Roger Casement and James Bryce

The September issue of History Ireland has a sympathetic article by Angus Mitchell, author of the recent 1916 book on Roger Casement, called ‘James Bryce and the Politics of Inhumanity.’  However, the career of Lord Bryce would be better summed up in George Curzon’s memorable phrase of “fatal philanthropy”. Roger Casement’s view that James Bryce acted as a war propagandist “prostituting an honourable name to dishonourable ends” can hardly be disputed.

The key to understanding Bryce’s desire to provide his services to the Imperial State as a propagandist lies in his attitude to war. Bryce, as a good Liberal, initially opposed the Great War and felt he had to justify his subsequent support for it. To do this, he presented Britain’s Great War as being about something it was not in order to justify his own support for it. So he joined the moral campaign against England’s enemies and produced propaganda describing the war in fundamentalist Christian terms as a great struggle of good over evil in which there were no grounds for staying out of the conflict. In such a conflict propaganda was essential to fight the good fight and triumph over evil.

To fully understand Bryce we need to note what happened to British Liberalism at the start of the Great War. Bryce, like most other Liberals had initially opposed the Great War. However, Liberalism suffered a great moral collapse in the face of Sir Edward Grey’s revelations of the secret arrangements and contingencies he had made for war on the eve of the conflict. The Liberals were faced with the dilemma of “my country right or wrong!” in the face of the Liberal Imperialist fait accompli of waging a war, with or without their Liberal base, because the Asquith Government had already secured the support of the Unionist front benches for the war it planned.

In entering the European war the Liberals helped Britain state its aims in the grandest universalistic terms that were idealistic in the extreme. These aims were not only idealistic and unachievable but they were also fraudulent. The objective was to show to the world that Britain was fighting a good war against an evil that had to be vanquished. The war was proclaimed as being for “civilisation against the Barbarian”, for “democracy” against “Prussianism”. And it was also supposedly a “war for small nations” for “poor little Belgium” when it was really a war to cut down a rising commercial competitor in the long-standing tradition of the British Balance of Power policy.

Bryce presented the Great War as a new type of war. In the great amount of war propaganda Bryce produced in favour of it he described England’s participation in the War as self-less, wholly honourable and moral – to rid the world of the great evils of the Prussian German and then the Ottoman Turk.

Bryce’s general war propaganda was designed to impress neutral nations into the conflict so that the War could be extended across the earth by Britain. This was because the Allies proved incapable of winning it without widening it and Liberals like Bryce were reluctant to support military Conscription in England, even for such a moral war. So they concentrated their efforts on encouraging others to do England’s fighting, and conquering for it.

In such a moral conflict propaganda was essential and the Blue Book and propaganda about the Armenians should be viewed within this context.

Bryce was entirely suited to producing war propaganda against the Ottomans and unsuited to revealing the objective truth and context of the matter. Almost everything in Bryce’s background endeared him to the Armenian cause. In his ‘Transcaucasia and Ararat’, written during the 1877 Russian/Ottoman war, Bryce made clear he desired the expulsion of the Ottomans from eastern Anatolia. He described the Turks as lazy and lacking intelligence and the Ottomans as a dying government. Conversely, he suggested that the Armenians were the most industrious and clever race in the region – the highest form of civilisation there.

However, tellingly, Bryce noted that the Armenians were a scattered people surrounded by a great Muslim majority. He described them as lacking in national spirit but felt affronted as a Christian that the Armenians should be ruled by their inferiors within humankind. He made clear his desire that England take this special Christian people in hand and lead them to nationhood.

Bryce suggested that the problem for the Armenians was that international pressure had not been maintained on the Ottoman Government and that the civilised Christian Armenians were stuck under uncivilised Moslem rule. He was loathed to criticise his own government for this inaction, although it was evident that Britain, in its traditional policy of checking Russian expansion, was the main culprit in this. However, British Liberals like Bryce always saw their own Empire as the highest form of civilisation and progress in the world.

