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Review of Taner Akçam’s New Book:
A Short History of the Armenian Genocide

by Abdulmesih BarAbraham MSc. 1 ― activist, writer, historian. | bio | writings

Posted: Saturday, May 22, 2021 at 06:33 AM UT


Ermeni Soykırımı'nın Kısa Bir Tarihi Taner Akçam

Ermeni Soykırımı'nın Kısa Bir Tarihi
Taner Akçam

In time for the 106th anniversary of the genocide perpetrated by the late Ottoman Empire during World War I (WWI), a new book by Professor Taner Akçam appeared in Turkish by Aras Publishing in Turkey and titled “Ermeni Soykırımı’nın Kısa Bir Tarihi” (A Short History of the Armenian Genocide).

Taner Akçam, professor of history at Clark University in Worchester, MA, since 2008, has been doing research on the Armenian Genocide for thirty years. He received his PhD in 1995 from the University of Hannover in Germany, on the topic of the genocide. As historian and sociologist, Akçam has lectured and published extensively; numerous of his books and articles appeared in English, French, German and Turkish.

At the back cover of the book, Akçam reveals his intention with this book in a very humble way, saying that he “would like to share a few general observations about the genocide with the reader.” However, despite the short subsections, readers find quickly out that this is an understatement. The book is packed with references to archival documents, statements of decision-makers and protagonists, which underline that the genocide was a centrally instructed and systematically implemented annihilation project.

Akçam documents, that despite the chaotic, unplanned and unsystematic appearance of events, there was a very solid skeleton, a main ruling structure that determined the course of events. The direction of developments was mainly determined by this solid skeleton dominated by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

Structure of the Book

The book is structured into three main chapters. Chapter one is titled “genocide as a process from 1878-1923, not an event.” Chapter two provides a general and short overview into the “Armenian Genocide of 1915-1918 as an event,” while chapter three briefly outlines “different aspects of the genocide”; one subsection deals with the Armenian-Assyrian Genocide and the Kurds (pp.117-131). The book also provides an extensive bibliography, including primary sources (pp.165-176) with references to documents from Turkish, German, US, British, and Austrian archives. A recommended list of Turkish literature is also provided for further readings (pp. 177-187).

Akçam dedicates his book to Hrant Dink with a note addressing his friend, murdered in Istanbul on January 19, 2007:

Dear Hrant,
You would stay away from discussions whether 1915 was a genocide or not. Smiling, you would say, “I know what happened to my nation, you can call it whatever you want. A people lived in these lands, now they don’t exist, they have been removed from their roots, like uprooting a tree. I cannot squeeze the eradication of a nation’s life, the destruction of life into words, you’ve to understand this first. I don’t think any term you find will be enough to describe this human drama.”

Akçam’s book received a wide coverage in the Turkish and Kurdish media in Turkey. Its publication correlated with the question of whether the new US President Joe Biden would keep his pre-election promises and use the G-word on the occasion of April 24th. Breaking with the tradition of his predecessors, Biden finally declared the mass killings of Armenians during WWI a Genocide. 2

On the first 20 pages Akçam deals with the historical background of the genocide. He introduces a new thesis in interpreting the genocide of 1915. This is outlined in chapter one placing the events of 1915, as related to the Armenians, as part of a long process that started with the Berlin Congress in 1978 and ended 1923 with the signing of the Lausanne Treaty. He considers the killing of Armenians not as an event by itself, but within the scope of the extermination of the Christians living in Anatolia. He argues that the key concept which stood in the center during the massacres of 1894-1996, 1909 and 1915-1918 was the “Armenian reform issue”.

A Christian Genocide

A second perspective the author proposes to look at the events is to consider the Ottoman ruling policy applied to all Christians in the Empire. Because, “what is done with the Armenians can be better understood if this is taken as part of the policies applicable to the general Christian population within the Empire. In this context, it is not wrong to define the period between 1878 and 1923 as the process of the Christian Genocide,” states Akçam. 3

With such an interpretation, the author is in-line with other genocide scholars like Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi who outlined their thesis in a recent book titled “The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924,” and published it in 2019. Akçam points in this context to the Assyrian (Turk.: Süryani) massacres in the periods of 1894-1897 and 1915-1918, the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, the ethnic cleansings of the Anatolian Greeks in the following years, the 1921-1922 genocide against the Pontus Greeks, the 1922 massacres and burning of Izmir, and the 1924 Turkish-Greek population exchange, which are among the most well-known events of this development. In fact, and just in order to complete the picture, with regards to Assyrians along these process: Assyrians too suffered during the 1909 Adana massacres 4; in addition, returnees to Hakkari, survivors of the genocide of 1915-1918, were forcibly expelled by the Turkish Army from their homeland in 1924/1925. 5

