By Mitch Baroody on November 4, 2013
A Shameful Act, written by Taner Akçam, is a historical work, vividly detailing the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government in Turkey. While the Ottomans ‘ actions were shameful, this book could have easily been titled, Silent Voices, Absent Justice, and Zero Consciences. Akçam’s account provides a thorough roadmap of why the Ottoman’s murdered the Armenians and how these murders occurred. This book also clearly describes the international responses to these atrocities and the lack of Turkish responsibility in the aftermath of the bloodshed.
Akçam’s ability to compile this tremendous depth of information is commendable. However, his account of these events is not flawless. The greatest weakness is his failure to hook the reader before digressing into a lengthy, historical recitation. Instead, Akçam begins by stating an overwhelming amount of information in a literary style best equated to stream-of-consciousness.
The redeeming portion of the book begins with the third chapter, which is like starting a new book. Here, his writing is more concise, and the story becomes clearer and easier to comprehend. However, many will never see the third chapter because of the stream-of-consciousness style Akçam uses in the first two chapters. If the reader is able to make it this far, he or she will likely feel pathos for the innocent Armenians who are mercilessly slaughtered. In fact, one may even feel like an Armenian at times during Akçam’s account of these shameful acts.
What more could a family member or the soul of an Armenian genocide victim ask for than an accurate pleading of their case before the world? Akçam presents a convincing argument that shameful acts were committed against the Armenians. His work also causes readers to see, feel, and hear what the deceased are still trying to say. However, even though Akçam pleads a powerful case against the Ottomans, this book can only be a legitimate resource if it pleads a case for Ottoman-inflicted genocide and not just shameful acts.
II. Does Akçam accurately present a case for genocide?
This body of work may be one of the greatest modern accounts of Ottoman (Turkish government-sponsored) atrocities towards the Armenians. However, this book can only be legitimate and considered a profound work if Akçam accurately makes a case for genocide. Many countries go through war, civil unrest, and loss of life. Therefore, the importance of making a case for genocide is necessary in order to separate this event from any other civilization attempting to maintain its existence. After analyzing all of the facts presented, it does appear that A Shameful Act makes a prima facie case for the Turkish atrocities to be considered genocide.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide provides the most thorough definition of what genocide is and who can actually be held responsible for committing the act. U.N. General Resolution 260, which adopted the Convention’s agreement, defines genocide as the following:
“…Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group…such as killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Furthermore, it does not matter “whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals” acts are still genocide if they conform to the definition of Article 2. Akçam provides a compelling case for genocide based on numerous historical accounts and vivid descriptions of the actions taken by the Turkish government. Therefore, a brief overview of Akçam’s factual progression towards the Turkish shameful acts will be provided, then a brief analysis of how the facts relate to the definition of genocide will be discussed.
The beginning of the book gives the reader an impression that the Ottoman Empire was not a horrible place to live as a non-Muslim during the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. (23). Akçam says that non-Muslims did not have to face trial in Ottoman courts and were even exempt from having their property searched by authorities. (25). They did have to pay a tax, though. (Id.). A reasonable reader should conclude that the region was fertile for families and habitation for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Turks will likely appreciate this picture and will use it to deny the atrocities against the Armenian population. Furthermore, the Turks will also claim that it is not Islamic to murder the innocent as a defense to the shameful acts. (179). However, the pendulum does not weigh in favor of the Turks for long.
The most profound statement in the entire book is, “A nation that feels itself on the verge of destruction will not hesitate to destroy another group it holds responsible for its situation.” (126). 60,000-90,000 Turkish soldiers died at Sankamiş in January of 1915. The failures in this battle caused the Turks to take significant opposition to the Armenians. (125). Akçam writes that one man describes the defeat as “a treacherous deception, to a conspiracy of murderous criminals, to our fighting units being stabbed in the back by the traitors among us…bringing a moral collapse.” (Id.). He says that during this time, the Ministry of War Department distributed leaflets and writings describing the Armenians as traitors and blaming them for the loss of life at Sankamiş. (Id.). The loss of life mixed with Ottoman propaganda begins to increase the hostility towards the Armenians. Akçam accurately paints a picture of the Turks presenting this evidence to gain public and government support for dealing with threats to their survival as a nation in the most extreme ways.
Shortly after the release of the pamphlets, Akçam describes how Armenians began petitioning the German Consul for emergency assistance from the “coming atrocities” by the Turkish government like they had witnessed in an “Armenian village near the Russian border.” (149). One of the clearest testimonies of what is about to take place comes from a Swiss nurse named Alma Johannson. (150). She says, “Towards the beginning of April, in the presence of a Major Lange and several other high officials, including the American and German Consuls, Ekran Bey openly declared the government’s intention of exterminating the Armenian race.” (Id.). Even more staggering is the testimony of a Danish nurse reporting that Erzincanlı Sabit, the governor of Harput, told German Vice Consul Scheubner-Richter the following: “The Armenians in Turkey must and were going to be killed. They had grown…in wealth and numbers until they had become a menace to the ruling Turkish race; extermination was the only remedy.” (Id.). Even if the nurse’s credibility is questioned, Akçam says “Scheubner-Richter himself reported that a senior official told him ‘there will be no Armenians left in Turkey after the war.’” (Id.). Akçam provides ample testimony to introduce the sentiments existing prior to the slaughter of Armenians.
