The other night I watched most of a movie called “Intent to Destroy,” which was a movie about a movie called “The Promise.” Ordinarily a movie about movies or movie makers is excruciatingly painful to watch. Their inflated sense of self-importance has never been more pronounced than in the last few years. However this movie was about an important and generally unknown event in history….the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.
I have some personal connection to this event through my landlord in Beirut, the eminent professor of history and Arabic, Dr. Jibrail Jabbur. Among his many achievements was to author a prized book in my collection, The Bedouins of the Desert: Aspects of Nomadic Life in the Arab East. It is a book I consider essential to understanding tribal aspects of Syrian culture today.
Dr Jabbur would invite me down to his ground floor apartment of the building we lived in right in the middle of Ras Beirut. He talked about his childhood in Syria and the historical events he witnessed during the last days of the Ottoman empire. One of his stories was seared into my mind, one that I have mentioned elsewhere in these blog postings, but important to retell in view of current events.
Dr Jabbur related to me his vivid memories of the Christians of Damascus, where he grew up, going out into the desert in 1915 to feed starving Armenians who had been evicted from their homes and villages. They had lived in these villages where for centuries, long before the Turks migrated from Central Asia. They were forced to endure what amounted to a “Death March.’ They were subjected to incredible cruelty and barbarism by Turkish police, militia. and marauding Kurdish bands. Dr Jabbur told me he could never get out of his mind the sight of wild dogs eating the cadavers of the Armenians. The others were too weak to bury them.
Why does the world know so little about this era, which went on more than a decade under the Ottoman Turks and the “Young Turks,” the nationalists who eventually swept away the old rotting Ottoman Empire. Under the Empire and its Millet system of governing, the Christians were able to more or less live a stable life, albeit as decided second class citizens and periodically subjected to mass punishment and outbreaks of religious hatred. When the Young Turks assumed power their motto was “Turkey for Turks.” This new ideology imported from the West has brought unending misery for millions of people.
The problem was that there huge populations of Greeks (who had lived in Asia Minor before the time of Homer), Armenians, and Kurds. The later were Muslim but not Turks. In the minds of the young Turks, you had to be Muslim and Turkish. In fact as it turns out even that is not enough as the Alevi Turks, a branch of Shiism, have found themselves suspect in the Turkey of today. In other words now you have to be a Sunni Muslim Turk, following the Muslim Brotherhood brand of Islam as instituted by President ( for life?) Tayyip Erdogan.
In a way this brand of ‘Islam remains of one of the ersatz Gothic Germanic theology of Heinrich Himmler, who sought to meld together symbols of Christianity with Gothic mysticism emphasizing the German master race. This to me is Erdogans Islam, a triumphalism Sunni Islam embedded with Turkish racial superiority. It combines Turanianism , a mythology that embodies one great Turkish nation stretching from China’s border to the Balkans It is a persistent dream of the pan-Turkish zealots who not only want to establish this greater Turkey but also reestablish a
revived Ottoman empire to govern the Arabs as a vassal people.
So why has the genocide of the Armenians gone relatively unnoticed? There are a number of reasons…some that are too hot for the politically correct historians to surface. The Armenians have never had the diaspora media power that the Jews have had to keep the Armenian genocide in the news. More importantly Turkey has been a “swing” state for the past century. In world war I both sides wanted s desperately to keep turkey on their side and in WWII it was the same story. Buried in the wooing of Turkey was the Armenian slaughter. In fact President Roosevelt’s State Department persuaded Hollywood to kill the production of the movie. “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” based on a famous book about the Armenian struggle against Turks on the mountain called Musa Dagh. A rather obscure movie by the same name was released in 1983 and received so so reviews. Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone have expressed interest in the story but have not followed through. The Armenian film academy tried to interest Steven Spielberg in making a blockbuster movie about the genocide but he too apparently was not interested. Why one wonders? Well Hollywood, of course, loves movies about the Nazi genocide of the Jews, The German Nazis are a “safe villain.” But reaching back into my conspiratorial mind, acquired after many years in the Middle East, it should be remembered that prior to the advent of Erdogan, Turkey and Israel were good strategic friends.
Many American scholars, including the renown Middle Eastern scholar, Bernard Lewis, has declined to call the massacres of the Armenian people genocide. Lewis did not deny that the Armenians suffered greatly but that it was not a case of the Turkish authorities wishing to obliterate the Armenians as a people, as the Nazis did the Jews, but more of an ethnic dispute between two Peoples. The Movie “Intent to Destroy” makes the case that it was indeed planned and deliberate genocide.
I would agree that there was no coordinated master plan to eradicate the Armenians but only because the Ottoman government was hopelessly inefficient and venal. General Liman Von Sanders who led combined German and Turkish forces for over five years wrote that the bravery of the Turkish soldiers was often diminished by official sloth and corruption. Much this is found in his book “Five Years In Turkey. His Germanic sense of order was frequently outraged by the Turks “leave it to God ” attitude.
