Saturday, January 19, 2013 – Paris
Both the political capital of the first modern nation-state and the cultural capital, in several writers’ judgment, of “Europe,” “modernity,” or “the world“—not to mention the center of a global empire until after WWII—Paris is at once the birthplace for nationalism and the most cosmopolitan of cities.
As such, it was a fitting host for the peace conference that followed the end of hostilities on the Western Front. The nationalistic hatreds that sustained long years of futile killing in 1914-18 and then amplified the desire for vengeance in 1919 ran headlong into the idealistic internationalism (embodied by Woodrow Wilson) that drew everyone from Lawrence of Arabia to a young Ho Chi Minh to Paris.
Those two (and Wilson) soon left the city, but as it had done for centuries, Paris in the 1920s became the home for a new generation of people who, by choice or otherwise, found the end of the Great War the right time to leave their homelands and put down roots in one arrondissement or another. On this last day we spend in Paris, I’d like to give students the choice of walking tours that will introduce them to one of two groups of postwar expatriates (from the Latin for “out of country”).
The most famous “expats” were the American writers, artists, and musicians known as the “Lost Generation.” (A phrase that had quite a different meaning in British university towns like Oxford, as I’ve previously discussed.) Best known was the literary circle gathered around the salon of Gertrude Stein. The most illustrious member of that group, Ernest Hemingway (an ambulance driver during the war), popularized the “lost generation” category in one of the epigraphs introducing his novel about disillusioned English-speaking expatriates morally and spiritually adrift in postwar Europe, The Sun Also Rises. (The biblical title comes from the book’s second epigraph.)
Simply because the guide is Monty Python co-founder/history buff/PBS host Michael Palin, I’m inclined to follow something like the path of this Hemingway tour of Paris. I’m especially impressed that Palin could somehow find a Paris connection linking Hemingway, Elvis Presley, and a Protestant (well, Jansenist) sect called the Convulsionnaires.
Much less well known than Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Josephine Baker were the quarter-million Armenians who relocated to France in the years after World War I, drawn by the offer of jobs in mines and factories and having little left in their homeland to return to.
Hemingway would have understood why. His stay in Paris was financed by his pay as a foreign correspondent, and in 1922 he took a train to Istanbul to cover the conclusion of the war between Greece and Turkey (a conflict that essentially served as an extension of WWI in that part of the world). He arrived in the aftermath of the great fire of Smyrna, which destroyed the Armenian and Greek Christian quarters of the city and left hundreds dead and tens of thousand homeless.
Whether the fires were set deliberately, the tragedy in Smyrna came near the end of an eight-year campaign of murder waged by the Ottoman-then-Turkish government against its Armenian population, viewed as disloyal because of its religion (the kingdom of Armenia was the first to become Christian, in AD 301) and the fact that many Armenians lived in the Russian Empire. As the Gallipoli campaign began in April 1915, interior minister Mehmed Talaat (one of the “Young Turk” nationalists who came to power after the 1908 revolution) ordered the arrest and execution of 250 Armenian intellectuals in the capital city; similar killings took place in the provinces. In the coming months, churches were ransacked, schools were closed, and the Armenian population was deported to non-existent resettlement camps in the Syrian desert. Along the way, hundreds of thousands (the exact total is hotly debated, but is likely one million) were killed by Turkish soldiers or (most commonly) simply starved to death.
War crimes trials did take place in 1919 at the instigation of British occupiers, with one provincial governor hanged and a police commander imprisoned. But most of the Young Turk leaders were convicted in absentia and never punished. And the British traded all remaining prisoners in 1921 in exchange for their own soldiers held by the Turkish nationalist Kemal Ataturk, and the 1923 treaty that finally ended this segment of WWI dropped all mention of war crimes prosecutions. Talaat had escaped to Berlin and dodged extradition, though he did receive a kind of justice in 1921 when a young Armenian refugee shot him in the back of the head, yelling out, “This is to avenge the death of my family!”
This assassination is where journalist Samantha Power begins her powerful survey of 20th century genocides, “A Problem from Hell.” Further on, she mentions how two rather different men took note of what had happened that day.
One was Adolf Hitler. Having observed how the Allies (including, as Power notes again and again in her book, the U.S.) failed to respond to such “race murder,” he told his generals on the eve of the invasion of Poland:
The aim of war is not to reach definite lines but to annihilate the enemy physically. It is by this means that we shall obtain the living space that we need. Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?
Also very familiar with the circumstances of Talaat’s assassination was one of the European Jews Hitler later tried to extinguish, a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin. After a harrowing flight from the Germans in 1939-40, he reached the United States in 1941 and began a personal crusade to draw attention to the slaughter of Jews then about to reach its crescendo. Most enduringly, he coined a new word that captured the otherwise indescribable intent and consequences of what the Nazis were doing and the Young Turks had done: genocide, borrowing the Greek for “race” or “tribe” with the Latin for “killing.” Before we finish this course, we’ll get a firsthand look at the system set up to kill the Jewish race.
But back to the Armenians, already deprived of a country and seeking new homelands…
In addition to the economic opportunities previously mentioned, France was a logical destination because it exercised a “mandate” over the former Ottoman provinces of Syria and Lebanon (where many Armenian refugee camps were located) and small Armenian communities already existed in cities like Marseilles and Paris. By 1925 approximately 60,000 more Armenians had moved to the French capital, where there continues to be a sizable Armenian community to this day. Here’s video of this past April’s commemoration of the genocide:
Key Armenian institutions in Paris include the Armenian General Benevolent Union (whose headquarters moved to Paris in 1922) and its Nubarian Library, the Research Center on the Armenian Diaspora, and the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
Tomorrow: a short post befitting a Sunday off in Paris.