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A Conversation with Historian Taner Akçam


Program City: TORONTO
Broadcast Date: 6/2/05

Michael Enright, Host

Live: Taner Akçam (00:28:03)

A Conversation with Historian Taner Akçam on Armenian Genocide &
Turkish Statement (Feb 6/05)


Aired: 06 Feb 2005, 10:06am, 00:27:40

Bowden's Media Monitoring Ref#:44AC85 (44AC85-2)

Michael Enright: It is impossible to underestimate the power of the
word "genocide." And it is equally impossible to underestimate the
consequences when the word is NOT used.

This past week, a special United Nations committee concluded that the
rape and murder of tens of thousands of civilians in Darfur
constituted a crime against humanity ...but it fell short of being a
"genocide." Genocide, as the UN defines it, is "acts committed with
the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical,
racial or religious group."

There will be fall-out for generations from the decision NOT to call
Darfur a genocide. As there has been fall-out for almost a century
from refusal of many governments to use the word to describe the
slaughter of Armenians in 1915.

Armenians themselves call it "The Forgotten Genocide." And while it
may have happened 90 years ago, in a far-away corner of the Ottoman
Empire, it is as alive for Turks and Armenians today as it was those
many long decades ago.

Taner Akçam has become the first Turkish historian to call the
Armenian killings a genocide. In response, his life has been
threatened. No university in his own country will hire him. He has
been derided as a traitor, and hailed as a hero. Professor Akçam  is
now a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota. This morning
he is in a Minnesota Public Radio studio in Minneapolis. Good
morning, sir.

Taner Akçam: Good morning.

ME: What a pleasure to have you with us after reading about you and
reading your work. It's quite important that you join us this
morning. Let me ask you—I know that the Turkish government has for
years vehemently denied that what happened in 1915 was genocide. Are
they still denying it as strongly?

TA: This is still the official Turkish state policy, that what
happened in 1915 was not a genocide.

ME: And this is in the textbooks, in the schools, this is taught in
the universities, and all of that?

TA: No. It is a little bit complicated. Until recently, it was not a
topic in the Turkish curriculum. Nineteen-fifteen was referred to
only as a deportation of the Armenian people in eastern Anatolia
because of the war conditions. Only these two sentences, nothing
more. But recently they changed the curriculum. Now they are teaching
Turkish students—or the students in Turkey from all nationalities,
Kurds, Armenian students also—that what happened wasn't a genocide,
this is only an Armenian lie.

ME: "An Armenian lie." That's the phrase.

TA: Yes.

ME: Just give us a brief synopsis, if you will, of exactly what
happened to the Armenians in Anatolia in 1915.

TA: The beginning of the deportation was in 1915, May, and continued
until the beginning of 1917. Almost the entire Armenian population of
Anatolia was deported to the deserts of Syria and Iraq. The official
version, the official reason was that the Turkish authorities—or the
Ottoman authorities—of that time considered the Armenian population,
especially in eastern Anatolia, as a threat. They covered up their
operations as a necessity of the war. During this deportation, they
organized a paramilitary organization, and this organization—a secret
organization, a military organization—attacked the Armenian convoys.
The number of dead is between, according to Turkish numbers, three
hundred and six hundred thousand, and according to Armenian or
scholarly estimation, around 1 and 1 million Armenians perished
during that period. Most of the reasons for the deaths were killing,
hunger, starvation, health conditions, disease, and so on. At the end
almost the entire Armenian population was deported and eliminated.

ME: What was the—obviously not the stated reason, because the Turks
didn't want to—the Ottoman Empire at the time didn't want to—talk
about it, but why the enmity toward the Armenians?

TA: It is not only a problem of a culture or a problem of hate. There
are certainly different reasons for deportation and for genocide.
Undoubtedly the culture of tension between Christian and Muslim
populations is one of these reasons. But both peoples, the Muslims
and Christians, lived in the area more than 500 years without any

There are of course different reasons, but, if you ask me, I would
underline one important reason, and I would define this more as a
political reason. The basic fear of the Ottoman Empire was that they
were going to lose the eastern part of Anatolia. In 1914, before
World War One, there was an agreement between the Russian government
and the Ottoman government. According to this agreement, the Ottoman
authorities should implement certain reforms in eastern Anatolia.
These reforms should give certain autonomy to the Armenians.
According to the Ottoman authorities, this was the beginning of
Armenian independence in eastern Anatolia.

ME: Which they couldn't abide. They couldn't have that.

