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Author Peter Balakian discusses Armenian Genocide


Author Peter Balakian gave a poetry reading at the Humanities Center before his lecture.

Eight days before Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler sought to ease his generals’ nerves by asking them, “Who today remembers the Armenians? Who speaks of the annihilation of Armenia?”

Hitler, author Peter Balakian told a Lehigh audience last week, was referring to the systematic efforts by the government of the Ottoman Empire to rid what is now modern Turkey of its estimated one and a half to two million Armenian citizens.

More than one million Armenians died during World War I, most of them in 1915, said Balakian. They were killed by soldiers of the Ottoman Empire or perished during their forced exile from their homes in Anatolia. In addition, some 5,000 churches, monasteries and schools were destroyed.

“The Armenian Genocide may be the first modern example of genocide,” said Balakian, author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, published in 2003. “It was meticulously planned, well-organized and directed by the [Young Turk] government of the Ottoman Empire.

“The history of the 20th century cannot be properly told without understanding how and why this happened. The Armenian Genocide can tell us a lot about the Holocaust, Pol Pot, the Hutus [in Rwanda] and Darfur.”

Almost 70 years after Hitler cited the Armenian Genocide in a pre-World War II “pep talk” to his generals, Balakian said, the world is still struggling to remember an event that changed history. The Turkish government today denies that a genocide took place and is putting on trial, and even imprisoning, Turkish writers and journalists who say that it did.

The issue was revived at Lehigh last spring when Mark Dilsizian ‘08, an Armenian-American majoring in computer science, wrote a column on the genocide for the Lehigh Patriot, an independent student newspaper that was then called The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. The Turkish Student Union countered in the Patriot with an article of its own that denied that a genocide had occurred.

The Visiting Lecturers Committee then joined with other campus groups to sponsor Balakian’s talk on Sept. 14. Balakian, a poet, writer and professor at Colgate University, took part in a debate of the Armenian Genocide that was broadcast last summer by PBS.

Balakian’s talk at Lehigh drew 150 people, including about 40 Turkish students, who held posters outside Whitaker Lab and handed out literature. One leaflet, titled “Tragedy Yes, Genocide No!,” accused Russia and other Entente powers of “provoking Armenians to rebel against the Ottoman Empire, which turned tensions between Turks and Armenians into mutual ethnic conflict. Armenians organized military troops and paramilitary forces started to massacre Turks and Kurds…

“In response to these events, the Ottoman government obliged Armenians to relocate to southern parts of the empire, where, unfortunately, harsh conditions, illness and attacks from Turkish and Kurdish bands caused this event to develop into a tragedy.”

Turkish writers take on their government

Balakian began his speech with a personal appeal to the Turkish students, in which he told them that they were doing their homeland “a disservice and engaging in the worst kind of nationalism” by denying that a genocide against Armenians had occurred during World War I.

“The denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide,” Balakian said. “It demonizes the victims and sets the stage for future genocides.

“It is possible to love one’s country and still be critical of it. American history deals with the genocide of Native American groups and the oppression of African-Americans. We scrutinize our past and it is critical to the future health of American democracy that we do so.”

In the past few years, Balakian said, Turkish writers and publishers have begun discussing and speaking out against the Armenian Genocide. Fifty are now facing jail sentences. These include Ragip Zarakolu, who published the journal of a genocide survivor, and Elif Shafak, author of Bastard of Istanbul, a fictional account of the genocide.

“What is controversial today inside Turkey is not controversial outside Turkey,” Balakian said. “[American President] Teddy Roosevelt called the American Genocide the greatest crime of World War I. Every textbook in America includes a chapter on the genocide, and the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the leading such organization in the world, estimates that 1.2 million Armenian people were killed” during World War I in the Ottoman Empire.

In addition, Balakian said, the European parliament is insisting that Turkey acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, and the role played by the Ottoman government, as a condition of Turkey’s entry into the European Union.

