• Print
  • TWEET

An Archive of Atrocities

Armenian refugees in a camp at Aleppo, Syria, 1922
Pictures from History/Granger
Armenian refugees in a camp at Aleppo, Syria, 1922

TripAdvisor currently ranks the Baron Hotel fourth among the nineteen establishments it mentions in Aleppo. In reality, the city’s most venerable hotel has been shuttered since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, though intrepid visitors who brave the dangers outside and enter its cool, faded vestibule can still see T.E. Lawrence’s hotel bill and admire the desk where Agatha Christie once worked on Murder on the Orient Express.

The brothers Onnig and Armenak Mazloumian, who founded the hotel before World War I, were convivial and enterprising Aleppans, part of an Armenian community whose presence in the Syrian city went back many centuries. They were known locally as “the barons” after their establishment, which played much the same part in the life of the region as Shepheard’s did in Cairo, the Grande Bretagne in Athens, and the Pera Palace in Istanbul. Its wood-paneled dining room, tiled floors, and well-stocked bar attracted European visitors before and after World War I. During the war the visits ceased, and it became the preferred watering hole of the city’s most senior Ottoman civilian and military officials, including Cemal Pasha, the governor of Syria and one of the most powerful figures in the wartime government, who became the brothers’ protector.

They certainly needed him. By the time Cemal Pasha arrived in the region, enormous numbers of Armenians were being massacred across the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and hundreds of thousands more were being deported and sent to die in rudimentary camps in the Syrian deserts to the city’s east. Aleppo itself quickly filled up with refugees testifying to the horrors they had witnessed. Initially, the brothers and other notables were allowed to organize humanitarian assistance for the deportees, but even after official policy became harsher and the Ottomans began to deport the community’s leaders, the Mazloumians continued to provide clandestine support for their fellow Armenians, using their contacts with local officials.

In late October 1918, four centuries of Ottoman rule in Syria ended. Turkish troops retreated under the command of Mustafa Kemal—later the founder of the republic of Turkey (and better known as Atatürk)—and were pursued by the emir Faisal’s Arab forces, by Mysore lancers, and by Australian armored car units. It was in these confused weeks that the Baron Hotel witnessed the last and perhaps the most remarkable Ottoman–Armenian exchange of all. Among those who had survived the massacres was a prominent journalist from Istanbul named Aram Andonian, who had been arrested in the first Istanbul round-up of notables in April 1915 and sent into the Syrian desert. He managed to escape, making his way back to the relative safety of Aleppo.

He had been able to do this thanks largely to a minor Ottoman official named Naim Bey, who worked in the deportations office in the city. This was the agency that more than any other determined the Armenians’ fate, not least because it fell under the minister of the interior, Talaat Pasha, who was the most powerful figure in the wartime government. A habitué of the Baron Hotel, Naim was fond of both drink and gambling, and this was perhaps why he had suggested to some wealthy Armenians that they pay him to help their families flee from the camps. He got Andonian out and then worked with him for the release of the others, and he turned out to be surprisingly reliable and trustworthy.

As the end of the war approached, Andonian suggested to Naim a further source of income. He proposed that Naim remove important documents from the files of the subdirectorate for deportations and sell them to the Armenians once the British arrived. A born historian, Andonian also encouraged Naim to write down his memories of what had happened, as background for these materials. In November 1918, the two men met at the Baron Hotel, and Naim handed over what he had prepared. The haul included copies written out by Naim himself, as well as originals, and among them were letters written by Bahaeddin Şakir—one of the architects of the mass murder policy—and encrypted telegrams and letters from Talaat Pasha in Istanbul, from the notorious governor of Aleppo, Mustafa Abdülhalik, and from Naim’s boss, the head of the Aleppo deportations office.

