Turkey’s Radical has interviewed historian Taner Akcam about his new book on the Armenian Genocide. Akcam’s book, only released in January 2008, is now in its second edition as the first one was sold out in 3-4 days. Below is the entire interview (translated from Turkish and originally published in The Armenian Reporter):
“The objective was to get rid of all Armenians”
Taner Akçam, the author of Ermeni Meselesi Hallolunmuştur [“The Armenian Issue is Resolved”] states: “We can comfortably assert that in light of these documents, the thesis that what was experienced in 1915 does not fit within the definition of genocide from 1948 is no longer credible.”
By EFNAN ATMACA
It has been exactly one year since the assassination of Hrant Dink. Last Saturday, on this first anniversary, tens of thousands gathered once again “For Hrant, For Justice.” Taner Akçam, whose book, Ermeni Meselesi Hallolunmuştur [“The Armenian Issue Is Resolved”] opens up the debate about what occurred in 1915 with new documentation, has also just been published, and Akçam, who dedicates the book to “my brother Hrant, who will always represent the nobility and virtue of having a conscience… Dear Hrant, everything is as we had spoken…,” both memorialized his friend and brought a new viewpoint to the matter. By building connections, one by one, among new records he was able to obtain, Akçam brings new perspectives to the policies which were enforced against Armenians in 1915. In his book, subtitled Policies Against the Armenians During the War Years According to Ottoman Documents, while revealing each of the many telegrams sent by Talat Pasha, Akcam states that the deportation of 1915 was the last stage of the Turkification policies of that period. In particular, supported by primary sources, he explains how this project was personally developed well in advance by Talat Pasha and put into action through the efforts of the Teşkilat-I Mahsusa (Special Organization). One of the most crucial documents in the book, the one which gives the book its title, is a telegram from Talat Pasha: “The Armenian issue is resolved. There’s no need to stain the nation and the government with extra atrocities.”
Q: The events of 1915 are a huge controversy. The opposing sides of the controversy continually claim to possess and then publish important documents, and argue about whether or not to open up the Ottoman archives …On the other side, there are others who state that in writing about history a “document cult” shouldn’t be created and that the process shouldn’t be reduced to a war of documents. Meanwhile your book is completely based upon documentation…What and how can records tell us anything?
A: If you are being open and honest, historical records can easily provide a general framework for how events occurred. Still, you need to distinguish here between two separate points. First of all, the main issue is the frame, the model you are creating when you are gathering these documents. Secondly is the question of how much do the records you’re presenting truly reflect reality. If someone possesses an understanding of history that is nationalistic and racist, the history they write will reflect that, and by discriminating in the choice of records, they will try to prove that position. Additionally, the records you find and use are products of the ideological and political beliefs of the period in which they were produced. It is for that reason that the question “What is the truth?” is the subject of such serious argument in historical scholarship. One thing is certain, though. The thing called “the truth” is not a thing, not a treasure that is buried somewhere in the ground and it is up to us to dig it up. For example, if a hundred years from now, you were to research the bombing of the Umut Kitabevi (Umut Publishing House) in Şemdinli in 2005, you would find plenty of state documents asserting that the publishing house had been bombed by the PKK. [Translator’s note: The bookstore was bombed by army officers, but law enforcement forces produced some documents to claim that it was the PKK that bombed the bookstore.]
Keeping these two things in mind, nevertheless the place to start is the historic records. You have no other choice. The important thing is to maintain a critical eye when examining any particular document or body of documents. First of all, in order to defend your thesis, you need to present a series of records that is both comprehensive and widespread. Secondly, there should be a continuous “balance and control” relationship between the records you are presenting and the argument you are trying to make. This is precisely what makes history a social science. The use of deep and varied sources of material along with total honesty are the two crucial elements of historical study.
Q: How important are the records in this book?
A: They are the records of a government and a party that managed to deport and kill Armenians in 1915. For the most part, they consist of coded telegrams that were sent by the Ministry of the Interior to the regional offices. When you consider the difficulty of communication in that era through postal services and the like, the importance of these records is even less in doubt. In order to maintain high volume and speedy communications with the regions, the government [at that time] had established a special bureau and by way of that office managed to send short and frank orders to the regional offices. For this reason, these records provide a primary source of information about a party and a state that planned a deportation and killings.
Q: Is it possible to state that, in view of the records which the book brings to light, there is no longer any doubt that what happened was a genocide?
