Review Essay

by Maxime Gauine

The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire


Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

528 pp., US$ 37.80 (hb), ISBN-10: 0691159564, ISBN-13: 978-0691159560

Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 2015, Vol. 35, No. 1, 141–157 DOWNLOAD THE PDF COPY HERE


After a presentation of what he considers as the relevant context (the Ottoman archives,
Balkan wars and their aftermath, “ethnic cleansing” against the Greeks), Taner Akçam
bases his “demonstration” primarily on Ottoman and German sources to “prove” that
a “genocidal” decision was taken by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) leadership
in March 1915, after discussion with the German government, and carried out
during the war, mostly during the years 1915 and 1916, not only by massacres and deportations
but also by “forced assimilation” of women and children. Taner Akçam finishes
by a chapter consisting in a strident response to some arguments developed by both
Turkish and non-Turkish historians who have criticized the “Armenian genocide”
label (especially the exemptions of relocation, the issue of the Special Organization and
the punishment of Muslim criminals from 1915 to 1917).

Taner Akçam’s previous book in English, A Shameful Act (New York: Metropolitan
Books, 2006), contained numerous typographical and factual errors. 1 Such flaws
appear once again in The Young Turks’ the present book under review. For instance,
even the name of the important Turkish city of Erzurum in eastern Anatolia is not in
the index and other examples are provided below. Correspondingly, the style of this
book —especially in the last chapter— does not present the desirable precision and impartiality
needed for a scholarly work. The book’s argument aside, it bases itself on a limited
range of primary sources. It is apparent that Taner Akçam did not conduct any research
in the British archives. Instead, he only used published documents and photocopies provided
by his mentor, the sociologist Vahakn N. Dadrian. For instance, the work is lacking
any discussion on the important investigations of 144 former Ottoman officials interned
in Malta between 1919 and 1921, upon which the British prosecutor and his assistants
concluded that there was no evidence against any of them.2 Furthermore, Taner
Akçam did not make any use of the French archives, not even the compilations published
years ago by Arthur Beylerian and Hasan Dilan.3 In addition, Taner Akçam did not use at
all the Russian archives,4 or the Bristol papers at the Library of Congress, and even the
Dashnak archives in Watertown, Massachusetts. Along these lines of selective research,
Taner Akçam makes no reference at all to secondary sources by historians such as
F. Ata, Yücel Güçlü, Bernard Lewis, Heath Lowry, Andrew Mango, Jeremy Salt, Stanford
Jay Shaw, Salâhi Sonyel, Gilles Veinstein and Robert Zeidner, not even to challenge
their analyses.

These deficiencies may point at Taner Akçam’s tendentious approach. The virulent
manner in which he presents Guenter Lewy —an Emeritus professor of political
science at Massachusetts University and Holocaust survivor who successfully sued for
defamation those who had accused him to have received money from Turkey 5 as
belonging in the category of the “denialist industry” (p. 411) reveals a purpose that
extends beyond scholarly objectives. Similarly, the book suffers from an imbalanced
view of history. While it is dedicated to the murder of the journalist Hrant Dink, it
neglects to mention, let alone asses the significance of the preceding barrage of Armenian
terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, which took the lives of more than 70 Turks and others.6

Even more disconcerting is the fact that Mr Akçam’s book offers no reference to the
development of the Armenian revolutionary parties, their provocation strategy during
the 1890s 7 and in 1909,8 their assassinations of loyalist Armenians 9 or their devastating
policies after 1918. 10 Also, the book shows no recognition of the Armenian contribution
to the CUP administrations, before and after 1914. 11 The only element of framework is a
clearly inaccurate description of the Balkan wars and their aftermath —previously present
in the Turkish version of the book and already criticized.12

The goal of this paper is to survey the methods used by Akçam in this book, and offer
readers an opportunity to assess whether these methods are suitable for academic literature.