By the end of 1918, the British navy had finally steamed through the Dardanelles, and the wartime Ottoman government had fallen. With the Allies occupying Istanbul and a new government keen to appease them (Kemal’s moment still lay a few years off), the way was open for a legal reckoning with the architects of the Armenian massacres. In London in 1920, Andonian published The Memoirs of Naim Bey, basically an edited compilation of the documents with some of Naim’s commentary. The same year Abdulahad Nuri Bey, Naim’s superior in Aleppo, was brought before the military tribunal in Istanbul, which had already condemned several perpetrators to death. Andonian sent some documents to Istanbul to assist the prosecution, and the following year he also helped lawyers in Berlin handling the case of Soghomon Tehlirian, the young Armenian who had assassinated Talaat in a Charlottenburg street as part of a larger clandestine revenge operation.

Eventually Andonian moved to Paris, where he became director of the Boghos Nubar Library, which is today one of the leading repositories of Armenian written materials in the world. Although he deposited his extensive collection of materials on the wartime killings there, according to Taner Akçam’s new book, Killing Orders, this did not ensure the security of what historians have come to call the Naim-Andonian documents. Some of the items he had sent to the lawyers in Istanbul and Berlin were never returned, while Andonian’s own collection in the Nubar Library appears to have gone missing. The result has been to make it easier to cast doubt on the documents themselves. It is not only hacks who have done this; several relatively respected scholars of a more or less denialist persuasion have done so too. But the documents have for some time now been regarded as genuine by Armenian scholars—and not only by them. Back in 1921, for instance, Walter Rössler, who had served as wartime German consul in Aleppo, testified that he had no doubt that the Naim documents were the real thing.

Killing Orders persuasively confirms this view and provides new evidence for doing so. It turns out there was to be one more twist of fate. Krikor Guergerian was four years old when his parents and ten of his siblings were killed. He survived, received a Catholic education in Beirut and Rome, and became a monk. His life’s passion, however, was recording the genocide. While living in Cairo, around 1952, he met an elderly Turk who had been one of the presiding judges in the 1919 Istanbul military tribunals. This man had fled the Kemalist forces in 1922 and gone into exile in Egypt where, thirty years later, he not only told the Armenian monk many details about the trials but also revealed that the Armenian Patriarchate had been granted the right to have copies made of all the papers contained in the tribunal case files: to Guergerian’s surprise, he learned that it had availed itself of this right and the archives had been sent to France when Kemal’s Nationalists took over, and then to the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, their ultimate destination. So Guergerian went to Jerusalem and photographed as much of the archive as he could. He also photographed the Naim-Andonian materials, which were at that time still available in Paris.

And just as well for us. The files of the Turkish military tribunals remain closed, the Armenian Patriarchate archives are no longer open, and the Naim documents have gone missing. The Guergerian photographic archive, which surfaced only recently, having remained in family hands, thus provides a remarkable and invaluable historical source. It has now been digitized and made available on the library website of Clark University, where Akçam is a professor, and it provides the basis for his study of the Aleppo killings.

Akçam, a leading authority on the Armenian genocide, is unquestionably a very brave man: now based in the US, he is himself Turkish, and because of his pioneering work has long been a hated figure for the Turkish right. In 2012 he published a fine study of the Young Turks and the genocide, and he has since established Clark University as a center of serious research into it.1 His new book is not an easy read, and not just because of the subject. Killing Orders is less a conventional history than a kind of forensic exercise designed to lay to rest once and for all any dispute regarding the authenticity of the Naim-Andonian documents, and to demonstrate their importance in helping to understand the state structures that allowed the genocide to take place.

There is a long discussion of Ottoman encryption techniques and extended criticism of the denialist camp’s arguments. Documents are cited to demonstrate that an official called Naim really did work in the relevant department in Aleppo and that he had been stationed in the places he said he had. Dates and signatures are scrutinized and compared. Because some Turkish scholars have complained that the Naim documents must be fakes because they are written on lined paper, we are even given a brief excursus on official Ottoman policy regarding the use of lined paper in encrypted documents. The reader feels rather like someone who has stumbled into a fiercely argued courtroom drama. One can either try to follow every thrust and counterthrust from the opposing sides, or one can—as much despite the advocacy as because of it—try to figure out what really matters in the whole story. In this respect, it resembles the work of an earlier scholar in the field, Vahakn Dadrian, who published a long article on the Naim-Andonian materials thirty years ago, and who has worked closely with Akçam in the past.

