AHMP Letter to the Financial Times, September, 1995

Letters to the Editor


The Financial Times
14 E. 60th Street
New York, NY 10022

Dear Sir or Madam:

Any thinking person would like to see peace prevail in the Balkans, especially in former Yugoslavia. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) could potentially be an oasis in that regard. Unfortunately, in an attempt to unravel the complexities of that region the article by Anthony Robinson and Kerin Hope, "Island of Stability and Tolerance", avoids facts and issues which would provide a more complete understanding.

In the interest of better informing readers, why not present opposing points of view? I am specifically referring to the inclusion of the Greek position on Macedonia. To use incendiary phrases like "the Greeks burst into a rage" conveniently dismisses them as incapable of reason or morality. Does this absolve the authors of presenting the Greeks' concerns?

Briefly delving into the dispute's history would have provided your readers with crucial background information. In response to Tito's 1944 renaming of Vardaska Banovina to the name of the neighboring Greek province "Macedonia", U.S. Secretary of State and a founding father of the U.N. Charter, Edward S. Stettinius, sent a circular to the U.S. diplomatic posts declaring " . . . this government considers the talk of a Macedonian 'nation', Macedonian 'fatherland', or Macedonian 'national consciousness' to be unjustified demagoguery representing no ethnic or political reality, and sees in its present revival a possible cloak for aggressive actions against Greece." The New Yorker's Connie Bruck, for example, provides a fair, concise, and above all, necessary starting point to any responsible understanding of the dispute. In her January 23, 1995 article she writes:

[FYROM] was a province of Yugoslavia once known as Vardar Banovina; it was renamed the Republic of Macedonia in 1945 by Marshal Tito. Its populace was varied, the largest portion being Slavs, whose ancestors had arrived in the region nearly a thousand years after the most famous Macedonians of all, Phillip II and his son, Alexander the Great. However, Tito--coveting the large Greek region of Macedonia--encouraged the irredentist idea of all Macedonians' sharing a distinct ethnic identity. He then supported the Communist-led Democratic Army in the Greek Civil War, a brutal conflict that tore the country from 1946 to 1949. Greece's fears were reawakened in 1991, when the fragment of Yugoslavia declared its independence as the nation of Macedonia; its newly elected President, Kiro Gligorov, was one of Tito's Communist bosses, and had helped propagate the idea of a separate ethnic identity for Macedonians. Gligorov says that his Macedonia has no territorial ambitions, but the Greeks have not been comforted. In 1992 and 1993, Gligorov's government issued new school textbooks that showed "geographical ethnic boundaries" encompassing the whole of Greek Macedonia; the country's flag carries the symbol of the empire of Alexander the Great; and a preamble to its 1991 Constitution pledges to protect Macedonians everywhere. The Greeks do not pretend that the Lilliputian Macedonia, with its two million people, poses any threat to them at the moment, but history has taught them to take the long view. In a scenario that some Greeks project, for example, Macedonians might some day attempt a hostile incursion, in concert with their fellow-Slavs in Bulgaria, which occupied part of Greece during the Second World War.

Regardless of their position on the Greek-FYROM dispute, the authors' failure to include any mention of these facts represents a double standard. Double standards are often a sign of racism; a frightening suspicion confirmed by your statement "[t]he Greeks, who like to see themselves as the linear descendants of the ancient Greeks, despite a generous admixture of Turkish, Slav and other genetic inputs over the millennia . . ." Other than being rife with factual inaccuracies [*] (querry: if the modern Greeks are not the "linear" descendants of the ancient Greeks, pray tell who is?), this oft-repeated myth underscores a profound irony in much of the West's thinking: Hellenism is now the property of the West, therefore the people who really are the ancients' genetic and direct cultural heirs must be denied that right.

Having appropriated Hellenism, the West acknowledges it as the fountainhead of its own civilization -- the West's great grandmother as it were. Yet, when the West lifts the veil from her face, it is not met by one that resembles its own, but by the Mediterranean's olive skin and brown eyes. The West drops the veil in horror, recoiling to an idealized image of her constructed in its likeness, rendered a Mediterranean Aryan or WASP. Hitler did no less, manipulating the image of the ancient Hellenes to fit his pernicious ideology as the "original Aryans." This refusal to see a people for who they were and are is not unlike depictions in art of Christ, depictions which almost never portray him as Semitic.

Yet this attitude deprives western culture of its own richness. For, although Hellenism is indeed everyone's patrimony, as a practical matter if Hellenism were seen as a continuum and the modern Greeks as its heirs, western scholars would find a living resource from which to more fully understand their own languages, religions, literatures, etc. The benefits of breaking free from this racist ideology can be even more immediate. For example, Dr. Alexander Spyropoulos has conducted research for the University of Pennsylvania on herbal medicines present-day Greek "praktikoi" use in their folk remedies, cross referencing them with often identical herbal medicines cited during the Byzantine and classical periods. This cross-referencing not only produced a rich inventory of useful medicines for further analysis, but also clearly evinced the unbroken continuum between present-day Hellenes and their rich ancient heritage.