Therefore and logically Akçam refers to these events in their entirety ‘Christian Genocide’. In addition he is pointing to the fact that prior WWI, and according to the official census of 1914, the Christians made up 25-30 percent of Anatolia’s population; they were reduced to a neglectable level by exile and extermination between 1878 and 1923. The opportunities created by WWI helped the CUP to implement the violent demographic policies for homogenization. The destruction of the few remaining people in different ways was finished during the Republic era. Akçam identifies two main pillars of this homogenization which he explains further as cultural Turkism and the Sunni interpretation of Islam. In fact, homogenization aimed at non-Turkish Muslims as well, while the elimination of Christians was mainly achieved by forced exile and annihilation.

Besides the general emergence of search for nation-state in late 19th century, Akçam sees the Muslim-Turkish intolerance, which determined the social and cultural atmosphere, as one key reason for the genocide. This had its roots in the Ottoman Millet system, which relegated the Christians to second-class citizens. Besides legal inequalities, Christians were also subjected to a range of humiliating practices in social life. “As long as the Christians accepted this second class status, there were no problems. Questioning this status was to disrupt the deal made with the Islam community,” argues Akçam. The emergence of the “Armenian question” needs to be seen in this context and can be found in paragraph 61 of the Berlin Treaty of 1878. “The decision for the genocide of 1915 is essentially the response of the Ottoman state and its Muslim majority to the reform demands of Christians,” concludes Akçam.

Armenian Genocide as an event

Chapter two of the book deals chronologically with the Armenian Genocide as an event between 1915 and 1918. The development starts with the Balkan wars and the emergence of ideas of homogenization of Anatolia followed by the establishment of the Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa. After the lost Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and the loss of the western territories, the CUP leaders started obviously to consider the Christians in Anatolia (Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians) as a danger. They held secret consultations in Istanbul discussing how to get rid of Christians. Akçam thinks that a program called the “Anatolian Homogenization Plan” was prepared towards the end of 1913, and that during these meetings the formation of the special organization Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa was decided, which initially was deployed in the the Ägäis region.

Further subsections in this chapter treat the mobilization and the annihilation decisions in context of the secret war alliance with Germany, which was signed on August 2, 1914. Akçam refers to documents, among them telegraphs of several governors of the Eastern Vilayets, which reveal that measures to exile and kill the Armenians were decided already in February/March 1915 timeframe. With the implementation of the expulsion and extermination on April 24th, 1915 the catastrophe took its known course.

One aspect of the Armenian genocide that has been ignored so far is the fate that befell the people displaced and/or driven under terrible circumstances to Syria and Mosul, at that time part of two Ottoman Vilayets Mosul and Aleppo. Akçam titled this subsection “The second page of the genocide,” in reference to Raymond Kevorkian, though substantiating his remarks with further evidences from archival documents. There were evidently orders that the number of displaced Armenians / Christians arriving in these Vilayets should not have exceeded ten percent of the Muslim population which accounted for 1.8 million back then. However, Mid-September of 1915 more than 800,000 displaced Armenians arrived there. Akçam elaborates on how Ottoman authorities communicate new decisions to “reduce” that number, resulting in further annihilation.

In Chapter three the author treats different, though highly interesting aspects of the genocide, which – like the topics of the subsection in the previous chapters – could fill entire books by themselves; the numerous references given by the author prove this. Among the topics treated are the policy of demographic engineering, forced assimilation, and looting of Armenian properties. Also other important post-genocide themes like role and Kurdish responsibility, the trials of 1919-1921, genocide denial, recognition, and research are discussed.

Assyrians related orders and the role of the Kurds

From an Assyrian point of view it is interesting what Akçam writes in the sub-section of chapter three titled “Assyrian-Armenian Genocide and the Kurds.” 6 Of course, Akçam, despite dedicating fifteen pages to this subtopic, he does not claim to fully address the genocide of the Assyrians and the extensive role of Kurds in the massacres conducted in the eastern territories, a topic not yet sufficiently researched, as he says. He critically evaluates and contributes valuable aspects to the topic based on two dozen documents from the Ottoman archives.

