Springtime for Talaat Pasha

In 1967, barely twenty years after Nazi officers faced an international military tribunal for crimes against humanity, a Jewish-American comedy writer made his directing debut with a film lampooning the Third Reich. “The Producers,” by Mel Brooks, was, upon its release, alternately praised for its hysterical performances and panned for its insensitive premise: the staging of “Springtime for Hitler,” a tasteless musical intended by its deranged author “… to show the world the true Hitler… the Hitler with a song in his heart.”

As decades passed, sentiment toward the film became overwhelmingly positive, leading to a Tony-winning theatrical adaptation in 2001 and a film remake in 2005. Brooks's intervening rise to fame aside, the film's roundly-embraced resurrection followed five decades of processing the atrocities of World War II—possibly the ultimate proof that comedy is tragedy plus time. By the end of the 20th century, Brooks's zany fuehrer and goosestepping chorus girls were no longer “too soon,” freeing audiences to laugh at the petty scheming, craven opportunism, and unintended satire by Bialystock and Bloom.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia from 2009 through 2012, I cited “The Producers” during a cross-cultural seminar with Armenian trainers about working with Americans. Our discussion had turned to difficulties Volunteers might face when talking about the atrocities of World War I, when more than one million Armenians perished under the Ottoman government in Turkey. Although the Turkish government today acknowledges the relocation campaign and its deadly fallout, it comes short of admitting to ethnic cleansing by the state. Counting Turkey as a crucial political ally in the region, the United States government toes this line, with the U.S. president avoiding the word “genocide” in official declarations.

This policy was very much in evidence during Peace Corps trainings with U.S. Embassy workers who, serving at the pleasure of the Oval Office, refused to use “the g-word” during Q&A sessions with Volunteers, most of whom, perhaps reflexively, sympathized with Armenians. The dynamic was a microcosm of attitudes in the U.S., where a majority of states acknowledge the Ottoman treatment of Armenians as a genocide even though the federal government does not.

During the training seminar, I explained that the Holocaust is a touchstone for most Americans in understanding genocide. In contrast to the Armenian case, Hitler's crimes had long ago been acknowledged and addressed, permitting the balm of humor to facilitate cultural healing. Scores of films had been made about Young Turk leaders like Talaat Pasha, who oversaw the decaying Ottoman Empire and commissioned Armenians' lethal deportation; but how many had been comedies? Everyone in the room agreed the notion was inconceivable.

My point was not that Armenians should make fun of the Young Turks like Jews and others have mocked Nazis. Rather, my goal was to illustrate the difference between Americans' and Armenians' paradigms for relating to genocide. For Americans, it could be difficult to comprehend how raw the genocide continued to be for Armenians nearly 100 years later. For Armenians, it was surprising how—and how soon—an American Jew could joke about a monster like Hitler.

At the time of this seminar, I had lived in a small Armenian village for roughly one year. Whenever the Armenian genocide came up in conversation—which was seldom—villagers often asked about recognition by the U.S. government. Like the proverbs Armenians invoked about denial (“To have the genocide denied is to die twice”), American presidents' avoidance of the word “genocide” in recent years was common knowledge among villagers.

“Why doesn't Obama call it a genocide?” they would ask me. “Presidents always promise they will when they are running for office, so Armenians will vote for them. But once they are elected, they forget.” When I explained the dodge as a diplomatic move to stay in Turkey's good graces, villagers would nod their heads knowingly. They didn't ask because they didn't understand; they asked because they were hurt.

With thousands around the world commemorating the centenary of the Armenian massacres this year, that hurt and resentment continues to cast a shadow over remembrance and mourning. The U.S. government's continued lack of formal recognition may be politically savvy in the short term, but it is certainly an obstacle to achieving psychological closure. As noted by Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer whose creation of the word “genocide” in 1944 was largely inspired by the suffering of Ottoman Armenians, “Genocide is a wound against all humanity. It is denial which ensures the wound can never heal.” As “The Producers” reminds us, humor can help that healing, but like any path to recovery, the first step is acknowledgment.

Chris Edling is a comedy writer living in New York City. From 2009-2012, he served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia.

Trial in absentia of Israeli commanders in Mavi Marmara raid

A Turkish court began a trial in absentia for four Israeli military commanders responsible for the raid on the Mavi Marmara ship.

The court case against former Chief of Staff Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as former navy Vice Adm. Eliezer Marom, ex-military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and former air force Brig. Gen. Avishai Levi, opened on Nov. 6 in Istanbul. The charges reportedly include manslaughter and attempted manslaughter, causing bodily harm, deprivation of freedom, plundering, damage to property and illegal confiscation of property.

The Israelis could be sentenced in absentia to life in prison.

Some 490 people who were aboard the ship during the raid, including activists and journalists, are scheduled to testify. The trial reportedly will be officially recorded by television cameras, although not immediately broadcast.

Nine Turkish citizens died when Israeli navy commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, which claimed to be carrying humanitarian aid, on May 31, 2010, after warning the ship not to sail into waters near the Gaza Strip in circumvention of Israel’s naval blockade of the coastal strip.

Israel’s government-appointed Turkel Commission found in its investigation that the government and the military behaved appropriately, and that the blockade of Gaza was legal. The United Nations’ Palmer Committee also found the blockade to be legal but said Israel used excessive force while boarding the vessel.

Turkey’s inquiry deemed the Gaza blockade and the Israeli raid to be illegal. Ankara has called on Israel for an official apology and compensation for the raid, and to lift the Gaza blockade. The two countries have severed diplomatic relations and military agreements since the incident.

Why Are We in Kosovo?

I always thought that historical perspective helped sharpen the mind by illuminating the choices that loomed ahead. But when I look at the awful state of affairs in Kosovo, I am not so certain that history offers much guidance. Maybe, though, if we try to look at the past freshly and innovatively, we might just find a better solution for Kosovo and its moslem victims than the one President Clinton is offering. More about that later.