‘So there was no Wannsee Conference, ( the conference of German bureaucrats to sort out the legalistic and protocol aspects of genocide) but there was coordination among the young Turk leadership to get rid of the Armenians. Dr Eugene Rogan in his book “The Fall of the Ottomans” makes this very clear. He reminds the readers that in fact the Ottoman government hanged a few low-level Ottoman officials for the slaughter to appease the Allied Powers demanding accountability for the genocide. The main perpetrators, as one would expect, made it safely to Germany. The wife of Mehamed Talat Pasha passed along his emotional defence ( Posthumous Diaries) of one of the main culprits in the Armenian massacres. He called them “deportations,” and blamed the Armenians for forcing them to happen. Talat was assassinated by an Armenian student in 1921.
In summary much of this debate is semantics. Whether planned or not, the result was the same …the eradication of the Armenian people and culture from Turkey. The arguments by the present Turkish government that it was a territorial dispute between two Peoples and that the Armenians were disloyal are specious at best. No doubt, like all the minorities in the Ottoman empire, most were thrilled to get out from under the yoke of Turkish mismanagement and despotic government. Nevertheless most of the Armenians remained more or less loyal to the Ottoman empire and served in their army. In the book “Year of the Locust: A Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past,” the writer , Salim Tamari, a well-educated Muslim Palestinian soldier in the Ottoman army, laments the harsh treatment meted out to the Jewish and Christian soldiers . They were summarily dismissed from their units and put to work as slave labor. Nor were the Turks particularly popular with their Arab vassals. The Syrian adage, ” where the Turk trods civilization will disappear for a hundred years” seemingly summed up their attitude.
There is a second hot potato involved as well. It particularly limits the desire of the Hollywood moguls to make a movie about the Armenian genocide. The slaughter of the Armenians was not just Turks versus Armenians. There was an obvious religious aspect to the genocide. The more unsavory aspects of Islamic fanaticism was a critical factor.. In this era what movie maker is bold enough to face the symbiotic adversaries, the “black and the red?” (A very apt phrase used by Shah Riza Pahlevi of Iran in describing his enemies , the fanatical religious mullahs and leftists.
Of course there were the all-powerful geopolitical factors. After WWII, Turkey was a vital part of the Western Cold war strategy against the USSR. I traveled in Turkey in 1968 when we had nuclear weapons stored in Turkey along with a number of missile monitoring bases along the Black Sea. It has the largest army in European NATO and had always been counted on as a key to the defense of Western Europe against the Russians, their traditional enemy. Turkey as an ally was abruptly questioned when they would not allow American troops to enter Iraq from the north in 2003. In the war against Islamist terrorists, Turkey played a double game, often turning a blind eye to Islamic State supplies and recruits pouring through Turkey ( or actually supporting them). Recently they seemed to have moved closer to the Russian camp, (at least semantically) and can no longer be counted on for any NATO mission.
I have always been an admirer of the Turkish army and their soldiers. They have had a history of great bravery and stubbornness, against the Allies in WWI and fighting Chinese in the Korean war as one of our staunch allies. They were tough soldiers and inspired fear in their enemies. Stationed in Korea in 1961, a Turkish cantonment base was near my HAWK battery compound. While we had a massive problem with “slicky boys” stealing us blind, the Turks did not. The reason why was dramatically revealed one day when we noticed a human head impaled on a stake. The Turks had caught one stealing in their compound and dealt with it in the Turkish fashion.
After the massive purge of the military by Erdogan I have some doubts that the Turkish army is up to the professional standards of the past, but there is no doubt that it is now a loyal instrument of the Erdogan rule. The coup of the Egyptian army against President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim brotherhood proponent, was a direct result of the Egyptian military leadership’s understanding of the “lessons learned” in Turkey.
One aspect of Turkey that went unnoticed for a very long time was that while the Turkish government was in the Western camp the people generally were not. This has been graphically shown by the popularity of Erdogan’s anti – Western and pro Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric. On my last visit to Turkey ( 2006) I noticed the popularity of the movie the “Valley of the Wolves” It was mostly a depiction of American “atrocities” in Iraq, with heavy anti – semitic overtones, bringing cheers from the audience when U.S. soldiers are being killed. Of course very popular American movies like Midnight Express and America America show a very unflattering image of Turkey. The latter was about the hard life of the Greeks in the Ottoman empire.
As one long time observer of the Turkish scene told me, the dramatic and seemingly pervasive changes instituted by Kemal Ataturk to turn the Ottoman empire from a despotic oriental empire to a Western nation were only superficial. The vast majority of the Anatolian peasantry were unaffected culturally or in their adherence to a very conservative Islamic faith.
By the way, I never saw the movie “The Promise.” The reviews mostly said it was a great movie spoiled by a cheesy love triangle with Christian Bale uncharacteristically doing a poor job. But then the director had a point when he asked, who would go see a movie that just endlessly portrayed brutal murders and rape of women and children?
And to be fair Greek – Americans apparently stopped an effort by Antonio Banderas to make a movie about Kemal Ataturk. Ironically Ataturk, unlike many of the Young Turks, was not personally involved in the Armenian massacres, not because he was Mr Nice Guy, but rather because he was in the Western part of the Ottoman Empire at the time of the slaughter.
One has to be very astute to depict who, among the neighbors of the Turks, hate them the most……. Bulgarians, Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Iranians, and most Arabs. They all have excellent cases to present. Could that be why the Turks seem to be paranoid?
Of course there is always more to the story but the above are the essentials as I see them..