Savvas Koktzoglou is a retired mechanical engineer, a Greek American from Chicago, Illinois. He is a native of Drama, in Greece’s province of Macedonia, a child of Pontic Greeks from the Black Sea who settled thereafter they were extirpated from lands they had inhabited for millennia. He knew his narrative, as it had been drilled into him from birth, by those who escaped the horrors. The “primary sources” were his parents and neighbors, and hundreds of thousands of refugees who reached Greece with little more than the clothes on their backs, often having left much of their families behind to slaughter or forced assimilation. The stories were all too similar.
Familiar with the stories of his family from childhood, for his book, he sought primary sources elsewhere, in his case from United States Naval personnel who were patrolling the Turkish Black Sea coast just as the final acts of genocide against native Christian populations in the region were taking place in the aftermath of the First World War. The work, photographing war diaries from American naval personnel at the National Archives in Washington DC, was tedious and repetitive, yet what emerged—either in drab government prose or at times with hints of a broader education—was a tale of organized deportation and destruction of the Pontic Greek population—and these tales were conveyed to the American High Commissioner in Constantinople, Admiral Bristol.
The war diaries have objectivity perhaps absent from Savvas’ childhood sources, as they are from a third party, ostensibly neutral. The reports present Greek and Turkish perspectives; the diaries often quote resident Americans involved in aid work or the tobacco business. Ultimately, these diaries point towards a similar conclusion, that genocide was carried out in Samsun and other towns while heavily armed American ships lay at anchor hundreds of yards away. These were not secret camps in the interior, hidden away or concealed in subterfuge and euphemisms, as in the Holocaust in World War Two. This was in-your-face obvious, complete with eyewitness accounts of Americans onshore, of killings, roundups, death marches, and massacres. They also, crucially, tell stories of Turks trying to intervene on behalf of their neighbors, often at great cost.
I had the great pleasure of hearing Savvas talk about his research several years ago, at an event in Chicago jointly sponsored by Hellenic Link Midwest, the Pontian Federation, and the Macedonian Federation. Savvas, with characteristic energy, has served as a board member in all three organizations. During the lecture, he presented his evidence, or rather their [the naval officers’] evidence; his book merges this evidence with a broader context.
In 2013, in the midst of his research, Savvas met Professor Robert Shenk, an English professor, and former US Naval Officer. One of Shenk’s books, America’s Black Sea Fleet, referenced atrocities against Greeks in Pontus (the main subject of this book) and Smyrna. The two struck up a collaboration, which resulted in the present book.
As awareness of the genocide of the Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire/early Turkish Republic has grown, the base of public knowledge has been strengthened with a number of very strong scholarly books from various authors and historians detailing what happened. However, much of this work focuses on the horror of Smyrna, the main theater of the Greek-Turkish War, and the scene of the horror of fire and massacre within sight and smell of Great Power ships in the harbor.
While lacking the sheer scale and climax of Smyrna, this book’s power is in the almost bureaucratic banality of the primary sources. Through the pens of several American officers and various Americans on the ground in Turkey, the book chronicles the death of a people in their homeland by a thousand deportations, outrages, and violations, and providing a wider historical context to the mission of the US Naval Squadron, the geopolitical situation in the Black Sea, and the sins of omission and commission of the US High Commissioner, Admiral Bristol.
The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries is professional and technocratic, based on the diaries of military technocrats. It lacks the literary flow of Giles Milton’s book Paradise Lost, or Lou Ureneck’s The Great Fire, both of which center on the catastrophe of Smyrna. The book is also not, thankfully, a compilation of essays, which may have use for scholars but do not provide a grand thematic context to what happened. Koktzoglou and Shenk provide a context and a framework for the discussions, and then let the diaries speak for themselves.
As the Eastern Mediterranean simmers once again, with a huge American presence ubiquitous in the area, it might be very good to review this chronicle of the past, lest it becomes prologue for the present.