Ümit Kurt
Sep 16 2018

Talat Pasha is the co-founder of modern Turkey - Historian Kieser

A historian of the late Ottoman Empire and Turkey, Professor of modern history at the Universities of Newcastle, Australia, and Zurich, and former president of the Research Foundation Switzerland-Turkey in Basel, Hans-Lukas Kieser discusses his latest book Talat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide, published by Princeton University Press.
What prompted you to write such a book? What was the motivation for you?
There were two main motivations for writing me this biography. First, Mehmed Talaat was a seminal political leader in the 1910s. In these years, he led a game-changing imperial single-party regime. All those interested in that area in modern history must therefore know him well. Yet, oddly, there doesn’t exist any non-Turkish biography of this paradigmatic politician. Secondly, the last Ottoman decade and its wars, including the Balkan Wars, the Great War, the genocide of 1915, and the war for Asia Minor are very formative for the post-Ottoman world.
Yet, they have long remained a Pandora’s box in need of clarification and an overarching critical narrative. Since the early 2000s, I have been thinking of writing a contextualised biography of Talaat to make visible, beyond abstract notions, vital threads pervading that cataclysmic course of history.
Emotionally, however, I long oscillated between feelings of professional obligation - that is to say feeling as though this must be done - and preference for more likeable topics.
One would think that for many historians, especially for those from Turkey who write on conventional history, your thesis that Talaat, and not Mustafa Kemal, is the founder of modern Turkey.  In your book, you are essentially arguing that (by giving reference to Ernest Jackh's book titled "The Rising Crescent") Atatürk's accomplishment "rested on Talaat's shoulders." Also, rather than Enver or Cemal, why Talaat? What was so special about him in this regard? What was his legacy that enabled Mustafa Kemal to establish foundations of modern Turkish nation state?
The book does not say that it is Talaat, and not Mustafa Kemal, who is the founder of modern Turkey. The book’s thesis is that both are. Today’s Turkey was founded between 1913-1938, and is – if we reduce a complex process to two most decisive personalities – a legacy of both Talaat and Atatürk. The pair fundamentally cooperated between 1919-1921. Kemalist history-writing did not critically question or damage Talaat and Gökalp, in contrast to Enver Pasha and many other Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) leaders. It is fine to call the regime a triumvirate for the year 1913, when Talaat, Enver and Cemal resided in the Ottoman capital and the CUP single-party rule was freshly established,  but not afterwards.
In contrast to the others, Talaat enjoyed a dominant position both in the government and as a party boss in the central committee of CUP,, and he mostly resided in the capital, the centre of power. His clever use of the dual system of governance allowed him to be more than a primus inter pares; he was the mastermind and de facto leader of the Ottoman Empire  three years before he was even promoted to the grand-vizierate in early 1917.
In the book, you introduce a more nuanced analysis of the CUP,  particularly its Central Committee. How do you describe the CUP? What kind of political organization was it? How do you define Talaat's position in it? You use the term "mental prison of the CUP". What does that mean, historically speaking? How could you define an Ittihadist?
The CUP never was a regular, transparent political party, but remained, to a certain extent, always the conspiratory “revolutionist” (not really revolutionary) organisation of before 1908, with a secretive central committee at its head, including a few permanent central committee members who enjoyed predominant influence. Talaat was comparatively democratic-minded in the aftermath of the Young Turk revolution. From the fall 1912 on, however, he became a radical, a warmonger and the first among the permanent central committee members. He retrieved from its nadir a party thrown into depression by the temporarily successful anti-CUP coup in July 1912.
Accompanied by Enver, he masterminded the CUP’s 1913 activities: the January coup, the recovery of Edirne and the post-Second Balkan War negotiations. The CUP always possessed its achievements for political murder, intimidation and agitation, however, from late 1913 on, it built up its specialised Special Organisation. Ittihadist ideology is characterised both by the deterministic social Darwinist belief in unavoidable-violence and the imperial bias of young men who identified themselves as sons of a great sultanate-caliphate, but faced decline and wanted to strike back.
Mental prison means the emotional shackles of revanchism and the impotence of thinking of the future in terms of social contracts. “Imperial bias” is a generic term that the book also applies to non-Ottoman contemporary imperial élites.
