ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This is the day of remembrance of the genocide against Armenian people in Turkey that took place just over a century ago. Up to one and a half million Armenians were killed. Turkey has always rejected the term genocide, saying the violence against Armenians was part of widespread conflict in the region.
Taner Akcam has spent his career documenting the targeted killing of Armenian Turks at the start of World War I. He's a Turkish historian at Clark University. And he recently found a document that he calls the smoking gun. Professor Akcam, welcome to the program.
TANER AKCAM: Thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: What is this telegram that you described to The New York Times as a smoking gun?
AKCAM: It is a telegram sent July 4, 1915. And the telegram says the following - are the Armenians who were deported from there being liquidated? Are the troublesome individuals whom you have reported as having been exiled and expelled been eliminated or merely sent off and deported? Please report honestly.
So this is the telegram. And we knew the existence of such a telegram. It was quoted in several indictments and verdicts during the military tribunals in Istanbul. And I discovered the original with an Ottoman letterhead. This is the discovery.
SHAPIRO: Now, one reason Turkey has been able to deny the genocide is that so many of the records of the court proceedings were destroyed or somehow vanished and so all we have is historians' accounts and journalists' accounts. This seems to be pretty extraordinary in that respect. Put it into context for us.
AKCAM: What we were missing in Armenian genocide is the so-called smoking gun because all relevant documents were taken out from Ottoman archive or all these materials - telegrams, eyewitness accounts, they were all gone. We didn't know whereabouts of all these documents. And mainly, the denial strategy was show us the originals. So I discovered in a private archive this telegram.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. It took some real sleuthing. Explain how you discovered this.
AKCAM: I mean, we already knew that these telegrams ended in Armenian patriarch in Jerusalem but this archive is closed. Somehow because of unknown reasons, they don't allow us historians to go and work with material.
SHAPIRO: So you knew these crucial documents were in Jerusalem in this archive but you couldn't get access to them?
AKCAM: Yes, exactly, this was the story.
SHAPIRO: And so how did you finally get it?
AKCAM: Because of an Armenian Catholic priest, Krikor Guerguerian. He went to this archive end of 1960s. And he filmed all the materials there. And he had a private archive. And it was saved and secured by his nephew.
SHAPIRO: So the priest died, his nephew took this document and you got it from the nephew?
SHAPIRO: How do you hope this telegram will change the conversation surrounding the Armenian genocide?
AKCAM: I think Turkish government must try or develop some new strategies to deny the Armenian genocide. They cannot deny as they have been denying over the years. It is over now. There is no way to escape. They have to face this reality. This is a telegram with an Ottoman letterhead and we with the Ottoman coding system.
SHAPIRO: You are Turkish. You are not Armenian. Why have you devoted your life, your career, to studying the Armenian genocide?
AKCAM: I'm a historian. It is my job to educate new generation on violence in the past so that this should not happen again in the future. The second important reason is my firm belief that democracy can only establish in Turkey if Turkey faces its own history.
SHAPIRO: Taner Akcam, thank you so much for your time.
AKCAM: Thank you very much.
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