[SEPTEMBER 1874–MARCH 15, 1921]
Turkish political leader
As its principal author, Turkish leader Mehmet Talaat played a decisive role in the decision-making, organization, and implementation of the World War I Armenian genocide. His authority and power to act derived from a dual-track position: He was minister of the interior and, perhaps more importantly, he was the supreme boss of the ruling Committee of Union and Progress Party (CUP). In July 1908 the leaders of this revolutionary Young Turk movement successfully overthrew the despotic reign of Sultan Abdulhamit (1876–1908) in the name of a new constitutional regime. The spokespersons of this movement claimed to be guided by the ideals of the French Revolution—namely, freedom, equality, and brotherhood. Except for a brief six-month period in 1912, CUP remained in near-total control of a succession of Ottoman Turkish governments in the years between 1908 and 1918.
Such control was made possible, however, through Talaat's exceptional skills in political organization and party formation. Due to his innate qualities of leadership, CUP quickly gained inordinate strength not only in Istanbul, then the Ottoman capital, but, more importantly, in the empire's Asiatic provinces, where the bulk of the empire's Armenian population lived as an indigenous population. Parallel to this growing strength, CUP increasingly became dictatorial and monolithic in pursuit of a xenophobic nationalism. This ideological push aimed at rescuing and preserving the tottering empire by way of discarding a languishing ideology of a multiethnic and hence inclusive Ottomanism and replacing it by an exclusive Turkism. The targeting and forcible elimination of the Armenians had thus become a byproduct of this new militant ideology.
To accomplish this task, Talaat decided to rely on CUP's clandestine and highly secretive mechanisms that he himself had created and fostered. As Talaat's principal biographer, Tevfik Çavdar noted, CUP had a two-tiered structure "just like an iceberg" (Çavdar, 1984, p. 190). Talaat used the submerged invisible parts for "illegal" acts in order to carry out CUP's covert and lethal objectives, which included mass murder. World War I afforded an invaluable opportunity in this respect. Accordingly, as revealed by Talaat himself, Parliament was temporarily suspended, martial law was declared, and certain constitutional rights were deferred. As a prelude to the impending genocide, the targeted Armenians were thereby stripped of their most basic human rights.
Alerted to the situation, on May 24, 1915, when the Armenian genocide was being initiated, the Allies publicly and formally pledged to hold "personally responsible" all the Turkish officials who were implicated in these "new crimes against humanity" (Dadrian, 1989, p. 962). Similar references to crimes of Turkey against humanity in the postwar period were made in the Ottoman Parliament and in some of the verdicts issued by the Turkish Military Tribunal. Prosecuting the authors of the Armenian genocide, that tribunal condemned Talaat, along with some other top CUP leaders, including Ismail Enver (Turkish Minister of War in the Ottoman Empire during World War I), to death in absentia.
Talaat's paramount role in the organization of the Armenian genocide was confirmed during the trial of a young Armenian who had assassinated him in Berlin, where Talaat had taken refuge under the fictitious name Sai. A German jury acquitted the assassin on grounds of temporary insanity brought on by a vision of his murdered mother. Given Germany's wartime military and political alliance with Turkey, this verdict was as surprising as it was educational. The general public learned with horror the gruesome details of a centrally organized mass murder orchestrated by Talaat himself, whose image was transformed from victim to arch villain.
SEE ALSO Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and the Armenian Genocide; Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal Pasha; Enver, Ismail
Çavdar, Tevfik (1984). Talât Paşa: Bir Örgüt Ustasinin Yaşam Öyküsü (Talât Pasha: The Life Story of a Master Organizer). Ankara, Turkey: Dost Publishers.
Dadrian, Vahakn (1986). "The Naim-Andonian Documents on the World War I Destruction of Ottoman Armenians: The Anatomy of a Genocide." International Journal of Middle East Studies 18:326–328.
Dadrian, Vahakn (1989). "Genocide as a Problem of National and International Law: The World War I Armenian Case and its Contemporary Legal Ramifications." Yale Journal of International Law 14:221–334.
Montgomery, R. G. (1921). "Why Talaat's Assassin Was Acquitted." Current History Magazine (July 5):551–555.
Vahakn N. Dadrian