THE SUNDAY EDITION 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) SUNDAY EDITION (2) (CBC-R) 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 problem. 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 review? 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 Turkey— 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 history. 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 EU? 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 2015. 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 Government. 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.