Cleansing of Ottoman Turkish Archives

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Refik Halit Karay Talat Pasha

Destroying documents is an essential part of government culture. Perhaps, people from my generation can find or unearth some documents on their ancestors and therefore demonstrate that we have people other than the ones who pride themselves for destroying documents.


The article titled "Countless Archives Destroyed" by Ayshe Hur reminded me destruction of Armenian Genocide related documents. Systematic destruction of documents appears to be a significant part of our culture. The Sabah daily, in its November 7, 1918 issue states that documents related to Armenian Genocide, sought after by the government, could not be found, and it furthers claims that Talat Pasha and his entourage, before they left the government, quite possibly destroyed the orders related to Armenian genocide in entirety. The news article reflects the truth. Similarly, on May 1919, during proceedings of the Court Martial Hearings of the Union and Progress Party (CUP), prosecutors declare that documents belonging to both Special Organization and to the Central Committee of the Committee for Union and Progress were stolen. The military prosecutor furthermore informs the hearing that Police Chief of the period, Aziz Bey, testified that Talat Pasha, before his resignation, took several files with him from his office and never returned them (Official Gazette 3540).

Likewise, several memoirs of the era tell that, before he escaped to overseas, Talat Pasha went to a friend’s seaside estate by Arnavutkoy with a full suitcase of documents and he burned all these documents in a fireplace at the basement of the estate (Enver Pasha by Shevket Sureyya Aydemir. Volume 3, Page 468). Mithad Shukru, K. Talat and Ziya Gokalp, during the main prosecution of CUP leaders at various court sessions (most specifically at second and fifth sessions), testified that Central Committee of CUP documents were taken by Dr. Nazim (Official Gazette 3540, 3543, 3554). It was not only CUP officials who took documents personally, several German Officers also stole documents. Hans F.L. Von Seeckt, who during the war was the Ottoman Chief of Staff, took a significant portion of the Ottoman War Ministry documents with him upon his return to Germany. The chief of Cabinet, Izzet Pasha, protested the situation and demanded the return of the documents. Berlin promised to return of the documents but never fulfiled the promise. (AA Turkei, 158/21. A48179, The embassador’s telegram dated November 11, 1918).

Read, destroy

There is a significant point here that the Sabah newspaper could not be aware of it. For some documents, as they were sent to the provinces, concurrent orders were issued to burn or destroy…There happens to be an encrypted telegram left in the Ottoman Archives dated July 22, 1915 sent by the General Directorate of Police and signed by Talat Pasha. The telegram tells how to deal with the converts in the caravans of exiles and further instructs that "after the reading of the related personnel to take the telegram out of post office and destroy" (Court Martial Proceedings, encrypted 54,100). In our possession there are other documents proving that orders were sent to the provinces to burn all the documents they have. For example, in the above mentioned accusation, it is told that the regional governor of Der Zor, Ali Suat was ordered to destroy the telegram after reading it. Similarly, in another court case, at the third session of Yozgat Court Martials, the presiding judge reads the testimony of Provincial Governor Kemal, taken in front of Mazhar Investigative Commission. In his testimony, Kemal says that he had received telegrams to be burned after his read (Ikdam, February 11, 1919)

On the July 3rd, 1919 session of the court case on the Ottoman Cabinet, former Minister of Telecommunication, Huseyin Hasim, testifies that documents of the War Department were burned. Furthermore, on the 5th session of the court, he admits that orders to burn were sent to Catalca (Official Gazette 3571 and 3573). For this reason alone, a separate court case is opened for the former deputy director of Catalca Post Office Osman Nuri Efendi. The court starts on August 4, 1919. The accusation is burning documents. In his defense statement, the accuser claims to burn documents on orders. He elaborates, " My superiors, within their legitimate authority, ordered me to burn documents from a certain date to another date, therefore I burned them." The outcome of this court case is not clear (See Alemdar Newspaper, August 5 and 6, 1919).

Memoirs of Refik Halid

The burning of the documents continued after the war was lost. On Oct. 14, 1918 Izzet Pasha forms a new cabinet, where he also assumes the responsibility of War Ministry. He sends an immediate order to the Special Organization’s Head Administrator to immediately stop all activities and destroy archives (quoted by Bilge Criss based on Husamettin Erturk – Istanbul Under Allied Rule, page 147). Ahmet Esat (Esat Uras by his better known name) declares to the British officials that a meeting had been held on the destruction of Armenians and he has in his possession the handwritten minutes of it, he later tries to sell these minutes. He gets arrested and in his testimony he claims, " Right before the armistice, the government officials went to archives daily every night and destroyed most of the documents." (Foreign Office Reports 371/4172/31307, Heathcotee Smith’s 4.2.1919 dated report).

