Haunted by the Horrors of Armenia

Still from “Intent to Destroy”.

Joe Berlinger’s reputation rests on a number of documentaries about the injustices of the judicial system including a trilogy about the trial and imprisonment of three teens in West Memphis, Arkansas falsely accused of taking part in a Satanic ritual murder of three 8-year old boys. Next came “Crude”, a film about the struggle of indigenous peoples in Ecuador to make Chevron pay for the massive despoliation of their land and water. It should not come as a big surprise that an American judge declared Chevron innocent of all charges.

His most recent film opens on November 10th at the Village East in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. Titled “Intent to Destroy”, it is an examination of the Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 and 1916 and that left just under 300,000 survivors out of a population of 1,700,000 in the Anatolian heartland of the Ottoman Empire. As opposed to the Nuremberg trials that punished the Nazis and the allied powers insistence that reparations be paid to Israel, the Armenians were left with nothing. This is a sorry confirmation of the historical law that victorious nations never have to pay for their crimes. Despite being on the losing side in WWI, the Turks found themselves in the envious position of being a geopolitical asset in the hands of the West for quarantining the USSR and as a launching pad for Middle East incursions. Even Israel found Turkey to be a convenient ally. When a bill was introduced to congress some years ago condemning Turkey for genocide, Abraham Foxman opined, “I don’t think a bill in Congress will help reconcile this issue.”

Berlinger’s film is a collage of different elements that serve to introduce the audience to the events that took place just over a century ago. To start with, it is like one of those “Making of” films you can so often on HBO about some Hollywood blockbuster. In this instance, it was not much of a blockbuster either in terms of critical reaction or box office but in my view an important and dramatically powerful narrative film titled “The Promise” that I reviewed for CounterPunch in April.

As “Intent to Destroy” begins, we see a group of a dozen or so actors doing a reading of the script for “The Promise” that was co-written by Terry George, the film’s director, and Robin Swicord. Among them is Eric Bogosian, who is best known for his performance pieces in Soho in the 80s and 90s. Like practically all Armenians in the diaspora, he is haunted by the horrors even as he enjoyed a successful career as an artist. Another such Armenian was the fabulously wealthy investor Kirk Kerkorian who financed “The Promise”.

Berlinger follows Terry George’s crew as it gets set up in Spain for filming. A good half of the documentary showing him directing actors and extras in various scenes of chilling massacres. Not only was Turkey out of the question as a locale for shooting, George had to contend with the massive propaganda machine directed from Ankara that is always poised to discredit and even squelch pro-Armenian films.

After having learned much more about Armenian history after reading Ronald Grigor Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else: a History of the Armenian Genocide” in conjunction with this review, I can better appreciate the fealty of George’s script to actual events, including a climactic 40-day battle between a lightly armed Armenian militia on top of a mountain and the Ottoman military trying to annihilate it and the civilians under its protection until they were rescued by a French warship.

That battle, which took place in Musa Dagh in 1915, was fictionalized in Franz Werfel’s 1933 novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh that became a runaway bestseller and focused attention on Turkey’s crimes. Werfel, a Jew, not only hoped to educate the world about those events, but to implicitly warn about the rise of Nazism that he saw as a threat to his own people. After fleeing France in 1940 after the German invasion, Werfel ended up in Los Angeles and became part of the expatriate community that included Thomas Mann and Max Reinhardt.

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of Werfel’s novel, MGM secured the film rights and began pre-production work in 1934. When Munir Ertegun, Turkey’s ambassador to the USA, got wind of this, he was told by Mustafa Kemal to nip the film in the bud. The ambassador was the father of Ahmet Ertegun, the long-time president of Atlantic records who signed Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones and other top artists. In a Huffington Post article dated December 27, 2006 written by Harut Sassounian, a major Armenian leader who administered Kirk Kerkorian’s philanthropic foundation, we learn that Sassounian met with Ahmet Ertegun and was surprised to discover that he was opposed to Armenian genocide denials, blaming “Turk ghafali” (the stubborn Turk mentality) for the country’s refusal to come clean.

