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Guest Viewpoints

Forgotten Heroes: American Interest in the Americanized Greeks and the Balkan Wars

July 3, 2021
By Peter S. Giakoumis

In the early 20th century, before television, computers, and digital networks, the major means of mass communication was the newspaper. From small towns to the largest cities, newspapers flourished. Even foreign language newspapers found fertile ground in the United States. But what was the perception of the non-ethnic American majority in the United States? Of the white Americans that dominated and controlled the vast land that was America? Did the local papers even bother with the events of Europe? Were the local Greek lads newsworthy? It turns out that the largest newspapers published throughout the major cities covered world events closely, and in fact the Americanized Greeks made it into their hallowed pages quite often.

It’s intriguing, especially since the Greeks represented a very new migrant group, that American newspapers would bother with them. Americans, in fact, followed the events overseas in great detail, and they were interested in the particular impact that local Americanized Greeks had on the events transpiring in the far-off lands of the Balkans. So, not only were Americans intrigued by the Greeks here in the States, they wanted to know what had become of them while they fought on the other side of the world.

It appears that the Greek migrant had succeeded in fitting into the daily routines of most Americans. They became a part of the daily life wherever they worked. They were a tough and stubborn lot. It did not matter if the local law enforcement agents ticketed them, chased them, or sometimes assaulted them, or how many times they were banned, or burnt out of establishments, they always found a way to come back. Those pioneer Greeks found all types of work, eventually even owning their own storefronts. The more lucrative and plentiful the jobs, the more their numbers increased. This went on all over the United States, big and small towns and cities alike.

That is the connection they established with the Americans around them. Everyone in town knew the flower peddler, the produce vender, and the candy maker, as well as the factory workers and miners and hotel attendees. The Greeks had made their way into all areas of industry. And so, the locals and business owners knew them, or at least knew they existed.

As the war broke out in 1912 it became a hot topic in nearly all newspapers nationwide. Most remarkable is that as the Greek-Americans mobilized, the newspapers took notice, from coast to coast. From the smallest town paper to the largest city newspapers, they all took notice and covered the inner workings of the events as they unfolded. In many cases they even sent reporters to speak with Greek-American representatives, not only the association leaders of the well-known Pan-Hellenic Union, but the average Greek, the guy that they knew, the one that worked or owned a small business, like Jimmy the fruit peddler. Americans wanted to know what he was going to do.

As the Greeks packed up to go to war, the newspapers followed their journey. They even published photos of the men leaving, and followed their train routes from California all the way to New York City. Newspaper accounts even covered the Greeks travelling from Alaska and Hawaii, and often included their names.

The Americans consumed the news, always wanting more. The amount of information and coverage is spread throughout tens of thousands of newspaper pages. A researcher could easily spend decades accumulating the data. To think that an English speaker could learn the inner workings of the Balkan wars, even with strict censorship by the nations involved, and learn as much as they wanted about a people and their struggle in a far-off land where they spoke a foreign language, is a phenomenon worthy of our attention. Better yet, we even learn the details of what the Jimmies did in the war, and in some cases follow the story all the way to their return at the end of the war.

Americans enjoyed the tale of the modern Greeks fighting for their ancient land. The modern war in Europe was in itself a fascinating amusement. It was exotic in a sense, and since it took place in a far-off land where kings and queens and sultans ruled, it was also a bit romantic. Coupling that notion with the intimacy of knowing some of the participants made it even more appealing to them. In the end, based on American curiosity, present historians have inherited abundant material for the study of those forgotten heroes. That is the source we can draw from to help us bring back the true memories and heroic sacrifices of the forgotten heroes. The resurrection of a lost piece of history began and continues through our interest and respect for our beloved newspapers. We may not know what the future holds, but at least we know where to find the past in all its glory.  

Next time, we will learn of the letters between the Greek-Americans on the battlefields and those they left behind in the United States.

Peter S. Giakoumis is the author of The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913. Follow him on www.Facebook.com/1912GreekHistory.

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