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The Armenian Genocide: 90 Years Later Turkey Continues to Deny the Extermination of a People

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This week marks the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide when more than a million Armenians were exterminated by the Young Turk government through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches. Another million fled into permanent exile. Almost a century later, Turkey continues to deny the genocide. We speak with Colgate University professor Peter Balakian, author of “The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response” and Zanku Armenian of the Armenian National Committee of America. [includes rush transcript]

This week marks the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. On April 24, 1915, the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematic premeditated genocide of the Armenian people–an unarmed Christian minority living under Turkish rule. More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches. Another million fled into permanent exile. An ancient civilization was expunged from its homeland of 2,500 years.

Today, almost a century later, the Turkish government continues to deny this genocide. Books about the genocide are banned in Turkey and its government funds chairs in Turkish studies at American universities to ensure a certain version of history is presented. To this day, Turkey and Armenia do not have diplomatic relations.

But now, Ankara’s ambitions to join the European Union are in jeopardy. French President Jacques Chirac has said Ankara must first acknowledge the genocide before being allowed to become a member of the EU. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for a “impartial study by historians” concerning the fate of the Armenian people during World War I.

Today we commemorate the 90th (ninetieth) anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

  • Peter Balakian, author, “The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response.” He is also the Professor of English at Colgate University
  • Zanku Armenian, of the Armenian National Committee of America.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we look the at Armenian genocide. We’re joined in our New York studio by Peter Balakian, Professor of English at Colgate University and author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. Here in our Los Angeles studio, we’re joined by Zanku Armenian of the Armenian National Committee of America. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!



AMY GOODMAN: Peter Balakian, let’s begin with you. If you can simply start off by telling us what happened 90 years ago.

PETER BALAKIAN: I think it’s important for people to understand that the plan to exterminate the Armenians of what is today Turkey, then Ottoman Turkey, was implemented by the central government, and it was a very well-organized plan. It involved the formation of mobile killing squads. It involved a central bureaucracy called the Special Organization. The Special Organization put into gear the mobile killing squads, and the killing squads were made up of some 30,000 convicts who had been released from prison, a little bit like the Nazis’ Einsatzgruppen. It’s also important to understand that there was emergency executive legislation used to implement this plan, that technology was used to train, to deport Armenians from the western part of Turkey down to the south and into the desert. And it’s important to understand that the population was systematically dismembered.

And the reason Armenians commemorate the genocide on April 24 is because on that evening in Constantinople, more than 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested and deported by train to the interior, where they were subsequently tortured and murdered. The idea here is, of course, that you cut the head off the culture, you rip its tongue out, its journalists, its poets, its playwrights, its novelists, its clergy and professors. So this was very systematically done, and it’s important to understand that this whole operation, which in the end resulted in the deaths of close to 1.5 million unarmed, innocent minority population citizens of Turkey, this became the template for all genocide to follow. And Adolf Hitler did say eight days before invading Poland in 1939, who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians. Hitler was inspired by the fact that the young Turk government had succeeded in doing what they did and also he was inspired by the fact that what had been the most important international human rights catastrophe of the second decade of the 20th century had only 20 years later been sort of washed down the memory hole.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Balakian, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion on this 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Los Angeles, California, on this 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. This morning, about 4:00, as we were driving to the studio, we made a right turn on Little Armenia. Yes, this area has the highest concentration of Armenian Americans anywhere in the country. Our guests are Peter Balakian, he’s in the New York studio, author of The Burning Tigris, also Professor of English at Colgate University. And here in our Los Angeles studio, we’re joined by Zanku Armenian of the Armenian National Committee of America. And we welcome you, as well, to Democracy Now!

ZANKU ARMENIAN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe this area, this highly concentrated area of Armenian Americans?

ZANKU ARMENIAN: Yeah. We basically have about a 400,000- half a million Armenians just in the southland area in Los Angeles in various smaller cities around this area. And this community has grown relatively newly compared to the East Coast, in that it — a lot of immigration happened from different wars or unrest that has happened in the Middle East, and as in the upheaval in the Soviet Union, etc. We have had a lot of immigrations happen here. So this population tends to be more newly immigrated in that they have immigrated in the last 20 years, a lot of first generation Armenian Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the significance of this march that was taken by students and others from Fresno to Sacramento, and the naming of this weekend of April 24th as the California Day Of Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide?

