A Disputed Genocide: THE ROLE OF THE TESKILAT-I MAHSUSA

A Disputed Genocide: THE ROLE OF THE TESKILAT-I MAHSUSA


Guenter Lewy, 2005. Publisher The University of Utah Press

The literature is voluminous on what Armenians call the first genocide of the twentieth century and what most Turks refer to as an instance of intercommunal warfare and a wartime relocation. Yet despite the great outpouring of writing, an acrimonious debate over what actually happened almost one hundred years ago continues unabated. The highly charged historical dispute burdens relations between Turkey and Armenia and increases tensions in a volatile region. It also crops up periodically in other parts of the world, where members of the Armenian diaspora push for recognition of the Armenian genocide by their respective parliaments and the Turkish government threatens retaliation. 

Vestnik Kavkaza publishes chapters from the book by Guenter Lewy "The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: a Disputed Genocide," revealing the essence of the issue. 

Several of the courts-martial held in 1919-20 made references to the destructive role of the Special Organization, and Dadrian accepts this appraisal. "The stated responsibilities of the Special Organization," he writes, "included intelligence, counter espionage, and the prevention of sabotage." As it turned out, however, the members of this unit eventually became the primary instrument used by the CUP to carry out its plan to exterminate the Armenians. "Their mission was to deploy in remote areas of Turkey's interior and to ambush and destroy convoys of Armenian deportees."1 The Special Organization's "principal duty was the execution of the Armenian genocide."2

According to Philip Stoddard, author of the only scholarly full-scale study of the subject, the Special Organization (SO) developed between T903 and 1907; from T913 on it used the name "Special Organization." Under the overall direction of Enver Pasha (minister of war since January 1914) and led by many talented officers, the SO functioned like a Special Forces outfit. Stoddard calls it "a significant Unionist vehicle for dealing with both Arab separatism and Western imperialism," which at its peak enrolled about thirty thousand men. During World War I it was used for special military operations in the Caucasus, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. For example, in 1915 units of the SO seized key oases along the Ottoman line of advance against the Suez Canal. The SO was also used to suppress "subversion" and "possible collaboration" with the external enemy. However, according to Stoddard, this activity targeted primarily indigenous nationalist activities in Syria and Lebanon. He maintains that the SO played no role in the Armenian deportations. 3

Several recent authors have discussed some aspects of the secretive organization, but due to the loss of most documentation our knowledge of the operations of the SO remains spotty at best. Jacob Landau stresses the panTurkic and pan-Islamic activities of the SO, which led to the dispatch of agents even before the outbreak of World War I. During the war SO operatives were sent to Transcaucasia, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, and India.4 Dogu Ergil speaks of an organization "composed of the most dynamic officers of the army," who, in cooperation with local organizations, sought to foment nationalist revolutions in Mesopotamia, Turkestan, Egypt, Libya, and Tunis. 5 

Donald McKale refers to the SO as originally being Enver Pasha's "private secret service," which later, under the leadership of Sulayman Askeri Bey, functioned "as a wartime intelligence and guerilla organization." 6 According to Erik Ziircher, the SO was "in effect a secret service directly responsible to Enver and paid out of secret War Ministry funds." It was sometimes quite successful in its counterespionage, as for instance in Syria. But, he concludes, "its 'offensive' operations were an almost total failure." 7 

The indictment of the main trial maintained that the SO, after having participated in the war, carried out "criminal operations and activities" against the Armenians. For this purpose the CUP is said to have arranged for the release of convicts who participated in the murder of the deportees.8 Dadrian's argument is based on this indictment: 

“In other words, following the abortive guerilla operations against Russian forces in the Transcaucasus, the Ittihadist leaders redeployed the brigand units for use on the home front internally, namely against the Armenians. Through a comprehensive sweep of the major cities, towns and villages, containing large clusters of Armenian populations, the Special Organization units, with their commanding officers more or less intact, set to work to carry out Ittihad's blueprint of annihilation. 9

Turkish as well as German civilian and military sources, Dadrian maintains, confirm this information, including the employment of convicts in the killer units of the SO. Yet when checking the references that he provides for this assertion it becomes clear that these sources do not always say what Dadrian alleges. It is generally known and undisputed chat the Ottoman government during World War I released convicts in order to increase its manpower pool for military servicc. 10 Yet there is no credible evidence other than the assertion of the indictment of the main trial for the allegation that the SO, with large numbers of convicts enrolled in its ranks, took the lead role in the massacres.

