The Battle for Of
The celebration of Liberation Day in the district of Of does not really mark the final withdrawal of foreign troops, as is the case elsewhere, but resistance to their initial assault two years previously. In this respect, the first event of local nationalist history occurs at a moment when the imperial government was anticipating victory. The district of Of therefore offers a striking example of a dislocated periodization, exceptional even for the towns along the eastern Black Sea coast. To explain, I must first briefly mention the larger context of military conflict in the late winter of 1916.
The Germans and Ottomans had been at war with the British, French, Italians, and Russians for a little more than a year. A great Ottoman victory, credited to Mustafa Kemal, had recently been achieved at Gallipoli. But all kinds of disasters were looming in the eastern provinces of Erzurum, Van, and Trabzon. Already, the imperial government had begun to deport the Armenian minority into the Syrian desert, where many would die without provisions or shelter. Very soon, the Muslim majority would also suffer massive casualties and extraordinary hardship as a consequence of Russian offensives followed by Ottoman counteroffensives.
The Russian advance on Trabzon began in February, when a land army supported by naval gun ships occupied the town of Rize. Avni Pasha, regional military commander of Lazistan, decided to gather the remnants of his retreating forces and make a desperate stand at the Baltacıı River in the district of Of (see map 1). Arriving in one of the interior villages of the district, he proceeded to summon to his side a number of the local leaders, asking them to rally the population in support of his army. The response he received seems to have exceeded anything he might have expected. For the next two or three weeks, several thousand Ottoman troops, reinforced by thousands of irregulars and assisted by thousands of civilians, succeeded in halting the forward movement of a formidable Russian force. During a brief but terrifying interval, the twentieth century arrived in the district of Of in the form of machine guns, naval bombardment, trench warfare, and civilian refugees.
As a popular effort involving great danger and sacrifice, the Battle for Of rightfully came to be remembered as the dawn of a new kind of political identity and participation. It was the local instance of a Turkish nation that was coming into existence even before the prospect of the extinction of the Ottoman Empire. Some twenty-five years after the declaration of the Turkish Republic, as the country was moving from a one-party to a multiparty system, two little books appeared that explored the meaning of the Battle for Of. Each of their authors pondered the early spring of 1916 as they considered the identity of the inhabitants of the district of Of. Each of them posed the question of how the Oflus had been able to manifest themselves as a Turkish nation, already in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire.
The first of the books to appear, in late 1949, was a memoir based on first-hand experience. It was written by Hasan Umur, student of the hodjas during the later Empire, participant in the Battle for Of, activist in the nationalist movement, and local politician in the early Turkish Republic. The second to appear (early 1950) was a research project based on personal interviews, official documents, and authoritative sources. It was written by Altay Yiğit, a young teacher in a primary school, native of the new district of Çaykara, and an intimate of leading individuals from large family groupings. I shall begin with their contradictory reports of what Avni Pasha, regional commander of Lazistan, said and wrote soon after he arrived in the district of Of, on February 28, 1916. Umur was among the local leaders who responded to the summons of Avni Pasha. He tells us that his party found the military commander sittingin a chair in the garden of a village residence sometime after midnight:
Umur goes on to explain what he took to be the meaning of these remarks. Avni Pasha was saying that no one would be forced to take part in the battle, and no one who fled the front lines would be arrested. Given that the situation was so desperate, he had no alternative but to appeal to the patriotism (vatan aşkıı) of the Oflus.
Upon introducing himself to us, he said: "I am going to engage the enemy in battle here. I will give weapons to those who wish to join our soldiers in the battle. If there are those who do not wish to engage in the battle, let them carry munitions for our soldiers. And if there are those who are unable to do this, let them dig trenches for our soldiers. And if there are still those who say they cannot do this, let them say prayers for our soldiers.And if as well there are those who say they cannot do this, by God I shall hang them, and so help me God I shall hang them." And then he excused himself [from our presence]. [Italics mine]
Umur recollected that an imperial military officer had delivered a speech that resembled a nationalist exhortation of the republican period. Avni Pasha had called for a popular rising of a total society in support of "our soldiers," constructing an image of a division of labor that implicitly included young and old, male and female, well and infirm. In doing so, he had attempted to inspire his audience to identify themselves with the imperial troops, rhetorically insisting that he would hang anyone who refused to say prayers in support of their efforts. But Umur was citing utterances that he had heard thirty years earlier, before the collapse of the Empire had been followed by the founding of the Republic. This raises the possibility, if not the likelihood, that his memory was playing tricks on him. There is good evidence that this was the case.
