Standpoint of Turkey
PhD at INALCO (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales), Paris
Those who secretly hope to find in the memoirs of Unionist leaders [heads of the Committee of Union and Progress, also known as “Young Turks”] some private confession about the Genocide of Armenians (1915-16), some admission of misdeeds tinged with regret, are in for a disappointment. As for historians working on those memoirs and their authors, they must absolutely refrain from such a quest, not only because it is bound to fail but because it is teleological, biased and anti-scientific. Trying to catch a blush of shame on the cheeks of Unionists would be a manifest attempt at assessing the distance between “they” and “we”—in other words at assessing their humanity—when, from the start, these men should be seen as men.
By the time they wrote their memoirs, CUP leaders who initiated crimes against humanity had already been convicted for those crimes at trials held in Istanbul, their guilt had been established and some of them were sentenced to death in absentia1. However, in their plea-like reminiscences, just like in the pleading of defense lawyers at the Nuremberg trials (18th October 1945 – 1st October 19462), Unionist leaders did not deny the nature, nor the intention, nor even the extent of the massacres. With utmost cynicism, they went much further than mere denial, which could easily be refuted. They proceeded to dispute two fundamental components – cosmological and ethical – of what Kant defines as imputation3: either they refused to recognize that they were the agents of their actions; or they alternately refused the negative moral charge, the reprehensible character qualifying those actions. With barely hidden pride, they admitted in so many words the reality of the crime but refused to take responsibility or be punished for it.
Unfortunately, in Turkey, the memoirs of CUP leaders are presented and perceived as what they pass themselves for–i.e. as history books and truthful accounts. They are increasingly used by young Turkish historians—countless doctoral theses about the Committee for Union and Progress as well as biographies of its leaders have come out recently—but with a limited, archival reading of texts and an uncritical approach. Outside Turkey however, several historians have pointed to the need of analyzing and questioning those sources. In an article written in 19864, Erik-Jan Zürcher presented the methodology with which to handle those “alternative sources”. Even before examining the contents of the writings, he insists there be a previous questioning about the authors and the contexts when the texts were written and published. In The Unionist Factor, Erik-Jan Zürcher himself and Sükrü Hanioğlu5 after him, thus cross-examined Unionists’ memoirs but also confronted them to other sources, such as the press of the period as well as available and accessible State archives.
In Armenian Genocide studies however, memoirs of Unionist Young Turks are almost totally absent in spite of—or maybe because of—the fact that, according to Fatma Müge Göçek, they form “the prime material of Turkish negationist historiography.” 6 Indeed, this sociologist considers the writing of those memoirs as the cornerstone of the construction a certain narrative of 1915 events. In an effort to put them back in context, she placed those writings as preceding and diverging from the famous Mustafa Kemal “Nutuk” speech which itself takes the form of “memoirs” and has become the backbone of today’s official historiography. The poor use that is made of memoirs of CUP leaders in Western historiography may be explained in large part by the fact that they were written by the perpetrators, by men assumed to be denying the very facts that Western historiography was then trying to establish and prove. That initial focus on gathering evidence has caused non-Turkish historians to rely in priority on archive material which was thought to be more “objective” and undeniable.
However, it is absolutely necessary to free ourselves from that “fetishizing” of the archival document (Hülya Adak7). Given that an archival item, just like a witness account it is also a creation of man, and even of a state authority—being produced, recorded, selected, destroyed or spared by that authority—to what extent is the likely to be more objective than any other document? The subjectivity of the source should not be considered as a reliability index but as a historical object as such. Also, memoirs of CUP leaders, in their very subjectivity, are of considerable interest in our eyes for Armenian Genocide historiography—as a trace left by genocide perpetrators of how they conceived, recalled and expressed the Genocide.
Still in relation to the methodological approach, the question might be raised of defining a specific questioning grid which would differ from the interpretation grid for victims’ accounts since its goal would be to uncover the concealing strategies at work in the accounts of criminals. But that questioning would also be a trap for the historian because, although Unionist Young Turks may be lying in their memoirs—notwithstanding the fact that writing about oneself is inherently biased (see Philippe Lejeune)—they don’t always lie. So the question is not to consider whether memoirs by CUP leaders are a “true” or “untrue” account of facts, but to consider them as written traces. The idea is, by contextualizing documents, to uncover the social and political reasons as well as the “historical needs” which prompted their writing. Besides, when it comes to memoirs of CUP leaders, one should immediately drop the designations of “private writing” or “private memoirs”. As it is, despite they titles suggesting a personal voice (My memories, My Life…), those were public, published narratives, and meant to be from the start—and above all political discourses. Their categorization as “autobiographical writing” is thus questionable. If we do choose to keep the designation of “memoirs,” it is in the sense of “a presentation drawing someone’s attention to a specific issue” and also “a writing piece where are consigned the motives of a defendant.” 8
Memoirs by CUP leaders thus constitute a genre in themselves and a peculiar literary phenomenon—unique, massive and collective, since almost all the Young Turk Unionist leaders, if they had the time to do so, wrote their memoirs, although most of them were not writers. This may be explained by a form of emulation—“I write because the others have written”—compounded by an “epic” factor: each of them did aim at carving their place in history. Upon reading their stories, one often feels the sense they had of their own historic importance. They are convinced that they have answered the “call of History,” that they have accomplished a momentous and memorable enterprise. Indeed, one of their motives to write their memoirs may have been the difficulty they met to step out of “historical times.” It is such difficulty—more than fear of surrender or blame— that caused some of Unionist leaders to commit suicide after the war, such as in the case of Dr Mehmed Reşit, the ardent Unionist governor of the Diyarbakir vilayet during the genocide. As Nicolas Mariot explains, writing their war memoirs after World War I allowed some French soldiers to “recapture the war”, a major, historic time in the life of an ordinary person. Similarly, when writing their memoirs, Unionist Young Turks would fleetingly recapture their hour.
