INTERVIEW: Benjamin Fortna on the contentious life and legacy of Eşref Kuşçubaşı

INTERVIEW: Benjamin Fortna on the contentious life and legacy of Eşref Kuşçubaşı

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Benjamin Fortna on the contentious life and legacy of Eşref Kuşçubaşı

Eşref Kuşçubaşı served in the Ottoman Empire’s attempted defense of Libya against Italy in 1911.

The life of Eşref Kuşçubaşı is of enduring controversy. A secret service operative who worked from the Balkans to North Africa to Arabia in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, he turned his back on the resistance forces of Mustafa Kemal during the War of Independence and ended up in exile for almost 30 years.

University of Arizona Professor of History Benjamin Fortna’s new biography, “The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent,” is the most detailed account of Eşref’s life, based on exclusive access to previously unexamined papers. The book (reviewed in HDN here) paints a picture of a contentious life on the frontline of history as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Republic of Turkey emerged.

Fortna spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about his book and his research on Eşref’s life. 

Eşref Kuşçubaşı is still a controversial name in Turkey. Why did you want to investigate his life at this point in time? What stirred your interest?

It was really opportunistic. It was the chance to have access to his papers. It wasn't that I had been working on Eşref for a long time; it was more that I realized someone I'd known for a long time was actually one of Eşref's direct descendants. The family had some papers and asked if I might be interested.

He had an extraordinarily colorful life and did an incredible amount of traveling and working in different places. 

One of the bigger issues that comes to the fore is the way that technology was transforming life in the empire, particularly for the state and those who were working in the state service. The range of movement that Eşref’s life encompassed was extraordinary. It would have been much less possible a generation or two before. There was rail, steamships, the motorcar, and the telegraph, which all become vehicles for his movement and for the circulation of his name among the leadership of the Ottoman Empire. His rise to prominence is a function of that unique period when such technologies were developing. 

Eşref had a very peripatetic life. Every age has its colorful characters but when you combine that with the technology available and the desperation of the late Ottoman state to survive, putting into practice a number of mechanisms including the Special Organization, that is only something that could have happened in these final decades of the empire.

He did a lot of shady work as a kind of hired hand or militiaman linked to more senior officials. He was arrested and jailed in Arabia but escaped and became a bandit there. Later he performed secret operations in Libya, the Balkans and Western Anatolia. How did he get his connections and who was he working for?

He thrived in the grey areas. It's an irony of late Ottoman history, and in some ways the history of all modernizing states: On the one hand they become more devoted to modern regularized, systematized state apparatus, but they also increasingly rely on off-the-books operations and recruitment of people known through familial, clan or tribal connections. That is an interesting juxtaposition. A lot of the empires in this period rely on recruitment of people like Eşref, who perhaps don't fit into the standard mold of the bureaucracy.

When you spend a lot of time working on one person you try to imagine what he was like to live and work with. My earlier work was on the field of education in the period and it always struck me that Eşref was kind of a “nightmare scenario” for any educator in the late Ottoman Empire. He broke all the rules, got kicked out of school, and didn't fit in with the standardization and bureaucratization that was a central part of this era. That contrast was one of the biggest puzzles for me. 

He was particularly loyal to Enver, who was the Ottoman Minister of War during the First World War and later became a bête noire for the nationalist resistance, blamed for strategic blunders during the war. How did Eşref’s relationship with Enver shape his career?

From the first time we find archival evidence of Eşref working in the state service, before the 1908 Young Turk revolution, he was working for Enver in the Balkans. We don't know how this came about or exactly what the purpose was, but the documents say Eşref was conducting household searches in today’s Bosnia. The Ottoman Balkans was a region where almost all key officers of the late Ottoman military cut their teeth, taking on the paramilitary nationalist organizations that were forming there. 

The bond between Eşref and Enver was absolutely crucial to his life story in both good and bad ways. The connection was also crucial to the suspicions that Mustafa Kemal and his associates had about Eşref during the War of Liberation.

What kind of work was Eşref doing and where was he doing it in the years leading up to the First World War?

Sometimes we know and sometimes we don't know. Occasionally he makes reference to being involved in some grey areas or black operations without giving any details. One thing that's frustrating and intriguing about Eşref's papers is that they're the only substitute we have for the massive autobiography that he wrote but didn’t survive. Only one volume of that larger work survived, referring to a mission he conducted in Yemen before he got captured and arrested by the English. 

Before that point we only have patches of vague evidence for what he was doing. At one point he says, "I delayed my return to Istanbul because I had to carry out a sanctioned killing." That's all he says. He spent a lot of time in Arabia of course. Probably there were missions there to persuade tribes to stay loyal to the Ottoman Empire despite attempts by the British to encourage them to revolt. At other times he's involved in the gendarmerie, fighting brigands and sometimes acting like a brigand himself.

He's also involved in the campaign against the Italian invasion of Libya. That was the first attempt by Enver to put into practice what he saw as an officer in the Balkans fighting guerilla-type movements. The Ottoman Empire, partly out of necessity because it couldn't get many troops to Libya, sent a limited number of officers and tried to turn the tables on the Italians by using orchestrated guerilla warfare. Then later during the Balkan Wars it's clear that Eşref was asked to recruit his own force and to go behind enemy lines. So he had a number of missions that were all different depending on the specific context.

In Libya he was fighting alongside Mustafa Kemal. The later break between the two men is the main reason why Eşref is still controversial in Turkey today. Initially he supported the nationalists but during the War of Independence he shifted sides and crossed enemy lines. 

