Book Review: Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian

Given recent history, it would seem the term “ethnic cleansing” is of late 20th Century origin. Armenian Golgotha, Grigoris Balakian’s firsthand account of the Armenian genocide during World War I, disabuses any such notion. Balakian, an Armenian priest, notes several times that the Ottoman Empire embarked on an intentional campaign to “cleanse” itself of Armenians.

Even though this coming weekend marks the 95th anniversary of the beginning of this particular persecution of Armenians, whether to call what happened genocide or something else continues to be debated today. Given that Balakian relates the history from the perspective of someone persecuted by the Turks during that war, his book likely remains controversial today, more than 80 years after the first volume of it was first published.

Balakian was one of some 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders arrested by government order in Constantinople on April 24, 1915, the event commonly viewed as the beginning of the campaign against Armenians in Turkey. Calling what ensued “cleansing” is perhaps the least blunt description used in his memoir. Perhaps that is because Balakian attributes its use to a police captain who escorted him during part of his trip into exile. According to Balakian, “the Turks always used this term, especially the government officials, when referring to the massacre of Armenians.”

Massacre is a term used far more often as Armenian Golgotha struggles to describe both Balakian’s personal experiences and what was happening overall. He frequently says the Ottoman Empire’s actions were a deliberate plan to “annihilate” or “to completely exterminate the Armenian race.” First published in 1922, Armenian Golgotha was, sadly, a preview of what the world would become all too familiar with later in the 20th Century, whether the Holocaust in World War II or the “ethnic cleansing” that occurred in Europe, Asia and Africa later in the century. Yet Balakian never uses the term genocide. There’s good reason — it was not coined until 1943.

Balakian’s tale of survival combines both abject misery on the road of exile and an escape and years-long evasion that could form the basis of several adventure stories. But rather than being simply history or memoir, Armenian Golgotha clearly was intended to bear witness to the genocide, its victims, its villains and its heroes. Thus, Balakian frequently lists or comments on people whose memory he seeks to preserve. That tendency, combined with an at times prolix and effusive style, sets the book off from most modern works of history or memoirs. In addition, there are lengthy quotations from conversations that occurred several years before the book was first published. Still, this doesn’t undercut the book’s aim.

Armenian Golgotha is actually a combination of two separate volumes written by Balakian after the war. The first, called “The Life of an Exile” in the book, was the work published in Armenian in 1922 and covers Balakian’s life from the beginning of the war through his journey from Constantinople toward Der Zor, an outpost in today’s Syria abutting a vast desert where thousands of Armenians died. The second volume, “The Life of a Fugitive,” details his escape and two years of disguises, false identities and struggles in an often harrowing effort to return to Constantinople. It was not published until 1959, some 25 years after his death, when it was discovered among his sister’s papers when she died. With the assistance of a variety of people, American poet and author Peter Balakian began translating the work into English in 1999, a process that culminated in the book’s publication in the U.S. in 2009. The book was released in trade paper last month.

Balakian’s story relates the stories of massacre upon massacre on the forced marches to exile, the road to the Armenian Golgotha as he terms it. In addition to outright murder, thousands would die along the way or in overcrowded, filthy camps whose conditions Balakian says the Turks created in the hope of starting epidemics. The numbers Armenian Golgotha propounds are horrendous. Of the more than 1.5 million Armenians deported during the summer and fall of 1915, Balakian says some 800,000 were massacred on the way to Der Zor while another 400,000 died of hunger and starvation. Of those who did reach the deserts of Der Zor, some 250,000 died of starvation from August 1915 to August 1916. In the late summer of 1916, most of the remainder were massacred, leaving roughly 5,000 survivors out of the deportees, a number Balakian says disease and hunger reduced to only 400-500 by the summer of 1918.

“In reality,” Balakian writes, “deport was synonymous with murder.” In fact, “the life an Armenian was worth less than that of a chick or chicken.”

The effects of these events on individuals is seen even in Balakian. Although he credits his survival to his faith, there are times it appears even that comes into question. At one point, rather than pointing to prayer, he observes that “believing that wishing for something could make it happen, I used to repeat over and over to those around me, ‘I have decided not to die.'” And the seemingly endless horror and atrocities leads him to conclude later that “we’d been abandoned by both God and mankind; our only salvation was the grave, but we couldn’t even count on that.”

Balakian’s perspective is unique in other respects. Fluent in Armenian, Turkish and German, he was able to speak directly with individuals who experienced or observed the events from a wide variety of standpoints. In addition, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to Austria-Hungary throne, was assassinated in 1914 and war was subsequently declared, Balakian was studying in Berlin and provides firsthand accounts of events there. And on November 13, 1918, he saw 44 warships of the Entente fleet steam past Constantinople into the Bosphorus.

In addition to the extreme and excruciating events during the war, Balakian also recognizes an outcome that, while not physically painful or fatal, was at least as damaging and deadly for Armenians as a whole. He repeatedly comments that the deaths of the Armenian “martyrs” and one of the hopes that kept survivors going was that in pursuit of an independent Armenian nation once the war was over. Yet that dream was little more than false hope based on a belief the Entente powers were fighting for “rights and justice” and on misleading promises. “After the Armistice, all such promises would soon be forgotten, as each victorious power aimed first to secure the lion’s share of territory for itself,” Balakian writes. “An oil field would prove much more valuable than the fate of a small and weak Christian people.” Thus, although an independent Armenian republic was proclaimed, in late 1920 it was invaded and subsumed by Turkey and the Soviet Union, giving pause to whether the suffering of the Armenians was meaningless.

Those who deny or dispute whether the Ottoman Empire embarked on a genocidal campaign against the Armenians will, of course, find Armenian Golgotha biased and one-sided. Others will find it an excruciating firsthand account of ethnic torment. But the somewhat surprising fact that the Armenian genocide continues to cause debate nearly a century later doesn’t detract from the fact Balakian accomplished his main goal — to commemorate the events of 1914-1918 and the people caught up in them.

To die in spring is to die twice.

Grigoris Balakian, Armenian Golgotha

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