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The Evil That Men Do

Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918
By Grigoris Balakian, translated by Peter Balakian with Aris Sevag
(Knopf, 509 pp., $35)

Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1912-1923
By Ryan Gingeras
(Oxford University Press, 272 pp., $99)

My Grandmother: A Memoir
By Fethiye Cetin
(Verso, 114 pp., $21.95)

On the morning of March 15, 1921, a thick-set man wearing a heavy overcoat was walking down Hardenbergstrasse in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg when he was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head, and died immediately in a bloody heap on the sidewalk. His assailant, a much younger and thinner man, made a halfhearted effort to run away but was almost immediately grabbed by several passersby. "He was a foreigner," the gunman was reported as saying, in accented German. "I am a foreigner too. There is no loss."

The victim turned out to be Talaat Pasha, the erstwhile Interior Minister of the Ottoman Empire and a key member of the ruling wartime triumvirate of the nationalist Committee of Union and Progress party. His assassin was a young Armenian named Soghomon Tehlirian. At his subsequent trial, lawyers, psychiatric experts, policemen, and jurors tried to get their heads around what had prompted his crime. That something terrible had happened to the Armenians during the recent war in Anatolia they knew. Tehlirian was a polite and musically minded young man who made a good impression on a string of landladies. In court he described the killing of his family, and his own survival--and said that it was his mother's appearance to him in visions that had driven him to his act of revenge. Johannes Lepsius, the German expert on the Armenian question, gave the court a potted summary of what had transpired in wartime Anatolia, but the most gripping testimony came from an unknown Armenian cleric who had travelled from Manchester to testify on Tehlirian's behalf. He was Bishop Grigoris Balakian, one of several witnesses called by the defense. In what was perhaps the high point of the trial, he outlined in rusty but effective German the gripping story of his own deportation and survival.

Tehlirian himself was acquitted of murder, rather sensationally, and lived another four decades, until he died in San Francisco in 1960. After the trial ended, conspiracy theories about its outcome flourished. Many people believed that Tehlirian was by no means as confused or as innocent as he had made out; that he had in fact been working variously for British or Russian intelligence, or carrying out orders as part of a campaign by Armenian revolutionaries to target those they held responsible for the wartime extermination. Meanwhile Balakian slipped back into diasporic obscurity, returning to his pastoral duties in Lancashire before becoming bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church in southern France, where he died in 1934. A much-expanded version of the story that he related at Tehlirian's trial was published in Armenian the year after the trial.

But few outside the Armenian community knew about this remarkable wartime memoir, which Balakian had begun writing virtually as soon as he had managed to return home to Constantinople--disguised as a German soldier--in the late autumn of 1918. Now it is at last available in English, in a fluent and readable rendering, and it takes its place as one of the key first-hand sources for understanding the Armenian genocide. Fueled by the anger of the survivor, the strategic vision of a spiritual leader, and the intellectual's desire to understand, Armenian Golgotha provides a more gripping and more harrowing account of the tragedy than any I have read. It is a powerful and important book.

Born in the Anatolian town of Tokat in 1876, Balakian had studied engineering for a year in Germany before becoming a priest, working on diplomatic missions for the Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul. When World War I broke out, he was in Berlin studying theology, but returned to the imperial capital a few weeks later because he wanted to witness what he believed would be the collapse of the Ottoman regime. Instead, the following April, he was arrested in a round-up of Armenian notables. This decapitation of the capital's Armenian intellectual, commercial, and political leadership marked the onset of a campaign of systematic murder.

Through the spring, summer, and autumn of 1915, while Balakian himself suffered the uncertainties of internal exile in the small central Anatolian town of Chankiri, a campaign of despoliation, deportation, and massacre unfolded. In May a new law was passed in Constantinople permitting Armenians to be forcibly deported. The following September an expropriation law regularized the seizure of their property. In the intervening months, hundreds of thousands of people were made to leave their homes. They were either killed or allowed to starve on forced marches across Anatolia toward the Syrian desert town of Der Zor in the south. Estimates of the eventual death toll, which are necessarily imprecise, range from 800,000 to 1.5 million people.

By early 1916, the rapidly dwindling band of political detainees in the town of Chankiri had a good idea of what awaited them if they left: they would be murdered just outside the town, as happened to many of their comrades, or attacked by roving bands further along the roads; or they would die of exhaustion and starvation. The odds of them reaching Syria seemed remote, especially if they had to walk for weeks across the windswept wintry plateaus of Anatolia. When the deportation order came through, Balakian assumed command of the deportees: taking the heart-wrenching decision to leave the women and children behind, he headed a group of some fifty men as it made its way south across the mountains. Over the next five weeks, some on horseback and others on foot, they were able to carry the gold and other valuables that kept them alive. Bribing the soldiers who accompanied them saved them from the human vultures that gathered around them, and gained them rations and fresh horses.

