An Interview with Professor Taner Akcam
Akcam: ‘The Denialism of Historical Truth Is a Policy, it Is a Preference—a Choice, Rather Than a Rational Argument.’
Below is the English translation of an interview conducted by Turkey’s Agos Newspaper with Professor Taner Akcam on the authenticity of long disputed Armenian Genocide documents—the memoir of Naim Bey and the Talat Pasha telegrams. Akcam is the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian, and Stephen and Marion Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University.
Agos: A new work of yours, named The Naim Efendi Memoirs and Talat Pasha Telegrams has been published. Could you briefly tell us what your book is about?
Taner Akcam: As the title indicates, the book is about the memoirs of an Ottoman officer by the name of Naim Efendi and the Talat Pasha telegrams, which ordered the killing Armenians.
Agos: Aren’t these part of the so-called “Talat Pasa fake telegrams” claimed to be fabricated by the Armenians?
T.A.: Yes, these are the memoirs of Naim Efendi and the telegrams he gave to [Aram] Andonian, which everyone regards as fake or, if they find them legitimate, do not speak up about it.
Agos: There has to be a backstory of these documents.
T.A.: Yes, there is. In 1921, an Armenian intellectual by the name of Aram Andonian published these memoirs and telegrams in Armenian, titled The Great Crime. A French translation, as well as a terrible English summary (The Memories of Naim Bey), had already been published in 1920. The Great Crime contained the memoirs of the Ottoman bureaucrat Naim Efendi along with some secret documents that he provided. Andonian claims that he got ahold of these documents in exchange for money.
This book is actually unlike a classic memoir. Naim Efendi transcribed around 50 or so Ottoman documents, while adding his own memories and comments in annexes. Furthermore, Naim Efendi gave Andonian 20 additional documents in their original form. Fourteen of these were featured in the Armenian publication. From a note written by Andonian, we know that this exchange or purchase of documents took place in early Novermber 1918. I included this document in my own book as well.
Agos: What is written in these telegrams?
T.A.: In some telegrams, especially those that are said to belong directly to Talat Pasa, there are outright and direct orders to exterminate Armenians. For example, in a telegram dated Sept. 22, 1915, Talat Pasa gives “ …the order that all of the Armenians’ rights on Turkish soil, such as the rights to live and work, have been eliminated, and not one is to be left—not even the infant in the cradle; the government accepts all responsibility for this [situation]”
On Sept. 29, 1915, he sent a telegram to the Aleppo Province, saying, “You were already previously informed of the official decision taken by the Committee [of Union and Progress] that all Armenians within Turkey should be completely extinguished and annihilated… Regardless of the severity of the measures and without regard to women, children, and handicapped persons, all should be exterminated without any consideration for feelings of guilt.”
I have to add that the pictures of these original documents provided in Andonian’s book consist solely of numeric codes. The texts of these codes telegrams are provided in the Naim Efendi memoir.
Agos: But aren’t these telegrams fakes? Hasn’t it been proven that they are?
T.A.: Until my book, it was thought so. The reason for this was the book The Talat Pasha “Telegrams”: Historical fact or Armenian fiction?, published in 1983 by Şinasi Orel and Süreyya Yuca. Orel and Yuca claim in their book that the memoir and documents published by Andonian are fake.
Agos: How do they back up this claim?
T.A.: Their thesis rests on three main claims: 1. There was no Ottoman official by the name of Naim Efendi; 2. A nonexistent man can also not have a memoir; 3. Both the telegrams belonging to Talat Pasha and those of others are all fakes—that all of these documents were fabricated by Andonian and the Armenians.
With regards to the third claim, they present 12 additional claims. The most important of these are the following: a. the dates on the documents are wrong; b. the record numbers and the dates on the documents do not match the ones that are present in the incoming-outgoing document ledger that was maintained by the Interior Ministry; c. the signatures on the documents are fakes, especially those of Governor Mustafa Abdülhalik; d. the documents use lined paper and the Ottoman bureaucracy did not use lined paper; e. the numerical code that employs groups of two or three digits used in the documents are complete fabrications, because at that time, groups of four or five digits were being used to code messages.
Orel and Yuca’s claims appear to be very strong and convincing. Especially because in those years, the sources the authors were using—such as the Prime Ministerial Ottoman Archive and the Archives of the Office of the Commander in Chief (ATASE)—were largely unattainable. The Ottoman archives were undoubtedly open to the public, but the documents relating to this period had not been cataloged yet and were not available; the ATESE archive was closed to the public and for a large part still remains so.
Moreover, I need to add that Andonian took the documents he received from Naim Efendi and brought them to Paris when he moved there later in life. There, he left them at the Boghos Nubar Pasha library, at which point, however, the documents were lost (most likely after 1950). Today, we do not know where these documents are.