Do you see any role of Armenian Genocide, destruction of Assyrians and ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Greeks in the formation and construction of Turkish Republic? If so, how can you point to Talaat's role in it? In this regard, what did he bequeath to Mustafa Kemal?
The genocide takes centre stage in Talaat's biography – because of its magnitude both in human history and Talaat’s political life. Its heart, soul and brain (in the words of German ambassador Wolff-Metternich) was Talaat. After having led the post-Balkan Wars negotiations in late 1913, Minister of the Interior Talaat embarked on a policy of demographic and economic engineering focused on Anatolia, without abandoning the goal of imperial restoration.
The expulsion of Rûm, followed by the “removal” of the Armenians and other Christians – all conceived as trouble-making aliens to be dispossessed –, had already made Anatolia a largely Muslim national home (Türk Yurdu) by 1918. Though not involved in the genocide during World War, Mustafa Kemal identified with this “achievement” of Talaat and led its defence after 1918. In short, Kemal built up the Republic of Turkey on the cornerstone set by his political predecessor and in line with the latter's governance: through a unitary, authoritarian, centralised Turkish-Muslim single-party rule in the territory largely left unoccupied by the victors of World War I.
In the book, you place special emphasis on the influence of Ziya Gökalp on Talaat and the CUP. How did Ziya Gökalp affect Talaat Pasha? What was the nature of their relationship? And do you see any difference between Gökalp's effect on Talaat and that on Mustafa Kemal?
Talaat and Gökalp were close friends. For nearly a decade, they sat together in the CUP’s central committee and often conversed privately. Gökalp was the CUP's intellectual genius, its efficient war (jihad) propagandist and actually the prophet of Turkish-Muslim nationalism for a century to come. In contrast to Talaat, Mustafa Kemal was not a close acquaintance of Gökalp. Also, after the Ottoman defeat in 1918, Gökalp’s pan-Turkism lost its appeal, as far as imperial expansion was concerned. Kemal renounced Islam in late 1923, which formed a crucial element in Gökalp’s socio-political thought in the 1910s.
Yet, in the aftermath of defeat and of the frustrated expansionist enthusiasm that he had spread in the first half of 1918, Gökalp had to adapt himself and, like most of his adepts, turned to the new power base in Ankara. In terms of political philosophy, Atatürk shared with Gökalp the pervasive myth of an exalted Turkdom. The Turkish nation was for Talaat, Gökalp and Kemal a non-negotiable supreme absolute. They all rejected egalitarian social contracts to be negotiated among all natives of Anatolia. During the 1910s, Gökalp had emphasised the primordial bonds given by Islam and Turkdom that supposedly dispensed with the need for a duly negotiated modern social contract.
Kemalism replaced Islam with scientism, particularly the so-called Turkish History thesis to justify exclusive Turkish ownership of Anatolia since time immemorial. It turned Gökalp's Islamic pan-Turkism of the 1910s into an exuberant areligious Turko-centrism both in global and Anatolian history. This self-exaltation served as, last not least, an opium for the oblivion of genocide.
The History Thesis marks a significant political and intellectual dead-end.
What kinds of sources did you employ to write such a significant book? I noticed that you have used many memoirs of Ittihadists such as Cavid Bey's memoir, building your arguments on those sources? How do you deal with the issue of reliability of these sources?
I used Cavid’s diaries, but also consulted a great number of memoirs. Distinctively, this biography uses diaries, notably three little used substantial diaries which can be accessed in their entirety only in the past few years (of Cavid, Louis Rambert, Hayri Efendi). Diaries offer in general a denser, more immediate description of events, emotions and decision processes than memoirs. Furthermore, this biography amply exploits the documents produced by Talaat’s ministry; German, Austrian, French and British diplomatic archives and contemporary newspaper in various languages. It also benefits from sources in the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem and, of course, the newest research literature on the late Ottoman era. The basics of history-writing and historical rethinking apply: we need a diversity of perspectives and a variety of quality sources, and must read the sources historic-critically, if we seek to produce a multi-faceted, well-founded and profiled study.