The Burning Tigris

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Balakian, Peter. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response. New York: Harper-Collins, 2003.


Today, few Americans know of the Turkish massacre of the Armenians in the 1890s and 1910s. Even by 1939, Hitler remarked to his generals the week before the German invasion of Poland, “Who, after all, today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?” But as they were progressing, American newspapers reported extensively on the genocides, and American relief organizations raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund relief for Armenian survivors. Peter Balakian, in The Burning Tigris explains the history of the massacres, American response both within Turkey and within the United States, and the aftermath of the genocides.

Balakian’s book is divided into four sections, beginning with descriptions of the Armenian genocides in the 1890s and 1915 and ending with American witness reports and the aftermath of the genocide from an American perspective. He writes in a narrative style, which makes it easy for him to incorporate quotations from the many witness reports of the events in Turkey. In the 1890s, the American public was fascinated with the idea of Armenia. The oldest and easternmost Christian nation in the world, Armenia had become a mecca for Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century and many prominent American citizens had ties there. The genocide of the 1890s, ordered by the mentally unstable Sultan Abdul Hamid II began nominally as a response to Armenian protests for tax reforms and civil rights, but was actually a jihad against the Christian Armenians. There was outcry in the United States and in Europe, resulting in the formation of activist groups and committees to raise money. The Armenian genocide in 1895 was the first time the American Red Cross participated in an international relief effort, with 75-year-old Clara Barton arriving in Constantinople in 1896. Missionaries already in Turkey helped the best they could, trying to stop disease outbreaks and prevent starvation. The news of the massacres permeated popular culture in the United States and Great Britain, with the publication of photographs and articles and the support of politicians as influential as William Gladstone.

After the end of the killings in the 1890s, which resulted in the deaths of about 200,000 Armenians, the genocide was far from over. Out of the Tanzimet (a societal restructuring which began in the 1870s) came a political movement called the Young Turks, which denied the power of the sultan and fought for the restoration of the constitution. For a while, there was hope of equality, but it soon became evident that the Young Turks were extremely nationalistic and did not plan to extend rights to the non-Muslim minorities. The beginning of World War I (and the Ottoman Empire’s alliance with Germany) saw what the Turkish government believed to be a national security crisis. With a Sunni call for jihad in November 1914, the government once again set into motion a systematic plan to annihilate the Armenians.

The plan was similar throughout the country. Men were rounded up, purportedly for wartime work in the labor battalions, but in reality were taken and killed by mobile killing squads (which Balakian likens to the World War II Einsatzgruppen). Women and children were then taken, many raped, deported on rail or on foot, and massacred in remote locations. The killings were brutal—fingernails and hair torn out, bodies slashed to avoid the use of valuable bullets, people thrown off cliffs—and in this way, probably 1.2-1.3 million Armenians were murdered during World War I.

Ambassador Henry Morgenthau was outraged by the killings, and gathered testimonies and evidence to raise public awareness in the United States. Morgenthau received messages (some encoded) from his consuls all over the country, all witnessing the same type of brutality. They were able to document the numbers of Armenians being killed as well as the massive plunder scheme the Turks were perpetrating with Armenian possessions. Like the massacres in the 1890s, knowledge of the Armenian genocide in the United States was widespread and the American people raised millions of dollars to send for relief.

Monetary relief was all the United States provided, though. America did not declare war on the Ottoman Empire, partially because of the anti-war stance taken by American missionaries in the area. Although an American declaration of war could have helped to end the genocide, missionaries were fearful that their property would be seized and that they would be expelled from the country and unable to offer aid to genocide survivors. Even after the war ended, the United States was unable to provide tangible support for an Armenian nation. An attempt to create an American mandate for Armenia failed in the Senate, and there was not enough public pressure for just war crimes trials against the perpetrators.

As soon as the war ended and the Kemalist regime took power, Turkey began to deny that a genocide had ever occurred against the Armenians. There were deaths, for sure, but it was the result of a civil war in which both sides sustained casualties. This denial of the genocide is not based on fact, but echoes Holocaust denial—first, the denier creates the illusion that there is scholarly debate about the matter. Balakian gives many examples of the promulgation of Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government has gone so far as to fund chairs in history departments for genocide deniers and to threaten the United States government if Congress passes resolutions regarding Armenian genocide remembrance.

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

Balakian's book is fascinating, especially as it responds to the scholarship about the United States' role in the Holocaust. Unlike the Holocaust, the Armenian genocides were well-known by the American people (likely because of a large American presence in Armenia that was lacking during World War II) and American relief efforts raised millions of dollars for refugees. The book tells a long story in almost 400 pages; the book certainly could have been much longer. There is so much to tell that almost everything in the book seems skimmed over and not fully described, especially in regards to the end of the massacres in the 1910s and what happened to the Armenian community.

Balakian is certainly and rightly outraged by Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide and is himself a prominent figure combating this denial. The book (and Balakian's argument) would have been better served by a more thorough explanation of his source material. Though there is generally no sense in trying to combat genocide deniers (as their beliefs are not based on fact), Balakian necessarily uses published primary source material. A close read of the book shows that this is because primary source material in Turkey was destroyed after the war and witness testimony exists almost exclusively in published works. Balakian should have explained this more thoroughly why he was using published sources as opposed to original archival documents.

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