A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility by Taner Akcam, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility
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A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility

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by Taner Akcam

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"The definitive account of the organized destruction of the Ottoman Armenians . . . No future discussion of the history will be able to ignore this brilliant book."—Orhan Pamuk

Beginning in 1915, under the cover of a world war, some one million Armenians were killed through starvation, forced marches, and mass acts of slaughter. Although Armenians and


"The definitive account of the organized destruction of the Ottoman Armenians . . . No future discussion of the history will be able to ignore this brilliant book."—Orhan Pamuk

Beginning in 1915, under the cover of a world war, some one million Armenians were killed through starvation, forced marches, and mass acts of slaughter. Although Armenians and the judgment of history have long held the Ottoman powers responsible for genocide, modern Turkey has rejected any such claim.

Now, in a pioneering work of excavation, Turkish historian Taner Akçam has made unprecedented use of Ottoman and other sources—military and court records, parliamentary minutes, letters, and eyewitness reports—to produce a scrupulous account of Ottoman culpability. Tracing the causes of the mass destruction, Akçam reconstructs its planning and implementation by the departments of state, the military, and the ruling political parties, and he probes the multiple failures to bring the perpetrators to justice.

As the topic of the Armenian genocide provokes ever-greater passion and controversy around the world, Akçam's work has only become more important and relevant. Beyond its timeliness, however, A Shameful Act is sure to take its lasting place as a classic and necessary work on the subject.

Editorial Reviews

Gary J. Bass
A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, by Taner Akcam, is a Turkish blast against this national denial. A historian and former leftist activist now teaching at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, Akcam is often described as the first Turkish scholar to call the massacres genocide, and his impressive achievement here is to shine fresh light on exactly why and how the Ottoman Empire deported and slaughtered the Armenians. He directly challenges the doubters back home, basing his powerful book on Turkish sources in the old Ottoman script—including the failed Ottoman war crimes tribunals held after World War I. Although he bolsters his case with material from the American, British and German archives, he writes that the remaining Ottoman records are enough to show that the ruling party's central committee "did deliberately attempt to destroy the Armenian population."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The story of the Ottoman Empire's slaughter of one million Armenians in 1915 a genocide still officially denied by the 83-year-old modern Turkish state has been dominated by two historiographical traditions. One pictures an embattled empire, increasingly truncated by rapacious Western powers and internal nationalist movements. The other details the attempted eradication of an entire people, amid persecutions of other minorities. Part of historian Ak am's task in this clear, well-researched work is to reconcile these mutually exclusive narratives. He roots his history in an unsparing analysis of Turkish responsibility for one of the most notorious atrocities of a singularly violent century, in internal and international rivalries, and an exclusionary system of religious (Muslim) and ethnic (Turkish) superiority. With novel use of key Ottoman, European and American sources, he reveals that the mass killing of Armenians was no byproduct of WWI, as long claimed in Turkey, but a deliberate, centralized program of state-sponsored extermination. As Turkey now petitions to join the European Union, and ethnic cleansing and collective punishment continues to threaten entire populations around the globe, this groundbreaking and lucid account by a prominent Turkish scholar speaks forcefully to all. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Turkish historian Akcam capably refutes those who deny the Armenian genocide, who will probably not change their minds. No one knows how many Armenians died at Turkish hands in the 1910s, but the number almost certainly exceeds one million. Akcam, writing from the safe distance of the University of Minnesota, has worked through thousands and thousands of documents to find concrete evidence thereof, against considerable difficulty. For one thing, in the post-World War I era, the so-called Young Turks who had led the genocide were still in power and ordered the destruction of countless incriminating documents. For another, no less comprehensive, that postwar government promulgated an alphabet reform that replaced Arabic script with Latin letters, so that, apart from a few scholars, Turkey is now "a society that cannot read its own newspapers, letters and diaries if they were written before 1928. . . . As a result, modern Turkey is totally dependent on history as the state has defined and written it." More puzzling is the complicity of the victorious Allies in allowing Turkey to escape punishment for-and then deny-its actions against the Armenians; Akcam turns up documents there, too. He is unsparing in his evidence, including proof that Turkish officials who refused to obey murderous orders were themselves murdered. Yet the author also ventures explanations for how the genocide could have been so easily conducted: Most Turks, it appears, condoned it, believing that with the rapid collapse of the Ottoman Empire, their nation was in danger of being carved up by Armenian nationalists. Ironically, hoping for a homeland of their own, Muslim Kurds joined in the slaughter of Christian Armenians,who had "been willing to convert to escape death." Convicts released from prison for the purpose butchered tens of thousands, too. Yet the Turkish government bears the greatest responsibility for the murders, even if it will not admit to it. Of profound importance to history-and certain to stir up nests of hornets.

