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Sarah Ruden

The Catastrophe

Lessons from the Armenian genocide.

The Babylonian Exile of the Jewish élite in the 6th century BC was a notable alternative to openly neutralizing all survivors of a defeated population through occupation, mass execution, or enslavement. During the Second Boer War (1899-1902), British forces on Dutch-African colonists' territory made another such concession that was to prove characteristic for the 20th century and beyond. It was a response to guerrilla warfare, and at the same time an effort to equivocate about the fate of captured civilians, in the face of a growing international concern with human rights. They moved people, in this case to the first concentration camps.

Confined there, Afrikaner women and children could no longer provide material support to men in the field. In the harsh conditions that at the time were usual for actual prisoners of war, many of these noncombatants perished from hunger and disease, and after the war the devastated families and farms made for a weak and suffering body politic and economy—conducive, for a while, to British hegemony in southern Africa. The concentration camps, by extension, fostered the newer colonists' gold and diamond businesses.

Moving people can be a very sinister business. They can be ordered by their own government to "register" their property and turn it over for "safekeeping" before their "evacuation," and they may hurry to comply with the reassuring bureaucracy; once isolated away from their homes, they can be tortured to reveal the location of any hidden valuables.

They can be moved under physical conditions likely to kill them en route, or moved to a place with no resources at all to keep them alive, or to a mine or factory or construction site where they will quickly be worked to death. Or they can simply be marched out of town, shot, and buried, or loaded onto ships, taken out to sea, and drowned.

The first mass displacements to amount to genocide were of the Armenians of the Near East between 1915 and 1923. How efficient a tactic moving people can be, and at the same time how effective a dodge of responsibility, is sickeningly clear from these events. A century later, official Turkish denial and economic and diplomatic pressure have left popular consciousness of the episode dim and piecemeal—though at the time the crisis inspired a popular uproar in America.

Armenians commemorate April 24, 1915, as the beginning. Working from a carefully compiled list, Turkish officials arrested and internally deported around 250 of the most prominent Armenians, decapitating the leadership, most of which was killed. Armenian communities were then systematically dispossessed and removed. Special commandos killed some (men in their prime, by preference) in isolated places nearby, but marched many thousands more to the south and east, beating, plundering, raping, torturing, extorting, and enslaving—and accepting help in all this from populations along the way. A succession of the exiles' improvised camps were destroyed by burning and sacking, under laws that limited the Armenian population's percentage in any given locale. Armenians in the army were shifted from combat duty to slave labor battalions and also transported to progressively rougher and more barren country.

Many of those who did not escape on the way yet survived the march into the Syrian desert were organized for dispatch by gunfire. But desert conditions were so severe, and the deportees by this time so weak and so low on rescued and hoarded possessions to trade, that intervention was hardly needed. To this day, large cairns stand that are structured not by rocks or turf but by bones. The deep inland isolation allowed Turkish officials to tell any story they wished, and for their foreign sympathizers to corroborate it. One high-level American version of events was that the Armenians were enjoying a salubrious vacation climate such as the wealthy traveled to at great expense.

For the first time, a mass deportation drew on the power of modern infrastructure and technology. As during the Holocaust later, cattle cars discretely transported victims in large numbers through populated areas. The new military command and control systems ran with twists, projecting accountability while efficiently dodging it. There was, for example, a regimen of double telegrams: one for the official record, pretending to order a community's protection against localized violence, and a second, to be destroyed immediately, containing the real instructions.

But the key innovation was the semi-automatic, repeating firearm. Deploying it against Armenians long forbidden to own weapons other than hunting rifles, a few gendarmes could empty whole towns, marshal traveling columns of thousands from horseback, form a perimeter guard around large camps, and even control every movement of those who knew they were spending their last hours on earth.

This was also the modern era's first removal of a massive Christian population—probably between one and two million Armenians, the world's oldest Christian nation. (Its conversion dates to AD 301.) This episode marked the point at which dhimmitude, or the legally inferior status (entailing fewer rights and special taxes) in which Christians had been living under Muslim regimes, broke down catastrophically, with Christians seen as ipso facto internal enemies.

Not only Armenian Orthodox Christians, but many Greeks and others, and eventually even Protestants, were driven out or killed. Not only Turks but other Muslims such as Chechens and, most fiercely, Kurds (not yet alienated and insurgent) persecuted them. The deportations were heralded with a fatwa from a leading cleric, billed as a holy war, and accompanied on the ground by the epithets "infidel," "pig," and "dog." The non-Muslim population of Turkey fell from more than 19 percent in 1914 to 2.5 percent in 1927. (It is now around .2 percent.)

