Sunday, June 3, 2007

An Interview with Hilmar Kaiser

The Ottoman Archives Are Open... Almost
An Interview with Hilmar Kaiser
By Khatchig Mouradian
Aztag Daily
Thursday, 22 September, 2005

In recent years, the Turkish government has repeatedly stated that the Ottoman archives are fully open to researchers studying the Armenian genocide of 1915. As recently as 16 September, 2005, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, answering a question regarding two recent resolutions adopted by the Committee on International Relations of the US House of Representatives, said: 'We clearly say that Turkey's archives are open and Armenia should open its archives, if it has. We shall speak on the basis of documents and information. I do not understand on which basis unrelated countries take decisions about the so-called Armenian genocide. These decisions are all political in nature and do not serve world peace.”

To find out about how open the Ottoman archives are at the moment, I recently spoke to Hilmar Kaiser, a historian who was banned from the archives in 1996, but was admitted back in July 2005 and was provided access to archival material he had repeatedly been denied a decade ago. As the interview reveals, assertions that the Ottoman archives are open are partly true at most.
Hilmar Kaiser received his Ph.D. from the European University Institute, Florence. He specializes in Ottoman social and economic history as well as the Armenian Genocide. He has done research in more than 60 archives worldwide, including the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul. His published works - monographs, edited volumes, and articles- include “Imperialism, Racism, and Development Theories: The Construction of a Dominant Paradigm on Ottoman Armenians”, “At the Crossroads of Der Zor: Death Survival and Humanitarian Resistance in Aleppo, 1915-1917”, “The Baghdad Railway
and the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1916: A Case Study in German Resistance and
Complicity”, “1915-1916 Ermeni Soykirimi Sirasinda Ermeni Mulkleri, Osmanli
Hukuku ve Milliyet Politikalari”, “Le genocide armenien: negation a ‘l'allemande’” and “From Empire to Republic: The Continuities for Turkish Denial”.

Khatchig Mouradian - In July 2005, almost a decade after being banned from the Ottoman State Archives, you were given access to the archives once again. How did you get in?

Hilmar Kaiser- I got to Istanbul on a Sunday. I went to the archives the next morning. At the entrance, they asked me whether I have a reader ticket, I said “no”. I was asked to go to the application office and fill out the usual application form. They scanned in my data from the passport, when they entered the data I was asked if I was at the archives before, because they saw there was entry; I confirmed. Then I was issued my new reader ticket. After a few minutes, I was in the reading room with the catalogs and the documents.

It was basically the same procedure as in any archive I worked in.

K.M. - Some scholars who have worked in the Ottoman State Archives have repeatedly complained that the documents they ask for are first “cleared” by a control commission and only then provided to them. Did you encounter such a problem?

H.K.- In the early nineties when I was there, there existed an unofficial—not acknowledged, even denied—so called “control commission” that read everything I got. I don’t have any evidence that this happened this time.

K.M. – The media, especially the Turkish and Armenians news sources, often speak about the Ottoman archives being open or closed. However, what is meant by Ottoman archives is rarely explained. Can you shed some light on this issue?

H.K. - The Ottoman archives are the abbreviation of “the Turkish Prime Minister’s Ottoman Archives” located in Istanbul. The Turkish national archives (devlet arshivleri) have 2 main branches: the Ottoman archives (until 1923) and the republican archives (after 1923), but of course there is some overlap.

K.M. - What about the military archives?

H.K. - There are the military archives that are attached to an institution of the General staff.

K.M. – And these archives aren’t open, are they?

H.K. - I don’t know. I applied once in 1991s and I was not allowed in, so my experience is limited to the Ottoman archives, as explained earlier; not to the republican archives or the military archives.

K.M. - What about the archives of The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP)?

H.K. - I do not think the archives of CUP have been cataloged anywhere as such.

K.M. - Were they destroyed?

H.K. - I doubt it. I do not know. We should be really careful about not mixing information. Anything about the CUP archives is sheer speculation. We don’t have any indication that they have been destroyed.

K.M. – Can you comfortably say that the Ottoman archives are open?

H.K. - I can go to the archives, I can see the catalogs and get the documents that are in the catalogues. I don’t get documents that aren’t catalogued; this isn’t something special. In all archives, there’s a constant cataloguing process as long as the archives take in new material and it’s working on files that have been processed. However, I know of some important collections at the Turkish Prime Minister’s Ottoman Archives that have been cataloged but these catalogs are not at the reading room. So there are material that have been processed and catalogued but are still withheld. One such collection is the Armenian collection of the Ottoman Directorate for Public Security (2nd Division), which is a subdivision of the Ministry of the Interior.

