A precedent for the Holocaust: The Armenian genocide and The Promise

by Claudia Moscovici

As Peter Balakian points out in the Preface of his book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian genocide and America’s response (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), the Holocaust had a significant historical precedent: one which, unfortunately, is all too often ignored. The Armenian genocide, he states, “has often been referred to as ‘the forgotten genocide,’ ‘the unremembered genocide,’ ‘the hidden holocaust,’ or ‘the secret genocide’” (xvii). He adds that many historians—including Yehuda Bauer, Robert Melson, Howard M. Sachar and Samantha Power–rightfully consider the Armenian genocide as “the template for most of the genocide that followed in the twentieth century” (xviii). Over a century later, Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the systematic and premeditated mass killings of the Armenian population by the Ottoman Turks, even though this genocide, officially recognized as such by 29 countries, is very well documented: “In the past two decades, scholars have unearthed and translated a large quantity of official state records documenting the Committee of Union and Progress’s (Ottoman Turkey’s governing political party) finely organized and Implemented plan to exterminate the Armenians” (xxi). Balakian himself studied “hundreds of U.S. State Department documents (there are some four thousand documents totaling about thirty-seven thousand pages in the National Archives) written by American diplomats that report in depth the process and devastation of the Armenian Genocide. The extermination of the Armenians is also illuminated in British Foreign Office records, and in official records from the state archives of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey’s World War I allies. The foremost scholar of the Armenian Genocide, Professor Vahakn Dadrian, has made available in translation body of Turkish sources both primary and secondary” (xxi).

The genocide involved the systematic mass murder and ethnic cleansing of approximately 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during WWI. The extermination started on April 24, 1915, with the deportation and execution of a few hundred Armenian intellectuals from Constantinople. It progressed to the forced conscription, imprisonment in labor camps and murder of able-bodied males. Soon thereafter, it led to the mass murder of women, the elderly and children, who were herded by Turkish military escorts for hundreds of miles across the Syrian desert, without sufficient food, water, medical care or sanitary facilities. The Turks periodically butchered entire villages and communities mercilessly driven on these death marches. Women and young girls were often subjected to rape and torture before being killed. Sometimes the victims were loaded on cattle trains for days, without any provisions, in a manner similar to the Nazi transportation of Jews to concentration camps almost three decades later.

Similarly to the Jewish Holocaust, the Armenian Holocaust didn’t happen out of the blue. Like the Jews in many European countries, the Armenians were considered second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire. Even during relatively Enlightened times, when the Ottoman rulers granted the Christian and Jewish minorities relative autonomy and minority rights, non-Muslims were still considered to be “gavours”: meaning “infidels” or “unbelievers”. In the Eastern provinces, Armenian villages found themselves subject to higher taxation and often invaded by their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors. Moreover, like the Jews in the Pale of Settlement region, the Armenians fell victim to periodic pogroms.

However, discrimination and subjugation don’t necessarily lead to wide-scale genocide. Consequently, just as the Jews couldn’t have anticipated the extermination of their people by the Nazis, nothing prepared the Armenian communities living under Ottoman rule for their ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Turks. In both cases, world wars were used as an excuse—and incitement–for genocide. The Ottoman Empire entered WWI on August 2, 1914, when it signed a secret treaty with Germany to fight on the side of the Axis powers. The Turkish leadership wanted the local Armenian population to act on their behalf. It called for their insurrection against the Russian Army. The Minister of War, Enver Pasha, launched an attack on the Russians. He attempted to encircle and destroy the Russian army at Sarikamish in order to reclaim Turkish territories occupied by the Russians since 1877. However, his plan failed and his troops were defeated. The Turks blamed their defeat on the local Armenian population, claiming that they were traitors who helped the Russians. Subsequently, able-bodied Armenian men living in the Ottoman Empire were discharged from active military service, disarmed, and sent to forced labor battalions, where many were executed by the Turks.

In a move that would prefigure the Jewish genocide in the Eastern Territories during WWII, on May 29, 2015, the Turkish Central Committee passed a law of deportation (the “Tehcir Law”) that gave the Ottoman Empire the right to deport anyone they considered a threat to “national security,” which, in their minds, included women and children. The mass deportation—in grueling death marches–of the elderly, women and children soon followed. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died from starvation, disease, and being butchered in mass shootings. To carry out genocide, the Turks formed a paramilitary organization that has been compared to the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. The Turkish Committee of Union and Progress founded a “Special Organization”, comprised mostly of Turkish criminals released from prisons, who were put in charge of the deportations and massacres of the Armenians. They killed countless helpless civilians, decimating their numbers through forced marches, shootings, mass burning, drowning and even poisoning. Like the Nazis, the Turks experimented with toxic gases and biological warfare (inoculating healthy Armenians with the blood of typhoid patients). After the Allies defeated the Axis powers, on November 3, 1918 Sultan Mehmet VI was ordered by the Allied administration to hold war trials for the Turkish leaders of the Armenian genocide, which included Mehmed Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha and about 130 high officials of the Ottoman Empire.

