Two Rights and A Wrong: On Taner Akçam
Although Turkey’s political spectrum is dominated by two right wings, there are still leftists in Turkey and their roots run fairly deep. As a young adult, Akçam himself was an avid Marxist imprisoned several times for his political activism, which ultimately resulted in a nine-year sentence for publishing on the Kurdish issue. He escaped from prison in 1977, making his way to Germany. Since 2000, he has lived in the United States and now teaches at Clark University, where he holds an endowed professorship in Armenian genocide studies. In an interview with this author in November 2010, Akçam said that although German scholars considered him bold for deciding to work on the persecution of the Armenians during World War I, he was caught off guard by the reaction of other progressive Turkish intellectuals to his work. Of all the issues that needed to be addressed in Turkey, they wondered, including the Kurdish question, why single out something that happened to a now-insignificant minority, and so long ago? But by the late 1980s, Akçam was growing increasingly disenchanted with the pro-Kurdish left in Turkey. When the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—which has led an armed struggle against the Turkish state’s repression of the Kurds—assassinated several intellectuals in Europe, some from its own ranks, Akçam says he began to perceive Stalinist tendencies in the movement’s rejection of democracy and human rights. The alienation was mutual: “The main experience that I had was shock from my end, and isolation and disinterest from my Turkish friends,” Akçam recalls.
Yet the disinterest of some soon became the rage of many. Following the publication in 2006 of his book A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, Akçam received threats from Turkish nationalist groups and was subjected to various other forms of official and unofficial harassment and humiliation. “For many Turkish intellectuals,” he wrote in 2007, just months after Hrant Dink’s assassination, “freedom of speech has become a struggle in North America as well as in our native country. What is happening to me now could happen to any scholar who dissents from the official state version of history.”
Perhaps because of his experience, Akçam has remained as devoted to answering the question of why Turks don’t want to hear about the genocide as he is to describing the horrific events of 1915. Ironically, when he was doing his doctoral research in the 1990s, it was illegal in Turkey to write about the Kurdish question, but legal to use the word “genocide” to describe what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. That changed around a decade later with Article 301. “On the one hand, there is lack of interest and indifference and, on the other hand, the response is one of aggression and hostility,” Akçam wrote in 2004. “The logic used when answering allegations of ‘genocide,’ ‘massacre’ and ‘expulsion’ is invariably exculpatory. We can summarize this logic as, ‘Nothing has happened, but the others are guilty.’”
To explain the Turks’ sensitivity, Akçam has drawn on the work of the German-Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias. In Studien über die Deutschen (1989), Elias set out to discover which elements of the “German national character” that emerged in the course of the nation’s history had made Nazism possible. His analysis emphasized as especially formative the German experience of humiliation and defeat during World War I. The story Akçam tells is similarly one of the “shocks and traumas,” “violations of honor” and “humiliations” endured by the Ottoman state as it was repeatedly battered by severe losses of territory and prestige: in the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, after which hundreds of thousands of destitute Muslim refugees fled into Anatolia; in the negotiations for the economic and political partition of Anatolia by the Great Powers in 1914; and finally, following the outbreak of World War I, with the disastrous battle of Sarikamis against czarist Russia, during which tens of thousands of Ottoman soldiers froze to death. The response of the secular Young Turk regime was to deport 1.2 million Armenians away from the areas where they were most densely settled, near the Russian border, to the Anatolian interior and to present-day Syria and Iraq. In the course of the deportations, most were killed or died of starvation or disease. Of those who survived, most of whom were children, the majority were forcibly assimilated into Muslim households and effectively ceased to be Armenians.
Akçam does not seek a “smoking gun” here, or definitive proof of the genocide laid bare in a single document, but instead bases his argument on the hundreds of documents of different types that offer small fragments of this larger story. These include proceedings of the same postwar military tribunals that had set out to try and punish several individuals who had taken part in the genocide; press coverage of the trials; Ottoman interior ministry records; documents from the Armenian patriarchate in Jerusalem; and Ottoman parliamentary proceedings and memoirs. Drawing on this combination of sources, Akçam fashions a scatterplot that can compensate for the gaping holes in the historical record.
Some of these holes are the result of the evasive tactics employed by the Young Turk leadership at the time to cover its trail. Akçam refers to the regime’s “dual-track mechanism” of issuing orders for the deportation of Armenians through official channels and ordering massacres through unwritten or more secretive channels, such as private telegraph lines, telegrams to be destroyed after reading, and special emissaries sent to the provincial authorities to relay their instructions in person. Another reason for the gaps in the documentary record is the Turkish Republic’s lassitude with regard to preserving historical documents. Throughout the interwar period and up through the late 1980s, the state turned over hundreds of years’ worth of archival material to a paper and cellulose manufacturer to be recycled.
Starting in the 1990s, the General Directorate of the Prime Ministerial Ottoman Archive published a number of volumes of Ottoman documents relating to the “Armenian question” that were cast as definitive. Not surprisingly, the compilations reinforced the Turkish state’s official version of what happened to the Armenians during World War I. Still, Akçam argues, the belief that Ottoman documents are either nonexistent, unavailable or misleading is “wrongheaded”: despite the elisions and politicized publications, there is enough material to disprove the official version of the events of 1915.
* * *