A: Yes, we can comfortably assert that in light of these documents, the thesis that what was experienced in 1915 does not fit within the definition of genocide from 1948 is no longer credible and can be dismissed. The officials of the Turkish government, who view the Ottoman records as the only reliable source, will see that our government records also show that the Union and Progress party followed a policy that endeavored to destroy the Armenians. Nevertheless, there are those who will deny this, and they will continue to deny it. There are many people today, still, who do not believe that the Jews were annihilated by the Nazis. I need to add this: In Turkey, particularly among those who defend the official state position and who claim to be historians, you will hear extremely ignorant comments like “Where is the document to show genocide? Prove it.” Genocide does not have [is not proved with] a single document. The holocaust against the Jews didn’t consist of a document here and a document there. What history and the social sciences do, or should do, is to illustrate the chain of events by way of an accumulated ball of knowledge from as detailed a record of documents as can be produced. As the documents which I published show, how to label the events that are described is a conclusion that you make based upon the documentation. In other words, genocide is identified by a certain picture that is revealed. You give the picture that name, which is why the picture you present has to be created by way of hundreds of tiny pieces of information. As I state in my book, in trying to understand and describe what occurred in 1915, I did not have a special purpose to “prove” genocide. I find this kind of approach to be deficient and wrong and more properly the duty of a prosecutor or judge. However, after the publication of these documents, I know that those who claim that what occurred in 1915 cannot be called a genocide do not have much more to say.
Q: Almost all of the documents you obtained reveal that the action, in your words “to cleanse Anatolia of Armenians,” was taken by the personal orders of Talat Pasha through the party apparatus, not the state government. Could this be the start of a new period for the Armenian problem?
A: It absolutely should start a new period. Still, you need to remember that these telegrams were sent to the regional offices by Talat Pasha under the aegis of the Ministry of the Interior. While some of the telegrams bear his signature, others do not. Those were signed by the director of the office. These are state documents, not party documents. Nevertheless, when it comes to 1915, I believe and defend the notion that it is extremely important to make the distinction between state and party. As much as the state was taken over by the [Union and Progress] party, the same party which defended a dictatorship had rendered many of the government functions impotent. Every action that the party took was taken by way of government channels. Still, within governmental organs, there were points of resistance against what the Party was doing. If you make a state-party distinction, you begin to see and understand that there were very many honest state officials during that period, who resisted and opposed the murders committed by the Union and Progress party. In fact, -some of the records are the results of the efforts of some honest state officials to have the events recorded within state documents.
Q: What sort of results, both negative and positive, can be expected if Turkey acknowledges the Armenian genocide?
A: There isn’t a single state that I know of or recognize that has been harmed by acknowledging past wrongdoings. Is there any country that you can name which was beset with problems because it faced its history? None! Quite the contrary, those regimes that had tried to cover up history, that had denied the cruelties and injustices that occurred in their past, ended up facing very serious problems and were even demolished. Turkey will only mature and gather praise once it has accepted a historical injustice. A Turkey that manages to face the historical injustices of its past will be able to take its deserved place among world nations with greater ease. So acceptance of the injustices in the past will not only not produce any negative result, it will do the opposite.
I would like to add that there isn’t just one way to face history and acknowledge an injustice. I would like to point out here that there is a difference between scholarship and politics. As a social scientist you may not be very convincing if, in light of all the records and information available, you use some term other than “genocide” to identify the events of 1915, but a government has many alternatives at its disposal when confronting history and acknowledging historic injustices. At the top of the list would be to stop referring to those who discuss it as “traitors,” to stop killing them or dragging them through criminal prosecutions. Freedom of thought and democracy are the preconditions for acknowledging one’s history. Secondly, you will need to develop a language that describes what occurred as morally unacceptable. A language that denounces and condemns murders is absolutely crucial. After that, in harmony with this new language, you need to take some steps that heal this injustice, that work towards fixing it. Here there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to go about this. Our politicians need to see that the matter isn’t just about getting stuck on one single word. They need to approach the problem from a rich and wide net of possibilities.
Q: If we look at the matter from the perspective of the [Armenian] Diaspora…in light of these new found documents, what kinds of steps might they take?