TA: Exactly. This agreement was also not a desire of the Ottoman
authorities. They were compelled to sign this agreement. When they
entered the war, the first thing that they did was that they annulled
this agreement. They discharged this agreement. They declared this
null and void. When they lost the first war against the Russians,
they thought the Russian army will come and occupy eastern Anatolia
and what they will do first is to implement this reform plan. This
means the creation of an independent state in eastern Anatolia.

This was the history of the decline process of the Ottoman Empire.
This was how it started in 1812 with Serbia, then continued with
Romania, Bulgaria, then continued in Lebanon, then Greece. This was
the independence movement of the Christian nationalities in the
Ottoman Empire. They first get certain democratic rights, autonomies.
Ottoman authorities never implemented these democratic rights. Then
the big powers interfered, and it ended with a separation, with an
independent nation-state of each Christian group. They thought this
will—exactly this same process will happen with the Armenians. They
thought that instead of creating an establishment of an
Armenian—allowing of a nation-state there, to kill them, to
homogenize the region, is the best political solution.

ME: So it was ethnic cleansing and the deportations and slaughter.
But what I don't understand is why—thirty, forty, eighty years
later—that the Turkish historians were not looking at it the way you
did, and coming out and saying that yes, in fact, it was a genocide.
Other countries have faced their own history: South Africa, Germany,
Rwanda, and so on. What was the problem with Turkey admitting what
had happened?

TA: I think there are a lot of factors which cause this denial
policy. I will start with the psychological, the moral, reason. If I
summarize this issue, I would say that the Armenians symbolized and
were a constant reminder to the Turks of their most traumatic
historical events, namely, the collapse of the Empire and loss of
almost 90% of their territory over a forty-year period. They lived,
in the last 100 years of their Empire, under the constant fear that
they would disappear from the stage of history. The fear of total
obliteration from the stage of history was a permanent feeling during
the demise process of the Empire, in a simple way. They felt that
they would disappear as actors from the stage of history. That's why
they don't want to be reminded of that past.

A very important factor also, an additional factor is that an
important number of founders of the Turkish Republic were either
participants in this genocidal process or they enriched themselves
from this process.

ME: Does that apply to Kemal Atatürk?

TA: Exactly, just the opposite. This is the important thing that I
constantly remind and write. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was one of the
opponents of this genocidal policy.

ME: And he was the founder of modern Turkey.

TA: Exactly. He openly accused the Unionist leaders who organized
this genocide of being murderers. But there are a number of other
founders of the Republic who participated in that process. It is a
psychological difficulty to call these founders thieves and
murderers. This is the basic psychological problem. But based on
Mustafa Kemal's position, we can reverse this historiography in a
different way, definitely.

ME: Alright. Let me—I want to bring this down to yourself and your
researches and your writings. You use the word "genocide." Now, what
happened when you published your work? What was the reaction, first
of all, among academics and perhaps other historians, but also in the
government and people?

TA: There are quite a number of other academicians in Turkey who
openly talked to me and told me that what happened was a genocide. I
think I would argue that among the critical scholars in Turkey, there
is a consensus that what happened was an ethnic cleansing. The term,
the G-word, is not actually the main problem in Turkey today, if you
ask me.

ME: "G-word," the genocide.

TA: The "G-word" is "genocide." Whether you call it genocide or
ethnic cleansing, it was a crime against humanity. There is a
consensus among the critical intellectuals in Turkey that what
happened was a crime against humanity. They never—

ME: Now, let me stop you there. Is this a consensus that those people
who are holding to it are willing to declare publicly? Or, why are
you the only one? Why are you the first to come out and do it and say
it publicly, if there is this consensus?

TA: I said, "among the critical scholars." This is not—this is maybe
twenty, thirty percent of Turkish academia. The basic reason why they
haven't come up with their statement is the fear that they would lose
their jobs. There is no open restriction, open suppression policy by
the state, but this atmosphere is very important.

After publishing my book, I can give an example. There was no single
book review. My first book was published in 1991. Can you imagine
that a book made five editions within two years without any book

ME: In the whole country, there wasn't one review of the book?

TA: There wasn't one review, and the fifth edition—this means that
each edition was 2,500 [copies], and the book sold—this is an
academic book, a scholarly book—

ME: Right.

TA: —sold in Turkey more than 10,000 [copies]. Without any book
review, this book sold in that amount.

ME: What happened to you? You talk about some of the other
academicians who were fearful of losing their jobs. You couldn't get
work as a professor, isn't that right?

