‘Memories of a Turkish Statesman—1913-19’: A Reflection on Cemal Pasha’s Memoirs

From the Armenian Weekly 2016 Magazine
Dedicated to the 101st Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

“[As] however, in spite of all the help given, our foreign enemies point to me as morally responsible for these occurrences, and that caricature of a government which has been set up at Constantinople since the Armistice even went so far as to condemn me to death on an accusation of moral guilt for these banishments and butcheries, I regard it as a just means of self-defense to give some explanation in accordance with the truth.”1

Cemal Pasha
Cemal Pasha

The above passage comes in the final pages of Ahmed Cemal’s (Cemal Paşa) memoirs. This excerpt is important insofar as it sheds light on the nature of his memoirs. Although it is difficult to assess the historical accuracy of the claims that Cemal makes within the constraints of a few pages, the following essay is an attempt to address some of the problems and themes discussed in the major sections of his memoirs. Moreover, looking at the history of the Ottoman Empire from a broader perspective, I will analyze the historical context in which this work was produced, the primary motives that may have prompted its production, and the intended audience as well as the message it attempts to convey. While Cemal’s pre-World War I activities are important insofar as they portray the way in which the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) consolidated its grip over the Ottoman government (with its various departments, starting in 1913), this essay will focus primarily on the events that occurred during the Great War. This will not merely limit the scope of this article, but will help the reader understand the Ottoman experience of World War I through the perspective of one of the most prominent figures of the governing elite. The subsequent discussion is not an attempt to provide definitive answers to the problems raised in the memoirs, but rather an endeavor to reflect on the dynamics of “memoir politics” and the themes it produces, raising questions that may lead to further discussion and work.

Before embarking upon an examination of the events discussed in Cemal’s memoirs, it is important to illustrate the general situation in which it was written. Four considerations are important in this respect. At the end of World War I in 1918, and the signing of the Mudros Armistice, many cadres of the CUP who had been in power during the years of the conflagration escaped to Europe (mainly to Germany), fleeing Constantinople in a German submarine. Cemal was one of these officials. Therefore, the memoirs were written in exile and ought to be seen in light of Cemal’s attempt to survey the way in which the Ottoman state had come to that very point (i.e., defeat in war). The selection of the year 1913—although there are many references to earlier periods, dating all the way back to 1453!—as a starting point for his memoirs confirms this point, since the Balkan Wars (1912-13), as argued by some historians, marked the beginning of a long, yet exhausting war that culminated in the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.2 Despite the fact that the exact date of the memoirs is unknown, we can surmise that he began writing sometime between 1919 and 1921, with the finished work translated into English and published in 1922. This period overlaps with the Ottoman courts-martial (1919-20) that were carried after the Mudros Armistice in an attempt to adjudicate, among other functions, the war crimes of many of the CUP cadres. Since Cemal had fled to Germany, he was condemned to death—along with Talat and Enver Beys—in absentia. Therefore, the memoirs may be seen as an attempt by Cemal to exonerate himself of guilt. As the bulk of the work deals with the problems the Ottoman Empire faced during the war—the Arab Rebellion, annihilation of the Armenians, failure of the Suez Expedition—rather than its victories, this selection may further be seen as a testament of his desire for justification. Thus, the memoirs ought to be seen as a space or even a “court” where Cemal attempts to justify his conduct during the war.

The period of 1920-22 also overlaps with Operation Nemesis, a plan devised by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF/Dashnaktsutyun) to assassinate the primary organizers of the Armenian Genocide.3 Although Cemal was assassinated in Tbilisi in 1922, the killings of Talat Bey, Cemal Azmi, Behaettin Şakir, and Said Halim Paşa preceded his. When seen in this context, Cemal’s memoirs may be understood first as an attempt to distance himself from his fellow CUP cadres and avoid a similar fate, by denying his participation and role in the execution of the genocide (rather, he asserts the opposite, as having saved and fed the Armenians); and second, as a last attempt to “contribute in every way to make known the truth.”4 Anticipating his assassination in the near future, Cemal treats his memoirs as a final container of truth.

Finally, the timeframe 1919-21/22 is when the Turkish War of Independence begins. Judging from the expressions he uses to discuss Mustafa Kemal’s activities during the war—and his uttering of the phrase “[w]hen I get back to Constantinople, if God wills”—one gets the idea that the author is trying to secure his safe return back home.5 In other words, criticizing the decisions of the German General Von Falkenhayn (Mustafa Kemal’s commander) in a very polemical manner and praising the latter in a very respectable tone (“a fine commander and tactician”), Cemal was attempting to impress the new leader of the Nationalist Movement, while tacitly or indirectly asking for Kemal’s approval for his return to Constantinople.6

Distancing himself from his former CUP cadres as far as the destruction of the Armenians was concerned, and acknowledging the post-War Ottoman government as an Entente caricature might also have served this purpose. Therefore, looking at the political situation and developments that prevailed after the Mudros Armistice from a broader perspective, Cemal’s memoirs make perfect sense in a context in which his fate remained precarious as he navigated through the various situations created by the Turkish Nationalists, the Dashnaks, and the Entente Powers occupying Constantinople. Although none of these are explicitly mentioned in the work, the selection of themes discussed in the memoirs, coupled with the tone Cemal uses to describe, praise, or criticize some figures, complements our understanding of the historical background that prevailed during the completion of the work.

