A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility

A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility

by Taner Akcam

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805086652
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/21/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 675,099
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.11(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Map     xii
Preface     1
Author's Note     15
The Armenian Question Prior to the Decision for Genocide     17
The Ottoman State and Its Non-Muslim Populations     19
The Union and Progress Era     47
Turkish Nationalism     82
The Decision for Genocide and Subsequent Developments     109
What Led to the Decision for Genocide?     111
The Decision and Its Aftermath     149
The investigations and Prosecution of the War Crimes and Genocide     205
The Question of Punishing the "Turks"     207
Ottoman Government Initiatives     243
The Turkish National Movement's Position on the Genocide     303
The Final Phase of the Trials     349
Why the Postwar Trials Failed     368
Notes     377
Acknowledgments     465
Index     467

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A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book shows that Taner Akcam has emerged as the leading Turkish historian who possesses the linguistic knowledge (reading of Ottoman Turkish) and access to archives in Turkey to tackle the subject that is the source of denial by the Turkish State. This book without exception is the most readable and best documented to support the Armenian case of being victims of genocide in 1915 and explains that even the government of Mustafa Kemal understood and recognized the genocide. Akcam explains that the title of the book, 'A Shameful Act' is from a speech by Kemal himself. But in addition to a clear explanation of the facts without polemic, Akcam clearly understands that denial of the genocide is a threat to Turkish democracy. He dedicates the book to a 'righteous Turk' who saved Armenians. This brings his writing and empathy closer to that of the most serious works that attempt to understand the Holocaust. Genocide studies can be thankful for Akcam's research and writing. The support for the book has also come from very positive reviews in top newspapers and journals. This is a great achievement and a must read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A necessary step has been taken, whose time came long ago, by Dr. Akcam in criticizing official Turkish government position with regard to the Armenian Genocide. There will be no genuine democracy if the past cannot be accurately acknowledged. Circumvention of the truth about the genocide not only hurts Armenians, but also Turks, as entire young generations grow up and receive an education that is missing a chapter in history. Whoever finds this book biased has a biased agenda towards genocide, period!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Ottoman Empire ethnically cleansed and murdered 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1918. The Turkish army drove hundreds of thousands of Armenians through the Der Zor desert where they died from hunger and thirst. this book is a watershed and a must read. Modern Turkey continues to vehemently deny these crimes against humanity and fights ferociously around the globe to bury the historical facts.the bad reviews posted here are clearly the work of and underwritten by the Ottoman denialists. there is one Turk you can quote who still commands almost reverential respect from his fellow countryman - Kemal Ataturk, the legendary founder of the modern nation. In an interview published on August 1, 1926 in The Los Angeles Examiner, Ataturk talked about the former Young Turks in his country: 'These left-overs from the former Young Turk Party, who should have been made to account for the millions of our Christian subjects who were ruthlessly driven en masse from their homes and massacred, have been restive under the Republican rule.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is brilliant. Akcam's meticulous examination of this matter, with his thorough analysis and his methodical account is a tool that anyone who wishes to understand this terrible chapter of the history of humanity HAS to read. The Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman authorities is a historical fact, acknowledged by outstanding men, institutions and nations all around the world: Pope John Paul II, Baltazar Garzon, the World Council of Churches, the International Association of Genocide Scholars, Nobel Prize recipients... the list could go on and on. There are huge and indeniable evidences of this terrible crime. Undoubtedly, the mere existence of the Armenian Diaspora is a reality that is hard to hide (only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia, while 9 million people constitute the Armenian Diaspora, all of them descendents of the Armenians who managed to escape the annihilation of the Armenian Genocide, leaving their homeland in Anatolia -nowadays Turkey- where they had lived for 3.000 years). Each of these families can tell the story of grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, tortured, starved and killed between 1915 and 1923. Each household represents a different story of loss and destruction. But the contribution of this brave author is really remarkable. In this book, he examines unknown evidence and dares to tell the truth, jeopardizing his own safety. Akcam, as a Turkish scholar, offers a unique point of view. Thanks to courageous, honest Turkish men and women like Akcam, Turkey could have the opportunity to face its past and build a new future of reconciliation with the Armenian people.
Guest More than 1 year ago