The documents themselves, which appear together with Naim’s commentary in a fifty-page appendix to the book, are shocking and revealing. They make it clear that conversions to Islam or marriages to Muslims were not enough to exempt Armenians from deportation. One Interior Ministry document noted that there was no need to investigate criminal acts carried out by locals in the Deyr-i Zor region—the scene of some of the worst massacres—since they were consistent with government policy. Another message from the hard-line governor of Aleppo, Mustafa Abdülhalik, criticized the district governor of Deyr-i Zor for being too concerned about the deportees. Some of the telegrams Naim copied appeared to show Talaat Pasha ordering the Aleppo governor to single out the clergy for killing. Others used commonly accepted euphemisms such as “familiar and previously communicated guidelines” and “necessary measures,” which reflected a larger concern among policymakers about news of the killings getting out. Talaat ordered Armenian reporters to be arrested and “liquidated,” and urged the governor to ensure that the corpses that littered the deportation routes be buried as quickly as possible.

Akçam’s book has described the documents as “an earthquake in genocide studies.” Maybe. What is certainly interesting is how much supportive evidence he has been able to amass from the Ottoman archives themselves—in particular from Interior Ministry files and from records from the grand vizier’s office and elsewhere. These help document the background to the Naim materials and flesh out the involvement of senior Ottoman officials.

Despite the intermittent efforts at a cover-up charted by Naim, Andonian, and in most detail by Akçam, and despite the Turkish government’s continued refusal to countenance calling what happened a genocide, an increasing range of primary documents thus turns out to be available in official archives; they testify not only to the scale of the deportations and the killings, but also to the patterns of command within the Ottoman state administration. As in the comparable case of Holocaust historiography, it is possible to devote a great deal of scholarly energy looking for some sort of documentary smoking gun. Yet a better sense of how things unfolded might come from an array of sources that illuminate the course of events from multiple angles. Some important recent works by a younger generation of scholars do this to great effect; in its own way, Akçam’s book does too.2

What Killing Orders makes quite clear is the central involvement of the Interior Ministry and its head, Talaat Pasha, in initiating and monitoring vast movements of civilians across the empire, setting guidelines for their treatment, and—perhaps most important of all—making the personnel decisions that ensured trustworthy figures were in the right place at the right time. Other agencies were also involved—the military, for example, and the Special Organization, a paramilitary force of irregular killers under the control of a Talaat confidante, Behaeddin Şakir—but the Interior Ministry was as much at the heart of operations as the SS was during the unfolding of the Final Solution.

Talaat Pasha’s importance in the entire grim story—indeed in any history of the Ottoman war effort—makes the appearance of a new biography of him most welcome. Hans-Lukas Kieser, a Swiss historian now based at the University of Newcastle in Australia, is a respected scholar of Turkish affairs. Like Akçam, he cannot escape the pull of the genocide controversy, and his Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide too is intended to nail down the case that the wartime leadership in Istanbul, and Talaat in particular, were committed by 1915 to a policy of extermination of the empire’s Armenian population.

Kieser’s prose is pedestrian, but his book is invaluable, offering a bigger picture than Akçam’s, both of the events that prefigured the massacres of 1915–1917 and of the war. The view from Talaat Pasha’s desk gives a perspective that would be hard to beat. A leading figure in the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which toppled Sultan Abdul Hamid and led Turkey into the war, Talaat was self-made, a former employee of the postal service who would later as minister have a telegraph line connected to his private residence to facilitate his communications with the provinces. A “committee” man through and through, he had the underground revolutionary’s characteristic impetuousness, suspicion, and love of action. He emerged in 1913 as one of the ruling “three Pashas”—with his colleagues Enver Pasha and Cemal Pasha—who collectively took Turkey into the war. What made him rise above even his closest rivals were his diplomatic skills and his charm, which elevated him to one position of power after another till he ended the war as grand vizier.

