Anzac Day, the cornerstone of our collective Australian national identity, has just been solemnly commemorated. Men and women marched, or attended dawn services, honouring the lost youths who fought and fell at Gallipoli in incomprehensible numbers.
Among their number were members of the broader Greek community. Considering that during most of the Great War Greeks in Australia were considered enemy aliens and were interned, harassed and in some cases attacked, (King Constantine kept Greece out of the war and was passing state secrets to the Kaiser) it is worthwhile to question whether the way in which Greek Australians increasingly honour Anzac Day is connected to a desire for inclusion; is a calculated or subconscious effort to insert Hellenism into the Australian national narrative; or is merely an appreciation of heroism and sacrifice? After all, up until recently, there was scant inherited memory of the important contribution of Greeks and Greek Australians to the Allied cause within our community.
Ruminating over this after the dawn service, I saw an advertisement on television that claimed: ‘They fought, not for King, not for country, but for their mates.’
This then is the Australian version of the Adonic cult. The emphasis on ‘mateship’ was borne of the Anzac tradition and exemplifying the ‘very best of the Australian character’, to lend a particularly Antipodean tinge to the Mediterranean cult of the lost youth, who, through commemoration, achieves deification.
Such mateship myth-making is important, and Australians have successively capitalised on ancillary mateship myth-making, emphasising the magnanimous words of the founder of Modern Turkey in the aftermath of the Great War, Kemal Ataturk: ‘There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours,’ in order to ensure continued permission for Australians to commemorate their dead directly at their place of slaughter. It is well that they do so, for it is becoming apparent both, that Ataturk never uttered those words and that Australian commemorations at Gallipoli are negotiable, by a Turkish government that is increasingly viewing the Ottoman Empire with nostalgia and admiration, and which is purging intellectuals and others who would challenge the validity of its own national myths.
Thus, myths of mateship aside, the Anzacs actually fought at Gallipoli, a peninsula ethnically cleansed of its Greek inhabitants by the Ottomans at the instigation of their German advisers Colonel Liman von Sanders and Ambassador Wangenheim, in anticipation of the Anzac landings.
The Australians fought willingly in what the spin doctors of the time termed ‘the Great War for Civilisation,’ because apparently Teutonic barbarism had to be stopped and the world made safe for benign monarchies like the British Empire. Barely having been given self-government some 13 years previously, Australians went to war to serve British strategic interests, in the firm belief that these were also their own.
Gallipoli is the Australian Thermopylae, a place where Australians distinguished themselves through their valour, thus creating cultural archetypes to boost the self-esteem of a young nation, even though their efforts were ultimately futile and absolutely useless in serving their military aim: the capture of Constantinople.
For the Turks, the battle is seen as one of the finest and bravest moments in the history of the Turkish people – a final surge in the defence of the motherland as the centuries-old Ottoman Empire was disintegrating; laying the grounds for the so-called Turkish War of Independence and the subsequent foundation of the new Turkish Republic, led by Atatürk, a commander in Gallipoli himself.
This is significant because the Gallipoli campaign could, according to scholars, have been the catalyst not only for the creation of the Turkish republic and the Australian national identity, but also the first genocide of the 20th century. According to an essay by Robert Manne, Professor of Politics at La Trobe University in The Monthly magazine, what the Turkish genocide of the Armenians (and in parallel that of the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians) and the battle of Gallipoli have in common is that they started on almost the same day, within a few hundred kilometres of each other. He poses the question, one which is pertinent considering blatant attempts to recast the Ottomans as Turks and in that guise, as an ‘honourable enemy’ in a manner not attempted with Australia’s other historical military opponents, such as the Germans, Japanese, and Vietnamese, why we don’t know this as a nation and why Australian historians and literati have apparently never made the connection between the two events, except for Les Murray, who used Armenian genocide victim Atom Yarjanian’s poem: “In shock I slammed my shutters like a storm/ Turned to the one gone, asked: ‘These eyes of mine/ How shall I dig them out, how shall I, how?” in his work Fredy Neptune.
In The Monthly, Professor Manne explains that “in 1915, the Ottoman government began one of the first really systematic genocides in history, certainly of the twentieth century. And within a year or so, perhaps one million Armenians had been killed because they were a Christian minority in the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which was in its point of crisis. And there’d been persecution for a long time, but this the attempt to eliminate a people.”
The Turkish government has consistently denied the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia. As Professor Manne posits: “The Turkish Government has always utterly denied that a genocide took place, although they admit that some massacres took place. But they largely blame the Armenians for that saying they were a rebellious, subversive element at a time of wartime crisis. But it’s at the heart of Turkish identity to deny the meaning and the reality of that genocide.”
