Demons of the Past: The Armenian Genocide and the Turks

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The month of April marks the 95th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide. An unusual television documentary shows what motivated the murderers and why Germany, and other countries, remained silent.

Photo Gallery: An Atrocity of the Ottoman Empire Photos
AP/ Armenian National Archives

Tigranui Asartyan will be 100 this week. She put away her knives and forks two years ago, when she lost her sense of taste, and last year she stopped wearing glasses, having lost her sight. She lives on the seventh floor of a high-rise building in the Armenian capital Yerevan, and she hasn't left her room in months. She shivers as the cold penetrates the gray wool blanket on her lap. "I'm waiting to die," she says.

Ninety-two years ago, she was waiting in a village in on the Turkish side of today's border, hiding in the cellar of a house. The body of an Armenian boy who had been beaten to death lay on the street. Women were being raped in the house next door, and the eight-year-old girl could hear them screaming. "There are good and bad Turks," she says. The bad Turks beat the boy to death, while the good Turks helped her and her family to flee behind withdrawing Russian troops.

Avadis Demirci, a farmer, is 97. If anyone in his country keeps records on such things, he is probably the last Armenian in Turkey who survived the genocide. Demirci looks out the window at the village of Vakifli, where oleander bushes and tangerine trees are in full bloom. The Mediterranean is visible down the mountain and in the distance.

In July 1915, Turkish police units marched up to the village. "My father strapped me to his back when we fled," says Demirci. "At least that's what my parents told me." Armed with hunting rifles and pistols, the people from his and six other villages dug themselves in on Musa Dagh, or Moses Mountain. Eighteen years later, Austrian writer Franz Werfel described the villagers' armed resistance against the advancing soldiers in his novel "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh."

"The story is true," says Demirci. "I experienced it, even if I am only familiar with it from the stories I was told."

Avoiding the Word

Aside from Werfel's book -- and the view, from the memorial on Zizernakaberd hill near Yerevan, of the eternally snow-capped and eternally inaccessible Mount Ararat -- there are few reminders left of the Armenian genocide as its last few survivors approached death.

Between 1915 and 1918, some 800,000 to 1.5 million people were murdered in what is now eastern Turkey, or died on death marches in the northern Syrian desert. It was one of the first genocides of the 20th century. Other genocides -- against the European Jews, in Cambodia and in Rwanda -- have since taken their place in history between the Armenian genocide and today.

The Armenian people, after suffering partial annihilation, then being scattered around the world and forced back to a country that has remained isolated to this day, have taken decades to come to terms with their own catastrophe. It was only in the 1960s, after a long debate with the leadership in Moscow, that the Armenians dared to erect a memorial.

Turkey, on whose territory the crimes were committed, continues to deny the actions of the Ottoman leadership. Germany, allied with the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and the Soviet Union, well-disposed toward the young Turkish republic, had no interest in publicizing the genocide.

Germany has still not officially recognized the Armenian genocide. In 2005, the German parliament, the Bundestag, called upon Turkey to acknowledge its "historical responsibility," but it avoided using word "genocide."

Because of Ankara's political and strategic importance in the Cold War, its Western allies did not view a debate over the genocide as opportune. And the relative lack of photographic and film material -- compared with the Holocaust and later genocides -- has made it even more difficult to examine and come to terms with the Armenian catastrophe. "The development of modern media," says German documentary filmmaker Eric Friedler ("The Silence of the Quandts"), "arrived 20 years too late for the examination of this genocide."

But there are contemporary witnesses, Germans and Americans, in particular, whose accounts and correspondence are preserved in archives, where they have been studied mainly by specialists until now. This Friday, to mark the 95th anniversary of the genocide, Germany's ARD television network will air the elaborately researched documentary "Aghet" (Armenian for "Catastrophe"), which brings the words of diplomats, engineers and missionaries to life.

An ensemble of 23 German actors narrates the original texts -- not in the style of a docu-drama, which re-enacts the events using semi-fictional dialogue and historic costumers, but in simple interviews that derive their effectiveness from the selection of texts and the presentation rather than a dramatization of history.

