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‘Great Britain against Russia in the Caucasus’ Preface

‘Great Britain against Russia in the Caucasus’ is about how the geopolitical relationship between Imperial Britain and Tsarist Russia had a transformative effect on the destinies of Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. From the Great War of August 1914, the course of history for these empires and peoples of Transcaucasia, was irrevocably altered and set on a new course. 

The Russian movement south across the Caucasus during the early 19th Century had a profound effect on the peoples of Transcaucasia, as well as the Ottoman Empire. The struggle between Great Britain and Russia known as “The Great Game” that then ensued, added a new geopolitical dimension to the region stretching from the European Ottoman provinces to Southern Iran. However, at the moment when this great geopolitical struggle reached its pinnacle it was then seemingly suspended, by mutual agreement of the two empires, in response to an alteration in Britain’s Balance of Power policy. And the effect was utterly cataclysmic.

It was the over-riding of “The Great Game” by the reactivation of the British Balance of Power policy, signalled in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, that led on to the Great War on Germany and Ottoman Turkey. This catastrophic event was to have the most fundamental and transforming effect on the peoples of Transcaucasia, when the Tsarist state succumbed to Revolution in the waging of it.

After the Great War of 1914 nothing was ever the same again for Britain, Russia, Ottoman Turkey, the Armenians and the people of Azerbaijan. The miscalculated War produced Revolution in Russia, and other places, and the idealistic catch-cries of the new world provoked nation-building in the most improbable of places. Without the alteration of the British Balance of Power, the suspension of “The Great Game” and the consequent Great War, the map of the region may have remained rolled up and unaltered for generations.

At the end of 1918, as a result of its Great War victory, the British Empire had gained control of a vast land area stretching eastward from Istanbul into Anatolia, the Caucasus and Transcaspia. Behind this area a great belt of land, running east from Palestine, through Mesopotamia/Iraq and into Persia lay in England’s hands, to do what it wished with.  In front of this Britain was supplying and supporting various military forces that were disintegrating the Russian state through civil war. The Great War of 1914 had not only succeeded in destroying Germany, and the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, but it had also seemingly won Britain the Great Game of a century of geopolitical rivalry with Russia.

Yet in the moment of triumph of Imperial Britain, and in less than two years, Russia was back in the Caucasus and Transcaspia and it was pressing down on British Persia. And Russia was no longer Tsarist Russia but Bolshevik Russia.

This extraordinary turn of events is not explained to any satisfactory degree in the history books of the Anglosphere. Consequently, accounts are bemused by England’s behaviour in 1919, which is only understandable within its geopolitical context. Why the great statesmen of England did what they did deserves more attention and explanation. The history of Ottoman Turkey and Transcaucasia is really inexplicable without trying to understand their calculations and effect on events.

Winston Churchill, who features strongly in this story, once called Russia “a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma.” But Russia is hardly an enigma. For the most part of two centuries it has controlled the Caucasus and unless someone prevented it from doing so, it remained in authority over the region. The peoples of the Caucasus were simply too many and too divided to resist the power of the Russian advance. Only two internal collapses of the Russian State, in 1917 and 1990, provided the space for new states to be born and to thereafter function with a degree of independence.

Britain is much more an enigma in relation to the Caucasus than Russia actually is. Of course, the Caucasus is hardly in Britain’s backyard, but neither are the great expanses of the world she conquered and controlled for centuries elsewhere. But Britain, despite its immense power, had a fundamental problem with the region. That was because British power was sea power and the Caucasus were too continental for Britain’s main weapon of war, the Royal Navy, to be employed there to any great effect. Lord Salisbury once warned the Armenians that his navy could never traverse the Taurus Mountains to assist their objectives. Neither could it climb over the mountains of the Caucasus. What was needed were soldiers and that is what Britain lacked.

During the Great War Britain had built an army larger than it had ever accumulated in its history. Soldiers were available to Britain: in Persia, Turkey and among the Moslem peoples of the Caucasus, who were opposed to Russian domination and would have willingly fought against it. And there lay the key to a successful defence of the Caucasus against the Russians if the will was there to make it a reality. In 1918-19 it seemed that the foundations of a very advantageous situation were there for Imperial Britain. There was even Russian state collapse during the previous year to assist it. And then…?

Where there is a will there is a way. But in 1919 Britain’s will failed and there was no way. Imperial Britain, seemingly at the height of her power, having won its greatest of wars, baulked at the situation that confronted it, and the Imperial retreat began, unexpectedly, in the moment of victory. The Caucasus region and its peoples, who had been encouraged to form buffer-states and given a brief taste of independent existence, fell back into Russian hands – now Bolshevik hands – for nearly three quarters of a century. And the locals were left to make the best of it.

To understand Great Britain’s failure, we need to understand the British Imperial mind and its view of the Caucasus.

Much of the world is credulous about Britain. That is hardly surprising, since Britain imposed itself upon the world in three great worldwide wars, conquered a large part of it in the course of these, established successful and powerful colonies as a result, and made the English language the default language for the writing of history, among other things. That historical process of forceful action, sustained over centuries, has produced conditioned reflexes which have inhibited thought and produced a great deal of innocent credulity.

Any attempt to write the history of this period without considering the primary role of Great Britain in shaping the destiny of the peoples of the Southern Caucasus and Anatolia, is really “Hamlet without the Prince”.  

To explain all this, it is necessary to examine the fundamentals of the mindset of Imperial Britain, which came to determine things in Anatolia and Transcaucasia during 1917-21. So, the early British interventions in Persia, the Great Game against Tsarist Russia, the importance of the Indian Empire and the Balance of Power policy are all surveyed. The consequence of this and the course of the Great War that followed was that Britain had a divided mind when it assumed the mastery of the Caucasus in 1918, which meant that it did not know what to do as clearly as the Bolsheviks did.

Lengthy quotations from significant actors and commentators are sometimes included – something that is unfamiliar in academia. This is done because the reader is required to step into another world, the world before the Great War changed the world forever, to understand why people acted as they did, and things were done as they had been done prior to the interregnum.

The thing about the period just after the Great War was that although a new world had dawned – not least of all because the New World (America) had been drawn into the War – the people who presided over this new world had minds that had been formed in the period of the old world, before the cataclysm. They could not act how they would have acted in the old world and had to adjust for a new world that was unfamiliar and which they had no experience of in practice. History, the basis of past understandings and consequent actions, could not help them. So, without bearings, they blundered.

The very act of fighting the Great War had also changed the minds that had considered issues in an entirely different light before the fighting had begun and had went on, and on, and on.

The context of the story is the geopolitics of Great Britain versus Russia. But it is also about the battleground on which the issue between them was fought. It is Ottoman Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and their peoples, who, after all, did most of the fighting and dying. So, the internal politics and struggles between the various elements present in the region are an important aspect of this history.

The sudden but temporary confluence of interests between Bolshevik Russia and the new development of Republican Turkey, brought about by Lloyd George’s disastrous policy of using the Greeks and Armenians as catspaws to impose a punitive settlement on the Turks, is crucial in understanding what then happened. And the critical role of the Armenians in acting as a source of internal destabilisation, due to their relationship with the Western Imperial Powers, as perceived patrons, is given the significance it is due.

