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Taner Akçam or the historian as a political “hero”

Interview with Taner Akçam, Turkish historian, author of the most important research on Armenian genocide.

Akçam was in France during February 2020 for the publication of his book  Killing Orders (Ordres de Tuer, CNRS éditions, 2020). This is when and where the observatoireturquie.fr interviewed him.

L’OBS: We can start with an open question and you can frame your reply as you wish. What was your itinerary? What was the reason of this insistent motivation? It requires strong willpower to carry out this research for so many years.

Taner Akçam: Indeed.


L’OBS: And science must accompany this willpower, and also…

TA: And being stubborn…

L’OBS: Right, determination and your own personal motivations. Let’s start with them. How many years have you been researching and writing on Armenian genocide?

TA: Since 1991 and my work started with a coincidence in fact. I was looking for a job for myself. How can I tell you how I start? My problem is that when I start talking about anything, I always have to give information about the date before it.

L’OBS: This is not a problem; let’s do it like this…

TA: No, it is a problem. Such that, to answer a question, I have to go earlier and start explaining from there. In order to explain the subject before that, I have to go before it and go before it, etc. etc.

L’OBS: Isn’t that the historians’ problem anyway?

TA: It is the problem of the historians. That’s right. Also, a problem of my life story.

L’OBS: What do you mean?

TA: Everyone lives about one life. I counted, I have at least 4-5 lives, and none of these lives have anything to do with the other. People who know me in one of my life have no idea about my other lives. For example, Armenians in the United States know me as a brave, interesting Turk who works on Armenian genocide. But they do not know that I was one of the firsts to establish student youth movement in METU (Middle East Technical University in Ankara) between the years 1973 and 74 or that I was the founder of the 1968 Youth Movement’s high school organization called Lise-Der. Or, my friends from our college years were unaware that I lived with the Kurdish movement in Syria for 1.5 – 2 years after 1983. The same goes for my life in Germany.

L’OBS: So, at which stage of your life did you start to work on Armenian issue?

TA: Well, I was looking for a job. So, why I was looking for a job? Because I couldn’t stay as a scholar at the university in Turkey, I was threatened with death by the Kurdish organization. So, why I was threatened with death by the Kurdish organization? Because I was in Syria. So, why I was in Syria? Because I was a member of Turkish leftist organization who escaped to Syria. Etc. etc. These are like doors that open each other.

Let me come to the purpose. It was 1988. Let me start even a little bit earlier. Actually, it is difficult to give an exact start date. But for the sake of this interview, lets accept 1980 military coup of Turkey as the beginning of my works on Armenian genocide.

L’OBS: Were you in Turkey during the military coup?

TA: No, I was in abroad. I escaped from Turkey. I was one of the leaders of Turkish students’ movement during the 1970s. After the coup of 1971, we organized a youth movement in Ankara, and after such a democratic student movement had been established, I was elected as the representative of METU. The Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan was then elected as the representative of the faculty of political sciences. And I became the editor-in-chief of a periodical that was published as part of that youth movement. For this reason, I was arrested by the Turkish police  and sentenced to 10 years, 8 months and 20 days in prison. A year later, I escaped from prison by digging a tunnel and then, I fled to Syria, and then, to Germany from Syria. I had terrible days in prison in Germany for 3 months. With the fear and threat of being sent back to Turkey. I was released in 1977 and…

L’OBS: Why were you in prison?

TA: Entering the country with a fake passport. And Germans did not send me back to Turkey immediately because they could not find my real identity. While they were trying to find it, I was kept in prison. In fact, German perfectionism saved my life. Then, my father came to Munich and found me in prison. I will never forget it; it was 24 December 1977. Noel day of Germans. I was released from the prison and I took political asylum and continued my political works there.

L’OBS: You mean you started to work with Turkish political organizations in Germany?

TA: Yes, I was responsible for the activities in Europe for a leftist Turkish organization. After 1980 military coup, all the leftist organizations in Turkey were shattered. Their leaders were caught, murdered, tortured. At that time Abdullah Ocalan escaped to Syria as well, and like others, I also went to Syria after 1980.

L’OBS: Was Abdullah Ocalan your classmate at the university?

TA: No, I was at METU (Middle East technical University) in Ankara and he was at the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. We were a group of friends, students with more or less similar political ideas at that time. All my friends in Turkey were arrested or murdered after 1980’s coup. I was the only one who left out as the first generation of our political movement. That’s why I escaped to Syria in May 1982. There were many Turkish and Kurdish political escapees there at that time. We, altogether, established the biggest united political front of Turkish history there in Syria including political organizations as well as individuals like Yılmaz Güney (famous film director who’s YOL won the golden palm at Cannes film festival in 1982). Then, within this political front, internal reckonings and punishments began to occur, there were political disagreements. Organizations began killing dissidents within themselves. I lost some friends as the result of such destructive practices. Then I decided to leave this political front as they started to threaten me too. This is why I left Syria and came to Germany.