It fell to Talaat, as minister of the interior, to handle questions of deportation and resettlement. The Ottoman Empire had used the resettlement of nomadic tribesmen as a technique in taking over conquered territories as far back as the fourteenth century; its demographic policy extended to welcoming large numbers of Jews expelled from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century and resettling them too. The imperial mindset was thus habituated to thinking about loyal and disloyal populations. In the empire’s epic struggle with tsarist Russia around the Black Sea from the late eighteenth century onward, the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who either fled or were forced southward into Ottoman lands in the face of the Russian advance were resettled everywhere from the Balkans to greater Syria.

But as Christian nation-states emerged in southeastern Europe, and the influx of Muslim refugees gathered pace, the empire also began expelling populations that it regarded as hostile. Growing suspicion of the Armenians began to emerge at the end of the nineteenth century, but they were not the only ones. Following the Balkan Wars, Muslim refugees arrived in Anatolia in the spring of 1914, prompting the government, with Talaat in the lead, to expel Orthodox villagers from the Asia Minor coast, supposedly to make room for the newcomers but also no doubt because they were regarded as a security risk in the event of the war with Greece that was widely anticipated.

Once the Ottoman Empire entered the war on Germany’s side, and especially after Enver foolishly launched his disastrous campaign against Russian forces in the east, the Armenians of the eastern provinces found themselves in an even more precarious situation. What made their plight worse was that on the eve of the war the Ottoman authorities had very reluctantly signed up for a European reform plan that would have provided for international supervision over the administration of those very provinces. Macedonia had been the subject of a similar scheme a decade earlier, and for men like Talaat, it all too clearly meant the kind of European meddling in Ottoman affairs that could only have one outcome—the further dismemberment of the empire.

Talaat Pasha
Pictures from History/Granger
Talaat Pasha, the Ottoman minister of the interior during the Armenian genocide

Despite all this, mass murder on the scale that unfolded in the spring of 1915 was not inevitable, although the Armenian massacres of 1894–1896, unleashed in the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid, provided a kind of precedent: they had left somewhere between 100,000–200,000 dead before an international outcry brought them to a halt. In 1909, some 15,000 to 30,000 Armenians had been killed around the town of Adana, but the CUP had been critical of the massacres, and the perpetrators were generally linked with the ancien regime.

Kieser argues that Talaat’s thinking was shaped by the war, and by the possibility it provided of ending the Armenian question once and for all. The sense among the CUP members of being locked in an existential struggle for the life of the empire inspired far-ranging exterminationist ambitions. The general loss of life in wartime—among soldiers and civilians alike—was another factor: Talaat often instructed his subordinates not to waste their compassion on the Armenians when so many Muslims were suffering. And technology—the spread of the railway and the telegraph in particular—also allowed him to issue orders and monitor events more closely than any of his Hamidian predecessors.

How does genocide unfold? In the case of the Nazis, it grew almost piecemeal. First there were the killings in the occupied Soviet territories; then there were the death camps in Poland; only later was the policy extended across the entire European continent. In like fashion, the killing of Armenians began in two distinct places: Istanbul, where notables were arrested (and murdered), and the eastern provinces, where the first massacres occurred. Neither Talaat nor anyone else appears to have initially contemplated extending the policy to Syria, which was why the Aleppan Armenians remained unscathed for months after the population of the Van region had been entirely wiped out or deported. In 1916, however, with a new, reliable governor in place in Aleppo, the policy switched to one of active killing across northern Syria, with Talaat, in Kieser’s words, “the mastermind of this genocidal universe.” The following year Talaat commissioned a statistical survey of how many Armenians survived across the empire. While in 1914 there had been some 1.5 million (a figure that apparently excluded Protestant Armenians), the number of those still alive three years later had dropped to around 350,000–400,000.3

