Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Origins of the Armenian Genocide

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 102nd installment in the series. 

February 8, 1914: Origins of the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Genocide of 1915 to 1917, in which the government of the Ottoman Empire killed approximately 1.5 million Armenians through mass shootings, forced marches (shown above), exposure, and starvation, couldn’t have taken place without the First World War, which radicalized Turkish public opinion and freed the “Young Turks” from the constraints of international law. But the stage for genocide was set on February 8, 1914, when Europe’s Great Powers forced the Turks to accept reforms they viewed as an existential threat.

An ancient ethnic group attested as far back as the sixth century BCE, the Armenians weathered the rise and fall of empires for millennia before the Ottoman Turks finally conquered the multiethnic Caucasus region in the 16th century CE. During the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, the Christian Armenians enjoyed considerable religious freedom and legal autonomy under the Ottoman “millet” system, which allowed religious minority groups to live by their own traditional laws.

But in the 19th century the millet system was undermined by the rise of nationalism, as various Ottoman subject peoples (including Armenians as well as Greeks, Slavs, and Arabs) embraced national identities and began demanding more autonomy, or even independence. The issue was further complicated by the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the encroachment of Europe’s Great Powers—especially Russia, which grabbed large chunks of Turkish territory in the Caucasus over the course of the 19th century, including some of the Armenian lands.

Now divided between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, the Armenians became a pawn in St. Petersburg’s devious gambit to grab even more Turkish territory in eastern Anatolia. Essentially the Russians used the Muslim Turks’ mistreatment of Christian Armenians as an excuse to intervene and assert Russian control over the region—and to move things along they were quite willing to stir up trouble between the Armenians and their Muslim neighbors, including the Kurds, who the Turks often employed as local enforcers (when they weren’t busy rebelling themselves).

This cynical ploy succeeded in turning international opinion against the Turks, who were their own worst enemies anyway. In 1895, clashes between Kurds and Armenians led to massacres that left at least 100,000 Armenians dead; these and subsequent atrocities generated public support for reforms in Europe and America. However the Turks had one (sort of) ally in Germany, which didn’t stand to benefit from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire—at least in the near term—and now threw its diplomatic weight behind the Turks, delaying and watering down the proposed reforms.

After years of debate, in early 1914 the Turks (and their German backers) finally agreed to a compromise reform package that included some concessions by Russia: Among other things, the proposed administrative units included more Muslims to dilute Armenian political power, and the Armenians gave up any right to restitution of land previously seized by Kurds. But at the end of the day the Turks were still being forced to grant foreigners sweeping powers over an area they considered part of the Turkish homeland.

Under the terms of the Yeniköy Agreement signed on February 8, 1914 (so-called because it was signed in the Yeniköy district of Constantinople), seven Turkish provinces in eastern Anatolia would be grouped into two new inspectorates, both presided over by a European inspector general with the authority to appoint and dismiss local officials, arrest officials they suspected of criminal misconduct, suspend judges, and render decisions on new land disputes. They were also given command of the police and the military. Meanwhile the Kurdish irregular cavalry units were to be disarmed, even as the Russians continued covertly funneling arms to the Armenians (as part of their double game the Russians had also secretly armed the Kurds before, but never mind).

Unsurprisingly, the Turks viewed the Yeniköy Agreement as the opening move in Russia’s final push to dismantle the Ottoman Empire. And there was plenty of evidence fueling Turkish suspicions: Around this time, Zaven, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, called for “the unification of all Armenia under Russian sovereignty,” adding, “the sooner the Russians arrive here, the better for us.”

Similarly, Konstantin Gulkevich, the Russian charge d’affaires in Constantinople who signed the Yeniköy Agreement for Russia, reported to Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov that the Yeniköy Agreement “signifies without doubt the opening of a new and happier era in the history of the Armenian people … The Armenians must feel that the first step has been taken towards releasing them from the Turkish yoke.” Furthermore, “the outstanding role of Russia in the Armenian question is thus officially emphasized… This circumstance will certainly not fail to exert a most favorable influence on the international status of Russia, and to place a halo on the head of her sovereign in the eyes of the Christians of the Near East.”

The Young Turk junta in Constantinople desperately looked for ways to stem the rising Russian tide; one member of the ruling triumvirate, Djemal Pasha, recalled simply, “We wanted to tear up that Agreement.” But there was nothing they could do in the face of the united front presented by Europe’s Great Powers—unless, that is, the situation were suddenly changed by some unexpected event, some great upheaval that would allow them to cancel the reforms and redraw the map on their own terms, with their own methods.

See the previous installment or all entries

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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