“Fatal Philanthropy” – James Bryce and the Armenians


To understand the point of this article we need to revisit something that George Curzon (later Lord) said in the British Parliament. At the time Curzon was Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and he said it in the course of defending traditional British policy with regard to the Ottoman Empire, on behalf of Lord Salisbury’s Government:

“We were not prepared at any moment to go to war for the sake of Armenia. We were not prepared to plunge Europe into a Continental war for the sake of Armenia. We were not prepared to jeopardise the interests of this country and I will go further and say the interests of the Armenians themselves, in pursuit of… what might, in the last resort, have turned out to be a perilous, if not a fatal philanthropy. [Loud Cheers.]” [1]

James Bryce both personified what Curzon called “fatal philanthropy” and did much to realise such a thing in reality, in relation to the Armenians.

Firstly, in discussing this issue we should say something about the importance of James Bryce. Bryce was a tremendously gifted all-rounder: a Historian, jurist, and statesman. He was Regius Professor of civil law at Oxford University, 1870-1893. In his political career he was elected as a Liberal MP in 1880 and from 1885 to 1907 he was Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs; he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1892); and President of the Board of Trade (1894–95). He became Chief Secretary for Ireland (1905-6), British Ambassador to the United States (1907–13) and the President of British Academy (1913-17) during the Great War. He was also involved in the establishment of the League of Nations, and served at the International Court at The Hague.

He was author of a large amount of publications including most ntably The Holy Roman Empire (1864), Transcaucasia and Ararat (1877), The American Commonwealth (1888), Modern Democracy (1921) and many other works, including a large output of pamphlets of a propagandist nature during the Great War.

Bryce’s background is instructive regarding the formation of his “fatal philanthropy”. Bryce was born in Belfast 1838, a city in the North East of Ireland that was strongly Unionist and pro-British. Justin McCarthy, the 19th Century Irish historian, noted the following about him in his pen-portraits of British politicians:

“I may say also that James Bryce is not first and above all other things a public man and a politician. He does not seem to have thought of a Parliamentary career until after he had won for himself a high and commanding position as a writer of history. Bryce is by birth an Irishman and belongs to that northern province of Ireland which is peopled to a large extent by Scottish immigrants… James Bryce has always been an Irish Nationalist since he came into public life, and has shown himself, whether in or out of political office, a steady and consistent supporter of the demand for Irish Home Rule. Indeed, I should be well inclined to believe that a desire to render some personal service in promoting the just claims of Ireland for a better system of government must have had much influence over Bryce’s decision to accept a seat in the House of Commons.”[2]

Bryce was from an Ulster/Scottish Protestant (Presbyterian) family. Unusually for a Protestant in Ireland, he was in favour of Irish Home Rule (autonomy). In British politics he was a Gladstonian Liberal with a strongly Christian moralistic view of world.

Bryce was also a noted mountain climber, and it is said, the first European to climb Mount Ararat in 1876. There he believed he found evidence of the remains of Noah’s Ark.

So, almost everything in his background would have endeared Bryce to the Armenian cause. He became the first president of the Anglo-Armenian society, in 1893.

Bryce’s connection with the Armenians begins with his travels to Ararat and the publication of ‘Transcaucasia and Ararat’ in 1877. In this book, written during the 1877 Russian/Ottoman war, Bryce made clear he desired the expulsion of the Ottomans from eastern Anatolia and the creation of nations from the peoples of the Ottoman territories. He described the Turks as lazy and lacking intelligence[3] and the Ottomans as a dying government.[4] Conversely, he suggested that the Armenians were the most industrious and clever race in the region[5] – the highest form of civilisation there.

However, Bryce noted a number of things that made the construction of nations out of the peoples of the Ottoman Empire problematic. Firstly: “They have no patriotism, in our sense of the word, for they have neither a historic past… nor a country they can call exclusively their own…”[6] Secondly: “Religion is everything… and… is not a fusing  but a separating, alienating, repellent force.”[7]

Bryce also admitted that the Armenians were a scattered people surrounded by a great Moslem majority within the Ottoman territories. He described them as timid and lacking in national spirit[8] with “no political aspiration.” [9]However, Bryce felt affronted as a Christian that the Armenians should be ruled by what he considered to be their inferiors within humankind. He seems, like other British Liberals, to believe that an Islamic state should not exist in the world, in principle.