Refik Halid Karay, other than being an influential literary figure and newsman, was the general administrator of the Postal and Telegraphic Services during the armistice. He published his memoirs about this era under the name of "Minelbab Ilelmihrab/Memoirs of Armistice Era." While his memoirs were being published in a magazine named "Aydede", Sadik Durakan, who for many years served in the Post Office, wrote him a letter. Karay includes the letter in his book. Following is a short section from this letter: " I wish to tell you an incident I witnessed during the armistice. As you know, after the Mondros Armistice, the Allied forces started to enter our country from various directions and started to occupy the country piece by piece. During the occupation, in order to prevent documentation in the central post offices to fall into enemy hands, Mehmed Emin Bey sent a telegram to all Central Post Offices and asked them to destroy all official documentation, telegrams and their duplicates in totality (R.H Karay, Minelbab Ilelmihrab, pages 271-2).

Some of these telegrams are captured by the British before they reach regional offices. For example, in June 1919 a telegram from Interior Ministry to the Governor of Antep, which is intercepted by the British, orders all telegrams between 1914 and 1918 to be destroyed. The Foreign Ministry sends an official protestation letter to the British Occupational Forces, but it admits such an order was given (FO371/4174/102 551; files 108-111).

The destruction of documents was not solely performed by the government officials. Individuals also have the culture of destroying documents remained in their possession. One of the defendants of the 1926 Ankara National Liberation Court , which was assembled to judge the Izmir assassination attempt, Kor (Blind) Ali Ihsan Bey, a member of Istanbul’s CUP General Center, admits burning all the documents in his possession (1926 Ankara National Liberation Court proceedings). People, who burned documents in their possession, did not hesitate to tell their actions in their memoirs during the following years. I would like to cite two examples. An important CUP leader, Ali Munif Bey, was a provincial district head and governor who also served in the CUP cabinet as the Ministry of Public Works. Ali Munif was arrested for his involvement in the Adana massacres and later exiled to Malatya. He says the following for the documents that gave up his guilt: "In reality even though I had destroyed more important documentation, I had left this in one of the pockets of my suitcase. The document that I had forgotten to destroy was being used to incriminate me (Memoirs of Ali Munif Bey by Taha Toros, pages 96-7).

Administration Culture

The second name is Ahmet Rifat Calika. Calika’s memoirs, who also served as Attorney general during the National Liberation War, was published by his elder son, Hursit Calika. Hursit Calika mentioned of his father’s most important characteristics, "The single thing that distinguishes him from the intellectuals of the time is such that he took daily notes and later evaluated everything he witnessed. He also made sure that all documents that passed his hands were preserved for the future generations. Unfortunately, he was forced to destroy or burn most of these documents time to time. Reasons for this destruction will be explained in his next book’s introduction." The reasons mentioned are very simple. Rifay Bey too was informed in advance that Istanbul Court Martial is looking for him. In addition, he was placed under special protection by the prosecutor, the judge and the gendarmerie regiment commander who would eventually arrest him. In his memoirs Rifat Bey says the following, "One day, the prosecutor informed me of an encrypted letter received by the City Government. The letter told of a mixed committee being formed in the city of Kayseri, charged with investigations of forced exiles of Armenians. The letter further states that all suspected individuals will be investigated and prosecuted, furthermore, they were going to search the houses. We came home with my classmates, I burned all my memoirs and documents. Whatever I had saved, I was forced to destroy in February of 1934." (Memoirs of Ahmet Rifat Calika, pages 7, 15-6). The search of Kazim Karabekir’s Erenkoy Estate was the reason for his second destruction of documents.

As you can see, destroying documents is an important part of the Administration Culture. Therefore, having the comfort and security that somebody had destroyed all documents, it becomes much easier to declare "Nothing happened to Armenians, all the documents are registered and are in place." What shall I say, perhaps someone from my generation may find documents from his parents and makes them public so along with people who pride themselves for destroying we can be proud of people who pursue the truth.

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