Two Rights And A Wrong: On Taner Akcam


The Nation
March 14 2013

Holly Case March 13, 2013

Turkey is a country with two right wings. One is nationalist and
secular, built on the oversized legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, 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 Turkkaya 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 Akcam, 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 Akcam’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 Akcam, 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 BirGun (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 MiloÅ¡evic. The same could happen in Turkey, in his
view. The original Turkish edition of Akcam’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, Akcam leaves little
doubt about whom he holds responsible for his friend’s death. Dink’s
name, along with Akcam’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. Akcam 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.”

Akcam 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 Akcam’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, Akcam 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, Akcam 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, Akcam 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, Akcam 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, Akcam 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,” Akcam 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, Akcam 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, Akcam 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,” Akcam 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, Akcam has drawn on the work
of the German-Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias. In Studien uber
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 Akcam 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.

Akcam 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, Akcam 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. Akcam
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,
Akcam 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. Akcam’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 Akcam, 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.

Akcam 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,” Akcam 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. Akcam
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, Akcam 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
Akcam 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 Akcam 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 Akcam’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 Akcam
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 Akcam 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.

Akcam 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, Akcam 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 Akcam, 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.

Akcam 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.

Akcam 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 Ocalan 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 Akcam 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 Akcam, 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, Akcam 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 Akcam, but also by Cem Ozdemir, 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, Akcam
lives in the United States, Ozdemir 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.

The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity The Armenian Genocide and
Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire.

By Taner Akcam.

Princeton. 483 pp