Roger Casement took the principles of small nations on which the war was supposedly being fought by Britain in earnest. But Casement was found to be a traitor whilst the Armenians and others who went into insurrection were lauded as patriots in England by people like Bryce.

Comparison between Bryce’s attitude and actions between Ireland and Armenia are interesting and expose the hypocrisy at the heart of Bryce and British Liberalism.

With regard to Ireland: Bryce had been Chief Secretary for Ireland, championing Home Rule, but when in office he failed to provide the country with even autonomy. It took a hung parliament for the Liberal government to produce a Bill for Irish Home Rule in 1912 and that was never implemented.

On the island of Ireland 80% of the people desired some form of independence from Britain. The Colonial element of 20% who wanted to stay part of the UK was concentrated largely locally in the north-east corner of the island. The Liberals failed in government (1906-15) to provide Ireland even with a regional parliament within the UK and Bryce defended this denial afterwards, when a clear democratic basis obviously existed for it. Such a policy could have been carried through peacefully in the bulk of the island by Britain if it had had the courage of its Liberal convictions.

However, with regard to the Armenians, Bryce said that they should be a nation even though he himself admitted there was no demographic basis for such a development. In the area the Armenians sought for a state no where did they constitute a majority. They represented less than 20% of the population in the “Magna Armenia” they claimed at the Peace Conference. Bryce aimed to create a nation when he knew the Armenians were a scattered people, lacking a democratic basis for nationhood. Only through great ethnic cleansing of the majority population, and what is now called “genocide” could an Armenian state of any size be constituted and maintained within Ottoman territory.

British Liberals like Bryce bear great responsibility for the catastrophe suffered by the Armenians because they encouraged notions of unrealisable nationalism among the revolutionaries; they encouraged Armenians to believe England would assist them; and they produced propaganda which provoked great antagonism between Turk, Kurd and Armenian.

In the aftermath of its Great War the British Empire engaged in nation-building in the conquered Ottoman territories – as opposed to the planned standard Imperial absorption. It had proclaimed a “war for small nations” at the outset, whilst maintaining its traditional blind-spot to the island on its west, of course. The entry of the U.S. into the War enabling England to finish what it had started and was failing to finish, had turned what might have been mere propaganda into needs must. But Armenia was spared this nation-building and it was applied to Iraq, despite the fact that there was no Iraqi nation – only Shia, Sunni, Kurd and Turkmen.

Akaby Nassibian concedes that Armenia, the nation, depended upon British Imperialism and was not a going concern without it. But Britain encouraged and then let down the Armenians:

“Britain remained committed, up to 1914, to the integrity of the Ottoman dominions in Asia. Thus Britain’s interest in Armenian territory far outweighed her concern for the Armenian people… The war radically changed the direction of Britain’s interest in Armenia. As she was opposed to Turkey, she did not care about Ottoman integrity any longer. She was prepared to satisfy the territorial desiderata of her allies, Russia and France, over Armenia. Moreover, having secured by arms and agreements the certainty of her predominance over the Persian Gulf, she lost almost all interest in Armenian territory. The war, however, brought a drastic increase of interest  in the Armenian people. Britain had to use all her material and moral forces to win the war. So she used the Armenian holocausts of 1915 to discredit her enemies… in order to wean American sympathy from the Central Powers, to show to her Moslem subjects the nature of the Turkish government they were being urged to fight, and in order to stimulate the war effort at home by indicating that the conflict was against cruelty, oppression and injustice. Britain also made use of Armenian manpower… to reinforce that disintegrating front after 1917 (when the Russian line collapsed. PW). But in order to stimulate the Armenians Britain had to ‘pledge’ herself to the liberation of Armenia, an expression that was also used to counter the charges of the pacifists at home that the war was being fought for greed. What was ‘imperialistic’ in wishing to see Armenia freed from Turkey, Balfour asked. At the end of the war, then, Britain was in the position of having made, in Harold Nicholson’s words, the provision of a ‘National Home’ for the Armenians, one of the most ‘loudly advertised’ of her war aims. The British government itself had contributed to building up public opinion which expected, and demanded, the liberation of Armenia… More inauspiciously, interest in, and sympathy with, the Armenian people was not matched by a corresponding interest in their territory… She tried several expedients – for example, passing the responsibility for helping Armenia to other powers – all which  in the end failed. Moreover, the public statements and the Treaty of Sevres given to vindicate these statements, again aroused hopes among the Armenians… and laid Armenia yet again open to the hostility of Turkey and now also to that of the other Caucasian states. The Treaty of Sevres, unaccompanied by real help, exposed Armenia to reprisals and in the end proved to be her doom.” (Britain and the Armenian Question, 1915-1923, pp.267-8)

