The following interview was conducted by Linda Abraham for the Assyrian Genocide Research Center.
Altug Taner Akçam is one of the first Turkish scholars to openly acknowledge and discuss the reality of the Armenian Genocide. Professor Akçam's initial research topic was the history of political violence and torture in late Ottoman and early Republican Turkey. Since 1990, however, he has focused his attention on Turkish nationalism and the Armenian Genocide, with eleven books and numerous articles to his credit. Akçam graduated from Middle East Technical University in Ankara and immigrated to Germany where he worked as a research scientist in the sociology department at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. In 1995 Akçam earned his doctorate from the University of Hannover with a dissertation entitled, The Turkish National Movement and the Armenian Genocide Against the Background of the Military Tribunals in Istanbul Between 1919 and 1922. Akçam is presently Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at the Strassler Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, Massachusetts.
You were one of the first Turkish scholars to publish on the until-then taboo topic of political violence and genocide in late Ottoman and early Republican Turkey; where did your interest in this field emanate from?
Actually, I ended up working on this topic totally by coincidence. Nevertheless, looking back I would say that there are actually three major reasons. First, in 1988 I started studying the history of violence and torture in Ottoman-Turkish society. If one studies violence in Ottoman society he unavoidably comes across the genocide of the Armenians; particularly in the second half of the 19th century where violence was a common device used against them. Facing the reality of violence against the Armenians motivated my curiosity to examine the issue further.
The second reason, that has propelled me to deal with this topic is my interest in Turkish national identity. One of the important aspects of my study on violence and torture was to find out the relationship between violence and the emergence of Turkish national identity. Through my study I became aware that there is a strong relationship between Turkish national identity and violence but the idea was not developed strongly enough at the time. While I was working on my project, I was discussing it with my German colleagues, and in these discussions it became clear to me that there are strong similarities between the Turkish and German national identities. Not surprisingly, some of the founders of Turkish nationalism were influenced by German ideas of nationalism. This connection led me to research this topic further. I read Norbert Elias' book "Studien über die Deutchen" (in English: "The Germans") and this book changed my understanding essentially. Hence we can understand the Holocaust only if we understand German attitudes and behaviors towards Jews. This is the case in the Armenian Genocide also. Then I wrote a working paper on the similarities between Turkish and German national identities for my colleagues at the Institute. This was my first theoretical encounter with the Armenian Genocide.
The third reason was the beginning of a major project at our Institute in 1991. Before the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia, our Institute raised the question of whether Nuremberg can be applied universally or was it only an exception after the Second World War? It was a multi-faceted project and encompassed the incidents of major mass-violence in the 20th century. The question was to seek the possibilities of developing a macro theory in whose framework we can explore the reasons for the occurrence of three important mass annihilations in the 20th century. The case studies chosen were Auschwitz, the Soviet Gulag and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Within this project I suggested working on the Turkish military court-martials, which were held between 1919 and 1921 in Istanbul with the purpose of bringing the criminals to justice. These trials and the debates revolving around them at the Paris peace conference and in Istanbul were the precursors of the Nuremberg trials. The institute accepted my proposal and this research became my PhD.
These three points were the initial reasons propelling me to study the Armenian Genocide.
How can the low interest in the Assyrian genocide amongst genocide scholars be explained?
There are a couple of reasons why the focus has been mainly on the Armenian genocide. One reason is the scale of the atrocities against the Armenians. They were the main group targeted for the genocide; their existence as a group was the major reason for the deadly decision of the Ottoman authorities. This is however not enough to explain why we haven't included the Assyrians in our research. If we look for a special reason, I would say that the lack of proper documentation is the most important reason for this. Unfortunately there are not many materials available for the scholarly world in the form of archival materials etc. on the Assyrian genocide. For example, I looked at the Ottoman archives in order to find out the policy of the Ottoman government towards the Assyrians. My central question was to find out whether or not there was a centrally organized policy and campaign against Assyrians, but I was not able to find any material. The third reason as to why the Assyrian genocide hasn't been studied enough is because of the lack of interest amongst the Assyrian people in the field of genocide studies. In the absence of official documents produced by the perpetrator society, the materials produced by the victim society are the most important source. Unfortunately, because of a variety of reasons, Assyrians haven't documented the crimes committed against them. We don't have materials in this regard. If you add the language difficulties, it is quite understandable why there is a low interest among scholars.
My dear Assyrian friends should not misunderstand me; however, instead of criticizing the scholars for their disinterest in the Assyrian genocide, they should look for the reason somewhere else. If you look at other cases of genocide you will see that it is first and foremost the victim societies that worked tirelessly to make their cases known. So, it is first and foremost the Assyrian community that has to work hard, and invest in education and research to present their case to broader society. It is unfortunate but true that if a victim group does not invest energy and promote scholarly work about their experiences, the academic world cannot develop an interest easily from within itself.
