Armenia, Turkey and the Massacre America Forgets

He was history's worst mass murderer but maybe its best psychologist.

Stalin had it right when he said, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” The mind can only grasp so much suffering. The bigger the crime against humanity, the quicker it becomes a number—and the more unreal the personal grief behind it seems. After all, what does “70,000 dead at Hiroshima” really mean? What does “6 million dead Jews” really mean?

Seventy years after the Great Terror, 60 years after Auschwitz and with dozens of “little” tragedies such as Rwanda in the decades since, we've just about lost our ability to be outraged at anything. We're used to inhumanity on a grand scale. But it wasn't always so. The modern taste for mass murder had a beginning. It began in Turkey just over a century ago. It remains one of the great-unre-pented crimes of history.

By the late 19th century, the Otto- J man Empire had reached a state of advanced decay. Politically, it was a junior player in the struggle for regional dominance among the French, British, Germans and Russians. A corrupt sultanate blocked reform and ruined imperial finances. In the Balkans, once-conquered Christian peoples were winning their independence. Even among imperial loyalists, the need for change became clear.

In this ferment, the place of Christians within the empire became more and more unsafe. Muslim law officially tolerated Christians and gave them limited autonomy. But the price was a culture of permanent inferiority. Discrimination took the form of special taxes, arbitrary violence, humiliating dress and behavior codes, and exclusion from political power. Christians also endured the devshirme, or “boy collection,” in which Ottoman officials would routinely take male children from their families, convert them to Islam and force them into military or civil service.

Armenians made up one of the empire's largest Christian communities. In the 1890s, their towns spread across the Anatolian plain, the heartland of modern Turkey. They had lived there for centuries. Ancient Armenia became the first nation to formally adopt Christianity in A.D. 301. The Armenian King Levon II was a friend of Richard the Lionhearted and, like Richard, a Crusader.

Medieval Armenia had strong ties to Christian Europe until its Muslim conquest in 1375. With the arrival of American Protestant missionaries and the rise of Russian regional power in the 19th century, those links to the outside Christian world became dangerous.

By the 1890s, angered by pressure for political reform among his Armenian subjects, the mentally unstable Sultan Abdul Hamid II decided to deal with the “Armenian question” directly. In 1894-95 he encouraged the massacre of 100,000 Armenians and allowed another 100,000 to starve. Anti-Armenian violence continued for years, even after the founding of a constitutional government. It ended in the brutal Adana massacre of 1909, in which an entire city was torched, including churches and schools filled with Christian children.

But even this was just a prelude to the massive, state-planned and -sponsored extermination program that killed more than 1 million Armenians beginning in 1915. Additional massacres in 1920 and 1922 murdered tens of thousands more. Many thousands of others converted to Islam to save their families. Turkish authorities deliberately set out to annihilate the Armenian people and wipe away any memory of their presence. Destroying the cultural record of Armenians—their churches, monasteries and monuments—continues in the Turkish countryside even today.

Peter Balakian, a professor of humanities at Colgate University, former Guggenheim fellow and winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize, tells this story with moving clarity and relentless attention to detail in The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response (HarperCollins, 2003). The photographs of starving Armenian orphans, mass graves, and lines of women and children being marched off to their deaths will look familiar. They should. We've seen the same faces before in the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka. In his view, the organized horror of the Armenian genocide became “the template for most of the genocide that followed in the 20th century.” Nazi mass murder merely perfected the techniques used by the Turks.

While political and ethnic resentments fed the genocide, anti-Christian hatred played a central role. Muslim leaders whipped up the violence, calling for jihad “against infidels and enemies of the faith.” Western witnesses to one massacre recount Turks taunting their victims with shouts of “Where is your Christ now? Where is your Jesus? Why does he not save you?”

Balakian notes that "Muslim clerics played a perpetual role in the massacring of Armenians; imams and sof-tas [Islamic theological students] would often rally the mob by chanting prayers; and mosques were often used as places to mobilize crowds, especially during Friday prayers. Christians were murdered in the name of Allah … [and] massacring Armenians [was] seen as a commonplace occurrence sanctioned by Islam as well as the government.“

Balakian leaves us with two lessons for today.

First, Turkey has never admitted its guilt for the Armenian genocide. Even today, in the face of overwhelming evidence, it denies that the mass murder ever happened. Turkey is the textbook case of a nation determined to get away with murder by ignoring and rewriting history. Moreover, despite Turkey's officially ”secular“ nature, harassment of the country's small remaining Christian minority continues. The recent bombing of an Istanbul synagogue is just the latest example of a long tradition of religious bigotry.

Second, for 40 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States championed the Armenian cause with financial support for refugees. It led the international public outrage at the murders. But as American interests in the Middle East grew, U.S. policymakers dumped the Armenians and courted the Turks. That alliance continues to this day. As a result, notes Balakian, we now have the bizarre spectacle of a client state—Turkey—bullying a superpower into ignoring its own human-rights policies and downplaying a crime against humanity.

This is the kind of ”ally" we don't need. The Jewish people have never allowed the world to forget the Holocaust, and in defending our memory, they have served the humanity of us all. Forgetting the Armenian genocide, turning it into just another statistic, is a luxury none of us can afford—because the cost is our souls. Balakian's book helps us remember.

Francis X. Maier writes from Denver.