"A Special Organization Killed Armenians": An Interview with Halil Berktay
Interviewed by Nese Duzel
Armenian and Turkish historians met for the first time to discuss the Armenian events at a symposium in Chicago in March. Professor Halil Berktay was among them. Professor Berktay, a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Turkey, has taught at Birmingham University (UK), Harvard, Middle East Technical University (Ankara), and Bogazici University (Istanbul). Currently he is a member of the faculty at Sabanci University (Istanbul). Professor Berktay earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Yale University in Economics, and earned his doctorate in History at Birmingham University. Berktay has published three scholarly works in Turkish.
Nese Duzel: The "Armenian genocide" question has again been put on the agenda. In Turkey this subject is taboo. We cannot even discuss it amongst ourselves. No one fully understands the matter's internal dimensions or where these claims originate. Now with your permission, let's scrutinize the events of that period with as objective a manner as possible. The events that are the subject of the genocide claim began in what year and how?
Halil Berktay: Behind the "Armenian event" lies a nineteenth-century background. Violence reached its peak in 1915 but these were events that had continued since the 1890s. That is to say that the events began much before the 24th and 25th of April 1915, which the Armenians symbolically mark as a national day of mourning. On the 24th and 25th of April the leaders of Armenian organizations in Istanbul were arrested. And it is interesting to note that April 24th is also the day English, French, and ANZAC forces began their landing on Gallipoli.
ND: What sort of connection do you think exists between these two events?
HB: The Allies' attack on Canakkale (Gallipoli) during World War I, constant defeats in the Balkans during the nineteenth century, and the loss of every region of the empire except Anatolia created the fear among Ottomans that "alas, Istanbul is also slipping out of our grasp, we won't even be able to take refuge in Anatolia." For this reason there was an intimate connection between the Ottoman psychosis of feeling hopeless and squeezed in, that their backs were to the wall, and the military dictatorship of the Committee of Union and Progress on the one hand, and the implementation of measures against Armenians on the eastern front on the other. The 24th and 25th of April is thus the moment that crystallized the Ottoman feeling of being squeezed in and in trouble.
ND: Why did Armenian rebels in the east, although they were Ottoman subjects, support enemy forces and not the Ottomans during World War I?
HB: Whatever problem existed between the Ottomans and their Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Albanian, Macedonian, and Arab subjects was also a problem between the Ottomans and the Armenians. In the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire experienced a confused process of dissolution. Trade, the circulation of money, and capitalism first developed among the non-Turkish and non-Muslim peoples of the empire. In this way these groups became more open to currents of nationalism and engaged in struggles against the empire in order to establish their own nation states. The Armenians experienced this much later than others. This is important because the bitterness of the uprisings in the Balkans caused great hatred and desire for revenge among Turkish Muslims. The Armenian affair cannot be understood without paying attention to this hatred.
ND: Did Armenian rebels kill many Muslims during these events?
HB: Yes they did. This was such a process that it is not possible to determine who threw the first stone or committed the first crime. Everyone has a story. The Turks have a story. The Bulgarians, Greeks, and Armenians have their stories. In every single one of these stories, those telling the story are the only victims. Other groups suffered no injustice. They are the only ones who suffered wrong. For example, today it is said "those who remember the massacres of Armenians in 1915 do not remember the massacres of Turkish Muslims in Crete between 1896 and 1900."
ND: What do you say?
HB: I come from a family of Cretan immigrants. I know that Greek rebels lynched my two great uncles in front of the house. But before considering these events in Crete we have to bear in mind what the Ottomans did in every uprising during the nineteenth century. For example, was it not a massacre when the Ottomans put to the sword over 900 people including women and children in the Arkadi monastery in 1866? In this period the Ottomans tried to put down nationalist uprisings in the Balkans and committed massacres. Then Turkish Muslims in the region were massacred and as a result they fled to Istanbul and Anatolia. If we could turn again to the Armenians.
ND: Yes, what do we see?
