The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response
By Peter Balakian
HarperCollins, 475 pages, $26.95.
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Imagine it is the present day in an alternate universe. A historically progressive American paper publishes a front-page article declaring that the Jews of Europe were killed in World War II because they were agents of a foreign power that did not yet exist. A prestigious literary journal sneeringly dismisses the Holocaust as having been the massacre of a few thousand Jews “who had rioted against their Christian fellow citizens” of Germany. Now let us imagine that the same Nazi Germany had been fought not to defeat, but to a draw. The modern state acknowledges that regrettable atrocities were committed on both sides during the Second World War, but venerates the architects of the Final Solution as national heroes. Tourists can visit the ruins of synagogues and the cultural relics of Eastern European Jews who lived in the region, even as the government destroys the few remaining monuments — the more artistic of which are attributed in guidebooks to the ancestors of the Germans themselves. One U.S. presidential candidate after another promises to sign a Congressional bill acknowledging that what happened to the Jews was genocide but nobody ever does, for good relations with Germany come at the price of a courteous silence. There is an Israel, but it is isolated by a Nazi blockade, a third of its population dead of disease and starvation or in emigration in search of work. The Jews themselves have tried in vain to advance recognition of their cause. A very few have resorted to terrorism. Some write books, and the most recent is about how the catastrophe, when it actually did happen, managed to rouse the conscience of the best and the brightest across America, only for everything — historical record meetings, missions, resolutions, headlines, eyewitness reports and published archives — to be consigned to oblivion soon thereafter.
Substitution of Armenians for Jews in the paragraph above returns us to this universe. It was a front-page article in the Forward in 1995 that claimed that Armenians, about 1.5 million of whom were exterminated by the Ottoman Turkish state in 1915, were “assisting the Soviet effort to overtake Turkey” — even though it was not until 1920 that the Russian Armenian province, the guberniya of Erevan, was conquered by the Bolsheviks, and two years more until a state called the Soviet Union came into being. The majority of the Armenians who were killed were farmers and craftsmen who knew no foreign language, lived in villages a fortnight from the nearest port or railhead, and rarely traveled even half as far. The second article, by Christopher de Bellaigue, which reduced the whole business to a few thousand Armenians “killed while rioting against their Muslim fellow citizens,” was published in the New York Review of Books. The latter is not only an untruth, it is the opposite of the truth. There were two waves of the extermination of the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, and de Bellaigue’s remark seems to refer to the first: In 1895-96, members of the Armenian community of the capital, Constantinople, demonstrated peacefully against the systematic murder and extortion of their compatriots in the Anatolian interior (historical Armenia) by government tax-collectors and Kurdish marauders in the pay of the Ottoman authorities. The protest was suppressed with extreme violence; it was followed by a wave of state-sponsored massacres, called a jihad and led by Muslim mullahs and softas (theological students), in which some 200,000 Armenians were slaughtered. I replied to these lies and defamations in letters to the editors of both periodicals. Neither was published without phone calls, more letters and reminders stretching out over months, in the case of the Review, which cut my original letter down to 700 words — half its original length. And this in a publication that this year devoted thousands of words in its Letters section to arguments about the placement of an umlaut in a German name.
Today’s Armenia, a tiny state in the Transcaucasus, exists only because it was part of Tsarist Russia and then the Soviet Union. In Soviet times, it flourished: The country was cherished and supported by the Diaspora much as Israel was to be by Jews; there was even a kind of “law of return,” of which many thousands took advantage. The region today is now independent, and has been under Turkish blockade for over a decade. As a result of severe conditions, many of my colleagues there have died young. The Ottoman leaders who planned and carried out the Armenian genocide are officially celebrated as heroes of the present successor state, which simultaneously denies the genocide took place. Throughout eastern Anatolia, the names of Armenian towns have been changed and priceless monuments of medieval Armenian Christian art had been systematically destroyed by 1997. The official Turkish line is that the Armenians are not there now because they never were; and if there were any, well, then it was they who did the massacring — of their Turkish neighbors. But the Armenians were also dangerous foreign elements, a fifth column, so the genocide was justified. Though it didn’t happen. So all the testimony of the survivors, those unlettered, gentle grandmothers who never served a foreign state, who never struck a fellow creature in anger, but who worked and cooked and raised children and forged a new life in the factory towns and working-class neighborhoods of New England, is all a carefully corroborated fraud, a conspiracy.