All my life, I have heard stories from my own family of how everybody, (including my ancestors) have murdered the Armenians in the region with detailed description of how the river Euphrates ran days red with blood. The interesting thing is that these would be discussed only in private with the voices being lowered as the subject matter or stories were repeated. But when official Turkish lies of the Turkish State would be recited on TV, or when 'we' were being 'attacked' by those 'ugly, deceptive, liar, treacherous' Armenians, foreigners, etc. Nobody, absolutely nobody, stood up to say the truth they had been talking about in private parties. Privately accept, and even boast about how we 'killed them all,' but publicly deny the genocide! This is the official Turkish position since these horrific events took place. A nation as my own, that is embarrassed about the identity it took around 1900's, ashamed from its past, history, the blood on their hands, can not, does not, will not even start to understand democracy, humanity, value of human lives. Taner Akcam helps us deal with this dark side of our history, a part that is so embarrassing that many Turks refuse to even think about it. Nevertheless, a side that has shaped the Turkish identity since our so-called 'liberation war.' If we do not understand the events presented in this book, we will repeat the same shameful events in our lives. History actually DID repeat itself as the Turkish state in recent times murdered around 30,000 of its Kurdish citizens, similar to the Armenian genocide. Why? Using Kurds in the genocide against our own Armenian citizens around 1915, now the monster needed more blood against its own citizens, the Kurds this time, because they do not look, speak, behave or dress like us. Those who hide the past can not survive the truth today. The same, exactly the same stupid excuses used to justify a genocide around 1915 is again being used today as if that makes murdering 800,000 - 1.5 million OK. This is the official Turkish state line. Today we are again fed the line that 'Enemy within is stabbing us in the back... so they deserve the fate of Armenians...' With nationalist press openly writing, 'We did it then, we will do it again...' Unfortunately the nationalist mentality does not question the lies of its rulers, so, many Turks today follow the distorted lies written in their secondary school history books. This is why books like 'A shameful act' becomes important when it exposes the official lies of the Turkish government. We must thank courageous Mr. Akcam and other authors like Pamuk to clean our bloody, dirty history and deal with the crimes our forefathers have committed against humanity. Otherwise we will live with this blood dripping from our hands and face. As a proud Turkish citizen, I want to live guilt free. I do not want these crimes pushed under the rug by Turkish military, official historians (parrots of government, whose paychecks depend on toeing the official lies) or the criminal Turkish state. It is time to come clean. Enough of stupidity. If we can privately accept the crimes, it is time to stand up to the crimes publicly. Mr. Akcam takes the steps to challenge the official re-written history to do just that in this book. It is also shameful that Turkey discovers France's crimes in Algeria recently when France mentions the crimes of Turkey against the Armenians. Yes, of course France also has committed those crimes against Algeria. But where were the Turkish nationalists until now? The policy of my government/nationalists is 'If you let my crimes go unmentioned, I will not bring up your crimes!' When, soon, the same issue will be brought up in the US, the Turkish nationalists will be discovering what the US has done to the blacks, natives, Filipinos. But for the time being they are silent on these genocides, to see if they can keep the US silent on the Turkish crimes. If and only if the US adop
jcovington on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This is a very important book. The violent massacre of the Armenians was a tragedy on par with the Holocaust, yet the perpetrators not only escaped real justice, but a century later still get to deny the crime! While portions are heart-rending, this book is not really well written. For scholarship, it is quite important but for popular consumption - not really a "good read."It is definately worth plowing through.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Hello, I read the book a couple of weeks ago. I believe that the book has some serious flaws in terms of objectivity. I do not think that everything is properly cited either. I am from SE Anatolia, too. Very interestingly, different from what another person from SE Anatolia wrote a review here, all I heard about the Armenians was how brutal some of them were towards the Turkish villages and how they butchered numerous local Turks including some of my forefathers! There are many Turkish, Russian, and English documents and records verifying these ¿shameful acts¿ of Armenians. Ask the old people here they will tell you how much they suffered because of Armenian terrorism. Here in that part of Anatolia, people are aware of the fact that the Armenians were forcefully moved to Syria and Lebanon. In addition, people here also aware the fact that this forceful relocation had reasons. It was not something that is done to destroy the Armenians. Why would they try to move them from one place another if all they wanted was to massacre them? The Turks could have simply killed Armenians in their homes or in their villages without bothering themselves with relocation. Why would the Ottoman government assign hundreds and thousand of soldiers to relocate Armenians during a time when the Empire needed as many as solders possible in the western part of the country because of the wars in West? Also, many of these Armenians arrived in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon safely. Many of them went to Europe and the US from those places. However, it is a fact that the Armenians suffered a lot during the relocation. But this does not make it genocide. I think the terms ¿genocide¿ is being used so loosely. I believe anyone from SE Anatolia would definitely hear about the other side of the coin and would mention those in a book review about the Armenian `genocide¿. Thank you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book lacks objectivity. It clearly appears to have a political agenda. It is constantly against everything that was done by the Ottoman Empire. There is absolutely no mention of Ottomans having a justified reason, an Armenian armed rebellion. It is always the Armenians who are the victim all throughout the book. The book is also proving that it lacks objectivity by linking Ottoman Empire to modern Turkey today. It gave me the impression that the book was financed by Armenians that live in US, who want to use it for a political agenda against modern Turkey today.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book doesn't reflect an objective view of the historical facts. The lack of proper citations and references is also disturbing to see in a history book. The chronological order and flow of events is well observed though. if you like facts and objectivity, I'd not recommend buying this book.