Of course, up until recently, the fact that modern day Turkey was considered a vast economy of some 80 million people that paid lip-service to democracy and was, apart from Israel, the only non-Arab ‘democratic’ state in the Middle East, could possibly explain why the West has been willing to overlook a painfully obvious crime that allegedly inspired Hitler to perpetrate the Holocaust, supposedly remarking “Who remembers the Armenians?” Realpolitik is also compounded by the difficulty the West would experience in sympathising with such Middle Eastern peoples with unpronounceable names as the Pontians, Armenians, and Assyrians, who were slaughtered a century ago, when in our own time, the nightly news has for the past decade, flooded our living rooms with images of mass slaughter in the same broader region, coupled with our own fears of terrorism. However, considering the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Turkish government, such attitudes may change.
The inconsistency of such historical indifference has not escaped Professor Robert Manne, who stated on the ABC a few years ago: “It seems to me the strangest thing. We have Anzac Day as April the 25th 1915 remembered; the Armenians have April the 24th 1915 as their day of mourning, which they take to be the beginning of the genocide. The two events not only coincided in territory and in time, but there is quite a lot of evidence that the genocide was pushed on because of the Dardanelle campaign of the Anglo-French forces in which the Australians were involved.
“So despite the fact that the things happened at the same time and in the same place more or less, and they were even kind of connected with a causal link, I looked through book after book about Gallipoli, and there’s no end of books that Australians have written about it, and virtually none of them mention it for more than a passing paragraph or a couple of lines.”
Yet as Professor Manne states, the evidence linking the two events, seems to be incontrovertible: “[T]here are some contemporary historians, there’s a wonderful Turkish historian, Tanner Akcam, who thinks when the Gallipoli campaign began, or when the Dardanelles were first bombed by the Anglo-French in March 1915, that was the final moment of reckoning, and that the Turkish regime, which was run by two or three young Turks who were the dominant figures, set upon and decided on a systematic extermination of the Armenians, saying that at this moment of crisis, when Constantinople might fall, we can’t afford to have a subversive minority within our country.
“So, the Dardanelle campaign and the Gallipoli landings pushed on and maybe not exactly caused, but at least triggered the final events that led to the genocide… My point is how strange it is that the event that’s really by far the most important historical event in the national imaginary in Australia, the Gallipoli campaign, [although] our historians have never thought to ask the obvious questions about the connection between the two events, or even to comment on the fact that the two events took place at the same time. Apart from the poet Les Murray, I’ve not come across an Australian writer who’s really thought imaginatively about the connection of the two events in whatever they’ve written.”
The causal link between the two events is further cemented when one considers that just 20 days after the Gallipoli landing, on 14 May 1914, Talaat Pasha, a member of the ruling Young Turk triumvirate ordered the forcible evacuation of all Greek settlements on the Dardenelles as far as Kyssos and the resettlement of the region with Muslim refugees from the Balkans: “For political reasons it is urgently necessary that the Greek inhabitants of the coast of Asia Minor are forced to abandon their villages… If they refuse to move… please give oral instructions to Muslim brothers how to force the Greeks to remove themselves ‘voluntarily’ by any means possible. In that case, don’t forget to obtain confirmations from them that they are abandoning their homes of their own free will.”
Consequently, in May and June 1914, there were massacres of Greeks in Erythrae and Phocaea in Ionia, while in Pergamon on 27 May 1914; the Greeks were given just two hours to leave the city. This ethnic cleansing, along with the simultaneous massacres of Armenians and those of the Assyrians in inaccessible areas such as the mountains of Hakkari, were widely reported by diplomatic personnel and missionaries. US Ambassador Morgenthau, who had the ear of the Young Turk pashas and was also privy to their boasting about what they would do to the Christians in their realm, was one of the first to link ethnic cleansing with the Gallipoli landings in his memoirs. Arnold Toynbee, who worked for the British secret service, wrote as early as 1915: “The scheme was nothing less than the extermination of the whole Christian population within the Ottoman borders…”
As always, there was no mention of the millions of innocent Christian victims of bungled western policy in this year’s Anzac Day commemoration. Nor was there any mention of the thousands of Greeks who assisted and nursed wounded Australian soldiers from Gallipoli on the island of Lemnos. Homage instead, was paid to that ‘honourable enemy army’ that, upon German instruction, cleansed the coastline of its Christian inhabitants in order to better defend it against the Anzacs and who, as the campaign dragged on, engaged in their wholesale slaughter.
But then again, Gallipoli was never about justice, or historical fact. It is a national myth within the confines of which other people, especially victims of its aftermath who may sully the noble pure page of its epic with their blood, have absolutely no place. In the words of Robert Manne:
“… I think always Gallipoli has been tied up with identity and almost never been really connected to a kind of interest in the history of the First World War, let alone an interest in the Ottoman Empire. And so it’s not really pessimism so much as kind of trying to identify the difference between history and myth, that I think it’ll never become a matter of great interest in Australia, except perhaps for some intellectuals…. The interests of myth, I think, drive the historians that move time and again back to Gallipoli. Even if they want to revise the story, what they’re doing is revising the myth. But they’re not really interested in the kind of overall historical questions that are connected to it.”
In this context, the traditional expression: ‘Lest We Forget’ assumes the form of a pious hope indeed.