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.