What is available, for instance, are the Ottoman Ministry of Interior Cipher Bureau files which contain a large number of deportation orders and other orders connected to the deportation of Armenians. For example, direct orders concerning the deportation of Zohrab and Vartkes Efendis, and direct orders concerning individual ARF (Armenian Revolutionary federation) members. However, the responses to these orders, are, as far as I can see, contained in the second Division (see above) of the Ministry of the Interior and we don’t have those documents available. So we know what the orders were, but we don’t know the response. Other orders are contained in the Ministry of the Military archives. To get the whole picture, we need the cipher department, second department, plus the military archives. This is what we know now. According to some sources, there are other collections in these archives which are not available yet and are very important, but since I don’t have any printed information on this, I cannot say anything.

We want now to have access to those documents that have been catalogued but are not available. To put it in the political perspective, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the Archives are open. Yes, they are open, and he made a true statement, but the further implication, what people assume that everything they have you can see, doesn’t apply. I hope other documents will also be made available. The Turkish government is on an excellent path now.

K.M. – Taking into consideration the denial policy of the Turkish government, how realistic is the hope that some documents that shed light on the “sensitive” aspects of the Armenian genocide will be made available?

H.K. - I cannot comment on documents I haven’t seen. Some people ask me if there are documents that have been cleansed. That would mean there are materials I have seen before, but they have disappeared. What I can say is this: I was there; I got material I had been repeatedly denied ten years ago. So this is a major step forward. I can also say that back then I had troubles with photocopying. There was a file with 54 pages, I got 36 back and 18 pages had disappeared in the process. This time, I got my photocopies very quickly and there was not the slightest reason for any kind of complaint; they did a very professional job. Obviously, the Turkish government has enough control over the archives to enforce its political will over the administration, which is very important, if we keep in mind that the Turkish government represents the political movement that has been in the opposition for decades and now for the first time it is in power.

I do not expect Mr. Erdogan to look at all the items in the archives, this is a process that has to be brought to his attention and after that, no doubt things will improve. Will they make material available that will damage their position? I think the Turkish position is evolving now; I spoke to people who were accepting that there were massacres of Armenians including participation orders by government officials, but not officials at the central government. So the position has evolved to acknowledge the participation of local and provincial authorities, but also to stress that the central government was not in line with those authorities. This makes there position more defendable; it means the Turkish position and the Armenian position become closer, but it means also that people who would deny the Armenian genocide are in a much more comfortable position themselves. While applauding Turkey for becoming open, it means also that the political debate becomes more complicated.

K.M. – You said you spoke to “people”. Were they government officials?

H.K. - I talked to very high ranking officials who turned up at a tea house; these include leaders from the ruling AK party, people who are concerned with security in Turkey, and also academics.

K.M. - Is this evolution you are talking about regarding the Turkish government’s position a new strategy of denial or is it a step towards facing the past?

H.K. - It’s both. We have to understand that the Turkish government has to represent Turkish interests; that’s what their job is. What’s happening right now is that we see a policy which is more of the making of Mr. Erdogan’s government. Definitely, it’s part of a strategy that has to do with Europe. Obviously, if you want to join the European Union, you need to have open archives. The Ottoman Archives contain other issues like Lebanon and Macedonia; the Armenian issue is only one part of the whole thing.

There’s a discussion going on in Turkey. As I talked, I was quite clear with government officials, but while in previous years they responded with a personal attack, this time around, they made their point clear and also asked questions. I also published an article in Turkey on Armenian abandoned property --the headline of the article reads “Armenian genocide”-- I was surprised to hear that the article was read and discussed in various universities. I also received a call for papers from the Turkish Historical Society and they asked me to send an application for next year. Which is also remarkable, because it means the Turkish Historical Society believes now that I’m a scholar and not just a propagandist. These are all steps in the right direction.

Nowadays, there is a very strong interest in Turkey towards the other position. The number of publications in Turkey has increased tremendously and there are some publications which I find very helpful. It’s not just crap they produce now. The printed books used to be a waste of trees, just reiterations, recycling of the recycled.

Where all this will end, I don’t know. But at the moment I’m pleased by what’s going on.

K.M. - You mentioned the issue of “abandoned property”. Some scholars who have studied that aspect of the Armenian genocide consider the theft of fixed and moveable assets as an integral part of the genocide and maintain that that theft was organized by the leadership of the CUP.

