A hidden holocaust


History: 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