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By Taner Akçam

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2006 Taner Akçam
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8050-7932-7


Any account of the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire is necessarily also a history of the creation of many new nation-states within its imperial borders. Inevitably, the desire of ethnic-national groups that had coexisted for centuries to break off into their own exclusive states led to expulsion or worse for the other ethnic groups living in the same territory. Great suffering followed, suffering that formed a crucial component of each new nation's collective memory. Of course, this is not unique to the Ottoman Empire: Communities, whether national, religious, or cultural, tend to memorialize not the wrongs they have inflicted but those they have endured. Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Iraq, Syria-indeed, all the entities established on Ottoman soil-remember their histories as a series of expulsions and massacres inflicted on them by "others." This is the basis of the historiography of nation-state building in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Middle East. Turkish national historiography is no different, memorializing massacres of Muslims by Armenian, Greek, Bulgarian, and other ethnic-national groups while making no mention of suffering inflicted by Muslims on non-Muslim groups, such as the massacre of Christians, let alone the Armenian genocide.

This book breaks with thattradition. It is a call to the people of Turkey to consider the suffering inflicted in their name on those "others" The reason for this call is not only the scale of the Armenian genocide, which was in no way comparable to the individual acts of revenge carried out against Muslims. It is also because all studies of large-scale atrocities teach us one core principle: To prevent the recurrence of such events, people must first consider their own responsibility, discuss it, debate it, and recognize it. In the absence of such honest consideration, there remains the high probability of such acts being repeated, since every group is inherently capable of violence; when the right conditions arise this potential may easily become reality, and on the slightest of pretexts. There are no exceptions. Each and every society needs to take a self-critical approach, one that should be firmly institutionalized as a community's moral tradition regardless of what others might have done to them. It is this that prevents renewed eruptions of violence.

When on 24 May 1915 the news reached Europe that Ottoman Armenians were being killed, England, France, and Russia issued a joint declaration: "In view of these crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization, the Allied governments announce publicly to the Sublime Porte that they will hold personally responsible [for] these crimes all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres." After the Allies' victory in World War I-and the death of some one million Armenians (the numbers vary widely depending on the source)-the Great Powers were expected to make good on their promise. However, it soon became clear during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference that the arrest and prosecution of individual members of the wartime Ottoman government would be no easy task since many of those involved in the genocide remained in power. It also quickly emerged that the Allies had divergent political interests in the region, which directly caused serious differences over the prosecution of war criminals. Finally, and most important, there were inadequate institutions and legislation within international law to deal with the problem of "crimes against humanity."

While the Allied Powers had the right to prosecute war criminals and specifically the perpetrators of the Armenian massacres-as granted in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, signed with the Ottoman Government-this prerogative was never fully exercised. There were three separate attempts, however, to try and punish the guilty. The first was the series of extraordinary courts-martial set up by the Ottoman Government itself, prior to the Treaty of Sèvres, in the hope of obtaining more favorable results for Turkey at the Paris Peace Conference. These courts, which began their pretrial interrogations in November 1918, started hearing cases in February the following year and continued until 1922. They were ultimately disbanded because of pressure by the Turkish nationalist movement and because the trials were no longer seen as offering any advantage to the new nationalist government, especially after the Treaty of Sèvres was concluded and partition of the empire had begun.

The second attempt was initiated by the Allied Powers at the Paris Peace Conference itself, with the goal of creating a legal corpus for the trial of crimes against humanity and their subsequent prosecution in an international court. Allied conflicts of interest, however, as well as the fact that international law at the time applied only to crimes committed by one state against the citizens of another doomed these efforts as well. Armenians, as Ottoman subjects, were excluded from this category and no international convention existed to cover crimes perpetrated by a state against its own people.