Balakian is unsparing about the impact of this traumatic journey on his companions and himself, but his vivid portraits of the Turks whom they encountered are what linger in the memory. Their lord and master for part of the journey, Captain Shukry, an elderly police captain, confided to Balakian-- with no sense of shame--the full scale of the killings, noting that in order to save bullets in wartime it had been necessary to use a variety of cheaper implements to get the job done. There were some Turks who manifested their displeasure at the unfolding crime--an elderly village woman loudly cursed their police escort as they passed by; the governor of Chankiri and other officials made their disapproval clear, and indeed risked their careers to block the deportations. But many civilians, gendarmes, and state officials participated in the atrocity with enthusiasm. There is one unforgettable and terrifying scene in Balakian's memoir in which hundreds of villagers surround the caravan on a remote hillside three days' march out of Yozgut and prepare to fall on their prey, until more gold changes hands and Captain Shukry drives them off by the simple expedient of shooting their leaders dead.

As the bedraggled deportees made their way south through the snow and mud toward Cilicia and the Mediterranean coast, they passed fields littered with decomposing bodies and skulls, and once flourishing Armenian towns that now contained only a few elderly women. The war brought starvation and poverty to Anatolia, as it did to many other parts of the war's afflicted regions; but the genocide made things far worse. Some peasants grumbled that while the politicians of the wartime Unionist regime were getting rich in the towns, they faced soaring bread prices.

In Cilicia spring came, and the Armenian refugees began for the first time to encounter travelers on the empty roads--mostly camel drivers with oranges from the coast. And when they reached the railway, their prospects changed. Balakian struck a deal with the authorities to allow the wealthier deportees to travel to Aleppo by train. But realizing the grim fate that awaited them in the Syrian deserts of Der Zor, he resolved to escape. It was not only his knowledge of German that saved him, it was the railway itself.

For most of us, the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway is little more than a slogan. Balakian's memoir demonstrates its centrality both to the war in the Middle East and to the Armenian experience. Desperate to tunnel through the Cilician mountains in order to open up the bottleneck that slowed down the Ottoman and German war effort in the Arab provinces, German railway engineers insisted on using Armenian labor as long as possible, even as hundreds of thousands of Armenians were being driven south past their very eyes. The result was that anyone working on a relatively small stretch of line between the cities of Adana and Aleppo had an unrivalled vantage point from which to witness the Armenian tragedy, and even, if he or she was courageous enough, to help: German officers and missionary nurses, Swiss engineers, Ottoman dignitaries, and Armenian stationmasters could not miss seeing the vast agglomerations of destitute and starving refugees that gathered for the final leg of deportation.

For a resourceful and lucky few, such as Balakian, the railway promised salvation, and sympathetic German officials helped him to survive for more than a year. In the autumn of 1918, as the war approached its end, he returned by train--in the company of two German soldiers--to Istanbul, having already decided to compose a written record of what he had seen and heard. Armenian hopes of independent statehood were high at the Paris Peace conference, since President Wilson's sympathy for their plight was well-known. At the same time, a court martial was being prepared under British auspices for those who had perpetrated the killings, even though Talaat and the other ringleaders had already fled abroad on a German submarine. There were thus urgent political reasons for Balakian to record his impressions and his understandings of the Armenian tragedy.

In view of Balakian's obvious sympathy for the Armenian national cause, and his desire to serve it, can we take his Armenian Golgotha as a reliable historical document? After all, it was written after the events that it describes, giving the particulars of conversations that had taken place at least two years earlier. Moreover, it was clearly part of an indictment of the Ottoman regime that was intended to support demands for a new Armenian nation- state. And more technically, as Peter Balakian, its editor and co-translator, and the author's great-nephew, points out, this translation itself has involved a considerable degree of Englishing of the text, which has produced a version different in intensity if not in basic detail from the original.

Yet none of this, not even the few somewhat disconcerting errors of detail (the date of Tehlirian's trial is off by a year), should detract from the lacerating documentary impact of this work. It is a perfectly credible testimony to man's inhumanity to man. What should be borne in mind, rather, are the intrinsic shortcomings of any humanitarian survivor narrative. For there is a basic difficulty with this powerful genre that must be confronted by any thoughtful reader. Firsthand tales of suffering bring us immediately into the emotional world of the victim, but they also suffer from severe explanatory limitations. Balakian may speculate about what drove the Ottoman Unionist leadership, but he is making inferences only from the few documents that he was shown, or from his own conversations with Turkish officials.