Let me give you some simple examples from other fields, the Holocaust is an extremely well known tragedy because of the interest and dedication of the Jewish people. It was originally Jewish communities in the United States that worked very hard and promoted remembrance of their tragedy; it was the Jewish people who pushed the Universities to establish Holocaust research centres. And today, the genocide against the Jews is an inextricable part of the American university system and is being taught in many different universities. If the Assyrian people want their genocide to be known and studied, then my humble suggestion is that the Assyrian people should invest in education in order to promote their case. They should follow the footsteps of the Jewish and Armenian peoples.
I should add that I am not merely talking about material contributions in the form of financial donations etc. in the education system. I am referring to efforts for creating important materials for the scholarly community also. If we take the Jewish or Armenian cases as an example, we would observe that the first scholars of the Holocaust or Armenian genocide were the Jewish or Armenian survivors themselves. They collected firsthand accounts and this comprised the basis for much of the research that followed. Also, look at the second generation of Armenian scholars; Vahakn Dadrian and Richard Hovannisian, they are the first ones who acted as voices for wider Armenian Genocide scholarship. There might be some Assyrian survivors who documented their experience and provided some information but it is not available to the English speaking world. These materials should be made available for interested audiences. We need also some young Assyrian scholars, who could overcome the language barriers and do similar work as that done by Vahakn Dadrian or Richard Hovannisian for the Armenian cause.
My humble opinion is that Assyrians lack interest towards their own genocide and that is one of the major problems that the field is facing now. They need to make it very clear to their next generations, and their youth that they must study their language, history, and be interested in the genocide topic in order to eventually become scholars.
My appeal to the Assyrian people is that they need to come together and stop complaining about the lack of interest towards their cases. They need to promote genocide education and help to train their own scholars. I would love to teach Assyrian students who are interested in the genocide. Our Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center is open to cooperation.
In your opinion, is cooperation by the three main victim groups necessary in gaining Turkish and international recognition of the genocide?
Of course they can work together. I think the main question is how they can achieve the acknowledgement of the different mass crimes by the Turkish government? How can we get the Turkish government to acknowledge its historic wrongdoing of the past?
There are several ways to answer these questions. For example, Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians prefer to increase the pressure on Turkish government. Their main strategy is to convince third parties so that these third parties can pressure the Turkish government on their behalf. In order to achieve this, these groups have been trying for decades to get recognition from different Parliaments in the form of resolutions, governmental decisions or decision of different international bodies. It is true that until recently, each group was pushing its own case and it is also true that they might be stronger if they unite their forces and to get resolutions not only for their cases but for all cases together. I am not sure whether this is a new contribution or whether this brings a new aspect to the problem that we are facing.
I call this strategy "conventional war" with "conventional methods". Even though I am not against these kinds of efforts -- since they (Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks) do not have much leverage in their hands, except to win over the third parties -- I am very sceptical about the success of this strategy. I think there is an urgent need to shift the focus of interest. My humble suggestion in this regard is that Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks should start focusing on Turkey. For me, the democratization process in Turkey is as important, if not more important, than efforts to win the support of third parties. I think the emerging civil society in Turkey and their fight for a democratic society is more important for the acknowledgment of the Genocide than parliamentary decrees from outside Turkey. Of course they are not mutually exclusive. Armenians, Assyrian and Greeks can still continue to work with their "conventional methods" but they have to understand that there is something growing in Turkey, which could be more effective than the parliament resolutions.
Therefore the Assyrians, Greeks and Armenians should develop strong connections with the democracy movement in Turkey. The recognition of the mass crimes of the past is directly related to the democratization process of Turkey. The Assyrians, Greeks and Armenians need to create a strong relationship and work together with the democracy movement in Turkey towards the recognition of their cases.
And they have to find a language, which is adequate for such "conversation". I think the existing language is still part of the problem rather than part of the solution and does not help both sides. We have to understand that the language of "war" is different than the language of "peace". My observation is that the language of "conventional war" still dominates the field. There is a mistrust and suspicion in both sides. Whatever has emerged from grassroots organizations within Turkey or the Armenian diaspora has been received by the opposing side with great caution. The reason for this is the mentality and the language of "conventional war".
The main logic or mindset that drives the language used by each side is that there is this monolithic other, who is our enemy. The usage of the term "Turk" is the best example to show this. It is not the "Turk" that exists today as a living breathing individual. The "Turk" is and abstract construction and is what is not "Armenian", "Assyrian" or "Greek". As such, one can easily substitute these terms "Turk" or "Armenian, Assyrian and Greek" for any characteristics of what comprise the "Other." Today, and for much of our pasts, we have a monolithic, stereotypical image of the other side.