One final attempt to try those responsible came from Great Britain, which, wary of the Ottoman courts in Istanbul, moved to take suspects into British custody and ship them to colonial Malta. As the Turkish extraordinary courts-martial began to lose domestic support, the British continued to work to try the suspects under British law. In the absence, however, of sufficient evidence in the American and British archives against specific individuals-as opposed to the Ottoman archives, which contained ample evidence-their efforts proved fruitless. Thus, despite their many deficiencies, it was the Ottoman military trials in Istanbul-the indictments, telegrams, eyewitness accounts, and other testimony produced during the trials themselves and the investigations and interrogations leading up to them-that proved to be the most successful in documenting and establishing responsibility for the genocide.

* * *

The question of Turkish responsibility invariably prompts great controversy, but in all the debate there is only one clear question to be answered: Is there evidence of intent and central planning on the part of the Ottoman authorities for the total or partial destruction of the Armenian people? The official Turkish position is that the death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians (Turkish estimates range from 300,000 to 600,000) was a tragic but unintended by-product of the war. This argument rests on the claim that the Ottoman sources contain no evidence showing a deliberate policy of systematic killing. In this book, which makes the most extensive use to date of Ottoman materials, I will argue otherwise.

As noted, the evidence produced during the extraordinary courts-martial conducted in Istanbul is of unparalleled value to any effort to assess Turkish responsibility for the Armenian genocide. Of the approximately sixty-three military tribunals, beginning in February 1919, three major trials-of the wartime cabinet ministers, the central committee members of the Committee of Union and Progress (the CUP, the party in power during the war), and the regional party secretaries-dealt at length with the question of political responsibility. A clear attempt was made to prove that the Armenian massacres had been a centrally planned operation, an unequivocal case of genocide. Along with the other Istanbul trials, which focused on concrete instances of atrocities in different areas, these court proceedings yielded important information about how the massacres were carried out and about the division of labor among various paramilitary and irregular organizations. Leaving aside documents published by Aram Andonian (which academic researchers have tended to avoid due to accusations of inaccuracy or forgery), the investigations leading to the trials also produced crucial records concerning the genocide's planning and implementation. It is noteworthy that much of this material was provided by Ottoman army commanders and other high-ranking officers and bureaucrats who knew what was happening, some of whom refused to participate in the crimes. The commander of the Third Army, Vehip Papa, and Aleppo provincial governor Celal Bey are two such examples.

Until recently, these documents did not attract the attention they deserve from scholars, for several reasons. First, to this day we do not know the whereabouts of the complete official court records. Some copies are filed in the archives of the Armenian patriarchate in Jerusalem, but they are handwritten copies, not originals. Second, the extant materials on the trials are scattered and incomplete. These comprise the proceedings, including indictments and verdicts for twelve of the sixty-three trials, that were published as supplements to the Ottoman government's official gazette, Takvîm-i Vekâyi; the daily newspapers of the period, which provided extensive coverage of the events surrounding the trials; and finally, various other Ottoman archival materials. The dispersal of these sources in a number of different locations is an obstacle to the compilation of a full record, while the archives are not easily accessible for scholars. Third, all these sources are in the Ottoman language-Turkish written in Arabic script, with a strong influence from Persian and Arabic-and require special skill to read. Finally, even those Ottoman documents that are accessible have been dismissed by Turkish scholars, along with the trials themselves, as "victor's justice," imposed by the Allies as part of their effort to discredit the Ottomans and carve up the empire.

While there is ample reason to believe that these long-neglected archives were "pruned" after the 1918 armistice-many of the relevant documents were destroyed or, according to the Istanbul public defender in the military trials, "confiscated"-the immensity of the crime and the extensive nature of the records meant that these documents could only be partially purged. In the course of implementing the state-wide genocidal policies, hundreds if not thousands of pages of correspondence were exchanged at various government levels. While we are missing a significant portion of these papers, what remains in the Ottoman archives and in court records is sufficient to show that the CUP Central Committee, and the Special Organization it set up to carry out its plan, did deliberately attempt to destroy the Armenian population.

To give just one example of the kind of evidence that belies the official Turkish state version, in 1995 the Directorate-General of the State Archives published a large collection of documentation, The Armenians, [as they appear] in Ottoman Documents, 1915-1920, that was carefully selected to prove the accepted thesis. The volume included a telegram, dated 12 July (29 Haziran) 1915, from Talât Pasa, the minister of the interior, to the governor general in the province of Diyarbakir, commenting on recent deportations in the region. The telegram clearly shows genocidal intent. Acknowledging that more than two thousand Christians had been killed in Diyarbaklr, Talât Pasa warned the governor that "Since it is categorically forbidden for other Christians to be included under the disciplinary and political measures adopted in regard to the Armenians, an immediate stop should be put to this sort of occurrence, which will have a bad effect on public opinion, and will indiscriminately place the lives of Christians in extraordinary danger." Thus the policies deliberately enacted against the Armenians were explicitly to exclude other Christian groups.

