Breach Wall of Silence on Armenians
- Taner Akcam doesn't seem like either a hero or a traitor,
though he's been called both. A slight, soft-spoken man who
chooses his words with care, Mr. Akcam, a Turkish sociologist
and historian currently teaching at the University of Minnesota,
writes about events that happened nearly a century ago in an
empire that no longer exists: the mass killings of Armenians
in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. But in a world where
history and identity are closely intertwined, where the past
infects today's politics, his work, along with that of like-minded
Turkish scholars, is breaking new ground.
Mr. Akcam, 50, is one of a handful of scholars who are challenging
their homeland's insistent declarations that the organized slaughter
of Armenians did not occur; and he is the first Turkish specialist
to use the word "genocide" publicly in this context.
That is a radical step when one considers that Turkey has threatened
to sever relations with countries over this single word. In
2000, for example, Ankara derailed an American congressional
resolution calling the 1915 killings "genocide" by
threatening to cut access to military bases in the country."We
accept that tragic events occurred at the time involving all
the subjects of the Ottoman Empire," said Tuluy Tanc, minister
counselor at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, "but it
is the firm Turkish belief that there was no genocide but self-defense
of the Ottoman Empire."
Scholars like Mr. Akcam call this a misrepresentation that must
be confronted. "We have to deal with history, like the
Germans after the war," said Fikret Adanir, a Turkish historian
who has lived in Germany for many years. "It's important
for the health of the democracy, for civil society."
Most scholars outside Turkey agree that the killings are among
the first 20th-century instances of "genocide," defined
under the 1948 Genocide Convention as acts "committed with
intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical,
racial or religious group."
During World War I the government of the disintegrating Ottoman
Empire, fearing Armenian nationalist activity, organized mass
deportations of Armenians from its eastern territories.
In what some consider the model for the Holocaust, men, women
and children were sent into the desert to starve, herded into
barns and churches that were set afire, tortured to death or
drowned. The numbers who died are disputed: the Armenians give
a figure of 1.5 million, the Turks several hundred thousand.
In the official Turkish story the Armenians were casualties
of civil conflict they instigated by allying themselves with
Russian forces working to break up the Ottoman Empire. In any
case atrocities were documented in contemporary press reports,
survivor testimony and dispatches by European diplomats, missionaries
and military officers. Abortive trials of Ottoman leaders after
World War I left an extensive record and some confessions of
A legal analysis commissioned last year by the International
Center for Transitional Justice in New York concluded that sufficient
evidence existed to team the killings a "genocide"
under international law.
Yet unlike Germany in the decades since the Holocaust, Turkey
has consistently denied that the killings were intended or that
the government at the time had any moral or legal responsibility.
In the years since its founding in 1923 the Turkish Republic
has drawn what the Turkish historian Halil Berktay calls a "curtain
of silence" around this history at home and used its influence
as a cold war ally to pressure foreign governments to suppress
Mr. Akcam is among the most outspoken of the Turkish scholars
who have defied this silence. A student leader of the leftist
opposition to Turkey's repressive government in the 1970's,
Mr. Akcam spent a year in prison for "spreading communist
propaganda" before escaping to Germany. There, influenced
in part by Germany's continuing struggle to understand its history,
he began to confront his own country's past. While researching
the post-World War I trials of Turkish leaders, he began working
with Vahakn Dadrian, a pre-eminent Armenian historian of the
killings. Their unlikely friendship became the subject of a
1997 Dutch film, "The Wall of Silence."
Turks fear to acknowledge the crimes of the past, Mr. Akcam
says, because admitting that the founders of modern Turkey,
revered today as heroes, were complicit in evil calls into question
the country's very legitimacy. "If you start questioning,
you have to question the foundations of the republic,"
he said, speaking intensely over glasses of Turkish tea in the
book-lined living room of his Minneapolis home, as his 12-year-old
daughter worked on her homework in the next room. In a study
nearby transcriptions of Turkish newspapers from the 1920's
were neatly piled.
He and others like him insist that coming to terms with the
past serves Turkey's best interests. Their view echoes the experience
of countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa that
have struggled with similar questions as they emerge from periods
of repressive rule or violent conflict. Reflecting a widespread
belief that nations can ensure a democratic future only through
acknowledging past wrongs, these countries have opened archives,
held trials and created truth commissions.
Mr. Akcam says some headway is being made, particularly since
the election of a moderate government in 2002 and continuing
Turkish efforts to join the European Union. After all, he says,
in the past dissent could mean imprisonment or even death. "With
the Armenian genocide issue, no one is going to kill you,"
he said. "The restrictions are in our minds."
Mr. Akcam is convinced the state's resistance to historical
dialogue is "not the position of the majority of people
in Turkey," he said. He cites a recent survey conducted
by scholars that appeared in a Turkish newspaper showing that
61 percent of Turks believe it is time for public discussion
of what the survey called the "accusations of genocide."
Ronald Grigor Suny, an Armenian-American professor of political
science at the University of Chicago, was invited to lecture
at a Turkish university in 1998. "My mother said, `Don't
go, you can't trust these people,' " he remembered. "I
was worried there might be danger." Instead, to his surprise,
though he openly called the killings of Armenians "genocide,"
he encountered more curiosity than hostility.
Still, Mr. Akcam's views and those of like-minded scholars remain
anathema to the nationalist forces that still exercise influence
in Turkey. Threats by a nationalist organization recently prevented
the showing there of "Ararat," by the Canadian-Armenian
filmmaker Atom Egoyan, a movie that examines ways in which the
Armenian diaspora deals with its history.
Mr. Akcam's own attempt to resettle in Turkey in the 1990's
failed when several universities, fearing government harassment,
refused to hire him. And when Mr. Berktay disputed the official
version of the Armenian killings in a 2000 interview with a
mainstream Turkish newspaper, he became the target of a hate-mail
campaign. Even so, he says, the mail was far outweighed by supportive
messages from Turks at home and abroad. "They congratulated
me for daring to speak up," he recalled.
Scholarly discussion can also turn into a minefield among the
large numbers of Armenians in the United States and Europe.
Attempts to discuss the killings in a wider context raise suspicions.
"Many people in the diaspora feel that if you try to understand
why the Turks did it," Mr. Suny explained, "you have
justified or legitimized it in some way."
Like their Turkish colleagues, a younger generation of Armenian
academics in the United States and elsewhere has grown frustrated
with the intellectual impasse. In 2000 Mr. Suny and Fatma Muge
Gocek, a Turkish-born sociology professor at the University
of Michigan, organized a conference that they hoped would move
scholarship beyond what Mr. Suny called "the sterile debates
on whether there was a genocide or not." Despite some disagreements
between Turkish and Armenian participants, the group they brough
together has continued to meet and grow.
Mr. Akcam had been building bridges even before that meeting.
At a genocide conference in Armenia in 1995, he met Greg Sarkissian,
the founder of the Zoryan Institute in Toronto, a research center
devoted to Armenian history. In what both describe as an emotional
encounter, the two lighted candles together in an Armenian church
for Mr.Sarkissian's murdered relatives and for Haji Halil, a
Turkish man who rescued Mr. Sarkissian's grandmother and her
Mr. Akcam and Mr. Sarkissian say Halil, the "righteous
Turk," symbolizes the possibility of a more constructive
relationship between the two peoples. But like most Armenians,
Mr. Sarkissian says Turkey must acknowledge historical responsibility
before reconciliation is possible. "If they do," he
said, "it will start the healing process, and then Armenians
won't talk about genocide anymore. We will talk about Haji Halil."