A: There is a very misguided belief in Turkey. Unfortunately, both the state and politicians as well as some progressive and democratic intellectuals spread this mistaken belief and information. According to them, the Armenian Diaspora consists of a uniform, monolithic block, and there are some serious differences between the Diaspora and the state of Armenia. According to the beliefs of those who hold this position, the real problem is with the Diaspora; the Armenians of Armenia take a different position on things. This is simply not true. There is no singular, homogeneous, monolithic Diaspora , nor are there any serious differences between the Diaspora and Armenia regarding this subject. The Armenians of the Diaspora are as diverse in opinion as Turkey is divided into thousands of positions. …Among them there are dozens of opinions and positions. I believe that my book in Turkish will not only positively affect Armenian circles but also will have a positive effect in increasing the numbers of those in Turkey who will want to resolve our differences in a peaceful and brotherly way through direct contact.
Q: At the end of the book you state, “What we need is to recognize the reality that we are face to face with an action that is morally, conscientiously unacceptable and to develop a language that expresses that.” What do you mean by this new language?
A: The language of conflict differs from the language of friendship, mutual respect and peace. The language that dominates the administration and mainstream media in Turkey today is one that views the Armenians as the enemy, as a traitor and the Other. It’s a racist and aggressive language. The administration and mainstream media continue to conduct the discourse around what happened in 1915 with a wartime mindset. For that reason, historians like me, who think critically, are branded as traitors, and they organize campaigns against us. Hrant Dink was murdered as a direct result of this language and this mindset.
First of all, we need to put an end to this wartime mindset and to this aggressive language. There are many within Armenian circles who see the problem with the same point of view and use the same aggressive language. We have to establish and develop a humane language that doesn’t view Armenians and Turks as enemies, which doesn’t brand the other as a traitor, doesn’t demean the other, and views Armenians and Turks with respect. Armenians and Turks will be able to construct their future upon this foundation of mutual respect and friendship.
Q: Another of way asking this is, what steps need to be taken so that the matter in question is resolved through democratic means?
A: Prior to anything else happening, the borders between the two countries need to be opened without any preconditions, and diplomatic relations should be initiated. It is very difficult to explain how Turkey can have no objection to maintaining diplomatic relations with Syria, a country with a population of 10 million which has protected Abdullah Öcalan for years and depicts Hatay as falling within their own borders, and yet reject diplomatic relations with Armenia, a country of 3 million. First unconditional diplomatic relations, then the opening of the borders, and then the rest will come. Additionally, Turkey has to see that this matter isn’t just about history. Turkey has to see that it has everything to do with how [Turkey] behaves towards minorities today.
Q: How do you evaluate the Hrant Dink assassination’s effect on resolving the Armenian issue? In particular, would you characterize the way society embraced Dink after the assassination, and the way it lead to openly discussing the Armenian issue, as a positive thing?
A: Hrant Dink was the most beautiful gift that Turkey could present to Armenia and the Diaspora. Hrant was the most important person who could bring these two countries, these two peoples, together. When we were in Yerevan in 2005, I used to tease Hrant that if I were the Turkish government, I’d have him appointed the symbolic, spiritual ambassador to Armenia. Turkey killed its ambassador; it broke the olive branch that it could have extended. What’s worse is that the ones who broke this olive branch are organized within the police and gendarmerie forces. Those officials who knew about the assassination, who planned and directed it, have not only not been punished, they have been rewarded and promoted.
I can’t state enough how important it is for society to embrace Hrant Dink. Within him they [Turkish society] have discovered a dynamic, a potential to bring these two nations together. Both the Armenians in America, who are cursed as “Diaspora” in Turkey, and the people in Istanbul shed tears for Hrant. Hrant brought everyone with a heart together. He’s become the symbol for what needs to be done to resolve this problem. We must build a monument for him and memorialize him.
Q: Could the policy taken by the AKP (Justice and Development Party of Turkey, now in control of the Administration) to act in harmony with an EU framework be a positive step towards resolving this problem?
A: I don’t believe that the AKP has any thoughts on this subject. They don’t give even the slightest indication of having any thoughts. Either they don’t know anything about the subject, or they think it is enough to continue promoting the traditional lies. In fact, if the AKP actually followed their Islamic roots, they could make some serious headway on the subject. There’s only one thing I could ask of the AKP, and that’s to take their Islamic roots seriously.
ERMENI MESELESI HALLOLUNMUŞTUR [THE ARMENIAN ISSUE IS RESOLVED]
Taner Akçam, Iletişim Publications, 2008, 339 pages, 19.5 YTL