The evidence in the Ottoman archives is augmented by the documents found in Germany and Austria, which give ample confirmation that we are looking at a centrally planned operation of annihilation. These records are particularly significant because Germany and Austria were military and political allies of the Ottoman Empire. Their troops fought at the same military fronts, and their consular officials enjoyed freedom of movement within the country and uncensored communication with their foreign ministries back home. Beyond their activities in the provinces, the various consulates maintained regular contact with the centers of Turkish political and military decision-making and had firsthand knowledge of events. Initially, German and Austrian officials wanted to believe that the Armenian deportations were limited only to the war zones. They consequently adopted positions in line with and even supportive of this view. But as the deportations began to exceed the consuls' original assessments, their position became more complicated and their disapproval more explicit. Their reports included eyewitness accounts of the horrors in the provinces, as well as telling comments from the capital, such as the following from Talât Pasa: "What we are dealing with here ... is the annihilation of the Armenians."

After its defeat in the war Germany was at pains to disprove allegations of war crimes and complicity in the Armenian genocide, trying all the while to ensure a more favorable outcome at the Paris Peace Conference. To shape opinion, Germany published collections of archival documents on its foreign policy before and during the war, Die Grosse Politik der Europaischen Kabinette, 1871-1914. Johannes Lepsius, who was entrusted with this publication, also produced an additional collection of archival documents dealing with the Armenian question from 1914-18. Because the goal here was to prove the Germans blameless in the Armenian genocide, Lepsius either avoided publishing a number of reports of an incriminating nature or he published them in censored or abridged form. Later research revealed that most of the distorted documents contained information about Germany condoning the deportations or about its participation in suppressing the Armenian uprisings that erupted in response. Likewise, expressions of Turkish opposition to the deportations and massacres were partially removed from the reports, in order to create a more negative image of the Turks. All mention of Armenians being armed and fighting with the Russians was removed to enhance their innocence, as were some descriptions of the horrors and Armenian suffering, to make the whole situation less shocking for the reader. We now know, however, that German involvement was not limited to simple awareness of the events and remaining silent. Instead, some German officers even signed some of the deportation orders. Today researchers have an almost complete set of original German documents, and after the Ottoman archival materials these comprise the most important evidence showing the genocidal intent of the Ottoman authorities.

Another important source of information is the documents found in the U.S. archives. As the United States did not enter the war until 1917, American consular officials were able before that date to travel freely around the empire. They witnessed some of the events and received hundreds of reports from survivors as well as from foreign observers, such as missionaries, working in the affected areas. These sources are supplemented by recollections and memoirs written by survivors of the massacres and foreign observers as well as further Turkish-language documents, such as the memoirs of central figures in the CUP, parliamentary minutes after 1908, reports of parliamentary commissions, official army and government bulletins, and the daily press.

Taken in their entirety, these sources leave us in no doubt that the scale of the operations would have been impossible without planning at the political center. More specifically, the sources lead us to conclude that there is a very strong likelihood that a decision was made by the CUP's Central Committee during a series of meetings at the end of March 1915 to remove Armenians from their homes to be killed. The CUP, also known as Unionists or Young Turks, took this decision ultimately because they saw it as the only means to guarantee the territorial integrity of the empire and the elimination of the related and long-standing Armenian question once and for all. In Talât Papa's letter of 26 May 1915 to the head of parliament, the grand vizier, he alludes to this CUP-originated plan of genocide, now government policy: "necessary preparations have been discussed and taken for the complete and fundamental elimination of this concern, which occupies an important place in the exalted state's list of vital issues." But we can conclude from the documents and our knowledge of the workings of the cabinet at this time that the decision was essentially made by the party's central committee and not by the Ottoman cabinet-an important distinction, since pockets of resistance against the CUP remained within the state apparatus.


Excerpted from A SHAMEFUL ACT by Taner Akçam Copyright © 2006 by Taner Akçam. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Born in Ardahan province, Turkey, in 1953, Taner Akçam is the author of ten scholarly works of history and sociology, including A Shameful Act, as well as numerous articles in Turkish, German, and English. He currently teaches at Clark University.

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