All this determined the result of the battle for the Caucasus that Bolshevik Russia quite unexpectedly won over Imperial Britain from a dire position only a few months previous.From the early nineteenth century Russia was the great constant in the affairs of the Caucasus and Britain was the great potential variable. That is probably why Great Britain’s influence has been overlooked by historians. It is the role of variables to change things. The wider geopolitical interests of Britain were what destabilised Transcaucasia, set it on a new course, and led to the historic events which this book is about. But when the battle was over it was Russia which held the field, alongside the new Turkish state born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

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New Publication: ‘Great Britain against Russia in the Caucasus: Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis caught up in Geopolitics, War and Revolution.’

For most of the 19th Century Great Britain and Tsarist Russia confronted each other in a geopolitical struggle known as the Great Game. During this period Britain supported the Ottoman Empire as a giant buffer state against Russian expansion toward the Mediterranean. But in 1907 the Great Game against Russia was suddenly suspended in the interests of a drastic alteration in Britain’s Balance of Power policy that identified Germany as the main threat to British global predominance. An unlikely alliance was established between the two former deadly enemies which had momentous consequences for Tsarist Russia and the world.

The primary consequence of this revolution in British Foreign Policy was the Great War of 1914, waged by Britain, Russia and France on Germany and the Ottoman Empire. In the course of this catastrophic global war the Tsarist State collapsed, throwing much of Eurasia into flux, and letting loose new forces into the world. The Russian Revolution and Bolshevik coup, along with universalistic slogans encouraging “self-determination” trumpeted by the Allied Powers, provoked nationalism and new nations, in areas where such notions had been weakly developed previously, like Transcaucasia.

Within this turmoil the new nations of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia emerged out of the Russian Empire and took their first steps toward independence in a situation of great instability and uncertainty. The Armenians, the most nationalistic and militarized people in the region who had collaborated in the attempt to destroy the Ottoman State, were now employed by the badly-stretched Entente to reconstruct a new Allied front in the Caucasus replacing the Russian lines that had melted away. And this was to have tragic consequences for the local Muslim population.

At the end of 1918 Britain finally won its Great War on Germany and the Ottoman Empire, whilst seeing its former enemy, Russia, descend into chaos. Britain had seemingly won not only the Great War but the Great Game against Russia and occupied its territory in the Caucasus, with the power to determine the region’s future for the first time. Or so it seemed.

The collapse of the Russian State resulted in the Caucasus becoming one of the centres of a new conflict as Britain supported regime change in Moscow by promoting and facilitating civil war in Russia. The new Transcaucasian states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had been provided with a vacuum in which to be born and develop as nations and the British occupation was availed of for this development. But the freedom of action of these new nations was short lived after Britain, lacking the will to sustain its occupation for various reasons, abruptly began a withdrawal.

This study, for the first time, places the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian question in its full geopolitical context of the Great War, Russian State politics and Revolution, and the changing Foreign Policy of Great Britain. Without this context full understanding of these world-historic events is impossible.

Available from Manzara-verlag. Euro 24.50. Click link below for website

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Nikol Pashinyan and the Lost Treaty of Sevres (Updated)


The Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, has been addressing a Conference in Yerevan to celebrate the lost Treaty of Sevres. He made a statement at that conference praising the lost Treaty of August 1920 and indicated that he would like to see it revived from the dead, presumably to carve up the Turkish Republic in favour of Armenia. The statement reveals much about the twisted mind of Armenian nationalism.

The Armenian Prime Minister began:

“The Treaty of Sevres is a historical fact. It remains so to this day. What is the benefit that we can draw from that document? Why is it still in the focus of our attention?

First, the Treaty of Sevres came in the aftermath of World War I – one of the most dramatic chapters in human history – almost two years after its end. Just as the Treaty of Versailles established peace in Europe, in the same way, the Treaty of Sevres was meant to bring peace to the former Western Asian territories of the Ottoman Empire. It put an end to the war-driven sufferings and deprivations experienced by the peoples of our region. It heralded the end of the ‘cursed years.’

Like the Treaty of Versailles, the Treaty of Sevres shaped a new system of interstate relations in the region. It introduced new principles and values, which should have established not only lasting peace, but also justice in Western Asia.”

This is a quite extraordinary statement on a number of counts. First of all, the idea that “the Treaty of Versailles established peace in Europe” is just ridiculous. Most historians would suggest it led, indirectly or directly, to the Second World War, within a generation, and the deaths of over 50 million people. A century before Versailles, the Treaty of Vienna, after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, preserved the peace in Europe for nearly a hundred years. Versailles made sure that “the war to end all wars” created an even more catastrophic world war soon after.

The Treaty of Versailles was a dictated peace, imposed on the vanquished in Europe. Its sister, the Treaty of Sevres, was the version meant for Asia Minor and the Middle East. It was superseded by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. As a publication of Chatham House noted in 1942 of Lausanne:

“All things considered, a contributor to the History of the Peace Conference of Paris is probably justified in predicting that the Treaty inaugurated a more lasting settlement than any other that followed the War. It was not imposed but negotiated, and in that fact lie hopeful prospects for its permanence.” (G.M. Galthorne-Hardy, A Short History of International Affairs, 1920-1939, p.115)

Having seen the disaster of Versailles the British came to acknowledge that the Treaty of Lausanne was a fortunate development in replacing the Treaty that they had originally attempted to impose on the Turks at Sevres.

The Treaty of Lausanne still stands today, one of the most successful peace treaties in world history. But the Armenians would have preferred the diktat it replaced, which Mustafa Kemal buried in the dust. Why? Because it would have given them more territory and that is all that matters to an Armenian. The peace, stability and security of the rest of the world can “go hang”.

Armenian PM Pashinyan continues in praise of Sevres:

“The Treaty was anchored on the most advanced ideas of the time. It specifically highlighted the principle of self-determination and equality of peoples. It put an end to the centuries-old subjugation imposed by empires, bringing freedom and independence to the peoples of the region. Moreover, by granting peoples the right to establish nation-states in their historical territories, it created favorable conditions for peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians in the region, promoted and further developed the region’s cultural and ethnic diversity.”

Few if any historians would agree with his view that Sevres “was anchored on the most advanced ideas of the time… the principle of self-determination and equality of peoples” that “put an end to the centuries-old subjugation imposed by empires, bringing freedom and independence to the peoples of the region.”

It certainly paid lip-service to these slogans that had been trumpeted across the world in order to recruit other peoples in the service of the Great War on Germany and the Ottomans, but which were never applied by the Imperialists themselves in their own empires (Ireland, India, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt etc. etc.) Sevres was at heart an Imperialist reordering of the region that paid little attention to local conditions or the views of its peoples. The Imperialists drew the maps in London and Paris and made their lines in the sand in negotiation only with each other, attempting to pass off the less valuable and more dangerous tracts of land, including “Armenia”, to the Americans.

Sèvres had little to do with democracy or self-determination. Where were the plebiscites for example? And it made nations of peoples who had never demanded to be nations before 1914 and who had lived lives of general contentment before the West decided that their places of habitation should form another battlefield in their world war and be reordered afterwards to suit Imperialist interests.

