Film Essays & Articles >> Pyrrhic Victory
Peering Beyond Pyrrhic Victory: The Armenian Genocide, Two New Must See Documentaries, One by Andrew Goldberg, the Other by Laurence Jourdan
Armenian News Network / Groong April 12, 2006
It has been a long struggle. Especially starting in 1915, and lasting the length of WWI, Genocide was perpetrated, premeditated, systematic, targeting Christian (non-Muslim) populations of the villages in Anatolia, in the Ottoman heartland, displacing and wiping out the Armenian (and Assyrian and any other unassimilatable) infidels (called Gyavoors in Turkish).
Who organized it? The Ittihadists, members of the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks. Which triumvirate ran that infamous outfit? Talaat Pasha, minister of the interior of the Ottoman Empire, Enver Pasha, its Minister of the Army and Jemal Pasha, its minister of the Navy and Marines. A Million and a half Armenians perished. The Anatolian planes were evacuated of their indigenous Armenian population. This crime against humanity and civilization lay dormant, away from public view, for decades after initial full official admission, trials, and for its leaders, death sentences handed out in absentia in 1919.
Were there any survivors? Yes, making it to the other side of the Syrian and Mesopotamian deserts, the killing fields, the skull mounds, the red rivers with floating human debris, rag tag caravans of survivors settled in Syria and Lebanon. Some other survivors crawled back up into Europe, Bulgaria, Greece, France, or the long voyage by sea to America. Armenians dispersed, regrouped, overcame the catastrophic whiplash, slowly realized that an unprecedented crime had been committed against them as an entire nation. It was genocide since they were targeted as being OTHER than Turks, OTHER than Muslims, other than assimilatable, convertible, absolutely controllable, yet ambitious, industrious and defenseless masses.
And so it went. How did the decision to go through with these horrors get taken? Who was in on it? Who, if anyone, whispered this solution into the ears of the Young Turks? How did this escalation take place from intermittent violent massacres, ordered by Sultan Hamid, under the guise of suppressing insurrections such as those from 1894-1896, and those of 1909, where over 250,000 Armenians died, to the full scale plan of eradication of all Armenians from Ottoman territory? Did they come up with this all by themselves? How did the dehumanization campaigns against the Armenians intensify? The scapegoating, the trumped up treasonous and disloyalty charges, the vilification, who was in charge of these campaigns? Was there any blow back? Who was setting up the standards and practices? What feedback did they get from their central powers partners? What was the reaction of the Turkish officials from the provinces, the Villayets? What was the response of the local leaders when directed to undertake the mass deportations, killings, the looting, the ethnic cleansing?
We do not have complete answers to all these questions. We know more than enough however about the mechanics of what happened. But more satisfying psychological and sociological facts and analyses remain to be uncovered. Ottoman archives, if left unadulterated and with free access, may turn out to be a rich treasure trove describing how the religious minority semi-self-rule system, known as the Millets actually worked. How awkward was it? How painful for the second class (non-Muslim) citizenry did it get (much before the genocidal turn of events)? What barbarism and inhumane treatments were seen as acceptable for centuries, again, before events took a turn for the worse, with the hatching and execution of “the final solution?”
The two documentaries entitled: The Armenian Genocide” one by Andrew Goldberg, Two Cats Productions, 58 minutes, USA, 2006, and the other by Laurence Jourdan, Phares & Balises, 102 minutes, France, 2005, break the long silence on this massive tragedy in front of the American public and the whole world. Americans at the turn of the twentieth century and later knew about the starving Armenians and that the Near East Relief Society raised and distributed quite a bit of money (a hundred million dollars by some estimates) on orphans, Protestant churches, schools and hospitals. Theodore Roosevelt, among others, was vociferously outraged at the inhumanity against the Armenians. But slowly, the world forgot or chose to forget and at the Versailles treaty the whole world abandoned the remaining Armenians. Goldberg’s and Jourdan’s thoughtful documentaries bring all this back under the light. In the Bay Area, Goldberg’s will be aired on KQED at 10 PM on April the 18th, 2006. Check your local listings for the appropriate show time on PBS of this documentary on April 17 or later. KCET, the Flagship West Coast PBS station in LA, on the other hand, having bought the exclusive US rights to Jourdan’s documentary, Le Genocide Armenien, will air it instead on that same day.