The vast majority of Armenians seek recognition of the genocide through writing and political action (to such an extent that some Armenologists have come to believe that the domination of this single issue has frozen out other aspects of Armenian life and culture). One such writer is Peter Balakian, a poet and professor of English at Colgate University, who, in a memoir titled “Black Dog of Fate” (Basic Books, 1997), chronicled how he gradually became aware of his family’s tragic past even as he was growing up in an affluent Tenafly, N.J. home, visiting scholarly aunts on Riverside Drive, going to college, being a jock, getting laid. At the end of the book, Balakian presents a dreamlike poem in which the hike for fixings for the night’s dolma with Grandma becomes a kind of death march down the New Jersey Turnpike, with contemporary Newark in flames in the distance: Armenia in 1915 transferred to America. There is a coda to match this nightmare of repetition: It is the waking catharsis of transformation, of Balakian’s first participation in a demonstration on Times Square to commemorate an anniversary of the beginning of the genocidal campaign of 1915. The writer, in finding a past that his family’s sense of grief and shame had muted, had recovered a part of his own voice, thereby enlarging and sharpening his engagement with the world as he emerges as an activist.
So it may have been inevitable that from this newly enraged conscience on fire, “The Burning Tigris” would flow. It is a mighty work, a slow burn of muted eloquence, dense with scholarship. Balakian’s training in English literature and American studies has served him especially well, since a large part of the book is dedicated to the stupendous and nearly universal outpouring of sympathy for the Armenians and condemnation of Ottoman barbarity throughout the nightmare years among American and British writers, intellectuals, clergymen and politicians.
Armenia was a pivotal moral issue in American society, and Balakian makes a compelling argument that the expressed sense of responsibility for a distant, oppressed nation marked the beginning of the modern human rights movement. It was not seen, even at the time, in isolation, nor was advocacy on behalf of the Armenians an expression of Christian chauvinism: The fate of the Armenians was likened repeatedly to that of the Jews enduring the Tsar’s pogroms. The ancient Armenian language, with its rich literature dating back to pagan and early Christian times, enjoyed great respect and an intense academic interest nearly inconceivable today: Alice Stone Blackwell’s anthology of translations, “Armenian Poems” (Caravan Books, 1978), the “vision of a culture in crisis,” was but one of many popular books on Armenia. During World War I, eyewitness reports of the arrests, death marches and mass killings poured in from American diplomats and missionaries, journalists and physicians. When the war ended, President Wilson declared, “Armenia is to be redeemed.”
But, as Balakian points out, no amount of agitation or mass of fact could ever materially affect American policy. The White House did not condemn the Ottomans in 1896. The United States did not go to war against Turkey in 1917. After the October Revolution, Russia withdrew from the war and Turkey invaded the Transcaucasus, continuing to massacre the Armenians even after its own capitulation. The surviving sliver of Armenia controlled by Russia was incorporated into the Soviet Union, and President Wilson’s postwar plan for an American mandate in Armenia was eventually voted down by an isolationist Senate. Despite continuing public pressure on behalf of the Armenians, American policy in the 1920s was more concerned with achieving a foothold in the Muslim Middle East, and access to oil, than in a nation of which a third were refugees, another third under Soviet rule and the rest extinct.
Balakian’s book rehashes the voluminous testimony to the dangerously disfranchised condition of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in the mid- and late-19th century and to the planning, execution and aftermath of the Armenian genocide at the close of that century and in World War I. Much of this material is already well-known from various published memoirs, and from the monographs of eminent historians specializing in the period such as Professors Vahakn Dadrian of SUNY Geneseo and Richard Hovannisian of University of California Los Angeles. Balakian’s true accomplishment with this book is his demonstration of how visible, vigorous and universal was consciousness of, and support for, the Armenians — so much so that the book often reads like a Who’s Who of New England and New York.
