- The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire by Taner Akçam
“Now this is not the end,” said Winston Churchill during World War II. “It is not even the beginning of the end,” Churchill continued, “But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” “The position of Armenian Genocide research at this very moment could not be described better than this,” writes Taner Akçam in the latest of his numerous volumes devoted to documenting and understanding the events of 1915–1916 (and their ongoing legacies for Armenians and Turks alike) (p. xxxi). Akçam himself has played a significant role in moving research on the topic from a situation in which, until rather recently, works on the Armenian genocide were stuck in an inert state of trying to either prove or deny that genocide took place, or to document the tragedies that befell the victims. Indeed, Akçam’s weighty tome finds its place among the increasingly nuanced body of literature that engages with theoretical concepts advanced in the field of genocide studies and moves beyond essentializing and reifying historical relations among groups to examine the contingency of events that drove the perpetrators to engage in ethnic cleansing and mass murder. [End Page 908]
The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity expands and builds upon some of the efforts the author has made to delve more deeply into the contingent events in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ottoman Empire, and to challenge existing historiography on the topic in his earlier works, namely, From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide (2004) and A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (2006). Here, Akçam succeeds in demonstrating that the two disparate narratives and approaches that have evolved among historians espousing the official Turkish version of events, on the one hand, and the Armenian/Western version, on the other, can actually be reconciled to provide a fuller picture of late Ottoman history and the events that came to constitute the Armenian genocide. He shows that the “Turkish” focus, which has generally been on the “unjust end of the great empire” (p. xiii), and the “Armenian/Western” take on events, which has celebrated the empire’s end and has focused on the suffering of the victims, can be brought together to provide a richer understanding of why the Armenian genocide took place.
Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” to describe the Jewish Holocaust, and this term subsequently became the basis for the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. However, this convention understood genocide to be a more singular act of physical destruction. Akçam, on the other hand, returns to Lemkin’s original suggestion that genocide is, rather, a dynamic process—a series of connected events and acts, which is not limited to the physical annihilation of the group alone. Other recent works on genocide have also acknowledged genocide as a dynamic process, but Akçam’s focus here—on the Young Turks’ demographic policies—adds a unique dimension to this discussion. To this end, Akçam offers two chapters on the CUP’s demographic policies vis-à-vis Ottoman Greeks in eastern Thrace and the Aegean, and later shows how Young Turk ethnic cleansing projects in these regions were soon redeployed against Ottoman Armenians. His attention to the “dual-track” policy of population transfer, annihilation, and assimilation is important, as, through the use of Ottoman documents, he is able to show how the central government Ottoman authorities strived to create the impression that they were not fully aware of violence against Ottoman Christians yet remained engaged in consistent and systematic efforts to gather information on the peoples whose demographic dilution was sought. Previous studies on the Armenian genocide have suggested that the CUP engaged in “secret orders,” but Akçam’s uncovering of numerous Ottoman documents to this effect should lay...