Akçam at NAASR Talk Discusses Istanbul Trials Of Genocide Perpetrators


Prof. Taner Akçam with Prof. James Russell at NAASR

By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

BELMONT, Mass. — Prof. Taner Akçam spoke to a packed audience at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) on the post-World War I trials of Genocide perpetrators in Istanbul and other cities in Ottoman Turkey, part of a promotional tour of his new book, Judgment at Istanbul, a collaboration with Prof. Vahakn Dadrian.

The trials, which were astonishing when they took place, have confirmed what international scholars have known: that the Genocide and the forced marches of the Armenians were ordered by the government and that they were carried out at the orders of a central authority and not haphazardly, as many denialists maintain. However, almost immediately after they took place, the Young Turk government distanced itself from them, suggesting that the British High Command had pressured the sham trials to take place as part of Turkey’s punishment being in the losing side of World War I.

Judgment at Istanbul, published by Berghahn Books and supported by the Zoryan Institute, for the first time presents in English and analyzes the indictments and verdicts of the Turkish Military Tribunals. Two editions of the book are out now, one in Turkish, which runs to some 700 pages, and an English one, which is about half the length. (The reason for the briefer English edition is money, Akçam said, as translation costs are very high.)

“The idea for the book started with the first meeting with Vahakn Dadrian in 1990, my mentor,” Akçam said. During a conversation, he said, they realized that between the two of them, they had the complete set of the Takvim-i Vekâyi, the Ottoman official gazette, which documented the 12 Istanbul trials.

Soon after delving into the topic, he said, they realized that the trials did not take place only in Istanbul, but all over Anatolia.

The coverage of the trials show that cabinet ministers, Young Turk party leaders and others were court-martialed by the Turkish Military Tribunals in the years immediately following World War I. Most were found guilty and received sentences ranging from prison with hard labor to death.

Until recently, knowledge of the trials was limited to those trials whose indictments and verdicts were published by the Takvim-i Vekâyi. Over the course of years of meticulous research, Dadrian and Akçam discovered that there were as many as 63 trials. In some cases, very little information has been found about the trials.

Akçam explained that materials relating to the trials should be located in two archives: the Prime Ministerial Archives in Istanbul and the Military Archives in Ankara. Akçam said that the former was open to researchers but that little of the material was catalogued at that time when research for the book was carried out. In 1922, he said, Istanbul was taken over by nationalists, who purged many archives, and that the documents relating to the Istanbul military courts martial were likely transferred to the military archive.  However, that archive is largely closed to outside researchers.

Akçam said that he and Dadrian took years to compile all the material from the official newspapers covering the trials, from the early 1990s to the early 2000s. It took that long because most of the newspapers were not archived. The newspapers, he said, covered the trials thoroughly. However, after the government change in 1919, while the trials still continued, interest in covering them waned.

“The trials were extremely extensive. They are an important contribution for defining the Armenian Genocide as such,” he explained.

He then proceeded to line up and knock down the arguments the Turkish government and its apologists use to dismiss the military tribunals. Among the objections they pose, he said, is that the Ottoman legal system offered no basis for a fair trial, that the trials represented the justice of the victors, that the accused were tortured and that no witnesses were presented at the trials.

Akçam said that the trials were in fact based on European standards. He stressed they often included detailed documentation and evidence, as well as witnesses.

One trial, that of Kemal Bey, the deputy governor of Yozgat who was among those responsible for the massacres of Armenians there, ended with a guilty verdict and public hanging of the accused.

Sixteen defendants received the death penalty, though most were in absentia, including the triumvirate who orchestrated the Genocide, Talaat, Enver and Jemal.

Several times during the talk Akçam referred to Guenter Lewy, whose work denies that what was done to the Armenians is properly called genocide, and his inaccurate claims about the trials.  For example, Lewy wrote that no witnesses were heard during the trials. Akçam explained that, on the contrary, witnesses testified during the trials, with their testimonies detailed in the newspaper coverage of the trials. In fact, Akçam said that they provided “primary sources that can enlighten us on 1915.” He noted that Turkish witnesses were preferred over Armenian ones, and added that in one case, villagers testified about the rounding up and murder of Armenians in their village, as did lower-level military officers.

The military police, however, were lax with security, allowing many of the prisoners to come and go at will during the day, trusting their sense of “honor” to return and not embarrass their jailors. Many of them returned bringing big packages, Akçam said, and female visitors could come any time, without being searched, thus disposing of evidence if needed.

One prisoner who did not care about the embarrassment of his jailors, Dr. Reshid, the governor of Diyarbekir, left for a bath and never came back and two others, Halil Pasha and Kuchuk Bey, ran away as well.

Akçam hope that the book would help shed more light on the Genocide and thus quell Turkish dissent, as the book used Ottoman and Turkish sources.

“We are all human beings and we need to overcome [differences] as scholars, at least. There is no Turkish perspective or Armenians perspective,” he said, only the truth.

He expressed optimism that the tide was turning in Turkey. “There is genuine interest in Turkey to work on this subject,” he said, especially in the aftermath of the assassination of his friend, Hrant Dink, the late founding editor of Agos. “You may not know how Hrant Dink changed Turkey. Since Hrant, in every court case, at least 500 people show up. Turkey has not experienced such a thing.”

For the first time, he said, there is a “very strong civil society in Turkey,” adding that since 2008, no one has been arrested on charges of using the phrase “Armenian Genocide.”

He added that graduate programs for Turkish students studying the Armenian Genocide should be supported.

Akçam holds the Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at the Department of History of Clark University in Worcester. He is the author of several books, including A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility.

Akçam was introduced by Prof. James Russell, the Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. Russell began his introduction by inviting the audience to imagine an alternate history, in which Nazi Germany, defeated in World War II, held trials of the Nazi officers who committed the Holocaust, found them guilty, and then, through a change of fortune, got powerful again and denied the validity of the trials, suggesting that they were held under duress and that they were invalid and that indeed, Nazi Germany was innocent of any wrongdoing.

Genocide, he said, is now a part of political life. “The longer a crime is covered up, the worst its effects become. What began as a sin became a policy of crimes, has become a part of the human psyche at large. … Genocide has not merely changed politics but human nature.”

He called Akçam “a champion of human liberation and truth” and said most importantly, he was proud to call him a friend.

Judgment at Istanbul is available for sale at NAASR.