Recently, I was privileged to receive an advance copy of the first time English translation, released today, of Grigoris Balakian’s epic personal memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918, “Hai Koghkotan,” “The Armenian Golgotha,” originally published in Vienna, in 1922. The 1922 volume 1, and the second volume (which apparently “fell into a void for lack of funding,” was found among Grogoris Balakian’s sister Rosa Antreassian’s post-humous papers in 1956, and published in Paris in 1959) are presented in a very accessible, elegant English translation by Grigoris Balakian’s grandnephew, Professor Peter Balakian—an accomplished scholar of the Armenian Genocide himself—with the able assistance of two colleagues, Anahid Yeremian, and Aris Sevag.
Modern genocide historians who have been wont to re-examine the disintegrating Ottoman Empire’s World War I jihad genocide against its Armenian minority through the prism of The Holocaust, often cite a comment by Hitler that the mass killings of the Armenians served the Nazi leaders as an “inspirational” precedent for predictable impunity. During August of 1939, Hitler gave speeches in preparation for the looming invasion of Poland which admonished his military commanders to wage a brutal, merciless campaign, and assure rapid victory. Hitler portrayed the impending invasion as the initial step of a vision to “secure the living space we need,” and ultimately, “redistribute the world.” In an explicit reference to the Armenians, “Who after all is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?,” Hitler justified their annihilation (and the world’s consignment of this genocide to oblivion) as an accepted new world order because, “The world believes only in success.”
Grigoris Balakian’s eyewitness account of events from 1915-1918—recorded in his diaries during World War I, and already published by 1922—provide a unique, independent confirmation of this ideological, and genocidal nexus, and antedate The Holocaust by two decades. Specifically, Balakian’s striking observations (on pp. 280-281) from a chapter entitled, “The Treatment of the Armenians by the German Soldiers” captures attitudes of German military officers towards the Armenians that foreshadow, chillingly, the genocidal depredations they would inflict upon European Jewry during World War II.
The German officers on their way to Palestine and the Mesopotamian front had no choice but to pass before the Bagche [Asia Minor] station [train]. All of them used offensive language with regard to the Armenians. They considered us to be engaging in intrigue, ready to strike the Turkish army from the rear, and thus traitors to the fatherland…deserving of all manner of punishment.
Although most of the Armenians living in Turkey had been deported, scattered, and martyred in the spring of 1915, a few hundred thousand survivors still perishing in the deserts to the south—wasting away to nothing. Nevertheless the German officers’ Armenophobic fury continued, and not a word of compassion was heard from their lips. On the contrary, they justified the Ittihad government, saying, “You Armenians deserve your punishment. Any state would have punished rebellious subjects who took up arms to realize national hopes by the destruction of the country.”
When we objected, asking if other states would dare to massacre women and children, along with men, and annihilate an entire race on account of a few guilty people, they replied: “Yes, it’s true that the punishment was a bit severe, but you must realize that during such chaotic and frightful days of war as these, it was difficult to find the time and means to separate the guilty from the innocent.” This was also the merciless answer of the chief executioners—Talaat, Enver, Behaeddin Shakir, Nazim—and their Ittihad camarilla.
The German officers pretended ignorance of the widespread slaughter of more than a million innocent Armenians, irrespective of sex and age, and referred only to deaths by starvation and the adversities of travel during the deportations. Thus they exonerated the Turkish government, saying that its inability to provide for hundreds of thousands of deportees in a disorganized land like Asia Minor was not surprising. Meanwhile Turkish government officials prevented the starving refugees from receiving bread distributed by the Austrians and Swiss, stating, “Orders have come from Constantinople not to give any assistance. We cannot allow either bread or medicine to be given. The supreme order is to annihilate this evil race. How dare you rescue them from death?” The German officers would often speak of us as Christian Jews and as blood sucking usurers of the Turkish people.
What a falsification of the wretched realities prevailing in Asia Minor, and what a reversal of roles! Yes indeed, there was an oppressor. Either the Germans were consciously distorting the facts and roles, or the Turks had really convinced them that the Turks were the victims and the Armenians were criminals. How appropriate it is to recall here this pair of Turkish sayings: “The clever thief has the master of the house hanged” and “The one who steals the minaret prepares its sheath in advance, of course.”
Many German officers had no qualms about turning over to the Turkish authorities Armenian youths who had sought refuge with them; they knew full well that they were delivering them to their executioners. If an Armenian merely spoke negatively about a German—be he the emperor or [Baron] von der Goltz Pasha [a German military aide to the Ottoman Empire], or the average German—or dared to criticize German indifference toward the Armenian massacres, he was immediately arrested and turned over to the nearest Turkish military or police authority. And if the Germans found a certain Armenian particularly irritating, they pinned the label of spy on him.
Mistaking me for an Austrian, a few German officers boasted of having turned over several Armenians to the Turkish police, adding with a laugh, “Only the Turks know how to talk to the Armenians.”
The career trajectory and personal attitudes of Wilhelm Hintersatz (born 1886; died 1963) epitomize these genocidal connections. Hintersatz achieved the rank of colonel serving the Kaiser’s Austrian armed forces in Turkey, during World War I, where he became an assistant to Enver Pasha—one of the ruling Ittihad (Young Turk) triumvirate architects of the Armenian Genocide—and converted to Islam, assuming the name Harun-el-Raschid Bey. During World War II, he joined the Waffen SS as Standartenfuhrer (Colonel) of a unit that merged Waffen groups operating in the Ural Mountains, and Central Asia, from 1944-1945. As described by Professor Kurt Tauber in his meticulously documented two volume tome (published in 1967) on the post World War II era phenomenon of residual anti-democratic German nationalism, Beyond Eagle and Swastika, Wilhelm Harun-el-Raschid Bey wrote Aus Orient und Occident; ein Mosaik aus buntem Erleben [From the Orient and the Occident: A Mosaic of Varicolored Experiences], ostensibly “…about his personal experiences and travels, interlarded with his reflections,” which was published in 1954. However, as Tauber observes, cleverly avoiding strict German laws against the publication of overtly Antisemitic writings which were stringently applied during the early post World War II period, Harun-el-Raschid Bey concealed his Jew-hatred behind a “folkish” façade.
Yet, in doing so he presented a clear and penetrant racist orientation, masquerading as lighthearted story telling and simple good fun. Some of the descriptions of people and events have an almost Stürmer-like quality, including even the attempted seduction by a Russian Jewess!
Wilhelm Harun-el-Raschid Bey represents the apotheosis of two conjoined genocidal 20th century ideologies—jihadism, and ethno-nationalism. And as a true believer in both, he remained seemingly unrepentant even in the aftermath of the genocidal killings these hatemongering ideologies provoked.