Perhaps Pashinyan is of the belief that “favorable conditions for peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians in the region” could have been produced by the continued presence, over decades, of British, French, Italian and Greek armies. But I doubt that the rest of humanity would agree with him and his definition of “peaceful coexistence” – which seems to be more on the lines of Western Powers keeping Muslims down by armed force, in the interests of Armenia, than anything else.

Pashinyan argues that another good feature of Sevres was that it

“… was the first international document to recognize and enshrine Armenia’s independence. The Republic of Armenia acted as an equal party to the Treaty. Centuries after the loss of independence, the Armenian authorities for the first time signed an international treaty along with the world’s great powers. The Republic of Armenia was recognized as a full member of the international community, an equal subject of international law within the limits set out in the Treaty. Being a party to the Treaty, Armenia and its people were recognized as key contributors to the victory of the Allies in World War I and the establishment of peace. The Treaty highlighted and properly assessed the role of the Armenian people in international relations and in the post-war global governance.”

Well Armenia might have imagined it was an equal party to those it had enlisted in its cause but it was brought down to earth soon afterwards when none of its equal allies defended the Treaty, or afterwards defended Armenia against the Bolsheviks. By then Armenia had been thanked for its services to the cause in throwing in its lot to destroy the Ottoman State, and providing good moral propaganda for the taking away of Ottoman territory by the Imperialists. Lloyd George had grown tired of the ridiculous territorial claims and lies of the Armenians and decided they were of no further use, and good riddance to them indeed. It is all in the British archives if Pashinyan cares to read about it.

What was this “post-war global governance” that Armenia formed a part of? The League of Nations, which after recognising Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia did little or nothing to defend them from the Red Army? The same body that Britain gave up on and used as an instrument in the inter-war years and which failed miserably to do its main job and keep the peace of the world?

The Armenian PM concludes with the following:

“… in its Article 89, the Treaty of Sevres reaffirmed our nation’s indisputable historical association with the Armenian Highland, wherein the Armenian people had originated, lived, developed their statehood and culture for millenia… The establishment of the independent Armenian statehood in its ancestral homeland was the fair solution of the Armenian Question. Historical justice was being restored. Favorable conditions were created for reinstating our people’s economic and demographic potential and ensuring its natural development.”

Unfortunately for the Armenians the world does not see itself through Armenian eyes. The Imperialist Powers went across the world over centuries, uprooting and removing countless peoples from their ancestral homelands”, destroying ancient cultures with impunity. The Armenians inhabited an area, as a minority, which was of little interest to the West but of more strategic value to Russia. And that is why the Bolsheviks walked in and saved the Armenians from complete disaster a little after Sevres.

The Treaty of Sevres was actually a disaster for the Armenians. More than anything else it motivated the Turks to fight. It produced the alliance between Ankara and Moscow that put paid to “Armenia”. It convinced the United States that Congress had been right to let its idealist President draw his little maps of Great Armenia to occupy his decline, whilst America took care not to drink from a poisoned chalice. And Britain ditched it all, along with Lloyd George, in favour of something that recognised reality, at Lausanne.

For some reason the Armenian mind can see none of this. It is so self-absorbed and self-contained, without understanding of the rest of humanity, unless it can do something for Armenia. Only such a mentality could see anything positive in the Treaty of Sevres.

Update: At the time of writing Mr Pashinyan’s bringing of the Treaty of Sevres onto the political agenda was thought to have little political implication. However, after 4 weeks of war and the defeats of Armenian forces in occupied Karabakh the implication is clearer. An Armenian observer, Jirair Libaridian (who was, from 1991 to 1997, senior adviser to the former President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, and was closely involved in the negotiations over Karabakh) insightfully pointed out:

“Last month Armenia made the Sevres Treaty an important part of the country’s foreign policy. For Turkey that became the most important part. I don’t know if our leaders did so knowingly, but the statements by the President and Prime Minister of Armenia were equivalent to a declaration of at least diplomatic war against Turkey. And that, against the Turkey with a dangerous leader such as Erdogan. By adopting the Treaty of Sevres as an instrument of foreign policy Armenia placed the demand of territories from Turkey on its agenda. This was possibly the last step that will, in the eyes of our opponents and the international community, define the Karabagh problem as a question of territorial expansion, setting aside the right of self-determination of our people in Artsakh  as the basis of our policy. And that revanchist approach depends so much on the sympathy of that same international community to see its demands satisfied. That which is considered “the solution to the Armenian Question” by some is regarded by the international community as inane, at the least. Is it not time to stop harming our chances of resolving the real problems we face with what we say and do for internal consumption?”

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“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

Britain's Great War Geopolitics Germany Russia Turkey and Ottoman Empire

The Tsar’s Last War on the Ottomans

MEV-10289679 - © - Mary Evans / John Massey Stewart Collection
A British cartoon satirising the role of Russia during the First World War: The steam roller is truly Russian and Crushin’. Tsar Nicholas II drives th…

A few years ago I obtained a copy of Sean McMeekin’s book ‘The Russian origins of the First World War’. It is certainly a very interesting read, particularly because it looks at something that Western histories neglect about the Great War – the role of Czarist Russia. Czarist Russia, of course, collapsed in its waging of this war. Because it does not fit the narrative constructed by the Anglo-French accounts of the war its role has been handily forgotten. But Russia was the lynch-pin of the Triple Entente’s war on Germany and the position which the Ottoman Empire found itself in during the latter part of 1914 is incomprehensible without taking account of Russia.

Tsar Nicholas II offered his country and its population up to Britain in its Great War of 1914 to destroy Germany and break up the Ottoman Empire. He did so as an autocrat within an autocratic system in which the mass of the population only demanded stability in which to live their lives, from the “Little Father”. In waging that War, in which Russia was bled to collapse in return for substantial British finance to continue fighting to the bitter end, the Tsar sealed the fate of himself, his dynasty and his State. The Tsar had been warned for a long time before about the dangerous road he was taking by his most able and impressive minister, Count Witte, who Nicholas dismissed in 1903. He received one final warning of great substance from Pyotr Durnovo, Count Witte’s old Interior Minister, who had effectively suppressed the 1905 Revolution for the Tsar. But Tsar Nicholas persisted and he took Russia to the abyss.

Of course, when autocratic Russia collapsed her place in the Great War was taken by democratic America and the Imperialist war on Germany became something else, for both the remaining parties to the Entente and their historians.  A democratic gloss could be put on the subsequent war with the Czar out of the way – although on the downside restrictions were imposed in the carving up of the spoils amongst the remaining Imperialists (Britain, France, etc.) by the great democracy (the U.S.).

Germans Guilty, Russia more Guilty!

Sean McMeekin wrote another book, a few years before his Russia book, called ‘The Berlin-Baghdad Express’. In this previous book the author put forward the view that the Great War represented an attempt by the Germans and Turks at world domination. ‘The Berlin to Baghdad Express’ represented a modern manifestation of John Buchan’s Wellington House propaganda popularised in his novel ‘Greenmantle’ (the sequel to ‘The 39 Steps’).

McMeekin certainly deserves credit for identifying the Berlin-Baghdad Railway as a major cause of the Great War. If one reads British publications of the time that impression is inescapable – although it has escaped the grasp of most academics.