I saw “Turk ghafali” myself firsthand when I visited Istanbul for the first time in 2003. My father-in-law, who had been a pilot in the Turkish air force, gesticulated at the television that was featuring some ancient film footage that supposedly proved that the Young Turks were trying to save the nation from Armenian terrorists. Maybe that’s the reason I have trouble with Assad’s defenders today. There’s no better way to rationalize mass murder than to blame the victims for being the criminals. The Turks, the Baathists and the Zionists are all past masters.

Munir Ertegun was successful. MGM backed down. After several more abortive attempts to make the film, including one “successful” version in 1982 that was underfunded and did not do justice to Werfel’s novel, Mel Gibson got the idea to make his own film in 2009 but was convinced to drop the project after getting 3,000 angry emails from a Turkish pressure group. In this instance it was probably just as well.

This is not the only excursion that “Intent to Destroy” makes into the tortured history of film and genocide denial. We also hear from Atom Egoyan, the director of “Ararat”, a 2002 film about the defense of the city of Van from Turkish onslaught. Unlike Musa Dagh, the results were disastrous. When the Turks learned about Egoyan’s intention to make such a film, the pressure was turned on. He describes a meeting with a Turkish diplomatic official in Canada, who made a veiled threat that Armenians would pay for their lives if the film was made.

“Intent to Destroy” benefits from the inclusion of a number of Armenian and Turkish scholars who are determined to make Turkey accept responsibility for its historic injustices. One of the most jarring moments in the film was hearing from Justin McCarthy, a U. of Louisville professor and genocide denialist. McCarthy argues that there was mass killing on all sides during WWI, both Turk and Armenians, who—after all—were allied with the Russians. What this argument elides, however, is the distinction between armed combatants and civilians, especially the women and children who were either killed outright by Turkish cops and soldiers or who died from starvation or disease on the “trail of tears” to Syria. Like the Cherokees, the Syrians were forced to march hundreds of miles through the desert, a trek that was almost as deadly as a Dachau gas chamber.

Most importantly, McCarthy fails to point out that the overwhelming majority of Armenians were loyal citizens of the Ottoman Empire who wanted nothing more than to live in peace with their Muslim neighbors. There certainly were Armenian terrorists, who were the equivalent of the Russian narodniks ideologically, as well as revolutionary socialists but as is so often the case lacking in mass support.

Given the Ottoman Empire’s character as a reasonably tolerant entity, noted in scholarly works like Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, what caused the genocide? This is explained by the historians in “Intent to Destroy” as well as any 115 minute film can but for the comprehensive answer, I would regard Ronald Grigor Suny’s They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else as definitive.

In an interview with the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburgh, Suny was asked about his evolution as a historian. His reply contained this statement: “I came from the left and I was interested in Marxism, socialism, the working class, and revolutionary movement.” Given his Armenian background, it was natural that his scholarship in Russian history would be based on a rejection of the Great Russian chauvinism Lenin warned against. Naturally, his work on Georgia, a prime target of Stalin’s bureaucratic abuses, led the Soviet intelligentsia to attack him. This led to Suny telling the interviewer: “So in America I was attacked for being a Marxist and here I was attacked as the bourgeois falsifier of history.” I certainly can empathize.

Given his early Marxist leanings, it was logical for Suny to foreground economic questions in his study. As is the case in Syria and many other countries today, sectarian violence can be explained by underlying class conflicts.

In a section of chapter two titled “Armenians”, Suny maps out the “uneven reach of capitalism” in the Ottoman Empire that will help you to understand the impending catastrophe. As commodity production and exchange took root in an essentially precapitalist world, it was the non-Muslims who grew rich while the Muslim officialdom, reliant on dwindling state revenues, grew poor. This was ultimately the cause of the hatred directed against the Greeks who lived along the west coast bordering the Aegean sea and the Armenians who lived there and in the mountainous east as well. As was the case with Jews in other countries (and also a cause of resentment), the non-Muslims in Ottoman society tended to live in urban areas and had longstanding ties to the outside world that benefited those operating in trade, commerce and manufacturing.