Bryce made clear his desire that England should somehow take what he saw as a special people in hand and lead them to nationhood:

“England may save the Sultan from foreign invaders, she may aid him to supress internal revolts; but she will not thereby arrest that sure and steady process of decay which makes his government more and more powerless for anything but evil. She may delay, but she cannot prevent, the arrival, after another era of silent oppression, varied by insurrections and massacres, of a day when the Turkish Empire will fall to pieces, and its spoils be shared by powerful neighbours or revengeful subjects… Further delay… may wreck the chance that yet remains of relieving these unhappy peoples from their load of misery, as well as of regaining and strengthening the legitimate influence of England in the East.”[10]

This passage shows how Bryce blended the humanitarian concerns of Liberalism in with Imperialist expansionism. This was an early manifestation of an Imperial ethical foreign policy.

Despite the fact that Russia was much more likely to support the Armenians than Britain Bryce ruled out the possibility of this because he believed the Tsar would not tolerate an Armenian state and the Russians were not civilised themselves, for such a task.[11]

Bryce’s book was a best-seller and went to 4 editions. It was republished in 1896, with a new chapter. In this update Bryce argued that in the 2 decades since the first edition Russian expansion in the region, the effects of Protestant missionary activity in the Ottoman Empire and the British assertion of the right of interference had greatly encouraged the Armenians into a more nationalist spirit. [12]Although Bryce, as a good Liberal, condemned the violence of Dashnak activity in the 1890s, he went along with their political objectives and in many respects surpassed them.

Bryce suggested that the problem the Armenians faced was that international pressure had not been maintained on the Ottoman Government since the Treaty of Berlin and that the situation had stabilised, leaving the civilised Christian Armenians stuck under uncivilised Moslem rule.[13] 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. British Liberals, like Bryce, took their own Empire as the highest form of civilisation and progress in the world and were loathed to criticise it.

In an article published in ‘The Century’ periodical around this time Bryce described the Turks as “worse than savages,” who would only respond to “fear”. He lamented that the “speedy extinction of the Turkish power by natural causes” was not a foreseeable prospect.[14]

In 1897 Bryce published ‘Impressions of South Africa.’ The 19th Century historian, Justin McCarthy, writing after the British conquest of South Africa, made a comment of interest on this work:

“The warning which Bryce gave, and gave in vain, to the English Government and the English majority, was a warning against the credulous acceptation of one-sided testimony, against the fond belief that the proclamation of Imperialism carried with it the right to intervene in the affairs of every foreign State, and against the theory that troops and gold mines warrant any enterprise.”[15]

And yet the very opposite position characterised Bryce’s position with regard to British intervention in the Ottoman Empire. The only logical explanation for this is that Bryce baulked at intervening against the devout fundamentalist Christian Boers while he had no such compunction about military force being applied against Muslims.

The American connection is a very important aspect of Bryce and something that really gave his “fatal philanthropy” political traction. Bryce had wrote The American Commonwealth, published in 1888, an examination of the constitutional system of the US. This became the standard text on the subject in the US. Americans loved it because here was a famed British intellectual flattering their political system. It seemed to confer an extra legitimacy upon it and the achievements of the founding fathers. It helped establish Bryce with both a high standing in the US and with a degree of leverage which did not go unnoticed in London.

Bryce’s links with academics and politicians in the US led to his appointment in 1907 as British Ambassador in Washington DC, a post he held for seven years. During his tenure he greatly improved UK-US relationships. Britain, at this point, was making provision for the development of its Anglo-Saxon offspring and the real probability that it would become the major force in the world. Britain needed, above all, influence over this coming force, if it could not prevent its emergence. Whilst as Ambassador Bryce developed a strong affinity with Woodrow Wilson, another Ulster-Scots Presbyterian, who entered the White House in 1913. These factors added to Bryce’s growing political leverage in the US.

This was a very important period in British/US relations. Britain was re-orientating its Foreign Policy, preparing and making covert plans for war on Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Bryce was sent from the British Cabinet to sweeten the US. It was a very unusual appointment in the sense that members of the British executive are never made into Ambassadors. It indicates the importance in which Britain viewed the US during this period that Bryce was removed from the British Cabinet and sent to Washington. On his return he was made a Viscount of the Empire for his services, becoming Lord Bryce.

