The Spirit of the Laws: The Plunder of Wealth in the Armenian Genocide by Taner Akçam and Umit Kurt (review)
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Reviewed by
Akçam, Taner and Umit Kurt – The Spirit of the Laws: The Plunder of Wealth in the Armenian Genocide. Translated by Aram Arkun. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2015, Pp. 206.

Once the Armenian and Assyrians peoples were deported out of their historic lands and decimated through barbaric acts, there remained the question of the property, land, wealth, and civilization left behind. There was also the issue of survivors and their descendants who could have claims over what was euphemistically called ‘Abandoned Properties’ thus leading to the creation and refinement of the [End Page 666] “Abandoned Properties Laws”. Taner Akçam and Umit Kurt have already made important contributions to document the wrongful acts and the lies on which the current historical narrative of their country, Turkey, is built. With this book, they undertake the systematic examination of the legal framework put in place and refined over the years by successive Turkish governments, Ottoman and Republican, starting from the Genocide of 1915 in a systematic effort to cover up an important aspect of the planned annihilation of their own Armenian (and Assyrian) citizens and finally to deny citizenship rights to the former in 1964.

The book starts with a brief dedication to Hrant Dink, the editor of the Armenian Turkish newspaper AGOS, assassinated on January 19, 2007, in Istanbul. The inspiration for undertaking the research upon which the book is based derives from a question he asked during an interview: “What happened to the civilization, the wealth created by a thousand-year-old society (i.e. Armenians)?”

Scholars who work in the legal profession like to remind us that no laws can prevent genocides from being perpetrated or from recurring. The authors of this book point out that Raphael Lemkin (1944) introduced the concept of genocide for the first time in his book entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe – anchoring his analysis not merely on the barbaric acts committed by the Nazis, but in law, and thus illustrating the fact that genocide is indeed embedded in ordinary legal documents. The book under review is a good case study echoing Lemkin’s the approach, providing illustration of the special structural and institutional basis for genocides.

The book consists of seven chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion. The introduction states the central thesis of the book: the Abandoned Properties Laws examined therein “were a structural element of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 as well as today’s Turkish system, and yet paradoxically, they continue to this very day to protect the rights of the Armenians to their properties.” (p. 2) The two authors go on to document their claim that the elimination of the physical and cultural existence of the Armenians in Anatolia was institutionalized in the Turkish legal system and that “This is why we call the system a genocidal regime.” (p. 13) This characterization of the system is seen as the root of the denialism perpetuated today by the Turkish state, of the difficult positioning of Turkey in international affairs, and of the possiblility of risk to Turkey’s security itself. The authors make sure to indicate that the two questions are quite separate. They also seek to avoid confusion between the Abandoned Properties Laws and their implications, on the one hand, and the indemnity claims, on the other. The seven chapters of the book follow the evolution of the Abandoned Properties Laws from the different stages of Committee of Union and Progress Period, to the Republican Period, and to today, emphasising the Treaty of Lausanne as a turning point.

It is important to note the difficulty in approaching the topic of genocide from a purely legal perspective for two authors who are not merely historians but also Turkish citizens. They live a double moral dilemma and their courage to confront the examination of genocide is appreciated. They state in the conclusion of their book their wish to cleanse the shame inflicted by the state on its own citizens and express their hope to see change and transformation in Turkey: The last thing that [End Page 667] we can add is that, without changing this legal structure, the political and social democratization of...


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