Dadrian quotes German documents in support of the alleged link between the SO and the Armenian massacres. One of these documents is a report on the Armenian deportations by a German officer, Colonel Stange. In this document, dated August 23, 1915, Stange reports that Armenian villagers, deported from the area north of Erzurum, "were murdered, with the acquiescence and even the assistance of the military escort, by so-called Tschettes (volunteers), Aschirets [tribesmen] and similar scum." 11 Dadrian, in quoting from this document, leaves out the phrase "with the acquiescence." 12 More importantly, the term "Special Organization" does not appear in the Stange report. It is in Dadrian's gloss that Stange "confirmed the swift transfer of the brigands employed in guerilla war to mass murder duties". 13 and it is Dadrian, not Stange, who equates the "scum" involved in this massacre with released convicts and enrolls them into the ranks of the SO.

Dadrian uses the same technique when quoting from a report by the German consul in Aleppo, Walter Rossler. This German official supposedly "described the Special Organization massacre details as 'convicts, released from the prisons, and put in military uniform." 14 But again it is Dadrian and not Rossler who blames the killing not just on released convicts but on the SO. The question of who murdered the Armenian deportees and who, if anyone, made them do their ghastly deeds is difficult to resolve conclusively. Dadrian finds an easy solution to this problem by manipulating the statements of contemporary observers. 

And there is more. In an apparent attempt to increase the credibility of Stange and to link this German officer to the SO, Dadrian describes him as "the highest-ranking German guerilla commander operating in the Turko-Russian border."15 In another place Dadrian calls him '"Special Organization' Commander, 8th Infantry Regiment, and in charge of a Turkish Teshkilati Mahsma Detachment, of regimental strength, operating on the Russian border area."16 Yet there is no credible evidence to support this assertion about Stange's service as an SO commander; and in view of the well-known tension between the Turkish and German secret services it is a highly unlikely assignment.17 At the beginning of the war SO units did indeed operate, with out much success, in the border area, and some of them are said to have included released convicts.18 

However, according to German Foreign Ministry files and other sources, during the winter offensive of 1914-15 Stange commanded a unit of regular Turkish troops, the Eighth Infantry Regiment of the Third Turkish Division. Although this unit, known as the Stange Detachment, was reinforced by two thousand to three thousand irregulars, these irregulars were not released Turkish convicts but Georgian Muslims (Laz and Acar) who had volunteered to fight the Russians.19 Even if Stange's appointment as commander of a regular army unit is regarded as camouflage and the detachment was in fact part of the SO, there is no evidence anywhere that this or any other SO detachment was diverted to duty involving the Armenian deportations. The Stange Detachment, according to another German officer, also included Armenians, who are said to have fought well. 20

The supreme irony of this situation is rather striking: here is an alleged unit of the SO, the organization that Dadrian calls the primary instrument in the implementation of the Armenian genocide, that included Armenians! 

Dadrian takes similar liberties with a Turkish source that deals with the leading SO official, Esref Kuscubasi. At the outbreak of World War I Esref was director of SO operations in Arabia, the Sinai, and North Africa. After his capture on a mission to Yemen on January 13, 1917, he was sent to Malta, where he was held until 1920. Esref was interrogated by the British, but he denied any involvement with the Armenian massacres. He died in 1964 at the age of 91. 21 According to Dadrian, Esref admitted in an interview with the Turkish author Cemal Kutay that he "had assumed duties [in operations that revolved around] the covert aspects of [the Armenian deportations]." He also defended the former grand vizier, Said Halim, against charges of "complicity in crimes associated with the Armenian deportations. As a man deeply involved in this matter I firmly reject this false accusation." 22 The text in which these sentences appear, as Dadrian acknowledges, is taken from pages 18, 36, and 78 of a book by Kutay on the SO in World War I. 23

And indeed it is only through shrewd juxtapositions of words and insertions (which he puts in square brackets) that Dadrian ends up with the desired result—the well-known SO operative Esref Kuscubasi now acknowledges his responsibility for the crimes against the Armenians. 24