TA: Yes, between 1990—I was in Germany, and my Ph.D. is also from
Germany, and I was living in Germany. In 1995 I returned to Turkey
and tried to settle there and tried to find a job. I had certain
agreements with certain institutions. One private university in
Istanbul agreed to hire me, but at the last second, they decided to
drop their decision. It was the same experience with other
universities. They all gave me the same answer: We are scared, we
could get certain difficulties from the official authorities. I must
add that there was no official pressure at that time towards these
universities, but these scholars, the academicians who are going to
decide on that issue, got certain letters, unsigned or signed as "A
Group of Turkish Intellectuals." In these letters, these scholars and
universities were warned [not] to get in touch with me. This is an
indirect threat. Everyone knew that these letters were coming from
the authorities, the Secret Service, or groups within the Turkish
state, and so the universities were scared to hire me.

ME: Our guest this morning is Taner Akçam. He's a visiting professor
at the University of Minnesota. He's in the studio in Minneapolis
this morning. He is the first Turkish historian—the first Turkish
historian—to use the word "genocide" in dealing with what happened to
the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, 1917. We're
talking about the impact of that. Why is it important for you to tell
the story of the genocide?

TA: One important reason is my own experience. I know what torture
is, I know what suppression is, I know what persecution is. I was a
member of a certain students' generation in Turkey, a certain
democratic tradition, a member of the '68 generation in Europe and

ME: Right.

TA: —and I was a member of this generation who were really fighting
for human rights and democratic rights, in Turkey. That's why I know
what torture means, I know what violence means. It's part of my own

ME: You'd better expand on that. You were thrown in jail in Ankara.
When you said earlier that you were living in Germany: you fled to
Germany, didn't you. You had to get out of Turkey.

TA: Yes. I was arrested in 1976 because of the article I wrote in a
students' newspaper. The reason why I was arrested is that I wrote
that there are Kurds living in Turkey. In fact, the Turkish state
claimed at that time that there were only Turks in Turkey. In the
1970s, this was a founding myth of the modern Turkish state. It was a
criminal offense. It was against the law to acknowledge the existence
of Kurds in Turkey. Because of that reason, I was put in jail and
sentenced to ten years. Then, after one year, I thought "it is
enough," and I escaped from the prison. Then I came to Germany, where
I was given political asylum in 1978. After some personal tragedies
as a result of my political role, I decided to quit politics and
change the direction of my life. It was the middle of the 1980s. I
went to academia.

ME: Yeah, but people—you changed the course of your life, but people
were trying to kill you, right? I mean, the German police offered you
protection. They even offered you plastic surgery so you could change
the way you looked.

TA (laughs): If a filmmaker is listening, I can tell him or her the
details. The whole story's really tailor-made for a movie.

ME: Well, you're going to write your memoirs, I hope. Are you?

TA: Everyone wants [me to write them], but I don't have time. I think
working on the Genocide is more important than my personal story, at
the moment. Yes, I was threatened by the PKK at that time.

ME: That's the Kurdish—

TA: That's the Kurdish separatist organization. One can compare this
organization with Pol Pot or Stalin or even with Saddam Hussein. The
number of people that the leader of that organization liquidated is
more than, unfortunately, 3,000. They liquidated more than 3,000 of
their own members. I was opposed to that also. They wanted to kill
me. They couldn't find me, and so they killed one of my best friends
in Hamburg. This was the turning point for me.

I started very accidentally, coincidentally, studying the history of
violence and torture in Ottoman Turkish society. If one studies the
violence in Ottoman society, he unavoidably comes across the Armenian
Genocide, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Violence was a very common device against the Armenians. This was the
beginning for me, and it was the propelling factor for me to be
[involved] with the Armenian Genocide.

ME: Turkey is desperate to get into the European community. It wants
to join Europe. The European community has officially recognized the
Armenian Genocide. Does that mean, if for no other reason but for
practical, economic reasons, the government of Turkey will finally
come out and say, "Yes, it was a genocide," in order to get into the

TA: I'm not sure whether it is so important for the Turkish
government to use the "G-word." The basic problem is generally facing
the history. It is not only the Armenian Genocide. We have to see
that Turkey has a lot of human rights violences. I'll give you only
one number. Only between 1921 and 1938, in the first sixteen years of
the Republic period, there were more than twenty Kurdish uprisings
against the Turkish authorities, and there were a lot of violence,
massacre, human rights abuses. I'm not counting all other human
rights abuses after each military coup d'état, which were supported
mostly by the Western powers: 1960, 1970, 1980, 1997, and so on. This
means if Turkey wants to be a member of the European Union, Turkey
should come to terms with its own history. Turkey should start to
discuss its past in a democratic way. If a country wants to become a
democratic country, there must be an open discussion on its own past.
The Armenian Genocide is a part of it. Turkey, in that sense, must
come to terms with its past. And that will happen.

