Book Review: A Shameful Act (2006) by Taner Akcam, Part 2

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on June 4, 20151

The First Phase of the Trials

On October 30, 1918, the Ottoman Empire signed its final treaty of defeat. The Ottomans’ long decline began in 1683, and by the 1830s the Empire was referred to as the “sick man of Europe”. The armistice was a near-total surrender, allowing the occupation of any area the Allies deemed necessary for their security. Unfortunately, it was neither the end of the war nor the end of the massacres against the Armenians.

The Allies—Britain, France, and Russia—issued a declaration on May 24, 1915, saying:

In light of the crimes against humanity and civilisation committed by Turkey, the allied powers warn the Sublime Porte that members of the Ottoman government involved in the mass murder will be held personally responsible for these crimes.

Not coincidentally, within days of this an official deportation law was passed through the Ottoman Parliament and would thereafter be issued by the Interior Ministry as legal cover for the CUP’s actions. This was a first introduction of the concept of crimes against humanity, and of individual responsibility that extended to senior Generals and Heads of State. The Russians fell to the Communists and for reasons of realpolitik the French and Italians soon dropped their demands for punishing the Turkish war criminals, but the British were relentless.

For the British, the crimes of the Ottoman government against the Armenians were a central feature of their war policy. British intentions were present: before Sykes-Picot was published; before the war’s outcome was certain; and over President Woodrow Wilson’s objections. Wilson wanted to stop the fighting by any means, even exculpating the Turks. But the Allied War Medal referred to “The Great War For Civilization,” and the British really meant it.

The British felt a sense of guilt because they had orchestrated the Treaty of Berlin in July 1878, which annulled the provision of the March 1878 San Stefano Treaty that the Russians had forced on the Turks after Moscow’s victory in Bulgaria, which provided for Russian control of the Armenian areas of Anatolia until the reforms (autonomy) had been enacted. Those reforms never arrived but a series of massacres against the Armenians did, and the British felt responsible.

When the British arrived in Istanbul they were under strict instructions to coldly treat the Turkish leadership to ensure there were no illusions that lost land in Arabia would be recovered, nor that the war criminals would escape punishment. Thereafter, Britain acted “vigorously” and with popular backing at home to uphold “a principled position on the prosecution of the perpetrators [of the Armenian genocide], even when this attitude clashed with its colonial interests,” Akcam notes.

The immediate post-war Ottoman government of Ahmet Izzet Pasha had helped the senior war criminals escape, which infuriated both the Allies and the Ottoman populace, which disliked the CUP leadership for being corrupt and authoritarian, and for leading Turkey into this disaster. Ahmet Tevfik Pasha took over as Grand Vizier in early November 1918 but his government proved no more willing in practice to help try the war criminals.

The Turks knew that to achieve a better settlement at the Paris Peace Talks they had to appear to punish the war criminals, but in reality hardly anything was ever done. When lists of suspects were submitted to the Ottoman government, many were tipped off, either by Cabinet Ministers or by Unionist agents, of which there were still a great many in the bureaucracy. Tevfik Pasha did eventually arrest some of the senior suspects, but this was to keep them out of the hands of the British, hoping to pardon them later.

This changed in March 1919 when Damat Ferid Pasha became Grand Vizier. The leader of the opposition Concordat and Liberty Party against the CUP through the war and the Sultan’s brother-in-law, Ferid Pasha was the one senior Ottoman government official who was serious about prosecuting the Turkish genocidaires. The various military and civilian tribunals were now combined into the Extraordinary Courts-Martial, which was under military control to circumvent the Unionists and had its writ expanded to allow investigation of any individual who: pushed the country to war; organized massacres of Greeks, Armenians, or Muslims; and/or incited hatred between groups.

The first execution for war crimes was carried out on April 10, 1919: Mehmet Kemal Bey, a former district official in Bogazliyan, was hanged in Istanbul’s Beyazit Square. The reaction was ferocious. The funeral the next day turned into an anti-occupation demonstration with wreaths commemorating the “Great Martyr of the Turks” and “the innocent Muslim martyr”. The Sultan, who was displeased with this reaction, had a fatwa issued banning reprisals, but the British “rightly assessed that ‘not one Turk in a thousand can conceive that there might be a Turk who deserves to be hanged for the killing of Christians’,” which meant that despite the tricky legal status, the Ottoman war criminals would likely have to be moved out of Turkey.