First-Hand Documents

The first performer is actor and author Hanns Zischler, who starred in director Wim Wenders' 1976 film "Im Lauf der Zeit" (or "Kings of the Road"). He reads the words of Leslie Davis, who, until 1917, was the US consul in the eastern Anatolian city of Harput, where thousands of Armenians were herded together and sent on a death march toward the southeast. "On Saturday, June 28th," Davis wrote, "it was publicly announced that all Armenians and Syrians [Assyrians of the Armenian Apostolic faith] were to leave after five days. The full meaning of such an order can scarcely be imagined by those who are not familiar with the peculiar conditions of this isolated region. A massacre, however horrible the word may sound, would be humane in comparison with it."

Friedrich von Thun, a film and television actor who appeared in Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List," plays US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau. He describes encounters with Ottoman Interior Minister Talaat Pasha, who, at the beginning of the operation, confronted Morgenthau with the "irrevocable decision" to render the Armenians "harmless."

After the genocide, Talaat summoned the US ambassador again and made a request that Morgenthau said was "perhaps the most astonishing thing I had ever heard." Talaat wanted the lists of Armenian customers of the American insurance companies New York Life Insurance and Equitable Life of New York. The Armenians were now dead and had no heirs, he said, and the government was therefore entitled to their benefits. "Naturally, I turned down his request," Morgenthau wrote.

Actresses Martina Gedeck and Katharina Schüttler recount the memories of two missionary sisters, one Swedish and the other Swiss. Hannah Herzsprung and Ludwig Trepte narrate the experiences of two survivors, and Peter Lohmeyer reads from the diary of German Consul Wilhelm Litten, one of the most shocking documents of the time.

On Jan. 31, 1916, Litten was on the road between Deir al-Zor and Tibni in present-day Syria, where he wrote the following entry into his diary: "One o'clock in the afternoon. On the left side of the road is a young woman, naked, wearing only brown stockings on her feet, her back turned upward and her head buried in her crossed arms. 1:30 p.m. In a ditch on the right side is an old man with a white beard, naked, lying on his back. Two steps away is a boy, naked, back turned upward, his left buttock ripped off."

Equally cold and calculating was the reply of then-Chancellor of the German Reich, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, to the German ambassador's proposal to publicly rebuke Germany's Ottoman allies for the crime. "Our only goal was to keep Turkey on our side until the end of the war, regardless of whether or not Armenians perished."

