In Kanunların Ruhu: Emval-i Metruke Kanunlarında Soykırımın İzini Sürmek (The Spirit of the Laws: Pursuing the Trace of Genocide on the Abandoned Property Laws), Taner Akçam and I exposed the ways in which the moveable and unmovable properties of the Armenians who were displaced and eliminated in 1915 were obtained and distributed, using all the vehicles provided by the “law,” first by the ruling Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), and later the Republican regime with the Abandoned Property Laws (Emval-i Metruke Kanunları) that the government inherited.1
Although all of the laws issued within the scope of the Abandoned Property Laws noted the Armenians’ entitlement to their property and assets, and stated that at the very least their value should be handed over to them, the process was obstructed in many ways. As a result, the Armenians’ material foundations were eliminated and their physical annihilation was complete. The measure of existence “granted” to the Armenians by these laws was reduced to nothingness.
The promise of Lausanne
The goods that were known to be the property of the Armenians and termed “abandoned” were first distributed by the Treasury and the Finance Ministry to migrants coming from the Balkans and Caucasus, to local notables and minor gentry; in the CUP era, to a variety of state organizations and the army; and again in the Republican era to various organizations and people providing services to the government. Through various means, including the citizenship and passport laws, the same republic that promised in Lausanne to restore the Armenians’ goods, instead of returning to Turkey the Ottoman citizen Armenians left outside the country, sold the goods obtained through the Abandoned Property Laws at a profit, recording the income for this in the 1928 budget as revenue. At the same time, the CUP issued property rights to those already in possession of Armenian immovable properties.2
No wonder, then, that of those actively involved in the seizure of goods and assets during the deportation and annihilation of the Armenians, many were members of the CUP central committee, and many Unionist civil servants and officials benefitted from this “remedy.” Following the signing of the Armistice of Moudros in October 1918, many CUP members who had not left the country were tried for crimes committed during the deportation process at the courts martial established in Istanbul. Among the important CUP names who fled Turkey for Europe immediately after the war, Talat Paşa, Said Halim Paşa, and Cemal Paşa, and Dr. Bahaeddin Şakir Bey and Cemal Azmi Bey, were all killed between June 1920 and July 1922 through “Operation Nemesis,” embarked upon by the Armenians.
With the rulings made in Istanbul, Kemal Bey, the district governor of Boğazliyan and provincial deputy governor of Yozgat, and Nusret Bey, the provincial governor of Urfa, were executed, along with Hafız Abdullah Avni, an Erzincan hotelier and gendarmerie bureau clerk. Interestingly, they were later, in a special law issued by the Turkish Parliament in June 1926, given the title of “national martyr,” and their families were given income and various goods from the “abandoned properties” of the Armenians.
Two hundred and twenty documents
This has been a lengthy preamble, I know. Let us come to the book that is the focus of this long introduction. Coming six years after his book Talat Paşa’nın Evrak-ı Metrukesi (The Abandoned Paper of Talat Paşa), Murat Bardakçı’s İttihatçı’nın Sandığı (The Unionist’s Chest) has now been published, and contains documents and letters of considerable importance that only he was able to access, by entering the personal archives of the Unionist leaders.
Published by İş Bankası Yayınları, the book also includes 19 documents from the Prime Ministry’s Republican Archives relating to the goods of the deported Armenian that were given to the above-mentioned Unionist members and civil servants recognized as “national martyrs” by parliamentary decree. In this book based on 220 documents, 198—in addition to archive documents—are from Bardakçı’s private archives, some of them provided by Unionist families.
The writings in the second section of the book leave the door open for works of the upmost importance in the coming period, and include those of Treasury Minister Cavid Bey (here the correspondence between Halide Edip and Cavid Bey contains particularly interesting information on Edip’s services to the Ayn Tura Orphanage), in addition to the letters of Kürt Şerif Paşa; the documents of Bahriye Nazırı Paşa and İzmir Governor Rahmi Bey; the Malta letters of CUP Secretary-General Midhat Şükrü; and a striking CUP members photo album.
The author’s response
Now let’s come to the book’s purpose: In his introduction, Murat Bardakçı responds to the rightful criticism frequently directed at him—that “To be an historian it is not enough simply to publish documents; those documents must also be commented upon.” As far as Bardakçı is concerned, the criticism comes from those unable to access the documents of the architects of the events of 1915, and are the product of jealousy at being unaware of the documents’ existence and being unable to access them.
