Truth is buried with the victims of a genocide
In 1945, a small Armenian press in New York published the diary of Vahram Dadrian, who as a young man had survived the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey during World War I. Dadrian’s book, “To the Desert: Pages From My Diary,” is now being published for the first time in English, by the Gomidas Institute. He began his diary in May 1915, as the Armenian population of Turkey was being subjected to mass killing, forced deportation, starvation, rape, exposure to typhus and other diseases resulting from squalid, crowded living conditions and ultimately -- for those who survived, probably no more than 500,000 out of a population of over 2 million -- exile.
Dadrian’s diary is like no other survivor account I know of. It is significant largely for having been written during the genocide -- unlike most survivor accounts, which are memoirs after the fact -- and for documenting events as they unfolded day by day. Because Dadrian’s was a privileged family, he was not murdered nor did he suffer the worst horrors of the deportation; thus he was able to keep a diary even during the most tumultuous months of relocation and exile. After his family had made it to Aleppo, in Syria, from their hometown of Chorum in eastern Turkey, he wrote of the suffering of his fellow deportees:
"[O]n the neighboring streets ... lie thousands of sick people, all of them fading away, dying, drawing their last breaths. One sobs and asks for water, another breathes in a tragic wheeze, the body of another twitches and writhes.... And sitting near all of them are a mother who has lost her mind ... a confused orphan ... a young woman suffering from deep depression.... Many of the suffering have no one to care for them. [Some] are dead, their eyes still open, their pupils shining like pale glass, producing terrifying emotions in those around them.”
Dadrian’s book is an important document, an engaging chronicle and a painful reminder of the human costs of war, mass killing and lost homelands. Yet in his introduction to the 1945 edition he wrote: “Everything has been forgotten. Our ... dead could never have imagined, even for a fraction of a moment, that they would have been forgotten so soon.” No more than 30 years after the Armenian population of Turkey had been all but obliterated, this fact had been almost completely erased from popular consciousness.
Governments’ deliberate obfuscation and erasure of the atrocities they commit and the collusion of the press and public in forgetting or ignoring history’s abominations are common enough. What is remarkable about the 20th century’s first genocide is that during World War I and up through the early 1920s, the annihilation of the Armenian people by “the Sick Man of Europe” -- as the disintegrating Ottoman Empire was called in the Western press -- was steadily reported in the newspapers of Western Europe and the United States and denounced as a “crime against humanity and civilization.”
In “The Burning Tigris,” Peter Balakian’s sweeping new chronicle of the genocide and the humanitarian movement it inspired in America, the author points out that in 1915 the New York Times alone published 145 articles on the Armenian massacre, roughly one every 2 1/2 days, describing it as a campaign of “systematic race extermination.” Today the same newspaper employs the phrases “hotly debated” and “disputed” when referring to the genocide and (notably) does not employ the “G” word at all, except when quoting others. (One wonders why the paper has not simply consulted its own archives of 1915 to 1922 for evidence.) What, then, happened? How did the Armenian holocaust, which in the West was once a topic of debate and concern, ultimately become the forgotten genocide?
In “The Burning Tigris,” Balakian addresses these and related questions. He documents American involvement in things Armenian dating to the 19th century and makes the claim that America’s involvement with the Christian Armenians of the Ottoman Empire constituted the first American human rights movement. The Near East Relief organization, founded in 1919 to assist Armenian refugees, provided more than $116 million for the cause during its 10-year lifetime -- the equivalent of more than a billion dollars today.
One of the many strengths of Balakian’s study is the sheer marshaling of information. He draws on disparate sources to create an eminently readable text, giving a vivid and comprehensive account of events as they affected Armenians beginning in the late 1800s, through the genocide of 1915-1918, and up until 1927, when the United States established diplomatic relations with the modern Turkish Republic.
A number of historical figures -- some of them, like President Woodrow Wilson, well known and others less well known -- are drawn in great detail in the book: Henry Morgenthau Sr., the American ambassador to Turkey during World War I, who fought tirelessly on behalf of the Armenian minority and whose memoir is one of the seminal texts documenting the genocide; Jesse Jackson and Leslie Davis, the American consuls in the Ottoman interior, who were material witnesses to the atrocities and sent Morgenthau copious reports of it; and a handful of philanthropic missionaries.
Anyone unfamiliar with the genocide will gain here a full understanding of its historical context, the scope and detail of its horrors and the continuing denial by Turkey that the massacres ever took place.
Yet to fully understand the importance and significance of Balakian’s book, one must be aware that Armenians are constantly having to prove the genocide of 1915. One must be aware, in other words, of the power and reach of the industry of denial. According to Balakian:
“By the 1970s Turkey’s official policy of denial had become unique in its intensity and its attempts at manipulating public opinion. The Turkish government pressured and lobbied the press to not use the word ‘genocide,’ and demanded as well that ‘the Turkish side’ be accorded equal time whenever the Armenian Genocide was discussed in the press or on the air. In diffuse, evasive rhetoric aimed at subverting the truth, the Turkish government used the phrase ‘the alleged Armenian Genocide,’ and referred to it as ‘civil war’ or the Orwellian doublespeak: ‘intercommunal warfare.’ ”
Deniers of the genocide are not, unfortunately, limited to crackpots working out of their garage but include such eminent popular historians as Bernard Lewis and Stanford Shaw. Balakian notes that the government of Turkey gives considerable sums of money to American universities (including Princeton, where Lewis is professor emeritus) to fund scholarship perpetuating the myth that the genocide did not occur. As the late Holocaust scholar Terrence Des Pres wrote some years ago in the Yale Review, “What is happening to the university if increasing numbers of scholars occupy positions funded or promoted by governments and have no ethical qualms about work that aims, sometimes less, sometimes more, to shore up the official claims of nation-states?”
So it is that many Armenians feel a tremendous pressure to write into history that which has been erased and revised by the Turkish government, with all of the power and influence governments possess to tell their version of history. As the author documents, Turkey’s geopolitical importance means that the U.S. in particular doesn’t want to offend Ankara by bringing up a touchy subject. In 2000, when a resolution commemorating the slaughter and specifically describing it as “genocide” was heading to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, “where it was expected to pass” -- a simple nonbinding resolution, of symbolic significance only -- Turkey threatened “to close its air bases to U.S. planes ... and cancel weapons contracts” with the U.S. (Turkey buys 80% of its weapons from the U.S. and is the third-largest recipient of its military aid, after Israel and Egypt.) Consequently President Clinton called the House speaker and asked that the bill be killed in the interest of “national security.” It was. Balakian’s book shouts loudly and forcefully against the forgetting, intending that this history should not go unheeded.
Like Dadrian’s book, Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller’s “Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope” gives us history from a very personal perspective. This book -- like their previous one, “Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide” -- is the result of hundreds of interviews conducted in Armenian and laboriously translated into English. Whereas their first work focused primarily on survivors’ experiences during and after the events of 1915-1918, this book details the survivors’ post-genocidal history, including a description of the devastating 1988 earthquake in northwestern Armenia, the pogroms in the late 1980s against Armenians in Azerbaijan, the 1993-1994 war in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the struggles for economic viability in the budding Republic of Armenia. The chapter about the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is particularly compelling, given that most Americans know little about this conflict over territory between Armenians and Azeris, reminiscent -- for Armenians, at least -- of the events in Turkey during World War I.
If, as the German novelist W.G. Sebald has written, the dead are ever returning to us, then perhaps it is our duty to listen and to record their histories as best we can, with as much integrity as is available to us at the moment. Each of these books in its way is attempting such a feat -- the small and large shouts against forgetting. We must only listen, read.