The “I” is at the forefront of every discussion that takes place in the work. As Arnold Toynbee rightly points out in his article in the London Times, the style as reflected in the work gives the impression of a man struggling to perform impossible tasks.7 Describing the Ottoman Empire’s most “critical regions” in their most critical times only reinforces this notion of the “I” throughout the work. Although this article is in no way an attempt to diminish Cemal’s role in the organization of the Ottoman defenses during the war, or the other positions he assumed, the discussion does revolve around the stylistic writing of his memoirs and the effects it creates on the readers. In this respect, not only is Cemal portraying himself as a patriot struggling against very thorny problems, but he is weaving a narrative that can be encapsulated in the following way: Cemal as an agent of change. The coherence of this feature is maintained throughout the entirety of the work. Cemal uses a stylistic tool to concoct the image—brief comparisons (mainly before his arrival/after his arrival) that only support and reinforce the notion of the “I” with respect to the social, political, and military problems he presents. Importantly, the change that is referred to pertains only to positive transformations, and not failures or disruptions. Nevertheless, the point here is not to question the historical accuracy of Cemal’s claims; rather, it is to show the way in which he maintains this throughout the work, by discussing in almost every chapter the positive changes he ostensibly brought about and that were nonexistent before his appointment or arrival. To support this, I will give a few examples from various chapters.

In 1913, after the coup d’état against the Sublime Port that brought the CUP to power, Cemal becomes the military governor of Constantinople. Claiming to be a “zealous advocate” of the emancipation of women, Cemal argues that his term brought about the development of women’s movements, as women had hitherto been disenfranchised in social life and public affairs.8 Referring to the lack of security for women in the streets of Constantinople and the molestation they suffered, Cemal attempts to portray himself as a man safeguarding the “cleanliness” of the capital as well as providing its security. The following excerpt attests to this point:

I issued a warning that men who used insulting language and women who accosted ladies should be transported to the interior. After four or five examples had been made our women were able to walk in the streets without further molestation. For the first time a definite step had been taken to place to personal freedom of Turkish women on a secure basis. [Nevertheless] the Women’s Movement which began with my term of office not only did not die out as time went on, but extended and developed continuously and rendered the greatest service during the War.”9

Another example is the case of the camels that the Ottoman Army had requisitioned for military purposes. As part of his preparations for the expedition against British forces in the Suez Canal in January 1915, 11,000 camels were requested from the Hejaz. Before Cemal’s arrival to the region (Palestine) to assume command of the army, the 8th Corps had been able to secure only 2,000 of the 11,000 camels. The situation changes with his arrival:

I will merely remark that I alone knew the greatness of the difficulties I had to overcome to procure within a month fourteen thousand camels, including reserves. Yet I ultimately succeeded, and the number of camels provided for in the 8th Corp’s plan of campaign was reached by the appointed date.10

Interestingly, when discussing the efforts of the officers of the 8th Corps in procuring the camels, the number is merely 11,000. Yet, upon his arrival not only was Cemal able to procure the remaining 9,000, but was also successful in obtaining an additional 3,000—an achievement that the others had failed to do. Although such details may seem too technical or trivial, as far as the writing style of his memoirs is concerned, it tends to shed light more on the achievements of the personal character, and in this case portray the positive adjustments that Cemal brought about with his presence. This is also an effort to distinguish himself from others.

Another case is the unity of the Arabs, and their enthusiasm for protecting the Caliphate (the Ottoman Empire) and Islam, a priority on Cemal’s military agenda:

[The] policy I desired to see pursued in Syria was a policy of clemency and tolerance. I left no stone unturned to create unity of views and sentiments in all the Arab countries. From all these Arab leaders I received answers in which they assured me of their devotion and loyalty to the Khalifate and the religious enthusiasm which inspired them in common with all the Arab countries intent on participating in the Holy War against the foes of our faith.11

Cemal thus demonstrates how his arrival in Syria as the commander of the 4th Army Corps was instrumental in unifying the sentiments of the Arabs against the Entente Powers. Moreover, this statement indirectly implies that the situation changed after the latter’s arrival, something that conforms to the pattern of comparison maintained throughout the work. Remarking further on the state of the Arab countries, Cemal writes:

