual execution of it. How was it carried out? Who took part in it? How were disputes solved along the way? The reason why I went to Geneva, therefore, was to locate the archive of the Mixed Commission which had been transferred from Istanbul to the League of Nations Archive after World War Two. I hoped that the minutes, reports and decisions made by the Mixed Commission could tell me more about how the exchange was organized and carried out. However, I did not expect to find much about the League’s involvement. After all, the League had, according to the agreement, no formal responsibility for the population exchange, and the only role the League had accepted, was to appoint neutral members to the Mixed Commission. Why then, did a Minister of a country not even a member of the League, complain to Drummond about the execution of an agreement the League had no part in? And why was the Minority Section involved?

As I started getting familiar with the documents related to the Greco-Turkish population exchange in the League archive, I understood that the involvement of the League extended way beyond appointing members to the Mixed Commission. First of all, several conflicts which had occurred between the two countries during the execution of the agreement, had been brought to the Council and some even to the Permanent Court of International Justice. Admittedly, these official involvements of the League had been described several times in the literature, and was also well documented in the Official Journal of the League of Nations. What was more surprising, was that based upon the quantity of the correspondence and internal documents related to the agreement, the Secretariat and more precisely the Minority Section, had clearly been following the process since day one. Colban, Director of the Minority Section, and his colleagues were all in close dialogue with the Mixed Commission, providing them with advice and support on how to best carry out their important and difficult job.

The Minority Section of the League of Nations was established in 1920, and the job of running it was given to the Norwegian diplomat Erik Colban. He organized his section into two units were the first one, led by the American Huntington Gilchrist, was dealing with Administrative Commissions such as the Saar and Danzig commissions. The second unit run by the Danish diplomat Hjalmar Rosting, was responsible for minority questions. The Minority System of the League was based upon investigations of petitions, send to the League by anyone who saw or experienced breaches of the Treaties. The only requirements were that it had to relate to the Treaty in question, that it could not come from an anonymous source, and that it could not contain violent language. Ultimately, the League Council were responsible for the Minority Treaties, and when a petition was received, an ad-hoc panel of three Council representatives was formed, responsible for investigating whether the complaints had merit or not. However, prior to this, the Minority Section carried out a preliminary review of the complaints, determining their ’receivability’.

According to historians such as Carol Fink and Christoph Guterman who have studied the Minority Section, this gave Colban and his colleagues a lot of influence over minority questions. He developed his own procedures which involved secret discussions between his Section and the parties involved, and problems were often solved without involving the Council. According to Colban himself, the success in safeguarding the rights of the minorities in the 1920s was “due not so much to the official action by the Council of the League of Nations as to unofficial negotiations with the Governments concerned on one hand and the leaders of the minorities on the other.”                                                          

With their expertise on minority questions, it is obvious that Colban had a lot of insights to offer the neutral members of the Mixed Commission. From their correspondence, it is also apparent that the Commission and the Minority Section developed a close relationship. This is not very surprising as they did not only share similar tasks, but also language and background. In fact, four of the Presidents of the Mixed Commission between 1923 and 1934 were Scandinavian, and a lot of the correspondence between the Commission and the Section was in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Since secret and informal discussions formed an important part of the Minority Section’s “modus operandi”, it is perhaps not that strange that its involvement in the population exchange has received little attention in the literature on the exchange. The interesting question, however, is why the Secretariat chose to involve itself in the execution of an agreement they had no responsibility for, and not even necessarily believed in. Obviously, the ability to cooperate and the experience the Minority Section had to offer the Mixed Commission, does not answer this question alone.

From the complaints from the Turkish minister, it is clear that that the Turkish Government held the League responsible for the agreement. From the archive material, I have examined, it is equally clear that the League, at least on a unofficial level, accepted this responsibility. Why did they do so? What was at stake? How did the involvement of the League effect the execution of the agreement? These are some of the questions I am trying to answer in my MA thesis.

I am doing so by going through the documents related to the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange in the League of Nations archive, as well as open sources such as the Official Journal of the League of Nations. I have also tried to get a broader perspective on the events by using other contemporary sources such as the archive of the Near East Relief Organization which were active in the region at the time. Moreover, I have studied newspapers from around the world, and from what they wrote, it seems clear that the Mixed Commission had the eyes of the world on them. Hopefully, my work can shed some light on a not so well known part of the Greco-Turkish population exchange, as well as the Minority Section in the League of Nations. With currents events in mind, it is perhaps also worth adding that reading and writing about a refugee crisis in and around the Aegean Sea in the 1920s has been a special experience.


* Mads Drange is currently finishing his master thesis Supervisor, facilitator and arbitrator. A study of the Minority Department in the League of Nations involvement in the forced population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923 at the University of Oslo. Drange plans to visit Aarhus University to share ideas and research results with “The Invention of International Bureaucracy”-project headed by Karen Gram-Skjoldager in the spring of 2017.



The account of the meeting in Drummonds office is based upon a memo from a Secretariat meeting regarding the Turkish protest to the Council, and a letter from Ishmet Pasha to Drummond, November 6th, 1923.

Both documents are found in the League of Nations Archive under “Administrative Commissions”, and more precisely “Exchange of Greek and Turkish population (1923-1927)”. Box R82, 1923, File 2, Document 32150, Dossier 31152.

Colban`s quote about the Leagues minority system is from his article on the “Minority Problems”

Erik Colban. “The Minorities Problem”. The Norseman, 1944, 5:309-317, 313.

The description of the Minority Section of the League is based upon the following books:

Guterman, Christoph Dr. Das Minderheitenschutzverfharen des Volkerforbundes. Duncker & Humbolt Berlin 1979, 345-375.

Fink, Carol. Minority Rights as an International Question. Contemporary European History. 9:3, 2000, 385 – 400.

Rosting, Hjalmar. “Protection of Minorities by the League of Nations”. The American Journal of International Law, 17, 1923, 641-660.