Taner Akçam Teaches ‘Genocide 101’ in Germany


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — Two classes of high school students in northern Germany had the rare opportunity to learn about the Armenian genocide from one of the most authoritative researchers on the topic, Prof. Taner Akçam from Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

During his brief visit to Germany over the Thanksgiving holidays November 26-29, Akçam also lectured for adults, among them a seminar group at the Free University in Berlin, and a broader general public at the Potsdam University and the Lepsiushaus in Potsdam. For Akçam it was not foreign territory. As the dean of the philosophy department of the Potsdam University noted in introducing him, Akçam had found political asylum in Germany after his escape from prison in Turkey, where he had been sentenced for articles he had written about the Kurds. In 1996 he took a degree from the Hannover University with a thesis on the Armenian Genocide and then worked at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, before moving the US, where he studied at the University of Minnesota and Michigan, and went on to a position at Clark University.

In his public appearances, Akçam spoke on themes he has developed in several books. In his two university lectures in Berlin and Potsdam, he dealt with “The Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Documents: A Gradual Radicalization in the Decision-Making Process” and spoke at the Lepsiushaus on “Genocide as a Political Security Concept.” The first lectures drew on material published in his most recent book, The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity. The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, which received the Albert Hourani Award for the best book of the year.


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Opening the Ottoman Archives

Akçam addressed two basic questions: what happened? And, why did it happen?

Although the fact of the Armenian Genocide has been firmly established (though more can be documented through local histories), the why and how are still subjects of discussion. Rejecting the notion that it was the expression of some “ahistorical, genocidal, barbaric Turks” or simply a pan-Turkic, pan-Turanist expansionism, or war-time exigencies, the researcher presented the developments as documented in Ottoman archives. Those of the Interior Ministry General Directorate of Security and the Cipher Office, for example, established in 1913, contain encoded messages from the center to the regions, with orders for deportations that show the intent to commit genocide. The strategic reasons behind the decision-making process he identified in the Ottoman government’s fear that Russian-backed reform moves would lead to an independent Armenia, thus the circulars issued by Interior Minister Talaat Pasha in September-October 1914 ordering that Armenians be disarmed. The dates are important, because these orders, as well as those for deportations of women and children, are before the entry into war in November. Then, following the catastrophic Ottoman losses at Sankamis in January 1915, and later Russian advances, the decision to commit genocide took shape. As a leitmotif in his lecture, he noted how moves towards reforms for the Armenians, supported by foreign powers, were answered with massacres, in the Hamidian period as later.

Those listening to Akçam’s presentation were struck by the quality of his source material and asked about access to these archives. The Ottoman Empire archives are now open and are even catalogued, whereas the military archives in Ankara are closed. The Committee of Unity and Progress Central Committee documents and those relating to the Special Operations, however, are gone. He estimated that what is available may represent perhaps 30 per cent of the actual documents.

Behind the Policy of Denial

Speaking in German to a capacity crowd at the Lepsiushaus Akçam explored the reasons why the Turkish establishment has embraced a policy of denial regarding historical facts that have been so scrupulously documented. He began by noting that among the documents found in 2009 pertaining to the Ergenokon case, his name was on a hit list, along with those of Orhan Pamuk and Hrant Dink, who were all designated as “traitors to national security.” The argument was (and is) that anyone who raises the accusation of genocide is threatening national security, because of the threat to change borders and destroy the state. Echoes of similar thinking are found in the reluctance on the part of US presidents (with the exception of Reagan) to utter the G-word, who claim they must protect national security interests in the Middle East and not jeopardize them for a moral issue related to the past. Others argue that recognition is the only moral choice. For Akçam the solution lies in the idea that asserting moral issues is necessary precisely to safeguard national security, and that refusal to acknowledge the past is the source of regional insecurity. Here, in reviewing the history, Akçam showed how the willingness or refusal of Turkish leaders (including Kemal Atatürk) to acknowledge the atrocities and even agree to punishing perpetrators, was directly related to their perception of how the foreign powers would treat Turkey. Atatürk uttered his famous phrase about “a shameful act” in expectation of guarantees of national sovereignty and territorial concessions. Since the continuing Armenian-Turkish conflict is seen in relation to territorial issues, the speaker urged a revision of the concept of “national security.” By the same token, due to the denial of historic facts, many ethnic and religious groups continue to view the world from the perspective of the past and the region, thus traumatized, remains insecure. If the refusal to face the past generates insecurity, then recognition leads to trust, he said. In the lively Q&A session, the critical issue of Turkey’s national identity arose. The speaker summarized the dilemma faced in Turkey, due to the fact that it is difficult to identify the founding fathers as “thieves and murderers.” For such to occur, he stressed the need for a new ruling elite to emerge in Turkey, one with a democratic identity and in this context underlined the importance of Turkey’s bid for European Union membership. He also urged Armenian Diaspora groups to seek contact and collaboration with democratic grass roots movements in Turkey who are critically assessing the past.

