The Confiscation of Armenian Properties: An Interview with Ümit Kurt
By Varak Ketsemanian
The following interview with Ümit Kurt tackles how the physical annihilation of the Armenians paralleled the confiscation and appropriation of their properties in 1915. By citing the various laws and decrees that orchestrated the confiscation process, Kurt places our understanding of the genocide within a legal context.
Ümit Kurt is a native of Aintab, Turkey, and holds a bachelor of science degree in political science and public administration from Middle East Technical University, and a master’s degree from Sabancı University’s department of European studies. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Clark University and an instructor at Sabancı University. He is the author of several books, including Kanunların Ruhu: Emval-i Metruke Kanunlarında Soykırımın İzlerini Aramak (The Spirit of Laws: Seeking the Traces of Armenian Genocide in the Laws of Abandoned Property, 2012) with Taner Akçam. His main area of interest is the confiscation of Armenian properties and the role of local elites/notables in Aintab during the genocide. Below is the full text of the interview Kurt granted The Armenian Weekly earlier this month.
Varak Ketsemanian: What were the laws and regulations that governed the confiscation of Armenian properties during the genocide?
Ümit Kurt: A series of laws and decrees, known as the Abandoned Properties Laws (Emval-i Metruke Kanunları), were issued in the Ottoman and Turkish Republican periods concerning the administration of the belongings left behind by the Ottoman Armenians who were deported in 1915. The best-known regulation on the topic is the comprehensive Council of Ministers Decree, dated May 30, 1915. The Directorate of Tribal and Immigrant Settlement of the Interior Ministry (İskan-ı Aşâir ve Muhacirin Müdiriyeti) sent it the following day to relevant provinces organized in 15 articles. It provided the basic principles in accordance with which all deportations and resettlements would be conducted, and began with listing the reasons for the Armenian deportations. The most important provision concerning Armenian properties was the principle that their equivalent value was going to be provided to the deportees.
The importance of the decree of May 30 and the regulation of May 31 lie in the following: The publication of a series of laws and decrees were necessary in order to implement the general principles that were announced in connection with the settlement of the Armenians and the provision of the equivalent values of their goods. This never happened. Instead, laws and decrees began to deal with only one topic: the confiscation of the properties left behind by the Armenians.
Another regulation was carried out on June 10, 1915. This 34-article ordinance regulated in a detailed manner how the property and goods the Armenians left behind would be impounded by the state. The June 10, 1915 regulation was the basis for the creation of a legal system suitable for the elimination of the material living conditions of the Armenians, as it took away from the Armenians any right of disposal of their own properties. Article 1 of the June 10, 1915 regulation announced that “committees formed in a special manner” were going to be created for the administration of the “immovable property, possessions, and lands being left belonging to Armenians who are being transported to other places, and other matters.”
The most important of these committees were the Abandoned Properties Commissions (Emval-i Metruke Komisyonları). These commissions and their powers were regulated by Articles 23 and 24. The commissions were each going to be comprised of three people, a specially appointed chairman, an administrator, and a treasury official, and would work directly under to the Ministry of the Interior.
The most important steps toward the appropriation of Armenian cultural and economic wealth were the Sept. 26, 1915 law of 11 articles, and the 25-article regulation of Nov. 8, 1915 on how the aforementioned law would be implemented.
Many matters were covered in a detailed fashion in the law and the regulation, including the creation of two different types of commissions with different tasks called the Committees and Liquidation Commissions (Heyetler ve Tasfiye Komisyonları); the manner in which these commissions were to be formed; the conditions of work, including wages; the distribution of positions and powers among these commissions and various departments of ministries and the state; the documents necessary for applications by creditors to whom Armenians owed money; aspects of the relevant courts; the rules to be followed during the process of liquidation of properties; the different ledgers to be kept, and how they were to be kept; and examples of relevant ledgers. This characteristic of the aforementioned law and regulation is the most important indication of the desire not to return to the Armenians their properties or their equivalent value.
The Temporary Law of Sept. 26, 1915 is also known as the Liquidation Law (Tasfiye Kanunu). Its chief goal was the liquidation of Armenian properties. According to its first article, commissions were to be established to conduct the liquidation. These commissions were to prepare separate reports for each person about the properties, receivable accounts, and debts “abandoned by actual and juridical persons who are being transported to other places.” The liquidation would be conducted by courts on the basis of these reports.
