Mediamax interview with historian Ara Sarafian

“Talaat Pasha’s Report on the Armenian Genocide, 1917” was published by the Gomidas Institute in April 2011. As the title implies, it is an appraisal of a report that was found in Talaat Pasha’s private papers and published by the Turkish journalist and popular historian Murat Bardakci. According to Sarafian, Bardakci’s analysis of Talaat’s report was limited and did not reflect the true content of the original document. Sarafian draws on Ottoman records to verify the authenticity of the 1917 document and interpret its content. He argues that the 1917 report was actually a special assessment of the Armenian Genocide.

Mediamax talked to Ara Sarafian.

– What can you say about “Talaat Pasha’s Report on the Armenian Genocide”?

– The report was found in Talaat Pasha’s private papers way back in 1982 by the Turkish journalist and historian Murat Bardakci. He first published parts of it in 2005 and then released the whole report (with facsimiles of the originals) in 2008. I found the original report a compelling document, though Bardakci, in his own introductory comments, had toned down, even misrepresented, its Armenian content.

– How was the report toned down or misrepresented?

– Murat Bardakci prefaced his work with a chapter called “What Happened on 24 April 1915” and repeated the official explanation that Ottoman Armenians were subjected to a “population transfer” in 1915; he dismissed any consideration of the Armenian Genocide thesis; and he gave a wholly inappropriate title to Talaat’s report of 1917. However, he stated that the data he was presenting was open to different interpretation.

After the report was released in 2005, the main discussion about it was “led” by official Turkish historians, and they played down the importance of the report. They pointed out that it did not have a title, nor a date, that it could have been written by anyone. They did not comment on the fact that it was found in Talaat’s private papers, discuss its content in broader terms, or suggest answers to the questions they were raising. As far as I know, only one Turkish historian, Fuat Dundar has ever discussed the report in some depth.

– Are you suggesting that official Turkish historians covered up Talaat’s report?

– Yes. They raised their questions without mentioning the extent to which Talaat Pasha was directly involved in the deportation of Ottoman Armenians and the types of record we know he collected in the process. For example, he sent a circular to a list of provinces in February 1917 requesting specific information about Armenians. The information in Talaat’s report is in the same peculiar format as the information he sought in that circular. The survey asked for the number of “native” and “outside” Armenians in different provinces, including information about the origins of “outsiders.”

As the official Turkish historians undoubtedly know, some of the responses to this circular can still be found in Turkish archives and these responses clearly suggest that the February circular was the key reference for Talaat’s report. Some of the returns were identical to Talaat’s report; others had been updated and were slightly different. This archival trail is the substance of my own introduction to “Talaat Pasha’s Report on the Armenian Genocide.”

– How does such information from 1917 relate to the Armenian Genocide?

– Talaat’s report makes its focus explicit with its opening summary-analysis, where it introduces additional categories of information. It has a column showing the Armenian population of different provinces in 1914 according to official Ottoman statistics, and it has a column that has been generated from the returns to the 1917 survey. This column shows the total number of Armenians from each province who were counted in other provinces. This latter column must have been generated and included in the summary-analysis upon special instruction. (Interestingly, there is no column showing the total number of Armenians in the different provinces). With the information that was included in the summary-analysis, Talaat could, for example, look at the Armenian population of Izmit in 1914 and see how many Izmit-Armenians were either in their native province or elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire in 1917. These figures allowed Talaat to see how many Izmit Armenians were deported from their native province and how many still survived (or did not survive) in 1917.

