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Hero, founder, or criminal? Talaat is still alive and well in Turkey

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Alin Ozinian

Talaat Pasha (1874–1921), one of the most influential political leaders of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, is also regarded as the main mastermind behind the Armenian genocide in 1915. One of the active leaders of the Young Turk movement seeking to overthrow Sultan Abdul Hamid, Talaat joined the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and quickly emerged a leader in the secret organization. After the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, Talaat was appointed minister of the interior in 1909 and grand vizier (prime minister) in 1917.

The leaders of the CUP, the “Three Pashas” — Enver Pasha as minister of war, Cemal Pasha as minister of the navy and Talaat — were the principal players in the Ottoman–German Alliance and responsible for the Ottoman Empire’s entry into World War I.

Turkish Minute spoke with Dr. Axel Bertamini Çorlu, a historian based in the US, who thinks Talaat was initially not a prime figure of veneration next to the likes of Abdul Hamid, but the merging of the decades-old Kemalist regime ideology with nationalist, neo-nationalist and neo-Ottomanist strains later during the time in office of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has catapulted him into a heroic position among millions of Turks.

“Turkish nationalists have been trying to reframe Talaat’s historical role as a hero for a long time, but with increasing intensity in recent times. As a result, he has become a hero for parts of the Turkish public who have been fed a mixture of the official state ideology and its fabricated history as well as the slightly varying narrative lines of nationalists and neo-nationalists in more recent times. While he was a ‘protected’ figure in the past, he was nowhere near this popular, as a ‘hero.’ A brief look at Turkish social media reveals the scope and scale of his increasing popularity,” said Çorlu.

After the first world war, Talaat Pasha and other members of the CUP’s central committee fled the Ottoman Empire, in 1918. The Ottoman Military Tribunal convicted and sentenced Talaat to death in absentia, finding him guilty of capital crimes, including massacres.

The founder of the newly established Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, widely criticized the “Three Pashas” for the subsequent collapse of the state. However, in 1943, after his death, Talaat’s remains were reburied at the Monument of Liberty, located in the Şişli district of Istanbul, a memorial in honor of the soldiers killed defending the Ottoman parliament against reactionary monarchist forces during the 1909 countercoup. Many of Turkey’s boulevards and streets have been renamed in their honor.

“There is a clear document trail connecting him to the genocide during these years, and he ended his career as grand vizier of the empire in 1918, when he fled to Germany. Along with other leaders, he was court-martialed in 1919 and sentenced in absentia. He was not returned by Germany to Ottoman authorities, but he was assassinated there in 1921 by Armenian Revolutionary Federation [ARF] member Soghomon Tehlirian,” said Çorlu.

The assassination was part of Operation Nemesis, a revenge plan by the ARF against members of the Ottoman government responsible for the Armenian genocide during World War I. Tehlirian, an Armenian whose extended family had been killed in their hometown of Erzincan, was found not guilty by a German court and freed. Tehlirian is considered a national hero by most Armenians.

Tehlirian’s trial became a major media event, exposing the knowledge of the German government about the Armenian massacres, which had been kept from the German public during the war.

In 2016, in a move welcomed by Armenians but condemned by Turkey, Germany’s parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution recognizing the death of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. “That we, Germany, were complicit in this terrible crime does not mean that today we will be complicit in denying it,” said Cem Özdemir, the ethnic Turkish leader of the opposition Green Party.

According to Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar, Turkey’s first news ombudsman and now editor-in-chief of the Ahval news website, the mythification of Talaat Pasha is not new.

“As the historian Hans-Lucas Kieser aptly argued in his biography of Talaat, he is seen as the de-facto founder of the Turkish Republic, having laid its ideological foundations. But he was overshadowed by the myth of Atatürk, and only after his death was his importance recognized, during World War II, when his remains were returned to Turkey. Ever since then, Talaat Pasha has remained a powerful symbol for Turkish denialism. His sublimation is the work of Turkish ultranationalists, the center right and the bulk of Islamists, but the myth is also respected by large numbers of Kemalists, the leading circles of the Republican People’s Party [CHP] and some parts of the marginal Turkish left,” Baydar told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.

Talaat, one of the main organizers of the Armenian genocide, is still immortalized, remembered and admired in Turkey. Avenues, mosques, schools and hospitals are named after him, even in Armenian neighborhoods like Şişli.

Dr. Çorlu thinks naming policies have to be considered as part of the big picture and not limited to the veneration of the murderers, rapists and thieves of the past.

“It is part of a wholesale project of social engineering that continues in different forms, even though its original architects are long gone. The inability of the Turkish public to face the realities of its past has multiple uses for any regime, including the Erdoğan regime. As long as it continues to be a useful and essential building block of institutions, capital, political leadership and the public imagination, this engineered identity and history of lies and half-truths will feature prominently in Turkey,” said Çorlu.

The Talaat Pasha Committee, a nationalist organization in Turkey aiming to counter recognition of the Armenian genocide, was established in 2005 under the leadership of Rauf Denktaş, the first president of the de facto Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The committee, which works towards the denial of the Armenian genocide, praises Talaat’s activities.

The idea for its foundation was to stand against the “imperialist genocide lie” and to respond with documents to “Armenian genocide allegations.” Doğu Perinçek, a former leader of the Turkish Workers Party and a member of the Talaat Pasha Committee, calls Talaat Pasha a “revolutionist” and made several controversial statements during a visit to Switzerland in 2005, arguing that the Armenian genocide was “an international lie” by the “imperialists of the EU and US.” The courts in Switzerland found him guilty under a criminal provision prohibiting denial or gross trivialization of genocides.

Baydar thinks those who scrutinized and questioned Talaat for years remained a small democrat-liberal minority in Istanbul and in predominantly Kurdish circles.

“For decades the official policy of Ankara has been to cement the denial of the Armenian genocide by way of constant indoctrination through schoolbooks, civil and military education, control of the media discourse and reproduction of the myth of Talaat. These efforts were also manifested in the giving of names to streets and squares. Symbolism is a solid part of denialism.”

According to Dr. Çorlu until the late 1990s, the Kemalist regime’s narrative, in which Talaat was portrayed as a heroic but flawed figure for dragging the empire into the disastrous World War I, was dominant.

“This was an intentional, calculated portrayal that suited the objective of the Kemalist regime, which was trying to put a clear break between itself and its immediate past as well as creating a cult of personality around the figure of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was himself a lower-level member of the CUP, as were many founders of the Turkish Republic. They did not want any of the historical baggage associated with the previous regime but maintained policies such as the denial of the genocide at every level of the state apparatus,” he said.

Dr. Çorlu, who has focused on Turkey’s politics for years, thinks Talaat was not glorified by the Kemalist regime to the extent that he is at the moment, but his name was given to prominent streets, neighborhoods, buildings and the like nonetheless. The further glorification of Talaat can be seen in various neo-nationalist publications of the 1990s.

“Talaat is by no means the only mass murderer that is being glorified in the current Turkish imagination. There are other [such] figures … ranging from the lesser-known Topal Osman, a well-documented figure responsible for conducting multiple atrocities in the Pontic genocide, a significant theater of the larger Greek genocide, to Nurettin Paşa, a prominent figure in the Greek genocide who crowned his career with the massacre of civilians and the burning of Smyrna/Izmir in 1922,” said Çorlu.

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