The temporary law also declared that a regulation would be promulgated about the formation of the commissions and how the provisions of the law would be applied. This regulation, which was agreed upon on Nov. 8, 1915, regulated in a detailed fashion the protection of the movable and immovable property of Armenians who were being deported, the creation of new committees for liquidation issues, and the working principles of the commissions. The two-part regulation with 25 articles moreover included explanatory information on what had to be included in the record books to be kept during the liquidation process, and how these record books were to be used.
In brief, these were the major legal rules and regulations in 1915.
VK: How did the Ottoman government deal with the property of Armenians living in Istanbul, since no actual massacres took place in the capital? Were there laws for them, too?
UK: It is very important to note that these laws and statutes were known as the Abandoned Properties Laws, which was the official euphemism and an established term in the CUP propaganda to characterize the expropriation of the Armenians, and were merely applied todeported Armenians. Movable and immovable properties of Armenians who were not deported were not subjected to the Abandoned Properties Laws. As known, there were some Armenians deported from Istanbul—of course, very limited compared to Western Armenia—and properties of those deported Armenians in Istanbul also went through this process of confiscation, expropriation, and liquidation of their properties.
VK: How does the concept of confiscation and destruction of property help us understand the broader picture of the genocide?
UK: Actually, a new group of critical genocide scholars has started to come up with a new definition of genocide by taking into consideration the confiscation and destruction of property and wealth of the victim groups. In doing so, these critical genocide scholars have brought Raphael Lemkin’s original definition of genocide to the attention of existing genocide scholarship.
I see Raphael Lemkin as the founding father of genocide literature. Lemkin introduced the concept of genocide for the first time in 1944 in his book entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. The book consists of a compilation of 334 laws, decrees, and regulations connected with the administration of 17 different regions and states under Nazi occupation between March 13, 1938 and Nov. 13, 1942. That is to say, Lemkin did not introduce the concept of genocide together with the barbaric practices like torture, oppression, burning, destruction, and mass killing observed in all genocides, but through a book quoting and analyzing legal texts. Could this be a coincidence?
Given its importance, it is necessary to stress this one more time: In the year that Lemkin completed the writing of his book (1943), he already knew of all the crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany. However, he did not present the concept of genocide in a framework elucidated by these crimes. On the contrary, he introduced it through some laws and decrees that were published on how to administer occupied territories and that perhaps in the logic of war might be considered “normal.” We cannot say that this situation accords well with our present way of understanding genocide. In the general perception, genocide is the collapse of a normally functioning legal system; it is the product of the deviation of the system from the “normal” path. According to this point of view, genocide means that the institutions of “civilization” are not working and are replaced by barbarism. Lemkin, however, seems to be saying the complete opposite of this, that genocide is hidden in ordinary legal texts. By doing this, it is as if he is telling us not to look for the traces of genocide as barbaric manifestations that can be defined as inhuman, but to follow their trail in legal texts.
Genocide as a phenomenon fits inside the legal system—this is an interesting definition. And this definition is one of the central theses of our book. The Armenian Genocide does not just exist in the displays of barbarity carried out against the Armenians. It is at the same time hidden in a series of ordinary legal texts.
What we wish to say in our book is that genocide does not only mean physical annihilation. Going even further, we can assert that we are faced with a phenomenon in which whether the Armenians were physically annihilated or not, is but a detail. How many Armenians died during the course of the deportations/destruction or how many remained alive is just a secondary issue from a definitional point of view; what is important is the complete erasure of the traces of the Armenians from their ancient homeland.
The total destruction of the Armenians marked the fact that a government tried to eliminate a particular group of its own citizens in an effort to settle a perceived political problem. Between 1895 and 1922, Ottoman Armenians suffered massive loss of life and property as a result of pogroms, massacres, and other forms of mass violence. The 1915 Armenian Genocide can be seen as the pinnacle of this process of decline and destruction. It consisted of a series of genocidal strategies: the mass executions of elites, categorical deportations, forced assimilation, destruction of material culture, and collective dispossession. The state-orchestrated plunder of Armenian property immediately impoverished its victims; this was simultaneously a condition for and a consequence of the genocide. The seizure of the Armenian property was not just a byproduct of the CUP’s genocidal policies, but an integral part of the murder process, reinforcing and accelerating the intended destruction. The expropriation and plunder of deported Armenians’ movable and immovable properties was an essential component of the destruction process of Armenians.