Though the Armenians unquestionably bore the brunt of the genocidal assault of Talaat’s policy, he was suspicious of an astonishingly wide array of ethnic groups. The Nestorian Christians were singled out for dispersal and death, members of the Orthodox Rum sect around Trabzon were massacred, and Kurds, often employed in the killing of Armenians by Ottoman officials, were singled out for deportation; thousands of them starved in 1916–1917. Ryan Gingeras’s remarkable study of the Marmara region shows Interior Ministry bureaucrats tracking Circassians, Albanians, and Bosnians, and keeping detailed records on who had power in each community.4

The ambitiousness and potential reach of the Interior Ministry’s ethnic politics were breathtaking. Yet its resources were severely constrained. In fact, crucial to understanding the violence is the precariousness of Talaat’s hold on power. Like every Ottoman minister in Istanbul before him, he had an acute sense of how limited the resources at his disposal were. Hence the reliance on local armed men, units cobbled together for special purposes, often paid for with Armenian property and the plunder that accompanied their work. Hence too Talaat’s obsession with working through loyalists he could trust, men whose murderous instincts were proven, and his omnipresent anxiety about corruption, lest Armenians pay officials to allow them to survive. He was not wrong in suspecting that many Ottoman officials disapproved of his plans: Kieser’s book shows local governors doing their best to resist orders, and army men either worried by the disruption or simply shocked that the government was fomenting mass murder on such a scale.

Talaat Pasha appears to have had no doubts and, as he informed the US ambassador, no regrets. Entry into the war on the side of Germany had been a gamble, and he had decided to go for broke. In the spring of 1918, it seemed the gamble had paid off. Germany’s government had shown a marked indifference to the Armenian killings. (Individual German officials, missionaries, and journalists were by contrast among the most important witnesses to what took place and valuable sources of testimony.) And when Lenin’s regime sued for peace in the winter of 1917–1918, it was Talaat who led the Ottoman delegation to Brest-Litovsk and returned in triumph, having negotiated the return of provinces that had been lost to the empire for forty years.

By the end of 1918, all this was a distant memory. Talaat resigned in October, and the following month he fled Istanbul and settled into a semi-clandestine existence in Berlin. From there he was the first senior CUP figure to proclaim allegiance to Mustafa Kemal. In March 1921 he was assassinated in Charlottenburg by Tehlirian. Behaeddin Şakir, formerly the murderous leader of the paramilitary Special Organization, spoke at his funeral: he too fell to the assassins little more than a year later. Initially unwanted in Turkey, Talaat’s remains were transported back to Istanbul in February 1943, a token of Hitler’s hopes for a new era of Turkish–German friendship. Today he lies in the Abidi-i-Hürriyet cemetery, buried under an imposing arch by the Monument of Liberty. His former comrade, Enver Pasha, lies nearby. The remains of the victims are not so easily located: they lie in hundreds if not thousands of unmarked makeshift graves scattered across Anatolia and the Syrian desert.

  1. 1

    The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton University Press, 2012). 

  2. 2

    Take for instance the 2016 dissertation by a student of Akçam’s, Khatchig Mouradian, on “Genocide and Humanitarian Resistance in Ottoman Syria, 1915–1917,” and his illuminating article on the subject in Études arméniennes contemporaines, Vol. 7 (2016), which uses both Ottoman and Armenian sources to demonstrate, in a fashion reminiscent of Christopher Browning’s treatment of the unfolding of the Final Solution, how a precise attentiveness to month-by-month chronology allows us more fully to understand the evolution of official thought on the Armenian question. 

  3. 3

    Ara Sarafian, Talaat Pasha’s Report on the Armenian Genocide, 1917 (London: Gomidas Institute, 2011), pp. 5–6. 

  4. 4

    Ryan Gingeras, Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1912–1923 (Oxford University Press, 2011).