Book Review: A Shameful Act (2006) by Taner Akcam, Part 1

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on June 1, 20151

A Question of Genocide

The controversy over the 1915-17 massacres of Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Empire is whether these acts constitute genocide. Those who say they don’t are not the equivalent of Holocaust-deniers in that while some minimize the figures of the slain, they do not deny that the massacres happened; what they deny is that the massacres reach the legal definition of genocide. Their case is based on three interlinked arguments:

  • Unlike the Nazi Holocaust when a defenceless population was murdered only for its identity, the Armenians were engaged in a massive armed revolt, and this is why the Ottoman government decided to deport them.
  • The intent of the Ottomans was not massacre but the removal of the Armenians, who had sided with one foreign invading power (Russia) and who were showing signs of collaborating with another (Britain), from the militarily sensitive areas as Turkey suffered a two-front invasion in early 1915.
  • While terrible massacres, plus starvation and the cold, took maybe a million lives during the deportations, when the Armenians reached their destinations in Syria and Iraq, which were also part of the Ottoman Empire, they were well-treated and allowed to rebuild their lives, which would not have been the case had the Ottomans intended their destruction.

Taner Akcam’s A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility presents evidence to undermine every one of these arguments.

The Armenian genocide is marked on April 24, the day in 1915 several Armenian notables in Istanbul were arrested. This date fits rather well with the Turkish narrative.

Limited deportations of Armenians began in Cilicia in February 1915, becoming systematic by April. As Akcam demonstrates this was because of a well-founded fear of British spies among the Armenians helping a British landing at Iskenderun (Alexandretta). The British had called in advance for an Armenians revolt, and:

[The British] planned not only on close cooperation with local Armenians but also with Armenians abroad. An Armenian delegation offered the British a volunteer force of twenty thousand people.

Half of those troops were already in place in America, half were in the Balkans, and the British were going to use Cyprus as a training ground and staging-post. While this British plan was ultimately abandoned, an Armenian rebellion erupted in Van on April 19 and held the city for a month, before handing it over to the Russian invaders. Concurrently, the Allied Gallipoli campaign began on April 25: a direct invasion of Turkey intended to knock her out of the war and allow a supply-line from the West to Russia, in order that Imperial Germany could be stretched in the East.


The August 1914 conference of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, a.k.a. Dashnaks), held in Erzurum, will often be pointed to by those who emphasize the deportations as a military exigency. The Ottoman government—held by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, a.k.a. “Unionists”), a faction of the Young Turks—sent a delegation to this meeting. The CUP offered the Dashnaks autonomy if they would foment a rebellion in Russia; the Dashnaks refused. In the Turkish version, the Dashnaks then decided on a secret internal revolt (in the Armenian version the Dashnaks wanted no part of covert intrigue and sought instead only to do their duty as Ottoman citizens.) There is no doubt that Armenian volunteer units had already been raised by, and were fighting alongside, Russian forces in eastern Anatolia in late 1914, and they committed terrible crimes against Muslim civilians.

This timeline, however, misses several key events which show that the deportations were not a reactive policy but a key strategic intention of the Ottomans in entering the Great War—and Istanbul did deliberately enter the war, despite much myth-making to this day that Turkey was forced into it. The CUP sought the restoration of Ottoman glory, a key component of which was the removal of the Christians from Anatolia, and thought this could be had by war.

The CUP sought pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic advantages from the war, as well as a reversal of the territorial losses after the Balkan Wars that pushed the Empire’s boundaries dangerously close to Istanbul. At a meeting on August 2, 1914, the CUP reformed the Special Organization (Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa, precursor of the MIT) to create units that would contribute to “Islamic unity and Turkish nationalism” by provoking unrest among Muslim populations in the Russian Caucasus, Iran, Egypt, and British India.

In early September 1914, the Special Organization units infiltrated Russia, trying to incite a Muslim revolt, and by October 1914 this had become a full-scale war in the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia. The Ottomans declared a jihad on November 11, 1914, entering the war on the side of the Central Powers. Kaiser Wilhelm might have wanted to ignite a “savage revolt” among Muslims in the British Empire and especially in Russia, and the CUP had inclinations of this kind, but their key aims were more local.

