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Saturday, May 12, 2001

Apologizing for a slight case of genocide

LONDON -- "Not one word of apology has been heard from your lips about the Fourth Crusade," said Archbishop Christodoulos in a hectoring tone, as Pope John Paul II sat with the head of the Greek Orthodox Church last Friday just hours after his arrival in Athens. It is, after all, the age of apologizing for your ancestors, so why not your spiritual ancestors too?

The frail Catholic pontiff rose to the occasion, murmuring a one-size-fits-all apology for "all those cases in which Catholics sinned by commission or omission." It mollified Christodoulos, who rose and embraced him, and the moment passed. But the general Greek resentment at how history has treated them has certainly not passed. We think of the victim culture as an American invention, but Americans only privatized it: the Greeks were the true pioneers.

Non-Greeks may not understand why a Pole born in 1920 should have to apologize for the actions of Western European crusaders who, while pausing in Constantinople on their way to try to recapture Jerusalem in 1204, turned instead to sacking and pillaging the capital of the Greek-speaking Byzantine empire. But Greeks generally blame that calamity for the gradual decline of the city that caused it to fall to the Turks and get renamed Istanbul a mere 249 years later.

Indeed, most Greeks blame the whole chain of events that led to their spending centuries under Turkish imperial rule on the hostility between the eastern and western branches of Christianity -- and they hold Rome entirely responsible for the great schism of 1054 that split Christendom in the first place. That is why there was such controversy in Greece over even permitting a visit by the Pope. Greeks have long memories, although rather selective ones.

Recently this Greek obsession with victimhood has got entirely out of hand, with the Ministry of Culture's declaration last February that Sept. 14 will henceforward be known in Greece as "Genocide Day" in commemoration of the recapture of the city of Izmir by the Turks in 1922. Even such an eminent Greek historian as Angelos Elefantis was driven to reply that his government was acting "like an idiot."

There have been a couple of truly dreadful genocides in the past decade, in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia: preplanned, full-scale genocides in which innocent people were systematically murdered for no other reason than their ethnicity. In response, the world community has belatedly set up tribunals to pursue the criminals who committed these evil deeds. But this new focus on genocide has also caused a bandwagon effect where everybody who had a bad patch in their history wants to join the parade.

Thus when Queen Elizabeth visited India recently, some Indians demanded that she apologize for the British Empire. The Koreans are still looking for an apology from Japan for 40 years of colonial oppression (and will probably still be waiting when hell freezes over). Any day now, both the Iraqis and the Chinese will be demanding an apology from the Mongolians for Genghis Khan. For sheer, bare-faced cheek, however, the Greek proclamation of Genocide Day takes the biscuit.

It is true that tens of thousands of innocent Greeks who had lived all their lives in western Anatolia were robbed, raped and killed when vengeful Turkish forces retook the city of Izmir in 1922. But it was Greece that started the whole thing by invading Turkey.

At the end of the World War I, at the invitation of the victorious allies, who planned to carve Turkey up into various colonies, Greek troops seized Izmir (which had been under Turkish rule for 500 years) and moved inland. The Greek Army advanced almost all the way to Ankara before a Turkish Army led by Kemal Ataturk defeated them and drove them back down to the coast.

The Greek Orthodox minority of western Turkey, fearful of Turkish revenge, were swept up in the chaotic retreat, and many were murdered as Turkish troops infiltrated the city during the final frantic evacuation from Izmir. A more orderly subsequent exchange of populations moved about a million Turkish citizens of Greek Orthodox faith to Greece, and a million Turkish-speaking Muslims born in Greece to Turkey.

It was an ugly, bitter business, and nobody was given the option of staying. But there was no genocide.

A close, more recent parallel was the German invasion of Russia in 1941-45, which ended with around 10 million German-speaking "Volksdeutscher" born outside the borders of the Reich being driven permanently from the lands in eastern Europe that their ancestors had inhabited for centuries. Several million were killed, and almost every woman was raped by the victorious Soviet troops, though most of the refugees were innocent of any personal wrong-doing. But nobody would call this a genocide.

Words have meanings, and we are all made poorer when the meanings are blurred. To use genocide to mean merely "anything really bad that happened to my people in the past, regardless of provocation" not only devalues the word but shows disrespect to the victims of real genocides. I don't think many Jews would find the Greek claim acceptable, or many Rwandans either.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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