The years of the genocide were also a time of significant Christian solidarity, both internal and international. Documentation abounds of pious mutual support and sacrifice among the deportees. Any American missionaries—and there were many such missionaries in the country—who had been intent on delivering Ottoman Christians from the purported errors of Orthodoxy but then witnessed deportations had their priorities starkly rearranged. And the American public, especially through their churches, responded with an outrage that could sometimes trump the material and strategic concerns of their leaders; and sent the first great outpouring of international aid.

But religion combined with other factors, and historians consistently cite oil as darkening the genocide's background. The modern, oil-dependent consumer economy was underway, and modern, oil-dependent military equipment (particularly warships) was standing by for World War I to start in 1914. Oil fields of fantastic size in Mesopotamia (centered in present-day Iraq) and the Arabian peninsula were under the control of the weak, decadent Ottoman Turkish sultanate. For the Western press to call the whole Ottoman Empire the "sick man of Europe" was telling: since the man was part of Europe, the West had a valid interest in his property. When he died, when the empire as such broke up, what new leaders would be powerful, canny, and pragmatic enough to deliver the critical riches of restive, multiethnic territories to whichever of the major Western powers could maneuver quickly and deftly enough?

The modernizing, nationalist, secularist "Young Turks" became the people to deal with, and over a few years they played Europe to their huge advantage, establishing a regime that has lasted until now (though recently taking a more Islamist form and sidelining the army). Turkey was a WWI German ally but never a declared enemy of the US, the deciding force in the war, which maintained a full (and commercially alert and active) diplomatic relationship. Under Young Turk leadership, the Turkish army repelled Russian incursions from the north (across the Armenian homeland, in fact), British efforts at Gallipoli to win control of the vital Dardanelles Strait, and a Greek invasion. The French failed with (among other initiatives) an actual Armenian Legion.

Though the main oil sources are outside the contracted Turkish borders, Turkey is still rewarded and protected by the West, not least as a NATO ally and the site of the US Incirlik and Izmir air bases; it would be enormously harder for the US and its coalition partners to weigh in militarily in the Middle East without Turkey's cooperation.

In a Turkish leadership who already saw how high the stakes were, the motivations for the Armenians' removal were to some degree analogous to the motivations for the Holocaust. Tentative liberalization and democratization caused a relatively more educated, cosmopolitan, and commercial group to expect a share in policy development and governance; if they were around at all, they would block authoritarian moves from other quarters; they would stop the leadership from creating and transacting with a new map.

Along with ancient prejudice against them, the dissent and activism of the targeted group—some German Jews were Marxists; past pogroms and other violence and oppression had gone so far as to generate Armenian insurgencies and to spur Armenian enlistment in foreign armies—made them ideal scapegoats for national hardships and upheavals. Quasi-scientific notions of racial purity and ideologies of ethnic destiny served as a gloss on the promise: "If they are gone, you true citizens can have in a sanitized and concentrated form everything that is in their hands now: wealth, culture, influence, control over history; the alien people's elimination will funnel all that up through us, your leaders, and we will redistribute it to you."

Thus the modern economy and the modern nation, new and powerful-looking, could be represented as a fully exploitable, easily manageable machine, like a car or a camera—only one with blocked workings that needed to be cleaned out, unclogged of troublesome elements so that it could do the people's precise will. The old multiethnic and multicultural polity was intolerable, because it wasn't an instrument; it was just itself, in its own right, under the premise that God had made it and maintained it (though various parts of it might well claim special favor), along with everything else. Traditional, almost casual religious sensibility gave way to ideology, the ultimate human invention, meant to displace all the inventions of the sole Inventor's mind.

The surviving Armenians, like the Jews, have prospered strikingly as a diaspora in the West but have had a traumatic time in trying to establish their own homeland. The Republic of Armenia had hardly any time as a safe haven from the genocide before it became a Soviet Socialist Republic, a southeastward buffer the most valuable part of which, the ancient Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stalin gifted to neighboring Azerbaijan, a Turkic enclave.