Though the Turkish war criminals were held by the Ottomans, there were two tracks running: there was the international proposal to try the criminals before some as-yet-non-existent international tribunal, and there was the proposal to try the criminals within the bounds of military law as the national occupying power. The British lawyers had found in early April 1919 that they could not try the war criminals before their own military commissions—thus the attempt to get the Ottomans to try their own—and that the genocidaires would have to stand before an international court.

A total of sixty-three cases of war crimes went to trial by early 1919; the results of most are not known—and of those that are an overwhelming majority were acquitted or dismissed. The main trial, that of the CUP Central Committee members and the directors of the Special Organization, had begun on April 28, 1919, and went on for seven sessions, holding its final session on May 17.

The protests after the execution of Kemal Bey were a serious impediment to the trials, but what finally derailed them was the landing of the Greeks at Izmir on May 16, 1919, as a provision of the Paris Peace Talks.

The Greek Prime Minister had extended a formal claim to the city and district of Izmir, which contained an important Greek minority. “The Turkish people, beaten and dispirited, seemed ready to accept almost anything that the victors chose to impose on them,” Bernard Lewis wrote. “Almost, but not quite … [T]he thrust of a neighbouring and former subject people into the heart of Turkish Anatolia was a danger—and a humiliation—beyond endurance.” The attempt for a Greater Greece comprising both sides of the Aegean had too much of the echo of Byzantium about it, and the reaction in Turkey was explosive.

In the face of massive protests against the Greek occupation and amid rumours of a Bastille-like breakout of Bekir Aga (the main prison the war criminals were held in), the Ottomans had released forty suspects to try to assuage the mob. Seeing this—and in conformance with a secret Ottoman request—on May 28 the British took sixty-seven prisoners from Bekir Aga to Moudros and Malta.

On May 19, 1919, Mustafa Kemal was sent by the government to Ankara as Inspector General to disarm and demobilize the remaining Ottoman military. Instead, Kemal took charge of the National Movement and began a major organized resistance campaign.

The Nationalist Movement

It is important to note that the Nationalist Movement was not strictly anti-imperialist—at one point it formally requested that America make Turkey a Mandate, as long as America kept the country whole. The National Movement’s core aim was to avoid the partition of Anatolia—exactly the aim for which the CUP had committed the genocide—and the Greek occupation was seen as giving encouragement to the Christians to pursue their autonomy ambitions. That the Nationalists should share the CUP’s aims was no accident: the Nationalist Movement is essentially the successor to the CUP.

The Nationalist Movement knew the political cost of being associated with the CUP—inside Turkey and especially internationally—so always distanced itself from the Unionists, but in both membership and outlook the connection was direct.

Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) had an ideological difference with Enver and Talaat Pasha. Where the Pashas wanted to preserve the multinational Empire and expand eastward on the precepts of both pan-Turanism and pan-Islamism, Kemal wanted only to keep the ethnically Turkish-dominated areas of Anatolia, having no interest in incorporating either foreign Turks or non-Turkish Muslims. This was an intra-Unionist squabble, however, and the main differences between Kemal and the Pashas were tactical.

Kemal thought the advocacy pan-Turkism/Islamism put the Turks at a disadvantage internationally, which has left an ambiguity over whether Kemal opposed pan-Turanism/Islamism in principle or in practice. (It is notable, for instance, that though the Istanbul government would incite pro-Caliphate revolts in Nationalist-held areas, the Nationalist project was “fundamentally defined by religion, despite all claims to the contrary.” Kemal would sever this alliance of exigency with the faithful after independence.)

Kemal had been unhappy with way Enver ran the war, particularly Enver’s closeness to the German General Staff, and thus in the aftermath Kemal was displeased that, organizationally, the tools available for a resistance campaign were entirely the work of the CUP, and these were respondent to Enver’s orders. It was the Special Organization, under instruction from the CUP Central Committee, that stockpiled the weapons at secret depots through Anatolia, for example, and the Karakol organization, one of the most effective institutions of the resistance, was also under Enver’s control, even after he went into exile.

Karakol was set up in late 1918, either just before or just after the October armistice on the direct order of Talaat Pasha to provide a secret link for “those who will keep to the Unionist way,” with the primary task of securing escape routes for the war criminals.

