By Khatchig Mouradian
The Armenian Weekly
March 8, 2008
Hilmar Kaiser is a scholar of the Armenian genocide who is also known in scholarly circles and the Armenian community for the controversy he generates with some of his lectures and interviews. We first sat down at the editorial offices of the Aztag Daily in Beirut on Sept. 22, 2005, for a fascinating interview about the Ottoman archives and the Armenian genocide.
Kaiser received his PhD from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. 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.”
In this interview, conducted in Boston in Dec. 2007, Kaiser discusses the archives and speaks about his views on Turkish scholars—both the liberals and state-sponsored genocide deniers.
Khatchig Mouradian—Let’s talk about your Turkish colleagues and how they approach the Armenian issue.
Hilmar Kaiser—When I looked in Turkey over the past year for organized “academic” treatment of the Armenian issue, I could identify at least eight centers, which are in competition with each other; and then, within the centers there is competition. What you have there is a flourishing chaos. This is also understandable because the Turkish government puts money into it. The government puts money into the project without having a right assessment, so they burn a lot of money on staff that has zero impact.
There has to be a realization in certain circles—especially at the Turkish Historical Society—that this level doesn’t suffice. Some people claim “our product is inefficient because it’s only in Turkish and no one can read it.” They should understand that it is good that no one can read it, because once it is translated, it will do more damage than anything else. Some authors areas if talking in their own bathroom.
But now within the Turkish Historical Society and among some others there is agreement that production has to meet U.S. University press standards and anything else is a total waste of time.
We agreed that we disagree, and then we had discussions about the concept of genocide, we have now discussed joint projects. It’s something else if that will happen or not, but we at least explored what can be done together, in areas where basically you wouldn’t burn the house. After two and a half years in the Turkish archives, they got used to me being in Turkey, there was no scandal, slowly they got used that I am a reality and they get more comfortable and confident about the situation.
Personally, I have no problem talking to official historians or genocide deniers because these guys have the nationalist credentials. They don’t have to prove that they’re not Armenian spies so they are very cool about it. They are very surprised that I don’t talk to the “liberals” about it, and I tell them very clearly that it is, in my view, a self-deception to think that a few Turkish scholars—regardless of how good or how bad their work is, how respectable or unrespectable they are—who represent a very small layer, a very privileged layer of Turkish society, the société, the upper one percent, will change the country.
These people teach at very few places where very few students go to and they basically dismiss a whole state university system with tens of thousands of history students. So I just ignore them. If you want to talk to people who train the teachers in Turkey, who go to countrywide universities, you have to talk to other people.
From a German perspective—I am German and it inspires me given the dialogue of the 1970s and 1980s between east and west—it was always clear that engaging the other side is inevitable and you make them part of the solution. We can’t get rid of all of those we don’t like and then start everything from the beginning, because these people will fight to the end if they have nothing to lose. Respectable scholarship has nothing to do with the name of the person who has written it—it is assessed on its own merit. So people might change and agreements might replace disagreements. Never give up too easy.
There’s a substance on which you can move on and I have been involved in it during the last few years. There are hopeless cases among historians in Turkey, of course. At one dinner, one outed himself as a fan of Adolf Hitler. In Germany, I would report him to the police and he wouldn’t leave the country for what he said. This was, at the same time, Holocaust denial, racism and a call for inter-ethnic violence. You don’t have to deal with those guys. There are clear standards. These standards are not to be compromised. But the other guys, I don’t boycott them, clearly.
K.M.—You criticize the liberal scholars. But most of the decent scholarship by Turks on the Armenian genocide is done by the liberal scholars and not the ones on the state’s payroll, am I wrong?
H.K.—You have to look at the footnotes. Every book tells you what you have done, at least what you claim to have done. Much of it is based on published resources. It shows that they are not at the cutting edge. If you want original research on a certain issue, given the low state of our knowledge because of archival issues and other issues, you have to put in the time. All these concepts about the Armenian genocide are developed on generalization of a very narrow source basis. We have developed a lot of Holy Grail items that we hear over and over again, but these are generalizations of local events that didn’t necessarily spread. There is a lot of crap that we have to throw out, and we have the documents to make that point. One has to be more humble and more relaxed about it and be careful about one’s findings.
K.M.—Talk about your relation with the head of the Turkish Historical Society Yusuf Halacoglu.
