WFAE 90.7
April 22 2015



Even as the Obama White House announced its observance of the
centennial, its press release spoke of atrocities and avoided the
use of the word genocide - that, despite President Obama having run
on the issue that what happened to the Armenians should be spoken of
as genocide. Well, the American writer Peter Balakian has studied our
country's response to those events a hundred years ago. Back in 2003,
he wrote "The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide And America's
Response." He joins us from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.,
where he's a professor of English. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: First, a vocabulary lesson, please. The word genocide was
coined in 1944 to describe the Nazis' extermination campaign against
the Jews. That's about 30 years after the slaughter of the Armenians.

Is the case for using it to describe what happened to the Armenians

BALAKIAN: Yes, well, Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish legal scholar
who developed the term genocide and who is the father of the U.N.

Genocide Convention of 1948 - his thinking about genocide begins with
the Armenian massacres of 1915, and he writes about that at length.

It's Lemkin who first coined the term Armenian genocide around
mid-1940s. And you see him on CBS News in February of 1949 talking very
precisely about the Armenian genocide. So it's Lemkin's conceptual
notion, I think, that the Armenian genocide is the cornerstone of
the concept of genocide in the modern era.

SIEGEL: One complication here is there actually were mass murderers -
massacres against Armenians dating back to the 1890s in the Ottoman
Empire, and those are not called the Armenian genocide.

BALAKIAN: Well, you know, I think that one could conceptualize the
history of the mass killing of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as
something that evolves along what the sociologist Ervin Staub calls a
continuum of destruction. The Armenian massacres of the 1890s, which
were putative - they were punishments for Armenian progressive reform
movement. They weren't designed to exterminate the entire population
or rid the Ottoman Empire of its Armenian population, but they begin
a very important process of devaluing and dehumanizing this ethnic
minority group.

SIEGEL: What's different by 1950 - and you've reported on the documents
that show it - was the planning, the policy, the bureaucracy that
went into the mass murder of Armenians.

BALAKIAN: I think that the Ottoman government's final solution for
the Armenian people of Turkey represented a shift in organized,
state-planned mass killing. The Ottoman government was able to
expedite its mass killing of a targeted minority population in a
concentrated period of time. So it's important to realize that the
Ottoman government murdered more than a million Armenians between
1915 and 1916 alone - perhaps 1.2 million is the number you come to
by the end of the summer of 1916.

SIEGEL: You wrote about the American response to what was happening to
the Armenians starting in the 1890s. There's really a seminal moment
for an American conscience about what's going on in the world and the
abuses of human rights. You would say this really is the beginning
of our concern about other people in the world.

BALAKIAN: That's right. I mean, I think what's interesting here
is that there was a grassroots movement among ordinary Americans
who were giving money for rescue and relief during their church and
synagogue collection plates on Saturdays and Sundays. And there was
also a movement among elites, among intellectuals - and of course this
is an important context for understanding American relief projects
for the Armenians during the genocide period. For the first time,
Americans go overseas to do relief and rescue work. And this happened
under the auspices of Clara Barton, the director of the Red Cross,
who, for the first time, would take her teams 8,000 miles away to
the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire to do rescue and relief
work. And that is really a milestone moment. And I think this is the
beginning of a kind of new internationalism in American culture.

SIEGEL: Professor Balakian, thanks for talking with us today.

BALAKIAN: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Peter Balakian is the author of "The Burning Tigris:
The Armenian Genocide And America's Response." The book's Turkish
translation will be published later this year. Transcript provided
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