HB: Before 1915 there are the 1880s and 1890s. During the 1890s under the administration of Abdülhamid II there were great massacres of Armenians whenever indications of nationalist uprisings appeared. There was bad blood between Armenians and the Ottoman administration. Especially Kurdish tribes and the Hamidian Regiments made up of Kurds were made to attack Armenians. In any case, during the "century of dissolution" the Ottoman administration repeatedly chose to use not the standing army, but irregulars in these affairs, benefiting from their primitiveness and violence. At the same time, as a result of the expansion of the Russian Empire into the Caucasus, there was a great migration of Muslims from the region to Anatolia where they joined the Muslim refugees from the Balkans. Bearing great hatred from the bitter events they so recently experienced, these people mainly settled in eastern Anatolia. It is also necessary to understand a few things about not all members of the CUP but the military dictatorship of those at the top, the triumvirate of Enver, Cemal, and Talat. These were not old Ottoman dignitaries. This was a new elite.
ND: In what way were they different?
HB: They were very ambitious and rapacious. They were positivists, without roots, only advancing under the auspices of education and the military. They lived within violence thrust upon them by the Great Powers and the rebellions in the Balkans. As a result they became very nationalist. They fought in a desperate life-and-death struggle to keep the empire alive. In fact, the second half of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century was the age in Europe of the rapacious social Darwinian nationalisms of the "kill-or-be-killed" type. This was an age of many massacres, great and small, in which there were many Turkish Muslim victims. The military dictatorship of the Enver, Cemal, and Talat triumvirate was an extraordinary administration for these war conditions.
ND: The Ottoman state administered by the CUP deported many Armenians from that region to another region after Armenian uprisings and Armenian rebels assisted Russia. Do we know how many Armenians were deported?
HB: In that period 1.75 million Armenians lived in eastern Anatolia. The official decision to expel the Armenians made by the military regime of the triumvirate was organized in a way to include without exception the entire Armenian population of the region. This is what the written documents reveal. There is no mention of massacre and mass murder. Governors and garrison commanders were given orders to force Armenians within today's Turkish borders to migrate to the south. But it was understood that, together with these official commands, separate, unwritten special orders were given at the same time to the men of the Special Organization. They worshipped violence and had no social morals.
ND: Did these special orders concern killing Armenians?
HB: Yes. Historian Taner Akcam has brought this out very well. On the one hand, there is the legal decision and implementation; on the other, another mechanism progressing through illegal means.
ND: How many Armenians died during the forced migration?
HB: At least 600,000.
ND: How did Armenians die? Who killed them?
HB: Those giving the commands did it by means of a special apparatus: the Special Organization. Consider the Special Organization to be a mixture of Susurluk and Hizbullah. [Translator's note: The Susurluk and Hizbullah scandals in the late 1990s demonstrated a link between some elements of the Turkish state and individuals and groups involved in political assassinations]. It is understood that Bahaittin Sakir, working for Enver, Cemal, and Talat, and leader of the organization, organized special death squads and volunteers in the region. Some of these volunteers used for this purpose were convicted criminals sprung from prison and saved from the hanging noose. Look, do you know who committed these acts? Today's Yesils, Abdullah Catlis, and Hizbullah. [Translator's note: The former two men were given diplomatic passports and weapons by some elements in the Turkish state to commit political assassinations in Turkey and Europe in the 1980s and 1990s]. The event is this simple and this clear. Bahaittin was that day's typical Yesil or Catli. Along with these people, they also made Turkish and Kurdish Muslim tribes attack the migrating convoys of Armenians. To these massacres may also be added the horrifying casualties created by the miserable conditions of the forced migration. Everywhere in the West there are photographs that you cannot bear to see. The first time I came across this visual material I stood there breathless and cried for minutes. These pictures are no different than those of concentration camps and massacres in Africa since there are great numbers of people in the photos.
ND: Did the Ottoman state arrest and punish those state officials held responsible for the deaths of Armenians?
HB: Of course. This massacre was, to a large extent, not the work of the standing army and bureaucracy. We see in other historical periods how the standing army and bureaucracy hate irregular forces and brigands that commit such acts and feel disgust towards them. The Ottoman army and bureaucracy perceived that this was a hideous affair and were disgusted by the special forces that acted independently of the governors and garrison commanders. Some governors and garrison commanders even issued a warrant for the arrest of Enver and Talat's special man Bahaittin Sakir and tried to arrest him in 1915-1916.
ND: Did the Ottoman administrators make a statement defending themselves?
HB: As a result of the horror that they felt and since they wanted to clear their name in the court of world opinion, the Ottoman army and bureaucracy did everything they could to arrest and punish those responsible for this disaster. And certainly some were punished. After World War I ended in 1918 and the triumvirate responsible for the empire's defeat fled, the Parliament established a commission of inquiry on the matter. After that, a Court Martial was established in Istanbul. This is a famous court. Its proceedings have been published in English and Turkish.
