A Shameful Act The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility

Taner Akcam




Trade Paperback

496 Pages



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In 1915, under the cover of a world war, some one million Armenians were killed through starvation, forced marches, forced exile, and mass acts of slaughter. Although Armenians and world opinion have held the Ottoman powers responsible, Turkey has consistently rejected any claim of intentional genocide. Now, in a work of excavation, Turkish historian Taner Akçam has made extensive use of Ottoman and other sources to produce a scrupulous charge sheet against the Turkish authorities. The first scholar of any nationality to have mined the significant evidence—in Turkish military and court records, parliamentary minutes, letters, and eyewitness accounts—Akçam follows the chain of events leading up to the killing and then reconstructs its systematic orchestration by coordinated departments of the Ottoman state, the ruling political parties, and the military. He also probes the crucial question of how Turkey succeeded in evading responsibility, pointing to competing international interests in the region, the priorities of Turkish nationalists, and the international community's inadequate attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice.


Praise for A Shameful Act

"The definitive account . . . No future discussion of the history will be able to ignore this brilliant book.”—Orhan Pamuk
"A Shameful Act, by Taner Akçam, is a Turkish blast against this national denial. A historian and former leftist activist now teaching at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, Akçam is often described as the first Turkish scholar to call the massacres genocide, and his impressive achievement here is to shine fresh light on exactly why and how the Ottoman Empire deported and slaughtered the Armenians. He directly challenges the doubters back home, basing his powerful book on Turkish sources in the old Ottoman script—including the failed Ottoman war crimes tribunals held after World War I."—Gary J. Bass, The New York Times Book Review
"Magnificently researched . . . No scholar has mined and synthesized the Ottoman Empire's internal documents and memoirs with Akcam's assiduous skill.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
A Shameful Act is an important work of record, comprehensively chronicling the destruction of the Armenians, its causes, unfolding and consequences. Richly sourced, Akcam’s book utilizes Ottoman materials and archives as well as American and German documents. He writes: 'What remains in the Ottoman archives and in court records is sufficient to show that the CUP [Committee of Union and Progress, aka Young Turks] Central Committee, and the Special Organization it set up to carry out its plan, did deliberately attempt to destroy the Armenians population. Here, at last, there seems no doubt about the question of genocidal ‘intent.’ Akcam swiftly demolishes the argument that Armenians were slaughtered because they had organized an uprising against the authorities. What resistance there was came about because of the deportations, not the other way around.”—Adam LeBor, The Nation
"This is a worthwhile book, not because a Turk critical of his country's historical positions has written it, but rather because it reflects movement towards a middle ground of understanding these events . . . Anyone interested in the ongoing controversy regarding the fate of the Ottoman Armenians should read this book."—Lt. Col, Edward J. Erickson, Middle East Journal

"Turkish historian Akçam capably refutes those who deny the Armenian genocide, who will probably not change their minds. No one knows how many Armenians died at Turkish hands in the 1910s, but the number almost certainly exceeds one million. Akçam, writing from the safe distance of the University of Minnesota, has worked through thousands and thousands of documents to find concrete evidence thereof, against considerable difficulty. For one thing, in the post-World War I era, the so-called Young Turks who had led the genocide were still in power and ordered the destruction of countless incriminating documents. For another, no less comprehensive, that postwar government promulgated an alphabet reform that replaced Arabic script with Latin letters, so that, apart from a few scholars, Turkey is now 'a society that cannot read its own newspapers, letters and diaries if they were written before 1928 . . . As a result, modern Turkey is totally dependent on history as the state has defined and written it.' More puzzling is the complicity of the victorious Allies in allowing Turkey to escape punishment for—and then deny—its actions against the Armenians; Akçam turns up documents there, too. He is unsparing in his evidence, including proof that Turkish officials who refused to obey murderous orders were themselves murdered. Yet the author also ventures explanations for how the genocide could have been so easily conducted: Most Turks, it appears, condoned it, believing that with the rapid collapse of the Ottoman Empire, their nation was in danger of being carved up by Armenian nationalists. Ironically, hoping for a homeland of their own, Muslim Kurds joined in the slaughter of Christian Armenians,who had 'been willing to convert to escape death.' Convicts released from prison for the purpose butchered tens of thousands, too. Yet the Turkish government bears the greatest responsibility for the murders, even if it will not admit to it. Of profound importance to history—and certain to stir up nests of hornets."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Akcam has attracted considerable attention for being one of the first Turkish intellectuals to devote his career to studying the systematic slaughter of one million Armenians during World War I. For this reason, he has been harshly criticized by those who would deny the existence of an Armenian genocide. Akcam's earlier work, From Empire to Republic, contextualized the genocide within a climate of Turkish nationalism and attempted to provide the basis for a Turkish national conversation about trauma and culpability. Although essentially similar to that book in its analysis of Turkish culpability, his latest study is considerably broader in historical scope. He seeks to harmonize the conventional narrative of the collapsing Ottoman Empire with victims' perspectives of Turkish dominance over minorities. He does this by showing a state—rent by internal power struggles and terrified of being partitioned—that pursues genocide as a way of avoiding catastrophic collapse. Clearly a companion to Peter Balakian's Burning Tigris and other accounts of the genocide, this book also deserves to be read in concert with recent works analyzing the politics of genocide and national shame in Germany.”—Brendan Driscoll, Booklist
"The story of the Ottoman Empire's slaughter of one million Armenians in 1915—a genocide still officially denied by the 83-year-old modern Turkish state—has been dominated by two historiographical traditions. One pictures an embattled empire, increasingly truncated by rapacious Western powers and internal nationalist movements. The other details the attempted eradication of an entire people, amid persecutions of other minorities. Part of historian Akçam's task in this clear, well-researched work is to reconcile these mutually exclusive narratives. He roots his history in an unsparing analysis of Turkish responsibility for one of the most notorious atrocities of a singularly violent century, in internal and international rivalries, and an exclusionary system of religious (Muslim) and ethnic (Turkish) superiority. With novel use of key Ottoman, European and American sources, he reveals that the mass killing of Armenians was no byproduct of WWI, as long claimed in Turkey, but a deliberate, centralized program of state-sponsored extermination. As Turkey now petitions to join the European Union, and ethnic cleansing and collective punishment continues to threaten entire populations around the globe, this groundbreaking and lucid account by a prominent Turkish scholar speaks forcefully to all."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Born in Ardahan province, Turkey, in 1953, Taner Akçam is the author of ten scholarly works of history and sociology, as well as numerous articles in Turkish, German, and English. He currently teaches at the University of Minnesota.
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  • Taner Akcam

  • Taner Akçam, a sociologist and historian, was born in Ardahan province, Turkey, in 1953. He was granted political asylum in Germany after receiving a ten-year prison sentence in Turkey for his involvement in producing a student journal, which resulted in his adoption in 1976 by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. He is the author of ten scholarly works of history and sociology, as well as numerous articles in Turkish, German, and English. He currently teacher at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.