The Andonian book—with Naim Efendi’s memoir and the Talat Pasha telegrams—which had been used as an important source until Oral and Yuca’s book, became untrustworthy because of its “false claims,” and thus ceased to be used. More importantly, Orel and Yuca accused Aram Andonian and the Armenians with fraud, forging documents and committing a sort of “crime.” In later years, the book became one of the most important instruments for the anti-Armenian hate discourse. It was used for justifying an intensive campaign of defamation and abasement. It continues to be used as such.
Agos: So are you then claiming in your book that Orel and Yuca were wrong and that this memoir and the telegrams are real?
T.A.: Yes, Orel and Yuca’s claims about Naim Efendi and his memoir are definitely wrong. Throughout my research I have discovered some serious new information and documents. I can summarize them as following:
- There was in fact an Ottoman officer named Naim Efendi; the original Ottoman documents that prove this exist, and I have published these documents in my book. In fact, let me share a piece of information that will be of much interest to you. One of the documents that proves the existence of an officer named Naim Efendi was published by the Millitary Archive (ATASE). Perhaps without even realizing, the ATASE, in one of its published books on the Armenian issue, also published a document that contains the original signature of Naim Efendi. This document can be viewed in my book.
- There is a memoir that belongs to Naim Efendi; the microfiche copies of this memoir, which he wrote in Ottoman in his own handwriting, are currently in my possession; in my book I present these pages as they are. Here is another additional and important piece of information that I can present: Andonian did not publish the entirety of Naim Efendi’s memoir—he only used some selections. There are parts of the memoir that have never before been published, which now, through my book, will for the first time see daylight and be available to readers everywhere. Another interesting matter is that some parts of the memoir that Andonian did publish are now missing. This means that the Naim Efendi memoir that I now have, is missing some of the pages that Andonian had originally published. I discuss in great length why this is so. The missing pages of the memoir must be in the Military Archive (ATASE).
- The Naim Efendi memoir is genuine and the information it provides is correct. It is possible to find documents in the Ottoman archives referring to the same events and people as the memoir does. Let me give an example: In one of the parts of the memoir that is published for the first time in my book, Naim Efendi names three Armenian deportees and provides the following information, paraphrasing: “Istanbul sent us orders with regard to them, telling us to keep them in Aleppo and to not deport them. But the Governor sent them away and even some perished.” Naim Efendi does not provide any documentation of this order and is simply retelling from his memory. I found the telegram referring to these Armenians in the Ottoman Archives myself. I researched nearly ten similar cases and found a supple amount of documents regarding the events described in Naim Efendi’s memoir. This shows us that Naim Efendi’s memoir is genuine and that the matters that he discusses are not a fabrication at all, but in fact represent the truth.
- The foundational theses put forth by Oral and Yuca regarding the fakeness of the Talat Pasha telegrams, such as the lined paper issue and especially the coding techniques, are wrong. Oral and Yuca’s claims are complete fabrications and are untrue. For this reason, we have to regard the telegrams as real until the key code notebooks are published.
Agos: What is the lined paper issue?
T.A.: There is a picture in Andonian’s book, which depicts a telegram sent from the director of the Deportation Office, Abdülahad Nuri to the Internal Ministry on March 20, 1916, and which employed a two-digit numerical code. In this document, the digits were written on lined paper. Orel and Yuca claim that the use of lined paper indicates that this document is a fake. Because, according to them, the Ottoman bureaucracy did not use lined paper, and thus the document is a fake.
This claim is absolutely ridiculous. Because, during this particular time period the Ottoman bureaucracy did use lined paper and there are lots of documents in the Ottoman archives that show that the Internal Ministry’s numerous agencies were ordering lined paper. The most important of these documents is dated Nov. 2, 1913, and consists of an order that was sent to all regions. This order specifically requested that all codified telegrams would be written on lined paper. The telegram says things to the effect of “Some regions’ codified telegrams are written in very condensed lines; this often results in the lines getting mixed up and thus mistakes are made; in order to prevent such errors and additional correspondence to fix the mistakes, from now on please use lined paper and then send it to the telegram office.” As such, Orel and Yuca’s claims are wrong and, on the contrary, the fact that this document was written on lined paper is evidence of its genuineness.
Agos: So, what did you mean by the codification techniques? Can you elaborate?
T.A.: The Ottoman Government used numerical codes consisting of various different digit groupings to send its orders via telegram to the various regions. The texts used a series of two, three, four, and five-digit codes. The telegrams that Naim Efendi sold to Andonian consist of two and three-digit codes. Orel and Yuca claim that during the war years, the Ottoman government only used coding techniques that consisted of four and five-digit codes. Thus, they said, Naim Efendi’s telegrams are fake. Furthermore, according to Orel and Yuca, one coding technique was emplyed only for a period not exceeding six months and was then subsequently changed; and in this time frame, only one digit grouping was used, not others. The examples they give are that between Aug. 26, 1915, and Dec. 11, 1915, only five-digit groups were used, and that around March 1916, only four-digit groupings were used. Not one word of this is true.
