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  • A hidden holocaust: The Turkish state has never had to answer for th

    The Irish Times
    May 29, 2004

    A hidden holocaust

    The Turkish state has never had to answer for the genocide of its
    Armenian minority nearly 100 years ago

    By JOSEPH O'NEILL


    The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide By Peter Balakian
    Heinemann, 329pp. 18.99

    That history is a form of advocacy is nowhere more clearly illustrated
    than in the continuing controversies, and silences, surrounding the
    destruction of the Armenian presence in the Ottoman Empire. It is
    not in dispute that over 100,000 Armenians died in the nationwide
    massacres of 1894-96 and the Cilician massacres of 1909. Nor is
    it disputed that mass deportations and killings carried out in 1915
    under the Young Turk government - wartime measures undertaken to solve
    finally the problem of an alien, potentially unreliable minority -
    led to the Armenian population in Turkey falling from 1.5 million in
    1914 to 100,000 in 1923. The contentious issue is the precise legal
    and moral character of this apocalypse; specifically, whether the
    Armenians fell prey to a deliberate attempt to exterminate them as
    a race. Were they, in other words, the victims of genocide?

    Even to state this question, in the view of Peter Balakian, is to risk
    collusion in mass murder. The argument against genocide - kept alive
    by "the Turkish government and a small group of its sympathizers",
    who characterise the fate of the Turkish Armenians as essentially
    disastrous rather than genocidal - is, according to Balakian, so
    plainly made in bad faith and so obviously meritless that it is
    "morally wrong to privilege the deniers by according them space in
    the . . . media". For the avoidance of doubt and personal culpability,
    then, I should perhaps make the following clear: even if you disregard
    every shred of survivor testimony, the Armenian genocide in 1915 is
    an open-and-shut case. The extraordinarily detailed contemporaneous
    accounts of Western bystanders (diplomats, missionaries, businessmen
    and other eyewitnesses) and the testimonies forthcoming at the Ottoman
    courts martial in 1919, can leave no intellectually conscientious
    person in any reasonable doubt that probably more than a million
    (exact numbers are inevitably hard to compute) Armenians were
    systematically and intentionally put to death as part of a scheme
    of racial elimination. Why, though, has this crime not received
    the general and profound acceptance afforded to, say the Jewish
    holocaust? Why, for example, have successive American (and indeed
    Israeli) administrations refused to acknowledge the genocide?

    In The Burning Tigris, Balakian approaches these questions - and the
    evidence of genocide - by chronicling the American response to the
    lot of the Armenians. The story begins in the 1890s, when news of the
    atrocities authorised by Sultan Abdul Hamid II began to filter back
    from the many American missionaries posted in eastern Turkey. Thanks
    to such remarkable women as Clara Barton (the first president of the
    American Red Cross) and Julia Ward Howe (the famous suffragist and
    abolitionist), the fate of the Armenians - an ancient Christian nation
    threatened by the heinous Turk - became a burning public issue. Acting
    to safeguard "the spirit of civilization, the sense of Christendom,
    the heart of humanity" (Howe's words), huge charitable sums were
    donated by the American public. This effort, Balakian notes, marked
    the beginning of the modern era of American international human rights
    relief, in which specialised relief teams were sent to the site of the
    disaster. For nearly three decades, American humanitarian sentiment
    and the "starving Armenians" were practically synonymous.

    Then comes the terrible meat of the book - the Turkish campaign to
    wipe out the Armenians in 1915. By chance, a cadre of literate and
    scrupulous Americans was on hand to see or hear about most of it,
    and rose to the occasion. In particular, Henry Morgenthau, the US
    ambassador in Istanbul, received a flood of dispatches from all
    sectors of Turkey describing unimaginable horrors. Balakian most
    effectively collates and summarises these, and the picture that
    emerges - ravines filled with corpses, freight trains packed with
    deportees, emaciated naked women and children filing into Aleppo,
    deportees dying in typhus-stricken encampments in the Syrian desert
    - is utterly clear and utterly damning. Morgenthau heroically did
    his best to ameliorate matters, but Washington refused to act. Once
    again, though, the American public reacted with enormous generosity.
    After the war, public sentiment relating to the Armenians gradually
    fizzled out. As US-Turkish relations improved, few chose to dwell
    on what happened to the Armenians. To this day, the Turkish state
    remains bitterly hostile to any recognition of the genocide and,
    because of its importance as a NATO member and bulwark of moderate
    secularism in the Muslim world, is allowed to get away with it.

    The Burning Tigris is a scorching and essential book, but not always
    circumspect. Little attempt is made to explain the sense of religious
    and national imperilment that turned ordinary, peaceable Turks into
    butchers of women and children. ("Nothing is so cruel as fear," noted
    the British vice-consul, Maj Doughty-Wylie, whose superb account
    of the 1909 Adana inter-communal massacres Balakian heavily relies
    on without making reference to those parts that mitigate Turkish
    culpability.) This does not substantially detract, however, from
    the overwhelming power of the case Balakian presents. We are left,
    nonetheless, with at least two dismaying conclusions. First, that even
    in questions of genocide our capacity for sympathy is closely related
    to our self-interest; second, that advocacy such as Peter Balakian's,
    however brilliant, is only as effective as the fairness of the hearing
    afforded it.

    Joseph O'Neill is the author of two novels and, most recently,
    Blood-Dark Track: A Family History
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