This raises in my mind a question that I think historians of Armenia have hitherto failed to pose. The late Edward Said’s influential polemic, “Orientalism,” presented a picture of the Near East without Ottoman official Islam, imperial power or Armenian massacres — an unreal world in which statements and concerns of scholars of the region would indeed appear biased or imperialistic. Armenian history gives the lie to Said’s constructions. In the 19th century, there was no Arab state that played any significant political role in world affairs. The only Muslim state on the world stage was Ottoman Turkey, whose sultan also was the titular head of Sunni Islam and the guardian and ruler of Mecca and Medina (and Jerusalem, too). Turkey was a powerful empire whose borders were close to the heart of Europe. It ruled millions of Christian subjects, all of whom were second-class citizens at best. At worst, they were the victims of frequent extortion and pogroms. Any serious European or American student of Near Eastern affairs could not fail to take note of Turkey’s strength as an adversary and of the oppressive and retrograde character of its official religion, Islam. It was natural, moreover, that such students dedicate their expertise, while exercising appropriate professional standards, to the service of their countries’ interests. The case of the Armenians, so egregious and so universally known, throws into the sharpest relief this state of affairs.
Mountains covered with forests and orchards, their higher slopes often wreathed in fog, loom above the plain of Issos, where Alexander the Great inflicted a stunning defeat on Darius, above the waters of the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean. One of these is Musa Dagh, the Mountain of Moses. In 1915, the besieged people of five Armenian villages there fought the Turkish soldiers sent to exterminate them, and held them off until a French warship rescued the survivors. They returned after the war and placed a small stone plaque depicting a ship on the summit of Musa Dagh.
Some of the Armenian citrus farmers are still there. I visited their new church, in the village of Vakifli. One old man led me out of town and showed me where the fighting had taken place, but the plaque was gone: The Turkish authorities destroyed it long ago. The German Jewish writer Franz Werfel published his novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” in 1933 and, two years later, Hitler acceded to Turkey’s request that the book be banned; the same year, the U.S. State Department, under Turkish pressure, forced MGM to drop its plans to make a movie of the book. Since then, the U.S. government has steadfastly refused to term what happened to the Armenians a genocide. This year, an
Armenian nurse at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem who specializes in the rehabilitation of survivors of Palestinian suicide bombings was to receive an award on Israel Independence Day: Under Turkish pressure, the government removed from the program booklet the lines mentioning that her grandparents had been survivors of the Armenian genocide.
It is well-known, of course, that Ottoman Turkey afforded a welcome, by the standards of the age, to the Sephardic Jews fleeing the Inquisition, and in recent years the Turkish Republic has been a crucial friend and military ally of Israel in a very tough neighborhood indeed. But the insistence of the government in Ankara that America and Israel deny the Armenian genocide as the price of continued friendship is too high to pay and in the end probably need not be paid for the alliance to continue. It is, besides, misguided. Denial warps Turkish society itself, as the Turkish scholar Taner Akcam has pointed out: Falsification of history leads to other kinds of repression.
Toward the end of his book, Balakian notes that in 1997 France recognized the Armenian genocide as such. Turkey protested loudly, but soon life went back to normal. The United States, he suggests, is too fearful, and he closes on a generous and optimistic note, citing the brave verses about the Armenian tragedy by the great Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet.
Unfortunately, I fear Balakian’s optimism is misplaced. His petitions and warm appeals to human solidarity have their place, but they are not the lesson of “The Burning Tigris.” Since the Tigris burned and the Euphrates ran red, genocide has become a permanent aspect of human affairs. The Armenians, a visible and striving minority with economic and intellectual strength but no military or political power, dehumanized as infidels over a millennium of Muslim oppression and misrule, survived in the end only because the Russian army’s nuclear umbrella sheltered (and shelters) Erevan. The Armenians of Karabagh averted a new massacre in the early 1990s because they got arms and learned how to use them. As a Zionist leader told an assembly full of yeshiva kids in Lithuania on the eve of the Holocaust: “Children! I want you to learn. I want you to learn to shoot.”