Genocide survivor’s riveting story; Slurs, repetition mar account

Edmonton Journal (Alberta)
August 2, 2009 Sunday
Final Edition

A genocide survivor’s riveting story; Slurs, repetition mar Armenian

by Holger H. Herwig, Freelance

Grigoris Balakian Translated by Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag
Knopf 509 pp., $42

"Finally, the horrible year of 1915 passed, leaving in its wake
mourning and wailing, blood and tears."

These words, full of pathos and grief, summarize the collected memory
of Grigoris Balakian concerning the Armenian genocide during the
second year of the First World War.

The epicentre of that monstrous affair was Der Zor, a city on the
banks of the Euphrates River surrounded by the vast desert that runs
across southeast Turkey, Mesopotamia and Syria. There, the author
states, lies the true Armenian Golgotha. His figures are
staggering. Of the 1.5 million Armenians deported to Der Zor from the
interior provinces of the Ottoman Empire in the summer and fall of
1915, about 800,000 were massacred, mainly by Turkish mobile killing
squads (chetes), and another 400,000 died en route from disease and
starvation. Of the 400,000 Armenians who reached Der Zor, by August
1916, some 250,000 had fallen victim to starvation and roughly 150,000
had been murdered by roaming chetes; by August 1918, between 400 and
500 of the original deportees were left.

Balakian’s narrative is the story of horrible suffering and tragic

The outbreak of war in September 1914 had caught Balakian in Berlin,
studying theology. He at once decided to return to Constantinople, and
was among a group of about 250 Armenian assemblymen, bankers, doctors,
editors, merchants and teachers arrested by the Ittihad (Committee for
Union and Progress) government of Enver Ismail Pasha, Jemal Pasha and
Mehmet Talaat Pasha on April 24, 1915. What was dubbed the "night of
Gethsemane" is today the date of the worldwide commemoration of the
Armenian genocide.

For the next three years, Balakian was taken on a march of death into
the interior of Turkey: Ekishedir, Chankiri, Kayseri, Hajin and,
finally, Ayran on the Euphrates River. As most of his colleagues fell
victim to starvation and murder, and as dozens of other caravans of
Armenian deportees joined his, Balakian became obsessed with one
thought: to survive to write the "horrific story" of the genocide "so
that future Armenian generations would know the price of the freedom
they enjoyed."

Somewhere on that march he decided on the title, Armenian Golgotha: "I
continually ruminated and mentally recorded everything;I analyzed all
the events and occurrences; I examined them to determine their causes
and reasons."

In September 1918, back in Constantinople with the help of Austrian,
German and Swiss engineers working on the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway,
Balakian began to write. The first volume of his narrative appeared in
Vienna in 1922, the second in Paris in 1959. After a brief stint as
prelate of Manchester, Balakian became bishop of Marseilles, where he
died on Oct. 8, 1934.

The book, newly published in English, is a powerful personal
narrative. The descriptions of the Armenian genocide are striking and
the author spares his readers none of the gruesome details. The
weapons of choice were those of the farmer, butcher and tanner–axes,
sickles, meat cleavers, pitchforks and knives–and the tortures
inflicted were horrendous: beheading, disembowelling, genital
mutilation and eye gouging. Sexual violence was an integral part of
the genocide. Balakian repeatedly provides details of abductions and
gang rapes of women. The book is not for the faint of heart.

But those seeking a scholarly history of the Armenian genocide will be
disappointed. Balakian revels in stereotypes. The Armenians "for
thousands of years" were master craftsmen, architects, merchants,
physicians and scholars. The Turks "in their six-hundred-year history"
were deceitful, duplicitous and perfidious, a people who "left no
trace of memory of civilization except massacre, plunder, forced
Islamization, and abduction." He also writes that the
Germans–diplomats, statesmen and soldiers alike– were more than idle
bystanders of the genocide, they were its willing helpers to realize
their grandiose dream of using the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway to
assault India, the "crown jewel of the British Empire."

Even Balakian’s great hope for restoring the Armenian nation–the
Entente — proved to be a bitter disappointment. When a united Entente
fleet finally anchored off Constantinople in November 1918, its
commanders showed no interest in the Armenian genocide or in Armenian
nationhood, and instead allowed themselves to be bought off by Turkish
bribes and women. "God," in Balakian’s bitter assessment, "remained

The book would have lost none of its impact with careful editing,
removing countless repetitious accounts and phraseology and correcting
the many historical inaccuracies for the non-professional reader. Its
greatest shortcoming, of course, is the lack of source
materials. Throughout, and especially in Chapter 11 of Vol. 1,
Balakian refers to the "Plan for the Extinction of the Armenians in
Turkey," yet he offers no solid evidence for the existence of such a
formal national "plan." Addressing this critical matter in the
introduction would have allowed the book to stand for what it is:a
riveting and powerful indictment of a genocide that became a paradigm
for future genocides, but that remains to be researched in Turkish
archives by Turkish scholars.

Holger H. Herwig is a professor of history at the University of Calgary.
From: Baghdasarian