The Year of 1918 was a very significant one for the Azeribaijani people, one that is being marked in a series of centenary commemorations presently being held in Azerbaijan, the state that came out the events of that year.
In March of 1918 the Azerbaijanis in Baku were the victims of a substantial massacre by Armenian forces intent on ethnically cleansing Moslems and other peoples from their traditional lands and carving out “Magna Armenia”. The Armenian Dashnak death squads were backed up with military, financial and moral support from the Western Powers, particularly Britain. They were assisted on the spot by the Baku Commune under the leadership of an Armenian Bolshevik, Stepan Shaumyan. Shaumyan, acting on Bolshevik authority and attempting to secure Baku’s oil for the Leninist state, collaborated in the most reactionary of nationalist ventures.
On May 28 1918 came the Azerbaijani fightback and the Proclamation of state independence of Azerbaijan. On September 15 Baku was liberated from the combined British/Bolshevik/Armenian forces holding it by a Turkish/Azeri army commanded by the brother of Enver Pasha. The government of Azerbaijan entered the city, forming a parliament on December 7. This government was recognised by the Command of Allied forces and British Government on December 28. It was the first democratic government established in the region – the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the Azerbaijanis were provoked into state formation by the events that engulfed them in late 1917/18. The Armenian Dashnak project of Greater Armenia which necessitated the clearing out of the native population, using the Great War as cover for vast ethnic cleansing and killing, meant that the Azeris had to organise to survive as a people. Out of tragedy came nationhood.
Greater Armenia was an insane project of the Armenian Dashnaks sponsored by the Western Liberal Anglosphere. It was fundamentally a racist project involving the attempted destruction of the vast majority of inhabitants of an area to sate the demands of a much smaller majority who were promoted as a special people, with rights of a higher order than the mass of humanity. The Armenians were deemed to be Western, despite having existed in the East for all of their history, and being Christian, a cut above the rest. They were deserving of nationhood whilst others were not.
Magna Armenia claimed Six Vilayets of the Ottoman Empire and a sizeable portion of the Caucasus. This state would have comprised in land area about nearly half of modern Turkey and large parts of what is now Georgia, Azerbaijan, some parts of Iran as well as present day Armenia. The Six Vilayets of so-called “Ottoman Armenia” were only about 17 per cent Armenian in 1914. In the entire area claimed by the Dashnaks, including the Erivan and Kars provinces of Russia, the Six Vilayets, and Cilicia only 21 per cent of the population was Armenian and 73 per cent Moslem.
The logic of Magna Armenia was that either a small minority would have to rule over a much larger majority by force or clear a large body of the existing population out, either through death or ethnic cleansing. That was what was actually attempted by the Dashnaks and the experience of the Azeris demonstrates conclusively what a successful Armenian state would have resulted in, on a much larger scale.
One of the most successful Dashnak killers and ethnic cleansers was General Andranik. On June 19 1919, fresh from his killing spree in Azerbaijan, where he led heavily armed bands of Armenians into villages of defenceless unarmed Moslems and put everyone, regardless of age or sex to the sword, he appeared on a platform in Westminster with Lord Bryce, William Gladstone’s son, G.P. Gooch (famous historian) and our own, T.P. O’Connor.
The record of that meeting was produced as a pamphlet by the Armenian Bureau in London in 1919. Standing beside the murderer/ethnic cleanser, General Andranik, T.P. O’Connor used a famous Gladsonian phrase to declare his support for Andranik’s treatment of the Moslems:
“Out with them, Bag and Baggage! (Applause). I agree with all Lord Bryce said as to what the future Armenia should be. It ought to be a big Armenia, not a small one.” (Armenia and the Settlement)
A map appears in the pamphlet to show people what Magna Armenia meant in geographical terms. It would have involved unimaginable slaughter to have achieved it.
Of course, in the end only a small Armenia was produced. And that had to be established with the killing or expulsion of nearly 500,000 Azeris from their traditional lands, which had been the Erivan Khanate.
Before the Great War Tsarist Russia had attempted to establish a coherent Armenian colony as a Christian buffer in the Caucasus through a policy of relocating the scattered Armenians on the territories of Nakhchivan, Garabagh and Erivan. In 1905-07 there were Moslem risings against the results of their supplanting and dispossession. In response over 300 Azerbaijani communities were destroyed and Moslems driven out of cities like Baku, Tiflis and Erivan.
