2632) Interview With Taner Akcam

by David Stepanyan, Arminfo News Agency 2008-10-27

Taner Akcam was born in the settlement of Olcek, province of Ardahan, Turkey, in 1953. He studied economics at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, and graduated in 1976. Later that year, while a graduate student at the same department, he received a nine-year prison sentence for his involvement in producing a student journal that focused on the treatment of Turkey's Kurdish minority. In March 1977, he escaped from Ankara Maximum Security prison. .

In 1978, he was granted political asylum in Germany. In August 1988 Akcam began work as a research scientist at the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Research and Culture. He received his PhD from the University of Hanover with a dissertation titled, Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide: On the Background of the Military Tribunals in Istanbul between 1919 and 1922. Akcam'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. Akcam was Visiting Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, United States before joining Clark University's Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. In his recent book, "A shameful act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish responsibility", Akcam, basing upon Turkish sources, studies the role of the Ottoman government in the Genocide and the question of the responsibility of Turkey for the murder of 1, 5 million Armenians.

Mr. Akcam, in your book "A Shameful Act: the Armenian Genocide and The Question of Turkish Responsibility" you highlighted questions that are problematic both for Armenia and Turkey. The book has aroused a vivid interest in Armenia. Do you plan to release another book to feature the same range of subjects?

I am not sure what you mean with "questions that are problematic both for Armenia and Turkey". As an historian, my primary job is to reveal as honestly as possibly what are concealed or distorted historical events, done so often at the behest of political powers. I really don't care who considers my revelation "problematic". As long as I am honest and my arguments are based on facts the rest is not my problem.

I have recently published another book in Turkey and the title is "The Armenian Issue is Resolved: Policies towards Armenians During the War Years, Based on Ottoman Documents" The central thesis of the book is that the available Ottoman governments documents in the Ottoman Archive in Istanbul clearly show us that the Union and Progress party developed and implemented plans during the World War I which deliberately targeted the total destruction of the Armenian people. By doing so, I refute the commonly accepted thesis by the public and the academic world, that Ottoman archival materials in Istanbul contradict the German, American, Austrian and other foreign archival records and that their respective contents present different information. As I showed in my book this perception is wrong and there is in fact no contradiction between the materials found in the Ottoman archives with that in Western archives. The various archives contain information that is supportive and complementary to one another and explain the same historical phenomenon from different perspectives. The main target of the Ottoman Government at the time was to eradicate the Christian population from Anatolia and available Ottoman documents from Ottoman archives show this to us.

Do you have plans to visit Armenia (both in near or distant future), particularly the Armenian Genocide Institute-Museum?

If I get an invitation why not!

In Armenia exists an opinion, that the refusal of Turkey to recognize Genocide is explained not by possible territorial claims from Armenia -the Genocide, if recognized by Turkey, will be a matter to a massive revision of Turkish history, which may lead the country to a split, similar to that of the USSR. Do you share that point of view? What are your comments on that?

I don't think that the reason for the denial of the Genocide by Turkish state is the fear of Armenian territorial claims. To claim territories from Turkey, as a form of compensation, might have a symbolic or moral dimension for some Armenians and some Armenian political parties but it cannot be taken seriously. The Armenian Genocide was an act of the Ottoman government against its own citizens and Turkey today does not occupy any territory which can be legally claimed to belong present day Armenia. There is no "territorial problem" between Turkey and Armenia. Today, the Turkish state and some nationalistic Armenian organizations purposely use the "territorial claims" argument as a tactic to avoid coming to a resolution.

The argument that if Turkey acknowledges historic wrong doings it could cause the "split" or "demise" of Turkey is a very stupid one, if you allow me to be so blunt. If you follow this logic, it says that confronting history is a very negative and dangerous thing to do because it could create a threat to national security. This sort of argument can only be raised by dictators or totalitarian regimes. Of course, if Turkey honestly faces its history and comes to terms with historic wrong doings it necessitates a very strong revision of history; but why should this lead to a split of the country? Just the opposite, confronting history with honestly, acknowledging historic wrong doings is the "abc" of every democracy. Any society which endeavors to establish democratic structure and processes and which purports to respect human rights can only do this successfully if it engages in an honest accounting with it past.

There are two main factors, which influence the Turkish State's attitude. I would describe these factors as Material and Moral. The most common argument we have heard is that if Turkey were to acknowledge the Genocide they would have to pay restitution. Even though the argument regarding restitution provides some tangible form of reconciling the loss of individual properties and wealth and this could obviously impact the Turkish state, I don't thing that this is the cause for Turkish fear. You could always agree on a specified amount of money to rectify the losses of the past. I think there is another deep seated reason for denial which I would define as the moral aspect of the problem. This 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, we, the people of Turkey, have glorified these persons as our founding fathers, as heroes. Having done that you can see how psychologically it is very difficult to turn around and call these same individuals murderers or thieves; if you do that you question the very existence of the state and its identity. It is very self-destructive to bring up this topic. Because of this, for there to be any chance of success of reconciling with its past, Turkey must develop a new democratic identity. I believe that the European Union offers this opportunity, this chance, for Turkey to develop a new democratic identity.