People: Taner Akçam

‘Armenian Genocide 101’

The highpoint of Akçam’s visit was undoubtedly his session with German students, in which I also participated. They came from two prestigious Gymnasien, high-school level institutions for study of the humanities and natural sciences. Students in German schools receive instruction in Holocaust studies but, with the exception of one federal state, they do not learn about the Armenian Genocide in their history classes. These two classes had prepared for their special workshop by reading background material and discussing it with their teachers. The visiting professor decided to treat them to an introductory course, “Armenian Genocide 101.” With the aid of a huge map of Ottoman Turkey, which showed the deportation routes and concentration camps, he summarized the phases of the genocide, from the “re-settlement” to the extermination. He placed special emphasis on the mathematical precision with which the operation was organized and executed, explaining how Armenians would be deported, and could not make up more than 5-10 percent, and how Anatolia, with its massive Armenian population, was to be emptied, also in light of the Russia factor. Referring to documents from the Office of Statistics, he cited the figure of 180,000 Armenians to be left. When, after the removal of 1.3 million, it appeared that a half million still survived, they were subjected to killing in the second phase, to reach the desired number.

Throughout the discussion, comparisons to the Holocaust were made — from the Nazis’ “Eastern Plan” to their pursuit of “Lebensraum” for a purely German (or “Aryan”) population. Here he noted that in the Armenian case one difference concerned religion. Those who converted to Islam could save their lives (until he number became too large), whereas in the Holocaust this was not the case. Regarding the perspectives for Genocide recognition, both Rolf Hosfeld, scientific director of the Lepsiushaus, and Akçam pointed out the importance of the military-strategic context. Had Nazi Germany won the war, and a Nazi-successor elite established post-war Germany, the attitude towards the Holocaust would have been different. But Germany was occupied, the Nuremburg trials took place. Similarly, in Turkey after it lost the war and was under occupation, trials against the CUP leaders responsible for the massacres took place. However, following Atatürk’s later military victories, the scene changed. Thus, the need for a new generation in Turkey to assume leadership and responsibility for facing the past and establishing justice. He noted several encouraging steps in this direction on the part of the current government, which broke the continuity of the elites when it assumed power over a decade ago; for example, Prime Minister Erdogan’s apology for the Dersim massacres of Kurds.

The students listened in fascination to his brief account of his own life in Turkey. As a student leader he had written about the Kurds and paid for it with a 9-year prison sentence. After one year, he managed with co-prisoners to break out of prison and flee to Germany, where he was again arrested, because he carried a false passport, and held until Amnesty International succeeded in freeing him. It was while working with a social research center in Hamburg on a project about “universalizing Nuremburg” that he first started reading about the Armenians. In Turkey, he had had no idea of what had happened. That was the beginning of his work as the leading Turkish researcher of the genocide. Following up on this biographical profile, I sketched out my family background, to give an example of how individual Armenians — my parents — experienced the genocide and survived. With the aid of pictures of former Armenian villages in eastern Anatolia, I showed how the denial policy has involved attempts to eradicate traces of the culture and civilization of the Armenians on the soil of current-day Turkey.


National Identity or Nationalism?

In a final session, a former school director Ulrich Rosenau moderated discussion, drawing the lessons of the Genocide for the present. Here students shared their views of racism, as they have experienced it against non-ethnic German immigrants, for example, and also in the wider European Union context, with reference to rightwing extremist movements in some eastern European countries. They asked what the role of the Turkish population had been during the Genocide and heard how the governing CUP leaders in Ottoman mobilized their base with religious propaganda against the “infidels,” while providing economic incentives to plunder the Armenians. As in the Holocaust, it was crucial to dehumanize the targeted victim population, identifying them as foreign, alien, tumors to be removed. He provided interesting insights from his own experience as a Turk in Germany, where he did experience discrimination, and in America, where he has not. This prompted reflection on the nature of national identities: is the identity of a nation its ethnicity? Or are citizens in the US, for instance, first Americans, and then Armenians, Italians, Hispanics, etc.? He also remarked that in the case of the US, it has been possible to face the implications of slavery and the fate of Native Americans, without eradicating the positive contributions of the founding fathers.


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