As Martin Dean argues in Robbing the Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933-1945, ethnic cleansing and genocide usually have a “powerful materialist component: seizure of property, looting of the victims, and their economic displacement are intertwined with other motives for racial and interethnic violence and intensify their devastating effects.” In the same vein, the radicalization of CUP policies against the Armenian population from 1914 onward was closely linked to a full-scale assault on their property.
Thus, the institutionalization of the elimination of the Christian-Armenian presence was basically realized, along with many other things, through the Abandoned Properties Laws. These laws are structural components of the Armenian Genocide and one of the elements connected to the basis of the legal system of the Republican period. It is for this reason that we say that the Republic adopted this genocide as its structural foundation. This reminds us that we must take a fresh look at the relationship between the Republic as a legal system and the Armenian Genocide.
The Abandoned Properties Laws are perceived as “normal and ordinary” laws in Turkey. Their existence has never been questioned in this connection. Their consideration as natural is also an answer as to why the Armenian Genocide was ignored throughout the history of the Republic. This “normality” is equivalent to the consideration of a question as non-existent. Turkey is founded on the transformation of a presence—Christian in general, Armenian in particular—into an absence.
This picture also shows us a significant aspect of genocide as Lemkin pointed out. Genocide is not only a process of destruction but also that of construction. By the time genocide perpetrators are destroying one group, they are also constructing another group or identity. Confiscation is an indispensable and one of the most effective mechanisms for perpetrators to realize the aforementioned process of destruction and construction.
VK: What happened to the property after it was seized from the Armenians?
UK: Most of the Armenians properties were distributed to Muslim refugees from the Balkans and Caucasia at that time. Central and local politicians and bureaucrats of the Union and Progress Party also made use of Armenian properties.
The exhaustive process of administering and selling the property usually involved considerable administrative efforts, employing hundreds of local staff. Economic discrimination and plunder contributed directly to the CUP’s process of destruction in a variety of ways. At the direct level of implementation, the prospect of booty helped to motivate the local collaborators in various massacres and the deportation orchestrated by the CUP security forces in Anatolia in general.
The CUP cadres were quite aware that the retention of the Armenian property would give the local people a material stake in the deportation of the Armenians. In many cities of Anatolia, especially local notables and provincial elites who had close connections with the CUP obtained and owned most of the properties and wealth of Armenians. This process was realized in Aintab, Diyarbekir, Adana, Maras, Kilis, and other cities in the whole Anatolia. For my Ph.D. dissertation project, I am exploring how Armenians properties and wealth changed hands and were taken over by local elites of the city during the genocide.
Similar to the policy of Nazi leaders regarding the “Aryan”ization of Jewish property in the Holocaust, the CUP aimed to have complete control over the confiscation and expropriation of Armenian properties for the economic interests of the state, but could not prevent incidents of corruption from taking place.
It should be emphasized that corruption was fairly rift among bureaucrats and officers of the Abandoned Properties Commissions and Liquidation Commissions who were the responsible actors for administering and confiscating Armenian properties under the supervision and for the advantage of the state, as did happen in the “Aryan”ization of Jewish property.
Despite the widespread incidence of private plunder and corruption, there is no doubt that the seizure of Armenian property in the Ottoman Empire was primarily a state-directed process linked closely to the development of the Armenian Genocide. However, the widespread participation of the local population as beneficiaries of the Armenian property served to spread complicity, and also legitimize the CUP’s measures against the Armenians.
A number of leading members of the Central Committee of the Union and Progress Party, as well as CUP-oriented governors and mutasarrıfs, seized a great deal of property, especially those belonging to affluent Armenians in many vilayets. In addition, according to one argument, CUP leaders also utilized Armenian property and wealth to meet the deportation expenses.
