St. Mary's Church (now a mosque)

Commemorating Genocide: The Role of Property Seizure in the Armenian Genocide and Its Aftermath

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By Ümit Kurt

What happened on April 24 is one of the most significant radical moments in the process of extreme violence and mass annihilation in the great tragedy that befell the Armenians. It was on this day that the extermination of Armenians began in Dörtyol, Adana, Marash and Zeytun, lasting until March 1915, then Konya, Anatolia, before stopping in Syria. On that same day, first in Istanbul and later in all of the provinces of Anatolia, the arrest of Armenian intellectuals began, which continued into June/July of 1915, leading to the murder of many around Çankiri, Ayas and Ankara.

Only a day later, British Imperial troops began to bombard Çanakkale from land and sea. The wrath of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), leaders of the Ottoman Empire, feeling pressed and their existence threatened, fell first upon the Armenian community and afterwards on all non-Muslim Ottoman subjects. The seizure of Armenian property was not just a byproduct of the genocidal policies of the CUP, 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.

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 Law of Abandoned Properties. These laws are structural components of the Armenian Genocide and were the basis of the legal system in the Republic. It is for this reason that we say that the Republic has adopted this Genocide as its structural foundation. Thus, a fresh look at the relationship between the Republic as a legal system and the Armenian Genocide must be taken.

The Law of Abandoned Properties is perceived as “normal and ordinary” in Turkey. Its existence has never been questioned in connection to the Genocide, which explains why the Armenian Genocide was ignored throughout the history of the Republic.

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Turkey was 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.

Raphael Lemkin can be considered the founding father of genocide literature. He 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 13 March 1938 and 13 November 1942.

As such, Lemkin did not introduce the concept of genocide together with 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; 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. The general perception is that genocide is the collapse of a normally functioning legal system; it is the product of the deviation of a system from the “normal” path. According to this point of view, genocide means that institutions of “civilization” are not working and are replaced by barbarism.

Lemkin, however, seems to be saying the complete opposite; 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 that fits into the legal system – this is an interesting definition.

A series of laws and decrees, known as the Law of Abandoned Properties (Emval-i Metruke Kanunları) were issued during the Ottoman and Turkish Republican periods. They were concerned with the belongings left behind by the Ottoman Armenians who were deported in 1915. Most of the properties were distributed to Muslim refugees from the Balkans and Caucasia at the time. Central and local politicians and bureaucrats of the Union and Progress Party also took advantage of the properties, as well as hundreds of local employees, as the process of administering and selling the properties usually involved considerable administrative efforts.

Topics: Turkey, Umit Kurt

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 local collaborators in the massacres and the deportations orchestrated by the CUP security forces. Similar to the policy of Nazi leaders with regards to the “Aryanization” of Jewish property during 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 corruption. As such, the widespread participation of the local population as beneficiaries served to spread complicity and legitimacy to the CUP’s actions.

It should be emphasized that corruption was fairly rife among bureaucrats and officers of the Abandoned Properties Commissions and Liquidation Commissions, who were the responsible actors for administering and confiscating properties under the supervision and for the advantage of the state – as was the case during the “Aryanization” of Jewish property. 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 [provinces]. According to one argument, CUP leaders also utilized Armenian property and wealth to meet the deportation expenses.

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1926, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed a law. This law was promulgated and enforced on 27 June 1926. According to this law, Turkish government 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 the so-called “abandoned properties” of Armenians were given to their families. And 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, land, agricultural land and shops.

As such, a variety of actors and institutions seized the opportunity. Economic motivation was always present and enabled CUP central actors to carry out their ultra-nationalist ideological policies against Armenians. 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 their new acquisitions, 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 social basis through the practice of effective power, control, and support mechanism(s) at the local level.

The distribution of a great amount of the “abandoned property” provided a useful incentive that reinforced hatred for local Armenians. And as Lemkin noted, 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 – those who know who’s who in a 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 some instances, ideology played a more significant role than economic motivation, and in other instances economic interests came into prominence.

The essence of all the laws and regulations issued was the erasure of all traces of the Armenians from Anatolian soil. Perhaps the physical annihilation of the Armenians was necessary to achieve this goal, but it was not sufficient in and of itself. The use of the legal system was as important as, if not even more important than their physical annihilation.

The law, in particular the Law of Abandoned Properties, became the most important tool of the Ottoman Empire. Economic interests blinded people from the plight of their fellows who were made to disappear.

 

 

 

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