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The Armenian genocide

I didn’t expect to open a book on the Armenian genocide and have it begin at Faneuil Hall. Nor did I expect the speaker quoted to be Julia Ward Howe, the great abolitionist and feminist who gave the world “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This was in 1894. It was a gusty November evening, and the crowd had come to support Armenia’s cause. Each speaker rose to decry the Ottoman sultan, Abdul Hamid II, who was murderously trying to rid his land of minority Christians — 200,000 Armenians had already died. “So, on this sacred arena,” cried Howe, “I throw down the glove which challenges the Turkish Government to its dread account.” Then she rose up in full: “What have we for us in this contest? The spirit of civilization, the sense of Christendom, the heart of humanity.” The applause was deafening.

In “The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response” (HarperCollins, 2003) poet and writer Peter Balakian presents this vignette and makes the grander case that the Armenian cause launched the era of international human rights in America. Mark Twain advocated for the Armenians, as did Stephen Crane, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Clara Barton. It’s America-centric, of course, to come at this subject from our side. But one reason we know about what happened in the Armenian genocide — which officially started a hundred years ago, in 1915 — is because of reports from American missionaries who were there. Note the Yankee ties again; many came from Harvard, Andover Theological Seminary, and Mount Holyoke.


All this stateside Armenian advocacy, I confess, was news to me. Like most Americans, I know more about the Holocaust and Hitler’s famous declaration that he could get away with his actions because “who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” What I needed was a powerful overview. And I got it in “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide” (Princeton, 2015) by Ronald Grigor Suny. And so I learned that Armenia was the first Christian country, one reason modern Christian missionaries were so captivated by it. Armenians developed their own alphabet in THE 5th century and were a literate people. Many were traders and entrepreneurs, often wealthier than their less literate Muslim neighbors.

For much of the Ottoman Empire’s history, minorities were accorded second-class status but were not highly persecuted. The shift came as the empire declined in the 19th century, and Armenians appealed to Europe for reform of the sultanate, with some Armenian groups committing violence against the empire and reaching out to Christian Russia in solidarity. The Hamidian massacres of 1894-96 were not genocide, Suny declares, but an “exemplary repression” meant to show what would happen if Ottoman Armenians rebelled further.


The game changed in 1915-1916, as Western countries were distracted by World War I: “What would evolve into genocide began haphazardly in policies designed both to rearrange the demographic topography of Anatolia and to prepare for the war with Russia and its European Allies,” writes Suny. By 1923, after the final massacres and expulsions, 90 percent of the area’s Armenians — at least a million people — would be gone.

To this day, Turkey denies it committed genocide. So the impact of this next book by a scholar of Turkish origin cannot be overstated, for it traces how the campaign was calculated and justified, citing 600 newly-analyzed Ottoman archival sources. “The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire” (Princeton, 2012) is by Taner Akçam of Clark University, and its sheer accumulation of evidence and math is devastating.


Akçam finds that the Young Turks party, which came to power in 1908, developed a policy stipulating that Christian minorities couldn’t constitute more than 5-10 percent in any region. Greek Christians were subject to removal and brutality, but Armenians to annihilation because the Turks perceived any potential alliance with Russia as an existential threat. “The relationship between demographic policy and genocide is a linchpin of this book,” Akçam writes.

Thus he traces the “dual track mechanism” of the Young Turks, officially sanctioning deportation, unofficially green lighting murder — thereby ruthlessly achieving that math. Numbers can numb, it must be said. So next I turned to two much more personal books: “Goodbye, Antoura: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide” (Stanford University, 2015, first out in Armenian in 1992) is the harrowing boyhood story of Karnig Panian, who becomes orphaned in the genocide, one of “the last remaining sons of an annihilated nation.”

His chronology was all too common: In World War I, Armenian men are disarmed, called into military “labor” battalions, and then murdered. “The departure of our men began a chain of terrible events,” Panian writes, and soon a government crier and drummer show up to announce evacuations. Armenian women and children are forced to flee south to Syria. Females are assaulted and abducted. Food and water run out. Karnig’s mother dies, and his grandparents save his life by putting him into an orphanage in Antoura, Lebanon. At least it’s got food. The boys must renounce their culture and language, though, and take Turkish names. When, later, the supervisors flee, the boys must fend for themselves. Recalls Panian: “[I]t was so easy to die, and so hard to survive.”


Another survivor testifies in “Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the American Genocide 1915-1918” (Vintage, 2010, the first Armenian volume was published in 1922, the second in 1959). Peter Balakian translated this extraordinary recollection by his great uncle, Grigoris Balakian, a priest and one of some 250 prominent Armenians arrested on April 24, 1915, the date now designated as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

Balakian is exiled outside Ankara, and then deported south to the infamous Syrian killing fields of Der Zor (now Dier ez-Zor, fought over by ISIS). Along the way, men are lashed together with rope and the Turks massacre them “with axes, like trees being pruned.” Meanwhile the women and children are left in the desert with no provisions. “In reality,” Balakian explains, “deport was synonymous with murder.” He somehow escapes, and for the next few years survives by various subterfuges, posing as a railway worker and mentally-ill hospital patient.

In “Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide” (Oxford, 2015) Thomas de Waal updates “the longest and most bitter historical dispute still alive.” It helps keep the Armenia-Turkey border closed, and when prominent Turks (like novelist Orhan Pamuk) mention the atrocities, they are jailed for “insulting Turkishness.” Turkish textbooks call Armenians “traitors” and Istanbul’s Military Museum claims “The aim of these ‘unfounded genocide claims’ is to decrease the power of Türkiye in the region by leaving Türkiye alone in the international arena.” Add in a discussion of modern Armenia, where genocide claims are secondary to the fight for independence, and the story feels painfully fresh.


Given that rousing night at Faneuil Hall, the Boston area’s robust Armenian population, and the fact that Watertown plays home to the Armenian Library and Museum of America, I will end locally, with an affecting, even thrilling book by a Boston University journalism professor. Lou Urenek’s “The Great Fire: One American’s Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide” (Ecco, 2015) tells the story of when the Turks burned the city of Greek-occupied Smyrna at the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922. He calls this the last event of the Armenian genocide, noting that the Turks also massacred the city’s Greek and Assyrian Christians. Pushed to the harbor, the flames drawing nearer, 250,000 refugees are rescued, led by Asa Jennings, a tubercular American missionary and Halsey Powell, a US naval commander who bucks his superiors.

As I write this, Armenia has welcomed at least 15,000 refugees from Syria, many the descendents of those who survived the deportations a century back. America has let in fewer than 2,000, but President Obama wants to increase to at least 10,000. What would Julia Ward Howe say? Let’s revisit her at Faneuil Hall: “The walls of this old hall . . . saw the dawn of our own larger liberties . . . Oh! Let us give money, let us give life.”

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.