The Gorbachev years seemed to offer opportunity to the relatively developed Armenian province, which did achieve independence in 1990. But there was a major earthquake in 1988, and a long war to win back Nagorno-Karabakh, and the landlocked position proved a strategic and economic vise. Armenians living in Azerbaijan were even ejected in grisly pogroms. (The upshot, with Azerbaijanis unable to reside in Armenia, was a little like a miniature of the "exchange of populations" between Greece and Turkey in 1923.) Urbanites, and especially refugees, starved and froze under trade embargoes, and scenes reminiscent of the genocide proliferated: doctors, musicians, and teachers, the confident élite of a few months before, trading heirlooms for bread and burning the furniture.

Significant popular contributions to the historical record have marked the 100th anniversary of the genocide's start. Ronald Grigor Suny's "They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else" may prove the indispensable summary. Suny is a distinguished historian who has written other books about the Armenians. To a chorus of praise for his diligence and his instinct for the vivid detail, I add my wonder at his sheer poise. It's hard not to slide into unedifying anger about this topic on the one hand, but on the other it's not easy to tell where to limit contextualizing; the whole story is, after all, thousands of years long; and it's not over.

I recommend equally strongly, however, another account of a different type, Lou Ureneck's The Great Fire: One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide, concentrating on a single extended episode and bringing to light an inspired personality. The Reverend Asa Jennings, a Methodist YMCA functionary from upstate New York, arrived with his family in Smyrna, Turkey, on the Mediterranean coast, in 1922. He was not the first choice of the YMCA chapter to which he was assigned; he was a modest man with an obscure background, and for a professional advocate of sports, he was disconcertingly hunched-over and impaired. He seemed to have little going for him but energy and enthusiasm.

But in short order, after the Young Turk commander Mustafa Kemal (later called Ataturk, or "Father of the Turks") repelled a Greek incursion into the interior, the last wave of displaced Armenians, along with the Greek army in flight, poured into Smyrna from there. The unarmed civilians were easily raped, robbed, assaulted, and picked off by Turkish soldiers. Survivors jammed the shore week after week, frantic for rescue, while ships of several nations stood off. Diplomats and many other foreign residents acceded to their own governments' and official Turkish instructions to do nothing, and even to help prevent anything from being done. Meanwhile, refuges were destroyed and the city's settled Armenian population flushed out by a deliberate conflagration.

Admiral Mark Bristol, head of regional American forces from his base at Constantinople, responded to pleas for intervention by, among various connivances, dispatching pet journalists to gather from a distance and transmit as fact the Turkish leaders' hand-crafted rumors of widespread Greek and Armenian atrocities on Turks, as justification for the atrocities on Armenians that the journalists witnessed—and sometimes greeted with racist sneers at the victims' expense. Bristol continued dragging his feet and promoting mass casualties even after public pressure made the evacuation and Washington's condoning of it inevitable.

It was Jennings who hiked painfully back and forth day by day, organizing food and gathering together raped women for sanctuary and medical care. Almost alone at first, he insistently but strategically pushed for a boatlift, and he perpetrated and took responsibility for a few fast ones without which the boatlift could not have happened: it was fully sanctioned only retrospectively, when authorities could not admit that from the beginning they had not meant to allow it. Jennings also took the lead in provisioning the refugees in their jammed and near-desperate havens in Greece. Many of these refugees ended up in the US. (The Hamidian massacres of the 1890s had pushed the first great Armenian-US immigration, so there were established communities waiting.)

Jennings saved hundreds of thousands of lives, for which he never sought credit. Because of the protagonist's self-effacement, Ureneck had to perform prodigies of research to tell the story, but there is no doubt: it was Jennings' legwork, creative and half-official deals, and sheer pig-headedness that turned the handwringing or the temporizing of far more powerful people into the rescue. Not a bad fulfillment of his wife Amy's faith, years before, that he would survive tuberculosis in order to undertake a great witness someday. Not bad, either, as an answer to pop-culture depictions of missionaries. He apparently did all of this without once shouting, "Down on your knees, you sinners!"

Also fascinating is Eric Bogosian's Operation Nemesis, about the international conspiracy (1920-1922) to assassinate the genocide's ringleaders. Bogosian's main story is of Soghomon Tehlirian. This young Armenian veteran of the Russian army had lost his family to the genocide and was obsessed with retribution. Eventually recruited, trained, and financed for just this purpose by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (based in America), he was positioned in Berlin to shoot the Grand Vizier Talat Pasha, an Ottoman holdover and the genocidaire at the top of the list for dispatch. In a German submarine, Talat had escaped British-sponsored justice in Constantinople.

