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Friday Marks Centennial Of Armenian Mass Killings During World War I


Even as the Obama White House announced its observance of the centennial, its press release spoke of atrocities and avoided the use of the word genocide - that, despite President Obama having run on the issue that what happened to the Armenians should be spoken of as genocide. Well, the American writer Peter Balakian has studied our country's response to those events a hundred years ago. Back in 2003, he wrote "The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide And America's Response." He joins us from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., where he's a professor of English. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: First, a vocabulary lesson, please. The word genocide was coined in 1944 to describe the Nazis' extermination campaign against the Jews. That's about 30 years after the slaughter of the Armenians. Is the case for using it to describe what happened to the Armenians ironclad?

BALAKIAN: Yes, well, Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish legal scholar who developed the term genocide and who is the father of the U.N. Genocide Convention of 1948 - his thinking about genocide begins with the Armenian massacres of 1915, and he writes about that at length. It's Lemkin who first coined the term Armenian genocide around mid-1940s. And you see him on CBS News in February of 1949 talking very precisely about the Armenian genocide. So it's Lemkin's conceptual notion, I think, that the Armenian genocide is the cornerstone of the concept of genocide in the modern era.

SIEGEL: One complication here is there actually were mass murderers - massacres against Armenians dating back to the 1890s in the Ottoman Empire, and those are not called the Armenian genocide.

BALAKIAN: Well, you know, I think that one could conceptualize the history of the mass killing of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as something that evolves along what the sociologist Ervin Staub calls a continuum of destruction. The Armenian massacres of the 1890s, which were putative - they were punishments for Armenian progressive reform movement. They weren't designed to exterminate the entire population or rid the Ottoman Empire of its Armenian population, but they begin a very important process of devaluing and dehumanizing this ethnic minority group.

SIEGEL: What's different by 1950 - and you've reported on the documents that show it - was the planning, the policy, the bureaucracy that went into the mass murder of Armenians.

BALAKIAN: I think that the Ottoman government's final solution for the Armenian people of Turkey represented a shift in organized, state-planned mass killing. The Ottoman government was able to expedite its mass killing of a targeted minority population in a concentrated period of time. So it's important to realize that the Ottoman government murdered more than a million Armenians between 1915 and 1916 alone - perhaps 1.2 million is the number you come to by the end of the summer of 1916.

SIEGEL: You wrote about the American response to what was happening to the Armenians starting in the 1890s. There's really a seminal moment for an American conscience about what's going on in the world and the abuses of human rights. You would say this really is the beginning of our concern about other people in the world.

BALAKIAN: That's right. I mean, I think what's interesting here is that there was a grassroots movement among ordinary Americans who were giving money for rescue and relief during their church and synagogue collection plates on Saturdays and Sundays. And there was also a movement among elites, among intellectuals - and of course this is an important context for understanding American relief projects for the Armenians during the genocide period. For the first time, Americans go overseas to do relief and rescue work. And this happened under the auspices of Clara Barton, the director of the Red Cross, who, for the first time, would take her teams 8,000 miles away to the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire to do rescue and relief work. And that is really a milestone moment. And I think this is the beginning of a kind of new internationalism in American culture.

SIEGEL: Professor Balakian, thanks for talking with us today.

BALAKIAN: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Peter Balakian is the author of "The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide And America's Response." The book's Turkish translation will be published later this year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.