L’OBS: So, a new chapter of your life opened in Germany? A new episode …

TA: Yes, after these threats I decided to end contributing to this kind of politics, I mean I stopped being an activist “revolutionist”. Actually, my original purpose was to become an academic. When I was arrested in 1976, my intention was to go to the London School of Economics for a PhD. Being an academic has always been my dream. Besides there were more assassinations in 1986. I totally stopped after that and informed my ex political companions about my decision. Upon this, the left-wing organizations and Kurdish organizations, nearly all of them took a stand against me.  I was the extension of the “European imperialism”, I was “diluting the revolutionary struggle”, I was a traitor, I was trying to “infect the revolution with green ideas”, and so on. Issues such as human rights and democracy were not very important for them. Then I’ve just broken off. I started to look for a job.

L’OBS: How did you connect with the university?

TA: I started to take courses from the German university as a guest student. My METU diploma was not accepted as equivalent. So, I was asked to start over for certain courses.

L’OBS: You were in Germany, and also learnt German

TA: Yes, I went to the course for 1 year and learned German. All those in the German course would say to me, “you are not a normal Turk, because normal Turks do not learn German”. I learnt German. I’m a stubborn person. To make you understand it better, let me give you some examples. I was going from Hamburg to Hannover or Osnabrück just to listen the lecture of a professor as a guest student. I was taking a course from Hamburg University: “The concept of progress”. I followed the courses and wrote a paper about the notion of progress elaborated by European intellectuals like Comte, Durkheim and Marx. The professor was highly surprised. He told me that “even students with credits do not write such papers but you did it although you are a guest student”.

L’OBS: So, how did you make a living?

TA: I found a job at a local newspaper there. I reported news on immigrants. Then the professor I followed his courses at the university, he started a project at an institute at Hamburg on history of torture in Iran. I went to see him and asked for a job in this project. I was accepted. It was again the positive impact of 68 generation, they accepted me without an MA or a PhD degree. This was and still is the one of the most prestigious institutes of Germany: Hamburg Institute for Social Research. They agreed to make a research project for me on the history of torture in Turkey. I started in 1988, it was a job for 3 years.

L’OBS: So how did you get into the Armenian genocide from history of torture in Turkey?

TA: This is a very interesting story. Another project started at the institute at that time: “Can Nürnberg trials be universalized”? It was 1990. The director of the institute was a very forward-thinking person. Imagine, at that time there were no signs yet of international criminal courts for Yugoslavia war and Rwanda genocide. The question was: could the prosecution of state officials, such as in Nürnberg, on behalf of the state be a universal criminal law norm? and when I was reading on the history of torture, I had learnt from the footnotes in Tarık Zafer Tunaya’s[1] articles that some members of Ittihat and Terakki Party (Committee of Union and Progress) were tried in Istanbul in 1919. “Would it be interesting if I wrote such a project,” I thought.

I shared my intention with the director and told him that these Istanbul trials pioneered to the Nürnberg trials. They asked me to organize a workshop on this issue and to find the right experts to invite to the workshop. This is how I met Vahakn Dadrian[2]. I went to a professor at the University of Hamburg, he gave me two articles of Dadrian in English. My English was almost zero at that time. I had forgotten what I had learnt at the university. Again, as an indicator of stubbornness in me, I looked at the footnotes of his articles and I saw that there were many Turkish footnotes. I thought “I’m sure he knows Turkish and I will find him”. And I wrote a letter in Turkish to Dadrian and told him about the workshop and soon he replied: “this is my first written correspondence in Turkish after 40 years.” And he came to the workshop. Petra Kappert[3] was there. The workshop was on Istanbul Ittihat and Terakki trials and its connections with Nürnberg trials. Then it became my PhD work.

L’OBS: We can talk about your new book. It was published in Turkish in 2016 and in English in 2018. Now it is in French. It contains documents that refute official discourse of Turkish state on Armenian genocide. And the adventure of these document is quite interesting. They go a long way in the world and reach you in Jerusalem and New York. You revealed the documents that were not revealed before.

TA:The history of this issue proceeds like episodes in series. The official discourse of Turkish government was that there were no evidence showing that Ottoman government had an intention to destroy the Armenians as a nation. Surely, you don’t have to find a document containing a killing order to prove this. But Turkish government had repeated this discourse it for many years…

L’OBS: And historian supporting Turkish government agreed with this discourse…

TA:For sure.After all, as we all know, there were certain arguments like “Armenians died on the roads”; yes, they died after the attacks of certain Kurdish tribes; yes, there were some that died of starvation, but then, many others died of starvation, yes they died of typhus, but then, many others caught typhus. Therefore, the government insisted on refusing all arguments proving the genocide of Armenians. But new documents revealed proving the intention to destroy the Armenians. There were two groups of sources that refute the official discourse of Turkish government. The first group belongs to İstanbul İttihat ve Terakki trials and consists of telegrams, testimonials, correspondences, the statements given by high-ranking Ottoman bureaucrats and army officers.