Of course, we know from history that the relations between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians are bitterly divided along lines of religion, ethnicity and nationalism. We know as well that the Serbs of Yugoslavia, who comprise only 10 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million population, have mythological feelings about Kosovo: It is their Jerusalem. Not auspicious.

Also, if we look back to the eve of World War I, we can discover a curtain raiser for today’s atrocities. In 1912, the Serbs overthrew their Turkish rulers (for more than 500 years) and set about gaining revenge on a population self-identified as Turks or Albanians, nearly all of them moslems. Their villages were burned; about 20,000 were killed; and some moslems were forced to convert. We can hazard a guess as to what had occurred during the 500 years of Turkish rule.

Now we have new players: President Clinton, the United States and NATO…. Having brokered a peace with Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic four years earlier in Bosnia (which is holding up, albeit with the presence of NATO troops), Clinton is trying again with Kosovo. His hope is to secure autonomy for the Albanians within Yugoslavia, with NATO troops present to enforce the peace over a three-year period.

At first, the Kosovo Liberation Army was an unwilling participant. Although clearly on the defensive, the rebels held out for independence. The KLA at various times has been described as a state of mind, and on other occasions as a ragtag band of guerrilla fighters spread throughout Kosovo’s villages. Today, they number about 30,000, hiding in the mountains and beyond the reach of Milosevic’s security forces. They were pressured to accept Clinton’s terms about a month ago.

Not so, Milosevic. NATO troops on his territory were too much for him to swallow. They could lead to his political downfall, and so he stalled. In the interim, his security forces began to seize Albanian homes and drive out Albanian villagers. When NATO moved in with planes and bombs about 10 days ago, he stepped up the pace. It now looks as though he is intent on purging Kosovo of its Albanian population.

In the face of his aggression, the United States and NATO are now clearly embarked on a humanitarian mission — save the Kosovar Albanians, whose tragic situation may have been accelerated, ironically, by our own course of action. Our policy is to bomb Yugoslav forces and not send in ground troops. The premise is that, in the long run, bombing will cost the Serbs more than they are willing to tolerate for the sake of a bleak stretch of land. That approach has thus far proved unsuccessful in Iraq.

In Yugoslavia, however, even the bombing is restricted and is almost “humanitarian” in scope. It is aimed mainly at air defenses and military units. We are avoiding civilian targets, refraining from any devastation to cities, transportation systems or the Yugoslav economy. It is a tactic that is calculated precisely not to bring the Serbs to their knees…or quickly to the bargaining table. But it is humane — or as humane as bombs raining on a populace can be.

Meanwhile, Milosevic’s security forces are changing the conditions on the ground in Kosovo. They are murdering Albanian leaders; sending vast numbers into refugees camps outside of Kosovo, minus papers, money, belongings; and, in short, creating a stateless people.

What is our goal? And, if uncertain, as I think it is, what should it be? Perhaps we are moved by the fact this is taking place in Europe. Perhaps we are shamed by our ignoble behavior with regard to the Jews in this self-same Europe 60 years ago. We are following a Churchillian path and avoiding the appeasement road taken by Britain’s Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s. We can congratulate ourselves that we have embarked on a morally correct policy. Why, then, am I uneasy about that policy and its possible/probable outcome?

In part, I suppose I am dubious about the effectiveness of our air campaign. It is designed to prevent — or at least limit — the devastation of Kosovo and the elimination of its population. That seems to be failing, and time looks as though it favors the Serbs rather than our humanitarian bombing policy.

I also have difficulty imagining that day down the road when some face-saving rapprochement is finally arranged. We have demonized Milosevic — who is perfectly cast for the role — so that it will be difficult not to try him as a war criminal. In which case, why should he negotiate with us? And even if we all swallow our wounded pride and end this callous struggle by feigning ignorance, what will follow? Written agreements aside, what will become of the Kosovo Liberation Army? Taking the past as prologue, either the KLA or some new Albanian nationalist group will soon search for ways to even the score. And who then will we support?

Most likely, we will edge silently away, as we did in Somalia. Our dilemma is that in order to prevail, we need to ignore domestic politics and humanitarianism, and, for obvious reasons, we cannot take those necessary steps. We are engaged in a war, no matter what we call it, and if we are to win, we have to be willing to do the unpalatable: to send in ground troops; to be hardhearted and bomb Yugoslavia into the early stages of ruin. Who among us is willing to embrace such policies? Certainly, not I.

What then? Perhaps some imaginative replay of history. We could have accepted the Jews from Germany in the 1930s, but did not. Today, there are all the NATO countries, including the United States, whose immigration policies might expand to accept refugees from Kosovo, and support them until they are on their feet economically. Even 1.5 million refugees. After all, tiny Israel has taken in more than half that number of Russians. Would the budgetary cost be that much more than our bombers and the lives of troops on all sides of the battle?

And we could demand that Yugoslavia pay settlement costs. If Milosevic refuses, there is still the option of sanctions on everything from his economy to the exclusion of Yugoslavia from the Olympic Games. No nation is comfortable in the role of pariah — we saw that with South Africa.

The fact remains that Yugoslavia’s policy toward Albanians in Kosovo, while reprehensible, even genocidal, is, nevertheless, national policy. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where tyranny exists, where nation states treat some of its citizens abominably, and where collective action is probably still best exerted in a nonviolent manner. By all means, let’s save those Kosovar Albanians who wish to be rescued — in precisely the way we could have, and failed to, rescued the Jews of Europe: Accept them as new citizens in our new NATO world. And, until the Yugoslavs shape up, ban them from joining the civilized world in which we are struggling to live. — Gene Lichtenstein