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.
No logical reason, except one, that is reflected in the organisation or rather fragmentation of our community as a mirror in which we see ourselves. Our myriad of brotherhoods, representing villages, parts of regions and federations of parts of region all attest to one melancholy fact: Millenia after the demise of the Greek city states, and despite the best efforts of the philhellenes and the official Greek State to create a Greek identity out of artificial and selective constructions and interpretations of our past ancient, the Greek view of its ethnic identity is largely a parochial one, coupled with the acceptance of mutually agreed overarching significant events such as the Greek Revolution. In that narrow conception, there is plenty of scope to treat Greeks from other regions as «ξένοι,» as so often happens, and also, plenty of scope to consider events significant to others as irrelevant to themselves.
It is difficult to conceive of any other nation that would be untouched by the slaughter of three hundred and fifty thousand of its people and leave it commemoration just to the families of those victims. Yet save for government lip-service and recognition of the Genocide, that is exactly how the Genocide is seen by non-Pontians both in Greece and elsewhere and this is a savage indictment upon our maturity as a people our insularity and our general apathy.
In the least, the Genocide teaches us that one's language, religion, and right to an ethnic identity cannot be taken for granted and must be fought for in order to be preserved. Most importantly, the fact that our particular genocide occurred contemporaneously with and for the same reasons as those of the Armenians and Assyrians, compels us to transcend the narrow boundaries of our own ethnic self-perception and view the event as what it is - a supreme example of religious intolerance and an event that can inform the way in which the world views similar incidences today.
Sundry Pontian groups have had the sensitivity to understand that their genocide cannot be viewed as separate from that of the other Christian peoples of Anatolia. Yet in the functions that have been organised with those peoples, along with the attempts at establishing a united lobby, what emerges starkly time and time again is the fact that it is the Pontians themselves, and seldom any other Greeks who are alone in preserving the memories of the slain and fashioning these into a discourse against intolerance and violence in all its forms, which is what they should be bound to do, to the concern and astonishment of their lobby partners.
Just how we can expect the modern state of Turkey to acknowledge the genocide, apologize and provide redress in the form of a democratic, fair and non-militaristic society is mystifying when for the vast majority of the Greek people, this unspeakable tragedy is an irrelevant event concerning the margins of the Greek people is a question that cannot be answered. What can be said, boldly and without fear is that the world has learned nothing from the Genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia, of which Greeks were also victims, as the Christian peoples of the Middle East are undergoing similar tribulations today. Where we could be best placed to foster understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation, we shy away from truly accommodating the Genocide within the context of our national narrative. And for as long as we do, the memories of the innocent victims cannot be honoured to the extent that they deserve, nor the troubled shades of the past, find their proper rest.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 May 2012