I personally looked at over 20,000 different documents in the Ottoman Archives belonging to this particular time period. The reality is in complete opposition to Orel and Yuca’s claim. Throughout 1914-1918, various selections of two, three, four, and five-digit goupings were used at complete random. The authors’ claims of “very strict time frames and every time frame having one digit grouping” are a true fabrication.
Agos: What you say could demonstrate that Orel and Yuca’s claims were wrong; but it does not prove that Talat Pasha’s telegrams are genuine.
T.A.: What you say is both true and false: first of all, I clearly demonstrate that Naim Efendi’s two and three-digit groupings are consistent with Ottoman coding techniques. There is no sign of fraudulence in this regard. I found other telegrams in the archives from this time period that also used two and three-digit groupings, and have provided their examples in my book. Now, the question that arises is the following: can Naim Efendi’s telegrams, despite being in accordance with the codification techniques of that time, still not be fakes? And how can we figure this out? It is very simple. Someone has to publish the relevant key code notebooks, and the issue will be solved.
Agos: How do you mean?
T.A.: The Ottoman Government created a separate key book for each digit grouping’s codification technique and sent these, when the time came, to each region before the start of its employment. There are correspondences to such effect, such as “we sent it, did you receive it?” “No, we did not,” or “Yes, we received it,” etc.
Each region’s officer in charge would use these notebooks to decode the messages received from Istanbul by matching the code in the telegram to the appropriate notebook. We know that these key code notebooks are in the archives. For example, I have in my possession such a notebook, which provides the keys to a three-digit grouping code used in 1914. However, the keycode notebooks for 1915-1917 are not accessible for researchers. Those who claim that Naim Efendi’s telegrams are fakes will only have to publish these notebooks, and the discussion will be over. Then we would see if they were fakes or not.
However, until these notebooks are published, we have to work under the assumption that these documents are originals. This is because the things that are being said about their fakeness are wrong. Perhpaps it is for this reason that the key code notebooks are not available for researchers. Maybe they will prove that the documents are real and they are kept secret for this reason. Who knows?
Hence, until these notebooks are released, whatever we say is pure speculation. Those who believe they are fakes have to come forward and publish the notebooks.
Agos: What about the other claims? Regarding the signatures, dates, etc.?
T.A.: The fakeness of Talat Pasha’s telegrams containing the anihilation orders and the fakeness of Aleppo Governor Mustafa Abdülhalik’s signature are two separate issues… they are two separate documents. What I mean is that it is possible that the Talat Pasha document is real and the signed document is fake; or it is possible that the signed document is real and the Talat Pasha document is fake. We have to discuss each document separately. Of course, the mistakes in dates or signature inconsistencies of other various documents outside of Talat Pasha’s orders to anihilate Armenians could be debated, and will be debated. However, I think this is enough excitement for now; let’s leave those topics to another time… I think that first, everything I have said up until now has to be digested.
Agos: What is your expectation?
T.A.: The fact that Naim Efendi did not exist, that he did not have a memoir, and that the telegrams belonging to Talat Pasha are fakes were some of the most important cornerstones of denying the events of 1915. Of course, the denial of the events in 1915 will not end; however, denialists need to find themselves new lies to spew. Yet, let us not forget that the denial of 1915 does not rest upon the lack of evidence. Over the years, the academic world has produced enough publications based on facts that show the genocidal intent of the Ottoman authorities very clearly.
The denialism of historical truth is a policy, it is a preference—a choice rather than a rational argument. For this reason, regardless of how many documents we publish regarding the truth of what happened, a denier will always find new things and continue to deny.
This is an endless game.
For this reason, I believe that the government will continue to support those that defend their version of history, and thus will continue to sing the same tune. This book, however, tears down the most important cornerstone of the wall of lies that has been built for the past. I think that those who defend the official rhetoric should start finding themselves new excuses outside of the Naim Efendi memoir and the Talat Pasha telegrams.
My actual expectation is with regards to a different matter. I expect an apology for the Armenians. I’m expecting those who have, until this day, used the memoir and the telegrams as an excuse to rationalize the unfounded blaming, accusation and hatred of Armenians to apologize to them. It is my opinion that to demand this is our right.
As I demonstrate in my book, there was no falsification committed by neither Andonian, nor any other Armenian. Andonian only published whatever was given to him, and even that only in part. Therefore, I am expecting an open and sincere apology from those who have, since 1983, taken these claims of falsification as fact and used them to justify committing hate crimes and to throw unfounded accusations against the Armenians.
I would like to state that for my part, I will refuse to discuss this topic with any such individual who has not formally apologized to the Armenian community.