ME: Will it—?

TA: They will apologize. This is our position—this is my
position—that Turkey should acknowledge this as a genocide, but there
are other ways of acknowledging that there are wrongdoings in the
past. We know that from different experiences in the world.

ME: Will you ever be able to go back to Turkey? I know you go as a
citizen, but will you ever be able to get a job at a university? Or
will you ever be able to teach in your homeland again? Or will you
ever be acknowledged by the elites or by the government or by anybody
as having done a courageous thing?

TA: I think there will be a change, and 2015 will, in that sense, be
a very important symbolic date. It is the hundredth year of the
anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and it is—eventually also could
be— the official date of Turkey's membership. We can make both of
these days one. In that day, Turkey can declare openly that what
happened in history was a genocide in the past, and so, then, become
a member of democratic Europe. So then it could be possible for me to
find a job in a Turkish university. I hope it could be earlier than

ME: Well, we join you in that hope. Thank you so much.

TA: I thank you.

ME: It's a great pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Professor Taner Akçam is the first Turkish historian to use the word
"genocide" in referring to what happened to the Armenians. This
morning he was in a Minnesota Public Radio studio in Minneapolis.

Now, we asked for a response from the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa. Here
is part of the Embassy's official statement to The Sunday Edition.

[ME reads from statement:]

The question -whether the events in Anatolia during the First World
War can be termed a genocide- is too complex to treat in a short
time. The Turkish people, not only the Turkish Government as many
times mistakenly put, firmly believe that what happened to the
Armenians was not genocide. This stance does not aim to belittle the
suffering of Armenians as well as of Turks or to deny that high
numbers of lives have been lost in Anatolia. Every loss of life is
deplorable and tragic. To mourn these losses and learn about our
common history is one thing but attempting to use these tragic
–tragic equally to both sides- events for political or material gains
today is another.

In the years that the Ottoman Empire was getting closer to its final
collapse, Armenians had decided to wage an armed struggle against
Ottomans with the aim of creating an independent state of their own
in Eastern Anatolia.

The problem with the Armenian case was that in the territory that
they were claiming, they were only a minority. Therefore, for them to
be able successfully to form an independent state was possible only
by ethnically "cleansing" the majority Turks from these lands,
something which they planned and started to do. They actually
attacked and did whatever harm they could inflict on Turkish
interests. For the Ottoman Government, they were terrorists
instigating rebellion.

Alarmed by this imminent security risk and the strategic threat posed
by the Armenian support of the enemy, that is, the Allied forces, the
Ottoman Government decided in May 1915 to relocate only the eastern
Anatolian Armenians from the six provinces with Armenian population
to other parts of the Empire, away from a war zone in which they were
collaborating with invading Russian armies.

Many Armenian convoys, once uprooted, became victim of unlawfulness
prevailing in the region as well as the harsh natural conditions
aggravated by the war. As a result, many Armenians were killed while
many others made into one of these cities and formed today's
Diaspora. But, one has to remember that the number of Muslim and
Turks perished in those years in those conditions is no less than
those of Armenians.

The Turkish people are deeply offended by the accusations branding
them as being genocidal- They find it disrespectful of their
unmentioned millions of dead in a time of desperation not only for
Armenians, but more so for the Turks. It is not accurate if the issue
is presented as one between the Armenian Diaspora and the Turkish

What determines genocide is not necessarily the number of casualties
or the cruelty of the persecution but the "intent to destroy" a
group. Historically the "intent to destroy a race" has emerged only
as the culmination of racism, as in the case of anti-Semitism and the
Shoah. Turks have never harbored any anti-Armenian racism.

There is no evidence that the Ottoman Government wanted to
exterminate Armenians by this decision of relocation. On the
contrary, all the evidence shows just the opposite that they wanted
to implement this relocation decision without risking lives.

Killing, even of civilians, in a war waged for territory, is not
genocide. The victims of genocide must be totally innocent. In other
words, they must not fight for something tangible like land, but be
killed by the victimizer simply because of their belonging to a
specific group.

What happened between Turks and Armenians was a struggle for land;
branding it as genocide, a term coined to depict the Shoah, is in our
opinion, the greatest disgrace to the innocent victims of the
Holocaust. It is deplorable that, some Armenian groups in the
Diaspora would like to exploit the horrors generated by the Holocaust
as a tool in their bid to realize their self-centered, dreamy
national aspirations, terribly hopelessly far from the realities.

ME: That's the official statement from the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa.

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