The CUP wanted to reverse the Capitulations and above all to free the Ottoman Empire of the internationally-imposed obligation to reform the six Armenian-dominated eastern provinces, which the CUP saw as a covert way of partitioning Anatolia, the avoidance of which became the CUP’s raison d’être.

The cancellation of the Treaty of Yenikoy, signed on February 8, 1914, under Russian pressure, which called for administrative reforms, namely autonomy, for the Ottoman Christians, and called for an international intervention if the reforms were not implemented, was one of the first acts after the Ottoman declaration of war. With the Armenian reform agreement dead, the legal basis for international interference in the Ottoman realm went with it.

Armenian-majority areas (dark pink) and areas with a substantial Armenian population (light pink), 1914

Armenian-majority areas (dark pink) and areas with a substantial Armenian population (light pink), 1914

Later Istanbul would also cancel the 1878 Berlin Treaty—the other instrument that dealt with the Armenian Question—and also withdrew from the 1856 Paris Treaty, which ended the Crimean War and inducted the Ottoman Empire into the “family of Europe,” the realm where international law applied, and the London Declaration of 1871. The cancellation of these three treaties freed the Ottomans from all international legal restraints on their behaviour and all legal right for other States to intervene in their internal affairs.

The CUP—and many other Muslims—never forgave the Armenians for seeking international protection when the Empire was weak. The Armenians tried to get formal Russian protection at the 1878 Berlin Congress, which sparked Turkish fears that Russia would use this as a pretext to steal the Armenian-majority areas—and this was not helped by the fact that some Armenians did want the Russians change the borders. The Armenian desires were the result of dire treatment by the Ottomans. The legendary “tolerance” of the Ottoman Empire had given way; by the seventeenth century those “voting with their feet” started to come West. In the nineteenth century, alongside efforts to annex European methods to rescue a dying Imperium, came a stern return to theocratic governance, which harmed the minorities. The 1894-96 atrocities against Ottoman Christians (the Hamidian massacres) in response to a small revolt was a harbinger of what was to come, having taken place at a time when the Porte wanted Europe’s sympathy.

What quickly became clear was that not only would the First World War not reverse the Ottomans’ long decline, but that it would likely finish-off the Empire. The catastrophe at Sarikamish in January 1915, where the Turks suffered up to 90,000 casualties, many from the cold, was the turning point. Now the CUP was thinking about the post-war situation, specifically establishing as a fait accompli an ethnically and territorially coherent Turkish polity.

Since at least 1911, when Italy seized Ottoman Libya, the Ottomans had been preparing for national resistance should they be occupied. This plan was formalized at the most senior levels in early 1913 after the defeat in the Balkans. In late August 1914, the Special Organization undertook a separate program from the expeditionary units sent to Russia to form civilian militias—armed gangs—from Kurdish tribes, jailed convicts, and recent emigrants from the Caucasus and Rumelia. These militias, organized under the Third Army which took direct orders from the Special Organization, were taken to Istanbul for training. By November 1914, the scale of the prisoner-release and the training program was evident to foreign consuls.

The documents showing a cross-over between this “resistance” track and the deportation program are missing, but these militias would be heavily involved in the deportations of the Armenians and the attendant theft and massacres. Part of the militias’ preparation for resistance against the Entente was to deal with “the individuals inside the country to be eliminated,” and the enemy within was overwhelmingly Armenian, by the CUP’s reckoning. Still, it is important to stress that the militias were not formed as an Einsatzgruppen; their initial purpose, and even their actions, are not comparable to the Nazis’ specialized anti-Jewish killing units.

What is also notable is that the CUP’s ostensible offer to the Dashnaks in August 1914 was a ruse. The CUP attended the Dashnak congress as a pretext to raise irregular militias in the area, and there is clear evidence of an attempt to liquidate the ARF leaders, who managed to escape the gangs waiting for them on the roads.