Yet at the same time--and this is one of the things that make this memoir so rich--Balakian hints at elements of the story that a broader, less personal, and more analytical approach could later flesh out: the existence of real resistance inside the Ottoman bureaucracy to the killing policy; the connection between it and events on the Russian front; the collapse of the wartime domestic economy; the corruption that swept through Unionist ranks; and above all the impact of the much larger complex of refugee movements across Anatolia, of which the Armenians were just one part. This is not to say that the current government of Turkey is right in implicitly equating what happened to the Armenians with the plight of Muslim refugees who had fled the Russians. On the contrary: only the former were faced with a systematic government policy of mass death. But it is true that we will not understand what happened to the Armenians unless we see what happened to them in the wider context of the war.

It is worth remembering that there were good reasons for anxiety on the part of the Ottoman elite. Defeat in the Balkan Wars had recently ended Ottoman power in Europe, and Muslims had been driven from their homes or massacred in 1912, just as they had been earlier in 1877 and, in the Russian Caucasus, in the 1860s. Their suffering on those occasions had aroused little international interest. When the Turkish writer Halide Edib argued with Talaat during the war about his fanaticism on the Armenian issue, he justified his policy to her on the grounds that "there was an equal number of Turks and Moslems massacred during the Balkan war yet the world kept a criminal silence." This was not true quantitatively, to be sure; but still it is a useful reminder of the sense of existential crisis that hung over the Committee of Union and Progress leadership. When it seized power in the Young Turk revolution of 1908, the CUP was hailed as a partner by Armenian, Arab, Greek, and other Ottoman ethnic minority parties. But by the time it returned to power in another coup--in January, 1913--it had emerged as the spearhead of a new and intransigent strain of Turkish nationalism. To make matters worse, having plunged the country into World War I, against the wishes of a large proportion of the population, this same Unionist leadership faced defeat after defeat in early 1915, the disintegration of Minister of War Enver's Third Army and the collapse of his Russian dreams in the East, and the very real likelihood of a British naval assault on Constantinople. By the spring of 1915, Talaat and the other members of the triumvirate that ruled the empire faced the prospect of total collapse.

They had good reason to fear the Armenians in particular. For thanks to their Russian backers, the Armenians had--on the eve of the war--got the Powers to pressure the Ottomans to concede administrative reforms in eastern Anatolia; and it did not take a prophet to see that these could have the same disintegrative impact on Ottoman rule as an earlier set of reforms in Macedonia had done. Rumors--which were probably correct--that a small number of Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman ranks had deserted to the Russians in early 1915 provided the catalyst for what followed. In short order, the remaining Armenian men in the army were disarmed and formed into labor battalions, and when they resisted they were massacred. This was the genesis of the bloodletting around Lake Van that preceded Balakian's arrest by only a few days. By late April, it seems that the CUP leadership had moved swiftly to generalize the deportation policy and transform it into a campaign to eliminate the Armenians one way or another as a political factor in the future of Anatolia.

It helps to distinguish the situation in eastern Anatolia--the dynamo in the whole killing process--from that further west. The war was coming close to Lake Van by the end of 1914, and Armenian volunteers were forming units in southern Russia and western Iran in order to push the Ottomans back as soon as the melting snows allowed. By the summer of 1915, when deportations and massacres swept across western and central Anatolia, the Russians had occupied much of the Van region and Armenian bands were wreaking their bloody revenge on Muslims. Had sympathizers for the Armenian case, in their campaign to have these events recognized as a genocide, not been so caught up in the moralizing logic of advocacy, they might have acknowledged how, in the to and fro of the war in the East, huge numbers of Muslims were also massacred or expelled from their homes. Some of these refugees from the Russian army were glimpsed by Balakian, who makes the same comment on them as Halide Edib did: in their wretchedness and hopelessness, they appeared indistinguishable from the Armenians themselves.

Disease and starvation indeed stalked all the refugees, and many of them, from all ethnic groups, fell prey to brigands and robbers. But only the Armenians were systematically killed. As we know from the memoirs of the Venezuelan mercenary Rafael de Nogales, who served the Ottomans in eastern Anatolia, orders to exterminate all Armenian males aged twelve and above had already been issued by the governorgeneral of Van province in April 1915.

