May 19, 1919 has different and even opposing meanings in Turkey and Greece, just as May 15, 1948, marks both the establishment of Israel and, for Palestinians, the start of the Nakba (“catastrophe”).
In Turkey, this date marks the first step that led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic, while for descendants of Ottoman Greeks and Greece it marks the end of the centuries-long Pontic Greek presence on the shores of the Black Sea. Whereas Turks celebrate May 19, Greeks mourn it.
Researcher Tamer Çilingir summarised the issue in a 2016 interview with the Turkish-Armenian daily Agos: “The Pontic Genocide is the last phase of Great Christian Genocide that started in 1894 with Sultan Abdulhamid’s massacres against Armenians and continued with the Union and Progress Party’s 1915 slaughter that killed 1.5 million Armenians and almost 300,000 Assyrians. People that had lived for 600 years in Pontus were either forced to convert to Islam or massacred between 1914 and 1923 or were banished in 1923 during the Turkish-Greek population exchange.”
Between 1914 and 1921, some 353,000 Pontic Greeks were killed in the region: 134,078 in Amasya, Samsun, and Giresun; 64,582 in Tokat; 17,479 in Maçka; and 21,448 in Şebinkarahisar, along with 50,000 who died during the population exchange.
With the arrival of Mustafa Kemal — the founder of Turkey, who was later given the surname Atatürk, meaning “father of the Turks” — to Samsun on May 19, 1919, the process transformed into total annihilation. The first thing Mustafa Kemal did was to have a meeting with Topal Osman, a Turkish militia leader known for his anti-Greek brutality.
The target was not only the lives of the Greeks, but also their properties and wealth.
Studies conducted outside Turkey show that the Pontic Genocide was a multi-year conscious annihilation process. In Turkey, people are either or totally ignorant of these events or wrongly interpret them as in line with the official narrative that blames secessionist Pontic Greeks.
In recent years, some strong research has begun to emerge on the genocides against Armenians and Assyrians. But there is scarcely any reliable information available on the Pontic Genocide, as both academia and opinion makers largely ignore the subject.
In Turkey, talking about the past and present of Pontic Greeks in the Black Sea provinces is likely to result in curses, insults, and worse.
Even the word “Pontus” is unacceptable to Turkey’s government. This past Saturday, a modest gathering in Ankara meant to commemorate the Pontic Greek genocide was forbidden by the governor.
Despite a total denial within Turkey, the issue has been on the agenda abroad for some time now. I asked historian Taner Akçam, one of the leading authorities on the Armenian Genocide, what had been done so far.
Efforts to jointly research the massacres against Pontic Greeks and Assyrians together with the Armenian Genocide had been gathering pace since mid-2000s.
In 2011, George Mavropoulos, an engineer and a leader of the Pontic Greek community in the United States, founded the Asia Minor and Pontus Hellenic Research Center in Chicago, a milestone for the movement.
The Zoryan Institute and its director George Shrinian gave vital support to Mavropoulos and his initiative. Mavropoulos began by organising a series of conferences, with the first held in 2008. Research papers presented at the conferences were later published, and a book titled “The Asia Minor Catastrophe and the Ottoman Greek Genocide” was published in 2012. Another, published in 2017, was called “Genocide in the Ottoman Empire: Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks”.
Regarding holistic Ottoman genocides studies, a first happened earlier this month. Aristotle University in Thessaloniki hosted an international conference called “The Genocide of the Christian Populations in the Ottoman Empire and its Aftermath”. This event highlights how advocates have since 2008 sought to draw the attention of academics. It is crucial that studies will now be conducted within academia.
Moreover, in the past, activists and researchers generally focused on their own genocide and reached out to their own communities. From now on, it seems, the Ottoman genocides against non-Muslim populations will be handled with an integrated scientific approach, as Israeli historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi’s do in their new book, “The Thirty Year Genocide,” which estimates that up to 2.5 million Armenian, Greek and Assyrian Christians were killed in Anatolia from 1894 to 1924.
Turkey has generally failed to use centenaries to remember, learn, understand, question, and come to terms with its past, in order to start healing. Yet our present has largely been shaped by the events that unfolded starting in 1908. Turkish society, opinion leaders and leading academics seem uninterested in the centenaries of the Second Constitutional Era, the Balkan Wars, the Raid on the Sublime Porte, World War One, the Ottoman Genocides, the Treaty of Sevres, and more still to come, excepting of course the centenary of Turkey’s founding.
Instead, everybody seems comfortable parroting official narratives on these troubling deeds and rejecting studies performed abroad as packs of lies. As a result, “diseases” keep relapsing!
One the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Pontic Genocide, it is important to recognise that Turkey, where non-Muslim populations have been erased, has become the most religiously homogeneous yet sterile country in the region.
We will never find normality without reckoning with this great civilisational loss.