Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Armenian Golgotha
Reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf

Armenian Golgotha: 
A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915–1918

by Grigoris Balakian 
Translated by Peter Balakian with Aris Sevag
Knopf, 2009

Armenians in a Deportation Column, Starting Out

The author of Armenian Golgotha, Grigoris Balakian, was born in the north-central highlands of Turkey, about 75 miles from the Black Sea, into a very well educated family actively seeking reforms for the treatment of minorities in the Ottoman Empire. Originally, after graduating from the Sanassarian Academy, Balakian attempted to follow a career in engineering by attending Mittweida University in Saxony, Germany. However, after a year he felt compelled to return to Turkey and become a priest (1901) in the Armenian Apostolic Church. Here he had a meteoric career, rising to very influential positions where he furthered the goal of achieving better rights for Armenians on the international level as well as within the empire. In 1914, when the Great War started, he was in Berlin studying theology. It is at this point that Balakian's memoir begins.

Although brief, the opening chapters present a very clear picture of German reaction to the war's start as well as the author's own confidence that Germany would triumph over its enemies. Those reactions, which he was sure would translate to the peoples of the Ottoman Empire because of the close political relations, were his rationale for making an immediate return to Turkey. When he arrived in Constantinople he found that the opposite was true. Although the ethnic Turks were ready to go to war on the German side, the Armenians seemed to be backing the Allied nations through tacit remarks, attitudes, and demeanors. When Turkey entered the war as Germany's ally, the innuendos were translated into audible words. At one point, the author noted that one could see the Armenians' opinions of who should win the war—when the Germans won a victory they seemed to be sad but when the Russians won, there was rejoicing in the streets.

But these views did not translate to the church or politicians who adamantly supported the government headed by the triumvirate of Enver Pasha, Mehmed Talaat, and Ahmed Jemal. Armenian parliamentary representatives and the hierarchy of the church went to great lengths to assure the government of the Armenians' loyalty to their cause in national language newspapers and from the pulpit. But there were doubts, especially when Armenian volunteer units were found fighting for the Russians in the Caucasus.

The hammer fell on April 1915 after a series of military losses in the Caucasus when Mehmed Talaat ordered the arrest of the Armenian intelligentsia of Constantinople. Balakian was among that group. Talaat cited two reasons for the arrests: first to stymie any thought of dissent that might lead to a revolt by the Armenians and, second, to protect the Armenians from the wrath of the Moslems who had been called to a holy war against non-believers. The author and 250 compatriots, noted authors, statesmen, scientists, and scholars, were transported by various means into the interior and some of the most desolate spots in the empire.

They were held in dilapidated facilities and reduced to starvation rations. After a few days, the killing began. Balakian describes in minute detail how Turkish officials received orders to transport this or that person to another location. Sometimes the person would be taken off individually, under guard, or a group or ten or 20 would be put together and marched off. The outcome was always the same. Somewhere, far enough away not to be seen, the individual or group, after the guards had disappeared, were set upon by mobs of Turks led by bandits fomented with religious zeal. Balakian, gleaning the information from Turkish officials who watched or participated in the attacks, reports the rampages in more detail than some readers may want. At times his descriptions are extremely vivid.

This ordeal of culling the Constantinople group continued through 1915 and into 1916. The author managed to survive through the kindness of the very officials who were his keepers and the executioners and local inhabitants who were opposed to the slaughter. Balakian recorded the names of those who were killed, their murderers' names when known, and the ordeals of being moved from place to place. He also recorded narrations, which amount to confessions, by Turkish officials who describe how provincial Armenians were killed whether in a mob frenzy or through starvation and dehydration in desert marches. At one point the author states by 1 January 1916 "of the 2.5 million Armenians in Turkey, only a few hundred thousand were left" (page 120).

Deportation Column, Thinned Out

Finally, Balakian, after nearly a year in captivity, decided to make an escape—and what an escape. He masqueraded as a railway worker and a German engineer and soldier (German companies were still constructing the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway despite the war). There were times when he was nearly found out, but, at the last minute, a benevolent person shielded him. Eventually he managed to get back to Constantinople, where he hid out until the end of the war.

Armenian Golgotha first appeared in 1921 in Armenian and caused quite a stir. By the 1930s, it was a standard reference work for other books about the genocide of the Armenians. The English translation was well received. Its value to a student of the Ottoman Empire's inner workings is immeasurable, as are the conclusions one can draw from it regarding conflict among religious groups in the Middle East.

Michael P. Kihntopf