It is for such reasons that I chose to entitle my analysis of Talaat’s document, first published by Murat Bardakci, “Talaat Pasha’s Report on the Armenian Genocide, 1917.” I should say that I entirely disagree with Murat Bardakci who called the same report, “A General Account of the Armenian Population after the Population Transfer [tehcir].” If the report described a “population transfer,” then one would have expected most of the deported to have been resettled elsewhere, especially in the resettlement zone. In actual fact, the vast majority of Ottoman Armenians (that is over 80 percent, in crude figures) actually disappeared between 1914 and 1917. Most of these missing Armenians were probably killed, with a large number of women and children absorbed into Muslim households. As for those remaining “native” and “outside” Armenians, perhaps they would be best described as “captive victims” of the Armenian Genocide. They were “playthings” of the Ottoman state, which played with their lives, and pushed them to assimilate as Muslim-Turks. In some cases, such as Kayseri province, the evidence shows that such victims were actively dispersed in Muslim villages for assimilation.

– So, how many Armenians were “missing” according to Talaat’s report?

– According to the report, Ottoman official figures counted 1,112,614 Armenians in the Empire in 1914. Of course, these figures need to be verified, especially as there was no official census that year. Talaat’s summary-analysis also included a fascinating footnote that stated that the official number of Armenians in 1914 shown in the report excluded Catholic Armenians and rectified the figure to show 1,256,403 Apostolic and Catholic Armenians. (It did not mention Protestant Armenians). The footnote also stated that the number of these Armenians should be raised further to around 1.5 million in order to account for undercounts. Similarly, the footnote stated that the number of “native” and “outside” Armenians in the provinces should be raised from 284,157 to around 350,000 to 400,000 people. According to these figures, therefore, around 1,100,000 Armenians were missing between 1914 and 1917.

Obviously the data has to be analysed. First, it is not clear how many Armenians were in the Ottoman Empire in 1914. Then there is the question of 40,000 or so Protestant Armenians who were not presented in Talaat’s report (even though they too were deported and killed in large numbers). Talaat’s data also missed out a few regions, most notably Janik (Samsun) and Edirne, where there were also major deportations. There is also the question of how many Armenians managed to escape in the east and, as some may point out, what happened to them after their escape. If they starved or froze to death, should they be counted as victims of the genocide?

– What do you hope to achieve with your study on Talaat Pasha’s report of 1917?

– I tried to evaluate the significance of Talaat’s report as a historical document. Once I was able to do that, I decided to present his data as the official view of the Armenian Genocide according to Ottoman records. I also configured the data- as far as possible – to show how different Ottoman Armenian communities fared during this period. I did not try to analyse the figures much further. That can be done over time.

– It has been 3 months since your book “Talaat Pasha’s Report on the Armenian Genocide, 1917” was published in English. What has been the reaction to it especially from official Turkish historians?

– My work has been welcomed by many readers, both in Turkey and elsewhere. However, there has not been an academic response so far. When Murat Bardakci first published Talaat’s report, there was similar disquiet amongst official Turkish historians. The New York Times even commented on the “silence” with an article, “Nearly a Million Genocide Victims, Covered in a Cloak of Amnesia” (NYT, 8 March 2009).

– Do you fear any unfair treatment by Turkish state historians yourself?

– No. Anyone who criticizes the official Turkish thesis on the Armenian Genocide should be prepared for a reaction. This is part of the process. Next month the Gomidas Institute will release a Turkish translation of my work and I still hope that will lead to a sensible discussion.

– Who is your audience in Turkey?

– People who are interested in the Armenian Genocide and have an open mind.

– Are you confident that the translation will get fair consideration given some extreme views expressed against you in some circles?

– There are extremists everywhere in the world. However, my audience is different. Also, my work on Talaat’s report is not a complex academic text. It is quite simple and to the point. It is accessible. The bulk of it is composed of statistics from Talaat’s original report. This original data is available in facsimile format (original Ottoman text plus Turkish transliteration) in Bardakci’s book, so that its authenticity is not in question. I have presented this data in somewhat clearer terms regarding the Armenian Genocide, especially with the addition two significant maps. My own analysis in the work gives an account of where the data came from and how it was used for Talaat’s assessment of the Armenian Genocide. The analysis draws on Ottoman archival records which can be easily verified in Turkey.

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