ZANKU ARMENIAN: Yes. Well, the March for Humanity was actually organized by the Armenian Youth Federation, which is a very large youth organization for the Armenian American community here in the U.S. And they decided that they wanted to do something that was symbolic of not only the marches that their grandparents and great grandparents went through as part of the forced marches in Turkey, but also wanted to do something in the great — name of greater humanity, as we see other genocides happening, to bring attention to the issue of genocide, in general. So it was decided that this march would take place, 215 miles starting from Fresno, which is actually the oldest Armenian community in California. And this group would start their march, and it would end in Sacramento, and in Sacramento yesterday we had a rally on the State Capitol, where about approximately 1,500 Armenian Americans gathered with legislators from both the State Assembly, as well as the Senate, to mark this day, as well as have legislation passed which permanently designates the week of April 24 as a Week of Remembrance for California from this point forward?

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Balakian, who denies that the genocide took place? What are the various forces and their influence here in this country, for example?

PETER BALAKIAN: Well, I think that the denial is propelled mostly by Ankara, by the Turkish government, and it has impact mostly in State Departments on State Department levels. The good news is that really the grassroots intellectual world and the educational world and the curricular world in the United States, for example, have really put forth a very impressive, scholarly discourse on the Armenian genocide that has grown year by year. The Armenian genocide is now being taught in the curriculum as a staple of the 20th century history and, for example, the history of World War I, but the Turkish government’s denial persists, and scholars of genocide around the world continue to articulate this: That the denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide because it seeks to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators and because it sends the message that genocide demands no moral accountability, no moral response. So the Turkish government’s denial is a serious ethical issue. It’s become an international ethical issue. Turkey has a few hired hands, I would call them, scholars who have given their careers to help defend the Turkish State in its efforts to cover up and sanitize its past, but I think for the most part, this has been unmasked for what it is by the general scholarly community.

I would note, you mentioned earlier that the Turkish Prime Minister has called for an impartial investigation into the Armenian genocide, and it’s important to note that the International Association of Genocide Scholars has responded in a formal letter to the Turkish Prime Minister by reminding the Prime Minister that the record on the Armenian genocide is in. It is abundantly documented by eight decades of scholarship and by the unanimous consensus of genocide scholars worldwide, and that the man who coined and invented the term genocide, Rafael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish jurist and legal scholar, did so in large part on the basis of what had happened to the Armenians in 1915 and on the basis of what had happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. So, really, the Armenian extermination is part of the entomology of the word genocide. And the International Association of Genocide Scholars is making a statement to Turkey to acknowledge the historical record and to make it clear that calling for an impartial investigation is nothing more than a public relations gimmick. And sooner or later, I think the Turkish government has no choice but to own up to the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: What would it lose, almost a century later? Why would the current Turkish government, for example, lose any standing?

PETER BALAKIAN: Well, I think, actually, quite the contrary, that the Turkish government would gain an enormous amount of respect in the eyes of the world if it were able to come to terms morally with the crimes of its culture’s past, the way Germany has done with the Holocaust, for example. It bewilders intellectuals and scholars and others worldwide as to why Turkey continues to maintain this irrational, and one, I think, must call it a hysterical response to the Armenian genocide past. And I think Turkey, if it wants to show that it has the dimensions of democratic culture in its own society, that it must begin to learn how to critique its past honestly, and I think this will help it in its bid to join, at least, the accession process. I realize that admission to Europe is a long way off for Turkey, but even just to get the accession process going, I think that coming clean on this would help Turkey immensely.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask, Zanku Armenian, if you’ve have had family members killed in the genocide, and what happened to them, exactly?

ZANKU ARMENIAN: Well, my great grandparents and grandparents were from the Central Anatolia area. Luckily, my immediate grandparents did survive. They were marched at a young age and were able to escape towards the South, one through the Seleukia Region, which is the region of Turkey that actually borders the Mediterranean Sea, and others through Syria, and they were able to escape. But several hundred members of my extended family were part of the victims, the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian genocide. But, you know, growing up here in the U.S., you know, as you interact with your grandparents, and this is a common experience for Armenian Americans, you hear the stories. You know, you hear the stories of escape, stories of heroism at a very, very young age, something that we would not even fathom in this country even thinking about, because, you know, I’m talking about five years old, seven years old, eight years old, being rescued or just escaping through other families while they have left their main families behind.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Balakian, what does the Turkish government say happened?

