This post will focus on a single aspect of Taner Akçam’s remarkable new book, The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity:
The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire. Because genocide deniers have claimed that by relying on evidence from Turkey’s “enemies”, (Armenian survivors, Western diplomats and missionaries who witnessed the genocide) historians prove nothing, Akçam sets himself the task of demonstrating that the deliberate and official nature of the “ethnic cleansing of the Ottoman Greeks and the genocidal policy against the Armenians can be demonstrated through (surviving government) documents alone.” He succeeds.
But this post will focus not on the book as a whole, but on the fate of some number of Armenian children and young girls. Most Armenian children and girls died, many were raped or confined in brothels to be raped before they were murdered. Some were sold and the money pocketed by officers detailed to carry out the genocide . For a few piasters, Muslims could purchase Armenians children as cheap labor; Armenian girls were exhibited naked for sale in temporary Armenian slave markets in villages along the deportation routes and in Damascus. But the government also planned to add strong, healthy Armenian children and young girls to the Muslim population. To this end, the Interior Ministry cabled instructions regarding “the children who are likely to become orphans”. (p. 317)
The story plays out in a series of government cables. Financial inducements were offered. You could take an Armenian child into your household and become the legal heir of the property of the child’s murdered family. You could even marry a young Armenian wife and become the legal heir to the property of her dead husband. Well-connected Turks angled to adopt the children of wealthy families and to wed the widows of wealthy Armenians. Some officials managed to get several. Soldiers and officers along the deportation routes selected wives.
The numbers who survived this way are unclear, tens of thousands according to Akçam, though some estimates range as high as one or even two hundred thousand Armenian children and girls converted to Islam and added to Muslim households. The Armenian genocide, according to Akçam was about annihilating the Armenian nation. The horrors of the Einsatzgruppen all appear in Armenia, only the gas chambers do not. Armenians were forced to dig their own graves, marched out of town to be shot, herded into buildings and burned, roped together and thrown off cliffs into the Euphrates, babies were torn from their mother’s arms and women raped as their doomed families watched in horror.
But this was not a genocide of Nazi race theory. Initially, an Armenian could save himself by accepting Islam. Early in the genocide, large numbers of Armenians attempted to save their lives by converting. Conversion of adults was generally forbidden during the genocide because the goal was to extinguish Armenian culture and it was believed that adult converts, or large groups of converts, would remain culturally Armenian. And yet, the men who commanded the genocide were technocrats who calculated that the underpopulated Ottoman state would be strengthened if if small numbers of numbers of healthy, young Armenians were made into Turks under conditions that annihilated their Armenian-ness. And so some of the young were selected to live and become Turks.
Akçam’s Chapter 9, Assimilation, is one of the most remarkable chapters ever written about a genocide. Read it and recoil at the monstrosity of a government that cold-bloodedly ordered a genocide, then rewarded the men who carried it out by giving them not only the property, but even the wives and daughters of the men they murdered.