However, when writing a review of the ‘The Berlin to Baghdad Express’ for Athol Books’ Church and State magazine it became apparent to me that his account of the importance of the Railway was precisely the opposite of mine. McMeekin saw the Railway as the chief instrument of the German/Islamic bid for world power that made it necessary for Britain to make war in 1914. I saw it as the thing that connected the German commercial rise to the Ottoman Empire that marked both states out for destruction in the British Imperial mind.

To hold McMeekin’s position one must accept the Anglophile view of the world – that it is perfectly natural to cut competitors down to size because they represent potential challengers to England’s world supremacy. And of course this was Britain’s view in 1914 expressed in a thousand publications by its thinking class.

However, if one sees this as an unnatural state of affairs the world then looks to be a different place entirely.

Sean McMeekin, however, has changed his view in his newer book. Having delved into the Russian State archives he makes the bold statement: “I contend in this book that the current consensus about the First World War cannot survive serious scrutiny. The war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s.” (p.5)

Presumably if the war was not Germany’s it certainly was not Turkey’s either.

McMeekin states that “the current consensus about the First World War” still blames it on the Germans. And having previously gone along with the “current consensus” McMeekin has now decided that it can no longer stand in the light of what he has discovered.

McMeekin blames the “current consensus” on Fritz Fischer who “taught several generations of historians to pay serious attention only to German war aims.” (p.3) Fischer’s book, ‘Griff nach der Weltmacht,’ was published in Germany in 1961. It was issued in Britain under the title Germany’s Aims in the First World War in 1967. Fischer argued that Germany had a set of annexationist war aims similar to those of Hitler and a policy of deliberately provoking war in July 1914.

But surely there is a similar narrative older than that of Fischer’s – the guilty German. Isn’t Fischer merely a product of the ideas and world that John Buchan et al helped create and which the German succumbed to when being pulverized by force in two world wars? (I should say that East Germany succumbed to a different narrative in 1945, with a great deal of enthusiasm, but that narrative is now dead and need not be considered).

Russian War Aims

Having broken free of Fischer’s influence, McMeekin comes across some important facts in his book. One of them is the following: “Russia’s war was fought not for Serbia, but to achieve control of Constantinople and the Straits… control of the Straits was Russia’s first strategic priority.” (p.239)

A few years ago when I was writing ‘Britain’s Great War on Turkey’ it occurred to me to ask the question: why Russia was fighting in the Great War at all. That is a question that is not asked very often in the West. McMeekin notes: “As for what Russia’s leaders hoped to accomplish by going to war in 1914, most histories of the conflict have little to say, beyond vague mutterings about Serbia and Slavic honor, treaty obligations to France, and concern for Russia’s status as a great power.” (p.2)

It is indeed taken for granted that Russia should want to fight Germany because it was part of an alliance that did its duty against her. But that explains very little.

It might be pretended that Russia had territorial desires in Eastern Europe in relation to the Austro-Hungarian State. However, McMeekin correctly points out: “Austrian Galicia clearly mattered to Russia’s leaders but nowhere near as much as the Straits. For Russia, the war of 1914 was always, ultimately, about Turkey.” (p.101)

Galicia mattered because the salient that was Russian Poland felt exposed by having East Prussia to the North and Austrian Western Galicia (Cracow etc.) to the South. It was one of those extensions of Empire that often felt vulnerable in the Imperial view unless territory around it was added to protect it. But then more territory had to be added to protect the new territorial acquisition and so on, in infinitum. That was how Empires had almost a mind of their own in their growth.

McMeekin correctly points out that although Anglo-French efforts to carve up Ottoman territory dominate accounts of the demise of the Ottoman State the role of Russia is almost forgotten – due to the collapse of the Czarist State in 1917 before a sharing out of the spoils amongst the victors could be accomplished.

He also usefully notes that the Great War is seen in very different terms in Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Egypt than it is in the West:

“From the perspective of present-day residents of these places, the First World War appears not as a kind of senseless civil war between European nations which have now long since learned to live in peace but more like a deliberate plot to disrupt and dismantle the last great Islamic power on earth, Ottoman Turkey. What were the Italian and Balkan wars fought by the Turks in 1911-1913, after all, but a kind of opening act for the world war of 1914, in which great powers threw in with the smaller ones already fighting to dismember the Ottoman Empire?” (p.4)

There is certainly a case for arguing that what began in Libya in 1911 and continued into the Balkans in 1912 had great implications for what subsequently happened from 1914 on, when the direct participation of Britain produced a qualitative escalation in throwing the region into the melting-pot of history – a melting-pot from which it still struggles to emerge.

Russia’s Strategic Imperatives

McMeekin’s chapter ‘The strategic imperative in 1914’ describes Russia’s intentions towards the Ottoman Empire.

The Balkan Wars had the effect of convincing Russia that the dismembering of Ottoman Turkey was a realistic possibility not only because of the defeats suffered by the Ottoman army at the hands of the Bulgarians, Greeks and Serbs but also because of the reluctance of Austria to intervene in the conflict. McMeekin argues that the Russians realised that the only power standing between their dream of occupying Constantinople and turning it into ‘Czargrad’ was Germany.

McMeekin comments that the two major fears of Russia at this time were the worry of a “Crimean coalition” emerging against them or another ‘Congress of Berlin’ being organised to cheat them of the spoils they might win on the battlefield, to deprive them of Constantinople when they had won it.

McMeekin, however, fails to mention the pertinent fact of the all-important 1907 agreement between the Russians and Britain. This altered everything. Firstly, it meant that there would be no “Crimean coalition” organised against Russia to frustrate their intentions in the Black Sea toward Constantinople because both the French and British were now the allies of the Czar. Also, the logic of this agreement implied Russian help against Germany in return for an ending of the Anglo-French block on a Russian move down to Istanbul.

McMeekin notes that during the First Balkans War a discussion took place in Russia about whether to wait for a general European war to take place in order to seize Constantinople or to seize an opportunity presented by the Ottoman collapse in the Balkans. Sazanov, the Czar’s Foreign Minister, argued in a memorandum, for a Russian intervention to seize Constantinople, before the Bulgarians got there. Conquering Constantinople would, he argued, give Russia a “global position which is the natural crown of her efforts and sacrifices over two centuries of our history.” He was opposed, however, by Yuri Danilov, the chief architect of Russia’s war plan 19, who suggested that “the shortest and safest operational route to Constantinople runs through Vienna… and Berlin.” (p. 26)

McMeekin explains that the Russian desire to come down to Constantinople was not just a romantic dream about worshipping again in St Sophia it also had a strong economic impulse:

“Because of the centuries-old Russian interest in ‘Tsargrad’ as the ‘Second Rome’ of Orthodox Christian dreams, the Straits obsession of Russian policymakers like Sazanov in the early 20th century has sometimes been mistakenly assumed to be romantic. In fact, Russia’s designs on the Straits, unlike her shadowy pan Slavic pretensions in the Balkans, were a matter of cold, hard national interest… In economic terms, the importance of the Straits of Russia was stark and true. Although calculations differed on the exact figure, something approaching half of Russia’s burgeoning export trade was, by 1914, routed via the Black Sea, Bosphorus, and Dardanelles to world markets. When, in summer 1912, the Porte had briefly closed the straits to shipping during the Italian Turkish war, Russia’s vulnerability had been painfully exposed: the volume of Black Sea exports dropped by one third for the calendar year 1912, and revenue likewise dipped 30%, from £77 million Sterling to 57 million. Heavy industry in the Ukraine, dependent on supplies imported directly through the Straits near the Black Sea, had nearly ground to a halt… To understand the overriding importance of the Straits question for Petersburg, however, we must go beyond numbers. Russia’s principal Black Sea export was grain. Over 20,000,000 tonnes were shipped in both 1911 and 1912, of which nearly 90% was exported through the Bosphorus to world markets: the health of her entire agricultural economy now depended on unfettered Straits access. Stimulating grain production was, moreover, the key to Stolypin’s social reforms, which envisaged the creation of a stable class of successful peasant producers who would serve as a bulwark against anarchic social revolution… “ (pp.29-30)

