A History of International Human Rights and Forgotten Heroes
In this national bestseller, the critically acclaimed author Peter Balakian brings us a riveting narrative of the massacres of the Armenians in the 1890s and of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Using rarely seen archival documents and remarkable first-person accounts, Balakian prese
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it was amazing
An excellent overview of the stages of the Armenian genocide during World War 1 and how it sprang from deliberate government policies and a long history of oppression. I knew how it has been neglected in many ways in the world’s consciousness, but until reading this I didn’t understand why. I also didn’t understand how much it was a replay of the massacres of 20 years earlier. Bearing witness to this tragic tale is an important part of my enlightenment. However, reading this book was far from si
There is a lot of history tucked into this book. A preface reminds us how the Armenian people and culture emerged in eastern Anatolia thousands of years ago, how it was the first state to adopt Christianity (in 301 AD), and then after periods of being conquered in turn by neighboring Byzantine, Persian, and Russian Empires, the Armenians attained a small kingdom on the Mediterranean between the 11th and 14th centuries (Cilician Armenia). With the rise of the Ottoman Turkish empire in the 16th century, the Armenians somehow retained their identity under four centuries of their rule, maintaining prosperous professional and business classes despite their limited rights as “infidels”.
As the Ottoman Empire began to experience unrest with its Christian subjects in its European territories, its sultans began to get more oppressive to its Christian minorities in Anatolia, including its populations of ethnic Greeks and Assyrians as well as the Armenians. Small incidences of protest by Armenian intellectuals, such as over the double taxation they were subject to by both the state and Kurdish warlords, were becoming used as justification for localized massacres by the military and isolated pogroms by Turks stirred up by propaganda. In 1894-95, such massacres swept systematically through Turkey under orchestration of Sultan Ahmed Hamid II, resulting in about 100 thousand Armenians killed directly and an equal number indirectly.
Modern Turkey with the tiny Republic of Armenia on its eastern border
Historical map with hatched boundaries denoting provinces with predominant Armenian populations during Ottoman rule in the center, Cilician Armenia of the Middle Ages on the left, and the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia in the upper right. Almost all these place names were new to me, but not not now.
The book’s narrative starts in the Boston area in the 1890’s. Right at the time American imperialism was beginning to emerge, a counterforce of humanitarian activism was being born. The New England Protestant missionaries of the 19th century had developed a great affinity for the Armenians, establishing missions, schools, colleges, and hospitals throughout Turkey. They were well placed to spread the word about what was happening and to help lead the relief effort. Allied with the missionary organizations in the U.S. were leaders steeped in human rights causes of abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. Balakian presents us a moving story of public speaking, fundraising, and journalism by people like Julia Ward Howe and Isabel Stone Barrows. Soon an international relief effort was mounted under the auspices of the American Red Cross and led by Clara Barton. This amazing effort included not only food, clothing, and medical resources, but also farming implements and supplies to help mitigate the impending famine. This new form of American leadership and precursor to disaster response agencies we have today is something to be proud of.
The political response was less effective. An American senator, frustrated in a lack of cohesive and effective response, is quoted as saying: “Has it come to this, that in the last days of the nineteenth century humanity itself is placed on trial?” No international pressures could change Hamid’s strategy to total denial of responsibility. Just 13 years later, in 1909 another set of massacres of 15-30 thousand Armenians took place in the Adana region north of today’s Syria. The rise of the so-called YoungTurks had led to establishment of a secular constitutional government led by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), and what happened in Adana was a violent reaction by populations who favored restitution of the theocracy and antagonism toward Armenians who expected to gain rights under the new regime. Later, any form of alignment between the oppressed Armenians and the CUP was doomed by the unfavorable outcome to the Ottoman empire from the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13. The loss of dominion over Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, and lands to Greece and the massive immigration of Muslim refugees from eastern Europe both greatly amplified a radical nationalism tied up with a perceived threat from the Christian minorities of Anatolia.
With the onset of World War 1 and excuses of national security, the Ottoman government had more freedom to pursue a more direct strategy of extermination of the Armenians. The stunning defeat after their ill planned invasion of Armenian regions of Russia in 1914 helped give birth to this strategy. With about 1 to 1.5 million Armenians dying from the program of government between 1915 and 1920, we are clearly in the same ballpark as the Nazi Holocaust. In many ways it served as a model for that Final Solution. As in Nazi Germany laws allowing deportation of any population suspected of sedition and seizure of their property paved the way for systematic resolution of the “Armenian Problem”. Balakian gives us a clear picture of the pervasiveness of the slaughter in 1915 throughout all provinces of Turkey, including the definitive smoking guns in the form of coded orders from the triumvirate among the “Young Turks” running the nation through the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP): Talaat Pasha (Ministry of Interior), Enver Pasha (Ministry of War), and Jemal Pasha (Ministry of Navy).