But what did such decrees really mean, and what prompted them? Some answers to such questions are provided by a rivCeting new study by Ryan Gingeras on the impact of the war in western Anatolia, which gives us what we have lacked until now--an eye-opening insight into how decisions taken by a few men in the Ottoman capital were translated into killing on the ground. Gingeras's impressive book illuminates this in unprecedented detail--and, what is more, it does so on the basis of the Ottoman archives.

Not solely or even directly concerned with the Armenians, Gingeras makes at least two important contributions. First, he demonstrates that just as the Holocaust grew out of Nazi population engineering, so the Anatolian killings grew out of the CUP's much broader and more intricate demographic ambitions. Ruthless purifiers of the Ottoman heartland, they bludgeoned their way toward a definition of Turkish ethnicity by targCeting suspect ethnic groups of all kinds, Muslim as well as Christian. Defined as a dire security threat, the Armenians came off worst; but most readers will be surprised to learn that Muslim Albanians and Circassians were also targeted for deportation and surveillance by the CUP leadership. Any concentration of "suspicious elements" aroused the concern of the population engineers in Istanbul, and Albanian gangsters and Circassian bandits appeared almost as threatening as Armenian merchants and Greek shopkeepers. Some historians reckon that the security issue can be overplayed. They point out that while Habsburgs and Romanovs were also anxious about wartime security and deported populations of suspect allegiance from border areas, they did not murder them en masse. This is certainly true, but it also remains the case that few if any of the protagonists in the war faced a geopolitical threat of the magnitude confronting the Ottoman Empire.

The other thing that distinguished the Ottoman Unionist leadership from the elites running other wartime empires was the character of the state over which they presided, and the way its power was wielded in the provinces. It is here that Gingeras makes his second, and most essential, contribution. By-passing the regular institutions of the Ottoman state, Talaat ran his murderous deportation policy through networks of Party administrators, with the muscle provided by local men of violence. Many of the latter were members of the CUP's recently formed paramilitary Special Organization, one of whose main functions was to run the deportation program in conjunction with a new directorate for the settlement of tribes and immigrants. What Gingeras gives us is not the work of the directorate's ethnographers and refugee resettlement planners (other scholars are working on them), but the paramilitaries and the tribal leaders, many of them Circassian--more than two million Circassians had fled the Russians in the Caucasus over the preceding half-century--whose bands of toughs, enforcers, and ex-criminals they deployed for their political patrons. In Sorrowful Shores, those threatening bandits who lurked in the hills around Balakian and his fellow deportees are given an identity and a life of their own, and their connections to the district governors, town mayors, and local Unionist party leaders are made clear.

None of this, of course, is to deny the singularity of what happened to the Armenians; but it does help to explain it. We can trace the connections between the existential crisis of the Ottoman state, the collapse of the Eastern Front, and the targCeting of Armenians as security threats and scapegoats. In an unpopular war, the destruction of the Armenians promised loot and other economic benefits. But it also fit into the much broader and more generalized policies of deportation and killing that the CUP leadership developed with extraordinary speed under the cover of war, for the sake of a still undefined national purity. And as Gingeras demonstrates, the same ideas were continued by Mustafa Kemal and his lieutenants after 1918--only now they were turned against the Kurds and the Circassians as well. In the decades that followed, the Kemalist myth of Turkish national unity became the ideological means by which the extraordinary ethnic heterogeneity of the land they had inherited and done their best to eliminate could be quietly forgotten.

The Tehlirian trial in 1921 brought some prominence not only to Grigoris Balakian. It also inspired a young Jewish student named Rafael Lemkin to launch a lifelong struggle for the recognition of genocide as a crime in international law. Lemkin was twenty-one years old and a student of linguistics in Lvov in Poland when he read about the Tehlirian trial. In an unpublished memoir, written many years later, he recalled asking his professor: "It is a crime for Tehlirian to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men? This is most inconsistent." And he added: "Sovereignty cannot be conceived as the right to kill millions of innocent people."

Lemkin went on to coin the term "genocide," and his obsessive campaign to have it properly identified and outlawed eventually achieved victory in 1948, in the shape of the Genocide Convention. Owing to Lemkin, the spotlight of publicity has since been shone on some acts of state-sanctioned mass murder and other less drastic forms of minority persecution--but only fitfully, and when political circumstances have permitted or facilitated it. The case of the mass murder of the Armenians has emerged, especially since the Armenian diaspora's turn from terrorism to political lobbying in the 1980s, as an exemplary case of the advantages and the disadvantages of asking politicians to decide on when an atrocity counts as a genocide. President Obama's awkward fence-straddling formulations during his recent visit to Turkey illustrated once again the lamentably political character of our discourse on genocide. During the presidential campaign, Obama was outspokenly sympathetic to the Armenian position about what actually happened in 1915. But in the White House the demands of American-Turkish relations--and no less importantly, helping along the current rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia--have resulted in some backpedaling. In his remarks in Turkey, Obama carefully avoided any mention of the word "genocide."