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1. XX century, the most bloody since the appearance of man1.5 million years ago
Norberto_Tyr 04/09/2010
The XX th century, was the bloodiest since the appearance of man around 1.5 million years ago, and nature had nothing to do, it was man made alone. It is extremely immoral to categorize or rank crime, a genocide is a genocide regardless of the number of people slaughtered, there is not a single privileged point of reference that can be defined in this regard, attempting to do so is repugnant and a crime against the rest of humanity.
2. You ain't seen nuthin' yet!
plotinus 04/09/2010
Zitat von Norberto_TyrThe XX th century, was the bloodiest since the appearance of man around 1.5 million years ago, and nature had nothing to do, it was man made alone. It is extremely immoral to categorize or rank crime, a genocide is a genocide regardless of the number of people slaughtered, there is not a single privileged point of reference that can be defined in this regard, attempting to do so is repugnant and a crime against the rest of humanity.
The present century will make the twentieth seem like a pastoral idyll. .
3. Armenian genocide thesis depends on forgeries, lies, distorted facts
mustafaka 04/11/2010
I The Armenian genocide thesis depends on forgeries, falsified documents and lies. Here are some of them: 1)The number of Armenians who were relocated: The number of the Armenians who were relocated was reported as 600-700 thousand by Bogos Nubar Pasha who attended to the talks of Sevres Treaty as a chief of Armenians; however the number of relocated Armenians is given as 1.5 million by some Armenian sources and 2 and even 2.5 million by some others. However, the total number of Ottoman Armenians including those who live in the West Anatolia (therefore who were not relocated) was reported as 1.5 million in Encyclopedia Britannica’s 1910 edition which was edited by an English editor. It is another striking point that the total number of Ottoman Armenians was increased to 2.5 million in 1953 edition of the same encyclopedia which was edited by an Armenian editor. 2) Aram Andonian’s book (The telegrams which were claimed to have been sent by Talat Pasha to order the massacre of the Armenians which were pressed in the book of Aram Andonian in 1920, in three languages): It was proven by both the Turkish and foreign historians that these telegrams were fake too. After these telegrams were published in Daily Telegraph in England, in 1922, the English Foreign Ministry made a scrutiny and denounced that they were prepared by an Armenian association. 3)Diary of American Ambassador Morgenthau published in 1918. Professor Heath Lowry, an American historian from Princeton University displayed that the events depicted in the book depended on lies or half true events, by comparing the information Ambassador Morgenthau sent to American Foreign Ministry, with those written in the diary, in his book entitled ‘The Story Behind Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story’, in 1990. What’s more, after the Ottoman State was defeated in the 1st World War in 1918, the French and English invaders arrested 144 high level Ottoman veteran or civil officials including the ex-prime ministers, ex-deputies, governors and many newspapermen, and banished them to Malta Island, claiming that they were responsibles for the death of Armenians. The English seized all the Ottoman Archives and also all other archives in other cities, like those in Urfa Governer House. No evidence could be found neither in the Ottoman and English Archives. The Americans, whom the English applied, failed to find any proof in American Archives and reports of American Orthodox church or missioners either. Nor could Damat Ferit Pasha, then the Ottoman Prime Minister who was in absolute collaboration with the English could find any evidence. And, they had to make all these 144 Ottomans free in 1921, since they could not find any proof to be able to verdict them. Can you imagine a genocide planned by a government but no kind of proof can be found, even when the members of this government have been taken prisoners and when all her archieves are under control of the invaders and under the directory of an Armenian official? If The Blue Book, the telegrams of Aram Andonian and the diary of Ambassador Morgenthau (which had already been published at that time) were reliable proofs, why did the English and French invaders and the Americans not accept them to give verdicts of those 144 Ottoman officials? Additionally, during the trial in Berlin of the Armenian assassin Soghomon Tehlirian, who had murdered Talat Pasha in Berlin on March 15th, 1921, none of the Andonian documents was allowed to be entered into the court proceedings as evidence (Dashnakists’ book Justicier du Genocide, 1981, p.213).
4. Armenian genocide thesis depends on forgeries, lies, distorted facts
mustafaka 04/11/2010