L’OBS: Where are those documents now?

TA: Nobody knows. Either destroyed or they are still kept in the archives of the Office of Commander in Chief in Ankara. Or maybe in Istanbul at Ottoman archives. In my opinion, they are in Office of the Commander in Chief in Ankara, because İttihat ve Terakki trials, these trials were military commissions, it was a military court. After Turkish nationalists occupied and regained Istanbul in 1920, probably these materials were sent to the archives of the military to Ankara. How do we know that there are such documents? From the newspapers of that time. There were 60 court cases in total. The indictments and copies of the judgements of 12 of these 60 cases were published in Takvim-i Vekayi [4]during 1919 and 1920. There are excerpts from those documents in these indictments and copies of the judgements. For example, it was mentioned such that “Bahattin Şakir said that”… or “as said in the circular note sent to all governors by Third Army Commander Mahmut Kamil Paşa”… But both very good historians and the Turkish government had always asked for the original/authentic documents that the prosecutor excerpted during the trials as mentioned in these newspapers. “Show us the original document”, “we cannot, because those documents are lost”. Therefore, they denied the accountability of those excepts in the newspapers, for example, as original sources.

At this point, events take on a new dimension. Some of these documents were taken by the Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul in 1920. Istanbul Divan-ı Harbi Örfî, the court martial and court of inquiry, allowed the Armenian patriarch to attend hearings as a representative of Armenians based on Ottoman Laws. Therefore, since they were officially allowed to attend the hearings, they had the right to receive either originals or copies of the court documents. The Patriarchate received those documents. You know at that time, these handwritten documents were copied as manuscripts and stamped and then accepted as an original document. The Patriarchate sent those documents to Manchester in 1922 because Father Balakian who served in Istanbul Patriarchate for many years was living there. Father Balakian moved to Marseille after Manchester. And he brought those documents along with him. These documents, 10 boxes of documents, were stamped one by one in Marseille and Manchester. One can find those documents in Jerusalem. They were classified under Patriarch Zaven who once was the patriarch of Istanbul.

L’OBS: You mean that those documents were always kept inside the Patriarchate, right?

TA: Yes, always inside the Patriarchate. The last stop was the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It’s a public secret that these documents are there. Everybody knows, but they were not communicating them. Vahakn Dadrian went there in 1974. He received 5-10 documents from this archive and used them in his works. And he gave 2-3 of them to me as well.

L’OBS: So, where did you get the documents of this archive?

TA: This is another adventure. A priest named Krikor Gergeryan went to Jerusalem in 1965 and filmed all the documents belong to the Istanbul trials. These belong in his private archive. Krikor Gergeryan  was born in Sivas, a central Anatolian city. He saved his life during the genocide by chance. They were 12 siblings and 6 of them and the parents died on the roads. One of the brothers settled in Cairo long ago. After struggling with lots of troubles, he settled in Lebanon, and studied at a boarding seminary school, then he went to Rome and became Catholic, he got the priest certificate there, then settled into Cairo. He met a Kurdish bureaucrat Nemrut Mustafa Paşa in 1940-41 in Cairo. He was a judge in the Istanbul Divan-ı Harbi Örfî. When Istanbul was occupied by the Turkish nationalist in 1920, he escaped from Istanbul in order not to be arrested because he was Kurdish and anti- Ittihat and Terakki Party (Committee of Union and Progress). He told Krikor Gergeryan: “I know that Patriarch Zaven had already taken some of the court documents and these are in Jerusalem now, you should go there.” Then he sets out to go to Jerusalem. I mean, this was also a coincidence. Krikor Gergeryan filmed all the archive there. These were the first group of our sources.

The second group of sources are the ones that we named as Naim Andonyon documents. As expected, this is another adventure. Aram Andonyon was an Armenian intellectual. He was arrested during 24 April detentions of Istanbul. All his friends died on the roads. He got away by chance. While he was taken to be assassinate, he fell out of ox cart, his foot was broken, and the gendarmes took him to the hospital without knowing that he was being taken to the extermination centers. As soon as his foot was casted, he flied from the hospital. He soon arrived to Meskene (close to Aleppo, Syria) concentration camp in 1916, in January or February. There in this concentration camp he met and Ottoman bureaucrat, dispatch officer Naim Efendi.

