The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, by Taner Akçam, Princeton University Press, RRP £27.95/$39.50, 528 pages
“The dead who remain on the roads are to be removed and their corpses are to be thrown into the valleys, lakes or rivers, and the possessions that they have abandoned on the roads are to be taken and burned.”
So wrote Talat Pasha, Ottoman minister of the interior, in a telegram sent on July 21 1915 to provincial governors carrying out the deportation of Anatolia’s Armenian population. It is bureaucratic asides such as this that shock in a newly translated book by Taner Akçam, known as one of the first Turkish academics to challenge Turkey’s official denial that the resulting mass killings represented genocide.
Bitter divisions over this bloody episode, which Armenians claim led to the deaths of up to 1.5m people, have long poisoned Turkey’s overseas relations. Here, Akçam attempts to break the deadlock in the historical debate. He underlines the futility of the frequent focus on a “hunt for one Holocaust-style final decision”, arguing that the Armenians’ annihilation was rather “the cumulative outcome of a series of increasingly radical decisions”.
Instead of seeking evidence of a single, central order to exterminate the Armenians in Ottoman archives – from which incriminating evidence may well have been removed – Akçam argues that there is no real discrepancy between the Ottoman documents that do survive and the accounts of Armenian and foreign observers.
The cables and court records he cites, many unpublished until now, show consistently that the central authorities – whether or not they ordered the massacres – were aware of the scale of the killings carried out by armed gangs, as well as of the deaths from hunger and exposure among Armenians forced on to the roads under inhuman conditions.
Yet their concern was with clearing the corpses, or preventing local officials embezzling Armenian property, not with stopping it. They also sent continual requests for statistics on the number of Armenians remaining in each area, which they wanted to reduce to no more than 5 or 10 per cent of the local population – a policy, Akçam argues, that could only have been achieved by killing.
Yet perhaps as important as such indications of official intent is Akçam’s lucid account of the pressures driving Ottoman policy in the run-up to 1915. As the Ottoman empire ceded one western province after another to emerging nations in the Balkan wars of 1912-13, Muslim refugees flooded eastward into Anatolia. There were population exchanges with Bulgaria and Greece, and attacks on Greek villages intended to persuade the Christian population to emigrate.
The Armenians, however, came to be seen as an existential threat to the survival of the Ottoman state. The fear was that, with Russian support, they could unite to form an autonomous government in eastern Anatolia – and this fear became acute in 1915 as Russian troops crossed the Ottoman border.
Akçam stresses that this in no way justifies the official Turkish version of events, which implies that when an ethnic group is seen as a threat to the state, its wholesale deportation and the deaths that inevitably result are acceptable. “The current framing of this debate, especially in Turkey, shows that the fundamental moral issue has yet to be addressed,” he writes, criticising the endless tug-of-war over whether the word “genocide” should apply. “Regardless of the term used, it is necessary to fully confront the immense human tragedy whose repetition must absolutely be prevented.”
Akçam has long courted controversy in Turkey, where he was jailed as a student activist in the 1970s before claiming asylum in Germany, but his intellectual courage is beyond question. Moreover, while Turkey’s official account of what happened in 1915 is unchanged, Turkish public and intellectual opinion is now much more open to debate. This dispassionate, scholarly study is a valuable contribution to help that debate move on.
Delphine Strauss is the FT’s deputy comment editor and a former Ankara correspondent