PETER BALAKIAN: I think the Turkish government basically wants to confuse and divert attention from the truth. So, they will say anything, really, but I think the main things you will hear are, (a) this was not planned or organized. It’s something that happened during World War I. It got out of control. We don’t really know what happened to the more than two million Armenians living on their historic homeland. And that is why I underscored in the beginning of our conversation how meticulously this event was planned. Secondly, the Turkish government wants the world to believe that somehow the Armenians were seditious, that they were trying to take down the Ottoman Empire, and that they —and the Turkish government will use the term civil war, which is really an obscene notion, because an unarmed Christian minority population living in the Ottoman Empire was not capable of engaging in anything close to civil war. These were defenseless civilians, more than half of them women and children and elderly people who were massacred and deported, raped and tortured. These were professors and writers sitting in their classrooms and at their desks, who were ripped from their homes in the middle of the night. The idea that this could be civil war is absolutely a fantasy and, of course, we understand that genocide is always the result of an asymmetry in power, that there’s a defenseless, stateless people who are being annihilated systematically by a government that has a military apparatus and a huge state bureaucracy, and that, of course, is one of the defining dimensions of modern genocide.

ZANKU ARMENIAN: And, Amy, if I could add something to what Peter is saying and something that you asked about previously, which is why Turkey spends so much effort in denying this genocide. Let’s not forget that there are actually two parts to the equation. There’s the issue of coming to terms with their past. That’s the first part. The second part comes right after that, is what are the consequences to that crime? Because if there are no consequences to the crime, then it can be repeated again in the future. Just like Germany to this day pays reparations to the State of Israel and the Jewish people. That is part of the main issue that is behind and in back of their minds, as well. So, that is one side of the equation, and I would say here in the U.S., the U.S. government has complicity in this issue in that it supports Turkey in its denialist campaign. Instead of breaking from Turkey and showing the leadership, showing Turkey how a democracy acts, saying Turkey, you are our ally, however, we are not going to help you cover up this crime. You must come to terms with these pasts. So we expect the U.S. government to break from Turkey on this issue, but unfortunately, the State Department uses this issue as a way to leverage Turkey in diplomatic circles.

AMY GOODMAN: What you to mean?

ZANKU ARMENIAN: Well, they will use this issue. They will dangle it out there, saying, you know, there’s this Armenian genocide issue, Turkey. You know, things can pass in the U.S. Congress, commemorative resolutions could pass. They start to rattle their cage a little bit and use that as a way to say, you know, if you don’t behave in the area, if you don’t follow our policy objectives, then we’re going to let the Armenian genocide out of its box.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re calling for reparations?

ZANKU ARMENIAN: I’m calling for that they will be — there has to be consequences with any crime. Otherwise, for them to just accept the genocide is meaningless. We already know that there was a genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Balakian, we had a discussion on Democracy Now! a while ago about Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia and how Turkey was putting pressure, saying it would throw out Microsoft from Turkey if they talked about the Armenian genocide. What has come of that dispute?

PETER BALAKIAN: You know, I haven’t followed the aftermath of the Encarta drama. At the time, the Microsoft people stood by the scholars who had prepared the entry on the Armenian genocide for the Encarta Encyclopedia at the time. But what’s so really tragic about this is that the Turkish government is disallowing its own people a proper intellectual education and democratic inquiry into its own history. I mean, one of the things that we affirm in a democracy is the importance of critiquing one’s own culture and one’s past, of doing it in the classroom, of doing it in the educational and popular culture of a given society, and Turkey has continually displayed its inability, its incapacity to engage in critical self-evaluation, and the Encarta episode is yet another tragic example of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Balakian, we just have ten seconds. What is happening in New York on Sunday?

PETER BALAKIAN: On Sunday, there’ll be a huge gathering at Times Square and then one following at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the century’s first genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Peter Balakian, author of The Burning Tigris, also Professor of English at Colgate University, and here in Los Angeles, Zanku Armenian of the Armenian National Committee of America. Thanks for being with us.

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