Taner Akçam, A Shameful Act : The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, New York : Metropolitan Books, 2006.
by Lou Ann Matossian
On July 25, 2006, Turkish Parliament speaker Bulent Arinc protested to his Dutch counterpart, “All documents we possess prove that there has not been a genocide” (Anatolia News Agency). With this history of the Armenian Genocide, reconstructed for the first time through extensive use of Ottoman archival materials, Taner Akçam, the first Turkish intellectual to acknowledge the Genocide as such, argues quite otherwise. In so doing, he calls upon the people of Turkey “to consider the suffering inflicted in their name” (2).
Dedicated to the memory of a Muslim who saved Armenians, A Shameful Act is a substantially revised and updated version of Akçam’s 1999 book, Insan Haklari ve Ermeni Sorunu [Human Rights and the Armenian Question]. The English title reflects the ethical foundations of this scholarly work. The phrase “a shameful act” quotes Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), founder of the Turkish Republic, while “Turkish responsibility” evokes not only accountability but obligation. Moreover, the rhetorical shift from “Ermeni sorunu” to “Turkish responsibility” inverts the so-called “Armenian Question” into an interrogation of the actors who created it. Defining and scapegoating a minority group as a “problem” is, after all, part of its subordination.
For the most part, Armenians appear in the scholarly literature as a collective object of the genocidal process, rather than as the individual subjects of their own narratives of survival. Reading A Shameful Act, one longs to know more, for instance, about the “several young girls” who spotted their parents’ murderers at large in Istanbul after the war ; based on the daughters’ testimony, the perpetrators were arrested, tried, and sentenced to prison (290). Nevertheless, Akçam’s occasionally arid exposition is undergirded with a strong moral sensibility.
The author’s core belief is that all human societies, under the right conditions, are inherently capable of mass violence. Accordingly, “to prevent the recurrence of such an event, people must first consider their own responsibility, discuss it, debate it, and recognize it. In the absence of such honest consideration, there remains the high probability of such acts being repeated...There are no exceptions” (2). The question of Turkish responsibility has wide implications indeed. Meticulously crafted, A Shameful Act is at heart a case study of crime and injustice, justification and that which cannot be justified. Although Akçam does not hesitate to use the “G-word” throughout the book, “the important thing,” he says, “is not the term, but rather the moral position that recognizes the crime and condemns it. The failure of the official Turkish state approach is its insistence that this immense crime was a justifiable act of state necessity” (9). Inasmuch as genocide denotes a crime under international law, one could argue that proper terminology is essential for recognition-and this book would not disagree. However, the author is wrestling with a deeper problem : how to establish the ethical foundations of international law, “the prime matrix of all human rights, including the rights of potential or actual genocide victims,” in the words of Akçam’s mentor, Vahakn N. Dadrian.
As for the morality of denial, often described as the final stage of genocide, “the attempt to justify and rationalize the death of a whole nation,” says the author, “must itself be considered a crime against humanity” (203). Because “those who resort to mass murder on a collective scale always put forward the justification that they acted on behalf of the nation,” (372) a society that rationalizes genocide can justify any crime in terms of the national interest.
This lesson in ends and means is not, of course, limited to Turks and Armenians, for Akçam shows how the postwar Allies redefined their national interests to rationalize complicity in genocide denial, a pattern that was to continue. As a British diplomat explained in 1922, “the Turks have understood the situation well and will take things as far as they possibly can. There is no consensus on this issue among the Allies, some of whom even want to supply the Turks with money and weapons. ... Allies will not sever their relations with Turkey for the sake of the Armenian question” (365). Akçam shows that the contradiction between national interests and sovereignty, on one hand, and the moral necessity of humanitarian intervention, on the other, thwarted postwar attempts to bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice ; as seen in Darfur, the problem persists to this day. * * * U sing Ottoman, German, Austrian, and American archival materials, A Shameful Act covers the late nineteenth century through the postwar trials and the emergence of the Turkish Republic. All these sources, taken together, point to the same conclusion : “under the terms of the U.N. definition, and in light of all the documentary evidence, we cannot but call the acts against the Armenians genocide” (9). Although “proving” the Genocide is not the author’s aim, a major contribution of this study is to demonstrate that Ottoman and Western sources tell substantially the same story-from complementary, not contradictory, perspectives.
