Taner Akcam: Bravely Tells the Truth Turkey Doesn't Want to Hear About the Armenian Massacre

Historians in the News

Belinda Cooper, in the NYT (March 6, 2004):

Taner Akcam doesn't seem like either a hero or a traitor, though he's been called both. A slight, soft-spoken man who chooses his words with care, Mr. 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.

Mr. Akcam, 50, is one of a handful of scholars who are challenging their homeland's insistent declarations that the organized slaughter of Armenians did not occur; and he is the first Turkish specialist to use the word "genocide" publicly in this context.

That is a radical step when one considers that Turkey has threatened to sever relations with countries over this single word. In 2000, for example, Ankara derailed an American congressional resolution calling the 1915 killings "genocide" by threatening to cut access to military bases in the country."We accept that tragic events occurred at the time involving all the subjects of the Ottoman Empire," said Tuluy Tanc, minister counselor at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, "but it is the firm Turkish belief that there was no genocide but self-defense of the Ottoman Empire."

Scholars like Mr. Akcam call this a misrepresentation that must be confronted. "We have to deal with history, like the Germans after the war," said Fikret Adanir, a Turkish historian who has lived in Germany for many years. "It's important for the health of the democracy, for civil society."

Most scholars outside Turkey agree that the killings are among the first 20th-century instances of "genocide," defined under the 1948 Genocide Convention 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 Armenian nationalist activity, organized mass deportations of Armenians from its eastern territories.

In what some consider the model for the Holocaust, 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 numbers who died are disputed: the Armenians give a figure of 1.5 million, the Turks several hundred thousand.

In the official Turkish story the Armenians were casualties of 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 existed to term the killings a "genocide" under international law.

Yet unlike Germany in the decades since the Holocaust, Turkey has consistently denied that the killings were intended or that the government at the time had any moral or legal responsibility. In the years since its founding in 1923 the Turkish Republic has drawn what the 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 foreign governments to suppress opposing views.

Mr. Akcam is among the most outspoken of the Turkish scholars who have defied this silence. A student leader of the leftist opposition to Turkey's repressive government in the 1970's, Mr. Akcam spent a year in prison for "spreading communist propaganda" before escaping to Germany. There, influenced in part by Germany's continuing struggle to understand its history, he began to confront his own country's past. While researching the post-World War I trials of Turkish leaders, he began working with Vahakn Dadrian, a pre-eminent Armenian historian of the killings. Their unlikely friendship became the subject of a 1997 Dutch film, "The Wall of Silence."

Turks fear to acknowledge the crimes of the past, Mr. 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 legitimacy. "If you start questioning, you have to question the foundations of the republic," he said, speaking intensely over glasses of Turkish tea in the book-lined living room of his Minneapolis home, as his 12-year-old daughter worked on her homework in the next room. In a study nearby transcriptions of Turkish newspapers from the 1920's were neatly piled.


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Demir I Karsan - 5/31/2005

It is not a suprize that criminal Taner Akcam (who was convicted for his extreme communist terrorist activities to 10 year in prison and escaped from the prison a year after his internment) is following an anti Turkish path on this issue. Call it getting even!
You have a way of accepting all remarks supporting your genocide theory, regardless whether the person who makes the remark is credible or not. You have even accepted Hitler as your alibi (reference so claimed Obergammau speech).
Why should Turks accept a crime they did not commit? Ottoman officials have already been acquitted by the Malta Trials which ended in 1922.