H.K.—I met him at the Istanbul conference almost two years ago. Then I visited him at the Historical Society’s conference about a year ago, where he received me in a very friendly manner. Then we had little contact and I visited him in June and in November again. Halacoglu is the only Turkish historian who has put material on the table I cannot reconcile with my current knowledge. He is an extremely smart guy, very professional. He is ahead of me in some regards.
K.M.—Why do you say that?
H.K.—He has the material on the prosecution of war criminals during the war. Meanwhile, I have obtained my own copy of the material, but there has to be academic respect—it means, he has the right to publish it first.
According to this material, people who stole money, killed etc., were punished. The list identifies the perpetrators, what they did and what their punishment was. We know, for example, that the murderers of Zohrab and Vartkes Effendi were executed by Djemal, and there were other executions. People who stole money from the Armenian population and put it in their own pocket instead of transferring it to the government got punished. We know this but we need a careful analysis of it. We have no decisive answer yet.
K.M.—But they aren’t punishing them for stealing from the Armenians, are they?
H.K.—We haven’t researched that. This element is surely part of it, but do we really fully account for it?
K.M.—How would you qualify Halacoglu’s scholarship…
H.K.—The book on the 16th century is very good…
K.M.—No, I mean his scholarship on the Armenian genocide…
H.K.—This is not so easy, you have to see who is he. He is the representative of the Turkish state. If there is a real debate between persons with intellect and command of sources, Halacoglu leads the Turkish team.
Dismissing him for past weak scholarship or political fanaticism—or whatever argument you want to bring up and you may even have something in support of your point—will not necessarily be productive. Don’t underestimate Yusuf Halacoglu. I respect him. I might disagree with him emphatically but I’m comfortable that I don’t have a fight with him at this point. The academic resources of an entire state converge on this one person. The Armenians have nobody coming even close to the shadow of him.
On the other hand, he is not antagonistic like the fascist I just mentioned. Halacoglu is interested in dialogue, the question is on what terms. He has no problem to talk with me, to talk with others…
K.M.—The way you are describing a notorious genocide denier might come as a surprise to many…
H.K.—First of all, the description of deniers as a group is false. You have people who are fully paid talking heads who have nothing to offer; they are, unfortunately, the people who write the briefs for Erdogan when he goes abroad. Then you have the kind of politically well-connected third-rate academic creatures who are only interested in escalating the situation because they can only live on escalation, because they have nothing to offer. And then you have people who have serious disagreements with you.
The way Turkish materials have been used in one recent English-language publication in this country—which is celebrated as great research—is totally unscholarly. The celebration is there because no one is able to check the sources. If that publication had been an Armenian genocide denial publication, there would have been an outcry. Same methods of misrepresentation of sources, speculation, you name it. It’s all there.
K.M.—Can you give a concrete example?
H.K.—For example, one scholar claims that the president of the Ottoman Chamber was going to Germany in March 1915 to coordinate the decision of the Armenian genocide, and he gives the source. The source says exactly the opposite. I don’t want to go now into detail because I am publishing it.
K.M.—Talk about the Ottoman archives. What has changed in the past couple of years?
H.K.—The Directorate for Demography in the Ministry of the Interior was reopened. This collection was open for some time in the 1990s and was closed for at least two years since 2005. This was a reopening, not a new opening of collections.
The opening of other files is rapid, tremendous. They have opened the Ministry of the Interior files for the Abdul-Hamidian period until the second constitutional period. This is massive.
They have also opened the files of the Paris embassy and they are opening more embassy files now. This is at a pace that has never been there.
However, there are still files—collections we spoke of in our previous interview, like the files of the so-called abandoned property commissions—that are not made available. We also don’t have possibly the most crucial files on WWI concerning the Armenians, because they were removed in 1919 from the files that were opened so far and have been put in a new collection for the purposes of the government. So this is not—as some people now claim—a cleansing of archives. This is just that certain files were carried from one office to another office in the context of administrative organization. This stuff, from what I understand, is not going to be opened soon, not because the archivists are not motivated, not because they are not interested, but simply because you have so many people and so much work. There is a lack of resources.
There is no political opposition now towards declassification and processing. What they simply don’t have is sufficient resources, which is regrettable.
K.M.—What is the significance of the embassy files regarding the Armenian issue?