Use of False Documents

One of the most disturbing aspects of Young Turks is that Taner Akçam’s search for “evidence”
of a “genocidal intent” against the Ottoman Armenians leads him to use more
than questionable sources. On page 197, he relies on the so-called Ten Commands,
attributed to the CUP leadership. Canadian historian Gwynne Dyer has demonstrated,
as early as 1973 during a debate with Christopher J. Walker, that this “document” is
apocryphal.13 Since then, Mr Walker—who still applies the “Armenian genocide” label
—has carefully refrained from using the “Ten Commands”. In addition, Donald
Bloxham, who sides with the “genocide” charge against the CUP, has stated that this
“document” is “probably a fake”.14 On the other side of the debate, Stanford Jay Shaw
provided additional data in 2000 to corroborate Gwynne Dyer’s findings. 15 However,
Mr Akçam does not acknowledge the scholarly dialog in the field of study; instead, he
merely refers to a paper by Vahakn N. Dadrian (p. 197, n.130) whose own work on
the document is highly questionable 16 and whose translation of it is not entirely accurate.

Correspondingly, Taner Akçam also bases his claims on the “Andonian documents”.
In 2001, he had argued rightfully: “there are important grounds for considering these
documents fake”. 18 Also, in his current book, he says that “a reexamination of the validity
of the Andonian telegrams” is “necessary” (p. 254), but then he uses one of the fake documents
of Andonian without qualification (p. 272), as if the authenticity was beyond any
reasonable doubt. Akçam does not provide any rebuttal of the studies that have shown the
“Andonian documents” to be fakes. 19 He freely discusses their content, in utter disregard
for the work brought forth by scholars to demonstrate that these are forged telegrams.

He only tries to find few sources which are supposed to corroborate the content of the
“telegrams” published by Andonian. Not only this would be not a convincing argument
even if true, but also Akçam deliberately distorts these sources.

He writes that a “letter” quoted by Ahmet Emin Yalman in his book Turkey in the World
War presents “similarities” with those attributed to Sakir by Andonian (p. 136). The
problem is that Yalman does not reproduce any “letter”, but only mentions, without
any reference, a rumor about some CUP leaders, and without even giving their
names. 20 Correspondingly, on p. 254, n. 90, Taner Akçam affirms that the content of one
Andonian “telegram” is “nearly identical to those of Talat Pasha’s directive of 29 August
1915 to all provinces”. Margaret Lavinia Anderson enthusiastically endorses this argument:
Indeed, the contents of one of the telegrams published in 1919 by Aram Andonian,
mocked as forgeries by spokesmen for the Turkish Republic, ‘are nearly identical
to those of Talat’s […] directive to all provinces of 29 August 1915’, which Akçam
found in the Prime Ministerial Ottoman Archives.

In fact, the fake documents published by Andonian (in 1920 and 1921, not in 1919) are
considered to be forgeries not only by “spokesmen of the Turkish Republic” but also by
many non-Turkish scholars of various stances.22 Even some supporters of the “Armenian
genocide” label consider the “Andonian documents” to be dubious.23 It is also dubious
that Mr Akçam “found” the authentic telegram of Talat Pasha in the Ottoman archives,
because this document has been published (and translated) several times since 1983,
before Young Turks’, including in a book specifically devoted to showing Andonian-published
false documents. Moreover, the content of the telegram radically contradicts,
rather than confirms, Andonian’s fabrication (my emphasis):

Objective of the transfer of the Armenians from the places they are currently
living to the certain determined regions is to prevent their attempts and activities
against the government and to render them unable to pursue their national goal
of establishing an Armenian government. Since there is no intention like the complete
destruction of the Armenians
it is absolutely necessary to protect the lives of the
individuals being transferred in convoys and to take every measure to provide
their food supplies regularly during their travel, the cost of which to be met
from the immigrants fund. It is also necessary for the government that, with
the exclusion of those who were decided to be relocated, the Armenians, particularly
the families of the army members, as mentioned in the previous
notice, as well as artisans and those belonging to the Protestant and Catholic
sects will be left at their current place of residence. About those who attack
the convoys and seize their properties and dare to rape the Armenians by
acting on bestial instincts, as well as the officials and gendarme members who
act as the initiator of such acts, the legal investigation shall be started immediately
for their severe punishment, without showing any mercy on them. Such
officials shall be immediately dismissed from the service and brought before
the military court. Furthermore, their names should be reported. In case
similar attacks are repeated, the administration of the province where such
attacks occur shall be held responsible.24

Misrepresentation of Key Sources

When the sources are not forged, Taner Akçam is found distorting the meaning of key
sources in order to provide evidence for the “genocide” charge.