Yes, it is true that in terms of access to the documents of the architects of what in the modern understanding was the first great genocide and displacement of the 20th century, and of the decisions that shaped the fate of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century and during the first quarter of the 20th—it seems it must have been easy for Bardakçı. For, on his own television programs he has said countless times that he is a Unionist, and has professed his admiration for Unionism, and clearly used his close relationships to access vitally important personal archives and writings.
From an historian’s perspective, what is important here is what sort of evaluation these first-hand documents have been subjected to within the historical framework of the period. Otherwise, we could simply peruse second-hand bookstores, find whatever there was from that period, and publish “The Chest of This” or “The Cupboard of That.” The essence and the key point in this matter are the historical conditions and the flow of events within which these documents and writings were produced. How sad, then, that Bardakçı has shown neither the inclination nor efforts with regards to these factors indispensable to historians.
Halide Edip’s letter
As an example, let us look at a letter from the section of Bardakçı’s book that contains the correspondence between Cavid Bey and Halide Edip. In this letter, sent from Beirut by Edip, she writes: “In particular the Armenians; only here do a number of these unfortunate Armenians find the right to live, swearing on the blessed head of Cemal Paşa and by Allah… With stomachs swollen from eating grass out in the desert, some mothers, some fathers, many of them come here after losing their children… I am occupied with the children and women. We have opened a classroom for the little ones, and are teaching them there… In the garden there is another tragedy! An unfortunate struck mute after his son was killed right next to him, with no idea where his other son and family have ended up. Barefoot, with sorrowful eyes, screaming unremittingly of his tragedy. Sometimes in the night, like a woman with a dead child he sobs and wails with his head in his hands…”
In this letter, Edip refers to the Armenian children orphaned and the Armenian women widowed by the deportations and genocide. The description of the services that she provided in the Ayn Tura Orphanage in Beirut presents us with a cross-section of the Armenian Genocide. Such writings gain their meaning through a historically contextualized reading. The point we do not find, and will not find, in Murat Bardakçı’s book is this.
Let us come, then, to the decision that granted the distribution of the Armenians’ remaining goods and assets to those with “national martyr” status. First, let me say this: Anyone who wishes can go to the Republican Archives in Ankara and, within about half an hour, access the 19 documents that were translated from the Ottoman and published there. These documents are a confession of how the assets of the Armenians, in particular their properties, were appropriated by the state via its legal mechanisms and blatantly distributed to the agents of their destruction.
Another striking point highlighted by these documents, and by Bardakçı’s emphasis of the importance of Mustafa Kemal, is how the transfer and seizure of the Armenians’ assets were transferred from the CUP to the Republican regime—leading, in this way, to the continuation and perpetuity of the same mindset. This is because from the moment the Republican regime was founded, just as a silkworm spins its cocoon, the laws it created—replicating and thoroughly consolidating the Abandoned Property Laws constructed by the CUP—provided their perpetuity and prevented the return of goods to Armenian hands.
Perpetuity in the state
In this sense, Bardakçı has made a crucial point. By referencing these documents, it can be proven that Mustafa Kemal was not opposed to the deportations; did not hate the Unionists who gave and applied the decision for deportation; gave roles in the state to people involved in this business; did not see the deported Armenians as wronged; and did not use harsh expressions against those responsible for the deportations. In this respect, Bardakçı must be given his due credit, because many bureaucrats involved in the departments responsible for the Armenian deportations and genocide were promoted to key positions in the state during the years of Kemal’s presidency. Perpetuity was, indeed, embraced in the state.
Murat Bardakçı’s The Unionist’s Chest is presented as a story of destruction and loss, but what emerges from the chest is more like a “bulging” confession. The documents contained in this book are the recognition of the destruction and depredation hurled upon the Armenians. Since the writer was content to simply publish these documents, let the judgment fall to us.
(1) Taner Akçam and Ümit Kurt, Kanunların Ruhu: Emval-i Metruke Kanunlarında Soykırımın İzini Sürmek, İletişim Yayınları 2012, Istanbul.
(2) For a detailed analysis of the entire so-called legal system behind the expropriation of the movable and immovable properties of the deported Armenians, see Taner Akçam and Ümit Kurt, Kanunların Ruhu: Emval-i Metruke Kanunlarında Soykırımın İzini Sürmek, İletişim Yayınları 2012, Istanbul. The English translation of this book will come out in May 2015: Taner Akçam and Ümit Kurt, The Spirit of the Laws: The Plunder of Wealth in the Armenian Genocide, Berghahn Books, May 2015.
"The Armenian Weekly," October 15, 2014