The Burden of Memory
Perhaps you noticed them in the main square of your town this year--or last year, or any year you've been alive, in any town where you've ever lived: a group of people solemnly assembled, a priest in a peaked hood, probably a children's choir and definitely two or three elected officials. It is April 24, and the crowd has gathered to commemorate the genocide that began on that date in 1915, in which 1.5 million Armenians living in Eastern Turkey were killed by order of the Ottoman government. A master of ceremonies reports the latest tally of how many countries have passed resolutions commemorating the Armenian genocide, and how many newspapers have used the word "genocide" instead of the less politically charged "mass killings" to characterize the tragedy. A few centenarians--the last of the genocide survivors--hobble onto a platform while the crowd observes a moment of silence. The priest prays, the choir sings and a Congressman scans his notes and assures the Armenians that their contributions to American society are indispensable.
After eighty-nine years, April 24 rituals in Armenian communities around the world have become as reliable as time itself. Their endurance is a response to the Turkish government's persistent refusal to acknowledge the crimes of its predecessors. Although most historians outside Turkey consider the Armenian genocide to have been the first genocide of the twentieth century--an atrocity whose rigorous planning and execution inspired Hitler--official Turkish history alleges that any killings that took place were merely side effects of World War I, that Turks were also killed by Armenians, and that Armenians colluded with Russian forces, posing a security threat. To propagate this version of the story, Turkey has hidden documents, blackmailed universities (including elite US schools) and filled library shelves worldwide with fraudulent histories. Only a few prominent historians question whether Turkey's actions constituted genocide, most notoriously Princeton's Bernard Lewis, who was condemned by a Paris court in 1995 for "hiding elements which go against his thesis--that there was no 'serious proof' of the Armenian Genocide."
Those Armenians whose grandparents were forced from their homes and marched to death camps in the Syrian desert are, understandably, not interested in having a debate on the kaleidoscopic possibilities of historical interpretation. They want high-level condemnation of the atrocities their loved ones suffered. Some, ultimately, want reparations. But Turkey has thus far managed to prevent any US administration from passing an official resolution calling the events of 1915 genocide by threatening to cut access to strategic border zones. Meanwhile, Canada, France and other countries have ignored such threats and recognized the Armenian genocide.
For Armenians in the diaspora--a diaspora largely created by the genocide--the quest for Turkish government recognition has become a raison d'être and a powerful unifying issue for a community that otherwise contains many subdivisions that vary by degree of assimilation and allegiance to different host countries.
The collective energy of the Armenian diaspora is what made Peter Balakian's book The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response, an unlikely bestseller for a few weeks last fall. The Burning Tigris describes how Americans in the first half of the twentieth century were deeply engaged in efforts to help "the starving Armenians" in the wake of their catastrophe. But the distinctive merits of Balakian's book had little to do with its commercial success. The reason was that Armenian-Americans spent much of last year running an intensive e-mail campaign to garner pre-orders for the book on Amazon.com. A sufficiently high number of pre-orders would push the book into multiple printings early on and guarantee a high ranking. The campaign worked, as Armenians worldwide placed orders for one, two, three or twenty copies. Favorable reviews abounded. (A similar publicity crusade boosted Atom Egoyan's 2002 film, Ararat, the first-ever feature film about the Armenian genocide.)
With The Burning Tigris, Balakian, a poet and the author of a highly praised memoir about the genocide, Black Dog of Fate, resuscitated a discourse that has been comatose for decades. While Armenian-American lobbyists work year after year to convince governments and journalists to acknowledge the genocide officially, Balakian launches into his book with no discussion of Turkey's denial (which he saves for the epilogue). Instead, he tells a remarkable story of how the Armenian Cause became a pet project for the American cultural elite of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Armenian tragedy is thus folded into a dramatic narrative of romance and political intrigue, starring heroic Americans, not suffering Armenians.
The brilliance of Balakian's project--and its undoubted PR value to the Armenian diaspora lobby--is that it portrays the genocide concern as a quintessentially American issue rather than a special interest that Americans should feel guilty for ignoring. Indeed, following the success of The Burning Tigris, Balakian (along with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power and Robert Melson, a scholar and Holocaust survivor) helped convince the New York Times to change its longstanding policy against using the word "genocide" to describe the Armenian events. (The Burning Tigris details the reports about the Armenian genocide that appeared on that paper's front pages while the massacres were taking place.)