HG Bishop Grigoris Balakian - Armenian Golgotha
Vintage Books USA
£11.7 (Amazon.co.uk as of 23/06/12)
Armenian Golgotha is quite simply the definitive written account of the events which led to the death of close to one and a half million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The book makes this somewhat controversial subject open up to the reader in a way which I have never encountered through the reading of any official records or accounts by historians. Balakian’s heart and soul are opened to the reader to tell the story of what happened to him and countless others at the time.
Speaking or writing about the Armenian Genocide has forever been a matter of walking on eggshells. The subject is, to put it simply, nearly impossible to speak on without being accused of supporting a certain side. Yet it is still the case that every April 15th Politicians in the UK, US and many other nations will make grand speeches at Memorials before pleading the case against recognition days later.
Accounts of the events which occurred nearly 100 years ago in the then Ottoman Empire are commonly heard and stated to reporters for televised specials in which we will hear a survivor or their family in a flood of tears followed by a young Turkish politician explaining how “it is not Genocide because...” but few of these have a lasting effect on readers who were not touched by the event on a personal level, as I have learn through experience when trying to teach on the subject.
This is where the account in Balakian’s book makes a difference. As a Bishop in the great City of Constantinople and deportee during the Genocide itself, Balakian is well qualified to give a definitive eyewitness account of the events leading to, of and after the genocide. The author, in doing this, opens up the reader to every emotion and thought that passed through his head during that time, with photography from the time to remind the reader that this surreal macabre event is not something from a fiction novel but the man’s life itself.
Balakian’s account opens during the build up the First World War, the then priest studying at a university in Berlin. He relays the events and change in nature of those around him as they went through the transition between wartime and peace. He examines the polarisation of the Germans as they spoke of their hatred for Russia and love of the Ottomans as well as their hostility towards the Armenians for fear of rebellion against the Turks.
He then leads us through his return to Constantinople and witness of the Ottoman deception of the Armenian people through a feigned acceptance, as well as their tragic and naive belief in this. To me, this was one of the most powerful sections as for these thirty or so pages we see the slow web of Ottoman preparation close in on the Armenian people and Balakian’s fear and apprehension of the situation grow until the deportations finally begin.
Throughout the rest of the book we gain a stark insight into the actions of the Ottoman Military as well as various militia groups against the Armenian community from their forced marches across the Syrian Desert to the frequent massacring of the community under the direct orders of the Ottoman Government. These horrific events are made all the more harrowing through the personal and emotive language of the author constantly reminding you that he was a witness to all of it.
I would certainly recommend Balakian’s book to anyone with even a basic knowledge of the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide as it is a smoother and less dry read than many of the historical accounts of these events available to English readers. I would then recommend that they pass it on to friend who has not read it since this is a book that cries out to be read. The Events of the Armenian Genocide are far too little known to the western which makes this book a valuable and accessible jewel filled with historical information and personal tragedy.
By Daniel Malyon