May 19: Remembrance of Pontic Greeks

map of Turkey with Pontus region

Today is the day set aside to commemorate the Pontic Greek Genocide, as declared in 1994 by the government of Greece. Though the mass murder of Pontic Greeks in the late Ottoman Empire has been acknowledged as genocide by Greece, Cyprus, Sweden and others, there has been no official recognition by the United Nations, Council of Europe, and most other countries. That seems strange considering the UN’s definition of genocide is when there is “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” According to missionaries located in northern Turkey at the time, and historians later, a very large part of this particular ethnic group was destroyed by killing their members and “deliberately inflicting on [them] conditions of life calculated to bring about [their] physical destruction.” But whether the term is genocide, ethnic cleansing, or mass murder, today is the day of remembrance of Pontic Greeks.

The Pontic Greeks

map of the Kingdom of PontusThough the Kingdom of Pontus (c. 700 BC – 50 AD) was once very large (see map, right), by the time of the late Ottoman Empire the Pontus region was reduced to the south shore of the Black Sea and southward from there into the mountains in the Kastamonu, Sivas and Trebizond vilayets. Pontic (or Pontian) Greeks were Christians, with Greek ancestry. However, due to the isolation of the mostly mountainous area, they spoke a dialect that was distinct from standard Greek, and had their own customs. Most of the Greeks in the ABCFM missions in Sivas, Marsovan, Samsoun, and Trebizond were Pontic Greeks.

The Day of May 19

The First World War had only been over for six months when the Greek army landed at Smyrna on May 15, 1919. This was the start of the Greco-Turkish War. Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos had the blessing of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George for the invasion, but it was not sanctioned by the other Allies of WWI.

History has shown that two things are certain with any war: Atrocities are committed by all sides, and truth is the first casualty. In the case of this war, word spread quickly that Greek soldiers committed mass atrocities against Turkish civilians in Smyrna and the surrounding countryside. However, this was not entirely true. Clifford Heathcote-Smith, who worked in Constantinople for the British High Commission and the newly-created MI6, reported to his superiors that accounts of the violence had been greatly exaggerated. This was also confirmed by American Consul-General George Horton in Smyrna, who discovered that fewer than two hundred Turks had been killed. He noted that the new Greek governor-general had “suppressed the disturbances completely in a very short space of time and severely punished the evil-doers.” Still, the rumours of widespread violence against Turks reached Ottoman army commander Mustafa Kemal by the time he landed in Samsoun on the Black Sea four days later on May 19th. He immediately began an organized resistance, which became known as the Nationalists.

Whether in retaliation for the supposed mass atrocities in Smyrna, or as a continuation and escalation of the genocidal policy of the previous government, the Nationalists subjected non-Muslim Ottomans in the Pontus region to the same treatment the Armenians had received in 1915-16: deportation, destruction, and murder. Between May 1919 and November 1922, when the directive came down for all Ottoman Christians* to leave Turkey, an estimated 300,000 Pontic Greeks were killed.

The Importance of Remembrance

I wrote a post on April 24 about the importance of remembrance in general, and of remembrance of the Armenians victims of genocide in particular. Now, on May 19, it is time to remember the Pontic Greeks.

* The directive did not apply to foreign Christians, such as the American and Canadian missionaries of the ABCFM.

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