Not only did all Unionist leaders write memoirs, but what is also remarkable is that they wrote almost the same story. It is definitely an instance of collective experience, expressing a common subjectivity. The striking sameness of their accounts may also be explained to some extent by their solidarity in the context of the persecution faced by their group (the post-war court martial trials conducted in Istanbul.) In one and the same voice, the authors respond to accusations, to eyewitness accounts of foreign observers such as former American and Russian ambassadors in the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau and Andre Mandelstam, who each published immediately after the conflict incriminating accounts of deportations and massacres of Armenians9. As it is, Unionist leaders Talaat Pasha10 and Djemal Pasha respectively addressed these two figures directly in their memoirs.
In keeping with that defense strategy—each man writing in self-justification, but also one for all and all for one—Young Turks leaders described in great detail the massacres of Turkish people by bands of Armenians after the deportations and massacres of 1915, but also atrocities perpetrated by others (not Armenians, but still Christians) against Muslims in the Balkans during the Balkan wars (1912-13). In this respect, their plea is often absurdly anachronistic. It develops into a-historic conspiracy and revenge narrative in which Turks and Muslims are presented as the eternal victims of injustice on the part of Westerners-Christians. Talaat Pasha does not mean anything else when he writes:
Armenians have always appropriated the role of those who get crushed and, thanks to their high level of knowledge and their religion, have manage to persuade the whole world that they have been the victims of the worst assaults. 11
Thus, Turkish Unionists have installed in their memories not only an exonerating memorial regimen, but also a new logic of veracity. Reading their lines, the Armenian is lying because the Armenian likes to indulge in posing as the victim. Therefore, in Turkey, the Armenian will always be the liar, if not the embodiment of lie itself. Again and again, he will have to be eliminated, whether as a survivor or a descendant likely to take revenge, or according social-Darwinist views, as an entity whose very existence is life-threatening to the Turk. Mithat Sükrü Bleda has recorded in his memoirs the chilling words of Dr Mehmet Reşit: “That is to say it was them or us… Rather than be annihilated by them, we [had] to annihilate them.” The end of their talk is even more revealing:
- Doctor, don’t you have a guilty conscience? [asks Bleda]
- I [answers Reşit] haven’t done it for personal glory or to fill my pockets. I realized that our homeland was slipping away from us, and in the name of my nation I closed my eyes and daringly rushed to the rescue---
- And what about historical responsibility?
- If history holds me responsible, be it so. I don’t care what other nations write or will be writing about me.12
After the war, in 1919, Turkish Unionists felt no shame because they had the undisturbed conscience of men who had accomplished their “mission.” They were no longer in power but they did control those who were: the new cabinet formed after the war included men chosen by Talaat Pasha himself; the Parliament still comprised a large Unionist majority; government bodies, and in particular the police and army, were largely held by Unionists and the CUP remained the dominant political force in the provinces too. The idea of a clear hiatus between the fall of the Unionist regime at the end of 1918 and the rise of a Turkish nationalist revival in 1919—a standard assertion of official Kemalist history—has been considerably reassessed. The war was lost but the fight continued, and it was led by the same men.
As to the genocide, it then reached the stage of the “finishing touches”: once the Armenians were wiped out came the time to persuade the Entente cordiale that the territories now rid of Armenians were “authentically” Turkish and consequently should be under Turkish administration in keeping with the right to self-determination. This was the goal of the “Societies for the Defense of National Rights” which multiplied throughout the country. It was also the goal of the memoirs written and published by Unionists. While Djemal Pasha wrote in his memoirs that “Anatolia belongs to the pure peoples of Turks and Kurds13”, Talaat Pasha would explain in his that the claims of Armenians on Anatolia after the war was “illegitimate” by virtue of the Wilsonian principle of the right of peoples to self-determination… simply because Armenians were no longer there. “How could they possibly put a claim for that right?” asked Talaat, not without a touch of sarcasm14.
In that respect, the memoirs of CUP leaders can be viewed as belonging wholly in the genocidal process. They play their part in the ultimate phase of the genocide as well as bear witness to its final goal—i.e. that Armenians should no longer exist. Although they were published in a specific context, these accounts were essentially written for posterity. The Young Turks were writing for future generations. And the remarkable persistence between their narrative and the official narrative of the current Turkish state shows that they have reached their goal. Since the 2000s, their memoirs have enjoyed a new publishing heyday in Turkey. Some of them have known ten printings, reissued by some of the largest Turkish publishing houses. But even more disquieting is their success and the ambiguity of their critical reception. Talaat Pasha’s “Black Book” for instance, published in 2009 in Turkey by journalist Murat Bardakçi, was a bestseller15. Granted, the first volume of Goebbels’s diaries sold 25,000 copies in France (45,000 for the four volumes.) Curiosity and the secret desire to pry into the intimacy of a “mass criminal”, of a “monster”, have certainly contributed to that publishing success. However, in Turkey, Unionists are not viewed as murderers but as great men, as heroes of the nation, as founding fathers, and they are celebrated as such by the rulers as well as by the majority of the Turkish political class beyond party divides. In the end, that amplified dissemination of Turkish Unionist voices mostly feeds an increasingly violent ultra-nationalist speech which borrows the rhetoric, the argumentation, the words and the logic of the genocidal criminals—a logic that consists in admitting the murder while refusing the blame and the shame.