Karakol was instrumental in setting up the Defence of Rights Associations, the local resistance committees that were built on firmly Unionist foundations, many old military and party members but also the nouveau riche who had profited from the CUP’s genocide. (These local committees would later form the Republican People’s Party.) Karakol also organized the creation of the National Forces, the insurgent brigades of the Nationalist Movement, which were made up not only of ex-CUP and Special Organization members on the run from the British but bandits, military deserters, released convicts, and adventurers looking for plunder.

Karakol was a “symbolic connection,” Akcam says, between the Armenian genocide and the National Movement. Karakol was led by senior Unionists; according to their memoirs, it was Karakol that persuaded Mustafa Kemal to take the leadership of the National Movement, and it was even Karakol that communicated with the War Ministry—with which it had close connections, as it did the Istanbul government in general through the Unionist leftovers in the bureaucracy—to have Kemal appointed Inspector General, which allowed Kemal to leave occupied Istanbul without arousing suspicion.

Kemal remained distrustful of Karakol because its leaders, as those of the renamed Special Organization (“the Worldwide Islamic Revolt”), continued to take orders from Enver. It was only after Kemal secured a switch of allegiance to himself from these institutions—and extracted commitments, including funding—that he agreed to abandon the quietism he had pursued between November 1918 and May 1919 in Istanbul and lead the Nationalists in Ankara.

Kemal disapproved of the deportations/massacres—he called it “a shameful act”—but his associations also made him unwilling to prosecute, not least when prosecutions seemed to be at the behest of foreign powers and for no political gain for the Turks—i.e. Kemal opposed justice for its own sake—and in time this position would harden.

The Nationalists would come to argue that the whole issue of punishing war crimes was an imperialist scheme to partition Anatolia. Even Ferid Pasha said that the genocide was the work of “a couple of thugs,” and partition was unacceptable because it would punish “the innocent Turkish nation” as a whole. When the Allies were seen to be blurring the lines between the punishing the perpetrators of the genocide and punishing the Turks as a nation via partition for the genocide, this would be seized on and used to further opposition to the trials.

The Final Phase of the Trials

By the summer of 1919, the National Movement’s influence was spreading, helped by the sectarian atrocities of the Greeks at Izmir, and after the French moved to restore some 12,000 Armenians to their homes in Cilicia in September and October 1919, a full-scale revolt had erupted in eastern Anatolia. The National Movement elected a Representative Council in Ankara in September 1919, centralizing control over the Defence of Rights Committees and forming a de facto second government. The Ankara assembly’s influence was so great that Ferid Pasha was forced from office in Istanbul in early October in favour of Ali Riza Pasha, who was widely (and correctly) seen as a Unionist, i.e. a Nationalist sympathizer at least.

Admiral John de Robeck, the British High Commissioner in Turkey

Admiral John de Robeck, the British High Commissioner in Turkey

Riza Pasha’s government immediately started dismantling even the minimal architecture for prosecuting the Turkish war criminals: Armenians were forbidden from returning to western Anatolia, the Extraordinary Courts-Martial was sidelined in favour of a commission staffed by Unionists, and the postponement of trials for crimes committed by Armenians was lifted. On November 17, 1919, British High Commissioner Admiral de Robeck wrote that Istanbul was “so dependent on the toleration of the organizers of the National Movement” that it was “futile to ask for the arrest of any Turk accused of offences against Christians”.

Between December 1919 and February 1920, the British moved ahead with categorizing the 150-odd criminals they held on Malta between those who had mistreated British POWs, those who had committed violence against the Turkish Christians (the overwhelming majority), and those who had violated the terms of the armistice.

Events, however, were spinning out of control. In January 1920, the Istanbul Parliament, elected under the agreement between Istanbul and Ankara, took its seats; it had a Nationalist majority, giving the Nationalists control of the formal Parliament in Istanbul and their own government in Ankara. The Istanbul Parliament immediately began attacking the courts. In February 1920, the National Pact is issued by the Nationalists, vowing a national liberation struggle based on the Ottoman borders of October 30, 1918. A day later, the French withdrew from Maraş after a three-week siege by the Nationalists, and not less than 10,000 Armenians were slaughtered as “collaborators” for having taken back their homes under French protection.