He then presents evidence about the slaughter taking place, saying that “other consular reports recount a similar story: hundreds of thousands of Armenians driven from their homes in convoys and killed, either on the road or after having arrived at their assigned destinations.” (161). Akçam also says that commanders of the Turkish Army play a role in slaughtering these people and driving them from their homes by eliminating “civilian Armenian population within the military zones and murdering Armenian soldiers within the army units.” (173). This is not merely conjecture or hearsay. These reports are not from newspapers, but from official documents. Furthermore, there is actual proof that the Armenians are missing from their respective towns after the war with little to no explanation as to why. For instance, in 1917, the Catholic Archbishop of Armenia says that only twenty-three percent of the pre-war Armenian Catholics in the city of Anatolia were still alive after the war. (178)
The Turkish government admitted this, confirming that Armenians were slaughtered. Trabzon’s deputy, Mehmet Emin Bey, says “Our government slaughtered a great number of Armenian women and children. And their property was looted. But the number is not one million, as claimed. It is around 500–600,000. And furthermore, it is not right to say that these people “were killed because they were Armenians.” (253). This is a clear statement, from a government official, admitting that Armenians are the sole victims of the government’s mass murder plan. Yet Bey still denies the murders happened because these people were Armenians. This statement shows hesitancy on the part of Turkish government officials to admit the murders were because of ethnicity.
There will always be skeptics that these shameful acts were actually genocide. Therefore, one may want to look at the economic proof. The strongest argument Akçam makes for genocidal intent may actually be when it comes to the policies dealing with Armenian property. He says, “Despite the dozens of documents outlining the use of Armenian property, there is not a single piece of evidence showing that any compensation was actually paid to any deportee.” (189). Essentially, the government knew the Armenians would not be around, so they decided not to write a policy to compensate the Armenians for their seized property. This is a brilliant argument by Akçam, but is it grounded in factual documentation or just hearsay?
Since the facts have been laid out, it is important to discuss how they relate to the United Nations’ definition of genocide. First, the question is whether the murderous acts were committed with intent to destroy. The answer to this question is, unequivocally, yes. The Turks, as stated above, had a mission to destroy whatever force came between them and the preservation of their empire. It was essential that they silenced whatever they suspected was a potential hindrance to survival. Whether this encompasses a hindrance to their ability to wage war or their economic security, Akçam makes it clear that the Turks were willing to destroy anyone in their path in order to preserve their beloved empire.
Since the intent to destroy exists, the next part of the rule is whether the intent to destroy is based on “national, ethnical, racial or on religious grounds.” The answer to this, based on Akçam’s account, is yes. The Ottoman’s were threatened by the Armenians wealth and stature. The book also shows how they blamed the Armenians for the deaths and losses in battle and for being traitors to the Turkish cause. Therefore, at the time, they believed their nation would not survive as long as there was an Armenian presence. The Turkish government did not set out to destroy Muslims. They did not set out to destroy the average Turk. They set out to kill a specific ethnic group, the Armenians.
The argument in favor of a genocide against the Armenians only needs to encompass ethnicity and not the religious beliefs of the Armenians. One Turkish official specifically admitted, as stated above, that over five hundred thousand Armenians were murdered. The consular reports are also very clear as to who was being murdered. The average Turkish citizen was not facing these murders. Akçam makes it clear that Armenians were the sole recipients of the Turks’ wrath. Therefore, article four is also satisfied. The definition of genocide is basic and is not complicated. Akçam provides evidence that makes it highly likely that these shameful acts conform to the definition in article four.
The weakest point of Akçam’s book is that he often relies on hearsay. There are numerous third-person accounts in the book. However, Akçam maintains his credibility because the hearsay statements are backed up by government reports and population statistics. It is clear that the Armenians did not go on a long vacation somewhere. They were clearly taken from the earth and were too spread out across the empire, too successful, and too prideful to be engaging in some type of mass suicide by their own hands. Therefore, while it is fair to criticize Akçam for the many hearsay accounts he provides in the book, there are enough credible accounts to authenticate questionable statements. This leaves the reader with only one conclusion: the Turkish government committed genocide against the Armenian people.
Akçam makes a clear case that the Armenians were killed solely because of ethnicity. A Shameful Act clearly shows that a Turkish intent to destroy existed by giving examples of how the Turkish government felt threatened and weakened by various conflicts. Akçam provides adequate examples for one to conclude the Turkish government not only had intent to destroy, but intent to destroy Armenians. This intent was because of its weakening position at home and across the world. Akçam explains that Turks begin to blame the Armenians for their “traitorous” behavior and believes that Armenian wealth and prosperity led to the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, the only solution is to murder one million of them. The government admits the Armenian deaths are a little over five hundred thousand. This statement exists as an admission that Armenians were the sole victor of Turkish, ethnic-centered wrath.
A Shameful Act could have been more concise and could have been written in a simpler format. However, Akçam’s blunt style gives the reader quick facts that destroy any doubt one may have about whether the Armenians were victims of Turkish genocide. Despite his writing style, the message is still clear and the voices of so many victims are still easily heard. Every Turk should take this book as a refresher course on their country’s stained past. As George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”