This is a review of both documentaries. Goldberg’s may be found at http://www.twocatstv.com/armeniangenocide.php while the home page of Jourdan’s is http://www.phares-balises.fr/en/fiche_video.php?video=9. This reviewer has the French (original) version of the second documentary and thus can not comment on the quality of the translation in the dubbed (English or German) versions. In addition, it should be mentioned that the Jourdan DVD comes with an extra 50 minute interview with the eminent genocide historian Yves Ternon. This is itself a remarkable set of mini lectures full of insights and explanations of how and why the Armenian genocide was embarked upon and executed and how the elaborate denialist and negationist schemes began and evolved in Turkey. It is a must see addition to the impeccable visual narrative that is Jourdan’s documentary itself.
How good are these documentaries? Are they a set of disputed positions on an obscure chapter of fleeting world history, or do they present clear historical facts, recounted dispassionately and professionally? These two documentaries fall in the latter category. There are some denialists and Turkish apologists who make numerous appearances in the Goldberg one, that’s true. But overall, the Armenian Genocide does come through loud and clear in its horrors, screams and stenches. They both treat the WHAT, HOW and WHY of the Armenian Genocide. But their styles are quite different. While they both attempt to rely on as much authentic period footage as they can, their success at doing so is rather different.
Jourdan’s documentary is poetic, evocative and deeply moving. It has magnificent original footage. When none is to be found, it shows a fountain pen reenacting the writing of messages in English, French or German that local diplomats were writing home as alarming dispatches or observations or pleas for rapid intervention. These exercises in futile elegant recordings, over and over again, by pristine gold nibbed pen and ink, transmit the feelings of desperation that any witness to these systematic attempts at the annihilation of a religious and ethnic group, the Armenians, must have felt. The quiet elegance of the fading voices of a small number of 90 or 100 year old genocide survivors speaking their tales is awesome. They give first hand accounts of the horrors. The rest is made up of period footage, some of it remarkable, such as a long line with German generals and Enver Pasha trying to salute himself and stay with the line… The same Enver pasha is shown to have written a letter to the Bishop of Konia thanking him for the valiant efforts of the Armenian soldiers at Sarykamysh and this on February 26, 1915. A mere two months before the beginning of the Genocide, where treason, insurrection and disloyalty were invoked as the pretext! His exact words were: “… I write to express my satisfaction and gratitude to the Armenian nation, known forever by its perfect devotion to the imperial Ottoman government.” Signed, Vice-Generalissimo of the Imperial Army, Enver Pasha…
Jourdan’s documentary starts with a broad strokes history of the Armenians from antiquity to the end of the nineteenth century before delving into the history of the Genocide itself, which is its main theme. Through maps and old touched up photographs, it shows what our ancestors looked and dressed like in our villages, how they lived and what their status was in Ottoman Turkey by the end of the 19th century. The film footage of that era: shops, street merchants, and city life in Constantinople are very informative. Then comes the story of the attempted takeover of Ottoman finances, banking, the port authority, and train lines by England, France and Germany, with fierce competition between them. Germany won the Ottoman railway contracts and the task of modernizing the Ottoman Army to bring it to the level of the German Army of the day. Reforms are promised to the minorities in the Ottoman empire. Even the Sultan’s emissaries sign in the Berlin Accord of 1878, a statement declaring that the rights of minorities would be guaranteed by the Supreme Port. It of course was ignored by the Sultan, realizing that he could with impunity do anything to crush his minorities, who were agitating for independence, or at the very least less oppressive treatment. Thus also began the small band of Armenian freedom fighter squads, formed to protect the innocent villagers and fight the oppressive regime for over taxation and a lack of civil liberties. But then came the expulsion of the Turks from 85% of their European territories through military defeat in the span of 1912-1913. They finally lost Bulgaria, Greece, Bosnia, Hertsegovina, and all hopes of ever returning there (except recently with a smile and a hand shake if the European Union so wishes).
