University professor talks about his book on Armenian Genocide

More than one million Armenians died between 1915 and 1923 during a devastating genocide.

Conrad Wilson

More than one million Armenians died from 1915 to 1923 during a devastating genocide. Today, the demise of a people is debated throughout Turkey, the epicenter of the once-powerful Ottoman Empire.

University professor Taner Akcam’s new book released this week, “A Shameful Act,” examines the genocide and the degree of Turkish responsibility.

Akcam is a professor at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

The idea was to discuss the problems around the international criminal law and criminal court. The history of establishment of the international criminal court goes back to the Paris Peace Conferences. The Armenian genocide and the problem of trying the perpetrator on an international criminal court was one of the major problems in Paris. I suggested to research the problem of the Armenian genocide.

What does the book highlight about the Armenian genocide that is otherwise unknown?

The question of the implementation of the genocide: How different government organizations and the party in power cooperated and organized the genocide. Based on new Ottoman documents, I reconstruct the implementation of the genocide.

I explicitly showed in my book that the attitude of the founder of Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal, on the events of 1915 is just the opposite of the denialist attitudes of current Turkish politics. His viewpoint toward the Armenian genocide has now been deliberately forgotten and deleted from Turkish collective memory. This is what needs to be revised and renewed in our history.

What major elements from the genocide do you highlight in the book?

Between 1918 and 1923, the political decision-makers were grappling with two distinct, yet related issues; the answers to which determined their various relationships and alliances.

The first was the territorial integrity of the Ottoman state.

The second was the wartime atrocities committed by the ruling Union and Progress Party against its own Ottoman Armenian citizens.

Although everyone agreed that these war crimes could not be left unpunished, there was uncertainty about the scope of the penalty.

One group advocated for the trial and punishment of the first-hand criminals as well as some of the top Union and Progress leaders.

Another group advocated for the trials of individual suspects, casting the net as widely as possible, and for the punitive dismemberment of the Ottoman state into new states created on its territory.

The book is quite critical of the Turkish government in regards to their role in the genocide. What criticism, if any, have you received?

First there were attacks in Turkish press, especially because of the title of the book. This is a quotation from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the (Turkish) Republic. I was attacked as a liar and falsifier of his words in main media. The next day, they all apologized.

The publication of the book was the main topic in Turkey between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2, not only because of Atatürk’s words, but because of Orhan Pamuk’s blurb (a Nobel Prize-winner author) at the back of the book.

What is the “Turkish responsibility” in the Armenian genocide?

There is a very strong moral responsibility because Turkey’s establishment as an independent state has very strong links to what happened to the Armenians.

I showed in my book that there is continuity between the Armenian genocide and the foundation of Turkish Republic. The party – Union and Progress Party – which organized the genocide, was the party which organized the resistance movement in Anatolia against the British and French occupation. An important number of party members who committed crimes against the Armenians were also very active in the Turkish liberation movement.

Additionally, today’s Turkey sits on the Armenian properties and lands left by Armenians.

As a general rule, would you agree that national and ethnic groups tend to focus on their pains, rather than the pains they have inflicted upon others? How does this fit into the framework of the book?

This is a very true statement. Every ethnic group has a selective memory and remembers only the pain that is inflicted to them by others.

My book is a call for a break with this tradition. There is a fundamental principle in genocide research that I would like to repeat: If societies do not want a repeat of these types of macro crimes, it is necessary for each group to think first and foremost about the things that they themselves have done and to discuss and debate them.

As long as this is not done, the probability of such events repeating themselves remains quite high, because every collective carries the potential for violence within its very structure, and when a situation appears in which the right conditions manifest themselves, this potential can easily become a reality, and on the slightest of pretexts. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Does this book tackle any issues as it relates to Turkey’s application for membership within the European Union?

Of course. Without facing its history, without coming to terms with the past, Turkey cannot be a member of European Union.

The expectation from Turkey is that it faces the historic wrongdoings and acknowledges its moral responsibility.

There are at least six to seven different resolutions of European Parliament asking Turkey to acknowledge the genocide.

Is there a particular passage from the book that conveys your overall message?

The legacy of Haji Halil to whom I dedicated my book.

This book is dedicated to Haji Halil Ö Eight members of his mother’s family were kept safely hidden for some six months in Haji Halil’s home under very dangerous circumstances. Any Turk protecting an Armenian was threatened with being hanged in front of his house, which would then be burned.

I was deeply moved by the story, by the humanity that triumphed over evil Ö The memory of Haji Halil reminds us that both people, Turks and Armenians, have a different history on which they can build a future.