Avni Pasha had also sent communiqués to district officials in late February, delegating to them the authority to organize support for the war effort. Yiğit discovered one of these documents in the archives of the müftü of Of and published a transliterated version in his own account. In his communiqué, Avni Pasha uses terms that correspond to Umur's recollections, but their meaning is entirely different. He addresses the müftü with respect for his person and his office, recognizing his devotion to state and religion. So he does appeal to a kind of patriotism, but it is an "official" patriotism limited to those individuals who held titles and positions in the imperial system. He orders the müftü to send him everyone, whether residents or guests, including all army deserters, absentee conscripts, and soldiers on furlough "capable of contributing to the war effort, for fighting, attacking, transporting, and constructing." So he does refer to his need for a division of labor, but not to a total society composed of individuals with different abilities and inclinations. He also calls for extreme, punitive measures to be applied to anyone who refused to support his troops, but he does not do so merely by way of rhetorical emphasis. On the contrary, he delegates full authority to the müftü "to rain down the most terrible kind of worldly punishments and afflictions on anyone who opposed him." And tothis end, he recommends "destruction and burning of their households, and the deportation and torture of their relatives and descendants." In other words, Avni Pasha was licensing the harshest treatment of the Muslim population, just as other state officials had already licensed the harshest treatment of the Armenian population.
In contrast to the oral quote, the communiqué is consistent with state policies that had been repeatedly applied to the district of Of at moments of extreme political crisis during the post-classical imperial period. The governors of the province of Trabzon had often called on local elites to assemble and dispatch troops in support of the central armies of the Ottoman Empire. In doing so, they had often appealed to their identification with and participation in the imperial system, that is, their readiness to fight for state and religion. On the other hand, the governors of the province had also on some occasions carried out punitive expeditions against local elites. In doing so, they had burned houses, destroyed crops, hanged leaders, and deported families in order to force the submission of local elites at the head of local followings. In his message to the müftü, Avni Pasha therefore wrote in these two conventional registers of the post-classical imperial period. He acknowledged the "devotion to state and religion" of his official respondent even as he licensed "worldly punishments and afflictions" for anyone resisting his orders. So he in no way indicated any inclination to rely on the "patriotism" (vatan aşkıı) of the general population in the district of Of.
Avni Pasha may have adjusted the two conventional registers to suit his audience, drawing the line here when speaking to local leaders and drawing the line there when issuing orders to district officials. By such an estimation, the military commander would have spoken with respect for those who came to meet him at midnight in the garden, just as he also mercilessly threatened those who would not support the troops. When Umur recalled what he said, more than thirty years later, he may have further adjusted the two conventional registers, unconsciously redrawing the line between respect and threat. It was by this final edition that Avni Pasha had come to speak as a nationalist of the republican period.
Even if it is possible to soften the jarring contrast between the oral and written versions of Avni Pasha's remarks, the fact remains that Umur had mis-remembered. He had recalled that Avni Pasha did not intend to arrest anyone who fled the front lines but relied instead on an appeal to patriotism. The communiqué flatly contradicts this interpretation, and in doing so casts doubt on the reliability of Umur's memory. But there is also another reason to doubt Umur's recollection. If the overall design of his little book is considered, we can see that the words of the military commander are cited for a literary purpose. They confirm the presence of a certain "nation-thing" during the experience of the Battle for Of that was otherwise absent at the time of its recollection in writing. For the point of Umur's little book is that a national relationship of state and people, which had become palpable during the Battle for Of, had not afterwards been fully realized by the Turkish Republic. This is a strong indication that the memory of Avni Pasha's statement had been unconsciously reformulated as the singular moment of a pure national origin to be contrasted with an impure national aftermath.