Two other examples of the way in which Dadrian uses interpolations and rephrasing to make his points should be mentioned. When discussing the release of convicts, Yusuf Kemal Bey (undersecretary in the Ministry of Justice) is quoted as telling the Ottoman senate in 1916 that "these people are not being sent directly to the theaters of war as soldiers but are being used for special services e.g., in the ranks of the Special Organization." In Dadrian's assessment this testimony is said to mean that the convicts "are being used for special services {killing operations} in the ranks of the Special Organization" (the words in square brackets are inserted by Dadrian). 25 Also addressing the issue of the released convicts, Behic Bey (the deputy director of the Department of the Army in the Ministry of War) is quoted as testifying during the same debate that "the majority of these criminals was not made part of the military troops but was placed under the command of the Special Organization in which outfit their involvement proved profitable." When Dadrian summarizes this testimony, "the majority of these criminals" becomes "virtually all of the felons," and placement "under the command of the Special Organization" is said to mean "deployment in the interior provinces of Turkey for an extra-military mission, meaning the liquidation of the Armenian element, as subsequently documented by the Turkish Military Tribunal." 26

Again, it is Dadrian's gloss and not the original text quoted that includes the incriminating words.

In order to establish a connection between the SO and the Armenian massacres, Dadrian quotes repeatedly from the indictment of the main courtmartial of 1919; but neither the proceedings of this trial nor the verdict support the allegation.

Under questioning by the presiding judge of the main trial, several defendants confirmed the use of the SO for covert operations behind enemy lines on the Russian front, described the use of released convicts, and explained the way in which the SO had cooperated with the army and had been paid out of a secret fund of the Ministry of War. They also testified that individual CUP functionaries had served in the SO and had helped to recruit volunteers, describing this participation as a patriotic duty. The defendants denied any connection between the SO and the central committee of the CUP, however, as well as any role of the SO in the Armenian deportations and massacres. 27

When the presiding judge kept on insisting that the SO had participated in the massacres, defendant Riza Bey finally expressed his "conjecture" that locally recruited reinforcements for the gendarmerie, which did not have enough manpower to carry out the deportations, could also be called "special organization." However, he insisted that these forces and the units of the SO were "completely different things."28 All of the defendants rejected the idea, repeatedly put forth by the presiding judge, that the SO had two parts, one functioning under the direction of the Ministry of War and the other under the central committee of the CUP. I know of no credible evidence that proves their testimony to have been false. 

Until the main court-martial of 1919, nobody had linked the SO to the Armenian deportations. The reports and writings of foreign consular officials, missionaries, and German officers who served in Turkey are a rich source of information about the deportations and massacres, but the SO is never mentioned. It would appear that the SO was selected by the prosecutors in 1919 as an easy target. Engaged in covert activities, the SO had regularly destroyed its papers. Moreover, practically all of whatever documentation may have been available at the end of the war had disappeared after the collapse of the Young Turk regime. Little was known about the organizational structure of the SO. All this made it tempting to use the SO as a scapegoat and attribute to it all kinds of nefarious activities. 

The Turkish journalist Ahmed Emin Yalman revived the story about the involvement of the SO in the Armenian massacres in a book published in the United States in 1930. The SO, he wrote, "was in some cases directly instrumental in bringing about attacks and massacres." 29 Yalman cited no sources or evidence to back up this statement. In 1971 Kazarian published an English translation of the indictment of the main trial that contained references to the SO, and in a 1976 article he called the SO the instrument that carried out the killing of the Armenians. 30 Walker, in an exchange with Dyer in 1973, relied upon Yalman and two other secondary sources when he attributed the "Ittihad-ist planned extermination of the Armenians" to the "bands of Teskilat-i Mahsusa (Special Organization)." 31

Dyer, at the time a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and one of the few persons to have done research in the Ottoman military archives, responded that in his understanding the SO had been employed "mainly in furthering the Holy War among the Muslim peoples on and beyond the Ottoman borders. It was certainly not primarily involved in the Armenian events of 19T51916." With regard to such an involvement, Dyer noted that he had seen "little evidence apart from gossip like that quoted by Mr. Walker." 32