The refugees from the Balkans brought horror stories with them as to how the infidels dominated them and made them suffer. This added fuel to Turkish nationalism. They wanted revenge, retribution, the preservation of honor. In Constantinople (modern day Istambul), it was feared by the American and German Ambassadors that new massacres against the Armenians may well ensue in this atmosphere. And well they did. Jourdan’s documentary even shows caravans of Armenian refugees escaping the eruption of WWI as the Russian Armies entered Anatolia. Their large bull pair driven covered wagons show the desperation that their faces can not conceal. And yet, under the pretext of war, the Turkish authorities laid siege to the city of Van, for instance, in April 1915. 24,000 Armenians were massacred in 4 days around that ancient city. In the center of the city, a resistance movement was assembled by the survivors of these massacres. And again here, Jourdan has found still photos of these make shift Armenian fighters defending their fortress city. At the end of 27 days of fighting, Van is liberated by the Tsar’s soldiers. We are shown the devastation of the city and the aftermath of the fighting. The footage is incredible.
In Constantinople, the self defense attempted at Van is seen as insurrection. 600 intellectuals and community leaders are rounded up and imprisoned. Most of them are deported or executed in the following weeks. We are shown the photographs of many of these prominent Armenian poets, clergy, doctors, teachers, architects and businessmen. And then, we are shown period houses, their abandoned houses. There followed the orders to begin what ended up being the massacring of 1 to 1.5 million Armenians mostly in the 1915-1916 period. This plan became quickly known in the halls of the chancelleries of Western powers. The German Consul General writes in April 1915: Let us ignore these events since we have more important interests in these delicate times of war… This letter is shown in the Jourdan documentary. Now we see the footage of Enver pasha following like a little puppet, the supreme commander of the German Army and right next to the Sultan, Mehmet 5th, as he salutes a large line of Turkish generals. The voice over explains how crucial the concerns of the Germans were vis a vis the middle east as new battle fronts with the French and English and how they just let things go unnoticed as far as the Armenian genocide was concerned.
We are then shown another great document, which this time is a letter typed in French. Exactly one month after the commencement of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 1915, France, England and Russia send a joint letter to the Ottoman authorities where the term “crimes against humanity and civilization” is first used. In it, they specify to the Sultan (Mehmet the 5th) that he will be held personally responsible for these crimes including all members of the Ottoman government and all their agents in the field who are performing these massacres.
Jourdan tells us that the Imperial Ottoman Empire replied on June 4th. The official lying about these crimes began on that day. The letter states what has been oft repeated since: a categorical denial that ANY massacres of Armenians have occurred at all (never mind that they have been eye witnessed by countless foreign diplomats, photographers, journalists, soldiers, businessmen, charity workers, missionaries and Arabs, to name but a few). Further stating that the displacement of Armenians was for their own protection since there was a war coming and it wasn’t safe in the East… Again, lies that have been repeated over and over again for 91 years… Jourdan shows us footage of Mehmet the 5th reviewing his troupes as these words are read in voice over. The letter then states that the Supreme port will allow himself all ways and means of protecting its borders against all invaders and that it is not accountable to any foreign government.
We are then told of a communiqué, sent 15 days following the above declaration by Mehmet the 5th, by the Consular head of Germany in Constantinople, on June 19th, telling his superiors that conversations with Talaat Bey make it absolutely clear that the deportation of the Armenians is not motivated by war time considerations but in order to radically eliminate its problem Christian subjects, profiting by the cover of war. Jourdan continues his gold fountain pen sequences by this German letter itself. The pieces of the puzzle already fall in place. No one need wonder what the Ottoman motivation was anymore. No denying premeditation, no excusing as mere hotheadedness what actually occurred. No one need wonder about why they have to lie about it today, either. It starts then and there when Talaat Pasha is being quoted in that German letter as having stated what he believed to be the position of the Sultan Mehmet the 5th. Talaat had declared that these actions against the Armenians can now be undertaken without the undue burden that would follow if the diplomatic core were to be allowed to interfere more closely. He was confident the circumstances of the war would not allow that. After this point, no foreign government made any concrete attempts to interdict and so there was nothing standing in the way of the rest of the deportations and massacres that followed.
