The Crime That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Review of The Young Turks' Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, by Taner Akçam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012)

In 2007, Arat Dink and Sarkis Seropyan, two Turkish journalists of Armenian descent, were given a one-year prison sentence. Their crime: they had used the term "genocide" in reference to the Ottoman treatment of Armenians in 1915. In the name of "national security," the Turkish legal system criminalizes the use of such language.

Cover of The Young Turks' Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire by Taner Akçam
Cover of The Young Turks' Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire by Taner Akçam.

Indeed, Turkey has denied the existence of the genocide, and the number of Ottoman scholars, both within that country and abroad, who have had the courage to privilege truth seeking and challenge the official narrative of the Turkish government has been limited. There are repercussions, both personal and professional, for courage.

Into this controversial subject, with bold strides, has walked once again Taner Akçam. Building on his previous book A Shameful Act (2006), Akçam's the Young Turks' Crime against Humanity is the culmination of his long-time study of the Armenian Genocide. This work, based on more than six-hundred new documents from Ottoman archives, sheds new light into the mindset of the masterminds of the event.

Given the genocide's occurrence amid the First World War, the official historiography within Turkey has portrayed the deadly Armenian relocation policy (beginning in 1915) as an unfortunate part of war. But Akçam's view is different: "wartime policies of the Ottoman government toward the Armenians were never, as has been frequently claimed, the result of military exigencies (p. xix). " Rather, Akçam presents a series of factors that fed into the causal matrix to produce genocide. These include the Young Turks' intense commitment to the homogenization of Anatolia (a development that pre-dated the Great War), deep Ottoman resentment over the Armenian Reform Agreement with Russia (Feb. 1914), intense Ottoman frustration with military defeats in WWI, and, above all, a belief that Ottoman "national security " demanded a permanent solution to the Armenian problem.

A striking and well-developed contribution is Akçam's emphasis on the role of religion, not simply ethnicity, as a major component in the homogenization policies of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the Young Turks' governing body responsible for the maltreatment of the Armenians.

On the one hand, the CUP valued science and progress and, to some extent, secularism. On the other, the CUP's broader goal of creating a homogenous society in Anatolia had an important religious element. Islam was central to Turkification, so the CUP privileged Muslims and marginalized Christians. Thus, in the homogenization process, Christians received much harsher treatment than non-Turkish Muslims such as Arabs and Kurds.

In the later deportation waves, Armenian Christians were forced to resettle by foot to the deserts of modern-day Syria and Iraq. Without supplies, the process turned into death marches in which men, women, and children succumbed. By contrast, Kurds and Arabs, who also faced deportation, were not sent to the deserts, but rather dispersed among the Turkish population and encouraged to assimilate.

A major factor for the CUP's anti-Armenian policies, Akçam shows with ample documentation, was the Armenian Reform Agreement with Russia (Feb. 1914). This agreement between the Russians and the Turks undermined Ottoman national sovereignty. The reform, which was not immediately implemented because of the Great War, called for Armenians to have greater political control of their lives. A Russian representative had called the reform, which also mandated foreign inspection into the two eastern provinces that had sizable Armenian populations, the "first step toward rescuing Armenia from Turkish oppression (p. 130)."

But with this reform in place, when the Ottomans suffered defeats on the Russian front, the Armenians became easy scapegoats onto whom to channel national frustration. After all, Armenian Christians were widely portrayed as having Russian loyalties, a fact that was to some extent true. As a result, anti-Armenian propaganda emerged, calling for the immediate removal of Armenians from Anatolia.

Deportation is one thing, but ethnic genocide is quite another. The Young Turks' "concern for national security, " Akçam writes, "was what gave the policy toward Armenians its genocidal character (pp. xvii-xviii). " According to the reform agreement, the eastern provinces of Turkey with sizable Armenian populations had to allow these populations to take part in local administration on an "equal basis. " For the Young Turks, this was incompatible with their goal of Turkish homogenization.

For this reason, the CUP embarked on a population dispersal process to dilute Armenian political power. This process included the arrest and execution of many prominent Armenians. It also included the "5 to 10 percent principle, " a key discovery that Akçam finds in the new documents and repeatedly highlights. This principle prohibited more than five to ten percent of any local population to be comprised of Armenian Christians. It was this principle, Akçam demonstrates, that laid the foundation for the genocide. Some of the Armenians were relocated successfully, but many died in the process mostly from thirst, exhaustion, hunger, and sickness. The Ottoman government criminalized the distribution of aid.

Akçam details how, for those deportees who made the journey to Syria, life was anything but pleasant. Many had difficulties in adapting to life in detainee camps. More frightening, it soon became clear that the Armenians had been rounded up to be massacred. In the summer of 1916, the Ottomans waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing designed to rid northern Syria of the Armenians. On the orders of Talat Pasha, massacres of Armenians in Der Zor, Syria occurred (p. 277).

One final thought-provoking feature of the book is Akçam's discussion of "cultural genocide " — the annihilation of Armenian Christian customs and identity. Early on, Armenians had the choice of converting to Islam or deportation. Yet, because such large numbers pledged to convert, the Ottoman leadership questioned their sincerity and ended the conversion option. Amid the deportations, children sometimes received the opportunity to convert to Islam, an action that saved many lives. But afterward, they were stripped of their cultural identity and forced into arranged marriages.

The major strength of Akçam's work is both his research and analysis. He examined materials from more than twenty Ottoman archives, especially the important Prime Ministerial and Cipher Office archives. Additionally, he makes ample use of documents from Austria, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Equally significant, Akçam's multi-causal explanation of the genocide is highly convincing. Readers with interests in Middle Eastern history, human rights, and peace studies will glean significant knowledge of the Armenian genocide from Akçam's book.