This is where matters stood until Dadrian began to write about the courtsmartial of 1919-20 in the late 1980s and to publicize the accusations against the SO made by these tribunals. Dadrian fully accepted the charges made by the military tribunals and considered the SO to have played a central role in the program of genocide. Several authors apparently were persuaded by his argument. The SO, wrote Hovannisian in 1992, had the responsibility to oversee the deportations and "used as agents of death and destruction" hardened criminals released from the prisons as well as predatory tribes.33 Ziircher, who in 1984 had discussed the SO without any reference to the Armenian deportation, in 1997 referred to "indications" that an inner circle within the CUP leadership, under the direction of Talaat Pasha, had pursued a policy of extermination and had used the relocation as a cloak for this policy. "A number of provincial party chiefs assisted in this extermination, which was organized through the Teskilat-i Mahsusa under the direction of its political director (and CUP central committee member) Bahaeddin Sakir."34 Akcam, for the most part relying on the proceedings of the courts-martial as well as on the work of Dadrian, similarly concludes that after its failures on the Russian front the SO was used to organize and carry out the extermination of the Armenians.35 Repeating the charge without any new supporting evidence, Donald Bloxham maintains that the irregular units of the SO were "the principal murderers of the Armenian deportees."36

The allegations of the involvement of the SO in the Armenian massacres are based upon testimony and documents introduced by the prosecution at the military tribunals of 1919-20 as well as on what Dyer has correctly characterized as "gossip." Given the limited credibility of this material, the role of the SO in the travail of the Armenians, too, must be considered not proven. The archive of the Turkish General Staff is said to contain ciphered telegrams to the SO, 37 but so far they have not been seen by any Western scholar. It is possible that authentic documentation concerning the SO may yet be discovered in Turkish or other archives that will throw additional light upon the activities of this secretive organization. Until then the allegations will remain just that—allegations unsupported by real evidence.

