Two Rights and A Wrong: On Taner Akçam

Two Rights and A Wrong: On Taner Akçam

Two Rights and A Wrong: On Taner Akçam

A historian’s view of why political demands, past and present, have weighed on Turkish debates about the Armenian genocide.


Turkey is a country with two right wings. One is nationalist and secular, built on the oversized legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the nation’s first president. The other is nationalist as well, but rooted in Islam and a renewed interest in the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. For all their differences, the two sides share some crucial features: besides being nationalist, they are also anti-imperialist, see Turkey as having a unique role to play in the region, and are not inclined to consider themselves as being on the right. Although the Islam-based wing currently governing the country—with Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) at its head—has gained popularity by casting itself as a more benign alternative to the authoritarian and militarist tendencies of the secular Kemalist leadership, in its actions and even its views, it has increasingly come to resemble its adversary: initiating repressive measures against the opposition, upholding and in some cases expanding limitations on free speech and freedom of the press (imprisoning no fewer than seventy-six journalists), and continuing to restrict the use of the Kurdish language and limit the extent of Kurdish political representation in the country. Like the secular Kemalists before it, the Erdogan government also disapproves of anyone using the term “genocide” to describe the widespread slaughter of Armenians that occurred in 1915 in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor to the modern Turkish state.

What exactly happened to the Armenians, and why are so many Turks still sensitive about the issue? According to a number of Turkish scholars, including Türkkaya Ataöv, a professor emeritus at the University of Ankara, Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were armed and fighting actively in World War I alongside the empire’s enemies in the Entente, and so posed a threat to a state that was already on the defensive. Their fate cannot count as genocide because it was decided by a “civil war.” In talks he has given on college campuses and to audiences around the world, Ataöv generally does not offer any figures to establish how many Armenians lost their lives in this “civil war,” except to say that of the 235 who were removed from Istanbul, just three of them died, one of natural causes and two at the hands of thugs who were later tried and executed for their crime. Ataöv’s is an especially extreme version of denialism. Other Turkish scholars have conceded that the Armenians suffered great losses, reaching even into the hundreds of thousands, though many argue that the massacres were the work of bandits or marauding Kurds rather than Ottoman Turkish officials operating under orders from the government.

Internationally, a growing number of scholars agree that the fate of the empire’s Armenians was not determined by civil war but instead amounted to a genocide. Just after the start of World War I, the Ottomans suffered a catastrophic defeat by the Russians in the battle of Sarikamis, with some Armenians fighting alongside the Russians. Afterward, most of the Armenians living in the eastern borderlands of the Ottoman Empire were rounded up, placed in camps, and deported to various locations throughout Anatolia and the Levant—men, women and children alike who in the course of these deportations suffered expropriation, starvation, rape, abduction and massacre at the hands of groups with ties to the Ottoman army and government. In the accounts by these scholars, the number of Armenian dead generally ranges from about 1 million to 1.5 million.

There are many apparent paradoxes in the history of what happened in 1915, and they nourish the ongoing ambivalence about whether the Turkish state’s treatment of the Armenians was criminal. For instance, several of the perpetrators were tried by Ottoman authorities over the period from 1919 to 1922, and some were even executed. Around the same time, the Great Powers (primarily Britain) initiated a separate investigation, but the suspects, detained on the island of Malta, were not prosecuted and were ultimately allowed to go free. There were also Armenian nationalists who, as World War I came to an end, downplayed the number of dead and emphasized Armenian military engagement on the side of the Entente (including Russia). They sought to position themselves to claim that enough Armenians had survived and done their bit in the war to merit being granted an independent, or at least autonomous, Armenian state.

Turkish scholars remain largely intransigent on the events of 1915 and the genocide question, but the desire of the Armenians for their own state (which would have included parts of what is now northeastern Turkey) is likely not the primary reason: most Armenians no longer harbor such aspirations, and most Turks don’t fear Armenia’s expansion at the expense of Turkey. Instead, what very likely underpins some Turkish denialism is a different issue related to the fate of the Armenians during World War I: an ongoing anxiety about demographics and national security in a state that has been engaged in a decades-long conflict with its Muslim Kurdish minority, during which more than 40,000 people (mostly Kurds) have been killed. International scholars who write about the Armenian genocide don’t foreground the Kurdish issue because it is not their primary concern, while in the work of many Turkish scholars, if the fate of the Armenians is mentioned at all in connection with the Kurdish minority, it is to blame the massacres on the Kurds. In any case, neither of Turkey’s two right wings has thus far sought to neutralize the underlying anxiety about demographics by addressing its late Ottoman origins.

