Book Review: A Shameful Act (2006) by Taner Akcam, Part 3

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on June 7, 20151

Post-War Turkey

The last foreign troops left Istanbul on October 2, 1923. On October 6, Turkish troops re-occupied Istanbul, and on October 13 the Turkish capital was moved to Ankara. The independence struggle won, the focus now turned to the form independence would take.

Having already abolished the Sultanate—that is the executive post held by the House of Ottoman—Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) abolished the Caliphate on March 3, 1924. Atatürk also scrapped the office of Şeyh-ül İslam, banished the House of Ottoman (packing Sultan Abdülmecid onto the Orient Express), and closed the separate religious schools on the same day. The ulema had given much ground during the reforms of the nineteenth century but they had also frustrated and defeated many reformers; Atatürk would not be one of them. The promulgation of the Republican Constitution on April 20, 1924, confirmed parliamentary supremacy over the shari’a, secular law over theocracy.

In the late 1920s, further reforms were made. The fez, which “had become the last symbol of Muslim identification,” was banned. Atatürk had said the fez was “an emblem of ignorance … and hatred of progress”. Turks would wear the costume “common to the civilized nations of the world,” which is to say Europe. Atatürk adopted the Swiss legal code, which removed the Holy Law from personal status—abolishing polygamy, making both parties to a marriage equal, allowing divorce, and allowing people to change their religion. Islam was disestablished as the State religion, and as the final step the Arabic script was changed to Roman. The connection with the East was broken, and Turkey was firmly oriented West. A final phase of reforms in the 1930s gave women the vote, gave Turks surnames, and made the weekly holiday from 13:00 on Saturday until Monday morning.

Atatürk did run a one-party dictatorship, but it was not the mass-mobilization and indoctrinating kind seen in Europe that was later emulated in the Middle East. Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) was “almost ashamed of the monopoly” it exerted, and the regime was elitist and paternalistic, seeking to guide a nation out of its authoritarian habits, rather than terroristic. While parliament was mostly a façade, the Rule of Law was nonetheless always seen to be upheld, and when the Republic transitioned to democracy the framework and practice was already operational. Atatürk regarded nineteenth-century liberalism as progress—unlike the Bolsheviks and Nazis who saw liberalism as decadence—and Atatürk’s State was not one where a peasant glanced over his shoulder before speaking or worried that his neighbour might be an informant. The press was controlled and political agitation against the regime was banned, but speech and even books and periodicals were relatively free. Critics among the elite were often punished by being sent to remote Embassies. The use of violence by Atatürk’s authoritarian regime was—by any historical standard, especially when the scale of the transformation is considered—minimal, and where outright violence was used it was almost always in response to an armed rebellion. The 1926 executions of several old CUP leaders was the nearest Atatürk’s regime came to a purge, and even then it was initially triggered by a legitimate threat to Atatürk’s life and regime. After that there was really no arbitrary threat to life or property.

Because of Atatürk’s historical achievement and because Atatürk was basically us, an outspoken Westernizer, he has received a great deal of admiration in the West, and there is no doubt that if the word “great” attaches to historical figures it attaches to Atatürk. Atatürk took a defeated and dying country and revitalized it, instituting reforms that set Turkey on the road to independence, a measure of prosperity, and (very rarely from nationalist revolutions) democracy.


In examining the Armenian genocide, great confusion is caused by the fact the Armenians were engaged in an armed rebellion. First, this makes direct comparisons with the Holocaust untenable, and second it means the Turkish sense of an existential threat, and their viewing the Armenians as the source, was not wholly irrational; the Armenians were not a defenseless population targeted solely for their identity.

Because there is no “smoking gun” proving that a decision was made to massacre—although there is clear evidence of an official policy of separating families and forcibly converting children, which also counts as genocide—some of the Turks’ decisions can be passed off as, and some even were, military exigencies. A verdict of negligent homicide can seem reasonable.

