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A Shameful Act book cover

University of Minnesota visiting professor of history Taner Ak?am explores the emotion, denial, justifications, and of course, politics of the Armenian Genocide in his new book, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility.

Truth telling

U professor confronts the Armenian Genocide

By Martha Coventry

Nov. 22, 2006

In the first large scale genocide in modern times, men, women and children were dragged from their homes all over the Ottoman-Turkish Empire by government forces. Some were slaughtered outside cities and towns, others were marched through the desert to be raped, murdered or starved to death. Their property was confiscated, their culture destroyed.

This annihilation was the Armenian Genocide, when the empire, under the rule of a triumvirate called "the Young Turks," systematically killed around a million Armenians between 1915 and 1917.

Like most other great national horrors, it is fraught with emotion, denial, justifications, and, of course, politics. University of Minnesota visiting professor of history Taner Ak?am explores these issues in his new book, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. Ak?am will discuss the book with University department of history chair Eric Weitz at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 29, in Room 125 of the Nolte Center, 315 Pillsbury Dr. S.E., Minneapolis. This event is free and open to the public.

"[The genocide] was not a topic in Turkey. We never heard about it. It is a black hole in Turkish history."

Ak?am was born in 1953 in northeastern Turkey, but grew up in Ankara. The only time he can recall hearing about Armenian persecution was from his grandfather in the 1960s, and he was describing further killings that took place in 1919 and 1920. "This is my only remembrance of hearing about the Armenians," says Ak?am."Nothing else. [The genocide] was not a topic in Turkey. We never heard about it. It is a black hole in Turkish history."

In A Shameful Act, Ak?am follows the chain of events that led to the killings and reconstructs their systematic orchestration by government officials, civil servants, party loyalists, state-run militias and the army. Piecing together the story through meticulous research and an array of previously unseen documents, Ak?am also investigates the postwar efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice and shows why they failed.

Facing the facts Ak?am shines a harsh light on the past--and present--Turkish government party line that the action against the Armenians was necessary for national security. The Armenians were in league with Russia, the sanctioned story goes, and were relocated away from the front lines during WWI, when the Turks fought on Germany's side. Any deaths that occurred during that relocation were due to isolated events and the harsh conditions present in any refugee situation.

In fact, the buildup to the genocide had been in the works for decades. Much of it had to do with the inherent tension between Christians (Armenians and other nationalities) and Muslims (Turks).

"In the Holocaust, anti-Semitism played as a cultural background. In Turkey, Muslim attitudes toward Christians was the cultural background of the genocide," says Ak?am. "In Islamic culture and in Islamic law, the Christians were never seen as equals. They were second-rate citizens, and there was always tension and hatred between Christians and Muslims. It was very easy to provoke, and it was used to mobilize the Muslims and any ethnic group against the Armenians."

"The Armenian Genocide was part of an ethnic and religious cleansing," says Ak?am. "All Christians were relocated, expelled or killed, as were non-Turkish Muslims. Before the genocide, a quarter of the Ottoman Empire was Christian. Today it's a 99 percent Muslim society."

The empire strikes back But the real reason for the genocide was a political one, says Ak?am. The basic context was the dismemberment of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire, which stretched from present-day Poland to Russia and south into Iraq and Syria. Due to various conflicts, the empire lost 80 percent of its territory and 75 percent of its population between 1878 and 1916. In October 1912 alone, the Balkan Wars cost the empire 69 percent of its European territories. The empire was up against the wall and trying to hold on to whatever it could.

Because of growing Western influence, assorted treaties and reform agreements, in February 1914, plans were drawn for an autonomous Armenian state in the eastern provinces, the historic Armenian homeland. In November of that year the Ottoman Empire entered WWI. The Russian army came to invade Turkey, and the empire feared a total collapse of its nation.

The only way to keep the empire together, thought the ruling Young Turks party, was to keep it 100 percent Turkish and Muslim and rid the country of Christians. Homogenization plans were developed in 1913 and first carried out against the Greeks in the country in 1914.

"The Armenian Genocide was part of an ethnic and religious cleansing," says Ak?am. "All Christians were relocated, expelled or killed, as were non-Turkish Muslims. Before the genocide, a quarter of the Ottoman Empire was Christian. Today it's a 99 percent Muslim society."

This is why it's difficult for the Turkish government to confront the genocide, says Ak?am--it created the foundation for present-day Turkey.

A larger world A Shameful Act is being released at a critical time, when Turkey's denial of its past is affecting its application to the European Union. Although many countries have officially called the Armenian massacre a genocide--and France is considering a law making it a crime to deny the genocide--the U.S. government has stopped short of using that term so as not to risk alienating the Turkish government and losing, among other things, the use of its airbase at Incirlik, which it needs to patrol northern Iraq. "From the American perspective, there are two major reasons why it's important to learn about the genocide," says Ak?am. "One is that if you want peace and democracy in the Middle East, you have to know that the nations in the region consider each other from an historical perspective. History is still an important stumbling block for the democratization process. You have to get nations to talk about their past, or they cannot develop healthy relations with each other.

"The other is the role of Turkey, generally. It can easily be a good model for democracy in the Muslim world if it is a full member of the EU. It's the key to stability and peace in the region, but only if it can face its dark past. Still other reasons for Americans to acknowledge the genocide are the large number of its own citizens of Armenian descent and the American missionaries and diplomats who played a crucial part in documenting the original crimes."

Ak?am was the editor in chief of a Turkish student political journal when he was arrested in 1976 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Amnesty International adopted him as one of their first prisoners of conscience, and a year later he escaped by using a stove leg to dig a tunnel. He fled to Germany, where he received political asylum. He has been living in exile in Minnesota since 2002.

Ak?am's writing, and that of this year's Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, bring the horror the Armenian Genocide back to the world's attention as the killings in Darfur increase and other genocides may be brewing elsewhere. "...all studies of large-scale atrocities teach us one core principle: To prevent the recurrence of such events, people must first consider their own responsibilities, discuss it, debate it, and recognize it," writes Ak?am.