The official attitude of Ankara about Genocide is widely known. Does it correspond to the position of Turkish intellectuals and scientific society?

Since you teach in the USA, please tell your view of the position of American historians and publicists on that.

I can say with confidence that the position of the Turkish government is quite different from that shared by the Turkish intelligentsia. I would like the world to know that there is an important segment of intellectual and enlightened people in the media and our larger universities who want an open and frank discussion about our history. In Turkey today, the organization of conferences by historians and the publication of books that openly criticize the state's position have become quite commonplace. I believe that these changes which are being experienced on a civilian level will effect the state's position too.

The arrival of Mr. Abdullah Gul, the President of Turkey, to Yerevan, has been a landmark to establish the so-called "soccer diplomacy". Is it (the diplomacy) able to become a factor of a considerable improvement of relations between the two countries - especially regarding Genocide and complicated relations of Armenia and Azerbaijan?

First of all, I'd like to congratulate the leaders of both countries for taking these courageous steps. Extraordinary times require extraordinary leadership. I believe that this is the beginning of a period towards resolution of our problems. The speed at which this period progresses is directly related to the courage of the opposing sides. The soccer match created an opportunity but I see the Ergenekon arrests in Turkey and Russia's interference with Georgia as factors that will move the process along. The Turkish political circles who fed on hostility towards Armenians, the same circles who by the way are primarily responsible for the death of Hrant Dink, have taken a serious hit. The Ergenekon arrests took the pressure off the Turkish state. Meanwhile Russian-Georgian relations have rendered the continuation of mutual hostility by both sides as meaningless and counterproductive.

A number of Armenian and Russian political scientists and experts consider the initiative to establish the "Caucasian Platform", proposed by Mr. Rejep Tayip Erdogan, to be inspired by the USA. If you agree with that, what are the reasons for such a concern of the official Washington?

Whether it originated from Washington or Moscow, will somebody please explain to me why the normalization and development of relations between states in the region is a bad thing? In the end, Caucasia is the common land of Georgians, Azeris, Armenians, Turks and other people from that region.

Can you explain to me what the harm is in developing a sense of brotherhood, a good neighbor policy if you will? Since we, Armenians, Georgians, Azeris, Turks and others, are committed to living in the region it would make sense to develop a platform based upon mutual respect. Whether it comes out of Moscow or Washington, I say "Bravo" to whoever wants to support such a platform.

Barack Obama has declared his will to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide, in case of his possible victory. Will his statements share the fate of the promises of previous candidates?

Perhaps. Obama, like those who went before him, may forget the promise he made. I would hope that he doesn't forget because it would put an end to this torturous relationship that Armenians and Turks have endured.

Nevertheless, I don't view Obama's use of the word "genocide" as working like some kind of charm, or being the source of a huge resolution of the matter. Reagan had accepted and used the term also. I think Turks and Armenians need to see that there is something rather shameful in expecting a third party to solve a problem that originates with us and needs to be resolved between us. We own the problem. We need to resolve it and we can.

Even if the United States recognizes Genocide, may we expect the recognition by Turkey? If you think this possibility is definitely excluded, which are the reasons for that?

If USA were to officially acknowledge the Genocide, it would result in a hardening of Turkey's position in the short run but eventually relations would relax. Besides recognizing that countries like the US and Israel have accepted that the genocide took place, Turkey would begin to see that insisting on a traditional policy of denial wasn't getting them anywhere. Recognizing that there weren't any other positions to insist on or defend in the international arena it might push Turkey to confront its issues head on with Armenia. I believe that the political aspects of this problem are going to be resolved between the Turkish and Armenian states.

Each country should immediately initiate mutual diplomatic relations, without pre-condition. The problem associated with how to acknowledge our past should be left to time and should be discussed and debated openly in a democratic manner. We need to see that the actual resolution of the problem is going to occur during the course of each society's open and healthy debate over it. In support of this process each side could establish different commissions also.

Thank you.


Harrison, New York said...

Though Akcam claims that "confronting history honestly, acknowledging wrongs is the abc of any democracy", this simple measure leaves out many so-called bastions of democracy such as UK, France, Italy and even USA. Then one wonders what kind of democracy he means.

Of course, totally missing from his arguments is the direct role and responsibility of the Armenian Revolutionaries in bringing about so much death and destruction on to their people, not to mention their country. These criminal gangs still rule Armenia, while we are celebrating the 85th anniversary of the Turkish Republic.

It does not look like Mr. Akcam takes his own advice about honesty.

Best wishes for all.
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