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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

017 Käthe Kollwitz and the gravity of the war cemetery

Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz

Parental grief over dying young

It is Sunday 18 October 1914. It is the 17th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

German admiral Maximilian von Spee heads for Chile with his Atlantic fleet.

The Austrians attempt in vain to cross the river San.

The Germans have to flee from Warsaw and are pushed back by the Russians.

A fierce battle is fought around the medieval town of Ypres in the Flemish Westhoek.

For the first time a merchant ship is sunk by a submarine, but the German U-19 allows the crew of the British SS Glitra to abandon ship safely.

British intellectuals strike back in The Times at the Manifesto which was published a fortnight earlier by 93 German scientists, artists and writers in defence of their government and its soldiers.

Boer leaders Christiaan Beyers and Christiaan de Wet openly rebel against the South-African government.

Sir Charles Dobell starts an expedition in the west of Africa, aimed at conquering the German colony of Cameroon.

And at the Yser front young Peter Kollwitz is killed, to the lifelong grief of his mother, the artist Käthe Kollwitz.

Whoever roams the battlefields of the Great War almost a century afterwards, should search for scars in the landscape. A crater, too round in shape, may betray the past, or else a concrete bunker, which stubbornly continues its battle with the weeds. For the rest farmers, town planners, road builders and last but not least mother nature have put the conflict aside. Does that make the landscape guilty? Such is in any case the poetic meditation of the Dutch artist Armando.

Yet the war is inescapable in northern France, the Flemish Westhoek or the Yser area because of the many memorials, bombastic, serene or insignificant. But especially because of the almost endless rows of graves, spread across hundreds of killing fields, big ones and small ones.

On one graveyard the tombstones are exposed to the wind. On another the young lives lie under a roof of foliage. Vladslo, which is not far from Diksmuide, is such a leavy spot. There is a German war cemetery on the edge of the Praetbos forest (literally ‘talking wood’), a somewhat cynical name probably from before the war. Over 25,000 young Germans laid to rest here certainly do not talk.

Peter Kollwitz is one of them. He was killed in the Battle of the Yser on 23 October 1914, when the Belgian army had dragged their heels. He was a musketeer, a modest rank the name of which wrongly brought recollections of Napoleonic times. Peter Kollwitz simply belonged to the rank and file. After all he was only eighteen years old.

Full of youthful enthusiasm the German battalions had left for Flanders in cattle trucks. They were only cheered before crossing the border. They had hardly received a military training. In one giant patriotic step they went from school straight to the battlefield. They were mowed down by the dozen.

On 10 November a bunch of these students walks into the gunfire of British soldiers who know all the tricks. A day later German army command produces this bulletin: ‘We made good progress in the Yser sector yesterday. West of Langemarck young regiments, singing Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, broke through the first enemy lines and occupied these. About two thousand French infantrymen and six machineguns were captured.’

This was an example of deceitful propaganda. It was not even mentioned that thousands of Germans were killed in one day. And the scene of battle had been closer to Noordschote and Bikschote, but Langemarck will probably have sounded better to German ears. It is also better not to believe that the boys turned their assault into choir practice. But the myth of Langemarck was born – including all the memorials and commemorations in the Heimat. In later years Langemarck will also be exploited by Adolf Hitler.

There is a different, more appropriate name for youthful dying in the German ranks: der Kindermord. And children have fathers and mothers. When his brother is killed, a certain Kurt Lommatsch has to break the bad news to his parents and sister on 28 October 1914. The ending of his letter reads as follows: ‘Dear parents, I beg you once more not to give in to your grief over the boy too much. After all he has given his life for our German fatherland which is surrounded by enemies. Many others who came with him from Germany have done likewise and have been laid to rest in foreign soil. I wish you all the very best. Kindest regards from your only son who is now still alive.’

A French practical guide teaches that the grief of parents who lose their mature child is unfathomable. ‘They are traumatised much more heavily and show a chronic mourning with emotional, somatic and such like disturbances. The death of this child will be the predominant theme of their thoughts and conversations for the rest of their lives.’


Käthe Kollwitz had two sons, Hans, the eldest, and Peter. Soon after Peter’s death the plan grows to create a memorial not just for her own son, but for all the other boys and their parents. Käthe Kollwitz is a committed artist. In her work she is sympathetic towards the toiling and suffering human being who she also knows from the consulting rooms of her husband Karl. He is a national health doctor for whom she feels but little passion. She learned socialism at home in the Old-Prussian town of Königsberg, but she is not familiar with the blind obedience to orders of a political party.

