- Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide by Hans-Lukas Kieser
As literature on the origins, course, and legacy of the Armenian Genocide expands, a lacuna in the English-language historiography has been the absence of monographic studies of any of the perpetrators. Indeed, until the work under review, no satisfactory biography of any member of Ottoman Turkey’s ruling Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) was available in any language. Whether biographical accounts—admittedly one of the few genres enduringly popular—can properly disentangle the structural issues that lead to mass atrocities is another, albeit pertinent, question.
In this impressive contribution, Hans-Lukas Kieser focuses on Mehmed Talaat (Talaat Pasha), casting him as the primary organizer of wartime atrocities against the Armenians, Assyrians, and Rûm (Greek Orthodox subjects within the Ottoman Empire). Kieser eschews, perhaps unwisely, a chronological approach, and prodigiously (and often repetitively) charts Talaat’s unique rise from obscurity to the office of Grand Vizier by 1917. Talaat also held the Finance and Interior portfolios in the CUP cabinet during most of the First World War. Nearly the entirety of the book is devoted to the period of Talaat’s greatest power, from 1913/14 to 1918.
This work is not a biography in the conventional sense. We learn little of Talaat’s youth, schooling, friendships, wider social circle, or family. Kieser briefly notes his marriage, but dismisses it as irrelevant, arguing that Talaat “lived instead in a symbolic marriage—or passionate concubinage— with his cause: Make Turkey Strong Again!” (p. 1). Talaat apparently had no personal life, or at least none influencing his path to “architect” of the Armenian Genocide. The paucity of sources (Talaat’s memoirs and contemporary accounts are of little help) does not provide the materials. Even so, the absence of any methodical character study of Talaat begs the question: how did the principal genocidaire of his age become who he was? At times, the author makes erroneous analogies to Hitler (esp. p. 300) and even to Erich Ludendorff: “The latter might be considered Talaat’s German counterpart ..., a social Darwinist with a narrowly militaristic, ingenious, tactical mind” (p. 343). Kieser’s persistent reasoning by such analogies obscures rather than illuminates Talaat.
The author rejects the still prevailing notion of a triumvirate (p. 114), alongside Kemal Pasha (Mustafa Kemal, the future Ataturk) and Enver Pasha, leading the Young Turk regime through war and into genocide. For him Talaat was an authoritarian leader who utterly dominated the Empire [End Page 451] from the onset of war in 1914 until he fled to Berlin in November 1918. Talaat’s near “dictatorial” power came from his gradual takeover, Kieser correctly asserts, of the CUP machinery. He created the first “single-party dictatorship” (p. 63) and opened “the age of extremes and the Europe of dictators” (p. 29).
Talaat’s rise within the CUP was based not on his intellect, writings, or charisma, but his mastery of Komitecilik: “Central Committee members acted through trusted networks of conspirators, all controlled by a highly disciplined ‘Holy Committee.’” Talaat was an exceptional organizer it would seem. His CUP followers “personified Ittihadism (ittihadcilik), that is, the will to reempower the empire and make it modern, centralist, and unitary. Ideologically, they used a mix of Turkism, Islamism, and social Darwinism.” (p. 61). The pivotal intellectual influence of Ziya Gökalp and his heroic pan-Turkic fantasies is well established. When Gökalp’s Turanian (pan-Turkish) ideals joined Talaat’s political skills, the engineer of the genocide clearly emerged. Kieser convincingly details Gökalp’s sway over Turkish nationalism from Talaat through the Kemalist (after Mustafa Kemal) period and up to today’s leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The book is strongest when Kieser addresses the CUP’s organized assault on the Armenians and other Christians of Anatolia: “the most momentous, trenchant, and elaborate act of Talaat’s political life. As the brain behind the destruction, he put several ministries, the CUP networks, and all...