Hans-Lukas Kieser on Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide

PashaTalaat Pasha (1874–1921) led the triumvirate that ruled the late Ottoman Empire during World War I and is arguably the father of modern Turkey. He was also the architect of the Armenian Genocide, which would result in the systematic extermination of more than a million people, and which set the stage for a century that would witness atrocities on a scale never imagined. Here is the first biography in English of the revolutionary figure who not only prepared the way for Atatürk and the founding of the republic in 1923, but who shaped the modern world as well. In this major work of scholarship, Hans-Lukas Kieser tells the story of the brilliant and merciless politician who stood at the twilight of empire and the dawn of the age of genocide.

Though you have written a number of books in history, this appears to be your first biography. What led you in this direction?

I have written a variety of biographical articles, all related to the modern Levant. Yet, this is indeed my first book-length biography. There were two main motivations for writing me this biography of Talaat Pasha.

First, Talaat was the main political actor in the 1910s, the last years of the Ottoman Empire, when he led a single-party regime. All those interested in that area in modern history must therefore be able to know him well. Yet, oddly, there doesn’t exist any non-Turkish biography of this paradigmatic politician.

Second, the last Ottoman decade and its wars, including the Balkan Wars, the Great War, the Armenian genocide, and the war for Asia Minor, have remained a Pandora’s box in need of historical clarification. I navigate with my readers through turbulent and complex, dramatic and impactful times, always focusing on the mastermind Talaat as well as late Ottoman Istanbul and its provinces. The Ottoman capital was the center of a still-huge Empire, a hub of European diplomacy, and a hotspot of international dynamics.

What is an example of Talaat Pasha’s influence still being felt in Turkey today?

A blatant legacy is ongoing genocide denial based on arguments already made by Talaat in 1915. Another legacy is favoritism instead of meritocracy, because leader-centered partisan regimes need systemic corruption to maintain their power. Talaat’s leadership had blended imperial pride, Turkish nationalism, and Islamism. Turkey’s current re-embrace of charismatic leadership and its post-Kemalist return to political Islam is not surprising if we understand that Talaat had been a first father—before Kemal Atatürk—of post-Ottoman Turkey. The “Kemalist revolution” did not undo pre-republican fundamentals. In his effort to concentrate power, the current president Erdogan largely draws on patterns and ideologies used by these historic leaders, both marked “sons of an Empire.” Whereas both Talaat and Atatürk had claimed a progressive departure from religious conservatism, Erdogan identifies also with the conservative legacy of Sultan Abdulhamid II and other sultans before him.

How do modern Turks reconcile the positive things that resulted from Talaat Pasha’s actions with the atrocities that he perpetuated?

Talaat’s corpse came pompously back from Berlin to Turkey in 1943, in a joint venture of Adolf Hitler’s and İsmet İnönü’s governments. Lauding books and articles by former party friends were published in the years afterwards. Talaat, the former grand-vizier, won thus again public credit as a patriot and great statesman. Streets, schools, and mosques were named after him. Nevertheless, he remained associated with the Great War: a lost war little-remembered in Kemalist Turkey, except for the victory at Gallipoli. The atrocities against non-Turkish Ottoman citizens in and after the Great War were almost totally repressed from public memory. For such a spirit, almost no negative things must be reconciled with the progressive revolution achieved by the unique Atatürk, prepared by Talaat. Compared to previous governments, the current AKP regime publicly remembers much more the Great War, that great jihad and its battles. Yet, it does this without soul-searching or an acknowledged need and effort of reconciliation—because, in Erdogan’s words, there was “never genocide or ethnic cleansing in our history.”

What are some of the things you’d like readers to take away from this book?

I’d like my readers to take away from this book interest in, respect for, and better knowledge of topical challenges of the late Ottoman world, today’s Middle East. These are challenges that subsist to this day because their peaceful solution surpassed the political resources and the will of the contemporary rulers. More than a hundred years later, consensual polities for people from different religions, but with equal rights, are still utopian. The Levant, the cradle of monotheism, is under the spell of competing apocalyptical expectations.

Also, I’d like my readers to revolt in spirit and intellect against attempts at doing away with, instead of meeting, universal challenges, and against disfiguring historical truths for state and personal interests. Talaat pioneered patterns of miscarried modernity, in particular demographic and economic engineering including genocide. Inspired by his party friend Ziya Gökalp, a modern prophet of Turkish-Muslim greatness, Talaat had given up in the early 1910s on seeking a democratic social contract, starting instead comprehensive press control and prosecution of rivals. Talaat’s rule made Asia Minor a “national home” for Muslim Turks, excluding other peoples rooted in the same geography. Talaat thus shaped politics in the post-Ottoman Levant for a hundred years to come.

Hans-Lukas Kieser is associate professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle in Australia and adjunct professor of history at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. His many books include Nearest East: American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East, World War I and the End of the Ottomans: From the Balkan Wars to the Armenian Genocide, and Turkey beyond Nationalism.