The Russian Predicament

Sean McMeekin makes an interesting point about the pressure that suddenly appeared on Russia in late 1913 with regard to their objective of capturing Constantinople. After the Balkans Wars the Ottomans began to strengthen the Straits defences by appointing Liman von Sanders and other German officers as advisers as well as purchasing coastal defence guns from Italy. However, most worrying of all was the naval alliance Turkey had with Britain and the two dreadnoughts that were being built by the Royal Navy, which would immediately make obsolete Russia’s entire Black Sea Fleet. This was because by the terms of the Berlin Treaty of 1878 Russia was not allowed to send warships through the Straits, even in peacetime, which meant she could not import dreadnoughts into the Black Sea. This stipulation was largely a British insistence because England did not want Russia to be able to send its fleet into the Mediterranean. However, what it meant in 1914 was that as the Turks improved their defences in the Black Sea and around Constantinople in the light of the Russian and Slavic threat the window of opportunity for  a Russian amphibious attack on the Ottoman capital was rapidly closing.

When the Russians complained to the British government that they were helping to strengthen the defences of a potential enemy against their ally, Edward Grey and Winston Churchill washed their hands of the problem claiming they were laissez-faire liberals and the British government could not legally interfere with private business contracts.

Interestingly, as McMeekin notes, when in 1908 Izvolski demanded that Britain relax its insistence against Russian naval access to the Mediterranean Edward Grey made a counter offer to Russia that the Straits be open to warships of all countries. Grey knew that this proposal was even more repugnant to the Russians than maintenance of the status quo as it would open Russia’s southern coastline to attack from any rival naval power, particularly Britain. And so the Russians declined and settled for the status quo.

The main immediate cause of the Great War (along with the French desire to have Alsace/Lorraine) was the Russian desire for the Straits. Yet, the only person blocking this was Sir Edward Grey (aside from the Ottomans). The blocking, therefore, of Grey, and its unblocking, contingent on services rendered by the Czar in relation to England’s Germany problem, was actually the pivotal factor in the Great War on Germany and Ottoman Turkey.

McMeekin reveals that things came to a head at a meeting of the Russian Council of Ministers in January 1914. Sazanov had, a week earlier, proposed to the Czar that the time was now right to provoke a European war in alliance with England and France so that Constantinople could be stormed. The idea was to use the Liman von Sanders appointment as a cause for war. McMeekin reveals that there was almost unanimous enthusiasm for provoking a European war over the Liman affair. However, whilst there was near certainty amongst the Ministers that Russia would be joined by England and France in such a war there were lingering doubts about whether London would stay out of the conflict if it was provoked at that point on such an issue. The Russian naval command warned that a unilateral amphibious assault would also be beyond them at that moment. It was determined, therefore, to resort to war only if “the active participation of both France and England in joint measures were assured.” (p.32)

The following month a joint army/navy meeting was convened that aimed to make a unilateral attack on Constantinople a possibility and a large subsidy was allocated to fund a Russian offensive against the Ottoman capital. However, there was general acceptance that such an operation could only be guaranteed success in conjunction with France and England in the context of a European war.

Although McMeekin has come across a significant fact here he does not choose to develop it.  The leverage that England had cultivated over Russia through the Entente is evident in the predicament Russia found herself in, in relation to Britain, and her heart’s desire at Constantinople.

McMeekin passes by Grey’s and Churchill’s laissez-faire dismissal of Russia’s complaints about British private companies contributing to the defence of the Straits without noting that the Royal Navy – the senior agency of the British State – was the primary contributor to the Ottoman defences.

A British double game

The obvious question – which McMeekin does not ask – is why Britain was contributing to the defences of the Straits when it understood for centuries that Constantinople was the heart’s desire of its new ally?

The reason is connected to the fact that Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been traditionally opposed to military conscription. Therefore, it would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself. It needed the large French army and the even larger Russian Army to do most of the fighting on the continent for it. The Russian Army was particularly important and it was described in the English press as a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers.

The problem for Britain was that the Russians (unlike the French who wanted to recapture Alsace/Lorraine after their loss to the Germans in 1871) had no real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something substantial had to be promised to the Czar for his help in destroying Germany. That something was his heart’s desire, Constantinople.

But at the same time leverage had to be maintained and the hand had to be kept in at the Ottoman capital. The Young Turks had entered into a naval agreement with Britain in which British dockyards took orders for Turkish battleships, under the supervision of Winston Churchill and the Admiralty, and a British naval mission was established at Constantinople. By 1914 the size of this naval mission was as large as the German military mission there, and they were looked on as a counter-balance to each other by the Turks. If it was said that Turkey had a military alliance with Germany in 1914 it could be equally said that she had a naval alliance with England.

The Turkish Government gave both England and France extraordinary positions of influence in its capital – positions that no other country with concern for its sovereignty would offer. They entrusted to Britain the most vital components of the defence of Constantinople – the re-organisation of their navy under Rear-Admiral Gamble and Admiral Limpus and an English Naval Mission, and the modernisation of the arsenal at the Golden Horn (Turkey’s centre of munitions) by Armstrong and Vickers. Admiral Limpus offered advice to the Turkish Admiralty on such matters as the location of mine fields in the Straits and mine laying techniques as well as torpedo lines.

It is not surprising that the British took on this constructive work, even though their longer term ambition was to destroy the Ottoman Empire. From the British interest it countered German influence at Constantinople, gave the English a unique, inside knowledge of the defences of the Turkish capital and controlling influence over the Turkish Navy – and made sure that the Russians, French and Germans did not possess such influence or information themselves. And when the English naval mission left those in charge of it were the first to suggest to Winston Churchill that Constantinople should be attacked, and how it should be, with all the inside information they had obtained.

But the naval mission also had a vital role to play in relation to England’s ally, Russia by keeping the Czar out of Constantinople until his steamroller was started, pointed westward and heading toward Berlin.

Enver Vindicated?

 The war against Germany got underway in August 1914 but unfortunately for Russia Turkey remained neutral.

The opportunity of finding a cause of war against Turkey developed after the Royal Navy forced two German ships (Goeben and Breslau) trapped in the Mediterranean into neutral Constantinople in early August. The German crews faced with the prospect of destruction if they re-entered the Aegean handed the ships over to the Turks. The Turks accepted them in place of the two battleships owed to them by Britain that Churchill had seized before war had even been declared on Germany.