Tehlirian testified virtually unchallenged at his trial—though with an army of facts and probabilities arrayed against him—that he had escaped from a death march himself and was working alone under the command of his mother's ghost. His acquittal was a sop to German guilt and—I would speculate—precluded far less convenient rapprochements with the Armenian people, which might have made a difference in later history. Hitler, now famously, adduced worldwide obliviousness about the Armenian genocide as the reason he was sure of getting away with invading Poland.

Bogosian is uneasy about the unpunished vengeance and effectively dramatizes the heart of the matter, the absence of international rule of law. There were seven Operation Nemesis assassinations, but not one resulted in a sentence for murder, in spite of a British military trial in addition to the German civil one. (Only a single turn of events approximated punishment: the Soviets rounded up one assassin in a sweep of Armenian revolutionaries, and he disappeared.) The assassins prospered. Arshavir Shirakian emigrated to the US, raised a family, was active in the Armenian community, and wrote an assassination memoir. He had the collector's set of impunity.

Of course, the traditional glory of tyrannicide, the nightmare pity for victims and survivors, and exasperation with the designated role as spectator—all of this shoves a reader toward an "Okay, fine," or even a "Good for them!" But we definitely don't get rule of law as hopeful as Nuremberg's—which supported the German moral revival and rallied assent for Jews' dignity and security—if on a much smaller scale juridical principles break down and we can't even reliably affirm the Bible's "You shall not commit murder."

The Turkish reaction to Operation Nemesis should have discredited terrorism—that's what in essence the undertaking was—forever. The genocidal nation was not going to take the killings as a just reproach, but instead raged over them and memorialized some of the victims as heroes, with results in line with the almost daily news from the Middle East now. A brave and effective advocate of the genocide's recognition and of reconciliation, Hrant Dink, was gunned down in 2007. His killer must have had reasons. Everybody has reasons for everything vile. Everybody's allowed reasons until a credible legal forum stops accepting them and simply asks, "Did you do it or not?" Not coincidentally, the critical admission sought concerning the Armenian genocide is still simply that it happened.

Dawn Anahid MacKeen's grandfather, Stepan Miskjian, was a young Armenian peddler and courier before the genocide, and he wrote memoirs of his life then, of his excruciating trek south with a military labor battalion and with civilian deportees, and of his escape. He in fact reports several escapes and recaptures. At last, slipping away within hours of a mass shooting in which he would have been included, he fled across the Syrian desert and eventually found comfortable refuge with a powerful sheikh. Slipping away from there too, he made his brilliantly resourceful and incredibly tough way back to his home town to find his entire family alive, their house reclaimed as the persecutions waned. But there is little extraordinary about the aftermath of emigration to the US, hard work, and the rise of the second and third generations.

In reviewing Anahid MacKeen's The Hundred-Year Walk, I'm in a tough place, and resentful of the author for having put me there. Exiles from a genocide deserve every benefit of the doubt; and if their grandchildren in America are raised in such comfort and security as to turn out insensitive to the enormities of history, that's an ironic glory of our polity. But then again, the question of truth in this connection can be disturbing. Soghomon Tehlirian in the German courtroom, mesmerizing, titillating, satisfying his audience in the end, comes jarringly to mind.

No humane reader could blame Stepan Miskjian for romanticizing in a story that's demonstrably true in outline and understandably blurs his role as a trader and fixer, which was the smooth evolution of his boyhood propensity for schmoozing, practical jokes, and a general eye to the main chance: in the crisis he was useful to a variety of people, not just to his fellow deportees, which must have been the substantial reason for his survival. He is repeatedly shown leaving a camp on a private errand and returning. Twice he goes to town to find a repairman for the wheel of a cart he drives on salary for a wealthy deportee. Once he even takes a hike to patronize a bathhouse.

But it's distressing that Anahid MacKeen redoubles the self-mythologizing on her own authority. In her third-person version of her grandfather's story there is a great deal—pictorial, digressive—that he is unlikely to have even hinted at; and the divisions between the two authors' words are often not indicated. Is the self-actualization journalese hers alone?

Moreover, as to what (in outline, anyway) he plainly did write, her credulity is jaw-dropping. Did a false pitiful tale of Stepan's really turn one hardened gendarme against another (" 'What's happened to you?' 'This time, my heart wants me to save' ") in a death struggle for the escapee's sake ("the sympathetic gendarme stepped forward and blocked the barrel of the gun with his own chest")?

