INTERVIEW WITH TANER AKCAM
David Stepanyan

ArmInfo News Agency
2008-10-27 14:20:00

Taner Akcam was born in the settlement of Olcek, province of Ardahan,
Turkey, in 1953. He studied economics at the Middle East Technical
University in Ankara, and graduated in 1976. Later that year, while
a graduate student at the same department, he received a nine-year
prison sentence for his involvement in producing a student journal
that focused on the treatment of Turkey's Kurdish minority. In March
1977, he escaped from Ankara Maximum Security prison. In 1978, he was
granted political asylum in Germany. In August 1988 Akcam began work
as a research scientist at the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement
of Research and Culture. He received his PhD from the University
of Hanover with a dissertation titled, Turkish Nationalism and the
Armenian Genocide: On the Background of the Military Tribunals in
Istanbul between 1919 and 1922. Akcam's initial research topic was
the history of political violence and torture in late Ottoman and
early Republican Turkey. Since 1990, however, he has focused his
attention on Turkish nationalism and the Armenian Genocide, with
eleven books and numerous articles to his credit. Akcam was Visiting
Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, United
States before joining Clark University's Strassler Family Center for
Holocaust and Genocide Studies. In his recent book, Â"A shameful act:
The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish responsibilityÂ",
Akcam, basing upon Turkish sources, studies the role of the Ottoman
government in the Genocide and the question of the responsibility of
Turkey for the murder of 1, 5 million Armenians.

Mr. Akcam, in your book "A Shameful Act: the Armenian Genocide and The
Question of Turkish Responsibility" you highlighted questions that
are problematic both for Armenia and Turkey. The book has aroused
a vivid interest in Armenia. Do you plan to release another book to
feature the same range of subjects?

I am not sure what you mean with "questions that are problematic both
for Armenia and Turkey". As an historian, my primary job is to reveal
as honestly as possibly what are concealed or distorted historical
events, done so often at the behest of political powers. I really
don't care who considers my revelation "problematic". As long as I am
honest and my arguments are based on facts the rest is not my problem.

I have recently published another book in Turkey and the title is
"The Armenian Issue is Resolved: Policies towards Armenians During
the War Years, Based on Ottoman Documents" The central thesis of
the book is that the available Ottoman governments documents in
the Ottoman Archive in Istanbul clearly show us that the Union and
Progress party developed and implemented plans during the World War
I which deliberately targeted the total destruction of the Armenian
people. By doing so, I refute the commonly accepted thesis by the
public and the academic world, that Ottoman archival materials in
Istanbul contradict the German, American, Austrian and other foreign
archival records and that their respective contents present different
information. As I showed in my book this perception is wrong and
there is in fact no contradiction between the materials found in the
Ottoman archives with that in Western archives. The various archives
contain information that is supportive and complementary to one
another and explain the same historical phenomenon from different
perspectives. The main target of the Ottoman Government at the time
was to eradicate the Christian population from Anatolia and available
Ottoman documents from Ottoman archives show this to us.

Do you have plans to visit Armenia (both in near or distant future),
particularly the Armenian Genocide Institute-Museum?

If I get an invitation why not!

In Armenia exists an opinion, that the refusal of Turkey to recognize
Genocide is explained not by possible territorial claims from Armenia -
the Genocide, if recognized by Turkey, will be a matter to a massive
revision of Turkish history, which may lead the country to a split,
similar to that of the USSR. Do you share that point of view? What
are your comments on that?

I don't think that the reason for the denial of the Genocide by Turkish
state is the fear of Armenian territorial claims. To claim territories
from Turkey, as a form of compensation, might have a symbolic or moral
dimension for some Armenians and some Armenian political parties but
it cannot be taken seriously. The Armenian Genocide was an act of the
Ottoman government against its own citizens and Turkey today does not
occupy any territory which can be legally claimed to belong present
day Armenia. There is no "territorial problem" between Turkey and
Armenia. Today, the Turkish state and some nationalistic Armenian
organizations purposely use the "territorial claims" argument as a
tactic to avoid coming to a resolution.

The argument that if Turkey acknowledges historic wrong doings it
could cause the "split" or "demise" of Turkey is a very stupid one,
if you allow me to be so blunt. If you follow this logic, it says
that confronting history is a very negative and dangerous thing to do
because it could create a threat to national security. This sort of
argument can only be raised by dictators or totalitarian regimes. Of
course, if Turkey honestly faces its history and comes to terms
with historic wrong doings it necessitates a very strong revision of
history; but why should this lead to a split of the country? Just the
opposite, confronting history with honestly, acknowledging historic
wrong doings is the "abc" of every democracy. Any society which
endeavors to establish democratic structure and processes and which
purports to respect human rights can only do this successfully if it
engages in an honest accounting with it past.

