The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity. The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, by Taner Akçam

, December 30, 2013

The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity. The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, by Taner Akçam, Princeton University Press, 2012, 528 pp.

Reviewed by Wolfgang G. Schwanitz

Taner Akçam reminds us in his book The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity, that six years ago, a Turkish court sentenced two journalists to a year in jail for using the term, “genocide” to describe “events of 1915.” It passed a suspended sentence on Sarkis Seropyan and Arat Dink, the latter, the son of the slain journalist Hrant Dink (to whom this book is dedicated). The court ruled that talk of genocide adversely affects national security, that the claim of genocide supports some plans aiming to change Turkey’s geographic and political boundaries, and, therefore, that the claim is part of a campaign to destroy the physical and legal structure of the state. The term, “genocide,” the judge opined, may lead to questioning of the sovereign rights of the Republic which is under siege by genocide resolutions. The assertion “genocide was perpetrated,” he maintained, does not fall into the category of protected speech. According to Turkish law, such freedoms can be limited in order to protect the security of the nation.

By dint of this unique logic, Taner Akçam’s name appeared on a 2009 hit list with “traitors to national security” (p. xii). On this list, too, was Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, whom a court likewise fined in 2011. In 2008, paragraph 301 of the Turkish penal code was softened. Thus, insult to “Turkishness” was redefined as insult to the “Turkish nation.” On March 9, 2011, the European Parliament flagged this paragraph as detrimental to freedom of speech. Yet, the Turkish courts continue to prosecute persons who have exercised this right. Others like Akçam, who live in America, received death threats, while Turkish officials maintain a blackout on this subject. What, then, happened in 1915 that justifies a formal state denial and threats to independent researchers?

Akçam offers answers. In his previous book, A Shameful Act,1 this chair of Armenian Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts identified the perpetrators of the genocide against Armenians. Now, in The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity, he focuses on the period 1913 to 1918. In his reading, this history reveals two sides of one coin: the same events, but different views. Akçam unifies them into one account (p. xiii), but there are multiple narratives, including a German one (350). Basing his work on six hundred previously unavailable Ottoman documents, Aksam claims that his study breaks new ground.

Parts of this book have been previously published in Turkish in Istanbul. This English version (p. xxxii) differs from the Turkish text in that it contains new and revised chapters. The book leaves a fair bit of room for confusion, however, as the author inadequately defines such terms as Turks, Ottomans, Young Turks and Ottomanism.2 He categorizes those who rebelled in 1908 as “Young Turks.” In 1913 this group established a triumvirate of “Three Pashas:” Cemal, Enver and Talat. But the members of the Committee of Unity and Progress, CUP, or Unionists, were as multi-ethnic as the Empire. The Turkish majority, held key positions, although Arabs, Jews, Kurds and Druse made their respective contributions. Included were Halim Said, a pro-German grand vezir (counselor), Tekin Alp, an ideologue, Emmanuel Carasso, a Unionist, and Kurds in killer gangs. The term “Young Turks,” therefore, needs to be defined better by showing how the multi-ethnic mixture changed with men from the Balkans and the Caucasus. What joint ideology drove them? Akçam leaves this key question

Akçam has organized the argument into roughly four sections. Firstly, he describes the purge of Ottoman sources at the very start of, and immediately after, the genocide, the plan to cleanse Anatolia and the drive against the Greeks of Thrace and the Aegean. Secondly, he treats the turn of Ottoman policies against the Greeks, an initial phase of the anti-Armenian policy, and its final steps in decision-making. Thirdly, he offers archival proof of the intent to annihilate, the related “demographic policy” against the Armenians, and assimilation by forced conversion to Islam and marriage. Fourthly, he concludes with information pertaining to Armenian property, the official denial, Ottoman counter-sources and his own evaluation.

From the start, the author reveals, the perpetrators worked with an awareness of guilt and endeavored to hide their crimes. Incriminating records were destroyed “right after reading.” Papers were removed by such leading men as the Unionist Nazim Bey and Hans von Seeckt, acting chief of staff of the Ottoman High Command. The author cites Ahmed Esat (later known as Esat Uras) who disclosed that an order to kill deportees was sent via courier to governors. The message was to be returned to the couriers, who were often secretaries of the CUP party. This was corroborated in the trial of March 5, 1919. Akçam provides us with a reprint of Talat’s cable of June 22, 1915 to governors concerning forced conversion to Islam, with the note to remove it from the telegraph office and destroy it (pp. 13–15). After the war, the Istanbul Court-Martials about War Crimes (1918–1922) made use of the same cover-up tactics.