Under the organizing plan of a secretive security branch termed the “Special Organization” and help from regular military and police forces whole Armenian neighborhoods and villages were emptied, first of the able men under the guise of work gangs and then the women, children, and elderly under the typical deception of a temporary move for safety. The young men and leaders were usually killed soon in secluded locations, and the rest put on long transports by cart, trains, and/or forced marches to multiple remote killing sites. Many were killed with knives and crude weapons and disposed of in trenches or lakes, frequently in conjunction with rape of the women. Thousands of women were forced into sexual slavery in harems and kids stolen to be raised in Muslim families. But the majority died due to active neglect leading to starvation and exposure.
Among the many personal stories that put a human face to this history, that of Ambassador Morgantheu’s intense but failing efforts to stop the slaughter was especially heroic and moving for me. The story of Leslie Davis, an American missionary in the central Anatolian province of Harput, was even more dramatic, as he risked his life to monitor, protect, and harbor Armenians in the thick of unfolding events. His account to sneaking out a lake where tens of thousands were killed months earlier (Goeljuk,which is the origin of the Tigris River)and experiencing through his eyes human remains everywhere sticking up out of the sand or in piles at the bottom of ravines made me cry. As typical, the first to be disposed of were the intellectuals and prominent citizens, heading off any organized response of resistance. A professor at the local Armenian college (Donabed Lulejian) escaped from this fate after being tortured and harbored by the consulate captured the lakeside massacres in a moving prose poem with these lines from “A Handful of Earth”:
At least a handful of earth for these slain bodies, for these whitened bones! A handful of earth, at least, for these unclaimed dead …
There are our women with breasts uncovered and limbs bare. A handful of earth to shield their honor! There are our boys, naked and torn, with bullets in their hearts and in their heads: a handful of earth to cover them! There are our brides, disemboweled, hacked to pieces, with babies yet unborn:a handful of earth only, to screen from our eyes this sorrowful scene! There are our boys with feet cut away and heads battered against the stone…
I had learned some about the massacres in 1915 from Bohjalian’s “The Sandcastle” girls. That novel covered mainly the killings in the deserts near Aleppo, Syria, primarily of women and children that were already decimated from forced marches from distant villages. I needed this picture of the systematic orchestration of the genocide. I didn’t know that President Wilson’s counsel from his friends in the missionary societies contributed to America never declaring war on Turkey. Their argument that neutrality would allow the missions to remain in place and maintain preventative leverage and relief efforts. I also didn’t know that there were war crime trials after the war in which the government culpability was exposed. Only a few mid-level government participants were sentenced before the legal process was aborted by a new war for Turkish independence led by Mustafa Kemal (aka Ataturk).
Because America was not directly in the war against the Ottomans, it had no leverage in the slow European negotiations of peace. The politics of oil and business prospects made the fate of other areas of the former empire of more interest than the goal of a safe homeland for the Armenians. In 1918, the Armenian dominated regions over the border in Russian Georgia as a republic and many refugees from Anatolia migrated there. President Wilson directed two different American commissions to review the prospects of a reconstituted Armenia that included much of eastern Anatolia and parts of these Russian province under a proposed U.S. mandate. However, in this critical period Wilson was prevented from achieving such a goal by his concentration on the League of Nations, debility from a stroke, and the post-war isolationism of the Republican majority in Congress.
In reaction to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which carved up the Ottoman Empire among the Allies and did grant Armenia a homeland , Turks rallied behind the revolutionary government of Kemal in fighting back. An early step in this Turkish War of Independence involved invasion of Russian Armenia and continuation of the plan to wipe Armenia off the map and history. The Bolsheviks countered this plan and, in the face of total obliteration, the Armenians opted to accept the offer of becoming the smallest republic in the Soviet Union. This was not much of a homeland for the millions of refugees of the diaspora. Only 71 years later in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, did this reduced Armenia emerge as an independent republic.
So why was this genocide forgotten? Part of it was the vast scale of human destruction from World War 1 and, as I noted, the greater interest by Europe and eventually the U.S. in the more lucrative parts of the Ottoman Empire. The denial of the genocide by successive Turkish governments continues to this day, and the dependence of the U.S. and later NATO on Turkey as an partner to hold the line against Soviet expansion kept the U.S. and Europe from pushing the issue significantly. With each event of commemorating the massacres, any American presidents who participated have been careful not to single Turkey out as responsible of genocide.
Somehow for most other nations when actions of heinous brutality fall back in former generations, they find a way to fess up to a past regime breaking bad (e.g. the U.S. as a slave nation and grossly destructive to the Native Americans). Recently, President Obama went to Hiroshima and at least expressed sympathy for the massive deaths we wreaked on civilians. Though it did not represent an apology, it does acknowledge what we did and the human destruction that was wreaked. Reading about this genocide and others and massive wartime deaths of civilians, I do feel regret on behalf of the “we” I feel for the human race. The professor who wrote about his community who were obliterated at the lake in Harput (and later died of typhus in 1918 after starting an orphanage) is honored by Balakian for putting his experience into lasting words that defy being erased:
Lulejian transformed his witness into a benediction, into a prayer for the dead, reminding us that if language can’t bring back the dead, it can insist on the sacredness of life, the civility of burial, and the dignity of memory.