Stepan leaped to his feet and took off. "May the Lord give you long life," he screamed. His dua, his prayer. Even as he fled, he was astounded at the turn of events. Spinning a yarn out of nothing had always been his talent, and persuading others of his sincerity had helped him survive. But this—where had that tall tale come from?

Hmm—couldn't there be tall tales in Stepan's memoir? Anahid MacKeen isn't curious. Worse, she crowds into the biography with her own New-Agey story: her move back to her parents' house in suburban California and how awkward but still nice that was; travels in Turkey (the crazy drivers! the quaint provincial people!); the scary crossing into pre-war Syria, and the creepy surveillance—all this and much more precedes and is wedged in with Stepan's adventures.

Seated with the Arab clan she identifies as his climactic rescuers and hearing that their adopted Armenian had blue eyes (Stepan didn't), she wonders whether she's in the right place; but as a counterbalance to her doubt, she's enraptured by the fuss being made over her, not attributing it merely to the ravenous hospitality of the region. The later moment of exaltation in a stunning landscape, the sense of everything being okay, is strictly hers.

I recognized, with a sigh, the master plan. There is to be a film version of inter-spliced, equally important journeys. The goal will be not only immediate "inspiration" but an eventual small industry, including a dedicated nonprofit for "raising awareness." I'm guessing that the author and the promoters will not deem The Hundred-Year Walk a success unless it at least leads to talk show appearances and chatter over clothes and healthy eating (concerns which were, believe it or not, fairly prominent in the narrative). Yeah, yeah, I'm an irritable reviewer, I know, but this time is special. While setting old newspapers, magazines, and cardboard scraps under logs in the fireplace in lieu of kindling one night this winter, I could hardly take my longing eyes off this book.

Rudyard Kipling, who at the time of the genocide was still the leading apologist for the British Empire, was enthralled by the Great Game, the maneuvers for influence and control in Central Asia, and he seems actually to have believed in the validity of the metaphor. Like a genius contemplating a chess board, leaders could figure it all out, make the moves—including moves of entire populations, and the flicking of major actors off the board—that would balance and counter-balance power, no matter how complex the situation, winning wealth and glory for their own people, and for the losers the valuable consolation prize of more stability and general well-being than they could have hoped for on their own, more than they really deserved. But the Middle East is the classic site of such games, and many nations besides Britain have played.

To collate romantic fictions like Kipling's with the realities of the Armenian genocide is to see the West (of which I'm a professed fan) in a harsh, depressing light. The solemn calculations of the so-called Great Powers, and the outcomes so wretchedly contrasting, in humanitarian terms, with the public declarations, suggest a bar fight rather than "chess" without rules on a board without divisions or limits.

The impulse is to deplore stupidity and to try imagining better strategies. Did American statesmen bother to think a few moves ahead, let alone calculate what kind of ally a country that had gotten away with genocide with our complaisance would make if we ourselves were ever facing murderous fanatical ideologues in a nascent state?

But to get any "great game" right, to calculate many steps ahead and achieve what the good of everyone will be then, would be like shaking glass fragments in a kaleidoscope into a desired pattern as determined by a worldwide survey conducted with the help of a time machine. Blame has tended to draw toward our treatment of other peoples as toys; toward our frivolity and exploitation. But now the fundamental problem is bigger and more horrifying: we think that we can, if we try hard enough, know what God knows and predict what God predicts; and that we can act with godlike power and godlike benevolence in our globalized foreign policy.

The growth of international rule of law should be shrinking these pretentions. Domestically, we've had a very good experience with asserting that crime is just crime, which can be isolated from the vast complexes of history, culture, and personality we can't do much to influence. In that isolation, crime can be prevented, stopped, and punished. If we can vindicate that principle in concert with more of the world, there will be hope.

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University. She recently finished translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Face of the Water: A Translator on the Beauty and Meaning of the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf.

Books Discussed In This Essay:

"They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else": A History of the Armenian Genocide. Ronald Grigor Suny (Princeton Univ. Press, 2015)

Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged the Armenian Genocide. Eric Bogosian (Little, Brown, 2015)

The Great Fire: One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide. Lou Ureneck (HarperCollins, 2015)

The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey. Dawn Anahid MacKeen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

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