However, it was the Great War which finally provided the kind of catastrophic situation for the Armenian Dashnaks to avail of, in which all things were possible, and all manner of things could be done.
At the start of the Great War the Dashnaks and Armenian volunteers for the Tsarist armies pushing West against the Ottoman Empire were restrained by the Russian State. But in 1917 the Russian State began to collapse. In the new period of flux the Armenian forces were needed not only by those who were seeking to establish a new Russian state but also by Britain, which was attempting to reorganise a new front against the Ottomans in place of the dissolving forces of its Tsarist ally.
As the Russian Army began to disintegrate around Lenin’s Decree of Peace in November 1917, an Ottoman advance into the Caucasus became both possible and necessary. It was possible to recapture Ottoman territory lost to the Tsar’s armies not only from 1914 but also from the wars of 1878. It was also necessary to secure the safety of the Moslem population that now found itself without the protection of the Russian State and at the mercy of the Armenians. There had been no prospect of an Ottoman advance until Lenin’s Decree on Land invited the peasant soldiers home to claim their farms and dispersed the Russian forces in the Caucasus.
This was the unexpected situation that confronted the British in late 1917 in the Caucasus.
The Leninist disorganisation of the Russian armies brought the pre-War fears of the British to the fore – the fears that had made them plan for and make War on Germany in 1914. Chief among these fears was the Berlin-Baghdad Railway.
It was now being suggested in England that Germany had reoriented the direction of its Drang nach Osten towards the Caucasus. The capture of Baghdad by the British in the spring of 1917 had denied the Germans the original objective of their Railway and they had diverted their route eastward instead. For the British all the obsessions became one. The collapse of the Russian Caucasian front facilitated the German Drang nach Osten and the supposed Pan-Islamic and Pan-Turanian project of their Ottoman allies. The Ministry of Information under John Buchan, who had written extensively about such things in his novels, was inspired. An Cabinet Eastern Committee under Lord Curzon was established to stop the rot.
Arnold Toynbee, famous historian and then political adviser to the British Cabinet, warned:
“The Berlin-Baghdad Railway may die but the Berlin-Bokura line through Asia Minor and Northern Persia will live. This is the new German ambition… this all-land route would be a direct menace to the British position in the Persian Gulf and would seriously threaten India from the west and north west.” (FO 371/3060/226241/W/44, 28 November 1917, Supplement on Report on Pan-Turanian movement.)
Arthur Balfour, summing up all of these fears wrote to Lord Reading:
“Germany is trying to weaken us by reducing the Middle East and through it India to the same condition of disorder as she has reduced Russia. She hopes to do this by… Pan-Turanian propaganda, backed by Turco-German military force. Their agents are already endeavouring to stir up Persia, Turkestan and Afghanistan. The Turks have now captured Batum and if they capture Kars, as seems probable, they will be masters of the Caucasus and their road towards Central Asia and India will be open. Unless this movement is checked it is bound to have far-reaching effects…” (FO 371/3327/69398/W/38, 20 April 1918.)
Arms, military training, finances and moral support were all made available to the Armenians if they held the line in the Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia. The British even courted and went into a temporary alliance of convenience with the emerging state authority in Russia, the Bolsheviks. Trotsky’s Bolshevik armed trains escorted British Imperialist agents around the Caucasus to help cement alliance with the Armenian forces.
However, the Dashnaks were not about to be the willing stooges of the British and Bolsheviks. The Armenians knew that they, themselves, were the only force on the ground for Britain, which was a maritime power up against it with Germany, and for the Bolsheviks, who only held the oil city of Baku, with the guns of the Dashnaks. The Armenians began making provision for their own state, through ethnic cleansing and killing operations against peaceful Moslem settlements in the Caucasus hinterland.
The Dashnaks did this from a position of strength. The British and Bolsheviks tolerated their killing expeditions because they had little choice in the matter if they were to have military forces on the ground. British records reveal that the Foreign Office was well aware what was going on against innocent Moslems and decided to suppress the news lest it cause consternation in the U.S., where fresh armies were needed from to win the War. Denial was the order of the day.
Anyone who was available would have been used to win the Great War. Britain would have utilised both Azeris and Georgians as cannon fodder against the Ottomans as well. However, both were reluctant to fight alongside the Armenians for various reasons. The Azeris knew their security rested with the Turks. The Georgians tended toward support for the Germans as protectors against the Armenians.
