As old men click their worry beads in the shade of their local café, it is easy to imagine a Greece that was ever thus. Indeed, peruse the Greek media and you will learn that DNA evidence “proves” that Greeks are descended from the Mycenaeans who dominated much of mainland Greece 3,500 years ago. That may be true, but it obscures a complex and bloody historical picture. After World War II, Greece was virtually a mono-ethnic nation. But for centuries before that it had been anything but. Huge movements of people, war, flight and genocide changed all that.
In the territories that are now Greek, centuries of Ottoman rule meant that many, as elsewhere in the Balkans, converted to Islam. There were also Turks and Albanians, the latter being both Orthodox or Muslim. In Thessaloniki, the largest single population were Ladino-speaking Jews whose ancestors had been invited to settle by the Ottomans in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. There, they outnumbered Romaniotes, Greek-speaking Jews who had lived in Greece since antiquity. Parts of the north of Greece were also populated by Slavs.
The shaping of the demography of modern Greece began with the Greek revolution of 1821. The subsequent war of independence triggered massacres of Greeks by Ottoman forces including Egyptian troops sent to quell the Greeks, and of Muslims, Turks, Jews and Muslim Albanians by Greeks. The result was massive ethnic cleansing of the Peloponnese, which was to a great extent cleared of non-Greeks.
In 1913 the population of Thessaloniki, which had been taken from the Ottomans the year before, was recorded as being 157,889, of which 39 per cent were Jewish, 29 per cent Turkish, 25 per cent Greek, 4 per cent Bulgarian, 2 per cent Roma and 1 per cent others. The “Turkish” figure most likely includes all Muslims, including Muslim Albanians. Today, the population of the wider metropolitan area is around 1 million, very few of whose great-grandparents would have lived there, having come from Asia Minor.
In 1923 in the wake of the Greek defeat in its war with Turkey, the two signed a convention in Lausanne. This led to the exchange of the majority of Greek Orthodox Christians in Anatolia, most but not all of whom spoke Greek, with Muslims of Greece, including Greek-speaking ones. In this way some 1.2 million came to Greece or, as many had already fled, they were prohibited from returning, while some 400,000 left for Turkey. The convention followed one signed in 1919 with Bulgaria by which Greeks and Bulgarians were exchanged, but in this case the numbers were more modest, not least because the numbers involved were smaller and this emigration was not compulsory.
World War II was to see the murder of almost the entire Jewish population of Thessaloniki and the Romaniotes. Thousands of Muslim Cham Albanians in the north of Greece were ethnically cleansed or fled to Albania. And in the wake of Greek Civil War, some 100,000 Greeks and Slav Macedonians fled, the former later being allowed to return.
With the exception of the Turkish population in Western Thrace, which was allowed to stay under the terms of the Lausanne convention, post-war Greece was no longer a multicultural country, but it was still very poor. The first post-war decades were thus ones that saw mass emigration to the US and Australia, and then Germany, Austria and Scandinavia above all. This slowed as Greece became more prosperous and from the mid-1970s many diaspora Greeks even returned.
The end of communism saw the beginning of a new chapter in Greek demographic history. From being a country of emigration, Greece suddenly turned into being a country of mass immigration. Hundreds of thousands now poured into the country, the largest single group coming from Albania, including members of Albania’s ethnic Greek community. Ethnic Greeks – including some falsely claiming to be Greek – also arrived from the former Soviet Union, especially Georgia and the Black Sea. Today, 1.36 million people in Greece are foreign born and in 2021 there were 921,485 foreign citizens, (not including illegal migrants,) registered as living in Greece.
According to Byron Kotzamanis, professor of demography at the University of Thessaly in Volos, the biggest single proportion of those born abroad and foreign citizens are Albanians. Of the 700,000 of them, about half now have Greek citizenship, and of those a large proportion are ethnic Greeks from Albania – or people who claim to be.
The world financial crisis that hit Greece from 2009 saw yet another chapter open. The devastation wreaked on the Greek economy led to Greeks emigrating once more.
In 2015 Greece became the frontline of the migration crisis. More than a million people, from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, began to flow through Greece. However, include all those who came beginning in 2011 and ending in 2021 and that number swells to 1.7 million. How many remain is hard to say, says Kotzamanis, but he believes that number to be some 200,000.