April 25 2004
Turkish historians facing Armenian facts
Scholars tearing away at Turkey’s `curtain of silence’ Most experts
agree 1915 killings were a case of genocide
NEW YORK TIMES
MINNEAPOLIS – Taner Akcam doesn’t seem like either a hero or a traitor,
though he has been called both.
Akcam, a Turkish sociologist and historian currently teaching at the
University of Minnesota, writes about events that happened nearly a
century ago in an empire that no longer exists: the mass killings of
Armenians in the Ottoman empire during World War I.
But in a world where history and identity are closely intertwined,
where the past infects today’s politics, his work, along with that of
like-minded Turkish scholars, is breaking new ground.
A slight, soft-spoken man who chooses his words with care, Akcam, 50,
is challenging his homeland’s insistent declarations that the
organized slaughter of Armenians did not occur.
And he was the first Turkish specialist to use the word “genocide”
publicly in this context – a radical step, when one considers that
Turkey has threatened to sever relations with countries over this
In 2000, for example, Ankara derailed a U.S. congressional resolution
calling the 1915 killings “genocide” by threatening to cut access to
military bases in Turkey.
“We accept that tragic events occurred at the time involving all the
subjects of the Ottoman Empire,” explains Tuluy Tanc,
minister-counsellor at the Turkish embassy in Washington, “But it is
the firm Turkish belief that there was no genocide but self-defence
of the Ottoman Empire.”
Scholars like Akcam call this a misrepresentation that must be
Most experts outside Turkey agree the killings are among the first
20th-century examples of what the 1948 Genocide Convention defined as
acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a
national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
During World War I, the government of the disintegrating Ottoman
Empire, fearing nationalist activity, organized mass deportations of
Armenians from its eastern territories.
In what some consider the model for the Holocaust, Armenian men,
women and children were sent into the desert to starve, herded into
barns and churches that were set afire, tortured to death or drowned.
The number of deaths is disputed: Armenians say it was 1.5 million;
some Turks insist it was more like 300,000.
In the official Turkish story, the Armenians were casualties of a
civil conflict they instigated by allying themselves with Russian
forces working to break up the Ottoman Empire.
In any case, atrocities were documented in contemporary press
reports, survivor testimony and dispatches by European diplomats,
missionaries and military officers.
Abortive trials of Ottoman leaders after World War I left an
extensive record and some confessions of responsibility.
A legal analysis commissioned last year by the International Center
for Transitional Justice in New York concluded that sufficient
evidence exists to term the killings “genocide” under international
Yet unlike Germany in the decades since the Holocaust, Turkey has
consistently denied that the killings were intended or that the
government had any moral or legal responsibility.
In the years since its founding in 1923, the Turkish Republic has
drawn what Turkish historian Halil Berktay calls a “curtain of
silence” around this history at home and used its influence as a Cold
War ally to pressure Western governments to suppress opposing views.
`It is the firm Turkish belief that there was no genocide but
self-defence of the Ottoman Empire’
Tuluy Tanc, Turkish diplomat
Turks fear to acknowledge the crimes of the past, Akcam says, because
admitting that the founders of modern Turkey, revered today as
heroes, were complicit in evil calls into question the country’s very
“If you start questioning, you have to question the foundations of
the republic,” he says, speaking intensely over glasses of Turkish
tea in the book-lined living room of his Minneapolis home as his
12-year-old daughter works on her homework in the next room.
Akcam and others like him insist that coming to terms with the past
serves Turkey’s best interests.
Their views echo the experience of countries in Latin America,
Eastern Europe and Africa that have struggled with similar questions
as they emerge from periods of repressive rule or violent conflict.
Reflecting a widespread belief that nations can ensure a democratic
future only through acknowledging past wrongs, these countries have
opened archives, held trials and created truth commissions.
Akcam thinks some headway is being made, particularly since the
election of a moderate government in 2002 and continuing Turkish
efforts to join the European Union.
And he is convinced the state’s resistance to historical dialogue is
“not the position of the majority of people in Turkey.”
He cites a recent survey conducted by scholars that appeared in a
Turkish newspaper showing that 61 per cent of Turks believe it is
time for public discussion of what the survey called the “accusations
But his views and those of like-minded scholars remain anathema to
the nationalist forces that still exercise influence in Turkey.
Akcam has been building bridges since 1995, when he met Greg
Sarkissian, founder of the Zoryan Institute in Toronto, a research
centre devoted to Armenian history.
In what both men describe as an emotional encounter, they lit candles
together at an Armenian church for Sarkissian’s murdered relatives
and for Haji Halil, a Turkish man who rescued Sarkissian’s
grandmother and her children.
Akcam and Sarkissian say Halil, the “righteous Turk,” symbolizes the
possibility of a more constructive relationship between the two
But like most Armenians, Sarkissian says Turkey must acknowledge
historical responsibility before reconciliation is possible.
“If they do,” he says, “it will start the healing process, and then
Armenians won’t talk about genocide any more.
“We will talk about Haji Halil.”
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress