Talat Pasha, co-founder of Turkish republic, paved the way for Mustafa Kemal in Anatolia - historian (1)

Hans-Lukas Kieser is an internationally renowned history professor specialising in the late Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey. A former president of the Research Foundation Switzerland-Turkey in Basel, Kieser is currently working at the University of Newcastle in Australia and at Zurich University. He is the author of the ground-breaking biography "Talat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide," published by Princeton University Press in 2018.

Serkan Şeker (SŞ): Your thesis in this first non-Turkish book on Talat Pasha is that he is the co-founder of the Republic of Turkey alongside with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. To what extent has Talat determined the fate of modern Turkey? What is his legacy?

Hans-Lukas Kieser (HLK): Talat's politics was already largely focused on Anatolia, on transforming Anatolia, making Anatolia a Türk Yurdu (Turkish Hearth/Home). Or he was finally making it a Turkish nation state. Of course, at this time, in the imperial framework, he still believed that the empire could be saved. In 1914, he and his friends even believed that it could be expanded, as they were supported by Germany. But the focus on Anatolia with the transformation of Anatolia to a Türk Yurdu was then already a central part of his credo, of his political belief. As a matter of fact, this stood at the centre of all what he did as a minister of interior.

He was a pioneer of a single party, of a leader-centred single party. Talat introduced the patterns of this kind of party regime. Not Sultan Abdülhamid – Abdülhamid was very far from parties and parliamentary life and putschism, making a putsch to establish a single-party rule. This is a legacy that has persisted for 100 years. Then, he is a state-centrist leader; he identified with and was committed to a strong central state, and he imagined the future of the country as a centralist, unitary country. He refused regional differentiation and autonomy – as it is recognised, for example, in Switzerland or other federal states.

His state-centrist stance got so far that the state for him was at the end a more important entity than an individual human, perhaps even himself. He says: "I am ready to sacrifice myself for the cause (of the state)." But you know, for people who are talking about sacrificing oneself, it is often first about sacrificing others, perhaps thousands and millions of others. We see those saying: "We are ready to spill our blood", normally it means first spilling the blood of others. 

For example, in Diyarbakır, in 1895, just when the massacre of Armenians was done, the perpetrators sent a very long petition to Abdülhamid, in the sense that they were not satisfied with his rule, but identified with a strong, severe Sultan like Yavuz. Then, they said that they were ready to spill blood. They already had spilt much blood, and now they proclaimed: "We are ready to spill our blood". In reality, they threatened a new massacre.

What is also a Talat legacy, even if a part of it disappeared under Kemalism, is the Islamic Turkism. Talat was not a philosopher, he was above all an administrator, a man of action; but everybody needs ideas that enable them to act. Gökalp, his political friend, offered him a panoply of strong ideas. The core of them was Islamic Turkism, including the myth of the superiority of, or even the supremacy of the Turks, Muslim Turks in history. The Turkist part of this supremacist idea found its way into the Turkish History Thesis, which was both official and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's very personal thesis. 

If I say Islam, I mean imperial Islam in all these cases. Talat and his friends did not separate personal piety from their social and political idea of Islam. That is why at times you had a real cleavage and gap between Muslims like Talat, Enver or Gökalp, and others with conscience who said: "We cannot fulfil your orders," district governors (kaymakamlar) or governors (valiler). They were not many, but they were successful to a certain extent, especially Celal Bey, the governor of Konya. Others paid the price with their life, for instance Nesimi and Sabit in the province of Diyarbakır.

Imperial Islam involves a myth of human history and society in which a certain group enjoys supremacy over the others. This also is a very important legacy. Gökalp and Talat did not invent it all. Abdülhamid's politics of Muslim unity had initiated Islamism as a modern ideology. But the explosive combination of supremacist Turkism and Islamism was done and utilised by Talat and Gökalp.

To put it shortly, all these factors and features stand in opposition to democracy. Election, referendum and representation are crucial in democracies, but they must be proportional and based on human rights. True – differentiated and law-based – elections also allow minorities to express themselves and to choose their representatives. Democracy is much more than the rule of the majority. 

Ottomans had a parliament in the 1910s, there were elections, there was still an election in spring 1914 during the single-party rule – but the reality then had very little to do with democracy. One needs to look closely in order not to be blinded. The Islamic myth, the Turkist myth, the myth of the central state, adoration or super-elevation of a state, party, or leaders – all these are not democracy.

True democracy is negotiation and compromise, and checks and balances of power. It breaks the power of over-ambitious leaders. It requires at times long, painful and difficult, but at the end, successful negotiation about a common modus vivendi. It must be based on a sober constitution, not myths. The constitution is another name for a social contract that allows living together without violence. 

Archaic social contracts – as according to the anthropologist René Girard – are based on scapegoat logic, that is the killing and consumption of innocent scapegoats in a sort of communion in crime. In the case of Turkey's foundation as a nation state in the 1910s and 1920s, think of the Armenians (and many other Ottoman Christians, the natives of Anatolia for millennia); they were declared collectively guilty in order to be expelled, killed, robbed – and to remain the bad guys of national ritual history. 


SŞ: What made Talat special and untouchable in the eyes of Atatürk?

HLK: There are two aspects. One is personal, the other is political. We do not know very much about the personal aspect, when, for example, Talat and Mustafa Kemal met for the first time, but certainly, they had known each other, at least by name on the eve of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution. What is sure is that they knew one another during World War One. 