We now see Talaat pasha walking down the street with some cronies. We hear that he has just declared a provisional law of deportation. While not mentioning Armenians specifically, it formalizes all that has been taking place since the beginning of spring. And we are shown this decree in full Ottoman Turkish glory written in Arabic alphabet. We are read a translation of this missive by Talaat. It authorizes mass deportations by any of the armies of the Ottoman empire of all peoples that they suspect of treason or espionage. Fine cover indeed!
We now see a 101 year old survivor being interviewed in Canada in 2004. He depicts the actual mechanics of the deportation. How they kept tabs on who is leaving, the thumb prints they collected of the departing Armenians which was suppose to have been proof that they were leaving voluntarily! The Turks drove the chariots. The Armenians were encouraged to leave theirs behind. The Turks drove them until Malatia and then just dropped them there and went back.
The American consul at Harput, a rather isolated corner of the Empire, does everything he can to help the Armenian victims and to intervene with the authorities to stop them. A golden nib appears and reenacts the writing of the following letter to the US Ambassador. “All Armenians are being evicted of the 6 provinces that make up Armenia. That is over 60,000 in this province and another million in the other 6 provinces. All must be expelled, seems to be the order! This is an endeavor never before witnessed in all of history.”
Under the aegis of Talaat Pasha, the Minister of the Interior, a secret and special organization within the Committee for Union and Progress organizes the deportations. We see Talaat seated in an official meeting place with Enver and two other leaders as we hear these words. The center of operations is in Erzeroom in the heart of Oriental Anatolia. Northern convoys were directed towards the central transit point of Malatia. Eastern and South Eastern convoys were sent to Ras Ul-Ain. Armenians from Western Anatolia went through the transit points of Konia and Bozanti, All of these convoys were then regrouped and directed towards Aleppo in Syria and from there to Deir-Zor, in the forbidding Syrian and Mesopotamian desert. These death march paths are shown on a relief map of Anatolia, the Armenian highlands.
Photographs then show us these deportation orders and victims as they set en route. This is an amazing way to suddenly feel oneself there, among them, lost, questioning, wondering where it all might end. And yet, you can see hope in their plump healthy faces. But then the narrative and pictures show the convoys isolated, thinning out, and the voice over tells us that more often than not, the men were separated and massacred in situ without bothering to take them on long death marches where they could have revolted and tried resisting that which was about to happen to their women and children. Escorted by soldiers and Turkish police forces, women, children and the elderly in the thousands were taken on forced marches which were to last 100s of kilometers.
There are other letters shown. Pleas from US consular officers depicting these marches, the victims, their destiny being death, despite the assurances to the contrary. These letters describe in vivid detail the condition the (surviving) Armenians were reduced to by just July of 1915, after two months of forced marches.
We now return to the 101 year old survivor and the rest of his personal testimonial past Malatia. His father and 500 other men are outed when the women are forced to remove their headgear. As it turns out, their large group had 500 imposters in it. They were taken away and shot there. He will find them in the tall grass beyond their encampment the next morning when he is told to go graze the donkeys. A river of blood was flowing, the boy, now 101, remembers. He runs to his mother and tells her, I think dad is there, dad is there among the corpses too. And they move on.
Jourdan’s documentary shows us images of these women, on the road, will little children in shawls carried on their backs. Head gear, strained looks, surprised, now desperate. The children are shown half naked, crying, huddled, unwell. We are told that the deportations were organized in two stages from May till July 1915, Eastern Anatolia (historical Armenia) was targeted for deportations and systematic massacres. Then in the fall and winter and into 1916, Western Armenia was subjected to the same fate except their proximity to railway lines allowed a faster method of getting them to the same deserts. Stuffing them into suffocating wagons of cargo trains, they were transported to their deaths.
The next scene is that of naval warfare from WWI with the voice over stating again that a war taking place on 3 continents guaranteed that no other power would interfere in the internal affairs of the Ottoman empire. The disastrous campaign of the Entente forces at the Dardanelles, the long protracted trench warfare, none of this detracts them from having healthy ambitions in carving up the Ottoman empire once it is defeated. This is why they met secretly and decided on how they would do it, who would get what territory into their sphere of influence. The Armenian highlands were far from their immediate concern. Deportations continued.