Also, it is worth mentioning an important detail on the National Tax Obligations (Tekâlif-i Milliye) orders. This topic is important to show the Nationalist movement’s viewpoint concerning the Armenians, and also Greeks and the properties they left behind. The National Tax Obligations Orders were issued by command of Mustafa Kemal, the head of the Grand National Assembly and commander-in-chief of the Turkish Nationalist army, to finance the War of Independence against Greece. The abandoned properties of Armenians were also seen as an important source of financing for the war between 1919 and 1922.
After the establishment of the Turkish Republic, in 1926, Turkish Grand National Assembly passed a law. This law was promulgated and enforced on June 27, 1926. According to this law, Turkish governmental officers, politicians, and bureaucrats who were executed as a result of their roles in the Armenian deportations or who were murdered by Dashnaks were declared “national heroes,” and so-called Abandoned Properties of Armenians were given to their families.
And finally in 1928, the Turkish Republic introduced a new regulation that granted muhacirs or Muslim refugees who were using Armenian properties the right to have the title deeds of those properties, which included houses, lands, field crops, and shops.
As you can see, a variety of actors and institutions seized properties and wealth that the deported Armenians were forced to leave behind.
VK: What did this entire process of confiscation and appropriation represent, on the one hand to the Ottoman Elite, and on the other to the average Turk? Was it an ideological principle or a mere motivating element for further destruction?
UK: We should be very cautious when giving a proper answer to this question. Also, in my view, this aspect of the Armenian Genocide should be compared with the “Aryan”ization of Jewish properties in the Holocaust. We can see palpable resemblances between these two dispossession processes.
It is obvious that the material stake for the average Turkey played a significant role in his/her participation in the destruction process of Armenians. Economic motivation was always present and enabled CUP central actors to carry out their ultra-nationalist ideological policies against Armenians in terms of gaining the support and consent of average Turkish-Muslim people.
To have a better appreciation of the motivation of the average Turk, one should look at what happened at the local level—which means we need more local and micro studies in order to understand how the deportation and genocide alongside the plunder and pillage of Armenian properties took place in various localities in Anatolia.
The process of genocide and deportation directed at the Armenians was, in fact, put into practice by local notables and provincial elites. These local actors prospered through the acquisition of Armenians’ property and wealth, transforming them into the new wealthy social stratum. In this respect, the Union and Progress Party’s genocide and deportation decree on May 27, 1915 had a certain social basis through the practice of effective power, control, and support mechanism(s) at local levels. Therefore, a more accentuated focus on the local picture or the periphery deserves closer examination.
The function of the stolen Armenian assets in the Turkification process makes the confiscation of Armenian properties a social matter. In this respect, the wide variety of participants and the dynamic self-radicalization of the CUP and state institutions at the local level need to be examined. Although the CUP was involved throughout the confiscation process and was fully in charge of it, the collaboration of local institutions and officers also played a considerable role. The local institutions and offices could not operate in complete isolation from their respective societies and the prevailing attitudes in them.
The expropriation of the Armenians, therefore, was not limited simply to the implementation of the CUP orders, but was also linked to the attitude of local societies towards the Armenians, that is, to the different forms of Armenian hatred. As in the empire, the corruptive influence that spread with the enrichment from Armenian properties in Anatolia could also have led to various forms of accommodation of CUP policies. The robbery of the property is also a useful barometer to assess the relations of various local populations toward the CUP, to the CUP central and local authorities, and also toward the Armenian population in each city.
With regard to the widespread collaboration of parts of the local populace in measures taken against the Armenians, the distribution of a great amount of the Armenian property provided a useful incentive that reinforced hatred for the local Armenians as well as other political and personal motives.
One should keep in mind the fact that the participation of local people is a necessary condition to ensure the effectiveness of genocidal policies. Planned extermination of all members of a given category of people is impossible without the involvement of their neighbors—the only ones who know who is who in a local community.
Therefore, the entire process of confiscation can be evaluated and construed as both an ideological principle and economic motivation. These two aspects cannot be separated from each other in our analysis. In my view, the ideological principle was hugely supported and complemented by economic motivation and material stakes. In some instances, ideology played a more significant role than economic motivation, and in other instances economic interests came into prominence vis-à-vis ideology. Yet, in any case, these two parameters were on the ground and constituted effective mechanisms and dynamic in the confiscation, plunder, and seizure of Armenian material wealth.