Until 1913, the Balkan Wars led to a Muslim migration into the Ottoman realm. In the fall of that year and in 1914 the Ottomans exchanged populations following agreements with Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece. For a short period, they provided for the bilateral exchange of minorities to each of their respective ethno-religious majority lands. According to Akçam, there was a two-part Unionist plan of further ethno-religious homogenization in Anatolia: cleansing of Anatolia’s non-Muslim population and the assimilation or Turkification of Anatolia’s non-Turkish people (p. xiv). As it turned out, all “infidels” were included in the plan.

Palestinian Jews were included in the group of those infidels. Akçam discovered cables dealing with the expulsion of 500 Russian Jews from Jaffa on February 6, 1915. He came to the conclusion that deportations of which the government was unaware took place in great numbers within the area controlled by Cemal Pasha’s Fourth Army. Here Akçam argued that Cemal ordered a number of expulsions on the basis of political and/or military necessity. On August, 23, an “irritated Talat” (p. 61) asked Cemal about the identity of “1,700 Jews to be expelled” and “the reasons of their expulsion.” German and Jewish records, interestingly, reveal no evidence of “war necessities” for the deportations.3

Perhaps it was a case of obfuscation. We do not know whether Talat was truly “unaware” or “irritated” about expulsions for “political and/or military necessities.” It seems clear, however, that a dual track-system was at work (p. 380). The Ottomans would send “protective cables” in favor of “fair treatment” of the deportees, and the Unionists would send contradictory “genocidal cables.” The two types of communications were often dispatched on the same official or private telegraph lines or via courier (p. 13).

Was there an ideology that favored the liquidation of non-Muslim minorities? We know that Cemal tried twice, once in 1915 and again in 1917, to drive all Jews, regardless of their citizenship, out of Palestine. Eyewitness reports leave one with the sense that, as the Armenian genocide progressed, the Unionists tried to carry out the same policy against Palestinian Jews. This goal was thwarted by the Kaiser’s pro-Zionist line, Zionist counter-steps, and diplomatic protests. Nonetheless, one-tenth of Palestinian Jewry perished in this attempted genocide. Akçam’s failure to explicate this ideology is a weak point in an otherwise superb study.

Greek villagers of western Anatolia were forced out and replaced by Muslim immigrants (pp. 69–70). Special Organization Units, teshkilat-i makhsusa, performed the intimidation, terror acts, and killings. They cleared out villages, conscripted males into labor brigades, and redistributed Greek-owned businesses to Muslims. In 1914 Celal Bayar was involved as a civilian; later, he became president of the Republic. In late 1916, Bahaeddin Şakir turned completely against the Greeks of the Samsun area (p. 100, 112). Akçam views this development as a trial run for the deportation of Armenians (p. 94). He also points to the ties between Berlin and Istanbul. A key figure, the German marine attaché Hans Humann, was a boyhood friend of War Minister Enver and attempted, without success, to slow the force against “coastal Greeks.”

While Akçam focuses on Armenians, he neglected to note cables of a broader importance which contained incitement to jihad and Islamism. Further, the “Ottoman population or settlement policy” (p. 271) took place in a multiethnic empire and was not an isolated initiative against the Armenians. The non-Armenian Christians who were murdered, such as Assyrians and other “infidels,” are given very short shrift. But it is hard not to stumble over the many cables in which Ottoman soldiers explained that they were simply following the sultan’s jihad or “German wishes” to murder à la franca,” (the European or German way).4


The author claims that the context of the mass murder was the division of the empire into nation states (449). In fact, the Armenian genocide was a part of a comprehensive operation intended to save the empire, or rather, the Turkish nation state. His interpretation that the notion that the Armenian genocide can be characterized as a clash between Muslim groups such as Turks, Kurds or Circassians vs. Christian groups such as Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians is inadequate. In his view, this genocide was firmly and exclusively rooted in the interplay between the Ottoman state and its subjects. If this was the case, however, how can the application of an identical policy against other groups, including the Jews of Palestine, be

Akçam does cite multiple records showing that the major fault line of genocide separated the Turkish Muslim majority and the non-Muslim minorities. This basic difference was foremost in the mind of the people involved as the empire’s fundamental classification due to religion in every Ottoman census: Muslims and non-Muslims (p. 32). Only this deeper distinction permits a correct understanding for other eras from the Ottoman-Russian War of 1878 up to the Armenian massacres 1894–1896, 1914 to 1918 and, briefly after the war, in the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the Republic of Turkey. The author did not clarify that the driving force in the minds of the Ottomans that was additionally instigated by the German-Ottoman jihad. Also missing from the index are important terms such as jihad and Islamism.

