“Who today still speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Who, one wonders, would ask such a question? The answer, surprisingly enough, is a certain Adolf Hitler who asked it rhetorically as a means of justifying the German invasion of Poland in 1939.
The annihilation to which Hitler referred was the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Turkish Government between 1915 and 1923. By its end, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians had been slaughtered. Even to this day, the Turkish government denies that its wholesale and systematic massacre of its Armenian population constitutes genocide. In spite of such chutzpah in the face of all the historical evidence, more and more people are now speaking of the annihilation of the Armenians. One such person is Siobhan Nash-Marshall. Her recently published book, The Sins of the Fathers: Turkish Denialism and the Armenian Genocide (Herder and Herder, 2017), illustrates with great clarity that the genocide was not so much a case of religious intolerance, of Muslims killing Christians, as a case of the new Turkish secularist government seeking to consolidate its power through the extermination of the Armenians and the acquisition thereby of Armenian land and wealth:
The construction of the ‘Turkish bourgeoisie,’ of Turkish ‘technology and science,’ ‘shipyards, factories, boats, trains,’ which Gökalp promised in his poem Vatan, depended upon the seizure of Armenian properties. The dramatic upheaval of the late Ottoman Empire’s economy through which the Muslims came in 1918 to have the ‘upper hand’ in the ownership of the empire’s financial and industrial institutions, as Hanioglu puts it, when over eighty percent of these had been Christian-owned in 1915, could not have taken place without the seizure of Armenian properties. Thus, Akçam’s and Kurt’s statement that: ‘Turkey was founded on the transformation of a presence—Christian in general, Armenian in particular—into an absence’ (p. 216).
Dr. Nash-Marshall also quotes Akçam and Kurt as stating, in effect, that the modern Turkish state was built on the very corpses of the Armenians which it had slaughtered: “The Republic of Turkey and its legal system were built, in a sense, on the seizure of Armenian cultural, social, and economic wealth, and on the removal of the Armenian presence” (ibid.)
One intriguing aspect of Dr. Nash-Marshall’s book is its laying of the blame for the Armenian Genocide on the philosophy of relativism and the political secularism which is its consequence. As a philosopher, Dr. Nash-Marshall connects the errors of Descartes’ reductionist idealism with the ideas of progressive secularism as made manifest originally in the French Revolution:
There is no logical or formal distinction between overturning an Ancien Régime through slaughter and destroying a people and culture: a genos. If one believes that an ideal can justify slaughtering a king, his court, and those who would defend him, that a class of people’s death is a necessary condition of making the world conform to a rational idea, one cannot not justify genocide (p. xii).
Dr. Nash-Marshall then connects the secularist Revolution which established the French Republic with the progressive secularism of the Turkish Republic at the time of the Armenian Genocide, seeing the latter as the secular precedent for the genocide practiced by the Nazis:
It is not by chance that the Armenian Genocide was so quickly and carefully reproduced by the Nazis. Hitler bargained that once the world consented to allowing one radical group’s will to power to ravage a people, appropriate its wealth and native lands, destroy its culture, deny its history, and lie about its own past, it would have to allow a second radical group the same privilege. If the Turks could do it, why not the Germans? (p. xiii).
Dr. Nash-Marshall’s philosophical approach to the Armenian Genocide and to Turkish Denialism shifts the focus from the horrific facts of the Genocide itself, which, in Dr. Nash-Marshall’s words, involved “the savage murders of the men, [and] the unthinkable bestiality visited upon Armenian women and children during their death marches, in orphanages, in concentration camps, and in extermination zones” (p. 8). These gory and sickening details are the focus of Antonia Arslan’s powerful and heart-wrenching novel, Skylark Farm (Vintage Books, 2008), in which one family’s experience of the Genocide is told with unflinchingly gruesome realism.
What makes the reading of this novel so disturbing, in a paradoxically edifying sense, is the way in which we get to know the members of the family with a degree of familial intimacy in the ominous days of unhurried and halcyon tranquility which precede the terror that is to come. We get to know the old people, the patriarchs and matriarchs, and the younger generation, and their children. We get to know them and we get to like them. We form a real, living relationship with the characters, the mark of all great fiction. Our intimacy with them and our sharing in their everyday lives humanizes them, making them real, and it humanizes us, making us better, wiser people. We grow in our friendship with them, as we grow in our friendship with the real people in our own everyday lives. We are invested in them psychologically and it is this bond which makes the second part of the book such excruciatingly horrific reading. We see the menfolk butchered in cold-blood. We see the womenfolk and even the children abused, physically and sexually. We grimace with each new act of sadistic inhumanity against those whom we have come to know and love. How is such monstrous barbarism possible? How can men do these things? It beggars belief. And yet we know that it is all so brutally and realistically true. It happened, and not merely to one family, and their neighbours, but to a whole race of people.
The horrors we experience in the pages of Arslan’s novel are a microcosm of a horror that happened on a truly macrocosmic scale. And yet the microcosm is powerful because it focuses on real people we know, and not the millions of people like them whom we don’t know and can’t know. It makes it particular and therefore more real in one sense than any non-fictional work of history. Statistics of the numbers killed, however horrific, are too impersonal to move us in the way that a good story can. This is the humanizing power of fiction. This is why Solzhenitsyn’s succinct novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, speaks as loudly as his three-volume Gulag Archipelago. Such is the unique ability of fiction to convey the truth. Solzhenitsyn’s novella was based on his own experience and is, therefore, a true story, literary license notwithstanding. Antonia Arslan’s novel is based upon the horrors inflicted on members of her own family and is, therefore, an equally true story. Such works show us, all too starkly, that truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is often far more horrific.
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