* * *

Many had hoped the situation would be otherwise in a Turkey governed by Erdogan’s AKP, and it seems that Taner Akçam, author of The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity and one of the few Turks who speaks openly about the Armenian genocide, still does. Some observers reasoned in the wake of the AKP’s meteoric rise during the first decade of this century that if Erdogan could shift the focus of Turkish nationalism away from the secular Kemalist legacy and toward an emphasis on Turkey’s Islamic heritage, the state might also make peace with its Muslim Kurds. But Akçam’s optimism regarding current trends in Turkish politics is likely based less on embracing Islam and more on the belief that secularism offers no guarantee that the more shameful aspects of the Turkish past will not be repeated. He has vehemently attacked those who suggest that the secularists represent the left in Turkey—including his own brother, Cahit Akçam, who spent eight years in prison for his left-wing activism in the 1980s. After Erdogan’s party won a 2010 referendum with nearly 60 percent of the vote, Cahit declared in the socialist daily BirGün (One Day) that the results were a clear indicator that the other 40 percent of the electorate was leftist. In a heated exchange conducted via the Turkish press, Taner argued that not everyone opposed to the AKP was on the left, and that “leftists” were not above genocide, citing the example of Serbia’s Slobodan Miloševic. The same could happen in Turkey, in his view. The original Turkish edition of Akçam’s book, published in 2008 under the title The Armenian Question Is Solved: Policies Toward the Armenians During the War Years According to Ottoman Documents, was dedicated to the late Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor of the weekly newspaper Agos. In 2005, Dink was charged with “denigrating Turkishness” for speaking openly about the “Armenian genocide” and tried under Article 301, a law that had been added to the Turkish penal code that year. In January 2007, he was assassinated by a young Turkish nationalist.

Though it remains unclear who orchestrated Dink’s murder, in the preface to the English edition of his new book, Akçam leaves little doubt about whom he holds responsible for his friend’s death. Dink’s name, along with Akçam’s own and the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s, was found on a “hit list” allegedly compiled by “the ultranationalist terror organization” known as Ergenekon. The list was seized in a police raid conducted by the Erdogan government in February 2009. A few hundred suspected members of Ergenekon—mostly military officers of the Kemalist old guard—are now on trial, a development that some have characterized as the AKP’s attempt to crack down on its secular-nationalist opposition in the Turkish military. Akçam has openly applauded the move, however: he was among the 300 intellectuals to sign a declaration of support for the investigation, which praised the government for catching “one of the arms of the octopus”—meaning the Turkish shadow state—and urged it to go after “the rest of the arms and the body” in the interest of “our democracy and future.”

Akçam seems to hope that the Erdogan government’s investigative zeal can prompt a re-evaluation of the Turkish position on the Armenian genocide. “With the disappearance of the Armenian Genocide and other mass violence from public discourse,” he writes, “a prevailing mind-set that makes future mass crimes possible has also been granted tacit support. Today, Turkish society is confronting the source of all its democracy and human rights issues…. Everything—institutions, mentalities, belief systems, creeds, culture, and even communication—is open to question. The time has come—in fact, it is passing—for the social sciences to contribute to the development of democracy and civic culture in Turkey.” Buried in a footnote describing the “indignities” that scholars researching the genocide have endured when seeking permission to view archival material is Akçam’s assertion that such indignities are now a thing of the past. This spirit of optimism pervades his book, down to its final sentence, which notes the “surge of democratization” that makes recognition of the truth about Turkey’s history more likely. Perhaps by asserting this, Akçam hopes to make it so.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Politics weigh heavily on discussions of what happened in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, but it is still unclear if Turkey’s two right wings will ever diverge on the question of whether or not a genocide actually occurred—and, if so, what the implications might be. Akçam argues that the Young Turks wanted to create an ethnically homogeneous Turkish state and that such thinking is part of a “prevailing mind-set that makes future mass crimes possible.” If he is right, then it’s hard to imagine any official re-evaluation of the events of 1915, given that both of the country’s right wings have until now appeared equally troubled by the fact that more than 15 percent of Turkey’s population considers itself Kurdish rather than Turkish, and that many Kurds dream of having autonomy within the Turkish republic, if not a state of their own.

Recently initiated negotiations between Erdogan and the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan have given many Turks and Kurds hope that a political compromise could be imminent. If so, an alteration of the “prevailing mindset” on the Kurdish issue might eventually influence official thinking on the Armenian genocide. But Akçam suggests, in accordance with the German model of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past), that it would have to work the other way around: deal with the past and you won’t be doomed to repeat it.

That’s because for Akçam, recognition of the Armenian genocide is not so much a political or legal issue as it is a moral one. Turkey has a “moral responsibility” to acknowledge the harm done to the Armenians as a crime—if not expressly a genocide—and “to undo, through indemnification, as much as possible of the damage it created.” As a result, Akçam argues, the issue is at bottom a domestic affair for Turkey. Hrant Dink said as much during his lifetime, explaining that international pressure made both the official narrative and societal views about 1915 more entrenched. Following Dink’s murder, thousands demonstrated in Istanbul in a display of solidarity with the victim, some wearing masks with an image of his face. In January 2012, on the fifth anniversary of his death, and following the announcement of what many considered an unsatisfying verdict on the investigation of the interests behind his assassination, tens of thousands marched again with banners bearing the slogan “We are all Hrant, we are all Armenian.” Dink’s view that the resolution of the controversies related to 1915 has to come from within Turkey has since been echoed not only by Akçam, but also by Cem Özdemir, the former EU parliamentary representative and current Green Party leader from Germany, who is the son of a gastarbeiter (guest worker) from Turkey. To date, neither of Turkey’s two right wings has recognized the wrong, yet who but the Turkish government ultimately can? After all, Akçam lives in the United States, Özdemir in Germany, and Hrant Dink is dead.

In 2011, Marc Edward Hoffman reviewed Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity, Carter Vaughn Findley’s history of the country from 1789 to 2007.

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