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BOOK REVIEW

A limited but important look at the Armenian genocide

("The Burning Tigris; The Armenian Genocide and America's Response"; By Peter Balakian; HarperCollins; 475 pp. illustrated, $26.95.)

During the course of the 20th century, 175 million civilians were murdered by their own governments -- four times the total number of soldiers killed in all the century's international wars combined. "The souls of this monstrous pile of dead have created," in the words of noted genocide scholar R. J. Rummel, "a new land, a new nation, among us." This land of genocide and political murder would rank sixth in population among the nations of the world by the end of "the bloodiest century in history."

The cradle of modern genocide is in Turkey. As Peter Balakian graphically documents in "The Burning Tigris," more than a million Armenians were slaughtered in the crumbling Ottoman Empire in 1915 and 1916 under the direction of nationalist Turkish leaders. The Armenian genocide was a product of tensions between an Islamic majority and a Christian minority, resentment by Turks of the Armenians' economic success, and the willingness of cynical leaders to fan the flames of religious and ethnic difference to advance their own political cause. What happened to the Armenians in Turkey was a harbinger of the Holocaust and of the waves of modern mass murder that have swept the world ever since.

The truth about the Armenian genocide was long suppressed. Although well known at the time not only in Turkey but also in the United States and Europe, the officially planned extermination became the subject of an eight-decade campaign of denial by the Turkish government. The United States and the European powers grew complicit, eager to exploit the newly discovered oil resources of the Middle East after World War I. The final victim of the Armenian genocide was truth itself. As Balakian points out in a brief epilogue to his book, the cost of this historical amnesia was enormous. "In August 1939, Hitler, too, invoked the erosion of memory when he said to his military advisers, eight days before the Nazis invaded Poland -- `Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?' "

It matters whether the truth about genocide is recorded and publicized. It also matters whether the world intervenes and whether those who organize it are held accountable. These lessons are reflected in "The Burning Tigris," which, despite its chaotic organization and confusing chronology, tells a story of multiplying horror and betrayal.

For a time, the world paid attention. Over a period of three decades leading up to the genocide of 1915-16, the growing intolerance, repression, and massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire drew international protest, particularly from Americans and their government.

A cadre of American religious leaders, intellectuals, suffragettes, abolitionists, and politicians took up the Armenian cause, sending more than $100 million through the American Committee on Near East Relief.

By 1915, the fate of the Armenians had become intertwined with the question of what role the United States should play in World War I. After the war, Woodrow Wilson belatedly took up the Armenian cause, advocating recognition of a new Armenian state. That same year, the Allies even successfully pushed the Turkish government to initiate trials of those responsible for the genocide.

But these initial responses proved to be short-lived. The politics of oil and fear of Bolshevism soon stifled the voices of human rights advocacy, even turning some American champions of justice for the Armenians into supporters of the Turkish campaign of genocide denial.

"The Burning Tigris" has major weaknesses, including its cursory explanation of what drove the Turkish government to exterminate the Armenians and its limited account of how Turkey managed for so long to block all efforts to tell the truth. Nevertheless, by reintroducing the voices of Americans who spoke up for the Armenians a century ago, Balakian honors the international human rights tradition in the United States, pointing toward the need for international laws and institutions that are now so discredited by Washington. As one of these voices, early feminist writer and champion of the Armenian cause Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in 1903, "National crimes demand international law, to restrain, prohibit, punish, best of all, to prevent."

John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor from 1993 to 1998, is the author of "Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars & America's Response" (Harvard University, 2003) and CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

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