In this week’s diatribe, Dean Kalimniou teaches us what lessons we can learn - if any - from the Pontian Genocide
Unless you are an apologist for Ottoman ethnic cleansing, the three great genocides of the early twentieth century and prior to the Holocaust, are generally held to be the Armenian, Assyrian, and what we term Pontian genocides. The discontinuity in the titles of these genocides is apparent from the outset. While the first two denote or describe an entire people, the latter, defines not a nation but the inhabitants of a geographic region, namely the Pontic region around the Black Sea. By strict definition then, the Pontians could be anyone of the Greek, Turkish, Laz, Armenian, or Kurdish traditional inhabitants of the region, yet by convention, they are generally held to be those of Greek origin.
The titles of the collective genocides of the Christian peoples of Anatolia imply much as to the importance given to them by the nations that were afflicted by this heinous crime. For Armenians and Assyrians, the crime of attempting to extirpate them from the face of the earth is seen as striking to the very core of their national identity. This is especially so in the case of the Assyrians, as there exists not one of their constituent tribes that was in some way, untouched by the Assyrian genocide. In the case of the Armenians, it can be argued that the Eastern Armenians, those who today have formed the states of Armenia and Artsakh, being at the time Russian subjects, were not afflicted by the genocide in the horrible manner in which the Western Armenians, who lived in the Ottoman Empire were. Nonetheless, the enormity of the barbarity perpetrated upon the Western Armenians was seen by their compatriots as blighting the existence of the entire nation. Hence it was termed an Armenian Genocide and not a genocide of a particular brand of Armenians.
Despite the vociferous protestations of a few, the genocide of the Greek people on the Black Sea region is not referred to as the Greek genocide, in keeping with Armenian and Assyrian practice. Instead, it is referred to as the Pontian genocide, thus differentiating the community of Greek peoples living in that region not only from other Greek communities living in such parts of Anatolia as Cappadocia and Ionia, but also from the Greek nation in its wider sense, as well. From this, one can immediately comprehend just how that genocide is viewed by the broader collective of Greek people.
Some may and have argued that the term Pontian genocide reflects a more accurate view of history, than the term Greek genocide. They argue that while there was a definite and organized plan to extirpate the Greeks of Pontus, no such plan existed for the rest of Asia Minor, where the Ottomans mainly indulged in random acts of reprisals, along with organising the forced removal (with unprecedented levels of brutality) of Greeks from the Gallipoli peninsula and western coast of Asia Minor and that these populations were the victims of ethnic cleansing, rather than genocide.
The argument is of course, one of semantics and the academic point as to which degree of ethnic cleansing morphs into genocide does not concern a national consciousness. Instead, what is glaringly apparent, is that unlike the Armenians and the Assyrians, the Greek people manifestly do not view the 'Pontian genocide,' as a seminal moment in the construction of the Greek identity, even as they admit that it was a catastrophe. There is ample evidence to support this bleak proposition. The annual Armenian and Assyrian communities' of Melbourne commemoration of the genocide is a key event in their calendars. They are accompanied by the publication of books, lobbying of politicians and the appointment of scholars to speak on the topic and they are attended by members of the respective communities who come from regions as diverse as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Russia and Greece to name but a few. They attend, because the genocide is an event keenly felt by all of them, regardless of whether their families were victims of these terrible events. For the Greek community in Melbourne however, the Pontian Genocide barely rates a mention. There is little if any reporting of the event in the local media, save a few paragraphs as to how diverse and scattered Pontian clubs are commemorating the events. Such lectures and commemorations as are organised, are attended almost exclusively by Pontians. The implication is clear. This is an event that concerns only Pontians. It fails to move 'Greeks,' and has absolutely nothing to do with them.
Granted, Pontians are culturally distinct and this may be the reason why 'other' Greeks may have difficulty in identifying with them. But then again so are Cypriots. And then again, so are Cretans, and Epirots and Macedonians and Thracians and every single other sort of Greek. Further, far from being cut off from the main Greek discourse, Pontic Greeks played an immensely important role during the Ottoman times both in trade, as well as in Greek cultural and religious life, supplying a considerable number of Patriarchs and replenishing the Greek community in Constantinople, the headquarters of the Greek nation. There is therefore no logical reason why Greek people find it difficult to empathise with and understand the enormity of the largest and systematic slaughter of a section of their compatriots, and to view that as a loss of their own.
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