[2 September 2009]
It is universally recognised that while World War II was being fought, another great catastrophe that resulted in devastating loss of life was occurring alongside it: the extermination of Jews and other ethnic and social groups by the Nazi regime. Less well known is that World War I also provided the background for a horrific genocide, as thousands of Armenians were massacred by the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire. The translation of Armenian Golgotha, which was originally published in 1922, is therefore an important event; it provides us with a first-hand account of a genocide that the Turkish state continues to deny. Estimates of the loss of life incurred range from 500,000 to 1.5 million; the figure given in this book is 1.2 million.
Grigoris Balakian was an Armenian priest and intellectual, who was living in Constantinople in 1915. On 24 April, he and 250 other Armenians were arrested and exiled, unaware that this was just the first stage of an ordeal that would result in the slaughter of the majority of their numbers. They were transported further and further east, sometimes in trains or carriages, but more often made to cover vast distances on foot. Frequent stops are made at towns along the route; sometimes more Armenian deportees are added to their numbers, in many cases the settlements have already been cleared of Armenian residents. It transpires that their ultimate destination is Der Zor, a site in present day Syria where as many as 400,000 Armenians were massacred. Many more did not make it that far; either they were killed en route, or succumbed to disease, starvation or sheer exhaustion.
Balakian was extremely fortunate to survive, and this is the result of a combination of factors. Firstly, he was younger and fitter than many of those who were arrested with him in Constantinople, and less susceptible to the afflictions of the journey. In addition, his status as a priest meant that there were many who were prepared to assist him in with food or protection; and he had the resources to bribe Turkish guards and officials when necessary. But luck also played a significant part, as well as his incredible resolve: having decided early on that he would not die, he fought through innumerable struggles until the end of the war brought an end to the genocide.
The book is an amalgamation of two volumes: the first, entitled ‘The Life of an Exile’, deals with Balakian’s journey from Constantinople, which culminates in the town of Ayran. It is here that he determines to escape, and the second volume, ‘The Life of a Fugitive’ details his flight home. His return journey was as fraught as his forced passage eastwards; it required him to adopt disguises and false identities, seek help from any surviving Armenians he came across, and, at one point, to hide out in a forest for three days without food or water, and amongst wolves and jackals.
In both volumes of his memoir, Balakian’s interactions with the varied people he encounters are the most fascinating and revealing sections. Aside from Armenians and Turks, there were many Europeans constructing railways, with Germans being particularly prominent due to their alliance with the Ottoman Empire. Having been studying theology in Germany until the outbreak of war, Balakian was able to engage with many of the Germans he came across, and discover that their attitudes towards the Armenians often differed. While some are sympathetic, many support the genocide, seeing it as a step in weakening an empire they ultimately hope to conquer. With eerie prescience, one goes so far as to describe the Armenian people as ‘Christian Jews’.
Balakian’s status as a priest and intellectual also enables him to converse with his Turkish captors. On the long journey across the country, he is the only Armenian with whom the Turkish captain escorting the caravan will talk. Presuming that Balakian will soon be killed, the captain speaks with shocking candour about the atrocities he has committed. Details of the massacres are revealed throughout by perpetrators, eyewitnesses and escapees; all accounts show the same brutality.
In many cases massacres were carried out by bandits who had been released from prison; on other occasions ordinary villagers were incited to carry out horrific acts. The means of slaughter were primitive—typically axes, sticks and stones were used; and rape and torture were commonplace. Meanwhile, the Turks robbed the Armenians by any means they could, from charging the starving obscenely inflated rates for virtually inedible bread, to disembowelling corpses to retrieve jewels that had been concealed by swallowing.
Grigoris Balakian died in Marseilles in 1934. He had hoped that he would live to see the rebirth and repopulation of the Armenian nation, but this was not to be. Although an Armenian republic was created in 1920, it lasted only a few months before it was invaded by both Turkish and Soviet forces, and its independence was not resumed until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nonetheless, in Armenian Golgotha Balakian has left behind a hugely important document in the country’s history. Although he was clearly affected deeply by the suffering he saw and endured, he succeeded in producing an account that provides us with a great and valuable insight into what is regarded as the precedent for modern genocide.