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A Forgotten Genocide

Newsday, 5 October 2003

Book Review
The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, by Peter Balakian
HarperCollins, 475 pages

The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America\'s ResponseCrimes against humanity often go hand in hand with crimes against history. Whether they are slaughtering Cambodians or Jews, Rwandan Tutsis or Bosnian Muslims, history’s most prolific murderers and their defenders often pervert history – first to justify their atrocities, later to conceal them. Hitler, for example, deployed the malevolent fantasies of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to legitimate his murderous campaign against the Jews. Holocaust deniers defile the historical record to this day.

And so it was with the Armenian genocide, as we learn in Peter Balakian’s powerful new examination of the subject, “The Burning Tigris.” In 1915, the Turkish Ottoman regime accused its Armenian subjects of conspiring with the Russian enemy during World War I and deported them en masse to Syria and Mesopotamia from their homes in eastern Turkey. Over a million were slaughtered or starved along the way. Survivors and missionaries gave blood-curdling eyewitness reports. Diplomats from France, the United States, Germany and Austria-Hungary (the latter two were Turkish allies) detailed the massacres and the planning behind them. Even the Ottoman grand vizier, Damad Ferid Pasha, acknowledged after the war that the slaughter of Armenians was so evil as to “make the conscience of mankind shudder with horror forever.”

But the world’s conscience has grown considerably calmer since then. Modern Turkey flatly denies that anything resembling a genocide occurred and aggressively lobbies its NATO allies to endorse this version of history. Over the years, it has won many impressive allies in the United States. In 1990, when Sen. Bob Dole spearheaded a resolution to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the massacres, he was filibustered by no less respected a figure than West Virginia’s Sen. Robert Byrd. “We cannot legislate history,” Byrd scolded his fellow senators. “We simply do not know what happened.”

In fact, we do. Or, more precisely, we did. Which is where “The Burning Tigris” begins. Balakian, a poet and English professor at Colgate University, weaves together the horrific details of the genocide with the inspirational story of America’s early response to the disaster.

During the 1890s, political unrest among the Ottoman Empire’s increasingly beleaguered Armenian Christian minority sparked a series of pogroms that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. The American public protested the crime and opened their pocketbooks. Within a year, as Balakian tells us, “Americans had raised more than 300,000 dollars in an age when a loaf of bread cost a nickel.” Clara Barton, who had once prowled the battlefields of the American Civil War as an angel of mercy, orchestrated the first international American Red Cross mission to bring relief to Turkey’s beleaguered Armenian community. Members of Congress condemned Turkey for “killing, bayoneting and outraging an unarmed and unoffending people” and passed a joint resolution recognizing America’s obligation to assist the victims of Ottoman brutality. In many respects, Balakian argues, America’s long history with humanitarian intervention begins in Armenia.

As Balakian also makes clear, this history is rich with heroes and heartbreak. When Ottoman forces began the roundups and deportations of 1915, Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador, lobbied passionately on behalf of Armenian victims. American diplomats Leslie Davis and Jesse Jackson helped distribute food and resources to starving deportees and even provided shelter for some at U.S. consulates. And back at home, the Rockefeller Foundation donated hundreds of thousands of dollars for Armenian relief.

It would not be enough. “My failure to stop the destruction of the Armenians,” Morgenthau later reflected, “had made Turkey for me a place of horror.” For those who survived, the future lay in Syria, Soviet Armenia or the United States. By 1923, eastern Turkey had been virtually swept clean of its Armenian population, leaving behind a host of crumbling churches and abandoned homes. And as America retreated into postwar isolationism, increasingly promoting the interests of American oil companies in the Middle East, Armenian rights (and history) were ignored. When Robert Byrd stood on the Senate floor to proclaim his historical ignorance, he was merely expressing what had become obvious by then – in politics, history is almost always a casualty.

Balakian overreaches in this ambitious book. He juggles at least three competing narratives that lurch wildly from continent to continent and span more than a century. The sweep of the story often overwhelms Balakian, who is a gifted stylist. As a historian, he makes no pretense at objectivity and has limited his research to published English sources, some of which he paraphrases.

When radical Armenian activists shot and bombed their way into Constantinople’s Ottoman bank in 1896, Balakian calls their action a bold “political statement” and praises their contribution to the language of “civil rights.” At one point, Balakian relies on a lengthy personal account of a genocide survivor, Nafina Chilinguirian, who had filed a legal claim against the Ottoman government in 1920. He neglects to mention that Chilinguirian was his beloved grandmother, about whom he wrote movingly in an earlier memoir.

But such criticisms ultimately miss the mark. “The Burning Tigris” is less a work of history than of advocacy, and both its weaknesses and strengths stem from that fact. Balakian has long been active in promoting awareness of the Armenian genocide. In addition to consulting on high school textbooks, he has drafted a well-publicized petition protesting the Turkish government’s campaign to finance genocide-denying scholarship in American universities. His latest book is the most recent salvo in this worthy campaign. Like “Ararat,” Atom Egoyan’s 2002 film, “The Burning Tigris” is as much about modern genocide denial as it is about a century-old massacre. “Look, I never heard about any of this stuff when I was growing up,” explains one of Egoyan’s characters, a genocide skeptic. The reason, suggests Balakian, is bound up with cynical politics and naked self-interest.

Balakian urges America along a path he first charted in his 1997 memoir, “Black Dog of Fate.” In it, the author describes how he embarked on a quest for understanding the “forgotten genocide” that shaped his family and himself. His latest book encourages America to tap into a forgotten well of knowledge about the genocide and to revive its powerful impulse toward humanitarianism. In doing so, America will not just be serving the cause of history, but the broader aims of a liberal and democratic society.