Taner Akcam provides good evidence that the Turkish actions were not reactive and primarily based on military considerations, from the pre-war decision to clear Anatolia of Christians as a means of restoring Turkish glory and ensuring the integrity of the State to the organized theft of Armenian property that created new Muslim classes to the clear evidence that no planning was ever made to resettle the Armenian deportees in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts. But those who deny that the label “genocide” applies to the 1915-17 massacres of Armenians should not be assumed to be acting from ill-motive, and they certainly shouldn’t be criminalized.

This latter impressed itself rather forcefully on me because I read part of the book in France, and at the time I was sceptical—because of a simple lack of knowledge—that the genocide label applied. It occurred to me that if I represented this opinion publicly I would be in breach of the law. This is absurd. (For what it matters I also oppose laws against Holocaust-denial, though that is a different phenomenon: it is the denial of historical events for bigoted motives, not the contestation of a legal category.)

The difficulty for some, even after they conclude that the atrocities against the Armenians were a genocidal campaign, is that to “officially” admit this carries implications. There are, for example, activist groups that demand reparations from the Turkish State for property and wealth seized from the Armenians during the genocide. One might either sympathize with or oppose such a program, but at present the one place that most needs this debate—Turkey—is legally banned from having it.

The fact that an honest accounting of the history of the Armenian genocide is currently banned by law in Turkey is a testament to the ongoing importance of these events, now a century old. In combination with the continued maltreatment of the Kurds and the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, the denial of the Armenian genocide is what stops Turkey becoming a normal country. These are all problems of the Atatürkist system.

For a start, the language change that was purposely designed as a tabula rasa has meant that it is actually very difficult for Turks to examine the history of the Armenian genocide; most Turks cannot read material published before 1928 in Turkey, and what is published after 1928 is the Nationalist version—that extraordinary measures were required against rebellious Armenians who were colluding with foreign invaders and, while many Armenians died, the intention was to get the Armenians out of the militarily sensitive areas, not to annihilate them.

Moreover, the Nationalist Movement Atatürk led, and the capital—human and material—on which his achievements were built, were tainted by the genocide committed against the Armenians and the expropriation of their land and property, and this has necessitated the campaign of official lying that continues to this day.

Damat Ferid Pasha might now be written-off as a quisling who could never get on the right side of history but he, a “reactionary,” was adamant that the Turkish genocidaires be prosecuted and he tried to wrest his country back from the criminals who had taken it over in the name of constitutionalism and led it into war, mass-murder, defeat, and occupation.

Ferid Pasha surely could not—and would not—have done what Atatürk did by way of reforms, especially not so quickly, but a Turkey led by Ferid Pasha or his like would have dealt honestly with its past and thus any progress would have been tenable. As it is now, except for avoiding partition, the entire Atatürkist system has unravelled the moment Turks were allowed free elections. Atatürkism relied on non-democratic controls to maintain its power and its narrative; regimes built on lies cannot last forever, and once they try to open up the whole thing comes crashing down.

For the West, Atatürkism has led us astray in two major ways. First, it has given us a “Turkish model” that is illusory. The model roughly was one of democratic rule, where the army served as a check on Islamists and chaos, intervening to restore order and secularism when they were threatened, until the point democracy was mature enough to survive on its own.

The “Turkish model” has an inherent authoritarianism, with extra-legal bodies having veto-wielding power over elected bodies. And in Turkey the wide use of torture and assassination by the military, especially after 1980, left some doubt that they were acting for the greater good. But the real problem is that the military that was supposed to be guiding this transition to full democracy developed commercial and other interests in a partial democracy, in State institutions remaining immature, and in maintaining restrictions like censorship to avoid a free press that would trouble the military’s position.

This is a common finding: gradualist transformations of “developmental autocracies” almost never work. Too many people have too many interests in the status quo, and the State has too much power to manipulate and monopolize any changes, leading to a partially transformed State that is both corrupt and authoritarian but which might have some popular legitimacy by providing targeted economic favours.

