The Forgotten Genocide: Simms applauds this study of Turks’ Attempt

April 04, 2004, Sunday

The forgotten genocide

Brendan Simms applauds this study of the Ottoman Turks’ attempts to
wipe out the Armenians

by Brendan Simms

The Burning Tigris:
A History of the
Armenian Genocide by Peter Balakian
Heinemann, pounds 18.99, 473 pp pounds 16.99 ( pounds 2.25 p&p) 0870
155 7222

THE MASS murder of the Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey was, as
the Holocaust scholar Israel Charny put it, the “prototype” of
20th-century genocide. In 1894, and again with even greater ferocity
in 1915, the Turkish government engaged in a deliberate strategy of
straightforward massacre, transplantation, death marches, and forced
conversion to Islam.

All this was well known at the time: the Armenian massacres regularly
made the headlines in the British and American press. Indeed, as the
Pulitzer Prize-winning study by Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell,
reminded us recently, it was the Armenian massacres which prompted
the Polish-Jewish lawyer Rafael Lemkin in the 1920s to start thinking
about what kind of international legal safeguards could be put in
place to prevent recurrence. Another, and even more terrible genocide
later, Lemkin’s quest resulted in the United Nations Genocide
Convention of 1948.

Peter Balakian’s new book, The Burning Tigris, which made the New
York Times best-seller lists last year, retells the story of the
Armenian massacres in an accessible way. It is not for the
faint-hearted. In places, the narrative becomes an almost unbearable
catalogue of cruelties and killings. If the author seems to dwell on
these, the reason lies in a revisionist campaign to minimise the
scope of and intention behind the massacres, sponsored by some
otherwise rather eminent historians.

Whether or not the murder of the Armenians was comparable to the
Holocaust against the Jews is a matter of genuine academic debate;
but the broad outline of the killings themselves cannot be disputed.
Even if we discount the testimony of the survivors themselves as
biased, there are still the grim accounts of American observers, and
of the horrified German officers seconded to the Ottomans. In any
case, some senior Turkish figures, such as the Ottoman minister of
the interior, Talaat Pasha, openly bragged about having “disposed of
three-quarters of the Armenians”.

The Armenian genocide was driven by three mutually interlocking
concerns on the part of the Turkish government. First, there was a
profound suspicion of the Christian “otherness” of the Armenians in
an overwhelmingly Muslim polity. The Armenians were not alone in this
respect, of course; the Greeks occupied a similar position.

Second, attempts to modernise the empire led to an emphasis on
“Turkishness”, rather than simply Islam, as a legitimating force.
This only reinforced the exclusion of the Armenians. As Mr Balakian
shows, Armenian converts to Islam were by no means safe: here the
ethnic argument predominated.

Third, and most important, there was the fear of Russian subversion.
The Tsarist empire had been encroaching on the Ottomans in the
Caucasus for some time and had been using the Armenians as a pawn in
this great game; the second wave of attacks took place shortly after
the Ottomans entered the First World War on the German side. In the
minds of the Turkish leadership, therefore, the massacres were also
something of a pre-emptive strike.

The author pays particular attention to the American response to the
genocide. It was, he notes, the first time that the public was
exposed to this kind of man-made catastrophe. At the level of civil
society, the response was overwhelming. Huge sums of money were
donated for relief, and various committees were set up to raise
awareness and put the Ottoman government under pressure. All this
marked the beginning of a global human rights dimension in American

At governmental level, the reaction was rather different. Some State
Department figures, such as the ambassador to Constantinople, Henry
Morgenthau, played an important role in bringing the massacres to the
attention of the outside world. But in general, the received wisdom
within the administration was that Turkey was a sovereign state, and
that no direct American interests were involved.

Mr Balakian is perhaps a little too quick to judge here. It was all
very well for ex-Presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt to call for
American intervention, but there were severe practical difficulties
involved. The kind of military instruments which rendered
humanitarian interventions possible in the former Yugoslavia in the
1990s, such as precision air strikes, were still in their infancy;
and “Johnny Turk” had shown at Gallipoli that he was a much more
formidable foe than the Bosnian Serbs.

The Burning Tigris concludes with an epilogue on the memory of the
Armenian genocide in recent years. It notes that the American
government continues to defer to Turkish sensitivities on the issue.
A Congressional Bill, the Armenian Genocide Resolution, designed to
raise awareness of the massacres, was sabotaged by Clinton’s White
House as recently as the autumn of 2000 after furious Turkish

During the Cold War, when Turkey was a key pillar of NATO in the
eastern Mediterranean, this made some sort of sense. Nor was it
completely unreasonable to maintain this stance throughout the 1990s,
when Turkey was a cornerstone of the containment of Saddam Hussein’s
Iraq. No longer: the refusal of the Turkish government to join the
“coalition of the willing” in 2003 means that the moment may have
arrived when the American government can finally confront Ankara with
the truth.

Brendan Simms’s ‘Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of
Bosnia’, is published in paperback by Penguin.