II 4)The cover photograph of the book of Tessa Hoffmann: German Greek scholar Tessa Hoffmann printed the painting of Russian artist Vasili Vereshchagin entitled ‘The Apotheosis of the Franco-Prussia War of 1871, depicting a mass of skulls which was probably painted after 1878, as if it were the photograph of 1915 Armenian genocide, in the cover of his book and had to admit his forgery during the trial of Doğu Perinçek held in Switzerland in March 2007, in which she was listened as a wittness. Note that Tessa Hoffman is one of the scholars of genocide of the Armenians. 5) Atatürk’s photograph: The large poster with ‘FACE OF DENIAL-DOES NOT LIE’ related to a conference given by Dr Vahram Shemmasian, Ardashes Kassakhian and Dr Levon Marashlian, at UCLA on April 14, 2005, organized by Armenian Genocide Commemoration Committee of Alpha Epsilon Omega, (http://www.genocideevents.com/cities/losangeles.html. The photo depicts the founder of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk, sitting on a chair outside a house with the corpse of a young girl with her innards exposed to the elements. Soon, the original of this photo was found by the Turks: It was a photograph of Ataturk for his wife Latife Hanım as a souvenir, posing with some ‘cute dog puppies’ at his feet. Two photos were printed in the July 1, 2005 issue of Hurriyet (http://webarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/2005/07/01/665930.asp), as ‘a forgery scandal’. It is another outstanding point that no dissenting comments were ever heard. What UCLA’s ethical committee did was to erase the handwritten note and doctor a photo of Armin Wengler in place of the puppies. 6) Falcified allegations of speeches attributed to Atatürk: The first claim about Atatürk was that he was one of the witnesses, who supported Armenians in the “Court Martials” in İstanbul. In this claim, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was confused with the Chairman of the “Court Martials”, Mustafa Kemal, whose nickname was Nemrud. During the trials in İstanbul, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was in Ankara as a leader of the national struggle. James H. Tashjian, the Armenian editor of the Armenian periodic ‘The Armenian Review’ stated that Mustafa Kemal, then a Pasha, never appeared before such a tribunal, nor did he render such a statement (The Armenian Weekly Boston, Mass, USA, March 20, 1982 and The Armenian Review Volume thirty five, Autumn 1982); however James H. Tashjian was fired from his work later on. The second claim was about the statement, which attributed to Atatürk, given to Los Angeles Examiner in 1926. However, it was proven that this claim, which was made by Armenians in various platforms, was false. There was no evidence that a Swiss journalist, who was called Emile Hilderband, came to Turkey. Moreover, it was not found a journalist named Hilderband in the documents of Swiss authorities. The third claim about Atatürk was put forward in Yeni Binyıl newspaper on 8 October 2000. According to this claim in his speech in Turkish Grand National Assembly, on 24th of April 1920, Atatürk condemned the leaders of Jön Turks for their genocide policies. After the research of the speech records of Turkish Grand National Assembly in both open and secret sessions, it was proven that Mustafa Kemal did not make such speech. One of the last claims about Atatürk was put forward by European Parliament, Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on Turkey on 22nd of November 2001. In the footnote of this report claimed that Mustafa Kemal gave a speech in Turkish Grand National Assembly on 10th of April 1921, in which he said Jön Turk regime followed genocide policy against Armenians in the First World War. After the research of the speech reports of Turkish Grand National Assembly, it was seen that Mustafa Kemal did not speak in Turkish Grand National Assembly in April 1920. He even did not attend any session of Assembly during April 1920.
5. Armenian genocide thesis depends on forgeries, lies, distorted facts
mustafaka 04/11/2010
III 7) A quote attributed to Adolf Hitler in which he purportedly responded to a query about his planned annihilation of European Jewry, by quipping: ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?’, on August 22, 1939, a few days prior to his invasion of Poland (Obersalzberg speeches). Contrary to Richard Hovannisian and other Armenians, the Nuremberg transcripts through their preservation of U.S.-29 (798-PS), U.S.-30 (1014-PS), and the notes of Admiral Boehm (which are corroborated by the relevant passages from the diary of General Halder), in no way authenticate the infamous Hitler quote. On the contrary, by establishing the actual texts of Hitler’s Obersalzberg speeches they demonstrate that the statement is conspicuously absent from Hitler’s remarks. The assertion that Hitler made a reference to the Armenians in any context whatsoever is without foundation. (Heath W Lowry, The U.S. Congress and Adolf Hitler on the Armenians, Political Communication and Persuasion. Vol 3, No 2, 1985 Crane, Russak & Company Inc. http://www.tetedeturc.com/home/spip.php?article565 According to the Armenians the speech had been introduced as evidence to the Nuremberg Tribunal (L3 document, USA-28 document.) which was defined as ‘forgery’ (David Irving, ‘Nuremberg: The Last Battle’, 1996, p.100). A certificate dated, 25 June 1948 signed by Paul A Joosten, General Secretary of the International Military Tribunal states that L3, USA-28 Photostat document submitted as evidence has been withdrawn, in accordance with Rule 10 of the Tribunal but held in the National Archives. Mr Carlos Porter, who found these documents made the following important warning: ‘’Note: This translation attempts to retain the style and punctuation of the original, which is not correct in German: full space before colons and commas, no full space before following word. The document contains not one single sharp S (§ ) a standard letter in the German alphabet. C.Porter.
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