H.K. - It was the state. It was from the top of the government, from Talat and Ali Munif Bey. The Armenian genocide is the Ottoman government’s answer to the Armenian Question: Deportations can only be analyzed in terms of expropriation. It was grand theft. It was the surgical separation of Armenians from their movable and immovable property. The Ottoman government was very careful of not wasting any assets while being not concerned about the fate of the Armenians.

To make the expropriation permanent, you have to replace the Armenians. The expropriation was part of a settlement program; this process created a surplus population and this surplus population was taken care of. The Armenians were mathematically a surplus population. Killing or, in the case of children and women, assimilating them solved that problem. What took place was genocide, not massacres.

In 1990, I spoke about the “so-called Armenian genocide.” I was a student in Germany and the library wasn’t good enough and for that reason, I wasn’t good enough myself. After I started my archival work, in one month, I spoke about the genocide, not the “so- called genocide”. I’m not just a believer in the Armenian genocide; I’m someone who has acquired that knowledge from his own work. No one taught me the Armenian genocide and no one taught me to use the word. It’s a result of my own work. I use the word because it’s the appropriate term that covers the phenomenon. The more I study the Armenian genocide, its various aspects and its systematic nature, the more it becomes evident that there is only one word. It’s not a question of having preferences; if you want to present yourself as a scholar, you have to use the word. If you want to talk about the massacres of Armenians in one village or the deportations in another village, you don’t have to use genocide, but the moment you want to put the wider perspective, you have to use the word. And every scholar that wants to play games, like some people going to Yerevan and telling everyone “don’t use the ‘G’ word”, have a political agenda.

K.M. - Some Turkish scholars refrain from using the ‘G’ word because they say that it’s highly politicized and that they do not want to get involved in the war between Turkish and Armenian nationalists.

H.K. - I don’t care about the Armenian and Turkish nationalists, no matter who my friends are and who are not my friends. I use the word “genocide” because it adequately describes the phenomenon. It’s the only term we have that describes it. If one day we have a better word, fine. The English, German, and Turkish languages have only one word to describe it. That this has a negative consequence on the Turkish government is something I can’t change; I can’t change history. I’m not prepared to haggle over it. If a Turkish scholar says it too politicized and he or she doesn’t want to use the word, then let him/her take a different subject. If you want to be part of this debate, apply proper terminology and if you don’t want to do it, you aren’t a scholar. I don’t like the fact that I get trouble from some Turkish quarters because I use proper terminology; but you have to face the music. If you don’t want to face the music then don’t play. That certain people living in Turkey had to take certain precautions at least in the past is unfortunate, that’s why I don’t provoke them, but I’m not dealing with people who have no academic knowledge on the issue suddenly turning up and trying to renegotiate academic terminology.

K.M. – You have published a number of papers on the German role in the Armenian genocide. What is reflected in your papers is that talking about a “German complicity” is going too far.

H.K. - Our knowledge of the German role is still limited, because Allied bombing destroyed the military archives in 1945. At least 99 percent of the chunk is gone. To make it worse, quite a bit of the German embassy archives were also lost. Fortunately, most of the Armenian files of the embassy have survived. Having said this, we have a pretty good idea what the German Foreign Office was doing and I have just described this in a new publication. The policy was helping Armenians when it wouldn’t hurt their interests and at the same time deeply resenting the Turks. That’s what they did. Their hands were tied, because the Turkish alliance was important. The private companies like the Baghdad railway company assisted the Armenians. Then you have the missionaries, some very good, and some, like Lepsius, making themselves more shiny afterwards. Not everything was as nice as certain researchers recently claimed. Then you have the officers; there was an officer, Boettrich, who actively assisted the deportation, there was another officer, Wolffskeel, who killed Armenians with his own hands, but he was recalled in punishment.

I have no evidence that the German government was supporting the Armenian genocide or even taking part in the killing, The evidence points more directly to the contrary. To get to a better understanding, we need to access the Turkish military archives which also contain German files. That’s why I’m saying that at the present moment everything is preliminary. But the real debate about Germans, especially the assumption that the Ottoman government was too stupid to know how to commit genocide and had to get Germans to tell them how to pull it off, and the attempts of comparing the role of the Germans in the Armenian genocide with the role of the Germans in the Holocaust is a kind of inferiority complex. The Armenian genocide can stand on its own. It doesn’t have to match the Holocaust to be validated. There are major and structural differences. The whole issue of German involvement is a kind of sidetrack. The real way forward is access to the Turkish archives.

The complicity of the Germans in the Armenian genocide is a political invention and does not withstand scrutiny.

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