But now she has to convert her own pain into art. And that will take her years. In December 1914 she still sees a group of sculptures before her, representing a father at the head of his son who is stretched out before him, and a mother at the foot. Not until 1932 has she finished. The final result is ‘The Grieving Parents’. Not a son. Just a father and a mother. They stand apart from each other, separated by mutual grief. There is no comfort. He stares ahead, paralysed. She crouches. Blocks of sorrow, utterly lacking in subtlety. They clasp their bodies, which would otherwise fall apart. Are they asking their son for forgiveness, both kneeling? Their son who lies buried under their feet, taken away in the earth, one of the twenty-five thousand of Vladslo. To many it is the most impressive memorial of World War One, though it does not betray any relation with a place or an event. Even the signature of the maker is missing. In winter the sculptures are wrapped up. But each spring their sorrow, diluted with remorse, awakens.

Why had Käthe Kollwitz not been able to convince her son that the war did not serve any purpose? When he left for the front, she had given him pink carnations as so many mothers, and after the fall of Antwerp she had flown the black-white and red flag from the window of his room. Now, after his death, she knew better. But was not this realisation at the same time a betrayal to Peter, who had died for his conviction? In October 1916 she addresses her dead son in her diary: ‘Do I break the confidence in you, Peter, when the only thing I can recognize now in this war is lunacy?’

Käthe Kollwitz never saw her sculptures actually standing in Vladslo. In 1956 they were transported there. She had been dead for ten years then. The governments of Belgium and West Germany had decided on a concentration of German cemetaries in Flanders. The only places where Johann, Helmut, Heinrich, Kurt and Peter are resting in Flanders fields are Hooglede, Menen, Langemark, Zeebruges and Vladslo. We had better trust that the mortal remains of Peter Kollwitz were taken from Esen-Roggeveld, close to where he was killed, to Vladslo in 1956.

Just over a week before the British inaugurate their 45-metre-high wargate at Thiepval, a brick memorial to the missing of the Somme, Käthe is there when her sculptures were erected in Esen-Roggeveld. They were transformed from plastercasts into granite. ‘When we leave, I am not cheerful but sad’, she writes in her diary on 23 July 1932. She must also have visited other cemeteries, for a little further she writes: ‘The English and also the Belgian cemeteries are clearer, in a certain sense friendlier and more conventional, familiar than the German. I prefer the German cemeteries. The war was not a merry occasion, it is not fitting to embellish youthful death with flowers. Every war cemetery should remain grave.’

When she is back in Germany a month later, she takes down the following. ‘In retrospect the most beautiful memory of my days in Belgium was the last afternoon, when Van Hauten drove us there one more time. He left us to ourselves and we went from the sculptures to Peter’s grave and all was very lively and completely intense. I stood in front of the woman, saw her face, which was my face, cried and caressed her cheeks. Karl was right behind me, I did not even notice. I heard him whisper: ‘Ja ja’. How together we were then!’

A year later Hitler is in power. Just like the novelist Heinrich Mann, Käthe is thrown out of the Academy of the Arts by the new rulers. Käthe Kollwitz’s art is entartet – corrupt. The sculptures of Ernst Barlach, who has influenced Kollwitz’s work more than the famous Auguste Rodin, suffer the same fate. The Gestapo will pay her a visit and threaten Käthe with the concentration camp. Her age will not save her, they hasten to add. In July 1936 she writes in her diary: ‘If it seems inevitable, we will decide to escape the concentration camp by suicide.’

That will not be necessary, but Käthe Kollwitz is not spared another war either. Her husband dies in 1940. On New Year’s Eve 1941 she writes a letter to her grandson Peter, named after the uncle he has never known. Peter serves in Hitler’s army. ‘Du geliebter Junge’, his grandmother writes. ‘When your father telephoned me yesterday to tell me that you were in the field hospital with a light touch of jaundice, I could not say what went through me. You are alive and have been saved in time. Keep your jaundice as long as you want.’

In October 1942 she keeps it short in her diary. Hans, the eldest of her two sons and the father of her grandson Peter, has been to see her. ‘He came in very quietly. I knew then that Peter was dead. He fell on 22 September.’ Käthe Kollwitz has had to render both her son Peter and her grandson Peter to the war.

But she goes on, because she has to. In February 1944 she urges Hans to start teaching his younger son Arne Russian. ‘Later on that will give him a head start over the others.’ And in the same month she writes: ‘The worst of all is that each war implies its answer. Each war is answered with a new war. Only the devil can tell what the world may look like, what Germany may look like. That is why I am whole-heartedly for a radical end to this lunacy and only expect something from world socialism.’

In June 1944 she longs for the end: ‘It will be terribly hard to leave you, you and your children. But the unquenching desire to die remains.’ March 1945: ‘You, my firstborn. I am very old now and will add another year. Every night I dream of you, I must see you one more time. If it is really so that you can come under no circumstance, I will believe you. But I want to hear it from you yourself.’ She is old and worn-out and cannot make art any more. But she has remained a mother till the very end.

Käthe Kollwitz dies on 22 April 1945 at the age of seventy-seven. The war, her second war, will not last much longer.

Next week: Khudadad Khan

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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