As I knew that one of the most effective ways of pleasing the Arabs was to avoid requisitioning anything from them and pay for what we wanted cash down, the first order I issued on my arrival was that nothing should be taken by way of requisition from the civil population of Syria and Palestine in the 4th Army Area (Syria, Palestine).”12

Although he claims to have drastically ameliorated the economic situation in favor of the Arabs through his methods and measures, Linda Schilcher argues that this was not the case. She contends that the gendarmes were still seen as confiscators, and thus the population resisted their confiscation of primary goods.13 On the one hand, this example is a reiteration of the “I” in terms of the positive changes that Cemal believes to have realized; on the other hand, however, it opens the way for a discussion of the historical accuracy of the claims he makes, a task that is outside the scope of this essay.

A final example on this theme relates to the Adana Massacres of 1909. On page 261 of his work, Cemal claims that 17,000 Armenians and 1,850 Turks were killed in Adana that year, and that an economic and urban disaster ensued.14 Nevertheless a few paragraphs later, he writes:

Thanks to the steps I took, four months after my arrival all the Armenians houses in the vilayet had been rebuilt and in the provisional capital there was not a single small family house which had not been finished. In brief, within five or six months the Armenians had freely resumed their trade, agriculture, and industry, and between Turks and Armenians there was no trace, at any rate superficially, of the previous hatreds.15

Cover of a newer edition of Cemal's memoirs
Cover of a newer edition of Cemal’s memoirs

The accuracy of this claim is highly questionable, yet such distortions of the truth may well have served to reinforce the theme we have been discussing—that is, Cemal as an agent of change. In this case, he is depicting himself as the man (governor) who restored the welfare of Adana after the brutal massacres. Expressions such as “my steps,” “my terms,” etc. used in almost all of the cases mentioned so far may be seen as a stylistic tool that Cemal employs in his attempt to concoct a better image for himself, one that is marked by his devotion to the welfare and interests of his homeland. All of the above cases not only show the same pattern applied to different regions at different times during Cemal’s career, but also tend to put the notion of the “I” at the forefront of positive change brought about by his tenure. Hence, comparison, a literary tool that helps portray the before (the bad situation) and the after (the good or improved situation), is a conspicuous feature in Cemal’s memoirs.

Although Cemal puts himself at the forefront of the positive changes brought about in the region under his supervision, a different pattern is constructed in the memoirs as far as other historical moments are concerned. This is what I call the feature of “selective appearance.” In other words, we hear Cemal’s voice mostly in the episodes pertaining to the welfare of the empire, its diplomatic negotiations regarding alliances with other powers, etc. In this respect, the portrayal of “Cemal as the agent of change” ought to be seen in light of this broader feature of the memoirs. Two cases in two different regions can help us understand the notion of “selective appearance.” As noted earlier, Cemal is trying to portray himself as the unifier of Islamic sentiments among the Arab population, in addition to having improved the economic situation of the region under his command. Yet, there is a not single word regarding the Great Famine of Syria (1915-17), a catastrophe for which he was primarily responsible.16 Although he acknowledges the difficulties of providing victuals (grains) to the population as a result of mismanagement of communication systems and the Entente blockade of the coast, he is silent regarding his official policy of starving the coastal regions as a preventive measure against any potential treason or desertion by the Arabs. Thus, Cemal chooses to include only those events that fit coherently into his narrative of Pax Ottomania, which he believes was disrupted by the intervention of the European Powers and particularly the Russians, who utilized “politically blind” persons for their imperial aims.17 Moreover, he never seems to be responsible for the problems that arose during his command, such as the failure of the Suez expedition or the Arab Revolt.

A complementary element of this “selective appearance” is the pattern of finding scapegoats and leveling opprobrium against them as either manipulators of the truth (U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau), renegades (Sherif Hussein of Mecca), or disrupters of Ottoman internal affairs (imperial Russia). Another case of “selective appearance” pertains to Cemal’s position regarding the Armenian Question, “the thorniest domestic problem.”18 Cemal claims to be completely ignorant of his fellow CUP cadres’ decision regarding the deportation and eventual destruction of the Armenians. Regarding the Armenian Question, Cemal firmly states:

I neither took part in the negotiations at Constantinople nor was I consulted. It was through the Government proclamation to the vilayets that I first learned that all Armenians were provisionally to be deported to Mesopotamia, where they were to remain until the end of the War.”