The militias had some success against Russia in late 1914, but before the year was out they had already perpetrated numerous massacres against Armenians. When the tide turned in the Russians’ favour, then the Armenians responded in kind. The psychological effect of this, however, and of the relatively small number of Armenians who joined the Russians—4,000 according to Akcam—was profound.

It should be noted that the CUP acted largely outside official government channels: its leaders—the “Three Pashas,” Enver Pasha (de facto war Executive), Talaat Pasha (civilian leader of the CUP), and Djemal Pasha (the on-the-ground administrator/military leader in the east)—came to power by coup d’état in January 1913, and in early February 1915, the Special Organization and its irregular units were taken out of the military chain of command and given to Behaeddin Shakir, a senior Unionist, putting the militias under party, not government, control.

The plan for deportations was never discussed in Cabinet, and the number of senior Ministers who collaborated with the CUP was small. In combination with the mass-destruction of evidence, the conveying of instructions orally, and obfuscatory methods of telegram use, such as sending a telegram and then sending a second one ordering that the first be ignored and the second be destroyed, it has made piecing together what actually happened within the power-wielding circles of the Turkish government during World War One very difficult.

Akcam argues (persuasively) that the main Armenian uprisings—Sebinkarahisar in July 1915, Urfa in October 1915, even Van, the main justification for the CUP’s actions—were a response to the Ottomans having begun to massacre the Armenians, rather than a cause of the deportations.

Not only did the militias begin massacres in late 1914, but by March 1915 a Germany missionary, Jakob Kunzler, reported that disarmed Armenian conscripts had been murdered with knives, saving the bullets for the foreign enemies, and the American ambassador Henry Morgenthau reported that Armenian labour battalions—where many Armenian conscripts were sent since they were not trusted in the army—were being murdered in Babi Yar-style massacres, shot in groups into open pits and their clothes stolen. There had been many anti-Armenian massacres around Van in this period, and a particularly terrible one on April 2, 1915.

Stanley E. Kerr, an American missionary, says 55,000 Armenians had been killed before the Van uprising, and the military attaché at Austrian Embassy described the uprising as “a desperate effort by Armenians, who witnessed the beginning of the murders and understood that their turn would come.” On the basis of the evidence presented, this is in fact the case.

It might still be said that these are excesses in a campaign whose intent is closer to ethnic cleansing combined with negligent homicide—crimes against humanity, rather than genocide. Even the clear official indifference to massacre—which contradicts a major apologists’ argument that the Turkish authorities intervened to protect Armenians being deported—would not prove genocide. But the evidence of a decision to murder, not just expel, the Armenians is, in my judgment, convincing.

Akcam argues that in late March 1915 the CUP took the decision to exterminate the Armenians, and then carried out this policy under the cover of the deportation order passed by Parliament in late May. There is no surviving documentation to provide a “smoking gun,” a la the Wannsee Conference, and Akcam explains why:

First, an official deportation order was sent to provincial regions by the Interior Ministry. … There were then separate, unofficial orders for the annihilation of the deportees, issued by the CUP Central Committee and conveyed to the provinces through party channels.

When the local governors received deportation orders from the Interior Ministry they would forward them to the security forces in their area … At the same time, the CUP would send liquidation orders to local governors. The messenger, usually a party secretary but on occasion Bahaettin Şakir himself, would travel from province to province transmitting a written document or conveying the order verbally. In cases where local governors resisted, they were removed from office [and sometimes murdered].

Following receipt of the deportation order, the gendarmerie would summon the Armenians to a central point and then accompany them on their route. When the convoy reached the provincial borders, the gendarmerie was supposed to deliver the deportees to the gendarmerie of the next province, however this was often the point where the Special Organization took over—set in motion by the secret liquidation order—and deportation became elimination. …

In some regions there were strict orders to prohibit military involvement. … However, in some regions massacres were carried out directly by the military.