Churchill proceeded to lay a blockade on the Dardanelles to prevent the ships coming out. This in itself was an act of war against Turkey. Then he organised a series of meetings in the first days of September to discuss a pre-emptive strike on Constantinople – to “Copenhagen” the city, as Nelson had done in destroying the Danish fleet in its port in neutral Denmark in 1801 before declaration of war. But the British Cabinet decided that diplomatic niceties had to be persevered with, particularly as things went badly in France and another enemy, at this juncture, would be better put off for the present.

McMeekin, although he doesn’t probably intend to, vindicates Enver’s policy when he sees things from the point of view of Russian aggression toward the Ottoman capital:

“Paradoxically, the arrival of the two German warships in Constantinople – at least after they had been transformed into ‘Turkish’ ships by Said Halim’s fictitious sale – likely delayed the onset of hostilities between Turkey and Russia for months. The reason should not be difficult to grasp… This made offensive operations supremely difficult, and rendered any kind of amphibious operation in the Bosphorous… well-nigh impossible. Had the Goeben not made it through the Allied Mediterranean screen against heavy odds the Russians might themselves have forced the issue.” (p.106)

This is a very good argument for what the Turks actually did in relation to the German battleships. If the Turks had refused entry to the battleships they would have been destroyed by the Royal Navy outside the Straits and this would have put an end to any hope of German protection in the event of a British war Russian attack on Istanbul. Whilst the German battleships were anchored in the Straits the Turks realised that they were open to attack by the Royal Navy. It was only through their conversion into ships of the Turkish Navy (replacing the two battleships which Churchill had earlier seized) that two birds were killed with one stone.

Firstly, the delicate problem of neutrality was solved. Secondly, the defence of Constantinople against Russian attack was secured. The combination of these two factors meant the preservation of Turkish neutrality in the Great War – at least in the short-term. This was an important achievement because in August 1914 it was not clear how long the war would last or whether the attention of the major combatants would just move elsewhere according to the passage of events in Europe. It therefore held out the possibility that the Ottoman Empire might survive the war that was meant to bring about its demise.

McMeekin argues that whilst “publicly, Girs (the Russian Ambassador at Istanbul), along with his British and French counterparts Louis Mallet and Morris Bompard, made a great show of desiring Ottoman neutrality… there is little chance the Russian diplomat was ever sincere about this.” (p.106) And McMeekin quotes a memorandum of Girs to his Foreign Office that states; “We need a strong boss ruling over Constantinople, and since we cannot let any other power assume this role, we must take her for ourselves. For us to accomplish this without waging war on Turkey would, of course, be impossible.” (p.98)

McMeekin does not say this was also the British position – through the implication that England was allied with Russia. It is unlikely that it will be found in any British archives.

But if England needed Russia against Germany and Russia had Constantinople as her price for assistance how can it be any other way than Britain required a war with Turkey. (There are other reasons why England wanted war on the Ottomans. Two of them were Mesopotamia and Palestine)

The Ottoman Cabinet, in order to preserve the Empire in the face of the war that was threatening its existence, did much ducking and diving and playing for time between September and October 1914.

On 5 August 1914 Enver made an offer to the Russians of demobilising the Turkish army in eastern Anatolia and dismissing the German military mission in Istanbul so that the Russians could reinforce their fronts against Germany and Austria. McMeekin comments,

“Here we have a precious glimpse into Russia’s real war aims. Given even the hypothetical chance of a rapprochement with Turkey, which would free up troops from the Caucasus to reinforce the European fronts, the architect of Russia’s mobilisation on those very fronts said no, absolutely not, because these fronts were no more important than the Caucasian one, even if the latter was still inactive. Sooner or later, Russia and Turkey would be at war, and the last thing Stavka (Russian command centre) wanted to do was deprive Tiflis command (Caucasus) of the troops it needed to fight.” (p.108)

The occasion for the Russian and British declarations of war was an obscure incident in the Black Sea where the two formerly German ships engaged Russian ships that were attempting to lay mines on the approaches to Constantinople to complete a blockade which the British had instituted at the other end of the Straits. The ships then engaged Russian ships at the port of Odessa where operations were taking place to prevent the Turks from being able to reinforce their Eastern provinces via the Black Sea – something that was indispensable to Ottoman forces due to the lack of a road network toward Eastern Anatolia.

The Czar’s declaration of war on Turkey explicitly mentioned the Russian objective with regard to Constantinople. The war would provide the opportunity to “open up Russia’s path towards the realisation of the historic task of her ancestors along the shores of Black Sea.” It was to be a holy war too waged for “the Christian faith” against the “Turkish hordes”. (p.114)

 Origins of the Gallipoli Assault

The problem for the Russians in relation to seizing Constantinople after the war had been declared on Turkey was that they did not have sufficient resources to accomplish this by themselves. The dreadnought-class Goeben had cancelled out any previous advantage Russia had in the Black Sea and made an amphibious assault on Istanbul very difficult. Also, Russian forces were only holding their own against the Germans and Austrians on the eastern front (Russia’s western front) and this made the diversion of Russian forces very difficult to accomplish.

The Russians, therefore, found themselves reliant on the British to realise their dream because it was only Britain which had the naval forces and sufficient military reserves to attack the Ottoman capital from the Aegean (French forces were also bottled up defending their homeland against the Germans).

When Grey met a Russian delegation in November 1914, a few days after the declarations of war on Turkey, his main fear was that Russia might divert troops into Persia. Before the war the British and Russians had divided up spheres of influence in Persia and England did not want the war to spread into the country as British troops moved into conquer Mesopotamia. Grey told the Russians that they should concentrate their efforts on the eastern front and that the question of Constantinople and that they need not worry – the Straits would be settled “in accordance with their interests”. On the same day the British Prime Minister, Asquith, made a public speech in which he stated that Turkey’s entry into the war had spelt “the death knell” for the Ottoman Empire. Less than a week later King George V told Benckendorff, the Russian Ambassador in London, that “as concerns Constantinople, it is clear that must be yours.” (p.123)

These were the first formal indications to the Russians that the British had ended their century’s long opposition to the Czar having Constantinople.

Sir Edward Grey then gave a pledge from the British Foreign Office that a settlement of the Constantinople issue “would be reached after defeat of Germany irrespective of whether Turkish rule is actually overthrown in the course of the hostilities now being conducted.” (p.124) McMeekin comments: “In effect, Britain’s Foreign Secretary had promised Russia Constantinople and the Straits, whether or not she contributed in any way to a military campaign that might conquer them.” (p.124)

McMeekin states:

We should pause for a moment here to consider the enormity of diplomatic revolution wrought by the end of November 1914. In the Crimean War, British troops had bled and died to prevent Russia from dismembering the Ottoman Empire. Following the Russo Ottoman war of 1877-78, Disraeli’s government had dispatched the British Mediterranean Fleet to deny Constantinople to the Russians… the maintenance of some kind of Ottoman buffer against the Russian threat had endured as a cardinal aim of British foreign policy right up to 1914, as illustrated by British fears of Russian incursions into Persia ostensibly justified by the Turkish threat there. And yet here were British statesmen openly advocating the total dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire so that Russia might have naval access to the Mediterranean – the urgent prevention of which had been a full-on British cassus belli as recently as 36 years ago.” (pp.124-5)

