Remembrance Day of the Pontic Greek Genocide: An Interview with Gevorg Vardanyan
Q: May 19 is the Remembrance Day of the Pontic Greek Genocide. Scholars, some human rights organizations, and centers that specialize in genocide studies conduct research on the Pontic Greek Genocide. However, it is one of the less recognized and less well-known genocides.Why did you decide to dedicate your research to the Pontic Greek Genocide?
A: The initial decision was made in 2008 when I was admitted to aspirantura at the Armenian Genocide Museum and Institute of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences. I chose this topic after several discussions with my Supervisor, but the decision itself was mostly based on three factors. First of all, for me, someone with an ethnic Armenian background and a strong personal and research interest in the phenomenon of genocide, the Greek case was a means to learn more about the Armenian Genocide. Second, there was almost no work devoted to the Greek Genocide in Armenian language literature. I thought that the Armenians, as a nation who saw the horrors of the genocide, should know more about other groups with similar experiences. Last but not least, it was my personal interest in Modern Greek history that played a role in choosing such a topic for my research.
Q: Why is May 19 is defined as a Remembrance Day? Is there a special incident or reason behind this? When, how, and by who this day was chosen as a Remembrance Day?
A: After a formal recognition of the Pontian Greek Genocide by the Parliament of Greece in February of 1994, May 19 was selected as a day of remembrance. The day was chosen because on the same day of 1919, general Mustafa Kemal landed in Samsun (a port in Pontus), which marked the beginning of the last and most tragic page of the Greek genocide. In other words, this was the start of the Greek “final solution.” Almost all Greeks of Pontus and other regions of Asia Minor were deported or exterminated in their villages and towns within the following 3 and a half years.
Q: When and under what circumstances did the Greek Genocide begin?
A: To answer this question, there need to be some clarifications on the term “Greek Genocide.” If we are talking about the Pontian case, the deportations and massacres of the Pontic Greeks mostly, although not exclusively, began in 1916. However, if we want to have a larger picture of anti-Greek persecutions, we have to go back to the eve of World War I (1913-1914), when the Turkish authorities deported – and in some places killed – Greeks of Western Asia Minor and Thrace.
Q: What were the motives and factors of the Greek Genocide?
A: A part of the answer can be found if one looks at the spatial and temporal patterns of this tragedy. Initially, in the period of 1913-1914, the immediate aim of the Turkish authorities was to “free” the coastal areas of the Aegean sea from the Greek population to eliminate the potential support that those Greeks could provide in the event of a potential war between Greece and Ottoman Empire. One should remember that this is was a period of intensifying tensions between Greece and the Ottoman Empire.
However, the nature of anti-Greek policy had been changing over time. After the deportations and massacres of Armenians in 1915, the Young Turks realized that a similar policy can be implemented against the Greeks as well. So, one can observe an intensification of the anti-Greek measures after 1916. The entry of Greece to World War I further boosted anti-Greek sentiments in Turkey. Now, not only were Greeks deported, but also massacred. In the years following World War I, the Kemalist nationalists continued Greek deportations and massacres more intensively.
Here, one can see what German historian Hans Mommsen called a “cumulative radicalization” for the Jewish case. The anti-Greek policy did not have the same motives, say, in 1914, and in 1921. Young Turks and later the Kemalists radicalized their policy over time because of a myriad of factors, developments, and circumstances. The changing nature of the relation between the Ottoman Empire and Greece, the Armenian Genocide, World War I, and many other factors impacted and shaped that policy.
Q: How long did the Greek Genocide last and were there distinct phases of implementation?
A: The main events occurred in the period between 1913 and 1923. As said above, there were changing motives and factors during this period. Based on the nature and pursued goals, one can differentiate at least three phases: (a) the deportation of the Greeks from Western Asia Minor and Thrace in 1913-1914; (b) The deportation and massacres during World War I (mostly after 1916); and (c) persecutions of the Greeks by the Kemalists (1919-1923).
Q: What were the consequences of the Pontic Greek Genocide?
A: As in any case of genocide, the consequences were terrible. Hundreds of thousands were killed, 1.5 million were deported to Greece. Greeks lose their properties, cultural and religious institutions. If the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the Empire of Trapizon in 1461 were the end of Greek political presence in Asia Minor, the genocide, in turn, marked the end of their physical presence as well.
Q: We know that the Greeks were subjected to genocide not only in Pontus? Can you tell us where else the Greeks were massacred and what are the key differences between these cases?
A: Pontus is perhaps the most well-known case of the Greek Genocide. Yet, one should not forget that Greek persecutions occurred in Thrace, Western, and Central Asia Minor as well. Again, if we want to see the differences, we should observe the temporal patterns. For example, on the western shores of Asia Minor, the forced deportation was initially the main method of the anti-Greek policy prior to World War I. However, as we know very well, the perpetrators killed more than 100 thousand Greeks and Armenians during the event known as the “Burning of Smyrna” in 1922.
Q: What are the similarities and/or differences between the Armenian Genocide and the Pontic Greek Genocide?
A: If I try to sum up here my observations, I would say that similarities and even generalities include: prehistory, the perpetrators, deportation as a means to destroy, various methods of killings. No wonder Henry Morgenthau, then US ambassador to Turkey, noted: “The Armenians are not the only subject people in Turkey which have suffered from this policy of making Turkey exclusively the country of the Turks. The story which I have told about the Armenians I could also tell with certain modifications about the Greeks and the Syrians. Indeed the Greeks were the first victims of this nationalizing idea.”
