The First World War in 261 weeks

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049 Komitas Vardapet and the caravan of death

Komitas Vardapet

Komitas Vardapet

Ottomans focus their anger at the Armenian people

It is Sunday 30 May 1915. It is the 49th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia are urged on by the British during an amphibious operation which will be known as Townshend’s Regatta.

Eventually Major General Charles Townshend succeeds in conquering the town of Amara on the river Tigris on the Turks without any significant losses. 

The Austrians on the Isonzo front do not bow to Italian bombings and, supported by the Bavarian Alpenkorps, prefer to attack.

Austrian and German troops, united in the Mackensen Army Group, retake Przemyśl.

On the Gallipoli peninsula a trench war develops that is reminiscent of the western front: considerable losses and barely any gain of ground.

The Germans defend their West African colony of Cameroon to the death.

Bari and Brindisi, coastal towns in the heel of of the boot of Italy, are bombarded by the Austrian air force.

The Italian navy in its turn take the Dalmatian coast under fire.

The French succeed in taking trenches at Souchez by surprise during heavy fighting north of Arras, while the British gain ground at Givenchy.

And during their deportations to the east many Armenians collapse, while the most highly-strung among them is driven into a lifelong depression: Komitas Vardapet.

Mass murderers thrive when their deeds are ignored. The following quote from 1939 is attributed to Adolf Hitler: ‘Who is talking about the destruction of the Armenians today?’

Yet no subject from the First World War is so topical as the Armenian Genocide. This has been a raw nerve in Turkey for almost a century. When the new president of the United States, Barack Obama, visited Turkey in April 2009, the world held its breath. Was Obama going to say the G-word in front of the Turkish parliament?

During his election campaign he had made it absolutely clear that he considered the Armenian Genocide a historical fact. But in Ankara Obama avoided the sensitive subject, which the kindly ones interpreted as a wise decision. It would have been stupid of Obama to endanger the careful rapprochement that had been noticeable between the Turkish and Armenian governments recently.

In any case ‘genocide’ is not a concept dating from the First World War. It was not introduced until 1944 by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. He joined the Greek words for ‘people’ and ‘kill’. In 1948 the concept was taken over by the United Nations as those acts that are aimed at ‘the destruction, entirely or partially, of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group of people’.

Since then genocide has been considered the ultimate crime. It is not enough to kill on a large scale at random. It should be supported by a plan. The Holocaust is a very clear example of genocide. During the Wannsee Conference the nazis worked out their Endlösung der Judenfrage meticulously.

Even though there are western scientists who refuse to go any further than mass murder, outside Turkey the Armenian Genocide is widely recognized by historians. To a much lesser extent this holds good for the claims of other ethnic groups that had to tread very carefully in the Ottoman Empire during the Great War, Assyrians, Aramaeans, Kurds and the Pontic Greeks along the Black Sea coast.

It cannot reasonably be denied that hundreds of thousands of Armenians lost their lives during the First World War and the years following. But to start with, there is no agreement about the exact number. In Turkish circles it will hardly ever pass the 500,000 mark. Armenians themselves will rather give an estimate of a million and a half who perished between 1915 and 1923. For a clear understanding, the number of Armenians under Ottoman rule at the time of the First World War is estimated at one and a half to two million people.

More crucial than the matter of numbers is the official point of view of the Turks that ‘the Armenian question’ was part of a civil war, which simply goes hand in hand with famine and outbreaks of diseases. The Armenians were the enemy and in the fight for survival the Ottoman government was obliged to start ‘a relocation’ of the Armenian people. The language here clearly follows ‘the question’. ‘Relocation’ is the Turkish euphemism for ‘deportation’.

Even a delicate soul like Komitas Vardapet had to leave Contantinople, on 24 April 1915, the day that Armenians still remember as the beginning of their tragedy. He had tried to spread the music of his Armenian people in the Ottoman capital. He had started a choir, given presentations and lectures, played the flute and the piano and above all he had sung. Komitas was a baritone but could also reach the range of a tenor. At the Berlin conservatory he was trained to be a musicologist, but he had chosen the Ottoman countryside as his area of work. This is where Komitas had dug up his richly varied treasure of folklore music, which he had polished in mellifluous arrangements, even before Bela Bartok would do the same with the folklore music of Eastern Europe.

Komitas was born as Soghomon Soghomonyan in 1861 in a family of Armenian origin that only speaks Turkish. His father is a cobbler, his mother a carpet weaver. Both parents will die young, after which Soghomon, their only child, is raised by his grandmother. It is a bleak childhood. For nights on end he has to sleep on the cold stone floor of the laundry room. But Soghomon could sing like a nightingale.