ND: During that time period, how many Muslims died in the region?
HB: Perhaps ten or twenty thousand. But the problem is not "they killed few, the Ottomans killed many." The problem is this: the activities of the Armenian rebels had more the character of local violence. In order for hundreds of thousands to die, it is necessary that a population this size be collected together. You cannot amass large numbers of victims attacking fields and villages. It is also misleading to ask whether the Envers and Talats gave a written order to massacre the Armenians to that period's Yesils and Catlis. They never gave a written command to do this and no such document will ever be found. For this reason eyewitnesses are very important. There is a great deal of photographic evidence and recollections of eyewitnesses concerning the Armenian affair unknown to Turkish public opinion. Turkish public opinion is a little uninformed concerning what people in Germany, England, France, and America have seen and read.
ND: Why did the Turkish Republic, which overthrew the Ottoman Empire, act like the Ottomans and try to hide this affair?
HB: This is a very serious question. This indicates an error on the part of the Turkish Republic. Turkey is undecided on the subject of political and legal relations with the Ottomans. The Republic has not completely understood and internalized that it overthrew the former Ottoman order and established a modern republic in its place. There is a very serious contradiction here. The Republic is not responsible for this affair. I think this was a very important factor in Mustafa Kemal's being chosen leader to organize the resistance in Anatolia.
HB: It is very important that Mustafa Kemal's hands were not soiled in the Armenian affair. While Armenians were being deported, Mustafa Kemal was not in eastern Anatolia. They were battling on the Gallipoli front. In 1918-1919, while underground CUP circles were debating who would be the leader and lead the resistance in Anatolia, a decision was rendered that it should be Mustafa Kemal. Mustafa Kemal was both a war hero, and someone who had never been involved in the Armenian affair. After World War I, Armenians killed the CUP leaders Talat and Cemal. At that time, the events were very fresh and this behavior can be understood. But years later Armenians killed Turkish diplomats. There is no logical explanation for this.
ND: Why do you think Armenians ventured to commit such a brutal act? Did someone incite them or did a wild desire for revenge overtake some Armenians?
HB: The ASALA attacks of the 1980s are a mystery to me. They poisoned the atmosphere sixty-five years after the affair and made the problem impossible to resolve. People lost their ability to discuss the Armenian problem cool-headedly and this caused the subject to become taboo. Any government in the world subjected to such brutal attacks would react by taking a rigid stand. Turkey also did this. These attacks paradoxically created a defensiveness that greatly increased feelings of identification with the former Ottoman regime and past.
ND: Why has the Armenian genocide again been put on the world's agenda now? Is this a moral desire for settling accounts, or if not, is this preparation for presenting a demand for land and reparations?
HB: It is very difficult to discern. But bringing up the issue renders the Turkish state and society more defensive on this topic and closed within themselves, and pushes them to become more rigid. Political polarization on this topic is so strong that even finding the courage to speak on this subject is a great problem. Of these two poles, one is the politics of "having the genocide affirmed and recorded as public record"; the other, the politics of "denying the genocide." In this climate of polarization, which opens the way to intellectual terror, it becomes impossible to speak on common ground. I believe it is wrong for Turkey to apologize. The American Congress acts like a morals police conducting a virginity test. The American Congress is asked to take a decision that "yes, this is genocide" concerning events that occurred 85 years ago in a completely different part of the world. It is incredibly naïve for any parliament to have the illusion that it has the right to make decisions about historical events that should be the subject of science. In truth, the Turkish Republic also should quit discussing the Armenian question.
ND: How should it abandon it?
HB: Turkey takes many positions on this subject saying, "it didn't happen," or "it happened but there was serious provocation." The President of the Republic was
correct when he said, "The subject must be left to the historians." There is something very simple the Turkish Republic can say today: the Republic was established in
1923. This event occurred in 1915. The Republic's army and institutions did not do it. The Turkish Republic is a new state. It is legally neither the continuation of the
Ottomans or the CUP government. What occurred during the tumult of World War I does not interest us as a state or government. We did not commit these acts, nor
are we responsible. But this topic is open to discussion. Those who wish may discuss it as they desire. We have no official position.
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