On March 16, 1920, the British, French, and Italians reluctantly occupied Istanbul. The reason often given is the promulgation of the National Pact and the growing insurgency, and this is true, but there were other reasons just as important. The renewal of the massacres at Maraş and the widespread sense that the Nationalists meant to finish with the minorities altogether were decisive in the British calculation: London was determined to punish this renewal of criminality and prevent any further atrocities. Senior Nationalists in Istanbul were arrested and some sent to Malta.

The French had been prepared to tilt with the wind and make a deal with whoever had the most influence in Turkey, and the Italians actively sided with the Nationalists after the Greeks moved into Izmir and it became clear Italy wasn’t going to be given the territory it had at one stage been promised. But the British saw one final opportunity to do justice. On April 5, 1920, Damat Ferid Pasha returned as Grand Vizier, and the trials recommenced in earnest.

The last Ottoman Parliament in Istanbul was dissolved on April 11 after it had prorogued itself indefinitely on March 18. In Ankara, on April 23, 1920, the Nationalist Movement opened the “Grand National Assembly” and claimed it as the legitimate Parliament, filling it with the Nationalist-supporting deputies from Istanbul and the Defense of Rights Committees.

The Nationalists had been careful to make a pretense of continuity with the Istanbul government, and their official position was that they recognized the Sultan as sovereign and were determined to rescue him from his imprisonment by foreigners. This position was harder to maintain after April 11, 1920, when Şeyh-ül İslam issued a fatwa saying it was religiously obligatory to kill the Nationalist rebels. This was followed by the April 18 formation of the “Disciplinary Forces” to fight the Nationalists and the May 11 death sentence against Mustafa Kemal and other Nationalist leaders for trying to assassinate the Grand Vizier.

On May 5, the Mufti of Ankara issued a fatwa—endorsed by 152 Muftis in Anatolia—which said that a fatwa issued under foreign duress didn’t count, and called on Muslims to “liberate their Caliph”. On May 19, Ankara banned all contact with the Istanbul government, stripped Ferid Pasha of his citizenship and put his whole Cabinet on trial as “traitors”. The Ankara chamber issued Law Number 7 on June 7, which voided all laws and agreements made in Istanbul, retroactive from March 16.

Still, Ferid Pasha pressed on: Between June and early August 1920, at least seven Unionists were executed by Istanbul for war crimes, and more than one-hundred death sentences were passed—not all for war crimes, it should be said. Some capital sentences were now passed for offences against the Istanbul government.

On August 10, 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres was signed. Sèvres was harsh, giving the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire to the Allies, creating an independent Armenia and an autonomous Kurdistan, giving the Greeks a region surrounding Smyrna/Izmir, and the Allies economically dominated much of what was left to Turkey.


The Sèvres Treaty never went into effect, but it did trigger the final end of the Nationalists even pretending to favour the punishment of the war criminals.

The very next day the Ankara assembly abolished the token courts it had established for dealing with the genocide and voted to give the criminals held on Malta full salaries even in their absence, as well as to give stipends to the families of those executed in Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal wrote to the British on August 12 that if any of the criminals on Malta were handed over to Istanbul and executed then the British hostages held by the Nationalists would be killed. The threat worked: no more death sentences were passed against the genocidaires after this date.

By October 1920, the Nationalists’ rise made Ferid Pasha’s position untenable, and under Allied, even British, pressure he resigned and the by-now-openly pro-Nationalist Tevfik Pasha became Grand Vizier. The efforts against both the war criminals and the Nationalist insurgents were ended. Collaborating with the National Forces was now declared “worthy of applause,” and all cases cancelled. In November 1920, the president of the Courts-Martial was arrested, and in December the new president started releasing the genocide suspects one after another.

In the background, in eastern Anatolia, a terrible series of massacres and counter-massacres between the Turks and Armenians was ongoing. In areas like Erzurum in January/February 1916 where the Armenians had Russian protection they were the perpetrators of massacres; where the Turkish army had control it continued its program of massacre and expulsion during the war. The Russians withdrew in phases after the Bolshevik coup and the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in March 1918, which restored the Ottoman borders to 1878.

