The Land He Read About in Comic Books
As they journeyed to a country gripped by the Great Depression, Ahmet, his mother, and sister occupied a suite that was “a rung above the first-class cabins and certainly the most luxurious accommodation the ship had to offer.” In an era when the average salary in America was less than $1,400, their passage cost more than most people in the United States earned in an entire year. Because it was the custom for ambassadors and their families to be sent abroad in the best possible circumstances, all their expenses were paid for by the Turkish government.
With them from Turkey, his mother had brought two Armenian families who were in third-class on the Rex. “But when the sea got rough,” Ahmet recalled, “she went down to get them. We had this huge suite and we had all these poor people sleeping with us. Because down there, it was much worse. Where we were, at least you could look out the window. It had air.” Ahmet and his family spent New Year’s Eve on the ship but, in Selma’s words, because the passage was so stormy, “There were only a few passengers well enough to take part in the festivities, which consisted of dinner and a dance orchestra with nobody dancing. It was hard enough to keep one’s balance just standing up.”
The crossing became so rough at one point that Ahmet’s mother, who blamed herself for having postponed their trip until midwinter, tearfully embraced her two children while telling them she was the cause of their impending deaths. Neither Ahmet nor Selma, both of whom “enjoyed roaming around the empty corridors of the ship, trying to keep our balance as we superiorly belittled those who were throwing up in their cabins,” took her seriously. To keep her children busy, she gave them “thousands of dollars” to bet on a “fake horse race with dummy horses” and a dice game that was held each afternoon on the ship. “My sister and I won every day,” Ahmet would later say. “We used to go back and give her all these huge sums of money.”
After the Rex landed in New York, the family was greeted by the consul general of Turkey and two people from his staff. As Ahmet recalled, “We arrived in the evening and the first thing I said was, ‘I want to see 42nd Street.’ Because I’d seen the movie, right? We drove down 42nd Street, Times Square. It was incredible. It was America the way I expected it.”
After staying in a hotel that night, the family took a train to Washington, on which Ahmet would later remember seeing “the black Pullman porters who would say, ‘Yes sir, I’ll give you a shine.’” At Union Station, the family was met by the Turkish embassy limousine, a navy blue Packard. Eleven and a half years old, Ahmet had finally arrived in the land he had only read about in comic books. His initial expectations of America had also been formed by Miss Whittingham, his “very strict” and “difficult” English governess in London, who had told him “Americans were savages… They spoke like peasants and were not upper-class people at all. They were just ruffians.”
By the time Ahmet arrived in Washington, his father had already become embroiled in a heated controversy for which none of his previous diplomatic service could have prepared him. In the fall of 1934, a novel entitled The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel, an Austrian Jew who had served as an Austro-Hungarian artillery corporal during World War I, was published in America to uniformly positive reviews.
Written in a very grand, florid style, the novel recounts the heroic stand taken by its hero, Gabriel Bagradian, to defend his fellow Armenians against deportations, mass murder, and rape at the hands of the “Young Turks” who had led the Ottoman Empire in 1915. While as many as a million and a half Armenians of the Christian faith were killed during this period, the Republic of Turkey steadfastly denied that such acts had ever occurred. Any reference to the Armenian massacre as genocide was considered a grievous insult to Turkish pride.
Although Mustafa Kemal had denounced the massacres as “a shameful act” in 1919, he wanted to distance his new nation from the actions of the Young Turks as well as the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. To bind his people into a single nation, he also “outlawed ethnic and minority identity” and removed all public references to Armenians within Turkey.
When Irving Thalberg, “The Boy Wonder” who was then the head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer began implementing the studio’s plan to film The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the government of Turkey reacted swiftly to the news by sending its new ambassador to America to meet with Wallace Murray, the State Department’s chief of Near Eastern Affairs. During their meeting, Mehmet Munir told Murray he “earnestly hoped” the studio “would desist from presenting any such picture, which would almost certainly stir up anti-Turkish feelings in the country.”
Pursuing the matter as though this was now his top priority, Mehmet Munir continued corresponding with Murray. He also visited the Hays Office in New York where the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced to insist the film be terminated and informed MGM’s legal counsel that all of the studio’s films would be banned in Turkey if the company insisted on making this movie. In June 1935, he agreed to accept two copies of the script so he could read one himself while sending the other to the Foreign Affairs Office in Ankara.
In Turkey, the story had become headline news. On a daily basis, newspapers published anti-American and anti-Jewish harangues protesting the project. The issue soon became so inflamed that a group of Armenian intellectuals gathered in a churchyard in Istanbul where they set the book and a photograph of its author on fire as they sang the Turkish national anthem to prove their loyalty to the government.
In September 1935, Mehmet Munir contacted Secretary of State Cordell Hull to inform him the Turkish government considered the script “utterly negative. Kindly exert your high influence with a view to precluding the carrying out of the project.” He then told an official at Loew’s, the company that owned MGM, “If the movie is made, Turkey will launch a worldwide campaign against it. It rekindles the Armenian question. The Armenian question is settled. How else would you explain the presence of Armenians in the Turkish Parliament? The movie will only stir up troubles about a situation that has been smoothed out.”
Due in great part to Mehmet Munir’s unrelenting efforts, MGM eventually scrapped its plan to film The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Forty-seven years after the studio first purchased the rights to the book, what was generally considered an atrocious version of the novel finally made its way to the screen.
As Peter Balakian, the author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, would later say, “Munir Ertegun became a pit bull on this with the State Department. He was clearly a very successful political animal. Nevertheless, he was an absolute purveyor of the Turkish denialist narrative on the Armenians and the Armenian genocide, and it is really a dark and twisted immoral story of huge proportions.”
“My personal view,” Ahmet’s sister Selma would later write, “is that my father did this because it was his duty to try to stop anti-Turkish propaganda in whatever form it appeared. He was certainly instructed by the government to do whatever he could to stop the film. This does not mean he condoned the actions of the Ottoman government. I was too young then to know what his personal thoughts were. All I can recall is that it was a very difficult and stressful time. I am still amazed he was able to succeed in his efforts to stop the making of a film in a democratic country like the U.S.”
In 1994, Ahmet, who by then had become a very wealthy man, donated $3.5 million to create the M. Munir Ertegun Turkish Studies Foundation in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Four years later, Ahmet publicly conceded that deaths had in fact taken place in Armenia in 1915. Stating they were casualties of war and not part of a planned genocide, he added, “There are different interpretations of what happened.”
In 1998, Ahmet also contacted Harut Sassounian, the publisher of The California Courier, the oldest independent English-language Armenian newspaper in the United States, to discuss the issue with him. After Ahmet’s death in December 2006, Sassounian wrote that as a precondition to their meeting Ahmet needed to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Over a lunch that lasted for more than two hours at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, Ahmet “made it clear that he was not acknowledging the Genocide in order to appease the Armenians. He believed that it was, first of all, in Turkey’s interest to acknowledge the Genocide, because doing so would help Ankara’s application for membership in the European Union and get rid of the stigma that had haunted his native land for so many years.”
Although Sassounian wrote it was “a shame that the public statement we had discussed regarding the Armenian Genocide never materialized,” he noted Ahmet had contacted him not because “he was pro-Armenian, but because he sincerely wanted to help erase the stigma of the Genocide from Turkey’s name.” Sassounian added, “I could not write this column while he was alive since I did not want to make him the target of hate mail and threats from Turkish extremists by alerting them that he was considering the possibility of issuing a public statement on the Armenian Genocide. Alas, he passed away without being able to do so, which is a loss for both Armenians and Turks.”