Prof. Taner Akçam of Clark University
Prof. Taner Akçam

Akçam Chips Away at Denialism One Document at a Time


WORCESTER, Mass. — Even as the eyewitnesses of the Armenian Genocide are almost all gone in the century since its formal launch, the paper trail is still yielding new information. One historian, Prof. Taner Akçam at Clark University, is doggedly pursuing tangible evidence by sifting through archives.

His latest finding, a “smoking gun,” as it has been dubbed by many, is a telegram sent on July 4, 1915 by Behaeddin Shakir, one of the leading members of the Committee for Union and Program (CUP) and the chief of the Teshkilat –i-Mahsusa of Erzurum province. It asks “Are the Armenians who were deported from there being liquidated? Are the troublesome individuals whom you have reported as having been exiled and expelled been eliminated or merely sent off and deported? Please report honestly.”

What was new, Akçam said, was that the document was written on official Ottoman letterhead.

Akçam found this telegram in the archives of the late Very Rev. Krikor Guerguerian, preserved by his nephew.

Many historians, Akçam explained, including eminent Genocide scholar Prof. Vahakn Dadrian, had long known about the existence of such orders and written extensively about them. Genocide deniers, however, suggested they were fake as the originals were not found.

“It is a very well-known telegram,” Akçam said from his office at Clark on Thursday. “We had known the existence of the telegram. It had been repeated in various sources, including in the indictment of 1919, when it had been submitted by the prosecutor’s office as evidence.”

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During the tribunals, the judge, Nemrut or Kurd Mustafa, gave permission to the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople to have full access to the materials. The Patriarchate ended up sending everything to Jerusalem, through a circuitous route from Istanbul to Marseille, France, to Manchester England and finally Jerusalem.

Modern Genocide deniers often skim over the fact that Turkish courts-martial were held in 1919–20, at which the leadership of the Committee of Union and Progress and selected former officials were charged with subversion of the constitution, war-time profiteering, and the massacres of both Armenians and Greeks. The court reached a verdict which sentenced the organizers of the massacres, Talat, Enver, Cemal and others, to death.

Very Rev. Guerguerian Archives

Guerguerian himself was a Genocide survivor. He lost six brothers and sisters, as well as his father, Akçam said. Eventually he ended up in Cairo and later Rome, where he was ordained as a Catholic priest.

Guerguerian went to Jerusalem in the 1960s, where he was friend of the patriarch and was given permission to photograph and copy everything.

Guerguerian, Akçam said, claimed to have photographed everything in the Jerusalem Patriarchate archives, though he said that claim remains uncorroborated.

One other reason the Guerguerian archive is of such value is that the Jerusalem Patriarchate does not open its doors to historians anymore.

When asked what reason the patriarchate offered, Akçam said he did not know but suggested that the question be raised by all interested in the history of the Genocide.

“Comparison is very easy for us,” Akçam said. “We got confirmation from another source, the Kharpert Trial of 1919-1920.”

Reckoning with the Past

In another interview, Akçam had said in the Middle East, “the past is not the past.” When asked to explain the quote, he said it is one of his central arguments for proving the Armenian Genocide.

“We have an understanding here in the US related to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide as if we have two contradictory positions,” he said. Facing history is juxtaposed against security interests for the US.

“It is a totally wrong security concept. Facing history and acknowledging a wrong doing is not just moral issue but it is a major stumbling block in the region. The people of the region has a deep distrust towards each other, because of history. Without addressing historic injustices we cannot establish trust and so the stability in the region” Akçam said. “If one party does not acknowledge the crimes that it committed in the past, the other parties consider this as a potential threat. Because if you don’t acknowledge a wrong doing, this means you have the potential to repeat it. You will be considered by other ethnic-religious groups as a potential perpetrator,” he explained.

This picture is still dominant in the region. The Alawites, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, etc., each group sees, perceives each other through the prism of history.

“Honest talking,” he said, “can lead to peace and stability. My job is to be honest. It is the only treasure I have.”

Akçam, whose English-language translation of Naim Bey’s book is coming out in June, said that he is working on a second volume featuring court records from the 1919 tribunal.

Akçam is the Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University. He has published extensively about the Armenian Genocide including A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility in 2006 and The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, in 2012.

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