CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A capacity audience gathered to hear Prof. Taner Akçam speak about his most recent book, The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Akçam is the only scholar of Turkish descent who chairs an Armenian studies department and one of only a handful of Armenian Genocide scholars researching in the Turkish archives. He has mined the archives extensively, with his latest book significantly contributing to the field.
“At the risk of sounding immodest, this is a first in many ways,” Akçam said of the book, noting that he is presenting new theses to explain the Genocide. He said there are two issues: what happened and why did it happen. “As to why,” he said, “We still have a long way to go.”
The latest book is based on more than 600 documents from the Ottoman archives. There are two contradictory views, he explained.
Armenians who suggest that the Ottoman archives cannot be trusted because they were fabricated by those in power, either during Ottoman or Turkish Republic rule, and Turks who deny the Genocide and suggest that only Ottoman and Turkish sources can be trusted while any Armenian or Western material on the Genocide is suspect.
With this new work, Akçam said he hopes to prove that “Ottoman material shows us the same information as the German, American and British archives. It is different material on the same perspective.”
“Talaat [Pasha] used his home as a private post office. He could send telegrams from his home,” he said, including many directly spelling out the genocidal policies. In fact, he noted that in a 1982 interview only published in 2010, Talaat’s widow revealed that the interior minister used the more secure home telegraph line to order the deportation of the Armenians.
Similarly, Akçam said that there is information about the ethnic cleansings of the Greeks, village by village.
Akçam said there was a direct correlation between reform movements in the Ottoman era and the start of mass killings; the first waves of the Genocide started in 1894, while the reform government came into power in 1895. The government sent out representatives to assess the population and wherever those representatives went, Akçam said, killings took place.
He offered some historical context, explaining that the period immediately preceding the main wave of the Genocide occurred at the end of the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, during which the Ottoman Empire had lost more than 80 percent of its European territories and more than 70 percent of its European population.
In return, hundreds of thousands of Muslims migrated to the Ottoman lands from Europe and were relocated in the Christian-majority Anatolia region, home of the Armenians.
Beginning in 1913, he said, the non-Muslim population of Anatolia was referred to as “tumors” that needed to be removed, and therefore the government embarked upon a “radical restructuring of Anatolia’s demographic character.”
In other words, the Christians, including the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, were removed and the non-Turkish Muslims were relocated and dispersed among the Turkish Muslims to take their place.
Akçam said the removal policy was first tried out on the Greek minority. The Ottoman government came to an agreement, albeit illegal by the standards of international law, with Romania, Bulgaria and Greece and enacted a population exchange in 1913.
The Committee for Union and Progress (CUP), he said, which was in charge, would draw up plans for such removals and exterminations nationally but would later present them as the spontaneous actions of local populations throughout the empire.
The demographic policy was then used on the Armenians, with the plan to reduce the Armenian population to a “governable number.” That number, he said, was deemed to be “5 to 10 percent” of the general population and no more than that. If they formed a bigger share, the Ottoman authorities suggested, they would be less easily governable. Thus, the officials conducted demographic surveys to find out the percentage of Armenians in various locales in Anatolia. For example, in the Kayseri Province, 49,947 Armenians were registered. Most were deported to Aleppo, Damascus and Mosul and the population was reduced to 5 percent. In the Eastern Provinces, the policy was “not a single Armenian was allowed to remain there.” The Armenians were deported to Der Zor and by the beginning of 1916, a second wave of the Genocide started, during which an additional 200,000 Armenians were killed in the Syrian provinces in order to maintain the numbers below 10 percent. The authorities, he said, never expected as many to survive the forced marches in the desert.
In a letter from Talaat to Cemal Pasha on October 7, 1916, he specified the need to rid Cilicia of Armenians, as they, he stressed, were so attached to the land and considered it a central part of their heritage.
The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity was published in April. Akçam, born in Ardahan, is the holder of the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marion Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University, Worcester.
Akçam used papers from the Interior Ministry, including various branches of its General Directorate and the Cypher Office. The role of the latter, he said, was “very important.” The office was established in 1913, with the “pure purpose of [encrypted] telegraphic communication between the central office and the provinces.”
The authorities encrypted the information, and believing they had developed a foolproof method, freely discussed their plans within the documents.
Other documents found by Akçam included a telegram from the Education Ministry to the Interior Ministry on June 26, 1915, regarding the fate of Armenian children — soon to be orphaned — who would need assimilation.
These documents are still intact, Akçam said, and anyone interested can freely access them.
He spoke about documents from the same archives dating to March 1, 1915, in which the authorities spelled out the Genocide policy.