H.K.—I haven’t worked with this, but, for example, the catalogs indicate that the embassy files of London, St. Petersburg, Paris provide a lot of insight into the massacres of the 1890s. Also, the embassies were spying outposts. They were spying on the Armenian diaspora communities and the spying was directed by the Ministry of the Interior through the embassies. So you find a lot of Ministry of the Interior material in embassy files and you find embassy reports to the Ministry of the Interior. This is very important because we might have lost some material—physically totally rotten—because of maintenance problems. So you might lose the draft in the Ministry of Interior file but since the letter went out to the embassy, you can have it in the embassy file, because the Paris embassy had a better storage facility. Some of these files have been very recently repatriated, which is exciting.
K.M.—You are talking about hundreds of thousands of files, and among them, thousands of files might have relevance regarding the Armenian issue. How many people are actually involved in researching these files?
H.K.—There is increasing interest among Turkish historians in Istanbul and the provinces who have not been involved in organized campaigns so far against Turkish “traitors” who say it was a genocide or against “Armenian allegations.” But what has transpired now during my talks is that the Armenians have become a topic. One scholar is publishing 16th-century tax registers from Yerevan—in Istanbul, not Yerevan. This has nothing to do with the genocide but is very important for Armenian history. We have 19th-century income tax registers, 1840s, very important again. So where we are going right now is a periodization of the Armenian cause/issue/problem, as it is called in Turkey. The people no longer mix together the Tanzimat era, Abdul-Hamid era, second constitutional period with the genocide and then the occupation period. We see now increasingly very well-respected and motivated scholars working on it not just because they want to prove or disprove something—that might be just one aspect in it—but because there is interest in the material.
From the outside, Dr. Taner Akcam was there some time ago for three weeks, and now he lectures us on the Ottoman archives, for which I’m very thankful. Then, Garabed Moumdjian was there with me in 2006 for two weeks working on the Young Turks on the ARF. He has sent shock waves through the whole establishment. Every time I think about it I’m laughing. An Armenian walked in, he spoke better Turkish than the Turks, he read Ottoman, handwritten documents like we read the New York Times, he talked to the archival staff in Arabic... The idea of the ARF, fanatic, blood-drinking killer and so on got a devastating blow. There’s no one else. He’s the only Armenian who went there possibly in decades (before, only Ara Sarafian went). Which shows that these programs, whatever they do, don’t do one thing: They don’t bring people to that point where many people had hoped they would bring them. So we’re at that point and, this year, it seems I was alone.
K.M.—There’s so much research that needs to be done in these archives. Why is the interest by scholars from outside Turkey so little?
H.K.—I was criticized by some less-informed elements in the Armenian diaspora for going to the archives because now they cannot say it’s closed anymore. Why did we push for having it open if we don’t want it open? For some people, this was obviously just political talk. I have to be very critical about this. All these donations the community put into research, obviously none of it is coming there. So when I am going there, people should not think that I am going on an Armenian ticket. If there was five percent Armenian money in it, it would be nice.
My colleagues ask me in Turkey where all these Armenians are. They feared that the moment they opened the door, a mob would raid their place. So you had basically the cavalry waiting for the Indians to attack and in four to five years one lone Indian has showed up. And so they understand that their projections of a big Armenian conspiracy is just a formulation of their own fears that has relatively little to do with reality.
When I say the archives are open, it’s limited, clear, but there certainly is no excuse not to do it. It’s a very simple thing. Crucial evidence, about whose existence we know, is not available at this time. But there is no excuse not to exhaust what they have made available, because this has to be done anyhow. If people say, Well we want to see the rest and then we’ll do something, well that is unprofessional. One has to be at the cutting edge of research. I think this kind of concept is not present.
K.M.—What do you think about Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s proposal for a joint historical commission?
H.K.—A commission would have little to do. We have gone pretty well through the Ottoman archives and not much is left on World War I. So what should a commission do? Xerox the documents a second time? That would be perfect nonsense. The cataloging of WWI files has to make rapid progress to provide an archival basis for a commission. The issue is an illustration that Erdogan does not have the best advisors when it comes to the Armenian genocide. These people develop ideas without checking first whether the pre-conditions for their own proposal exist within their own institutions.
Another matter is getting rid of such obstacles as Article 301. I cannot expect anyone to agree with me when that would mean he would be regarded as a criminal for doing so. The AKP government in Ankara has inherited a mess created by its predecessors over decades. So it is small steps for the time being, while hoping that the AKP does its homework and continues its overall positive course.