Each side has developed a very negative picture of the other, which is an abstraction, to which they constantly refer to confirm the righteousness of their own positions. We are wiser, fairer, kinder, more capable, more attractive, and generally better that other party. The other side is deceitful, aggressive, heartless and incapable of change for better. We have a differentiated view of ourselves while maintaining an undifferentiated, stereotypical view of the other. We have to change this language and understanding.
Even though there are some positive developments in this regard but still we have to work very hard to change the "language of conventional war" and develop a language that helps to overcome the divides, which were built up over the years between different people in Anatolia.
Do you consider the 1915 genocides of the Assyrians, Armenians and the Greeks to be one genocide?
It is a very difficult question. My simple answer is "no"; what happened to Greeks during the war years cannot be called genocide, it is simply wrong. My complicated answer is "yes", this term might be used, but not for the First World War years but only if you broaden the scope of the years. If you use the time frame between 1912 and 1923, including the Pontus Greeks, this term might be used but I personally think that it's still fraught with a lot of problems. The term can cause understanding of that era to darken rather than to enlighten and explain the above-mentioned period.
First of all, it is indeed very important to consider these three mass crimes in interrelation with each other and as a part of an existing process, regardless of whether we give them all one and the same name. It is a fact that the Ottoman policies towards Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians were not separate events from each other and they were strongly interconnected. However, it is very difficult to argue that the Ottoman policies towards these groups were all the same, and therefore that we can bring more light into the process by using "a common definition" for all these mass crimes. As we know, there was a general Ottoman policy not only towards the Christian population of Anatolia but also towards the non-Turkish Muslim groups. I call this policy "demographic policy" and it aimed at the radical restructuring of Anatolia's population. The policy began to be implemented after the loss of the Balkan Wars in 1912-3. The policy against Christians and non-Turkish Muslims was implemented in a different manner. Christians were to be eliminated by expulsion or massacre. Non-Turkish Muslims, such as the Kurds, Arabs, and Balkan migrants (refugees from Christian persecution), were relocated and dispersed among the Turkish majority to be assimilated into the dominant culture. Within this broader picture the treatment of Christian populations was different from each other and varied from time to time.
So, if one aims to show the common characteristics of these policies against Christians (to get rid of them of Anatolia by different means), you may try to find one term for all these cases. But only one single term eradicates the differences between these policies. For example; I don't think that we can call what happened to the Greeks during the First War Years a genocide. It is totally wrong, in my opinion and has no basis.
In 1913--4 the Greek population was put on ships and forcefully sent to Greece. There were sporadic massacres also but the main aim was to send them to Greece. We know that during the Armenian genocide some Armenians on the deportation route were separated by the Ottoman authorities because they were held as Greeks. In certain regions Armenians were hidden by Greeks because the latter were not a target of deportations. There were also some deportation of Greeks towards the end of the war, especially in 1917; however, the purpose of it was not to exterminate but to empty the costal region for military purposes.
It seems to me that the usage of the term genocide for what happened to Greeks during the First World War years is more politically motivated than actually grounded in sound research, which is a common phenomenon in our field. It might be useful for those who want to get attention to their causes. However as a genocide scholar I prefer to use different terms that shed more light on and increase our understanding of the different forms of violence. For me thnic--cleansing is a more proper term to define what happened to the Greek people during the war years.
I have to add that I consider the Pontus case different from the wartime experience of Greek population. Indeed what happened to the Pontian people in 1921 and 1922 was equal to a genocide. However, it was not the Ottoman government who implemented this policy against the Greeks of Pontus; it was the Turkish Nationalist government. If you want to develop one common term, for the period of 1912-1923 I prefer "genocide and ethnic cleansing policies of the Ottoman and Turkish governments" as an appropriate description.
Would you consider writing on the Assyrian Genocide?
First of all, I think we are coming to a point where to talk on Armenian and Assyrian cases separately is becoming more and more problematic. We can be an expert in one of these cases, but we should not forget that it was the same Ottoman government that implemented the policies against both the Assyrians and the Armenians. The distinction between both cases is sometimes very difficult.
On the other hand, this does not mean that I can be an expert on the Assyrian genocide. I teach on the Assyrian genocide but I cannot write a book specifically on this topic. I agree that I should incorporate the Assyrian aspect into my research more and more but this does not make me an expert on the Assyrian people and their history. Because of my age and education I cannot be an expert concerning the Assyrian genocide. The languages that I can read and write are not sufficient enough for me to be considered a scholar in the Assyrian case. In addition to what I have said above (i.e. incorporating the Assyrian genocide into my writing and research) what I really would like to do (and this is my appeal to Assyrians) is to train Assyrian (or of course other) students, who want to study and become an expert on the Assyrian genocide. I can do this within the graduate program at our Institute. Please send us as many Assyrian or other students as you can, who want to study the Assyrian case. I can train them in this topic. Needless to say, the students must be capable in their own language in order to be able to study the Assyrian genocide.