That is the background to the French and British assault on the Straits in March 1915 and the subsequent landings at Gallipoli later on. It struck me in writing ‘Britain‘s Great War on Turkey’ that there was more to it than that and McMeekin comes up with exactly the same understanding that I reached. The British and French, in attempting to capture Constantinople, were actually intending to hold it as a kind of hostage to prevent the Russians from ever making peace with Germany or Turkey. The Russian steamroller could be guaranteed against Germany by holding the Czar’s greatest prize in readiness for him in return for the continued commitment of his armies on the eastern front:

“The Dardanelles campaign represented the logical culmination of this pattern. With both Paris and London on perennial alert that Petrograd might cut a separate peace with Berlin, a Straits campaign had a compelling strategic logic for the Western allies, even if Petrograd stood to reap the principle reward. Certainly, the thinking went, the Russians would not waver in their commitment to the war while her alliance partners were endeavouring to win her Constantinople. At a minimum, such an amphibious campaign, launched to aid Russia, would improve Russian fighting morale. If it succeeded, it would open Russia’s year-round warm-water Black Sea ports for Western arms (and maybe also food) shipments.” (p.128)

Dividing the Ottoman spoils

 In March 1915 the Czar decided that the time had come to get his French and British allies to formally agree to the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. Sazanov coupled the Czar’s demands for Constantinople with a threat to the allies that if they did not agree he would resign and bring Sergei Witte (who was regarded as sympathetic to the Germans) into the government in order to cut a separate peace with Germany.

Grey used Sazanov’s threat to convince the British Cabinet to cut a deal with the Russians on Constantinople and finally give concrete form to the reversal of British foreign policy of a century. On 12 March 1915 the British Cabinet adopted the position of endorsing Russia’s Imperial claim to Constantinople and the Straits.

(For some reason or other McMeekin does not discuss or detail the secret Constantinople agreement of March 1915 that then took place between the Triple Entente. I have included this as an Appendix)

In early 1916 flesh was put on the bones of the Constantinople agreement through the Sykes-Picot agreement for the dividing up of the Ottoman spoils after the war. And McMeekin suggests that the real inspiration to this agreement from the British side was Kitchener’s fear that Russia would re-emerge as Britain’s primary antagonist after the world war was over. The idea, therefore, was to create a French buffer zone in between the old Great Game antagonists. Britain agreed to give France Syria, Lebanon, and Cilicia in exchange for French recognition of British primacy in Mesopotamia up as far as Mosul and the ports of Acre and Haifa as well as the whole of Arabia.

The final agreement that emerged gave Russia direct control over Constantinople and the area around the Straits. The Czar also received ‘Turkish Armenia,’ ‘Kurdistan’ and ‘Persian Azerbaijan’. France obtained Cilicia as far East as the Taurus Mountains and South to Beirut. The French also obtained an area of indirect control in compassing modern-day Syria and Northern Iraq. Most of the areas south of this, including the bulk of Mesopotamia became areas of direct and indirect British control.

Russia and the Armenians

McMeekin describes the relationship between the Russian State and the Armenian inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire from the time of the Armenian risings of 1894-6:

“Most commentators concede that Armenian Revolutionary groups deliberately aimed to enlist outside powers in their cause by staging provocations… and that outside powers did indeed take the Armenian side in 1895-6, even if none intervened in any effective way… the essential truth about Russian imperial foreign policy should not be surprising, considering the evidence of the Russo Ottoman war of 1877-78 and the First World War. However, the same policy was consistently followed in peacetime years in between these conflicts, with predictable – and revealing – upswings in the intensity of military planning during each successive Armenian crisis. It was precisely in order to piggyback on the Armenian uprisings of 1895-6 that Russia first began serious logistical research into the possibility of staging an amphibious operation at the Bosphorus… in the wake of internal Ottoman turmoil with unruly Christian minorities, Russian operational planning for seizing Constantinople was accelerated. These plans expressly specified that ‘agents from the Christian population’ would cut off rail lines to Constantinople… whereupon native Christians would ‘burn down all the wooden bridges spanning the Golden Horn and set fire to Stamboul’. A more explicit blueprint for using Armenians (and other Ottoman Christians) as a fifth column for an invading Russian army could scarcely be imagined.” (pp.145-6)

The quotations McMeekin uses are from a Russian General Staff memorandum produced just after the Young Turk revolution of 1908. The Russians saw the democratising of the Ottoman State as a sign of weakness and as an opportunity to be exploited. McMeekin discusses this earlier in his book:

“The fall of the last true Ottoman Sultan produced a kind of manic glee in the Russian General Staff, where wargaming for the occupation of Constantinople – which had largely ceased following the sinking of the Russian Baltic and Pacific fleets in the Russo Japanese war – now resumed with a vengeance. The mood at the time was well captured in a General Staff memorandum of October 1910 that outlines plans for seizing Constantinople: first the rail and telegraph lines to Adrianople and Ankara would be cut by ‘agents from the Christian population’, whereupon Russia-friendly Christians in the city would burn down all the wooden bridges spanning the Golden Horn and set fire to Stamboul – which predominantly Muslim district was, conveniently for Russian purposes, blanketed ‘almost without interruption with wooden houses’… The Christians of Pera would then rise, in coordination with a Russian amphibious landing. Once Russia’s Black Sea Fleet had secured the Straits, it would herald the annihilation of Turkish Dominion on the Balkan Peninsula.” (p.17)

 That was a very inflammatory programme considering the vast ethnic cleansing of Moslems that was to take place in the Balkans during the following years. And one way or another it was going to result in tragedy for the communities of the Ottoman Empire when it was attempted. (The subsequent Balkan Wars of 1912-13 did not fully realise the Russian programme of inter-ethnic mayhem in the Ottoman capital because the Bulgarians were halted short of Constantinople. However, similar events as those hoped for were to occur in Eastern Anatolia from 1915.)

McMeekin describes the complicated situation that existed in eastern Anatolia in the period just prior to the Great War:

“In a real sense, the whole disputed area of eastern Anatolia… where the Ottoman and Russian empires intersected with Persia, was on a permanent war footing long before 1914. Most Kurdish tribal chiefs were exceedingly well armed and virtually sovereign in the areas they roamed. Like nearly everyone else, they bought primarily Russian weapons. Christian townsmen, too, bought arms from the Russians… the great Kurdish tribal chiefs… generally had the rule of the roost, unless they were directly confronted by Ottoman or Russian troops, in which case they would simply flee to friendlier marauding pastures. The story of eastern Anatolia in this tense and dangerous time, then, was about far more than Turks and Armenians. One could claim that Kurdish nomads were consistently hostile to the Christian population, but for other generalisations about which groups were on which ‘side’ are hazardous… At times, armed Armenian groups inside the Ottoman Empire might even join forces with Turkish troops to pursue Kurdish chieftains who would wrong their people… Complicating the regional picture immeasurably were the opportunistic Russians, willing to work with anyone who might extend their influence. In the classic divide and conquer style Chorister’s Bridge (St Petersburg) cultivated close relations with Kurdish tribal chiefs and their Christian victims alike. Both groups were often at loggerheads with the Ottoman government, Russia’s primary antagonist… By thus promoting general mayhem, Kurdish nomads were the ideal Imperial tool. And the Russians were not loath to use them, sending arms, money, and even trade missions to Ottoman and Persian Kurds. So serious was Russia’s commitment that Kurdish language institutes were founded in Petersburg… Russian diplomats had to be careful with the Kurds. Periodic tribal skirmishes with Ottoman troops were one thing: summoning armies of 50,000 men was something else entirely, not least because their first target after routing Ottoman troops would almost certainly be Armenians and other Russia friendly Christians… The ideal scenario was simply to promote enough regional chaos to give Russia a pretext for intervening, with no single ethnic or religious group emerging to dominate the others.” (pp.147-9)

 This was the complex milieu that Russian and Anglo-French invasion and blockade imposed itself upon in 1915. It was something that could be easily set ablaze but not so easily controlled or extinguished.