The steps leading to the decision for genocide, which Akçam dates to late March 1915, are clearly explained. The timing is significant because it predates the Armenian resistance at Van, which took place in April but is cited in denialist literature as a rationale for the Armenian deportations. However, the Van resistance did coincide with a tactical change from strategic to genocidal deportations, as communicated to Fourth Army commander Cemal Pasha in a telegram of April 24, 1915 : the very moment that Armenian community leaders were being rounded up in Constantinople ; the date commemorated ever since as the beginning of the end of Western Armenia.
The Armenian Genocide was organized through parallel chains of command, one through Union and Progress Party channels and the other through the ranks of Ottoman bureaucracy. The strongest evidence of genocidal intent-the crucial element in the United Nations definition-comes from the overall coordinator of the deportations and massacres, Interior Minister Mehmet Talaat, who declared to German consul general Mordtmann : “What we are talking about...is the elimination of the Armenians” (156). According to Abdulahad Nuri, an organizer of the Genocide in Aleppo, Talaat also stated : “The intention of the deportations is annihilation.” (168). Circumstantially as well, the complete lack of preparations for the deportees’ survival, and the denial of any help offered to them, were sufficient to demonstrate that the government’s aim was intentional extermination. What did the Union and Progress Party hope to accomplish through genocide ? Ottoman sources show that the deportations and massacres were part of a well-formulated and longstanding demographic policy to Turkify the whole region and prevent the emergence of an independent Armenia. During the spring of 1915, however, Turkification was not the immediate concern. In case of a military defeat-which appeared to be imminent- the Unionist leaders had prepared a detailed plan for a war of resistance throughout the country. The officers entrusted to implement the resistance plan were well-known members of the Party-controlled Special Organization, which carried out the Armenian Genocide. Although a clear connection between the resistance and the Genocide has not been documented, “the decisions to enact the two events were made during the same period and their simultaneous start is significant.” Unionist leaders likely felt that “a war of resistance in Anatolia would be easier with the elimination of the Armenian population, or at least a reduction of its numbers” (128).
All in all, “the deportations were hardly a matter of relocation,” explains Akçam. “The issue was Armenian population density” (178). The demographic principle was to limit Armenians to no more than 10% of the population in any given place. Armenians were eliminated not just from their ancestral lands in the eastern provinces, but throughout the length and breadth of Asia Minor. So many were deported to Der Zor that the Interior Ministry had to alert the governors of Adana, Erzurum, Bitlis, and Aleppo that the concentration of Armenians in that region exceeded 10%. “This explains the 1916 massacres in those areas and why Der Zor was the center” (178), says Akçam. The 10% policy was applied to other ethnic minorities, including Albanians, Arabs, Bosnians, and Kurds ; Assyrians and Greeks were expelled as well. Religion made a difference : the Muslim minorities were dispersed among the Turkish majority and expected to assimilate, while the region’s two million Christians-a third of the overall population of Asia Minor-were killed or deported. The Armenians were particularly targeted for annihilation, Akçam states. One hopes that further discussion of the Young Turks’ demographic policies will be forthcoming.
In March 1919, the Istanbul government officially acknowledged the figure of 800,000 Armenian victims-a figure later quoted by Kemal Atatürk and endorsed by eminent historian Yusuf H. Bayur. Akçam seems most comfortable with this figure, which he cites more than once, while noting that the estimates of those killed reach as high as 1.5 million. As for the pre-war Armenian population and the proportion of survivors, Akçam observes that the sources conflict and all are based on political agendas. For practical reasons as well, the number of Armenian women and children who were given to Turkish or Kurdish families or kidnapped “is impossible to estimate” (183), despite efforts to recover these survivors after the armistice. Analyzing Turkey’s transition from empire to republic, A Shameful Act focuses on the postwar Ottoman military tribunal in Istanbul and the British exchange of suspected war criminals held at Malta. A major obstacle to building a case against the detainees was that the evidence in British hands, although damning at the group level, was insufficiently detailed to convict individual perpetrators. Although the Ottoman military courts had collected abundant evidence against individuals, the British, who had occupied Istanbul since March 1920, failed to press for the surrender of those documents-a lapse which Akçam finds “totally incomprehensible” (359).
While the Istanbul trials would come to exemplify the inability of a perpetrator group to punish itself, their legacy was significant for international law and human rights. It was in Istanbul, for the first time, that individual perpetrators, regardless of rank and authority, could be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Indeed, the very concept of “crimes against humanity,” which informed the tribunals on genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, can be traced through the Nuremberg trials after World War II and the Istanbul trials after World War I, all the way back to the Allies’ declaration of May 24, 1915, in response to the massacres of Armenians. The documentary evidence introduced at Istanbul now serves to counter genocide denial ; in a sense, the trials are still going on.