The contemporary movie The Promise (2016), directed by Terry George, captures the trauma of the Armenian genocide in an epic drama reminiscent of War and Peace. The movie traces the love triangle between Mikael, an Armenian medical student who falls in love with Ana, an Armenian tutor educated in France, who is engaged to Chris, an American journalist covering the war for the Associated Press. A small town boy from a poor family, before meeting Ana, Mikael himself becomes engaged to a wealthier neighbor, whose family gives him a dowry (400 gold coins) to cover his expenses for medical school in Constantinople. At a party held by his wealthy uncle, Mikael is introduced to Ana, his nieces’ tutor, as well as Emre, the son of a Turkish official, whom he befriends. He’s smitten with Ana as soon as he meets her. The young woman captivates him with her beauty, culture and sophistication. But the beginning of WWI nips their romance in the bud. Mikael is sent to a labor camp, from which he manages to escape. In one of the most harrowing scenes of the film, Mikael rides on top of a cattle train, hoping to elude the Turkish army and make it back to his native village to help his family. Suddenly it starts to pour. He hears strange sounds emanating from the train: terrible moaning and cries. Hands emerge between the grates of the train, trying in vain to cup the drops of water. To his shock, Mikael discovers that hundreds of Armenian civilians are trapped inside, dying of thirst and hunger. Before jumping off the train, the young man manages to pry open the lock to one of the doors and save the trapped prisoners. He finally makes it to his parents’ house, where the family has an emotional reunion. However, realizing that it would be too dangerous to stay with his parents, Mikael and his fiancée get married in great haste and move to a remote area, where they live together in a rustic cabin. A few months later, his wife becomes pregnant and experiences health complications.

Meanwhile, his friends, Ana and Chris, visit Mikael’s parents trying to locate him. They are helping a group of orphans escape from the murderous Turkish troops. As Mikael joins them on the back roads to lead the orphans to a safer area, he watches helplessly as a group of Turkish soldiers carry off his own family and other inhabitants of his little village, Sirun. He runs to their aid but arrives too late: most of his family and neighbors lie murdered in a ditch. Only his young niece and his mother have (barely) survived, left for dead by the Turks. The rest of the beleaguered Armenian community decides that it’s better to fight to the death rather than be butchered like sheep by the Turks. Armed with rudimentary tools and a lot of courage, the refugees fight valiantly and manage to hold off the Turkish onslaught until a French ship, le Guichen, comes to their rescue. As Mikael takes a lifeboat of orphans to safety, Ana drowns when her boat is capsized by Turkish artillery. Despite their rivalry for her love, both Mikael and Chris mourn her death. This tragedy resolves the tension of the love triangle that had divided them.

The Promise, I believe, follows in the footsteps of War and Peace in depicting war on an epic scale through the optic of a personalized family drama and love story. It alludes to the Armenian genocide, and captures episodes of it, without becoming too didactic. While viewers seem to rate the film highly, the critical reception has been mixed. Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator website, reports that, so far, The Promise received an average rating of 5.7/10. Benjamin Lee, the film critic for The Guardian found the film “soapy” but well intentioned. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times concurred, calling it “corny” and “a derivative of better war romances”. The Nation’s film critic, Pietro A. Shakarian, rated it more highly, claiming “The Promise captures the magnitude of this history [of the Armenian genocide] that no prior film on the genocide has done before.” I agree in part with both perspectives. Like Shakarian, I find The Promise to be a moving epic drama that tackles an important and often overlooked subject. At the same time, I feel that the film sometimes privileges the love triangle at the expense of offering viewers more necessary background about the Armenian genocide. For instance, when depicting the friendship between Mikael and Emre (the son of the Turkish official, who is eventually killed because he didn’t turn against his Armenian friend), the movie may give viewers the false impression that Turks and Armenians peacefully coexisted before the beginning of the war. But, as my previous discussion has described, the status of the Armenians living under Ottoman rule was similar to that of the Jews in many European countries: they were considered (at best) second-class citizens and (at worst) enemies to be killed in pogroms. In both cases, the sociopolitical conditions were ripe for mass extermination. World wars were the catalyst, not the cause, of genocide.

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