Two Rights and A Wrong: On Taner Akçam
What the record shows is a government intent on preserving the Ottoman state at any price. Akçam’s analysis does not challenge the common assertion that the policy of the Young Turk government regarding the Armenians was informed primarily by perceived threats to national security, but he does point out that those threats were not real. While there were certainly armed gangs of deserters who engaged in banditry in the first months of the war, not all of them were Armenians (some were Muslims), and the majority of Armenians presented no threat to the state. Nonetheless, the Ottoman military leadership became convinced of the necessity to “punish” and “mercilessly extirpate, down to the last man, all traitors.”
During the early months of the war, it was not primarily Armenians but rather Greeks who were seen as treacherous and targeted for deportation or even massacre. The persecution of the country’s Greek communities came to an end only in November 1914, when Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos threatened reciprocal action against the Turks in Greece. For Akçam, the persecution of the Greeks in Turkey is an important component of the history of the Armenian genocide, because it relates to a key feature of the Young Turks’ program: their desire to create an ethnically homogeneous Turkish state.
Akçam shows how the Young Turk leadership developed and implemented a demographic policy stating that no more than 5 to 10 percent of the population in a given area could be non-Turkish. To that end, it took censuses and requested frequent updates on population ratios from provincial authorities. When it learned, following the first wave of deportations, that some areas still had Armenian populations constituting much more than 5 to 10 percent, it initiated a second wave of deportations and massacres until the numbers matched. “The language of numbers is very clear,” Akçam concludes. “The mathematical reduction of [the Armenians’] numbers by systematic massacre was monitored through a constant stream of official requests for the latest population statistics.”
Another element of the demographic policy was accommodating Muslim refugees who had fled to the country en masse after the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 and during the early months of World War I. They too were part of the government’s calculus, especially regarding the status of property and other assets expropriated from Greeks and Armenians following the deportations and massacres of those populations. Akçam suggests that the short period (two months) between when certain Greek villages were emptied out and when Muslim refugees were settled in their place is evidence that the decision to conduct the exchange had been made in advance and was a piece of a larger plan.
But for the most part, Akçam doesn’t think it’s necessary to demonstrate long-term intent and sophisticated planning on the part of the regime: he is confident in asserting that the genocide emerged from a series of contingent events. It helps that historians of the Holocaust have offered models for the kind of work that Akçam is undertaking in his new book, tracing the links between the deportation and resettlement and the Final Solution, and demonstrating how the latter was a plan that emerged as the Germans moved eastward into areas with sizable Jewish populations following the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Not for the first time, work on the Armenian genocide is self-consciously following trends in Holocaust scholarship, such that Akçam describes what happened as “the cumulative outcome of a series of increasingly radical decisions, each triggering the next in a cascading sequence of events.”
Where Akçam’s account does part ways with some of the literature on the Holocaust is in its acceptance of a particularly expansive definition of the term “genocide” that includes “cultural genocide.” Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide” and played an important role in shaping its legal definition after World War II, thought the term’s meaning should encompass forced assimilation, or “the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.” The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide ultimately dropped “cultural genocide” from its language, but Akçam is intent on reviving it on the grounds that limited settlement, the forced marriages of adolescent Armenian girls to Muslim men, and other forms of assimilation are “inseparable structural components” of the genocide. These aims and practices and actual physical annihilation must therefore be considered in tandem.
This is why Akçam writes at such length about forced conversions to Islam, as well as the “cold-blooded calculation” regarding the potential for assimilation that informed several changes in government policy on conversion, the disparate treatment of orphaned Armenian children of various ages, and the government’s decision to close down foreign missionary schools and hospitals. If the regime thought a conversion would stick and result in assimilation into the majority Muslim community, it allowed the convert to remain unmolested; otherwise, even conversion did not save a person from deportation or massacre. If a child was under 10 and a girl, for example, she was placed with a Muslim family; older boys were targeted for extermination. And because foreign missionary schools tended to instill national feeling in Armenian children, they too had to be shut down.
Akçam dedicates a long chapter to arguing point by point against a range of common assertions in the official Turkish narrative of the events of 1915, declaring them “baseless.” Even the trials of those who had been involved in the killing of Armenians did not center on the violence, Akçam writes, but instead on who had looted Armenian property that the state had intended for its own coffers or for redistribution to Muslim refugees. He concludes that, “in light of the available documents, these events cannot be defined in any fashion other than that of genocide.” Coming from Akçam, this is hardly an unexpected conclusion. What may have surprised some progressive intellectuals in Turkey yet again is his suggestion that the present Turkish government is more open to coming to terms with the country’s past—including all of its elisions and manipulations around the Armenian genocide—than the secular nationalists have been.
Akçam is aware that much of the scholarly and public discussion about applying the “genocide” label to the events of 1915 has been prompted by “political demands—particularly in the international arena.” Some of the debates surrounding Turkey’s possible accession to the European Union, for example, have centered on whether or not the country should be required to recognize the Armenian genocide as a precondition. In 2007, a US congressional resolution to formally acknowledge the genocide was tabled under pressure from President George W. Bush in the interest of not upsetting the strategic alliance between the United States and Turkey. (“We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people that began in 1915,” Bush said in a statement. “This resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings, and its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror.”) Early last year, France passed a bill making it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide. Meanwhile, many Turks wonder why the world beyond their borders is fixated on events that took place almost a hundred years ago, as though they were the sole defining feature of a country with a strong and growing economy and which has positioned itself as a new power broker in the Middle East.
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