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      Akçam at Harvard

Akçam at Harvard   26/05/2004

Taner Akcam Insists at Harvard University 
That Historical View of Events of 1915-23 Must Embrace both Armenian, Turkish Perspectives
Dialogue between Armenians, Turkish Society Is Essential, Says Akcam

By Daphne Abeel
Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - On May 20, an overflow, standing room only, audience of
250 filled Harvard University"s Kennedy School of Government"s Starr Auditorium
for a highly anticipated address by Turkish scholar Taner Akçam. The event,
co-sponsored by the Zoryan Institute, the National Association for Armenian
Studies and Research (NAASR), the Mashtots Chair of Armenian Studies at Harvard
University and the Harvard Armenian Society drew members of the Armenian
community, academics and a sprinkling of Turkish students.

Akçam, who is well known for his acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide, is
a rarity amongst Turkish scholars, being willing to speak publicly about the
Armenian version of the events that took place in what is now modern Turkey
from 1915-1923. He was been praised by Armenian scholars of the Genocide such as
Vahakn Dadrian who has said, "[Akçam] is one of the first Turkish academics to
acknowledge and discuss openly the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman
Turkish government in 1915."

Akçam"s thesis is that the gap between Turks and Armenians concerning the
subject of the Genocide must be bridged through discussion. And he made
significant point in his presentation, commenting that neither side ever looks at the
other"s point of view. Armenians focus only on the Genocide, asking, in effect,
"Why did this happen to us?"

Said Akçam, "The studies carried out by most Genocide scholars are done from
the victim"s perspective. I approach the events from the point of view of the
perpetrator. For the Armenians, the Genocide is seen as an exceptional event,
an isolated accident of history, whereas the perpetrator sees it as an
explainable product of a cultural process."

Historians who take the Turkish view analyze the period in question as a
period of "partition and decline of the Empire. They make no reference to the
massacres or to the Genocide, or to the mistakes of the war.  And they feel that
the Great Powers intervened too much. These historians are in a love
relationship with Turkey " they are Turkophiles," said Akçam.

The other side, the historians who take the Armenian point of view, the
victim groups, "emphasize the Genocide but you cannot find the story of the
partition in their accounts. This side feels that the Great Powers did not intervene
enough."

The problem said Akçam is that these are two sides of the same coin, they
deal with the very same events of history. "A balanced perspective must
incorporate both views."

Drawing from his new book, From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and
the Armenian Genocide, Akcam argued that Turkey"s transition from empire to
nation state produced violence against Armenians and others, as Turks perceived
that the Empire was in decline.

"Turks experienced social and political rage, a feeling of political collapse
and a shaking of confidence in their society. The Empire"s members doubted
the values that had been held until that point. This led to social disruptions,
a feeling of defeat and decline, a massive internal trauma," said Akçam. He
continued, "Delusions of greatness gave way to feelings of helplessness, because
Turkey could not realize its fantasy of greatness or devise a realistic
solution to its problem. The resort to violence was inescapable."
In societies, said Akçam, "Individual instincts must be put under social
control. There must be a reward for suppressing violence, and a feeling of pride
in national identity is the reward."

Akçam also insisted that the Genocide is not a problem in Turkey"s past but
in its present. "It is a current problem, because if a country cannot face the
fact of wrongdoing in the past, it cannot have a democratic future," he said.
Akçam argues that Turkey is facing the same problems it faced at the
beginning of the 20th century. It wishes to be accepted as a great power, but still
fears for its existence. The decline of the USSR has once again awaked Turkey"s
fear of partition.

Turning to the question of available documents, Akçam conceded that any study
of the Ottoman archives easily demonstrates the genocidal intent of the
Ottoman authorities. Furthermore, said Akçam, "The views of Turkish society do not
equal the views of the Turkish state…. There is a large gap between what the
Turkish state and Turkish society regarding the denial of the Armenian
Genocide. These subgroups in Turkish society have their own collective memory," he
said.

The perpetration of the official Turkish state"s position of denial is
perpetrated by the "continuity of the Turkish ruling elite. It is the same elite who
founded the modern Turkish republic, and it is not easy for these people to
call the founders "murderers and thieves,"" said Akçam. "The Genocide remains
taboo because of this ruling elite, but Turkey wishes to be democratic, it
wants to join the European Union, and knows that there must be a change in the
ruling elite. Only a democratic country can discuss the past truthfully. And
only if Turkey discusses the past can it become democratic."

This was Akçam"s first appearance in Boston. He has not resided in Turkey for
a number of years and is currently a visiting professor of history at the
University of Minnesota. Prior to his most recent academic appointment, Akçam
lived in Germany where he received a PhD from Hanover University. He was born in
northeastern Turkey, became active in politics at an early age and eventually
fled to Germany as a political refugee.

While Akçam did not fully address the issue of how private opinion
sympathetic to the Armenian view can become part of public dialogue if that dialogue is
constantly suppressed by the state, he is clearly committed to dialogue. The
questions that followed his presentation, some from the Armenian community, and
at least one, respectfully raised by a Turkish student, are evidence that the
dialogue has begun.


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