In fact, he even develops a narrative of “welfare of the Armenians by Cemal,” where he justifies his benevolent and humanitarian character by remembering the aid he provided to the Armenian deportees. His statement at the very beginning of this essay confirms the point. In the cases that I have referred to as Cemal’s “selective appearances,” the notion of the “I”—so dominant in other parts of the memoirs, such as the Turco-French rapprochement or the Turco-Bulgarian Alliance—suddenly disappears. Instead, a new narrative emerges, marked by hesitation and ambiguity, where Cemal tries to justify his position: “I thus did everything possible during the whole period of their deportation to give help to the Armenians, as has been confirmed by the Armenians themselves and by all impartial foreigners.”19

To conclude, Cemal’s memoirs may be seen as a space where different external factors are in play, and that decide the extent and the form in which the “I” representing the author’s voice appears. In places where it does surface, we can follow a consistent pattern throughout the work, one that portrays Cemal as a benevolent agent of change and a true patriot. As far as Cemal’s role in the organization, and the Armenian Genocide, there is an ongoing debate regarding his complicity and the motives behind his so called “less-brutal” deportation policies towards the Cilician Armenians. Nevertheless, remembering that the massacres that occurred starting in spring 1916 took place in the deserts of Syria—a command area under Cemal’s direct supervision—his attempts at distancing himself from the CUP regime and from what happened to the deportees remain highly dubious. On the one hand, thus, Cemal’s memoirs provide answers to some historical inquiries; yet on the other hand, they pave the way for new ones.



[1] Ahmed Cemal, Memories of a Turkish Statesman1913-1919: By Djemal Pasha, Formerly Governor of Constantinople, Imperial Ottoman Naval Minister, and Commander of the Fourth Army in Sinai, Palestine and Syria, New York: George H. Doran Company, 1922, p. 279.

2 David Stevenshon, “From Balkan Conflict to Global Conflict: The Spread of the First World War 1914-1918,” Foreign Policy Analysis 7, no. 2, April 2011; 169-182; Eyal Ginio, “Mobilizing the Ottoman Nation During the Balkan Wars (1912-1913): Awakening from the Ottoman Dream,” War in History 12, April 2005, pp. 156-177.

3 Jacques Derogy, Resistance and Revenge: The Armenian Assassination of the Turkish Leaders Responsible for the 1915 Massacres and Deportations, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1990.

4 Cemal, p. 93.

5 Ibid., p. 159.

6 We know that Mustafa Kemal tried to prevent Enver’s return to Turkey by pressuring the Bolshevik government. Yamauchi Masayuki, The Green Crescent under the Red Star: Enver Pasha in Soviet Russia, 1919-1922, Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1991.

7 Arnold Toynbee, “Djemal Pasha,” The Times (London), Oct. 6, 1922.

8 Cemal, pp. 17-18.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., p. 151.

11 Ibid., pp. 201-202.

12 Ibid.

13 L. Schatkowski Schilcher, “The Famine of 1915-1918 in Greater Syria,” in The Modern Middle East in Historical Perspective, Essays in Honour of Albert Hourani, ed. John Spagnolo, Beirut: Ithaca Press, 1996, p. 237.

14 Cemal, p. 262.

15 Ibid.

16 Schilcher, p. 237.

17 Cemal, pp. 201-203.

18 Ibid., p. 98.

19 Ibid., p. 278.


Varak Ketsemanian

Varak Ketsemanian is a graduate of the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (2014-2016). His master’s thesis titled “Communities in Conflict: the Hunchakian Revolutionary Party 1890-1894” examines the socio-economic role of violence in shaping inter-communal and ethnic relations by doing a local history of the Armenian Revolutionary Movement in the Ottoman Empire. Ketsemanian’s work tackles problems such as the development and polarization of mainstream historiographies, inter-communal stratifications, nationalism, and the relationship of the Ottoman State with some of its Anatolian provinces. He is currently completing a PhD at Princeton University, where his doctoral dissertation will focus on the social history of the National Constitution of Ottoman Armenians in 1863, and the communal dynamics/mechanisms that it created on imperial, communal, and provincial levels. Ketsemanian’s research relates to the development of different forms of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, revolutionary violence, and constitutional movements.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Varak,
    Thank you for your article about Cemal Pasha’s memoirs written between 1919 and 1921 and translated into English and published in 1922. WOW! So he didn’t know about the plans for deportation aka annihilation. How interesting. And then to know how he helped the devastated Armenian communities in Adana after one of the most “gruesome atrocities” in human history really is a new one. How come Armenians whose books I’ve read never mentioned him with his sleeves rolled up helping the Armenians. Because he didn’t help at all. Let us not forget his visit to Antoura orphanage in Lebanon where the Armenian children were made to stand at attention on their skeletal legs after being beaten and starved to greet the great pasha. I’ve had enough of mass murderers, Talaat included, painting totally bogus accounts of their activities during the Genocide. You’ve written a thought provoking article. Well done!
    Ellen Sarkisian Chesnut

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