The official Turkish response was also revealing. Despite Obama's verbal footwork, the Turkish government objected to his manifest sympathy for the Armenian victims. Standing beside him, President Gul of Turkey insisted on a different emphasis: "We share the sorrow of all those who lost their lives. But we have to remember that the Muslim population also suffered greatly at the same time." As should be clear from what I have written above, this is simultaneously reasonable and unreasonable. It is unreasonable, because the two cases, Armenian and "Muslim," were not fundamentally the same (not to mention the fact that the latter scarcely makes sense as a historical category in this context). But it is reasonable, because the black-and-white logic of those demanding the recognition of the genocide has indeed been blind to the larger and more ambiguous picture, in which large numbers of Muslims were also deported, expelled, and killed, some by Russian or Armenian units, others by the Ottomans themselves. A genocide was indeed perpetrated against the Armenians, but no single group can claim a monopoly of virtue. More crucially, the demand for genocide "recognition," whatever its ethical merits, has the effect of reducing to a struggle between two sides--Turks/Muslims and Armenians- -a conflict that in fact caught up far more peoples--Greeks, Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Assyrian Christians, Albanians--in its murderous coils.

In fact, one is inclined to agree with President Gul that the clarification and interpretation of the complexities of the historical record is a matter best kept out of the hands of politicians. After all, the most important contributions to our rapidly developing historical understanding of what happened in Anatolia in 1915-1916 do not come from official circles, nor from officially approved historians, but from more independently minded academics, writers, and journalists. Gingeras's book illustrates how much is now being gleaned by enterprising younger scholars from the Turkish archives (which are more accessible now than several major state archives in France and Italy). And even as much of Turkish public opinion solidifies behind the old nationalist nostrums, drummed into the public consciousness from school onward, dissenters are raising their voices. In the wake of the assassination of the Turkish- Armenian journalist Hrant Dink at the end of 2007, a petition apologizing for the crimes committed against the Armenians in 1915 gathered large numbers of signatories. And new works of scholarship and historical memory are currently being published in Turkey that pull the subject of wartime killing away from the grand narratives of empires, nations, and international geopolitics, and instead explore its impact on the private life of contemporary Turkey. An outstanding example of such a work is the recently published book written by Hrant Dink's lawyer, Fethiye Cetin.

Anatolia was an ethnic kaleidoscope of bewildering complexity, and despite the Kemalist longing for national purity, not even genocide could eradicate this diversity. Indeed, Armenians continued to shape modern Turkey even after most of them were killed or expelled. This legacy is the subject of Cetin's haunting family memoir. I find it hard to praise this book too highly. Written with exemplary restraint and with deep emotion, it describes two interlocking stories--that of the author's grandmother, a pious Muslim woman living her entire life in a small Anatolian town, and that of the author herself, and her coming to terms with her grandmother's secret. The secret was that her grandmother's real name was not Seher but Heranus Gadaryan--that is, she had not been born a Muslim at all, but was in reality an Armenian girl seized, and saved, by a Turkish gendarme during the massacre of her family, and brought up by him as his own daughter.

In a most delicate fashion, Cetin conveys the life of the Gadaryans before emigration and the war left most of them either dead or far afield. She has even uncovered a letter written by the young Heranus before the war to her father and uncles in America. But she also conveys the sequel--the humdrum normality of provincial life in a small Turkish town as it was lived by Heranus after she became Seher, the industrious and canny wife of a factory worker and the beloved mother and grandmother of a growing clan whom she fed, cared for, and protected until she was very old. It was only in 1975, when she took the decision to confide in her young granddaughter that she still had relatives in America, that bit by bit her hidden past emerged. Cetin took it upon herself to try to trace this family, and eventually she succeeded.

Among its other virtues, this book reminds us that history is never just history--that traces of the crime linger on in unexpected ways, some negative, others positive, over the generations into the present. One may choose--as many nationalists inside and outside Turkey do--to ignore these uncomfortable truths, or one may agree to face them. But it is surely a heartening sign that some people are starting to see the hidden world of the Armenians, and the other minorities that perished, as a source of strength, not shame.

Mark Mazower is a professor of history at Columbia University and the author most recently of Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (Penguin).

By Mark Mazower