The Ottomans took more than the 1878 borders and pushed into purely Armenian areas of the Caucasus. The Germans noted of units commanded by Enver Pasha’s brother, Nuri, and uncle, Halil Pasha, in May 1918, “The aim of the Turkish policy … is to attain the Armenian regions and to annihilate the Armenians. … All utterances of Talaat and Enver to the contrary are lies.” In late 1921, Enver Pasha arrived in Soviet Central Asia and tried to lead the Muslims already in revolt against the Bolsheviks to realize his pan-Turkic dreams; he was killed in August 1922. (Talaat was struck down in Berlin in March 1921 ostensibly as part of Dashnak’s Operation NEMESIS, in reality in a Soviet-British intelligence operation, and Djemal, who had gone to work for the Afghan army, would be cut down by an Armenian assassin in Georgia in July 1922.)


An Armenian Republic roughly on the present borders was declared in May 1918 and, with the Turks at the gates of Yerevan, the Batum Treaty was signed in June 1918 that fixed the border and renounced Armenian claims to “Western Armenia” (the six eastern Anatolian provinces), but this truce was temporary. Andranik (Ozanian), an Armenian General, wanted to fight on and did so, massacring one Tatar village after another in the Caucasus. In May 1919, the Yerevan Parliament passed the “Act of United Armenia,” which claimed “Western Armenia”. This was nothing less than a declaration of war to the Ankara government. Cables from American diplomats in the late summer of 1919 testify to the scale of the anti-Armenian atrocities underway in the Caucasus. The Armenians in some areas, especially Erzurum, responded in kind.


The ethnic make-up of the “Six Armenian Provinces” (as the Treaty of Berlin called them), according to the Armenian Church in 1912

Ankara went to war with Armenia in September 1920, settling the land question with victory that December. Thereafter, the official position of the Nationalists was that they smiled on an Armenia beyond their borders; the secret and real position was that they wanted Armenia eliminated. The changes of border and the near-continual between the Turks, Armenians, and Soviet Union helped fuel the dislocation under the cover of which the systematic massacres of Armenians had recommenced. This would eventually stop in 1923.

#Armenian genocide waves

Mayhem continued around Izmir between the Greeks and Turks, a fight in which the Allies declared neutrality in March 1920. The Greeks finally pulled out in October 1922.

Between the sectarian atrocities in east and west Anatolia and the Nationalist struggle against the Istanbul government, the urgency of the prosecutions had faded, and in June 1921 the British hopes for prosecutions of the genocidaires were shattered.

The British had, from August 1919—i.e. near the beginning—known that the large-scale destruction of evidence by the Turks meant there was little chance of a conviction before Allied courts. But the news that no incriminating documentation could be found in the American archives was devastating. The only thing left to do was to try to cut a deal with the Nationalists to exchange the Malta prisoners for the British hostages held by the Nationalists (and attempt to have them try their own criminals).

In September 1921, for the third time, Ankara promised to try Turkish war criminals if the British handed them over. The Malta detainees would be “marched from the [Istanbul] port straight to their respective states where they will be tried for the crimes of which they have been accused,” Ankara’s Interior Minister said. On October 23, 1921, the British signed a deal in Istanbul with the Ankara government for the return of the war crimes suspects held on Malta. When the Malta detainees arrived in Istanbul on October 31, they promptly moved to Ankara to take up senior posts in the Nationalist government.

The Extraordinary Courts-Martial was formally abolished in July 1922 and in September 1922 Ankara even proposed reinstating the September 1915 law that had allowed the confiscation of Armenian property, which had been annulled by the Sultan in December 1918. On November 1, 1922, the Nationalists abolished the Sultanate. The Ministers soon resigned and the Sultan fled. The laws of the Ankara assembly—which abrogated everything back to March 1920—were extended to the whole country. The Lausanne Conference opened on November 21, 1922, recognizing the Ankara government as legitimate, and concluded with the Treaty of Lausanne on July 24, 1923, superseding the Treaty of Sèvres.

The most the Armenians got at Lausanne, which was effectively international ratification of the Nationalists’ military victory, was the chance to deliver a speech to the Sub-committee on the Protection of Minorities on December 26, 1922. Proposals for an Armenian State in Syria were dismissed and the Lausanne Treaty was wholly one-sided in the way it dealt with stolen Armenian property and persons. The only concession the Turks would make was to not undo the work of family-reunification and recompense the Entente occupation forces had done between October 20, 1918, and November 20, 1922. A general amnesty for all political and military crimes committed between August 1, 1914, and November 20, 1922, closed forever the possibility of prosecutions.


Part 1 dealt with the argument over whether the label “genocide” applies to the Armenian massacres

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 2

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