Falsifying Talat Pasha’s Words

Taner Akçam argues that the telegram dispatched by Talat Pasha to Ankara’s province on
29 August 1915 is the remarkable evidence that “the policies adopted against the Armenians
were aiming at their annihilation” (pp. 203–204). Interestingly, in an inaccurate
translation, Akçam quotes only the two first sentences of this text: “The Armenian issue in the Eastern Provinces has been resolved. There is no need to sully the nation and
the government[’s honor] with further atrocities.” Taner Akçam’s replacement of context
with his own speculations distorts the meaning of the full telegram. Reading the full and
accurate text of the document is enlightening (my emphasis):

The Armenian issue pertaining to the Eastern provinces has been solved. Therefore,
there is no need to harm the reputation of our nation and government by
conducting unnecessary cruelties. Particularly the recent attack conducted on
the Armenians at a place close to Ankara has caused great regret of the Ministry,
considering its way of occurring, the obvious incompetence of the officials
charged with supervising the transfer of Armenians, and audacity on part of
the gendarmes and the local people who acted on their bestial instincts to
rape and rob the Armenians. The transfer of Armenians, which is desired to
be carried out in an orderly and prudent manner, should henceforth never be
left to the individuals having fanatical feelings of enmity, and that the Armenians,
whether or not they are subject to relocation, will be definitely protected against any
assault and attack
. At the places where such a protection could not be provided,
the transfer of Armenians should be postponed. From now on, all of the officials
in charge shall be held responsible with respect to their ranks for any attack,
which may occur and shall be brought before the military courts. It is necessary
to give very strict orders to the relevant personnel in this regard. 25

Instead of proving any “genocidal” design on the part of Talat Pasha, this document
might actually prove the reverse. Although Akçam’s distortion has been publicized at
least on three separate platforms, he has shown no interest in offering a rebuttal. 26

There is another misrepresentation of Talat Pasha’s words that cannot be detected by
readers for whom Taner Akçam is the only source of information. Claims that the note
sent by the Minister of Interior Talat Pasha to the Grand Vizier Sait Halim on 26 May
1915 “has never been completely translated into modern Turkish” are false. 27 Furthermore,
Taner Akçam cherry picks which parts of the several paragraphs contained in
the document he wishes to share with his readers. This is not a random choice, for it
allows him to claim that the document is

the clearest possible refutation of the official Turkish version of the events of
1915, which insists that the policies toward the Armenians were the result of
the wartime exigencies. On the contrary, Unionist policy was aimed at resolving
the issue of Armenian reforms in a definitive manner. (pp. 136–137)

However, access to the full document would reveal that the relocation of Armenians was
decided upon as a measure against “armed attacks on security forces and armed uprisings”.
The text also states the following (my emphasis):

Unfortunately, while the means to bring about a final solution to this problem
[by reforms] is being worked out, some of the Armenians living in places
close to the battlefields have recently become involved in activities aimed at
creating difficulties for our army in its fight against the enemy to protect the
Ottoman borders. Those Armenians are trying to impede the operations of
the army, and the transfer of supply and ammunition. They are combining
their aspirations and activities with those of the enemy’s and are fighting
against us in the ranks of the enemy. Within the country, they dare to carry
out armed attacks against the military forces and the innocent civilians, to become involved in acts of murder, looting and plundering in the Ottoman
cities and towns, to provide supplies to the enemy’s navy and to inform them
of the places with fortified posts. The conduct of such rebel elements has rendered
it necessary to remove them from the area of military operations and to evacuate the
villages serving as operational bases and shelters for the rebels.