There were rumours of a putsch against Enver and that Mustafa Kemal should be given a strong position in the government. In this context, Cavid, an influential figure of the CUP, writes in his diary that Talat and Mustafa Kemal Pasha met in Talat's private house in a quiet intimate acquaintance. There was, however, a notoriously difficult communication between Enver and Mustafa Kemal but Talat had a unique position, of course not only for Mustafa Kemal but also for others. 

I have tried to explain this in the book with his well-cherished prestige of being an undeniably patriotic revolutionary. In the committee he enjoyed a very solid position because of his long and strong commitment in a leading position, starting well before 1908. He impressed his party brothers with his audacity, including readiness to commit assassinations. Added to his position in the CUP was his post-1908 experience on the official level of politics, in the parliament and of course in the ministries. His prestige increased with the international experience that he started to collect from 1908 when he was invited to Britain. He went there as the leader of a parliamentary delegation in the summer of 1909. 

The political reason for the mutual dependency of both men is very strong. They shared a lot. As I already said, Talat centred on Anatolia. As we all know, Kemalism, par force, entirely centred on Anatolia. They had to limit themselves to Anatolia, once the world war was lost and the Young Turks' imperial dream was over. It was clear to everybody that Talat, as the minister of interior, had done a lot to make Anatolia a Türk Yurdu; demographically by the genocide, culturally by suppressing non-Turkish media, and economically by taking over all the assets and real estate of those made scapegoats. 

Atatürk and Talat shared also a kind of power pragmatism. Talat was rapidly ready to reassess the situation after defeat in 1918. While Talat continued concentrating on Anatolia, Enver and Cemal went to Moscow and Afghanistan. They continued following the dynamics of Islamic pan-Turkism, especially Enver, influenced by Bolshevist success, seemed to bet on Islamist world revolution. 

For Talat since 1913, Anatolia had always been his first and minimal goal. Once Mustafa Kemal emerged as the leader on the ground, he could say: "This is now the situation with a guy I know quite well and respect. Let's do it together." In this pragmatic spirit, they started to correspond – and did it together. Both confirmed one another in their respective role for the common Turkish nationalist cause in Anatolia; Talat as the senior leader of political agitation in Berlin and Europe, Mustafa Kemal as the political and military leader in Anatolia.

Talat was killed in March 1921, and the ex-CUP nationalists under Kemal won the war for Anatolia in 1922. Kemal did not feel the need to deny Talat, since, in 1923, the Lausanne Conference buried the Armenian question and with it definitively the prosecution of the mass killers. If this had not been the case, Mustafa Kemal would have been forced to take his distance from Talat, else, he and his project could not survive. After 1923, there was no necessity to deny the facts. The reality was that politically, Mustafa Kemal rested on Talat's shoulders. He continued Talat's work of transforming Anatolia to a Turkish national home (Türk Yurdu), or nation state.


S.Ş: The current Islamist and nationalist coalition in Turkey uses the survival of state discourse to justify its actions. Why has this discourse been so successful?

HKS: That is the fundamental issue. It is the issue of the lack of a true social contract. A true social contract and democracy mean that you found a state with which everybody can more or less identify and become its part. But once this is not the case, and if your priority is to concentrate personal and party power, then you need the myth of the state. 

You glorify and absolutise the state, to make it your instrument of power. If your demagogy makes the people believe in this and follow you, you can demand sacrifices, including the killing of scapegoats for the state. 

When you lack a true social contract, you lack domestic peace and stability, so that you are again and again in need to secure your rule by non-democratic means. These include repression, scapegoats, war and refusal of negotiation and compromise. All this is connected with myths of greatness regarding your state, religion and national identity. In short, you fundamentally depend on violence. 

The opposite would be that you invest yourself in the work of establishing constitutional peace in your country. This was a big issue after 1908, many believed then in that chance.

Talat and his friends established a single-party rule and embraced war, military build-up, a supremacist self-concept and the myth of a restored empire. They chose genocide and a wrong social contract, based on scapegoats and common crimes. 

Polities built this way are condemned to deny, whitewash or justify, and to repeat in one form or another, initial patterns in order to reproduce the common bound and benefit. The only exit from the vicious cycle is a fundamental revision of the initial contract, including recognition and repair of crimes.


S.Ş: The U.S. Senate has recognised the killing of Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire as genocide. How might the U.S. decision impact the international community and Turkey's denial of the Armenian issue? Turkey’s official policy on the Armenian Question is leaving history to historians.

HKS: Turkey has never left the issue to historians, but right from the beginning, with Talat in 1915, took it in the hands of politicians and propagandists. The issue has never been left to historians to do their work freely. On the contrary, they persecuted those who wanted to freely research. This makes the postulate hypocritical. The second thing to say is that of course historians must do their work, this is absolutely clear. But once an issue is political to the extent as is the Armenian question and the Armenian genocide, of course, politics is challenged to do its part. The topic is far too big, far too important an issue not to be dealt with on all levels. 

As for the U.S. recognition of the genocide, this a watershed, because now the situation is clear. The parliamentarians said it very openly that they felt sorry for not having named so long the historical truth. They were ashamed to have refused recognition for diplomatic convenience. Now, everybody knows that for almost all Americans the truth is the murder of the Armenians and the rest was a decades-long diplomatic manoeuvre to please the Turkish ally. Turkey is now left alone and must ask itself: "Do we want to continue with tricks and hollow claims instead of political soul-searching?" Also, all important others, including Russia, do clearly not side with Turkey's denial in this issue. The recognition by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives may accelerate the collapse of this kind of history politics. It was right from the start based on propaganda instead of the basic truths.