Genocide shaped the twentieth century. After approximately 1.5 million Armenians were annihilated in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the century witnessed Nazi Germany’s extermination of six million European Jews, Pol Pot’s slaughter of 1.7 million Cambodians, and the 1994 Rwandan massacres of approximately 1 million Tutsis. The violent and horrific images linked to genocides like these often provoke strong condemnations from the international community and the development of human rights legislation aimed at preventing such crimes, but the problem of prevention continues to bedevil the contemporary world. Indeed, as scholarship on genocide has clearly demonstrated, rarely have popular shock and outrage translated into effective state policy, particularly in cases where intervention might interfere with perceived national interests.
With his 1997 memoir Black Dog of Fate, the acclaimed Armenian American poet Peter Balakian ’80 PhD, who teaches at Colgate in Hamilton, New York, described the Armenian genocide’s legacy within his family. In The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response (HarperCollins), Balakian opens his lens wider, tracing the long history of U.S. vacillation between sympathy and inertia in response to the crimes.
Although few people today know much about the Armenian slaughter, this was not the case at the end of World War I. Informed by newspaper reports and incited by suffragists and other activist groups, Americans then were outraged by the Armenian genocide, and news on the massacres became a real and vivid topic in American cultural discourse. Indeed, Balakian argues that an international human rights movement emerged in the United States in response to the first wave of violence against Armenians during the 1890s.
The Burning Tigris is at its strongest when showing how press coverage of the massacres combined with local activism to generate enormous support for the “starving Armenians.” Tragically, as the book ably demonstrates, all that support failed to translate into political action in the face of strong anti-interventionist sentiment.
Indeed, as has been the case all too often since, public passion did little to influence foreign policy for the better; even that passion could not offset the perception among policy-makers that the U.S. alliance with Turkey was too important to jeopardize over the Armenian issue.
And so Balakian’s book reminds us of the tremendous obstacles to implementing an effective human rights agenda in a world where nation states act first and foremost in their own self-interest. At the same time, he underscores the power of individual activists in providing relief and aid to those people suffering under oppressive regimes.
Unfortunately, too much of The Burning Tigris is devoted to retelling the history of the Armenian genocide through a variety of diplomatic, missionary, and secondary historical sources—a rehashing of existing scholarship. Balakian does provide a vivid and at times horrifying overview of a centrally organized, systematic, and brutal effort to remove every trace of Armenian culture from the Ottoman Empire. But he fails to connect that narrative clearly to the analytic framework he establishes at the outset regarding the birth of the international human rights movement in the United States. As a result, the book feels disjointed, at times eschewing a complex historical analysis for a rather simple tale of evil versus good.
Still, The Burning Tigris provides a welcome reminder of how significantly the Armenian genocide influenced the American imagination in the first quarter of the twentieth century. As such, Balakian demonstrates how years of Turkish denial of the genocide have effectively erased a profoundly transformative geopolitical event from historical memory. Moreover, it provides an important aide memoire for both the significant impact that well-marshalled humanitarian impulses can have and the ease with which those impulses can give way.
Maud Mandel is Dorot Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies and assistant professor of history. She is the author of In the Aftermath of Genocide: Armenians and Jews in Twentieth Century France (Duke).