Assyrians, as a multi-denominational Christian people belonging to different Churches lived along with Armenians in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire with dense populated centers in Diyarbakir province, Mardin, Tur Abdin, Hakkari, and Mosul. Until the end of the 19th century they did not gain a separate status as an Ottoman Millet and were considered as part of the Armenian Millet. In some cases, as in Diyarbakir and Kharput and their rural areas, they even spoke Armenian, which is why they were hardly distinguished from the Armenians. According to Akçam, “there are no documents showing a central decision that Assyrians should be exterminated, and the likelihood that such a decision has been taken is very low.” On the contrary, he points to few orders sent to the region’s administrators densely inhabited by the Assyrians, “that they should be exempted from expulsion.” Despite these and similar orders from the center, the government was aware that the Assyrians were exiled and killed along with the Armenians.

The subject is directly related to the role of local Ottoman administrators, mostly members of the PUC, and local powers, while for the latter Akçam points especially to the Kurdish tribes. Giving examples, such as from Diyarbakır, underline that the Governor Dr. Reşit Bey, along with some local administrators, did not hesitate to implement annihilation policies against the Assyrians despite the opposing orders from the center.

However, the author should have pointed in this context to the deportation order by the Interior Minister Talat Pasha from October 1914 punishing the Eastern Assyrians (Nestorians) for their alleged “contacts with the enemy.” 7

With respect to the discussion about the role of the Kurds in the genocide, Akçam states that this has to go beyond the simple arguments put often forward that Kurds were “used” by the government. He stresses, that the Kurds, even lacking an own central political authority and being majorly organized in a tribal structure, they were active actors who on their own decided to participate in the genocide process.

Final remarks

This book provides certainly more than general observations about the genocide. It is evident that it comes not only from an expert of the subject, but also an intimate connoisseur of Turkish political and social history. Even in its short history format, the broad topics touched, the historical arc of more than 30 years outlined, substantiated by highly important references, makes the book a must read for mon-experts, students and scholars alike who are interested in late Ottoman history and genocide related issues. As the recommended readings list suggests, it has been targeted to Turkish language readers, however, it is worth to be translated into other languages as well.

It seems fitting to conclude these remarks with the note to Hrant Dink mentioned at the beginning of this article. Using the word genocide once as editor of the Armenian Agos newspaper, Dink was convicted by courts in Urfa and Istanbul in 2006 for what Turkish authorities regarded “insulting” Turkey. The murder of the Hrant in 2007 triggered a wave of massive protests. Akçam closes his personal note with saying “let this book be part of the defense you wanted to do, Hrant. And no one should be killed for saying “genocide” [in Turkey] again.”


[1] Abdulmesih BarAbraham has a Master of Science degree in Engineering from the University of Erlangen/Nürnberg. As an independent researcher he has published various scholarly articles on Assyrians. Among others, he is author of “Turkey’s Key Arguments in Denying the Assyrian Genocide,” in David Gaunt et. al. (Eds.), Let Them Not Return (New York: Berghahn Books, 2017), and “Safeguarding the Cross: Emergence of Christian Militias in Iraq and Syria,” in Andreas Schmoller (Ed.), Middle Eastern Christians and Europe – Historical Legacies and Present Challenges (Zürich: LIT Verlag, 2018). Abdulmesih is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of both, the Yoken-bar-Yoken Foundation and Mor Afrem Foundation, Germany. He is also founding member and secretary of the Syriac Theological Seminary in Salzburg.

[2] NYT, “Biden Declares Mass Killings of Armenians a Genocide”, April 24, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/24/us/politics/armenia-genocide-joe-biden.html (retrieved on May 15, 2021)

[3] pp. 27-30

[4] See Hagop H. Terzian, Cilicia 1909, The Massacre of Armenians, trans. by Ara Stepan Melkonian, edited by Ara Sarafian, (London: Gomidas Institute, 2009), p. viii

[5] Racho Donef, The Hakkari Massacres: Ethnic Cleansing by Turkey 1924-25, (Stockholm: Bet-Froso Nsibin, 2009)

[6] pp. 117-130

[7] BOA.DH.ŞFR.46/78 (October 26, 1914), Ministry of Interior to Province of Van, translation in David Gaunt, Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I, (Piscataway, NJ, USA: Gorgias Press, 2006), p. 447




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