The Pontian Genocide

Photo: Eurokinissi/Stelios Misinas

The efforts of the Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to construct a post-modern Ottoman Empire also resurrects the dark side of that empire. Mr. Erdogan has exploited Islamism and nationalism and combined both into a new ideology that he hopes will give him absolute power.

Part of his construct includes an imperial policy, which has faltered, and he is now shifting to the use of hate and fear to tame Turkey’s population as well as the country’s neighbors.

History is replete with examples of the mechanisms of repression and the process is rapidly unfolding in Turkey. First, Erdogan purged the armed forces, followed by the civil servants, teachers, professors, intellectuals, and journalists. The next step is the harsh treatment of minorities beginning with the Kurds and then the Christians as well as other religious minorities. Erdogan will whip up fear of these groups while trumping the virtuous of conservative Islam.

This is a well-trodden path taken by a variety of dictators and tyrants who have exploited fear and nationalism to achieve absolute authority. Hitler is the prime example and it is telling that when confronted about the horrible publicity of the persecution of the Jews, the Nazi leader simply said, “Who remembers the Armenians.”

In light of Erdogan’s evolving authoritarianism and hate-mongering, it is important to remember what did happen to the Armenians and equally significant to pay homage to the Pontians, who shared the tragedy of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire. It is critical to remind Mr. Erdogan what is genocide and how the international community understands it.

Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) As “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

During the First World War, the government of the Ottoman Empire embarked on a course of reprehensible acts that led to the genocide of the Armenian and Pontic Greek Orthodox. The genocide was conducted sadistically to instill terror in the minds of the surviving minorities in the Ottoman Empire.

The genocide included: mass rape, wonton destruction, torture for the sake of torture, regardless of gender and age. Children were raped, often in front of their parents, before the entire family was put to death. Husbands, wives, and children were often brutally tortured prior to execution.

The Ottoman genocide of the Armenians and Pontic Greek Orthodox was aimed specifically at Christian minorities in an effort to create an ethnically cleansed state. While the Armenian Genocide is widely acknowledged, that of the Pontian Genocide, which occurred concurrently, is obscure.

Prior to the First Word War, 700,000 Pontic Greek Orthodox lived around the coast of the Black Sea and the Pontic Mountains in Northeastern Anatolia, as their ancestors had for millennia and throughout the course of Ottoman history. As was the case of the Armenians, the Ottoman regime proceeded to extinguish the presence of the Pontic Greek Orthodox in stages.

At the onset of the First World War: Greek Orthodox Pontic men were forced into the Turkish interior to work in labor battalions – as was the case with the Armenians. According to the January 1916 Report by George Hutton, U.S. Consul-General in the Near East:
“In January, 1916, the deportations of Greek Orthodox Pontians from the Black Sea began.
“These unfortunate human beings came through the city of Marsovan by thousands, walking for the most part during the three-day’ journey through the snow and mud.

“[As intended by the Ottoman authorities] thousands fell by the wayside from exhaustion and others came into the city of Marsovan in groups of fifty, one hundred and five hundred, always under escort of Turkish gendarmes.

“Next morning, these poor refugees were started on the road and destruction by this treatment was even more radical than a straight massacre such as the Armenians suffered before.”

By November 1916, the Austrian consul reported that Refet Bey, a senior Ottoman official, told him “we must finish off the Greeks as we did with the Armenians…”

By January 31, 1917, the Austrian Chancellor Hollweg feared that the Turks were repeating the Armenian Genocide against the Pontians. Hollweg noted that the Ottomans limited direct exterminations due to international outrage over the Armenians so instead displaced the Pontians to the interior and killed them away from prying eyes. The body count of the genocide of the Greek Orthodox Pontians was 350,000, men, women and children. The Ottoman Empire succeeded in eliminating a significant portion of the Pontic people.

The world chose to ignore the genocide of Armenians and Pontians, and as a result had to confront the Nazi holocaust of European Jews. Regardless of the bitter legacy of the Holocaust, the international community stood by as Pol Pot instituted the killing fields in Cambodia – approximately two million perished. Years later the death knell echoed in Rwanda while the United States and the other civilized countries chose to ignore the genocide in that poor country.

ISIS has committed mini genocides deliberately targeting Christians and Shia Muslims. Perhaps, it is early but will these abominations and the failure of the West to react in time inspire Mr. Erdogan to resort ultimately to industrial scale killing – he has already mastered mass arrest and imprisonment.

André Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.