The peaceful, unmilitary Azeris were severely disadvantaged against the strongly militarised Armenians. An alternative Azeri development to the Armenian militarisation could not take place. Unlike, the Armenians the Azerbaijanis had not been told by the West that they were a nation, destined to arise from the surrounding peoples with a special case for nationhood. There were also few Azeris in the Russian army of the Caucasus. Despite a general conscription in 1886 the Azerbaijanis were not drafted because the Tsar distrusted them and imposed a tax on them instead. The Russian Army had no separate Moslem regiments, so the Azerbaijanis were militarily undeveloped as opposed to the Armenians, who were highly militarised in both regular Russian forces and irregular Dashnak bands. In many ways, the Azerbaijanis’ position was similar to the Irish Catholics, an unarmed and unmilitary people, opposed by the Ulster Protestants, a highly militarised people, armed both formally and informally by the British State and given their own Division in the British Army. All the military advantages lay with the Armenians, despite being much few in number in the region.
Baku was thrown into flux by a series of events including the collapse of Tsarist authority, the disintegration of the Russian army, the Bolshevik coup, the arming and arrival of large bodies of Armenians, and the expectation of British Imperialist intervention.
Baku was the only major stronghold of the Bolsheviks in Transcaucasia. It was important for the oil industry that had developed over the previous three decades and had something of a proletariat which had developed out of it. Around a quarter of a million lived there of three peoples – Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Russians. There was a large temporary workforce resident in Baku, mostly Russian. The Azeris were the predominant permanent element of the population in the town and surrounding country.
At the end of March, the Baku Bolsheviks allied themselves with the Armenians to repress the Azeri majority and its Musavat Party and the ‘March Events’ in Baku occurred. Stepan Shaumyan, who was appointed Commissar for the Caucasus by Lenin and who led the commune in Baku was an Armenian who combined his Bolshevism with anti-Moslem proclivities. Certainly, under his authority a substantial amount of ethnic cleansing of Azeri villages occurred in early 1918.
Shaumyan had another interest in pursuing an ethnic war against the Azerbaijani Moslems, completely against socialist principle. He had been appointed to act as head of a provisional government of an Armenian state as part of the Bolshevik ‘On Armenia’ Decree.
On March 2 Shaumyan made a speech condemning the Musavat Party for attempting to secede from Russia. He had been stung by the victory of the Musavat in the elections to the Baku Soviet. There is evidence from a letter signed by both Lenin and Stalin, that the Bolsheviks had concerns about Shaumyan’s Armenian-Nationalist deviation. The letter, in March 1918, told Shaumyan that Comrade Kobozev was being sent as Extraordinary Commissar to Baku and urged him to develop an accommodation with the Moslems and grant autonomy if necessary. The object was to fortify Bolshevik power in Baku by winning round a sizeable section of Muslims. Any confrontation with local inhabitants was unnecessary and counter-productive. However, Shaumyan did not act in accordance with the letter, if he received it before the end of March, and acted instead in an Armenian ethnic-nationalist manner against the Moslems.
The Azeribaijanis were unwilling to fight with the Bolsheviks for a number of reasons. Firstly, they saw the Bolsheviks as merely the expansionary Russian State in new form, particularly since the Pravda Decree, On Armenia.
Secondly, the leader of the Bolsheviks was an Armenian with a clear anti-Moslem agenda. Thirdly, the Bolsheviks had been using the Armenians, arming and organising them as a military force, and if the Bolsheviks were driven out what would be left was a serious threat to Moslem existence in the area.
However, the Bolshevik/Dashnak force was primarily an alliance of convenience against the Moslem majority. Over two-thirds of the 20,000 strong anti-Azeri forces were Armenian and the Armenian element from the Russian Caucasus Army was the best trained element. The Armenian force was indispensable to the Bolsheviks who did not have the support necessary to impose themselves on the Moslem majority inhabitants.
The Armenians initially declared neutrality in the power struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Musavat and deployed for self-defence, hoping to see both forces weakened in the conflict, leaving the city for their taking afterwards. However, as soon as the conflict began the Dashnaks ordered their forces into battle. The Azeris, who had taken the Armenian neutrality in good faith, were taken by surprise by the turn about in their position. After Bolshevik gunboats had decimated the Moslem quarters of the city Lenin urged Shaumyan to call a ceasefire. The Armenian forces availed of this to carry out a large massacre of the Moslem population.