Eşref emerged from being a prisoner of war in the British prison in Malta, where he had been for over two years after being captured in Arabia during the First World War. He came back to Istanbul and quickly got back in touch with members of the Special Organization who were crucial in forming the networks that became consolidated under the control of Mustafa Kemal. These networks combined a number of different factions and included people like Eşref who were more loyal to Enver, who was abroad and out of the picture after the war but apparently still in contact with his former men. 

So Eşref very quickly reforms his connections and is asked by Mustafa Kemal to become a regional commander in a crucial area just to the east of Istanbul around İzmit and Adapazarı. It's there that he gets into his first major trouble with Ankara. The area that he's meant to control blows up in his face and there's a rebellion against him. Things do not go at all according to plan. There are people close to Mustafa Kemal who see this as evidence of Eşref's rash temperament and believe this is a failing for which he's directly responsible. After that you see a deterioration in the relationship between Eşref and Ankara. 

He lived quite an opportunistic life based on personal connections and loyalties, but what did he actually believe? Where did he stand ideologically?

There are times in his writings where he takes up questions of politics. But I see him more as a field operations person. When he writes about larger issues of statecraft or politics it's clear he has some strong ideas. In contrast to the practical, hands-on nature of his life and work, these ideas seem to be almost romantic. 

His bond with Enver was also quite romantic. Even when it was perhaps not prudent for him, considering the coalescing of power around Mustafa Kemal, Eşref never went back on his link to Enver. That was probably crucial in his eventual split with Ankara. From Ankara's perspective, they felt he was one of "Enver's men" who they couldn't trust. He could have chosen to be more pragmatic to save his own future in Turkey but he stuck to his principles and was suspicious of Ankara and Mustafa Kemal.

But it's interesting that at many points in his writings he goes out of his way to stress that he had nothing but love and affection for his former comrade-in-arms Mustafa Kemal. He said the issue was not between himself and Mustafa Kemal, but the people surrounding Mustafa Kemal were "backbiters, troublemakers, and sycophants" who were stirring things up to cause trouble between them. There is interesting evidence after Atatürk dies, when Eşref writes to one of his daughters and eulogizes about him. But of course there was a strong personal feud between Mustafa Kemal and Enver. And given the quarrelsome nature of many of the key figures in this period, it was probably necessary for people to pick sides. Ultimately that was something Eşref was not willing to do.

He was then forced to stay in exile for almost 30 years. In comparison with his restless earlier life, his time in exile was very empty. 

We have to make a distinction between the initial years before the Republic of Turkey is founded and later after the republic is founded. In the former he was organizing a kind of anti-Ankara guerilla war that perhaps had hopes the Enverist branch of the CUP would prevail and Enver would return. At this point he was based on Mytilene in the Aegean, where there were a lot of Circassians and Albanians who were trying to organize this anti-Ankara movement. Later his brother, Selim Sami or “Hacı Sami,” died in an attempt to infiltrate the coastline and possibly lead an assassination attempt against Mustafa Kemal. That of course damages the relationship between Eşref and Ankara even more.

Eşref was a Circassian and his father originally hailed from the Caucasus, driven into the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century by the Russians. What significance did this Circassian heritage have in Eşref’s life?

It's absolutely central to understanding Eşref and his place in the late Ottoman Empire. There were many Circassians, Albanians and people from the Balkans, Crete who had fled into reduced Ottoman lands. This meant they were extremely grateful for the reception they received in the Ottoman Empire, which was not really in a position to receive so many thousands of refugees. For the Ottoman state, which was trying to cope with military campaigns and insurgences on its borders, the Circassians were a ready source of recruitment. They had been radicalized by their expulsion by the Russians. Some of that recruitment was formal and some was informal. If you look at the Special Organization you see a high share of Circassian and Albanian officers and soldiers. Circassians were seen as a recruiting target because of their circumstances as refugees, making them seen as an ultra-loyal group who called themselves the "self-sacrificing officers" willing to give everything.

Eşref only returned to Turkey in the 1950s. Today he remains a controversial character. What is his popular image in today’s Turkey?

This is a fascinating topic and worth another book in itself. Today Eşref is lionized by some groups and denigrated by others. He has become a chess piece in a broader fight over the history of the late Ottoman period and its relation to the Turkish Republic. Some lionize him as the "Turkish Lawrence of Arabia" and a patriotic hero who has been overlooked because of his clash with Mustafa Kemal. Others, especially people of a more Kemalist bent, tick off a list of things he did wrong and talk about how he ended up on the wrong side of history. 

Like any good myth there's plenty of fodder for both sides. If you Google search Eşref today there are many right-wing nationalist groups who claim him as one of their own, projecting a lot onto him. There are even groups who go to "discover his grave" and pose there with Turkish flags. On the other hand there are people who want to deny everything about him and make sure that everything published or written about him maintains this negative view. 

The truth is somewhere in between. That's what I was trying to get at in this book, using actual documents and records to see what we can learn about Eşref and his times. I focused mainly on the period up until the early 1920s. After his guerilla opposition movement fell apart Eşref went into a long period of reflection. He remained in exile first in Greece, then in Egypt, and finally returned to Turkey in the 1950s. This also raises the interesting question of his family life and how they coped without him, which is probably the most poignant aspect I found while researching the book: The relationship between Eşref and Pervin Hanım, his second wife. She went through a lot as a young bride who married him on the eve of World War One, expecting a certain kind of life but getting a completely different and more tragic one.

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