The second way the West has been led astray is that the attempt to apply this Turkish model elsewhere in the Muslim world has led to horrifying results, especially in the Arab world. The long search for another secularizing dictator who could bring the world of Islam to modernity has ended with the indulgence of all manner of rogues who promised us they were modernizers holding back the zealous hordes when in fact they were deliberately ensuring the only alternative to dictatorship was fanaticism and were displacing the rage of their populations onto the West.

The lodestar of “modernity” is also a tricky one. In the modern Middle East the main effect of modernization has been the removal of the intermediary forces that used to provide a check on the power of the ruler. But it also did not begin positively. The Young Turks and their Unionist offshoot, undoubtedly the modernizers of the Ottoman Empire, dragged Turkey into the First World War under the cover of which they committed genocide.

The Allies certainly botched the attempt to prosecute the Turkish war criminals by not drawing a rigid distinction between the plans for justice and the plans for partition—and indeed for suggesting that the partition was justice, or part of it, for the State crimes of Turkey. Had the Allies made as the price of territorial integrity the prosecution of Turkey’s war criminals there is every reason to believe the Turks would have accepted it. Both the Istanbul government and the Nationalist Movement (early on) signalled a willingness to try the war criminals as a means of gaining a more favourable outcome at the Paris Peace Talks.

The final thought Akcam’s book leaves one with is that the politicized charges being made at present that the exodus of the Middle East’s Christians began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq is historically illiterate. The 1915 massacres themselves were the culmination of a process of homogenization that had begun in the late nineteenth century, and less directly the movement of Christians out of the Middle East and to the West began in the late seventeenth century when Christendom had finally exhausted itself with religious wars and for the first time began to offer greater tolerance than the Islamic world.


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

Part 2 looked at the post-war trials and the rise of the Nationalist Movement.

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

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Shameful Act (2006) by Taner Akcam, Part 1 | The Syrian Intifada

  2. Pingback: Book Review: A Shameful Act (2006) by Taner Akcam, Part 2 | The Syrian Intifada

  3. Conor Meleady (@Conormel)

    Interesting, Does Akcam discuss the impact of the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the Balkans and Caucasus over the course of the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries on demographics in Anatolia? And what role this might have played in shaping the course of events in 1914/15?

    1. KyleWOrton

      Less the Balkans. If you see the other two parts, in part one I note the Armenians fighting alongside the Russians who carried out massacres against Muslims in eastern Anatolia in late 1914 and the psychological impact that had in framing the decision for genocide, and in part two I touch on the anti-Muslim massacres in the Caucasus from 1918 to 1923 and Akcam goes into those in some detail in the book. The crucial thing about the anti-Muslim massacres in late 1914, however, is that they came *after* the Special Organization’s militias had infiltrated Russia to try to spark an Islamic revolt and after these militias had tried to liquidate the Dashnak leadership and started massacring whole Armenian villages and areas, including around Van (site of the major uprising the Turks cite as justification for the deportations). By the time of the major Armenian uprising in February 1915, there were already Armenians being murdered, Babi Yar-style, in the labour battalions. After the defeat for the Turks in January 1915 at Sarikamish the vague outline of a plan they entered the war with—to clear Anatolia of Christians—crystallized, and evolved into a scheme for annihilation.

      1. Conor Meleady (@Conormel)

        Yes I’ve read the full review. I was thinking more, for example, of the hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees who had ended up in Anatolia following the Circassian expulsions of the 1860s, and those forced to flee the Balkans during the course of the 1877-78 war and the Balkan wars which preceded the First World War. I would imagine these episodes require attention in any discussion of the context underlying what happened in 1914/15, was just wondering if Akcam gets into it at all.

      2. KyleWOrton

        He does go into it, especially Bulgaria, in the first couple of chapters as part of the background and indeed he makes the point that there is great continuity between these events, especially the Hamidian massacres and the Balkan Wars which began the homogenization Ataturk finished with the “population exchange,” and the genocide.

  4. Pingback: Book Review: A Shameful Act (2006) by Taner Akcam | The Syrian Intifada

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