The key to understanding Lord Bryce’s desire to provide his services to the Imperial State as a propagandist during the Great War lies in his general attitude to war. In a letter to James Ford Rhodes, on August 1st, 1914, Bryce reacted to the European war describing it as “the most tremendous and horrible calamity that has ever befallen mankind.”[16]

Bryce, as a Gladstonian Liberal, initially opposed the Great War and felt he had to justify his subsequent support for it. Liberalism suffered a great moral collapse during July/August 1914 in the face of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey’s, revelations of the secret arrangements and contingencies he had made for war against Germany with France and Russia on the eve of the conflict. [17]The Liberal opponents of entering the war within Grey’s Party were faced with the dilemma of choosing whether to support the war in the face of the Liberal Imperialist fait accompli of waging a war, with or without their Liberal base, because the Liberal Government had already secured the support of the Opposition front benches for its war. Liberal support was secured by the Germany entry into Belgium.

To justify his support for the war Bryce, like other Liberals, had to present the 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.[18]

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 quite fraudulent. The objective of the Liberal propaganda, on behalf of the British State, 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.” However, this moral veneer disguised the real character of the war. It had been planned for nearly a decade to cut down a rising commercial competitor in the long-standing tradition of the British Balance of Power policy.

So Lord Bryce and his fellow Liberals helped promote a great moral campaign against England’s enemies. This involved utilising their own talents for moral outrage in the production of propaganda. 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.[19]  In such a moral conflict propaganda was essential and the Blue Book and propaganda about the Armenians should be viewed within this context.

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 Triple Entente 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. A particular target was America, which was seen as a great democracy, as opposed to the Tsarist autocracy which embarrassed British Liberals as an ally.[20]

Bryce’s war propaganda contains so many falsehoods and untruths that anything he wrote during the Great War must come under suspicion. Certainly there is substantial evidence of him exaggerating the enemy’s conduct of the war and minimising, or totally denying, the activities of his own government and its allies.[21]

Early in 1915, the British government, through its Attorney General, asked Bryce to oversee a Royal Commission to investigate the atrocity reports that had appeared in the British press regarding the Germans in Belgium.[22] Bryce was perfect for this role, being one of the best known historians of the time, with a background in human rights. He had collaborated with Roger Casement, to expose the exploitation of Indian peoples on the Amazon by a rubber company, establishing an international reputation as a result of his work.

The German atrocity propaganda was so successful that the secret British Department of State, Wellington House[23], commissioned Bryce to construct a similar case against the Ottomans.  Attention to the Armenians became a war issue in Britain after 6th October 1915 when Lord Bryce made his second speech in the House of Lords about the forced removals and alleged massacres in the central and eastern Anatolia.

This new publication, in 1916, was a ‘report’ issued under the title ‘The Treatment Of Armenians In The Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916’, which became known as “The Blue Book.” [24]It was a collaboration between Arnold Toynbee, a noted young historian and member of the Charles F. Masterman Propaganda Bureau and Viscount Bryce. Bryce, though probably not a member of Wellington House himself, was the important link between the Propaganda Bureau and the US.

Bryce became the organiser of, and figurehead for, the Blue Book rather than the author or writer. In contrast to his earlier anti-Turkish work on behalf of the Armenians the Blue Book was not a private enterprise on Bryce’s part but a government project. Most material used in “The Blue Book” was supplied to Lord Bryce by the U.S. Ambassador in Istanbul, Henry Morgenthau, who, not knowing Turkish, relied heavily on his Armenian secretaries.[25] Accounts were gathered mainly from Armenian sources, or people sympathetic to the Armenians, often at second or third-hand, with the help of Morgenthau, who had never left the Ottoman capital for Anatolia. The same “witnesses” appeared under multiple pseudonyms. Bryce forwarded this information to Toynbee to be included in the report. Bryce wrote the introduction to give it a high intellectual standing in the US.

The validity of the data could not be verified, even by the official authors. The Blue Book was characterised by the use of anonymous American missionary sources described as ‘American traveller’ etc. who had an interest in defaming the Muslims. There were 150 documents attributed to “impeccable sources”, 59 of Missionary origin and 52 from individual Armenians or newspapers. The identity of the sources of information was only discovered in unrelated files in the British archives. A quarter of the sources identified were unknown even to the writer, Toynbee. No physical record of the original information/writings has been found. [26]

The accuracy and reliability of the accounts were secondary considerations, however. The point of the Blue Book was the production of propaganda. The British historian Trevor Wilson notes that in compiling atrocity propaganda Bryce was confronted with a dilemma. If he was scrupulous in establishing the validity of accounts, as a historian should be, and failed, he would be conveying the impression that the allegations were unfounded. He was, therefore, forced into using information that was suspect and unproven, in order to maintain the moral war.[27]