A 96 year old survivor now describes how she and her mother were part of thousands who were massacred atop this hill with butcher knived. She keeps describing how the blood was flowing non stop as a river, for hours. Then she loses track of where her mother is. She is struck down, her mother is struck down. Everyone is struck down. She dies, I didn’t, she says. I don’t know why… Why was I spared? So I got up and marched on…
On 30 Dec. 1915, we get another missive to the US ambassador in Constantinople. Calling it a slaughter house is not an exaggeration, he says, based on what I have seen, what I have heard and witnessed. It is clear that all those who left Harput except for a small number at the beginning of July, have been massacred even before getting out of the Harput province limits proper. We are now shown killing fields and the dead in winter as other stand around and stare. More dead in the desert, naked children next to their mothers, all dead, covered with insects.
Unable to get their governments to do anything about it, certain members of neutral countries try and do something locally. For instance, in Trabizond, the Consular offices were open to all Armenian children to find refuge. We see footage of these little children waving or sitting by American flags. During all this, the US Ambassador was informing Washington of all this without holding back. He states that it apppeas as if this is a systematic plan to crush the Armenian people. We see this letter and can read it ourselves!
We move on to the 4200 Moussa Dagh Armenians and their rescue by the French to be sent by boat to Port Said, Egypt. We ae shown more refugees and more caravans until a 91 year old survivor speaks in 2000. He is talking about how they managed to find drinking water throughout the marches, how Arabs sold it to them and how many Armenian virgins threw themselves off the boats they were being transported on so as to avoid being raped. They drowned instead.
All officials, we are told, who did not carry out the deportation and massacre orders were replaced. Despite that, some Kurds and Arabs did come to the aid of the caravans, such as in Derzin. The central CUP authorities started working on covering their tracks. Missionaries were not allowed to accompany the convoys. Photography is strictly forbidden. Even foreign correspondence begins to get censured. Germany stays silent as all this unfolds. One had to wait till October 1915, when the German Ambassador died, before Germany tried to distance itself from this massive crime, fearing complicity charges together with its Allie, the Ottoman Empire. So the newAmbassador does interdict on behalf of the Armenians, But a year later he declares in July of 1916: “The Ottomans have decided to deal with the Armenian question by liquidating the Armenian race. Nothing we have said, or the Americans or the Entente powers, or the Apostolic church or anyone else has said has been able to make a difference. “
We are told that tens of thousands of children and young girls were kidnapped and sold as human slaves and forced to convert to Islam during their deportations.
Then there is Aleppo. Here the caravans converged. Epidemic stricken dying Armenians are talked about and shown. These are pictures we know of starving thirsty Armenians whose rib cages show, hair is all cut off for lice, and whose stomachs are bloated.
By the end of 1916, 2/3 of the Armenians in Anatolia were annihilated. On Oct. 30, 1918, Turkey signs the armistice. All CUP members were then imprisoned or escaped. By March 3, 1919, the heads of CUP were condemned to death after lengthy trials in absentia. CUP leaders were found to be totally responsible for these acts against humanity.
The Sevres treaty or that of Versailles, did not allow a new Armenia to be formed. 1923 brings us the Lausanne treaty which actually buries the Armenian question. 600,000 Armenians survived the genocide of the young Turks. One to one and a half million Armenians were brutally killed. We see images of our orphans everywhere from that era. The narrator tells of how we were dispersed and our diasporas flooded with refugees.
We are reminded that no words existed at the beginning of the century to combine the effects of massacres and deportations on the scale perpetrated by the Turks. Raphael Lempkin in 1944 did so by coining the term genocide and admitting that his studies of the Armenian case inspired him to do so. This word entered international law in 1948.
Jourdan’s documentary ends with Arnold Toynbee’s account of the Armenian genocide first written in 1916. It ends with the words, Despite All the Witnesses, A Nation Was Just Exterminated. Jean Louis Valero’s original score takes us to the credits and if you are not moved by this masterpiece, nothing I say will make it easier for you to do what you can to get out and get your own copy and study this rich, nuanced, extremely well researched and non-slick masterpiece named Le Genocide Armenien.
