While the Armenian genocide is recognized by numerous authorities, scholars and nations, the descendant of its alleged perpetrators, the Turkish government, has always pointed to the lack of a "smoking gun" to prove its existence, says historian Taner Akçam.
But now, the Clark history professor claims to have found authenticated proof that the Ottoman Empire not only ordered the extermination of local Armenians in 1915, but also that the seeds of the genocide were planted even earlier on a regional level.
"It's so obvious," said Mr. Akçam, who is from Turkey himself. "You can see the gradual radicalization."
His discovery adds a new chapter to what he and other historians say is the already substantial case for the existence of the genocide, which the Ottomans are accused of carrying out during and after World War I. The present-day Turkish government, meanwhile, while acknowledging the large-scale killings of Armenians at the time, denies there was a concerted attempt to eradicate the ethnic group, according to Mr. Akçam.
"I'm a historian," he said. "Whether the Turkish government recognizes it or not, I will continue to be a genocide historian."
But intellectually, he added, "of course it's my great interest that my government – and my American government – acknowledges the historic truth. This is the way to establish peace and democracy in Turkey and across the region."
Growing up in Turkey, Mr. Akçam said he had no idea that such an event might have occurred only a few decades before he was born. It was only later, as a research scientist at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, did he begin to discover those records while studying the history of torture in the Ottoman Empire.
"Of course (I was shocked)," he said. "You are surprised by your own ignorance."
But he ended up making the Armenian genocide the focus of his Ph.D. dissertation, and by now has dedicated close to three decades to researching the subject.
That undertaking has not been easy, given the fact that much of the historical archives chronicling the events are kept under wraps by the Turkish government, he said. But Mr. Akçam has gained access to some external records that have allowed him to piece together the evidence of the genocide.
Most recently, he has published a paper that he said provides the "smoking gun": official letters from the Ottoman archives dating to March and April of 1915 declaring the Committee of Union and Progress had decided to "annihilate" Turkey's Armenian population. Mr. Akçam also said he has authenticated the signature on those documents – it's often the Turkish government's response to question the legitimacy of such evidence, he said – by matching it to signatures in newspapers and other existing records.
Just as important, Mr. Akçam said he discovered another document from a year earlier in 1914 revealing the Ottomans' plan to begin killing Armenians in two local provinces. Specifically, that order targeted Armenian males, whom the government feared would start an uprising – a common theme throughout the history of genocides, Mr. Akçam said.
"There's a radicalization process – it's not just one decision" he said, adding the discovery also refutes the notion that the genocide was carried out during the demise of the Ottoman Empire as a last gasp attempt to take the Armenians down with it – "they were on the offensive" at the time. "It shows the ideological element. They really considered the Armenians a threat."
Mr. Akçam, meanwhile, doesn't expect his work, which is featured in the "Journal of Genocide Research," to change minds in the Turkish government.
"They will continue to deny," he said. "Denialism has nothing to do with scientific proof, or scholarly articles."
But Mr. Akçam added he is moving on in his research unabated. Even if the debate were to be settled in Turkey, he pointed out, it's not as if that ends the work of historians; there is still plenty of research being done into the Holocaust, for instance – his own office is in Clark's Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies – despite that event being recognized virtually universally, including by the Germans, he said.
"This is still fascinating (work)," he said. "There are so many topics – there is no end."