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  • The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire by Taner Akçam
  • Robert Melson
The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, Taner Akçam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), xlii+483 pp., hardcover $42.00, pbk. $24.95, electronic version available.

Taner Akçam, who holds the Kaloosdian and Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University, is the first scholar of Turkish origin to acknowledge and publish on the Armenian Genocide. Willing to speak out publicly in Turkey—like Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk—he has been prosecuted for his views. His previous book, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (2006), provided a historical analysis of the genocide. In this volume, Akçam introduces and critically examines hundreds of documents from the Ottoman archives. In his latest monograph he supplements these Ottoman sources with materials from American and German archives, aiming to show that these sources complement each other and demonstrate a pattern of state-directed violence culminating in genocide (p. xxxiii).

This is an important book in that its evidence comes primarily from Ottoman documents produced by the perpetrators—sources that were previously thought to be either inaccessible or irrelevant to the issues. Akçam is able to mine such evidence because he views genocide not as produced by a single decision that proves the genocidal intentions of the perpetrators, but as the result of a dynamic process of cumulative radicalization that can be determined by examining the pattern of decisionmaking at both the elite and the organizational levels. In this connection, he argues against the United Nations definition of genocide, which he finds too confining. He relies instead on Raphael Lemkin’s broader conception of genocide as a dynamic process that entails the cultural destruction of a group as well as its physical annihilation (pp. xxvii–xxxi).

Akçam believes that historical contingency played a major role in setting the Young Turks and their political organization, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), on a course of genocide. Following the coup against Sultan Abdulhamid II on July 23, 1908, the Young Turks took steps to radically reform the Ottoman Empire. Any constitutional arrangements that might have preserved Ottoman pluralism along liberal lines were dashed, however, by a series of crises that turned them toward a radical form of Turkish nationalism. Akçam singles out the Balkan wars of 1912–13 and the reforms of February 1914 as crucial. [End Page 510]

Following its defeats in the Balkan wars, the empire lost 80 percent of its European lands and nearly 70 percent of its European population, after already having lost more than 60 percent of its territory in the nineteenth century (p. xiv). The Young Turks and the CUP viewed these losses as an unprecedented military disaster for the Ottoman Empire. On top of this catastrophe, the Great Powers—especially Russia—demanded that the CUP accept a series of political and administrative reforms, ostensibly aimed at protecting Christian minorities and especially the Armenians, in the eastern provinces. The Young Turks viewed the reforms as a transparent ploy to partition Anatolia and destroy Turkey. Some of the Young Turks thus came to view Armenians as “a tumor” or “cancer” that needed to be excised so that Turkey might survive (pp. xv, 29).

Two mutually reinforcing goals initially drove the policy of radical demographic transformation and homogenization in Anatolia: first, to expel and deport indigenous Christians, especially Armenians, in order to prevent them from making claims to autonomy or self-determination; and second, to resettle Muslim refugees from the Balkans and later from the Caucasus on land that previously had been owned by Christians. These two complementary goals led to many complex, state-directed initiatives: the state took censuses of minorities and their properties, organized expulsions, planned routes of deportation, carried out the deportations, and organized massacres when this was deemed necessary to achieve the goal of homogenization. These initiatives inevitably left “traces” in the Ottoman records (p. xxv).

To implement their policies of deportation, the Young Turks decided that Armenians would be...


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