It bears noting that the allusion to the reforms proposed in 1914 is only incidental and not
the reason given by Talat Pasha for the relocation decision.

Taner Akçam also removes the reference to the protection of relocated Armenians,
especially the following:

A decision has been taken to ensure the comfort of those subjects on their way to
places allocated for their resettling. To ensure the subjects arrival at the resettlement
places, and facilitate their rest, and protect of their live [sic.] and properties
on their journey. 28

By every aspect, this letter by Talat Pasha may serve as a clear refutation of Taner
Akçam’s claims.

The third main instance of complete inversion of the meaning of Talat Pasha’s words
by Taner Akçam is his misuse of the telegram sent by the Ottoman Minister of Interior on
22 July 1915 (p. 210). Once again, Mr Akçam bases his speculations on few words while
cutting out the most relevant part of the source:

Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to enforce the public security in a firm
manner on the border of the province, and especially on the route of the Armenian
convoys, and to avoid any delay in the military transportation and dispatch.
The results of the measures which would be taken should be reported. 29

Falsifying Testimonies

In addition to the fake “Ten Commands”, Taner Akçam relies on two key sources to
“prove” that the “genocide” decision was made in March 1915 and discussed by the
German government: the Memoirs of Halil Mentese and of Arif Cemil Denker. Four
years before the publication of Young Turks’ Crime, Hilmar Kaiser, a supporter of the
“Armenian genocide” label, protested against Mr Akçam’s misquotation (in A Shameful
Act) of Mentese’s Memoirs: the book “says exactly the opposite” of what Taner Akçam
affirms. It says: Taner Akçam’s use of Turkish sources “is totally unscholarly”. 30 Once
again, this criticism was completely unanswered and the same manipulation of the
source is repeated in Young Turks’ Crime, in an even less sophisticated form than in A
Shameful Act. Indeed, Taner Akçam pretends (p. 184):

On March 18 [1915], foreign minister Halil Mentese traveled to Berlin for talks
with the German government on the Armenian deportation. (Finance minister
Cavit Bey, who opposed Ottoman entry into the war, was also in Berlin at this
time but was not trusted in the Armenian matter.) Upon returning at Istanbul,
Mentese was welcomed at the train station by Talat, who greeted him thus: ‘Tell
me, dear Halil, what did you discuss in Berlin regarding the deportation of

On the same page, Mr Akçam affirms: “all this information was reported by Mentese
” in his Memoirs. Firstly, Halil Mentese was not, in March (or even later in
spring) 1915, the Ottoman Minister of Foreign Affairs. He took his position in October; in March, he was still the president of the National Assembly. Secondly, and
more important, Taner Akçam’s summary is, as pointed by Hilmar Kaiser, a complete
inversion of the sense of Mentese’s account. Indeed, the president of the Ottoman
National Assembly does not pretend at all that he was sent to Berlin “for talks with the
German government on the Armenian deportation”. He explains that the goal of his
trip was the supply to the Ottoman Empire of German products through the Balkans.
Nowhere does this Ottoman leader pretend that “Finance minister Cavit Bey was not
trusted in the Armenian matter.” Correspondingly, Mentese does not mention any conversation
about the Armenian issue with the German officials. Right after the question
“Dear Halil, tell me what you spoke in Berlin for this Armenian relocation?” Mentese
quotes the reaction of Talat Pasha to his response:

Dear Halil, I wronged you unfairly. If Halil comes, he would influence my moral
matters, I decided: let me finish this work and let him come after that, it turns
out I was mistaken.

And just after these lines, at the same page, Mentese explains that “one morning” after
this conversation (the date are not provided, but it must be at the beginning of
summer 1915), Talat Pasha told him how sad he was, learning by the governor of
Erzurum that some convoys of relocated Armenians have been attacked. 31 A checking
in the Memoirs of the president of the Ottoman National Assembly clearly shows that: