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Ten minutes with Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian discussed the Armenian Genocide of 1915 earlier this academic year at Lehigh.

Peter Balakian, author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response, visited Lehigh this past fall to read his poetry and give a talk titled "Learning from the Armenian Genocide." Balakian, professor of English and humanities at Colgate University, sat down to share his views with our own Kurt Pfitzer.

Nearly a century has passed since the Armenian Genocide. Why is it important for us to remember?

Eight days before the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler gave a pep talk to his generals and said, "Who today remembers the Armenians? Who today speaks for the annihilation of Armenia?" He was inspired by the fact that the greatest genocide in modern times was being forgotten.

Memory has a moral function. Remembering is not just about pure emotion. We remember because we, as civilized people, strive to correct the horrendous crimes that human beings are capable of committing—genocide being the ultimate crime. We have to believe, no matter how bleak it seems, that we are capable as a civilization of improving and moving forward in humane ways. We remember genocide with the hope of preventing genocide. The victims need to remember for spiritual and psychological reasons. But the bigger reason we remember is for the improvement, if not the preservation, of the human race.

When did you first learn of the genocide of your ancestors, and what effect did it have on you?

The nuts and bolts of this history were not openly spoken about in my family as we were growing up. I didn't come to a concrete understanding of this until my early 20s when I read Morgenthau's memoirs. [Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, wrote Ambassador Morgenthau's Story in 1918.] The book contains several extraordinary chapters about the Armenian Genocide.

Who are the Armenian people, and what is their history and culture?

Armenia is one of the ancient civilizations that is still thriving today, after 2,500 years. So many [other] great civilizations of antiquity in the Middle East and Near East—the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Hittites—are gone. That there is an Armenian republic today represents an extraordinary story of cultural survival against overwhelming odds.

Armenia was the first nation in the world to make Christianity its national religion; it was two decades ahead of Rome. Armenians have a long tradition of literature, art, and music, and they continue to be inspired by it.

Describe the massacres of Armenians of 1894Ð96 in the Ottoman Empire and how they led to the genocide of 1915.

With the end of the Russo-Turkish War in 1878, Armenians felt betrayed because the promises of reform—to ameliorate the conditions of being a Christian minority under Turkish Muslim rule—had not been implemented. Armenians began to form political parties to lobby peacefully for change.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II responded by initiating a series of massacres against the unarmed Armenian civilian population in 1894-96 that left 200,000 people dead. These massacres were not yet genocide. Rather, the sultan sought to punish the Armenians so they would never be politically active again.

But, as sociologist Ervin Straub says, you cannot have genocide without a continuum of destruction. Genocide does not just pop up out of the blue. It emerges from complex cultural conditions, from long periods of hatred and acts of violence against a target population. This was true of the Jews in Europe during World War II. You can't have Hitler without centuries of persecution.

In the Ottoman Empire, the massacres of 1894-96 devalued the Armenian people, enabling mainstream Turkish society to view Armenians as subhuman and [making it] easier to activate ordinary people to do the killing in 1915.

What other historical factors led to the genocide of 1915?

Genocide often happens when a host country feels deeply insecure. From 1910 to 1914, the Balkan Wars decimated much of the Ottoman Empire. In World War I, because of terrible anxieties over the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish policy began to approach a virulent form of racial nationalism. Pan Turkism became prominent; it advocated Turkey for the Turks, a racially homogeneous society. This was very similar to what happened in Germany under the Nazis.

It is easier to carry out genocide during war. The concept of national security makes it easy to blame a people. Also, in wartime, society is militarized in totality, which facilitates killing. World War I gave the Young Turk government the opportunity to solve the "Armenian problem." In fact, Talaat Pasha, Minister of the Interior and architect of the genocide, used the term "Final Solution."

How was the Armenian Genocide carried out?

The genocide was very meticulously planned and implemented by a bureau of the central government known as the Special Organization, or S.O. The S.O. formed mobile killing squads, letting 30,000 criminals out of the prisons, and passed legislation to expedite the arrest and deportation of the entire Armenian population in Ottoman Turkey, which at that time numbered two million people. The railways were used to deport tens of thousands of Armenians from western Turkey to the southeast. The telegraph system was used to communicate messages ordering massacres and deportation.

According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, more than one million people were killed in the genocide. The survivors were driven out of the country and ended up in the major cities of the Middle East. Many later went to Russia, to start the Armenian republic in the new Soviet Union, and to Europe, the United States, and South America.

Do you see signs of a possible thaw in Turkey's attitude toward the historicity of the genocide?

The good news is that many very talented scholars and writers in Turkey are speaking openly of the Armenian Genocide. This creates the chance for a civil society to get a proper education about these events. The next step is for that civil society to have an impact on the government; we have to hope that will happen.

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Spring 2007


Photo by Theo Anderson

Posted on Friday, March 23, 2007

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