A Shameful Act also covers the rival Ankara government’s campaign to wipe out the Republic of Armenia “politically and physically,” as well as reciprocal massacres in the Caucasus. Akçam indicates that the newly independent Armenian government tried unsuccessfully to halt revenge-seeking Armenian gangs while attempting to establish itself as a nation-state. He strongly criticizes Turkish historiography for citing anti-Muslim violence in an attempt to relativize, justify, or even disprove the prior extermination of Armenians in 1915. The bottom line : “Previous massacres are never a justification for subsequent massacres. Or, in the Turkish case, subsequent massacres can never justify earlier genocide” (329-330).
* * *
Richard G. Hovannisian, among others, has pointed out that over the last quarter-century, denial of the Armenian Genocide has become increasingly sophisticated and professional. Akçam sheds light on the origins of this nine-decade campaign, long before the involvement of sympathetic or professionally hired Westerners. None other than Talaat, who coordinated the deportations and massacres, “laid the groundwork for the ‘official Turkish version’ ” at the Union and Progress Party’s final congress in November 1918 (184). The first public declaration of “what would become the official long-standing Turkish position” on the Genocide was made at the Lausanne Conference by Turkey’s lead negotiator and future president, Ýsmet Ýnönü, who asserted that the traitorous Armenians got what was coming to them (366). Kemal (Atatürk), who generally tried to distance himself from the whole issue, blamed the Armenians for abusing their special “privileges” ; he also suggested (prophetically, as it turned out) that “the situation was not even half the scale as things that were done without apology in the states of Europe” (347). At Kemal’s direction, “Ankara went so far as to organize a propaganda campaign that mentioned Muslim massacres whenever the Armenian case was raised, especially in Europe. A campaign abroad regarding the massacres perpetrated against the Armenians by the Turks was countered with a plan ‘that...would...eliminate the effect through a counter-campaign’ ” (335).
And so it continues. The current campaign, inaugurated in 2002 by the Turkish government’s Committee for the Fight Against Baseless Claims of Genocide, mandates denial in Turkish classrooms while seeking to insert it (as the requisite “alternative viewpoint”) in Western education, legislation, and media. Meanwhile, Taner Akçam and a growing network of colleagues are laying the foundations for a fully integrated history of the Armenian Genocide, in keeping with international scholarly standards. As their groundbreaking 2005 conference at Istanbul’s Bilgi University demonstrated, it is no longer possible to speak of a single “Turkish point of view.” Nor, it turns out, can one even speak of a single “Atatürk point of view.” But as Akçam shows, Kemal’s April 24, 1920, condemnation of the Armenian Genocide as “shameful acts belonging to the past” (348), not to mention his demand for “a thorough explanation and apology” (347), find no echo in the history and foreign policy of the republic he largely created.
When the architects of mass murder are remembered as patriots and heroes, and national interests are used to justify the repression of a crime against humanity, the vortex of genocide completes another turn. A Shameful Act breaks that cycle. Countering a resurgent ultranationalist movement that prosecutes freethinkers and glorifies the perpetrators, Akçam challenges his fellow citizens to redefine their own national interests to confront the reality of the Armenian Genocide. And why should they take such a risk ? Because “only full integration of Turkey’s past can set the country on the path to democracy” (13).
That path, at the present time, leads toward Europe. With the world’s eyes on the prosecution of writers such as Elif Shafak, Ragip Zarakolu, Hrant Dink, and Orhan Pamuk under Turkey’s controversial Article 301, the country’s embattled progress will be measured, in part, by its response to Taner Akçam’s work. A Shameful Act opens the way to a comprehensive, intellectually rigorous, and ethically grounded historiography of the Armenian Genocide.
Lou Ann Matossian is Program Director of the Cafesjian Family Foundation, Minneapolis.
Originally published in the Armenian Reporter 39 : 8 (November 18, 2006), 22-23.
1) Vahakn N. Dadrian, “Genocide as a Problem of National and International Law : The World War I Armenian Case and Its Contemporary Legal Ramifications,” Yale Journal of International Law, vol. 14, no. 2 (Summer 1989), p. 333.
2) Richard G. Hovannisian, “Introduction,” Remembrance and Denial : The Case of the Armenian Genocide (Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1999), 16.
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