A letter, dated 11th May 1916 and written by Arnold Toynbee to Lord Bryce gives some indication of how the propaganda was constructed to create distance between the propagandists and the British Government it was being written for:

“If you were to send these documents with an introductory note to Sir Edward Grey and say that they have been prepared under your supervision, that they are trustworthy, then your letter would be published by the Foreign Office as an official document, and the documents would constitute an appendix to your letter. The problem of publication would thus be solved. While giving the book an official character, it would free the Foreign Secretary from the obligation to take upon himself the probing of the accuracy of every matter mentioned in these documents.”[28]

The Blue Book was issued by the British Government and presented formally in Parliament by Bryce as an official publication in order to lend it more authenticity and credibility. Toynbee considered it as “the biggest asset of His Majesty’s Government to solve the Turkish problem in a radical manner, and to have it accepted by the public”[29]

The British Government chose well in the man to provide the Blue Book’s figurehead. The Washington Post said “No man in Europe commands a more sympathetic audience in America than Viscount Bryce.”[30] Herbert Asquith and Stanley Baldwin, both former Prime Ministers, in a joint memorial, presented in 1924 to the then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, stated that “The Blue Book” was “widely used for Allied propaganda in 1916-17, and had an important influence upon American opinion and the ultimate decision of President Woodrow Wilson to enter the war”. [31]

Sir Roger Casement, Bryce’s former colleague in investigating atrocities in South America, took a different view of Bryce’s war work. He condemned Bryce for selling himself as a hireling propagandist. According to Casement, Lord Bryce, had presided over a government body “directed to one end only”:

“the blackening of the character of those with whom England was at war… given out to  the world of neutral peoples as the pronouncement of an impartial court seeking only to discover and reveal the truth.”[32]

Casement particularly criticised Bryce’s methods of reporting atrocities. He noted that in relation to the reporting of Belgian atrocities in the Congo he had investigated these reports “on the spot at some little pain and danger to myself” whilst Bryce had “inspected with a very long telescope.”[33]

Casement continued with a point that is very relevant to any estimation of the validity of the Blue Book:

“I have investigated more bona fide atrocities at close hand than possibly any other living man. But unlike Lord Bryce, I investigated them on the spot, from the lips of those who had suffered, in the very places where the very crimes were perpetuated, where the evidence could be sifted and the accusation brought by the victim could be rebutted by the accused; and in each case my finding was confirmed by the Courts of Justice of the very States whose citizens I had indicted.”[34]

Casement added: “It is only necessary to turn to James Bryce the historian to convict James Bryce the partisan…”[35]

Casement wrote the above about Bryce’s work on the German atrocities but the criticism stands equally against the companion work directed at the Ottomans. Sir Roger was incapable of commenting directly on the Blue Book since he had been hanged by the British in 1916 as a traitor, for doing in Ireland what Bryce and other British Liberals had supported the Armenian revolutionaries in doing within the Ottoman Empire. Casement had followed through on the principles of small nations on which the war was supposedly being fought by Britain and advertised by Bryce. But Casement was found to be a traitor whilst the Armenians and others who went into insurrection were lauded as patriots in England.

A comparison between Bryce’s attitude and actions with regard to Ireland and Armenia are interesting and expose the hypocrisy at the heart of British Liberalism.

With regard to Ireland: Bryce had been Chief Secretary for Ireland, championing Irish Home Rule before he was a member of the government. But when in office he failed to provide the country with even this small measure of autonomy. It took a hung parliament, when British government was paralysed and dependent on Irish MPs to stay in office, for the Liberal Government to produce a Bill for Irish Home Rule in 1912, and that was suspended and never actually implemented. The Irish had to fight for their freedom after the war, after voting overwhelmingly for it in 1918.[36]

On the island of Ireland 80% of the people wanted some form of independence from Britain. That was shown during the 1918 General Election. The Protestant Colonial element of 20% who wanted to stay part of the UK was concentrated locally in the north-east corner of the island. The Liberals failed in government 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 in 1918/9 and probably much less. Still, Bryce aimed to create a nation when he knew the Armenians were a scattered people, lacking a democratic basis for nationhood. Only through war and great ethnic cleansing of the majority Muslim population, and perhaps what is now called “genocide” could an Armenian state of any size be constituted and maintained within Ottoman territory.

