A few weeks ago, an article penned by John Williams appeared in Quadrant entitled, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Greeks from Gallipoli, April 1915.” This marks a rare moment where a mainstream publication has attempted to draw attention to an aspect of the Gallipoli myth that the organised Greek community itself knows little about and as a result has done nothing to ensure that it enters the public discourse. This aspect is that the hallowed turf upon which the Anzacs lost their lives was, for at least 3,000 years, the home of Greek people, who as a result of the First World War and the Allied landing on the peninsula, fell victim to a persecution whereby: “all the hallmarks of later 20th-century ethnic cleansing – rape, pillage, murder and the seizing and destruction of property – were present in full measure.” As far as I know, only Dr Panayiotis Diamandis and Stavros Stavridis – both committed genocide scholars, have attempted effectively to place crimes of this nature in an Australian context. Both, of course, do not represent nor are affiliated to any Greek community organization and indeed for some of these aforementioned organisations, Dr Diamandis is a figure of controversy.
Some time later, I attended the annual Armenian Genocide Commemoration. At that moving event, which was notable in how fervently it was attended by passionate members of the Armenian youth and also by its marked absence of Greek community representatives, a member of the Liberal Party read out a letter by Liberal leader Tony Abbott. In that letter, Tony Abbott referred to what happened to the Armenian people at the hands of the Ottomans as a “genocide.” Also present at this sombre ceremony as a keynote speaker, was Deakin University academic Liana Papoutsis, who has a special interest in genocide. In her nuanced address, Liana Papoutsis stressed the need, along with the political aspects of the crime of genocide, to also focus on facets pertaining to gender and in particular crimes against women. In June she will be travelling to Rome to attend an international conference, wherein she will speak about the Armenian genocide. Liana Papoutsis is Greek and she too does not represent and is not affiliated with any Greek organization. In fact, the multitude of Pontian organisations that are supposedly charged with the responsibility of raising awareness of the genocide of the Greeks of Asia Minor are blissfully unaware of her existence, and I harbor grave reservations as to whether they have followed the lead of their Armenian cousins and written to the leaders of the political parties, requesting that they outline their stance regarding genocide recognition.
A little less than a week later, on 1 May 2013, the NSW Legislative Council passed a motion recognising the genocide of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks by the Ottomans around the time of the First World War. The Armenian genocide has already been recognised by the NSW Lower House in 1996, and the “Armenian, Assyrian and Pontic Greek” genocides were recognised by South Australian Parliament in 2009. On 8 May 2013, the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell in the Lower House also moved for the recognition of the genocide against Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks.
This year’s recognition thus marks the first time that an Australian parliament has recognised that the genocide was perpetrated against Greeks, rather than Pontians, who are not an ethnicity. This may, of course come as some surprise to some Pontians, for in our community, whose ethnic consciousness comprises a loose confederation of regional tribes all sharing the common suspicion that Socrates and Kolokotronis may have been our ancestors, each regional group tends to abrogate to itself the right to deal with issues pertaining to its own narrow history, with the result that Greeks from other regions treat such events with indifference. In our blinkered communal world, commemorative events centre around bringing scholars of middling reputation from Greece to Australia in order to re-hash the same old narrative year after year to a specifically Pontian, ever-ageing and ever-dwindling Greek speaking audience. Some aspirational Pontians also hold a Pontian Genocide Workshop, again for internal consumption but invaluable at least in that it ensures that knowledge of the crime is passed down through the English speaking generations. This year, the Pontiaki Estia workshop of “Pontian Continuity” laudably features genocide scholars Racho Donef and Stavros Stavridis and deserves complete community support. It is there that genocide related activities come to an end and there seem, (save in South Australia where the Pontians, through their local groups and their Federation, were at the forefront of the ultimately successful campaign for genocide recognition) to be scant attempts to engage firstly with the broader Greek community, (as is evidenced by the pitifully attended genocide protest held outside the Turkish consulate every year), secondly with the other peoples who were also victims of this unspeakable crime (in the 2007 Return to Anatolia conference, the Armenian contingent withdrew in disgust as the various Pontian clubs could not agree upon joint participation) and thirdly, with the broader Australian community, though this is slowly changing.
The hitherto named ‘Pontian’ and now properly termed Greek genocide is a case in point. The most recent ’bout’ of recognition seems to have come about primarily through the efforts of the Assyrian community in Sydney, not by the exertions of the Greeks. Furthermore, in his moving speech, the revered Fred Nile thanked Dr Panayiotis Diamandis for enlightening him about the genocide over the course of many years, exemplifying both what the dedication of one individual can achieve but also, how ineffectual, indolent and complacent our community institutions can be. It is hoped that by re-branding the genocide as Greek, this will stir the rest of the community from the sloth of their disinterest enough to realise that anything that happens to any part of the Greek people also affects them, and become a clarion call for concerted and united action upon this issue but this is highly unlikely. Instead, it appears that little known figures such as Diamandis, Papoutsis and Stavridis are destined to maintain a shadowy existence, away from the vertiginous strobe lights of the Greek community stage, achieving many and great things, in spite of the rest of us and our local organisations.
At the abovementioned Armenian genocide commemoration, the guest of honour – National Political Editor of US-based publication POLITICO, Charles Mahtesian, offered this example of just how committed his compatriots are to achieving genocide recognition: An Armenian living in a state where Armenians were few contrived to gain his congressman’s ear in a novel way. Learning that said congressman had his hair cut at the same barber, he arranged an appointment for himself at the same time, so that while being shorn of his curly locks, he was able to introduce the said politician to this most heinous crime and the necessity of its recognition. This type of dedication is lacking in our community, where such activism has kudos and micropolitics as its primary motivation.
That is not to say that the recognition by state governments of matters that the Department of Foreign Affairs can easily distance themselves from should be viewed out of context. Yet it is hoped that as a symbol of the growing appreciation of this crime by the broader community, official recognition in each state can present a compelling case to the Federal Government for a change in its policy on this issue. To this effect, Armenian bishop Najarian’s message to the politicians attending the Armenian genocide commemoration is telling: “Do not promise what you cannot deliver. Instead, deliver on your promise not because you will derive a benefit from it, but rather because you believe that it is right.” We would all do well to emulate such forthrightness when dealing with our elected representatives. They do not exist merely to provide us with photo opportunities.
In his book «Μικρασία Χαίρε» Ilias Venezis, genocide survivor and captive of the Turkish army, states that remembering catastrophes such as the genocide and putting these into context constitutes a source of strength for our people, to be drawn upon in times of crisis. In such times, as now, the Greek people can consider their past and take courage stating: “this is nothing compared to the suffering of our fathers.” It is incumbent upon us not only to remember that suffering but also to make others recognise it in order that the perpetrators and the denialists can finally understand the extent of the pain that their actions have caused and reconciliation can be achieved. After all, as Philip Gourevitch aptly points out in: “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda,” “Genocide, is an exercise in community building.”
*Dean Kaliminou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.