To give you an idea of the social weight of non-Muslims, in 1900 they comprised 55.9 percent of Istanbul and 61.5 percent of Izmir (called Smyrna by the Greeks and referred to as “infidel Izmir” by the Turks). In terms of their economic weight, Suny provides the details: “By the turn of the century only eleven of the forty-two printing plants in the empire were owned by Muslims and twenty-six by non-Muslims; of metal-working plants twenty were owned by non-Muslims, only one by a Muslim; of the famous Bursa raw silk manufactories, six were owned by Muslims, two by the government, and thirty-three by non-Muslims. At the top economic pyramid in the early twentieth century Europeans occupied the most lucrative posts. Besides industrial ownership, Armenians and Greeks held important positions as managers and salaried employees in Western-financed companies, in mining and especially on the railroads. The Anatolian railroad was largely financed and managed by Germans, but middle-rank positions were held, half by Europeans, half by Ottoman Greeks and Armenians.”

If Muslims were suffering economic decline internally because of expanding capitalist property relations, it was inevitable that the same process would be undermining the foundations of an empire reliant mostly on military rather than economic prowess.

A series of wars in eastern Europe turned out disastrously for the Ottoman Empire in places like Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. Once the imperial forces were defeated, ethnic cleansing of Turks took place that men like Justin McCarthy viewed as balancing out the Armenian genocide. As brutal as they were (and likely included the ancestors of my in-laws who were named after a Macedonian city), they did not involve systematic extermination. The Turks who were ethnically cleansed from such places did, however, end up in eastern Anatolia where they ended up harboring resentments against the Christian Armenians.

Between 1894 and 1896, there was a dress rehearsal for the 1915-16 genocide known as the Hamidian Massacres, with casualties estimated as large as 300,000. Depleted state treasuries were to be refreshed by steep taxes imposed on rural Armenians who generally lacked the class status of their urban counterparts and had to pay cash and in-kind tribute to Kurdish landlords and bandits. As it happens, the Kurds were the leading edge of repression against the Armenians in eastern Anatolia during the Hamidian Massacres and the 1915-16 genocide. To the credit of the PKK, the Kurdish party whose followers are building an anarchist-inspired enclave in Syria, their leadership acknowledged its criminal past in 1997. Zubeyir Aydar, a PKK leader, issued a statement that contained these words: “Today is the 82nd anniversary of the genocide committed against the Assyrian-Syriac and Armenian peoples. Sharing the agony caused by this process, I find the Ottoman State and their collaborators the Hamidiye Alaylari, formed by some Kurdish tribes, responsible for this crime before history and I condemn them with abhorrence.”

I urge CounterPunch readers to see “Intent to Destroy” in New York or Los Angeles. Joe Berlinger is a very fine filmmaker and understands the importance of story-telling for a documentary, just as much as is the case with narrative films. As the contradictions of world capitalism continue to mount, reactionary nationalism will find fertile soil. Despite the noble intentions of the Young Turks, who were embraced by democratic-minded Armenian intellectuals during their early period, the commitment to creating an exclusivist religious-ethnic state has made the creation of a modern, democratic state in Turkey nearly impossible. The Armenians were exterminated in 1915-1916 and the Greeks were ethnically cleansed in 1923. Today, it is the Kurds who the targets of the Turkish army, even as they are defending the cities and villages they stole from Armenians just over a century ago.

The costs of sectarian warfare were steep a century ago and far steeper today. Creating states based on a common language, faith and ethnicity was a dead end during the classic period of bourgeois revolutions. As capitalism continues to decay, the tendency to impose standards of racial purity will only grow as should be obvious from the Christian hatred of Muslim refugees in Europe and elsewhere demonstrates.

Ronald Grigor Suny, whose great-grandparents were among those massacred, concludes his book with a chapter titled “Thinking about the Unthinkable: Genocide” that makes an eloquent plea for a universal understanding of and support for the Armenian cause in the final paragraph:

The Armenian Genocide, along with the killing of Assyrians and the  expulsion of the Anatolian Greeks, laid the ground for the more homogeneous nation-state that arose from the ashes of the empire. Like many other states, including Australia, Israel, and the United States, the emergence of the Republic of Turkey involved the removal and subordination of native  peoples who had lived on its territory prior to its founding. The connection between ethnic cleansing or genocide and the legitimacy of the national state underlies the desperate efforts to deny or distort the history  of the nation and the state’s genesis. Coming to terms with that history,  on the other hand, can have the salutary effect of questioning continued policies of ethnic homogenization and the refusal to recognize the claims  and rights of those peoples, minorities, or diasporas—Aborigines, native Americans, Kurds, Palestinians, Assyrians, or Armenians—who refuse to  disappear.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.