LOS ANGELES — At a recent lecture at the University of Southern California (USC), historian Taner Akçam said the trove of documents he discovered in a once-obscure archive in 2015 "blows up this main Turkish denialist argument. "For a century, the Turkish government has denied that the atrocities that killed 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman military constituted a genocide. One of its most oft-stated claims: there is no proof that the World War I-era death marches and massacres were carried out on orders from the Ottoman government.
But then came along a man whom the New York Times has dubbed the "Sherlock Holmes of Armenian Genocide."
Akçam of Clark University has unearthed documents that prove what virtually all genocide scholars have already long asserted: The killing orders came directly from the Ottoman government.
At a recent lecture at USC, Akçam said the trove of documents he discovered in a once-obscure archive in 2015 "blows up this main Turkish denialist argument."
"It's a bombshell, really," he said.
Akçam has been a thorn in the side of the Turkish government for decades. One of the first Turkish scholars to call the atrocities that befell the Armenians a genocide, he was arrested in 1976 and sentenced to 10 years in a Turkish prison for becoming the editor of a Marxist publication that opposed the government. He escaped from prison after a year, using the leg of a stove to tunnel his way out.
At the March 22 lecture co-sponsored by USC Shoah Foundation's Center for Advanced Genocide Research and USC Dornsife Institute of Armenian Studies, Akçam detailed how many of these documents came to light — and how anyone can view them online.
"After I discovered these materials, I'm scanning everything, and I'm putting it there online — nobody should suffer like myself," Akçam said. "I heard about this archive in 1996; I couldn't get access until 2015."
The materials were compiled by Krikor Guerguerian, a genocide survivor and Catholic monk who in the early 1950s came into contact with an exiled Ottoman judge who told him about the whereabouts of a trove of military and court documents. Guerguerian then made a pilgrimage to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem to photograph every copy.
Guerguerian lost 10 of his 15 siblings in the genocide and witnessed the murder of his parents. (Click here to watch a clip of testimony in USC Shoah Foundation's Visual History Archive of Guerguerian telling the story of what happened when he met the perpetrator later in life.)
When Guerguerian died in 1988, his massive-but-disorganized archive was entrusted to his nephew, Edmund Guerguerian. It was Edmund who finally allowed Akçam to view the archive in 2015.
The first scholar to lay eyes on it, Akçam helped Edmund organize and digitize the Krikor Guerguerian Archive and make it available online.
In his lecture, Akçam shared some of the military dispatches in the archive that show high-ranking Ottoman authorities discussing the extermination of the Armenians. The telegrams, he said, were written on paper marked in Ottoman letterhead.
In one, Bahaeddin Shakir, a prominent Ottoman politician, asks: "Are the Armenians being dispatched from there being liquidated? Are these troublesome people you say you've expelled and dispersed being exterminated or just deported? Answer explicitly."
Akçam peppered his talk with colorful anecdotes about how some of the documents wound up in the hands of people who would go to great lengths to ensure that they wouldn't be destroyed by the Ottoman government.
The lecture was co-sponsored by USC Shoah Foundation's Center for Advanced Genocide Research and USC Dornsife Institute of Armenian Studies.
He told the story of a crooked Ottoman officer in Aleppo who was in charge of deporting Armenians to their deaths in the desert.
The officer, Naim Efendi, was a gambler and a drunk who needed money.
Exploiting this weakness was an already exiled Armenian journalist named Aram Andonian, who bribed Naim Efendi for documents that demonstrated that the killing orders were coming from the highest reaches of the Ottoman government. This scheme produced 26 original documents that Andonian revealed in his 1921 book, "Great Crime."
"This became one of the most important documentation of the Armenian Genocide," Akçam said.
Andonian later took a job as the director of the Nubar Library in Paris. He brought the Ottoman documents with him, thinking they would be safe.
"You think that when you go there you will find the materials?" Akçam said. "They are gone. Nobody knows what happened with these materials."
Until, that is, Akçam discovered them in Guerguerian's archive.
Despite the incontrovertible proof that the documents provide, Akçam cautioned that even the most damning evidence isn't likely to make a dent in Turkish denialism.
"Denialism has nothing to do with the facts," he said. "It is a political decision."