by Barlow Der Mugrdechian
“But in 1915, total war went a terrible step further…”
With this ominous introduction, the PBS special “The Great War,” began an eight minute segment entitled “Genocide,” which covered the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The segment was part of the eight-hour documentary on World War I which aired nation-wide in the United States on the Public Broadcasting System in November.
This was a significant show because a large audience in the United States had the opportunity to be introduced to the horror of the Armenian Genocide. Even though pressure was brought to bear from the Turkish government, PBS had the courage to not back down and to air this historically accurate piece.Although eight minutes did not seem to be a long time, in fact this segment of the special very clearly and succinctly recounted the events of the Armenian Genocide.
It not only brought eyewitness testimony, photographs, and quotes together, but also tied the Genocide to the continued policy of denial by the current Turkish government.The segment begins by connecting events in Ottoman Turkey with the greater context of World War I. The narrator stated that the war had two faces in Ottoman Turkey- the heroic stand at Gallipoli (against the British and Allied forces) and the contrasting brutal plan of mass murder against the Armenians of the Empire.
“In North Eastern Turkey, hundred of thousands of civilians were to die, war was the excuse. Ethnic cleansing, of Christian Armenians out of lands controlled by Islamic Turkey, was the true intention.”As the narration continues photographs from the Genocide are displayed in the background.One of the bright points of the segment are comments by Jay M Winter of Cambridge University who gave the background and context for the massacres and the Genocide. He explained the significant role that the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire played, as a thriving and prosperous community which was perceived as a political and strategic threat to the Ottoman Turks at the outbreak of the War. But that threat quickly became a plan of extermination.
Winter said, “Most Armenians, 2,000,000 living in the Turkish Empire were no threat whatsoever.”A brief description of the arrest of community leaders in Constantinople, and the forced deportations of Armenians follows.Eyewitness testimony is included in the documentary from two sources-one is from Leslie Davis, American Consul in Kharpoot (Kharpert), the other from German medical officer Armin T. Wegner.Davis’ testimony is based on his personal investigation of rumors of large scale massacres of Armenians in the region.After visiting the desert he wrote, “Greater misery could not be imagined, the dead and the dying are everywhere…The whole country is one vast slaughterhouse.”
Armin Wegner visited a refugee camp where Armenian survivors had gathered. Against orders, and on penalty of death, Wegner photographed the diseased and dying Armenians. In this segment some of Wegner’s shocking and vivid photographs are shown in the background. Photos of dead and dying Armenians, piles of skulls, and Armenian hanged at the gallows are part of his collection.The narrator says, “What Armin Wegner captured was a visual record of the first Genocide of the 20th century.”Continuing on Jay Winter states that “In many ways it shows that the idea that war is politics by other means is outdated in the 20th century.
War is hatred by other means- and in this case hatred means extermination.”World War I was the biggest war to date and World War II which followed was even bigger. What marked both was genocide. As Winter says, “It was the logic of brutalization of total war.”The written testimony of an Armenian women, whose letter gets to the outside world, is also recounted in this section.It is clearly stated, “To this day the Turkish Government denies the Genocide.
“Towards the end of the segment, the number of victims of the Genocide is discussed. Although the figure of 500,000 deaths is cited by some, and 1,000,000 by others (in this documentary) the number of Armenian deaths is over 1,500,000 in the period of 1915-1923.”Whatever the number, the Armenian Genocide was one of the darkest chapters of the Great War.”In concluding the piece, Adolph Hitler’s quote is discussed. Armin Wegner had sent a letter to Hitler in defense of the Jews. However Hitler had learned “a completely different lesson.” In a speech to his inner circle he said “Who remembers the Armenian massacres today?’
This chilling quote from Hitler concludes this very special part of “The Great War” series. For those who did not get an opportunity to view the series, and especially the segment on the Armenian, you definitely must see it.