Historian Hans-Lukas Kieser’s new book on Talat Pasha challenges conventional thinking

Members of the Committee of Union and Progress’s (CUP) political party and secret society, who were responsible for determining the fate of the Ottoman Empire, have not been sufficiently studied. Historian Hans-Lukas Kieser’s new book, Talat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide, published by Princeton University Press, fills an important void on this subject.

Kieser’s central thesis in this work is that before Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk], whom most credit as the founder of the Turkish Republic, the foundations of the modern Turkish nation state were laid by Talat Pasha. In other words, in some ways, the true founder of the nation state was Talat Pasha, and the new Republic emerged from his labors.

The last grand vizier of the CUP, Talat Pasha (b. 1874) was shot to death in Berlin by Soghomon Tehlirian in 1921. Upon President Ismet Inönü’s request, Adolph Hitler had Talat Pasha’s remains sent to Istanbul on February 25, 1943.

Four years and four months after the death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Talat Pasha’s remains were brought back to the country, and with a grand ceremony, attended by virtually every state dignitary, he was buried in Abide-i Hürriyet, the also known as the Monument of Liberty, in Istanbul. Among the dignitaries of the young Republic that came to see him off were many statesmen that he had worked with and cultivated.

As the acting leader of the CUP, Mehmed Talat was the architect of destructive policies targeting Armenians: their relocation and annihilation, the destruction of their cultural and economic foundations, and entirely Turkifying Anatolia through a strategy of ethnic engineering.

One of the understudied topics in the literature on the late-Ottoman and early-Republican period is the biographies of statesmen who played an active and determining role in this period.

Kieser explains that the influential members of the CUP Central Committee were Panturkists, inspired by the Turkish nationalist ideology created by Ziya Gökalp. Kieser furthers that Gökalp’s ideas and Turanist ideals, which emphasized the unity of people with Central Asian origins, had a significant effect on Talat. The book details the ways that Talat mobilized these ideals in the Balkan Wars as well as the Fist World War.

According to Kieser, Talat became obsessed with the concepts of empire and nation, which were central tenets of 20th century Europe’s far-right thinkers.

As the empire’s social fabric unraveled, Talat Pasha’s imperial ambitions were interrupted, and he instead laid the groundwork to ensure that Anatolia would be under the control of Turks.

The price of this was the elimination of Anatolia’s Christian communities.

Kieser devotes an important portion of his book to discussing how this erasure was forced into effect in many Anatolian vilayets on Talat’s orders, at the hands of governors that Talat had appointed.

Kieser portrays Talat Pasha as a political animal of the Middle East, describing his central role in the CUP society, how he managed groups within the society, his effect on the decision-making process, the various positions he took and his agility in maneuvering. He places Talat and his political actions in their historical context.

In fact, he goes as far as to argue that Talat Pasha was the most powerful leader in the Middle East in the early 20th century.

Kieser emphasizes that from 1913 until the end of the First World War, Talat in large part singlehandedly lead the Ottoman Empire, and that he signed off on the most critical political decisions.

Particularly spending time on the influence that Ziya Gökalp and his ideology had on Talat Pasha, Kieser argues that Talat practically worshipped Gökalp, and that his scientific claims dominated the Central Committee, whether they were deciding the fate of the eastern provinces, debating reform, or trying to solve the Armenian “problem.”

One of the most interesting parts of the book is references to Talat in the memoires of Cavid Bey, who resigned from the Central Committee after the Ottoman Empire decided to end its policy of neutrality and enter the war on the side of Germany.

Cavid recounts that Talat Pasha blatantly lied to the cabinet about the pretext to enter the war—the Black Sea Raid attack on Russian ships launched by German ships with Ottoman flags—but despite his criticism, Cavid also wrote that Talat did this to fulfill his sacred duty of serving his country.

The rhetoric of patriotism, protecting and saving the nation, and serving the nation appears often in CUP memoires. These concepts are defining principles of CUP ideology.

However, this rhetoric is also an effective strategy for concealing and normalizing the CUP’s policies towards Greeks and Armenians.

Kieser underscores in his book that after the Ottoman Empire entered the war in November 1914, Talat Pasha acquired a dictatorial regime in the capital, and that the fate of the state lay in his hands.

He uses Talat to make striking evaluations about the CUP’s political party and secret society.

Kieser analyzes the complexity of the two organizations, the conflicting views within the groups, the alliances and divergences with nuance. He attributes Talat’s success and the fortitude of his regime to Talat’s acumen and flexibility in maneuvering within such a complex order. Kieser argues that in this sense, Talat is less rigid than the dictators that subsequently emerged in Europe, and that Talat did not act without the support of the CUP.

As a result, Talat was able to easily appoint bureaucrats that would act in accordance with his commands and directives, especially as he was targeting Armenians with policies of property seizure, relocation, and eradication.

Kieser accepts that the republican project belongs to Mustafa Kemal, but also details how Talat paved the way for the creation of the Turkish nation state.

Even close associates of Atatürk such as Yunus Nadi did not hesitate to admit that the Turkish Republic was the legacy of Talat and the CUP. In fact, this legacy continues to this day.

Kieser’s book touches on how Talat Pasha’s ghost continues to effect Turkish politics. The dialogue between the nationalist paradigm that dominates the Turkish political scene today and the CUP is clear.

The CUP saw Islam as secondary to Turkishness, but their secular Turkish nationalism definitively included Islam as well. This same worldview dominates Turkey today. Unfortunately, these lands have never produced a different worldview. Right-wing, left-wing, and liberal political strains have all reflected their share of this heavy handed worldview.

By historicizing Talat Pasha, this valuable work portrays one of the founders as well as depicting an “ideal” CUP member. I am convinced this work will create new paths for historians of the late Ottoman and early Republican period.

One criticism of the book has to do with its use of sources: Kieser’s reliance on memoires can be seen as a handicap from a historical methodological perspective.

The book has just been released in English, and we can hope an apt Turkish translation will soon follow.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
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