Akçam remains silent about the appeal to jihad by the Ottoman sultan-caliph (and counter declarations by Agha Khan III). His silence is surprising in light of multiple cables documenting Turkish and Kurdish individuals stating that they perpetrated massacres in the name of jihad. Sometimes common soldiers and officers explained that the Sultan declared jihad, or that these orders came from the Kaiser. The author does acknowledge that the policy of “Ottoman Islamist supremacy against infidels” played a role and that the Unionists viewed the Christians as second-class citizens (335). Unlike the Armenians and the Jews, the Greeks were protected by a neighboring sovereign state.

Akçam has helpfully unearthed incriminating documents from Turkish archives, but, unhelpfully, he overlooks the “genocidal brain and soul.” We now know better what steered the limbs, but less about what motivated their minds. The author makes mention of Muslim fanaticism (p. 289, 307), but this is only part of the story. His use of the term, “population policy” is weak and reflects official Ottoman views. The destruction of two-thirds of a population cannot be accepted as policy (p. 450). “Population policy” was a euphemism, as was the term, “relocation to designated areas.” The soldiers and bands in the killing fields were not driven by such a “policy” but, rather, by jihad and Islamism. Some twenty-five years later, Hitler and his accomplices, such as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, al-Hajj Amin al-Husaini, and Iraq’s ex-prime minister, Rashid Ali al-Kailani, used the same genocidal strain of that ideology.

After the Second World War, the fate of the Ottoman’s Armenian population was high on the list of crimes against humanity. In 1949, CBS interviewed Raphael Lemkin, the law professor who in 1943 coined the term “genocide.” “I became interested in genocide,” he said, “because it happened so many times,” Lemkin told commentator Quincy Howe: “First to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.” 5 Hitler and al-Husaini, who was the chief Islamist of the time, were allied observers of the Armenian genocide and the attempted genocide against Jews in the First World War. They used their understanding of these earlier events as a blueprint for genocides against Jews, Slavs, and others during the Second World War.

The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity lacks a coherent perspective. The author fails to adequately clarify the ideological nexus that drove the previous Armenian massacres, the parallel attempts against the Jews, the fading war threat in Gallipoli, and the jihadization of Islam by the German-Ottoman axis. As a result, the reader is left in the dark regarding the fact that Armenians and other minorities were subjected to a genocide which was driven by a strain of

Islamism was the main ideology behind the Armenian genocide and the attempted genocide against the Jews of Palestine. It received impetus from an organized incitement campaign of German–Ottoman jihadization of Islam which had openly taken place since 1914 and represents the missing piece in the puzzle.6


1.   Taner Akçam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).

2.   For related terms see also M. Shukru Hanioglu, A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 138–177.

3.   Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, Islam in Europa, Revolten in Mittelost. Islamismus und Genozid von Wilhelm II. und Enver Pascha über Hitler und al-Husaini bis Arafat, Usama Bin Ladin und Ahmadinejad sowie Gespräche mit Bernard Lewis (Berlin: Weist, 2013), 103–116 [German].

4.   Wardges Mikaeljan, ed., Die Armenier-Frage und der Genozid an den Armeniern in der Turkei [1913–1919] (Jerewan: Akademie, 2004), German Cables about Max von Oppenheim 88, Annihilation 225, the System of Terror 181, Targeted Extermination 145, The Concentration Camp Qatma 224, Christians 239, Deportations 256, Shükri Bey’s Role 268, Islamization 297, Jihad 466, and the Turkish Race 375 [German].

5.   Alessandra Stanley, “A PBS Documentary Makes Its Case for the Armenian Genocide, With or Without a Debate,” The New York Times, 04/19/2006.

6.   For details see Schwanitz, Islam in Europa, Revolten in Mittelost, 77–121.

Dr. Wolfgang G. Schwanitz

Dr. Wolfgang G. Schwanitz is a historian of the Middle East and German Middle East policy. He is the author of five volumes and the editor of ten books, including Germany and the Middle East, 1871–1945 (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2004). His upcoming book is German Middle Eastern Studies After 9/11 (Weist, Berlin 2013).