British Foreign Office reports note that the Armenians, after initially declaring neutrality, availed of the Bolshevik assault on the Musavat to kill over 8,000 Tartars and massacre 18,000 in Elizavetpol. It was reported that the Tartars (Azeris) had suffered substantial losses and a large proportion had been driven out of Baku.
The March events temporarily strengthened the Bolsheviks in Baku. Azeri political power was crushed and the Armenians weakened. The Armenian forces were absorbed into the Baku Red Army and the remainder disbanded. The Baku Council of People’s Commissars was set up on 25 April and declared itself the first Soviet government in Caucasus. The Armenians had a much different agenda than the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks did not want British intervention whereas that was the primary aim of the Armenians.
Shaumyan dressed up the massacre in the language of class struggle to please his masters and justify his actions. However, by using the Armenians to repress the Moslem majority the Bolsheviks completely alienated the Azeris. Many fled the city and waited on the Ottoman Army to be their saviours. The Bolsheviks and Armenians became dependent on British Imperialism and the despatch of a British Expeditionary force under General Dunsterville. British Intelligence Officers in the city prepared the ground for the demise of the Bolsheviks and a British/Armenian defence of the city.
The British decided to ally temporarily with the Bolsheviks and Armenians and defend Baku with Dunsterville’s expeditionary force. “If the Armenians get the upper hand it may be possible for General Dunsterville to effect something” said Colonel Pike’s report from Tiflis. This suggested that the British believed that ultimately it would be the Armenians, who the Bolsheviks in Baku had become dependent on, who could be relied upon to open the gates to the British forces and ultimately displace the Bolsheviks altogether. Thus, the Dunsterforce which had originally been assembled to block the Ottomans before the Caucasus now headed to Baku to stop the Ottomans at the Caspian Sea and secure the oil wells for the British Empire.
Ronald MacDonell, the British vice-consul of Baku in 1918 later recorded his view of the March events in a report for General Dunsterville:
“… trouble started between the Bolsheviks and Musselman over the disarmament of a Musselman ship and culminated in the March massacres. The Armenians joined hands with the Bolsheviks and the Musselman was practically turned out of Baku, not a single Musselman of any importance remaining.
“As may be imagined this added fresh fuel to the hostile feeling felt against us by the Musselman of the Caucasus. Even Russian Officers asked us, half in jest, how much the British Government paid to carry out such a successful campaign and rid Baku of the Turkophile elements.
“At the time I protested before the Armenian National Council, and still maintain that they made one of the biggest mistakes in their history when they supported the Bolsheviks against the Musselman. The whole of the blame for this policy must be laid at the door of the Armenian Political Society known as the Dashnachtsasoun… Without Armenian support the Bolsheviks in those days could never have dared to take action against the reactionary Musselman.”
Although MacDonell was truthful in his allocating blame for the massacre of 12,000 people to the Armenian Dashnaks he was being disingenuous in avoiding responsibly on behalf of his own government. It could not have been believed, given the record of the Dashnaks, that the British Government could use them as mere instruments of a policy. The Armenian Dashnaks had their own fundamental objective of clearing territory of Moslems to establish their Greater Armenia and the fact cannot be avoided that the British facilitated them in this in pursuance of what MacDonnell himself called “the common cause”. MacDonell himself had provided the finance himself on his train rides from Baku to Tiflis.
The massacre in Baku in March was only one of a series of atrocities that took place. Right across the territory that would become Azerbaijan – in Goychay, Aresh, Javad, Lankaran, Nukha, Javanshir, Shusha, Jabrail, Nakhchyvan and Zangazur – massacres were conducted against innocent civilians by flying columns of Dashnaks who would come to an area and devastate it, killing all and sundry. In a few months more than 50,000 were murdered by Armenian armed groups and many more driven from their homes to become refugees in their own land. These actions led on to deaths in the hundreds of thousands from hunger and epidemics that followed the Armenian pogroms.
Only the liberation of Baku by the Turkish/Azerbaijani army, under Nuru Pasha, on September 16 1918 put a halt to the campaign and saved a people to build a nation.