Goldberg’s documentary is very different in tone and construction. It is much shorter to begin with and it has no Armenian survivor footage at all. Instead, it has Turkish and Kurdish citizens of modern day Turkey who recount what their fathers said about these events. Why this should be any more believable or precious, I leave to the audience to decide. The other unique feature of Goldberg’s video is that it spends most of its time assembling snippets from historians and sociologists, Armenian, Turkish, and other, on the question of the genocide. His is commentary driven. While the visual element is strong, he is fascinated with what scholars in the field have to say than pinning down the nitty gritty facts concerning the genocide itself. A final drastic difference is that almost immediately after the Goldberg documentary starts, the plight of present day Armenians or enlightened Turks, their angst, and their disorientation begins to take center stage. As if this is a movie made FOR Armenians or enlightened Turks, mean to appease them. To say here is your genocide story ok? You got what you asked for. Now go home and let us decide what happens in Armenia or for Armenians. It states that the Genocide Recognition issue is the central one and that this film will help address it. I am of the opinion that reparations are far more important and will do much needed good to suffering Armenians everywhere than any civil discourse by the leaders of the Turkish republic under the guise of recognition would ever muster.
The nice twist in this documentary is to have Turkish historians (a handful) who themselves say they want to know what happened and to get to the bottom of it and move on. We must harness their will of course. But telling their story before the Armenian Genocide’s internal story has been told may be misleading to the general American audience. The Armenian Genocide is declared to be one of the greatest untold stories of the 20th Century. Well, these 58 minutes barely scratch the surface, so the challenge is still on to tell the true story of the genocide. Hopefully, you will agree that these two videos complement each other in just that way. Goldberg’s video addresses today’s Armenians. It even starts by giving the current demographics of Armenians around the planet today. It is less about what happened in 1915 than about how this is playing out today in our milieu. It is a very different work, indeed. There are very breezy accounts of the events that lead up to the genocide. And even the genocide itself is depicted superficially and unconvincingly. If you want the step by step historical account as opposed to comments and sociological tangents, see the Jourdan video. If you care more about the impact on current Armenians and Turks thinking on the matter, see the Goldberg one. You will still not know what happened. You will know it was bad. It should be recognized, and that is that. No reparations, no further quests of redressing the wrongs of a ninety year old travesty. Just recognition, just symbolism.
No, that is not what we want. There has to be reestablishment of civil discourse between the Armenian and Turkish people. This will happen when Ottoman Turkey is not dressed up as a glorious past with positive cultural values. No, a spade must finally be called a spade. The Jourdan and Goldberg documentaries will probably play crucial roles in getting us there.
April 24 comes around every year and Armenians, while celebrating their survival in muted tones, actually dread it. The words "alleged genocide" are visited upon them from the official media (now slowly changing), accusations of exaggeration and hysteria are attempted, categorical lies and fabrications are presented like sweet Turkish delights to a distracted world who has its sights set on other immediate goals such as trade, security and East-West tensions.
Armenians see April 24 go by every year, without a definitive resolution of their long sought quest: full recognition, apologies, reparations and civility restored. These would be welcome additions to the denialist and negationist stances that we have faced for all these years. Now Turkey wants a triumphant return into Europe's Bosom. It wants to be the lynch pin of negotiations between the Muslim world and the West. Turkey wants modernity and secularism while being weighed down by fanaticism and ultranationalism. How will they move forward while still denying their collective past? There is no such possibility. By opening its dark pages of history and airing the errors of its ways, there is a chance that a rebirth of civil society and liberal values can take hold in that vast and fertile land benefiting its future generations.
The Armenian genocide is just one aspect of this story. Their relations with Arabs during the Ottoman era, as well as the Balkan countries, their treatment of the Kurds, an ongoing major problem they can not shake off, all add up to reinforce the need for a vast overhaul of the myth of their past that they have to undertake. Truth will liberate them. These shades of dark grey they constantly pour on every attempt to bring it alive just darkens their souls and they deserve better. Jourdan and Goldberg can help them see the light and follow the path of openness and self examination without blind and misplaced pride driving them further into the claws of deceit and moral defeat forever.


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