The authors also forget that the ancient Greeks were not one group of people, but many groups, comprised of Minoans, Myceneans, Spartans, Ionians, Dorians, Achaeans, Aeolians etc. More importantly, the artcile continues the racist theory of a nineteenth-century German, Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer, a theory that was adopted by the Nazis and used to justify the horrific exterminationist policies inflicted upon the Greek population. Fallmerayer aimed at crushing the growing philhellenism of his day, knowing it spelled doom for the Ottoman Empire. He envisioned a greater Germany, perceiving the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against its greatest threat: Russia. Fallmerayer tried, in vain, to convince European philhellenes (among them Byron and Schiller) that they had been deluded into thinking of the contemporary Greeks as heirs to ancient Hellas. Fallmerayer insisted they were instead primarily Slavs, with an "admixture" (interestingly using the same word as the Times' authors) of Turks and other bloods.

The response among Greek intellectuals was an in-depth study of their customs, poetry and songs -- all with identifiably ancient roots. They also approached their ancient art as documentation, studying vase paintings, stelae and Archaic sculptures (some of which still bear original colorations) finding the majority of people to have been dark-haired and not the blonds Fallmerayer taught they were.

Surely Greece had been invaded, not only by Slavs and Turks but by Romans (possibly having the greatest input into the Hellenic gene pool), Venetians and Franks. Yet there is hardly a country that has not been invaded and influenced by its conquerors. In fact, Greece more often influenced her conquerors than the reverse; Rome was Hellenized, the Ottomans were Byzantinized.

A long list of conquerors permeated Italy's shores. In fact, that country is a recent creation comprised of ethnically and linguistically diverse peoples, many of whom were once enemies. Yet who would dream of denying the Italians their place as the heirs to Rome and the Renaissance of which they are rightfully proud? Similar histories of conquests and ethnic "impurity" could as easily be cited referring to the French, Irish, English, East Indians, African-Americans, Jews, Egyptians and a myriad of other nations. But European sources such as the Times ignore any evidences of discontinuity of these other cultures and seem to be particularly eager to severe the modern Greeks' connection with their own cultural heritage and ancestry.

No other language in uninterrupted use other than Chinese bears a closer link to its ancient forms than modern Greek. Old English -- only half as old as Homeric Greek -- resembles modern English far less than ancient Greek does modern Greek. In fact, even Chaucer would be less intelligible to an educated modern English speaker, than Homeric Greek would be to a Greek speaker. Does this lack of continuity mean the English should not see themselves as heirs to the heritage of Chaucer and Beowulf? Such an assertion would seem preposterous, and yet you do no less when you examine the modern Greeks' connection with their own rich heritage. The tolerance and stability you wish for in the Balkans can only come as a result of respect, knowledge, and understanding of its peoples and their past. At the very least, you owe it to your readers to provide a more balanced and accurate perspective of the issues you cover.

Very truly yours,

Associate Media Director

[*] Even a rudimentary understanding of Greek and Ottoman history should have alerted the authors of the undisputed fact that of all the contributing gene pools to the Hellenes, Turkish is probably one of the most inconsequential. See, e.g., "The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor", Speros Vryonis. Firstly, pure Turkic features (a rarity in Turkey) are not particularly dark but rather reddish-yellow and Mongol-like, with high cheekbones and a fold of skin over the eyes. More to the point, under the militant and fanatically racist Islamic regime of the Ottoman Turks, it was not only extremely rare for a Moslem to choose to convert to the second-class status of a Christian, but if followed through was a choice that would often result in death as it encompassed the ultimate taboo a Moslem could violate. Conversions by Christians to Islam on the other hand were not only encouraged through irresistible economic, political and social incentives, but often coerced en mass through institutions such as the Janissary Tax, where Christian children were taken from their families and raised within a Muslim warrior caste. Prosperous Greek families in particular would often marry their children into a Turkish family or otherwise convert to achieve greater success and standing, and to escape the always dangerous condition of being a "giaour" in the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the Nineteenth Century and regardless of one's genetic background, all the non-Arab Moslems in Asia Minor became ethnic "Turks" (as opposed to Albanians and other groups in the Balkans which converted to Islam as distinct communities), and this schism along religious and then linguistic lines is what eventually defined who was Greek and who was Turkish. As a result of the fact that a great deal of Christians did convert to Islam, Turks have a great deal of eastern European blood, and particularly Greek blood.

Editor's Response, September 7, 1995

American Hellenic Media Project
PO Box 1150
New York, NY 10028-0008

7 September 1995

. . . . .

Thank you for your letter and for expressing your point of view so forcefully. The letter is not suitable for publication in the Financial Times - not least because of its length but I will make sure our correspondents give thought to the issues you raise.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Lambert

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