An Armenian state was an impossibility it seems without Imperialist greed for territory and could not be based on the sentiment of Bryce and the Liberals:

“… weakness of policy or illusion would not have prevailed if only Britain had had interests in Armenia. But she did not. Thus Armenia was the only one not liberated from the list of Ottoman territories, ‘Arabia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine,’ which the British cabinet had agreed and Lloyd George had announced, would be ‘impossible to restore to Turkey’. Britain’s interests in the Armenian people were not matched by a corresponding interest in their territory, which, she was determined should not fall under Russian influence… As to Armenia itself, it seems it realised the hard way, when abandoned by the Entente and Britain, that ‘its own chance of existence was to adapt itself to the wishes and policies of the peoples by whom it was surrounded on all sides’.(p.271. The last quote is from the Northcote papers)

If Armenia could not exist without the guns of the British Empire and the British encouraged it to believe it could exist and then deprived it of the guns on which its existence depended, this surely means that the prime responsibility for the catastrophe rests in Westminster.

There is no reason to believe that the construction and maintenance of Armenia as a nation by British Imperialism would have been any more successful than the creation of Iraq and it is pretty certain it would have been less so and even more destructive. Iraq did actually achieve national substance, and then it was broken up into chaos into what it is now.

And recently in Syria the rebels were encouraged by the US/UK/French destruction of the Libyan State into going into insurrection against the government. Where are its people now? Dead or fleeing to Turkey and Europe.

The reference to a ‘National State’ for the Armenians suggests that the Armenians had one last problem with the British. After all Balfour determined in the case of the Jews that a nation should be established on a historic territory rather than by the opinion of the people who lived there. In 1917 Britain designated Palestine to be the historic territory of the Jews and began building up the Jewish numbers, through immigration, to make sure a future Zionist state could be established. It repressed the resistance of the inhabitants to the Jewish migration and preparation for a Zionist State by policing and terror.

It was a question of Imperial power and not a question of justice. A great injustice was done to the Palestinians. If an Armenian state had been established on the same precedent who’s to say a second injustice of the same kind would not persist in the same way. That is food for thought for those who support the Palestinians and the  Armenian case.

Bryce and Arnold Toynbee were the moralistic wing of the British Imperial State. They were not its substance. Their role was to encourage others to fight in a war that was not in reality what it was pretended to be. The War was really a Balance of Power war to destroy a commercial competitor and accumulate territory for the Empire at the expense of the Ottomans and the Moslem world. The Armenians only mattered as cannon-fodder and useful propaganda material. The Armenians found this out at their cost and paid a terrible price for the great fraud perpetuated against them (as did others around the world) for what Curzon had called, in 1896, the “fatal philanthropy” of British Liberalism.

Unfortunately it hasn’t gone away, you know.







  1. This is an informative article; a good and timely reminder of the utter hypocrisy of the British. The current problems faced by Turkey on the Armenian issue and to a great degree the mess in the Middle east seems to all go back to WWI and the interventions of the British besides other powers.


  2. Good sum up: (World War-I) “was really a Balance of Power war to destroy a commercial competitor and accumulate territory for the Empire at the expense of the Ottomans and the Moslem world. The Armenians only mattered as cannon-fodder and useful propaganda material. The Armenians found this out at their cost and paid a terrible price for the great fraud perpetuated against them (as did others around the world) for what Curzon had called, in 1896, the “fatal philanthropy” of British Liberalism”


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