What do you think is the rationale behind Turkey's denial of the Assyrian, Armenian and Greek Genocide?
I think we should not confine ourselves to looking at the attitude of the state; we must look into the society also. There are several reasons for Turkish denial; one is a very general factor, which I call amnesia and/or lack of interest. We have to keep in mind that we, Turks, are generally disinclined to talk and unwilling and reluctant to delve into the past. I would say that ignoring the past is a common custom in Turkey. You could almost say that a lack of curiosity about history is a national trait.
If you want to understand a culture you have to look at its proverbs to find deeper cultural assumptions (values). In the case of Turkey we have dozens of sayings with the same message: that the past is not important and not worth dwelling on. The most common one is "bosver" which can be translated as "forget it or never mind"; "baska isin gücün mü yok?", which can be translated "don't you have something better to worry about?".
And so, in line with this prevailing mindset in Turkey not only are the mass atrocities during the First World War years forgotten; so is the very recent past. We are a society that tends to forget and loves to forget. Of course, as intellectuals, we could argue that this is a very serious cultural flaw and amounts to willful amnesia and many of Turkey's current problems stem from this tendency. Because people don't face and confront their issues or problems honestly and move on without truly addressing them, so the problems then add up, accumulate and end up getting out of proportion.
The second important reason for societal denial is the reform of the alphabet and nationalistic historiography. In 1928, through an alphabet reform program, Turkish scripts was changed from Arabic letters to the Latin alphabet. Through this reform the Turkish people lost every connection to their written history; they couldn't even read the letters or diaries of their ancestors. As a result, current generations are totally dependent on a version of history that the Turkish state has defined and written for them. Can you imagine a society that has almost no access to what happened before 1928?
One can add to this reality, the fact that the Turkish state has a certain stake in representing history in a certain way in order to legitimize its existence. Therefore, you can understand why Genocide is not a prominent topic in Turkish society. The recent scandal regarding Turkish history books and their labelling of Assyrians as traitors is a perfect example of this.
Of course none of these factors explain why the topic of the Armenian or Assyrian Genocide strikes a nerve with the Turks. There must be some other underlying causes for this sensitivity which go beyond this general reasoning.
The third factor I would refer to is that Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks, generally the Christians, have symbolized and have been a constant reminder to the Turks of their most traumatic historical events, namely the collapse of the Empire and the loss of 85% of their territory over a 40-year period. Muslim--Turks lived the last 100-years of their Empire, under the constant fear that they would disappear from the stage of history. In a simple way they felt they would disappear; would be pushed aside, squeezed out and completely carved up by European powers and the other nations in Anatolia. In other words they were looking at the total annihilation of their state's existence. So naturally any reminder of this period is avoided at all costs. Metaphorically speaking the Turks conceive of themselves as a phoenix rising from the ashes and the Christians are the reminder of the ashes.
Finally, the fourth reason is the fear of consequences. I would divide this fear into two main categories; Material and Moral. The most common argument we have heard is that if Turkey were to acknowledge the Genocide they would have to pay compensation in the form of land and money. This might be indeed one of the reasons but I don't think that this is the primary fear of Turkey although it is often used it as one of the main arguments. At least this argument has some tangible form of reconciling the loss of individual properties and wealth. Therefore, in this respect, if Turkey acknowledges its past wrongdoings, it must pay reparations or make restitutions in the form of a specified amount of money or the return of churches or other important historic building to the Armenians or Assyrians to rectify the losses of the past. There are other forms of compensation, which I cannot discuss here.
The moral factor is the connection between the Genocide and the formation of the Republic. This problem is related to the fact that some of the founders of the Turkish state were the very same members of the party who organized the Genocide. As is the case in every nation state, the Turks also glorified these persons as founding fathers and heroes. We must then understand how difficult it is to change the historical narrative and call some of the founders murderers or thieves. If that occurs, the very existence and identity of the state is questioned. It is therefore almost self-destructive to bring up this topic. Can you imagine for example, American history being rewritten to portray Washington and Jefferson primarily as slave holders?
I have to add to this picture that there are serious changes in Turkey. With the establishment in 2002 of the AKP government, Turkey has entered into an increasing democratization process with a growing civil society. To challenge the existing denialist policy is much more possible than ever before. I cannot go into detail of these changes here but would just like to bring to the reader's attention that there is now a deputy of Assyrian origin in the Turkish parliament and he and his colleagues are open to examining Turkey's past wrongdoings.