The fact cannot be avoided that Liberals like Bryce bear great responsibility for the catastrophe suffered by the Armenians because they encouraged dangerous notions of unrealisable nationalism among the revolutionaries. They also encouraged Armenians to believe England would assist them militarily to realise their ambitions and produced propaganda that provoked great antagonism between Muslim and Armenian.

However, Bryce and the other Liberals were merely the moralistic wing of the British Imperial State. They were not its substance. Their role within the Imperial State 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 British Empire at the expense of the Ottomans and the Muslim world. Within such a war the Armenians only mattered for England as cannon-fodder and useful propaganda material for the British.

As Sir Roger Casement wrote in November 1915:

“The English, having called up the storm for their own ends, left their victims to the deluge. And now, when the waves have subsided, again for their own ends, their paid and ennobled beach combers go out to scavenge amid the wreakage cast up on distant shores, in the hope of finding enough to soil the honour of those they ran away from… Lord Bryce’s name will be associated not with that Holy Roman Empire he sought to recall by scholarly research, but with that unholy Empire he sought to sustain in the greatest of its crimes by lending the weight of a great name, and prostituting great attainments to an official campaign of slander, defamation and calumny conducted on a scale unparalleled in any war…”[37]

The Armenians found this out at their cost after the Russian collapse and paid a terrible price for the great fraud perpetuated against them, as did others around the world, for the “fatal philanthropy” of British Liberalism.


[1] Hansard, British House of Commons, 3.3.1896

[2] British Political Leaders, p.286

[3] Transcaucasia and Ararat, p.423

[4] ibid, p.428

[5] ibid, p.430

[6], ibid, pp.414-5

[7] ibid

[8] ibid, p.482

[9] ibid, p.466

[10] ibid, pp. 441-4

[11] ibid, p.441

[12] ibid, pp. 468-9

[13] ibid, p.471

[14] The Armenian Question,” The Century, 51/1, November 1895

[15] British Political Leaders, p.291

[16] H.A.L. Fisher, James Bryce, Vol II, p.125

[17]  See Irene Willis, England’s Holy War, pp.86-90

[18]  ibid p.90

[19] See Viscount Bryce, Essays and Addresses in Wartime for a collection of his speeches of a propagandist nature. These contain many untruths. See Dr. Pat Walsh, The Armenian Insurrection and the Great War, pp. 201-4, for a discussion on this aspect.

[20] ibid

[21] ibid

[22] Gary S. Messinger, British Propaganda and the State in the First World War, p. 81.

[23] See M.L. Sanders, Historical Journal, XVIII, 1975, Wellington House and British Propaganda during the First World War. Unfortunately documents of the Office of War Propaganda remain sealed by Britain.

[24] For more on this see also Dr. Pat Walsh, Britain’s Great War on Turkey – An Irish Perspective, pp. 192-208

[25] See Heath Lowry, The Story behind Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story

[26] See Justin McCarthy, The Turk in America, pp.235-9, for a full discussion about the Bryce Report and authenticity of sources.

[27] Lord Bryce’s investigation into alleged German atrocities in Belgium, Journal of Contemporary History, July 1979, p.381

[28] FO 96/205: Toynbee Papers.

[29] Public Records Office, FO 71/3404/162647, p.2

[30] 28.1.17

[31] See Mosa Anderson, Noel Buxton: A Life, pp.81 and 110; Bodleian Library, Toynbee Papers, box on Armenian Memorial, 26.9.1924

[32] The Far Extended Baleful Power of the Lie, Continental Times, 3.11.1915

[33] ibid

[34] ibid

[35] ibid

[36]  See Viscount Bryce, The Attitude of Great Britain in the Present War, pp. 7-8, for a defence of a denial of Ireland’s right to nationhood

[37] The Far Extended Baleful Power of the Lie, Continental Times, 3.11.1915


  1. Very informative account of Lord Bryce’s immoral propaganda. Its a shame that the Blue book is still hailed by the Armenian activist as a credible publication and forms one of the basis of their genocide claims!


  2. Thank you Patrick. Very interesting. I have passed it on and left a comment. Regards.


    Sent from my iPhone



  3. A powerful share, I simply given this onto a colleague who was doing somewhat analysis on this. And he in actual fact purchased me breakfast because I found it for him.. smile. So let me reword that: Thnx for the deal with! However yeah Thnkx for spending the time to debate this, I feel strongly about it and love reading more on this topic. If attainable, as you turn into expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more particulars? It is extremely helpful for me. Large thumb up for this blog publish!


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