Naim Efendi was a guy who was alcoholic, enjoying gambling and bribe. He was exiled by the Ottoman government to Aleppo because of such habits. Aram Andonyan bribe him to get some documents from Aleppo head of deportation. These were handwritten copies of 52 documents. Naim Efendi, also added his personal notes on them from the trials. For example, he added “when we received this telegram such and such events happened”. As the second batch, Naim Efendi sold 26 more original documents to Andonyan. In 1921, Aram Andonyan, by using some of these documents and his own memories and the Memoirs of Naim Efendi, he published a book in French and Armenian. This book included the telegrams of killing orders of Talat Paşa.

In 1983, Turkish History Association published a book and declared that all these documents are fake. There is no such person named Naim Efendi, there is no such a memoir. The telegrams are fake as well because these are all encrypted documents and Ottomans were not using 2- or 3-bit code but 4- and 5-bit codes.

L’OBS: So where are those documents now?

Andonyan delivered those documents to Boghos Nubar Library of Paris. But now those documents are lost. Nobody knows where they are, nobody could find it. But, Krikor Gergeryan had filmed those documents as well in 1951. His private archive includes these documents as well. These are amazing stories.

In 1983, an organization named Armenian Ensemble in Washington transferred all the archive to microfilm and kept them in their archive. But nobody was wondering and looking at what’s inside. A few historians like me tried to go to Washington and study these documents, but it was not possible.  There are more than 100 microfilm, uncatalogued, unclassified. I spend a whole day and just found the copies of Takvim-i Vekayi. I stayed there 3 days and could only complete 2 microfilm. I asked the copies, but they did not give them to me. They told me that the original copies were in New York, but I could not succeed to get them. In 2015, I personally called the nephew of Krikor Gergeryan and requested insistently these documents. And this was again my stubbornness, he allowed me.

I discovered an unbelievable truth there. We thought that Gergeryan only had the archive of Jerusalem. We did not know that he filmed the Boghos Nubar and Naim Andonyon materials as well. Let me say this clearly. I’m an incredibly lucky person. I went into that archive, in a huge basement with no sign, under weak light, I pulled a folder and opened it, one sheet of paper. Half of it was written in Turkish, handwriting of Gergeryan and the other half was English translation. And it says “Naim Memoir Page 29”. At that moment, I noticed that Gergeryan knew Naim’s Memoir, it was unbelievable. I called everybody and informed them about it and that’s how we started the project of putting online the archive of Krikor Gergeryan. I scanned all the documents there. They kept this archive closed to all of us for years and I put them into internet to “punish” those people because of this attitude. These are all on virtual environment now and with English translations, with Turkish transcriptions. Everybody can benefit from them.

L’OBS: Armenians genocide struggle progress in different ways compared to Jewish Holocaust. What do you think about that? What do you say when comparing the acceptance process and literature of Holocaust with Armenian genocide?

TA: Armenian genocide studies follow the footprints of Holocaust. We follow Holocaust studies, but we are 20 years or 30 years behind of it.

L’OBS: In what sense to stay behind? In terms of historical research?

TA: Yes, in terms of historical research as well as other issues like the number of scholars, the scope of the issues, and their theorical level, etc. In Holocaust studies, the Raul Hilberg period was in the 1960s. The period when researchers started to find documents to prove the Holocaust and analyze them is during the sixties and we are doing this now, in 2020.

L’OBS: But in Turkey, there is almost zero research on Holocaust. Almost no research at the universities, almost no interest. In literature, you can only see 1-2 references in Aslı Erdoğan’s works. Other than that, it is as if it did not happen.

TA: Because Holocaust happened in Europe but the other one in Turkey.

L’OBS: Japan or USA, these countries were not the area of Holocaust, but the awareness is quite higher, and the literature is richer.

TA: You can understand and excuse the lack of awareness and knowledge on Holocaust in Turkey, but you cannot excuse what the Turkish government did to its Jewish citizens during the 1930s and 1940s. You cannot excuse that these crimes are still unspoken. This is the main problem of Turkey in my opinion. Turkish authorities are not willing to put such human right violations into their agenda for reconciliation. Not only against the Jewish citizens, but also its own Christian and Kurdish citizens. This society has no habit of talking about them, and of course there is no such state tradition. I think this is one of Turkey’s most fundamental problems at the moment.

[1] Tarik Zafer Tunaya was a professor of Constitutionnal Law and political pundit. He died in 1991

[2] Vahakn Dadrian was an Armenina_American sociologist and historian, born in Turkey. He was an expert on the Armenian Genocide and one of the early scholars of the academic study of genocide. He was also recognized as one of the thinkers on Holocaust.

[3] Petra Kappert was Professor of Turkology in the Department of Middle Eastern History and Culture at the Asia-Africa Institute of the University of Hamburg. She published works on modern Turkish literature

[4] Takvim-i Vekayi is the first newspaper entirely in Turkish. It was launched by Sultan Mahmoud II on 11 November 1831 as the official newspaper of the Ottoman Empire. Along with the Tanzimat it was also published in Arabic, Persian, Greek, Armenian and French.


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