Before and after World War I, the Ottoman government in what is now Turkey carried out the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, what's known now as the Armenian genocide. Scholars consider it the first modern genocide, though the present day Turkish government and some of their allies deny what happened was genocide. A local Turkish-American professor has spent decades proving that wrong. Taner Akçam from Clark University in Worcester recently published new research in the “Journal of Genocide Research” that he calls the smoking gun when it comes to proving the killings were systematic and planned. Taner Akçam spoke with WGBH Radio’s Arun Rath about his research. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: So first, because the history is not familiar, unfortunately, to many of us, could you give us a sense in a few lines of the Armenian Genocide?
Taner Akçam: Armenians within the Ottoman Empire were a minority and they were asking for social justice, equality, land reform, and so on. And the Ottoman government considered them a threat to their existence. During the first World War, the Ottoman government removed the Armenian population from the war zone, this is their official argument, to today's Syria. And throughout 1915 until the end of 1918, they exterminated more than 1 million people of the Armenian population.
Rath: Now, these seem like fairly straightforward facts as you lay them out. I've read and seen these facts before. What is it about these facts that the Turkish government would dispute?
Akçam: The main dispute is the genocidal intent. Over the decades, scholarly work already established that around 1 million Armenians perished. And the argument of the Turkish government has been, and still is, that we can never show genocidal intent. The Ottoman government tried to establish a proper relocation process, but they couldn't control the remote areas and there were some attacks and hunger and diseases, and unfortunately, these events happened. So, they claimed that the Ottoman government never intended to exterminate the Armenian population.
Rath: Now, intent goes to the heart of your research. Can you talk about the documents that you've discovered that contradict that?
Akçam: To my surprise, I discovered these documents in the Ottoman archive today, so they cannot dispute the authenticity of these documents. One of these documents dated December 1, 1914, and in that document, a local organization established for the purpose of organizing Muslim uprising within the Russian empire, and this special organization had a local central committee in the province of Erzurum, today one of the provinces in eastern Anatolia. And they made eight decisions and sent these decisions to Istanbul.
And in that telegram, the local government organization decides to exterminate the male Armenian population in two provinces, which is on the border line. This is exactly similar to what happened to Jews during the German offensive in the summer of 1941. And I discovered also in the same archive, several other documents sent by local governments from the provinces, by local governors, where they use the term 'extermination' clearly. I have been working in the Ottoman archive more than 25, 30 years and I know Turkish government mostly hides this kind of critical documents. These are the first documents that we have discovered in the archive where openly the term and decision of extermination is written and mentioned.
Rath: So as you said, obviously these are actual documents from the government archive. Has there been any response from the Turkish government or Turkish scholars to your work, which seems to lay it bare right there that this was a planned extermination?
Akçam: The Turkish version will be out in August in Turkey, but I know the reaction. It will be the general Turkish government's reaction, which is total silence. This is the official line because this is not the first original documents that I have been publishing.
Rath: So even though there may be no official reaction, I'm curious, since your work so flies in the face of the official line, have you experienced any backlash — official or otherwise — from Turkish authorities?
Akçam: Mainly they deny, or try to deny, the authenticity of these documents, or they attack me personally, or they try to interpret these documents in a way that these documents cannot be considered as a smoking gun.
I give you just one example. One of the telegrams that I authenticated and published belong to the leader of one of these special organizations and he asks in this telegram whether the Armenians from a certain region were exterminated, or were they sent to another place to be exterminated. He was coordinating the killing operation and wanted to know that the Armenians in a certain region had already been exterminated in their area or sent somewhere else to be exterminated.
This is the telegram. And the interpretation of Turkish government officials is he was very curious. He heard about the massacres and he wanted to try to prevent these mass atrocities. This is the reason of this inquiry. How many original documents you would bring and put in front of them, they will continue to deny because it is a political decision.
Rath: But if it hasn't happened so far, do you see anything that's going to change the Turkish government policy?
Akçam: I'm very pessimistic in that regard. I don't think that there will be any change in a short period. Everybody would ask, 'So, what is the deal? Why should Turkey acknowledge this historic fact? Yeah, it's something sad that happened. It's 100 years ago. Move on.'
My main argument is, everybody who looks to the Middle East knows that past is never the past in the Middle East. Past is the today in the Middle East. And if you want to establish — seriously — peace, stability, and democracy in the Middle East, you have to establish an honest reckoning with the past. Without facing history, without facing historic injustices, you cannot solve current problems in the Middle East.
Note: The United States has not officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. However, 49 of 50 states have recognized the killings as a genocide. Mississippi is the only state not to do so. Likewise, nearly three dozen countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Russia also recognize the Armenian Genocide.