“A dehumanizing continuum of violence”

The seeds for the genocide of the Armenians were planted in the 19th century, Balakian said, when Armenians began protesting their “infidel status” as a Christian group in the mostly Muslim Ottoman Empire. That status, similar to the Jim Crow laws that once prevailed in much of the United States, segregated minorities, denied them military or civil-service careers, and subjected them to onerous tax laws, he said.

“The Armenians petitioned for laws protecting life, liberty and honor, with honor having a particular reference to the treatment of women,” said Balakian. “In response, Sultan Abdul Hamid II initiated a policy of systematic massacres in 1894-96 that resulted in 200,000 unarmed civilians being wiped out.

“This was not yet genocide; the sultan’s goal was not to exterminate a culture and a people, but instead to punish the Armenians so they would never be politically active again.”

The massacres of the 1890s attracted international attention, said Balakian, at a time when photojournalism was emerging in Europe and the U.S. Harper’s Weekly ran essays, cartoons and photos. The Graphic, a London weekly, published photos of mass graves. Julia Ward Howe, the American abolitionist, co-founded the United Friends of Armenia, which organized relief efforts and helped Armenian refugees settle in the U.S. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, led that group’s first international mission to Armenia.

The massacres foreshadowed and made possible the genocide of 1915, said Balakian.

“Genocide, as the sociologist Ervin Straub says, is part of a continuum of destruction. It does not happen overnight or out of a void. By 1915, the Armenian people had been devalued, relegated to sub-human status and demeaned as cheap life—similar to what happened to the Jews in Europe.”

The genocide of 1915 was orchestrated by Talaat Pasha, minister of the interior, and other cabinet officials in the Ottoman Empire, and carried out by a bureau of the central government known as the Special Organization, or S.O. The campaign against the Armenians was multi-faceted, Balakian said. Large numbers of Armenian men were conscripted into the Ottoman army, where they were disarmed, assigned to labor battalions and killed in early 1915. Thirty thousand criminals were released from prison to form mobile killing squads. The Ottoman parliament passed emergency executive laws to allow deportation and confiscation of property. Tens of thousands of Armenians were deported by rail from their homes in western Anatolia. The empire’s telegraph services were used to communicate orders.

“The Nazis during the Holocaust made more highly refined use of technology,” said Balakian, “but technology was first used for racial extermination in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.”

By the end of World War I in 1918, according to estimates by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, fewer than 100,000 Armenians remained in Turkey.

The genocide and the events leading up to it were described by Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in his 1918 book, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, which was published earlier this year for the first time in Turkish.

A strong reaction

A Turkish student asked Balakian after his talk why former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres rejected attempts to compare the Armenian Genocide with the Holocaust and declared that the events of 1915 were not a genocide.

“Israel has acquiesced to Turkish pressure on this,” Balakian said, “because it needs Turkey as an ally. Turkey is the only country in the Middle East that is friendly to Israel; this is what happens in realpolitik.”

Sibel Pamukcu, professor of civil and environmental engineering, said it was “condescending and insulting” of Balakian to tell the Turkish students that they had been “denied” the truth of their country’s history.

“These students are the cream of the crop, they are highly intellectual and very well aware of the sociopolitical realities of the world today and what it was 100 years ago,” said Pamukcu, a native of Turkey. “They are at freedom to criticize their government or any other government at their will.”

Another Turkish questioner said Armenians had fought with Russia against the Ottoman Empire and had committed violent acts against Turks during the 19th century.

“From the mid-1800s to 1890, there were small Turkish pogroms against Armenians,” Balakian said. “In resisting, yes, the Armenians occasionally killed Turkish gendarmes. But to confuse resistance with aggressive behavior is counterfeiting.

“The fact that some Armenians joined the Russian army had nothing to do with the Turkish government’s decision to arrest and kill or deport every Armenian man, woman or child.”

Balakian’s talk was also sponsored by the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Jewish Studies, the Humanities Center, the chaplain’s office, the department of international relations, the department English, the College Democrats, the College Republicans, the Progressive Student Alliance and the Lehigh Patriot.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Photo by John Kish IV

Posted on Tuesday, September 19, 2006

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