For differences, the Greek case has more gradual development. As said above, there are differences between Greek persecutions in 1913-1914 and, say in 1921 in regards to motives, methods of implementation, etc. While deportation was initially the main method of anti-Greek violence, then, in the following years, it was accompanied by massacres. Moreover, even if we observe the deportation itself, initially it was just the forced removal of Greek from the coastal towns and villages. Yet, later, deportation became a means to destroy.
To be sure, some scholars see this gradual radicalization in the Armenian case as well. However, it is much better expressed in the Greek case. In my opinion, this difference is related to the factor of the Greek state. In some phases, the presence of Greece somehow constrained the anti-Greek policy. But in other phases, it does not. The Kurdish factor is another important difference. Kurdish participation in the Armenian Genocide is remarkable. This is not to say that the local Muslim population did not participate in the destruction of the Greeks in different parts of Asia Minor, but it occurred to a much lesser degree.
Q: The Zoryan Institute’s last publication “Collective and State Violence in Turkey” addresses most of the cases of violence and mass atrocities orchestrated by Turkey from Empire to Nation-State. Do you think the case of the Pontic Greeks fits within the concept of collective and state violence in Turkey? If yes, how, if not, why not?
A: I have not yet had a chance to read that volume and I do not know its overall argument. But certainly, the Greek case is not only state violence. If we look at the reports of the Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, or eyewitness accounts, we notice the participation of the various layers of Ottoman society. We need more research on the forms and especially the motives of participation, to have a more accurate answer to your question.
Q: What are the current political developments towards the Pontic Greek Genocide?
A: Currently, several countries, including Armenia, recognize the deportation and massacres of Greeks in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. Greek diasporic organizations and research centers played an important role in international recognition. In this regard, one can notice a growing pressure on Turkey. It seems that the Pontic Greeks have opened a new battlefield against the Turkish denial.
Ten years ago, the Turkish government allowed Oecumenical Patriarchate to celebrate Divine Liturgy in Panagia Sumela Monastery, one of the most famous Greek monasteries in Pontus. As in the case of the Armenian Surb Khach Monastery of Aghtamar, this was organized for propagandistic purposes to show the “goodwill and tolerance” of the Turkish government.
The Turkish government is very sensitive towards the question of the discourse of genocide. In 2006, after the opening of a memorial in Thessaloniki dedicated to the victims of the Greek genocide, then Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, criticized this action. We can also remember the Swedish recognition of Ottoman genocides in 2010, after which Turkey recalled its Ambassador to Sweden.
In the Diaspora, Pontic Greek organizations cooperated with their Armenian and Assyrian colleagues and jointly struggle for the recognition of their genocides creating more problems for the Turkish denial.
Q: Do you think it is important to address the crimes against humanity committed in the past? If yes, why, if no, why?
A: Of course, it is important, very important. I can list at least two reasons for that. First of all, we all want a better future, without hatred, prejudices, and xenophobia. However, we can not do that without addressing the wrongs of the past. It is not possible to achieve a better future based on lies and denial. We have to tell the truth, the hard truth, tell what really happened to ignore all kinds of biases and political manipulations.
Second, we can not admit the history written by the “winners,” or put more correctly, the killers. The official narrative has excluded those who were oppressed and killed and celebrates those who did so. Our job, as researchers, is to challenge the official fake narrative and make the oppressed voices heard.
Q: Are there possibilities for the generations of the perpetrators and those of victims to come to a final reconciliation?
A: I think every research on genocide, human rights violation somehow, directly or indirectly, intends to contribute to a possible reconciliation. But one should keep in mind that reconciliation is not possible without facing your history. The non-democratic regime in Turkey, ultra-nationalistic discourse, the denial of past violence, and especially the support of the latest anti-Armenian campaign of Azerbaijan, leave no place for optimism, clearly showing that we are far from reconciliation.
However, we should not be discouraged. We should continue to work to increase the awareness in Turkish society about our common past.
Q: You also worked with the Zoryan Institute within the project “Genocide in the Ottoman Empire: Armenian, Assyrians, and Greeks 1913-1923”. Would you please tell us more about your experience working with the Zoryan Institute?
A: Yes, this was a great experience for me. A couple of years ago, I participated in a conference organized by the Zoryan Institute and Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center of Chicago. The immediate result was the volume, Genocide in the Ottoman Empire: Armenian, Assyrians, and Greeks 1913-1923, which includes my paper devoted to the comparison of genocides of the Armenians and Greeks. Both the conference and the resulting book were impressive. The book has received good reviews from scholars of the field and, of course, this is largely due to the rigorous editorial work of George Shirinian, the executive Director of Zoryan Institute.
 Postgraduate study in Soviet and some Post-Soviet Countries, that grants a kandidat nauk degree, first of two doctoral-level degrees.
Interview conducted by Mari Hovhannisyan of Zoryan Institute Armenia.
Gevorg Vardanyan is the author of the monograph, Greek Population in the Ottoman Empire and the Asia Minor Disaster, 1914–1923 (in Armenian). Currently, he is working on his doctorate at North Carolina State University. His dissertation is devoted to the Armenian American remembrance of the Armenian Genocide. Vardanyan received his Diploma in History form Yerevan State Pedagogical University in 2008 and kandidat nauk (patmakan gitut’yunneri t’eknatsu) degree from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences in 2011. Following graduation, he moved to the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute (AGMI), the most prestigious and famous museum in Armenia, where he held various positions, such as a researcher, a senior researcher, a head of the Department of Comparative Genocide Studies, and an Academic Secretary. In 2017, he was appointed as the Acting Director of the AGMI with a decree of the Prime-Minister of Armenia and served until joining North Carolina State University in 2018.