1. Dadrian, History of the Armenian Genocide, pp. 236—37. 
2. Ibid., p. 237. See also Dadrian, "The Role of the Special Organization," p. 51.
3. Philip H. Stoddard, "The Ottoman Government and the Arabs, 1911 to 1918: A Preliminary Study of the Teskilat-i Mahsusa," pp. 52-58, 1-2. Stoddard confirmed these points in an interview with me on March 12, 2001. 
4. Jacob M. Landau, Pan-Turkism in Turkey: From Irredentism to Cooperation, p. 52.
5. Dogu Brgil, "A Reassessment: The Young Turks, Their Politics and Anti- Colonial Struggle," Balkan Studies 16, no. 2 (T975): 70—71 (n. 4). 
6. Donald M. McKale, War by Revolution: Germany and Great Britain in the Middle East in the Era of World War I. p. 50. 
7. Erik Jan Ziircher, The Unionist Factor: The Role of the Committee of Union and Progress in the Turkish National Movement 1905—1926, pp. 59, 84. 
8. Quoted in Akcam, Armenien und der Volkermord, pp. 192—200. 
9. Dadrian, "The Role of the Special Organization," p. 56.
10. It is worth noting that the use of convicts for military duty in wartime is not at all unprecedented, and that includes British and American practice. English literature of the eighteenth century is replete with stories about the use of men released from the nearest jail in order to fill up the ranks of sailors on British war ships. It is estimated that during World War I 7,900 men convicted of serious offenses were released by U.S. courts on condition of being inducted into military service (U.S. Provost Marshal General, Second Report of the Provost Marshal to the Secretary of War on the Operations of the Selective Service System to December 20, 1918, p. 149). In World War II persons convicted of murder, rape, and other serious crimes were exempted from a similar release program, though there is anecdotal evidence that federal and military prisons did not always adhere to these rules. 
11. Stange to the German military mission, Constantinople, August 23, 1915, PA, Botsch. K.170 (fiche 7254). This document can also be read in Johannes Lepsius, ed., Deulschland und Armenien, 1914—1918: Sammlung diplomatischer Aktenstiicke, pp. 138—42. A reprint of this collection was published by Donat und Temmen (Bremen) in 1986. 
12. Dadrian, "The Role of the Special Organization," p. 58.  
13. Vahakn N. Dadrian, "The Role of Turkish Physicians in the World War I Genocide of Ottoman Armenians," Holocaust and Genocide Studies 1 (1986): 173.
14. Dadrian, History of the Armenian Genocide, p. 244 (n. 8). 
15. Dadrian, "The Role of the Special Organization," p. 58. 
16. Vahakn N. Dadrian, "Documentation of the Armenian Genocide in German and Austrian Sources," in The Widening Circle of Genocide: A Critical Bibliographical Review, ed. Israel W Charny, vol. 3, p. TTO. 
17. Walter Nicolai, The German Secret Service, p. 138. See also Neulen, Adler und Halbmond, especially chapter T6: "German-Turkish Discords"; and Ulrich Trumpener, "Suez, Baku, Gallipoli: The Military Dimensions of the GermanOttoman Coalition, 1914-18," in Coalition Warfare: An Uneasy Accord, ed. Keith Neilson and Roy A. Prete, p. 40. 
18. Report of the German intelligence agent Louis Mosel of March 3, 1915, PA, Wk. no. 1 id, vol. 4 (R 21011), pp. 6—7; Wolf dieter Bihl, Die Kaukasus Politik der Miltelmdchte, p. 67.
19. PA, Wk. no. nd, vol. 9 (R 21016), p. 31; Felix Guse, Die Kaukasusfront im Weltkrieg: Bis zum Frieden von Brest, p. 38; Erikson, Ordered to Die, pp. 54—55. On the role of the Georgian volunteers, see William Edmond D. Allen and Paul Muratoff, Caucasian Battlefields: A History of the Wars on the Turco-Caucasian Border, 1828—1921, pp. 274-75; ar,d Garegin Pasdermadjian [aka Armen Garo], Armenia: A Leading Factor in the Winning of the War, trans. A. Torossian, p. 4.
20. Paul Leverkuehn, Posten auf ewiger Wache: Aus dem abenteuerlichen Leben des Max von Scheubnerichter, p. 33. 
21. Philip II. Stoddard, prologue to Esref Kuscubasi, The Turkish Battle at Khaybar, trans, and ed. Philip H. Stoddard and H. Basri Danisman, pp. 21-32. 
22. Vahakn N. Dadrian, "Ottoman Archives and Denial of the Armenian Genocide," in The Armenian Genocide, ed. Hovannisian, pp. 300—301.  
23. Cemal Kutay, Birinci Diinya Harbinde Teskilat-l Mahsusa ve Hayber'de Turk Cengi. 
24. At my request, two Turkish-speaking persons compared Dadrian's quota tion with Kutay's original text, and they confirmed the deceptive juxtapositions of Esref's words. 
25. Vahakn N. Dadrian, "The Complicity of the Party, the Government, and the Military: Select Parliamentary and Judicial Documents (Recently Uncovered and Obtained)," Journal of Political and Military Sociology 22 (1994): 60-61.
26. Ibid., pp. 59, 61, 33.
27. Akcam, "The Proceedings of the Turkish Military Tribunal," part 1, especially 5th and 6th session of the main trial. 
28. Ibid., 5 th session, pp. 58-59. Riza Bey characterized this scenario as a "conjecture" during the 7th session, p. 26. 
29. Yalman, Turkey in the World War, p. 220. 
30. Haigazn K. Kazarian, "Turkey Tries Its Chief Criminals: Indictment and Sentence Passed Down by Military Court of 1919," Armenian Review 24 (Winter T971): 7-19, and "A Catalogue of Those Principally Responsible for the 1915-18 Massacres," p. 254. 
31. Walker, "Letter to the Editor," Middle Eastern Studies 9 (1973): 376 
32. Dyer, "Letter to the Editor," Middle Eastern Studies 9 (1973): 379 
33. Richard G. Hovannisian, "The Question of Altruism during the Armenian Genocide of 1915," in Embracing the Other: Philosophical, Psychological, and Historical Perspectives on Altruism, ed. Pearl M. Olincr et al., p. 283. 
34. Ztirchcr, Turkey: A Modern History, p. 121. 
35. Akcam, Armenien und der Volkermord, p. 65. 
36. Donald Bloxham, "Power Politics, Prejudice, Protest and Propaganda: A Reassessment of the German Role in the Armenian Genocide of World War I," in Der Volkermord an den Armeniern, ed. Hans-Lukas Kieser and Dominik j. Schaller, p. 220. 
37. Edward J. Erickson, "The Turkish Official Military Histories of the First World War: A Bibliographical Essay," Middle Eastern Studies 39 (2003): 198 (n. 7).

 

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