There are two main factors, which influence the Turkish State's
attitude. I would describe these factors as Material and Moral. The
most common argument we have heard is that if Turkey were to
acknowledge the Genocide they would have to pay restitution. Even
though the argument regarding restitution provides some tangible form
of reconciling the loss of individual properties and wealth and this
could obviously impact the Turkish state, I don't thing that this
is the cause for Turkish fear. You could always agree on a specified
amount of money to rectify the losses of the past. I think there is
another deep seated reason for denial which I would define as the moral
aspect of the problem. This is related to the fact that some of the
founders of the Turkish state were the very same members of the party
who organized the Genocide. As is the case in every nation state, we,
the people of Turkey, have glorified these persons as our founding
fathers, as heroes. Having done that you can see how psychologically
it is very difficult to turn around and call these same individuals
murderers or thieves; if you do that you question the very existence
of the state and its identity. It is very self-destructive to bring
up this topic. Because of this, for there to be any chance of success
of reconciling with its past, Turkey must develop a new democratic
identity. I believe that the European Union offers this opportunity,
this chance, for Turkey to develop a new democratic identity.

The official attitude of Ankara about Genocide is widely known. Does
it correspond to the position of Turkish intellectuals and scientific
society?

Since you teach in the USA, please tell your view of the position of
American historians and publicists on that.

I can say with confidence that the position of the Turkish government
is quite different from that shared by the Turkish intelligentsia. I
would like the world to know that there is an important segment
of intellectual and enlightened people in the media and our
larger universities who want an open and frank discussion about
our history. In Turkey today, the organization of conferences by
historians and the publication of books that openly criticize the
state's position have become quite commonplace. I believe that these
changes which are being experienced on a civilian level will effect
the state's position too.

The arrival of Mr. Abdullah Gul, the President of Turkey, to Yerevan,
has been a landmark to establish the so-called "soccer diplomacy". Is
it (the diplomacy) able to become a factor of a considerable
improvement of relations between the two countries - especially
regarding Genocide and complicated relations of Armenia and Azerbaijan?

First of all, I'd like to congratulate the leaders of both countries
for taking these courageous steps. Extraordinary times require
extraordinary leadership. I believe that this is the beginning of a
period towards resolution of our problems. The speed at which this
period progresses is directly related to the courage of the opposing
sides. The soccer match created an opportunity but I see the Ergenekon
arrests in Turkey and Russia's interference with Georgia as factors
that will move the process along. The Turkish political circles who
fed on hostility towards Armenians, the same circles who by the way
are primarily responsible for the death of Hrant Dink, have taken
a serious hit. The Ergenekon arrests took the pressure off the
Turkish state. Meanwhile Russian-Georgian relations have rendered
the continuation of mutual hostility by both sides as meaningless
and counterproductive.

A number of Armenian and Russian political scientists and experts
consider the initiative to establish the "Caucasian Platform",
proposed by Mr. Rejep Tayip Erdogan, to be inspired by the USA. If
you agree with that, what are the reasons for such a concern of the
official Washington?

Whether it originated from Washington or Moscow, will somebody please
explain to me why the normalization and development of relations
between states in the region is a bad thing? In the end, Caucasia
is the common land of Georgians, Azeris, Armenians, Turks and other
people from that region.

Can you explain to me what the harm is in developing a sense of
brotherhood, a good neighbor policy if you will? Since we, Armenians,
Georgians, Azeris, Turks and others, are committed to living in the
region it would make sense to develop a platform based upon mutual
respect. Whether it comes out of Moscow or Washington, I say "Bravo"
to whoever wants to support such a platform.

Barack Obama has declared his will to officially recognize the Armenian
Genocide, in case of his possible victory. Will his statements share
the fate of the promises of previous candidates?

Perhaps. Obama, like those who went before him, may forget the promise
he made. I would hope that he doesn't forget because it would put
an end to this torturous relationship that Armenians and Turks have
endured.

Nevertheless, I don't view Obama's use of the word "genocide"
as working like some kind of charm, or being the source of a huge
resolution of the matter. Reagan had accepted and used the term also. I
think Turks and Armenians need to see that there is something rather
shameful in expecting a third party to solve a problem that originates
with us and needs to be resolved between us. We own the problem. We
need to resolve it and we can.

Even if the United States recognizes Genocide, may we expect the
recognition by Turkey? If you think this possibility is definitely
excluded, which are the reasons for that?

If USA were to officially acknowledge the Genocide, it would result
in a hardening of Turkey's position in the short run but eventually
relations would relax. Besides recognizing that countries like the
US and Israel have accepted that the genocide took place, Turkey
would begin to see that insisting on a traditional policy of denial
wasn't getting them anywhere. Recognizing that there weren't any other
positions to insist on or defend in the international arena it might
push Turkey to confront its issues head on with Armenia. I believe
that the political aspects of this problem are going to be resolved
between the Turkish and Armenian states.

Each country should immediately initiate mutual diplomatic relations,
without pre-condition. The problem associated with how to acknowledge
our past should be left to time and should be discussed and debated
openly in a democratic manner. We need to see that the actual
resolution of the problem is going to occur during the course of each
society's open and healthy debate over it. In support of this process
each side could establish different commissions also.

Thank you.

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