As an orphan he is selected to go to an Armenian Apostolic seminary. When he is introduced to the bishop, he says: ‘I do not speak Armenian, but if you wish I can sing it.’ In 1890 he is ordained as a monk. Three years later he becomes a priest, a ‘vardapet’. The name Komitas which he adopts, refers to a seventh century poet of hymns.

The Christian culture is deeply anchored within the Armenian people. In the year 301 an Armenian king was the first authority who turned Christianity into a state religion. The Armenian Apostolic community has not been dependent of a higher ecclesiastical authority for fifteen centuries either. The Armenian culture also has its own unique script.

The Armenia which detached itself from the Soviet Union in 1991 is only part of the old home country: the mountain areas in the southern Caucasus and the east of Anatolia. But over the centuries  Armenians had also settled in the Turkish towns, where, together with the Greeks and the Jews, they had begun to dominate business life.

In the nineteenth century there also developed a desire for independence among Armenians within the Ottoman Empire. The Bulgarians that had severed the ties with the Ottomans in 1878 were a shining example. Radicals were prepared to enforce an Armenian state using violence, but Sultan Abdul Hamid II firmly started to reduce all the efforts to naught. The years 1894 to 1896 showed massacres and pogroms among the Armenians. In the country the dirty work was frequently left to Kurds, another Ottoman minority with whom the Armenians had been at war for ages.

When in the years preceding the Great War the new rulers, the Young Turks, want to roll out the pan-Turkish ideal throughout Asia, they consider the Christian mountain people of the Armenians an annoying obstacle. Tension rises after the outbreak of the First World War when Armenian volunteers appear to enlist in the Russian army.

There is also talk of Armenian rebels that operate in the Ottoman hinterland, though apparently they have only become really active after the massacres. It is one of the main issues: was Armenian rebellion a cause of Ottoman repression or a reaction to it?

It is certainly true that in the first year of the war around a hundred thousand Armenians loyally followed the call to enlist in the Ottoman army. After the three Pashas have decided to deal with the fifth column of Armenians, it is they who will be first to get rid of.

The fateful Battle of Sarikamish around the turn of the first year in the war is the beginning of the hunt for the Armenians. Constantinople is convinced that they are bound to have helped the Russians put the Ottoman troops to the sword in the icy sub-zero weather of the Caucasus.

The resentment is first aimed at the Armenian men, inside and outside the Ottoman army. They are disarmed, killed or worked to death. After that the less resilient part of the Armenian people is forced to leave hearth and home. Camps in the north of Mesopotamia are the destination, but many will never get there. On the gruelling journey there an untold number of Armenians fall victim to sickness, exhaustion or famine. Robbers, rapists and murderers have free reign along the route.

Should this be called genocide? The answer of historian David Stevenson is as follows: ‘Who took the decision and why remains uncertain, and the relevant documents have been destroyed or withheld. In particular, it is unclear whether a security operation to protect the Caucasus border escalated because of Armenian resistance and the Special Organization’s indiscipline, or whether the aim from the start was to wipe the Armenians out.’

The world is too busy with the developments on the front, but the Armenian fate has not gone completely unnoticed. The German consul Johannes Lepsius tries to make his government fully aware of the tragedy the Ottomans have on their conscience. It is in vain. Berlin cannot afford to put the relationship with its ally at risk.

The American ambassador Henry Morgenthau is another voice crying in the wilderness. The following quote is from one of his reports: ‘When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.’

What did Komitas Vardapet’s eyes see in the few weeks before he was allowed to return to Constantinople and leave the caravan of death, under pressure of friendly Turkish intellectuals and the outside world? Black-and-white photos show us the naked bodies of men, women and children, left discarded by the side of the road. Did Komitas see this in bright colours? And did these pictures from hell drive him to insanity for the rest of his life? Or is it true what can be heard on the Turkish side: Komitas Vardapet already showed signs of schizophrenia before the war.

In the autumn of 1916 Komitas ends up in a Turkish military hospital. When the war is over, he is lured to a psychiatric clinic in Paris in 1919 under false pretences. They are years of infinite fears and isolation, of prolonged silence and crying of pain. In room 3 of the Villejuif Hospital he gets older and greyer, and finally dies in 1935, as an icon of Armenian suffering, which is also reflected in the Hymn of the Kiss of Peace that Komitas Vardapet composed.

Next week: Nicholas Nikolaevich

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