Often by the time the Armenians were summoned into a town square, all the men had been killed. The military-age Armenian men were in the labour battalions—leaving the towns and villages near-defenceless—and were murdered at will. The remaining elderly men were carried off the night before the deportation and murdered outside the town.

Sometimes Armenians were allowed to carry property with them and would be given some food on the deportation marches; sometimes not. Armenian property was looted and many starved to death on roadsides in either case.

“The very persistence of the pattern indicates central planning,” as Akcam notes.

The fate of Armenian property was supposed to be governed by law: ostensibly the Armenians could take their property with them, and what remained belonged to the State. That isn’t what happened. Most Armenians were made to leave their belongings, and there was wholesale pillaging: this gave the deportations—and by extension the Unionists—a degree of popularity among the Muslim population. This looting was so public it made it into foreign Embassy reports.

Where Armenian property was not outright stolen, the Armenians were made to register their property at the local registrar’s office, after which they were obliged to sell it. The Armenians were then made to sign documents saying this had been done voluntary and that they received compensation. In reality, Armenians were able to grab some money from a sack for their property, almost always well under its actual value, and in all cases irrelevant since a functionary waiting at the exit then took this money and returned it to the sack to “purchase” from the next batch of Armenian property.

This highly-organized, State-directed program of expropriation created a new class of Muslim “notables,” and the nouveau riche would in time form the socio-political base of the Nationalist Movement, which rejected reparations for the Armenian massacres. The theft ended the much-resented predominance of the minorities among the merchants, and the looting dovetailed with the CUP’s homogenization program, plus it also allowed entry into various markets for their German allies.

During the deportations and massacres, Armenian families were torn apart, with the men and many adult women sent east, but some women remained essentially as slaves to Muslim families, and the children were taken away, converted to Islam (the boys being forcibly circumcised), and either sent to orphanages or to Muslim families. Young girls sent to Muslim families were pressed into marriages with Muslims. This was no spasm of populist mayhem: it was a deliberate policy.

A telegram sent by Talaat Pasha himself, on December 30, 1915, to the governor’s office in Niğde, was quite explicit: “on the condition that they be raised as Muslims, the children should be settled in Muslim villages where there are no Armenians or foreigners, or settled into orphanages. The young women and girls must be married off to Muslims.” A telegram sent by the Interior Ministry’s Directorate of Tribes and Immigrants (AMMU) to various provincial offices on April 30, 1916, urged that “young and widowed women should be married off, children up to the age of twelve should be settled into orphanages, and if an adequate space in the orphanage is not available, then they should be settled with Muslim families and raised with that community’s values and customs.”

This is especially significant because while the Genocide Convention famously defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” it specifies that “Forcibly transferring children of the [targeted] group to another group” is a means of committing genocide. In narrow legal terms, the systematic forced-transfer of Armenian children to Muslim families by the Ottoman government on its own qualifies as genocide.

Admiral John de Robeck, the British High Commissioner in Turkey

Admiral John de Robeck, the British High Commissioner in Turkey

There were great efforts by the British to restore Armenian property and persons after the war, but without much success: there was a lot of Ottoman resistance, popular and official, and, as the British High Commissioner put it, “a great number of the women have become attached to those persons with whom they have now lived for nearly four years; if they were to leave they do not even know … to whence they would be returning, or who of their relatives are still alive.” There were also botched efforts at repatriation, which accidentally removed Turkish children from their families, and these incidents were played up by Unionists both to incur further resistance to the campaign for reparations and to claim this as proof “there weren’t even two children being held.”

It has often been argued that Ottoman leaders tried to intervene to stop atrocities during the deportations, and that this constitutes evidence that the attempt was forcible transfer, not massacre. This is usually backed up with numerous wartime telegrams. Akcam shows that this argument is deeply flawed. It was often Talaat, usually under German or Austrian pressure, who sent cables to the provinces calling for humane treatment of deportees. It was also Talaat who sent the follow-up cable, or sometimes an envoy, cancelling the first order. Talaat had a telegraph line installed in his home so he could do business away from official records, and the “practice of cancelling orders with a secret, follow-up communication” was, in any case, “widespread among Ottoman administrators.” Nobody was in any doubt that “deportation” meant “massacre”.

Another argument against the genocide label is that when the Armenians reached the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire they were left alone, which shows that the deportations were to get them out of the militarily sensitive areas. This is untrue in several ways.

First, the deportations moved Armenians from areas in Anatolia were there was no fighting to the frontlines with the British in Mesopotamia. Second, the deportations were designed to serve a demographic project of “Turkifying” Anatolia, so that after the war an ethno-territorially contiguous Turkish State would be a fait accompli. And third, the Armenians were not treated humanely once they reached the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

Between May and August 1915, the Ottomans deported the Armenian population of eastern Anatolia, and cables came to Istanbul in September 1915 with reports to that effect. But the CUP then gave orders to move the Armenians out of Aleppo, where the survivors of the deportation marches were holed up in squalid concentration camps, into the Syrian and Mesopotamian deserts. The CUP’s also ordered that Armenian population density should not exceed ten percent in any location, in line with their ethnographic project. Given that the CUP had also ordered that there be no Armenians left in Anatolia, with some limited exceptions, once the Armenians have been packed into the desert areas, there is only way to comply with that order: mass-murder.

#Map of Armenian genocide 2

This explains why the massacres continued into 1916 and why Deir Ezzor was the centre. Where the Ottomans didn’t actively massacre the Armenians in the Arabian deserts, they denied humanitarian aid, especially from the Americans and the Germans, and just left the Armenians to die, without food, water, medicine, or shelter. Some of the strongest indications of genocide come from the lack of any preparation made by the CUP to facilitate the mass-movement and -resettlement of people, and indeed the September 1915 law dealing with Armenian property offers strong evidence that the lack of preparation for resettling the deportees was more than criminal negligence.

The new laws worked from the basis that Armenians would not be returning to their properties, which the State now owned, and Muslim settlers would replace the Armenians. The laws ostensibly provided for compensation to be paid to the Armenians, but there is no evidence anywhere in the records of compensation being paid to a single deportee, nor were Armenians given new land at their final destination. Had the plan been resettlement, there would be some evidence of this, and there isn’t.

An Armenian camp in Deir Ezzor. (Picture by Jesse B. Jackson, a U.S. Consul who brought aid to the Syrian camps saving thousands of Armenians.)

An Armenian camp in Deir Ezzor. (Picture by Jesse B. Jackson, a U.S. Consul who brought aid to the Syrian camps saving thousands of Armenians.)

A mass-grave of Armenians in Deir Ezzor, unearthed in the 1930s

A mass-grave of Armenians in Deir Ezzor, unearthed in the 1930s

After August 1915, with the eastern provinces clear of Armenians—the ones where there was a potential military danger—the Ottomans began the deportation of Armenians in western Anatolia and Thrace, applying the new laws, and what is in evidence is the CUP confiscating Armenian property, first to finance the deportations, second to finance other State operations, with, for example, some homes made into prisons and medical supplies distributed among Muslims—this is why there was zero tolerance for spontaneous looting—and third, using Armenian property to create a Muslim bourgeoisie, distributing homes and valuables to individuals and companies, which bound them to the post-war nationalist government with an interest in denial: this bourgeoisie did not want to admit how it had acquired its wealth, and it certainly didn’t want to give it back.

The massacres had stopped by the summer of 1917, though the destruction of Armenian property had not.

There is a significant argument over how many Armenians there were in pre-war Turkey—the Armenian Church says 2.1 million; the Turks say 1.3 million. What is known for sure is that 600,000 Armenians were alive after 1918—thus 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed, with 150,000-to-200,000 of them having survived the deportations. The number of Armenian women and children taken into servitude or converted within Muslim families is impossible to estimate


Part 2 will deal with the post-war trials

Part 3 will look at the implications of the Armenian genocide for the present day

3 thoughts on “Book Review: A Shameful Act (2006) by Taner Akcam, Part 1

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