Russia’s great Armenian Reform Campaign of 1913 was ironically conducted, according to McMeekin, as Ottoman troops and Dashnaks (Armenian revolutionary bands) combined to see off Kurdish raiders who were attacking Armenian villages. The Reform Campaign which made some unrealistic demands on the Ottomans in relation to imposing law and order without shedding blood culminated in the threat of Russian intervention in Ottoman territory if another ‘Armenian massacre’ occurred.

In late 1913/early 1914 a Kurdish rising occurred in Bitlis led by Mullah Selim. Tens of thousands of Kurds took to the field with the object of imposing Sharia Law in the area (to ‘put it up to’ the ‘impious’ C.U.P/Young Turks). When Ottoman troops were sent to disperse the Kurds Mullah Selim was given refuge by the Russian Consulate (where he remained until Russia declared war on the Turks in November 1914).

Perhaps in recognition of the Ottomans efforts at maintaining some measure of security, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation vowed support for the Ottoman Government against the Russians at their conference in August 1914 at Erzurum and the Dashnaks even sent a delegation to discourage Armenians from enrolling in the Czarist armies. But Russia was determined to make the Armenians into their fifth column.

Despite the Dashnak proclamation of loyalty to the Ottoman State, tens of thousands of Armenians deserted the Ottoman army and went over to the Russians even before war was declared on Turkey. In August 1914 (more than two months before war was declared on Turkey) the Russian Caucasian army asked for an extra 25,000 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to arm the Armenian bands being organised along the Ottoman frontier and began to smuggle arms into Ottoman territories so that Armenians could fight behind Ottoman lines when the time was right:

“The Russian army, then, actively sought to arm Ottoman Armenians even before Turkey entered the war, with the full co-operation of the Dashnaks, General Andranik, and Armenian leaders in Tiflis. So, too, was the Russian Foreign Office involved, and at the very highest level… Russia’s Foreign Minister recommended that Tiflis command begin arming Ottoman ‘Armenians and Assyrian Christians’ so that they could strike a blow for Russia as soon as Turkey entered the war. Crucially, Sazanov stipulated that the Armenians were ‘not to undertake anything without our instructions’, because ‘if they launched an uprising that was not supported by us, this would inflict an irreparable blow to our prestige’. (p.156)

McMeekin also reveals that whilst the Russian army command favoured an arming of the Kurds, Sazanov saw things in religious terms and insisted that Russia act simply as a Christian power against the Moslems. McMeekin comments:

“The Armenians were to be encouraged to achieve an essential foreign policy goal for Petrograd: the overthrow of Ottoman rule in eastern Anatolia. The Russians would offer all assistance to the Armenians in this endeavour… but they would do so only so long as they… acted in full obeisance to Russia’s instructions, so that Russia could reap the strategic benefit. Considering the human consequences… Sazanov’s carelessness about ends and means is almost breathtaking.”  (p.156)

The question of ‘genocide’

McMeekin’s argument is that the Russians were always incapable of following through on their promises and this was the main reason for the disaster that befell the Armenians:

 “The root of the Armenian catastrophe is not so much in the fact of treachery and collaboration, which was rampant among other groups on both sides, but rather in the gap between Russia’s enormous Imperial ambitions and her limited means for achieving them. The reform campaign of 1913-14 had left little doubt at the Porte that Russia aimed to annex Turkey’s six eastern provinces over which she had essentially declared proprietary interest, if not yet a formal protectorate. Likewise, the Dardanelles campaign and the diplomacy surrounding it – if not also the previous 500 years of history – made perfectly clear that Russia aimed to conquer Constantinople and the Straits. Any group inside Turkey rumoured to be aiding and abetting the Russians near either of these fronts would not simply be suspected of disloyalty, but likely relocated for reasons of urgent military necessity, as were the Ottoman Greeks from the Gallipoli peninsular in April to May 1915. That Armenians were eventually targeted in the same way is not the least bit surprising, considering how much the Ottomans stood to lose from defeat to the Russians.” (p.158)

Two events precipitated and provoked the Armenian relocations: the Gallipoli landings and what happened at Van. (Earlier in his book McMeekin blames the Russians for failing to aid the British at Gallipoli and therefore contributing to the disaster there.) McMeekin describes the events at Van to illustrate how Russian ambitions and their failure to realise them in time provoked the disaster that befell Armenian and Moslem alike:

“The rebellion at Van provides a perfect illustration of the Armenian tragedy… violent clashes between the Dashnaks and government forces in Van were reported as early as September 1914. On 24 September 1914, the Ottoman Third Army reported evidence that the Russians were smuggling weapons and ammunition across the border… all winter, the frontier areas passed with activity, as Armenian deserters, fleeing Van, crossed over to the Russians… February-March 1915 saw the first reports of significant rebel activity in Van, Bitlis, and Erzurum, including the cutting of telegraph wires, the detonation of bombs, attacks on Turkish army and police barracks, and… the ‘pillaging and destroying of Moslem villages’… On or about 13th to 14th of April 1915, the Turk’s worst nightmare came to pass, when partisans expelled government forces from Van erecting barricades around the city… the fighting was merciless, with Armenians despatching Moslems caught inside the town even while the Turks and Kurds were massacring Armenian civilians outside its walls… The first advance guard of Cossacks rode into town on 18 May 1915 – almost 5 weeks after the rebellion began. By this time, the city was in ruins, with it’s Armenian quarter bombed out by Ottoman artillery and the Moslem neighbourhoods raised to the ground by Armenian partisans. Tens of thousands of Armenians, Kurds and Turks alike had perished, the vast majority of them civilians… scarcely had the town’s reconstruction under Russian occupation begun before it was retaken by the Ottoman army in August 1915… the short lived and ultimately futile Armenian rebellion at Van had set in motion that whole terrible series of events about which historians still argue today.” (pp. 169-70)

Sean McMeekin concludes:

“By 18th of May 1915, when the first advance Cossack regiments of the Caucasian army finally made it as far as Van, Ottoman Armenians had already begun dying in droves for Russia’s hollow promises – as they would in even greater numbers after her half-hearted invasion of eastern Turkey swung into reverse that summer. One can hardly blame the Dashnaks and Hunchaks for arming themselves in self defence. Their error lay in expecting the Russian cavalry to arrive in time to protect them once the inevitably brutal counter-attack against their rebellion commenced. These revolutionaries, and the Ottoman Armenian civilians they claimed to represent, fell victim to Russia’s peculiar mixture of imperial greed and impotence, as the would-be liberatees of an army unable – or rather willing – to liberate them.” (p.174)

It is certainly the case that the Czarist State proved incapable of realising its dream and collapsed in pursuing it. And it is certainly the case that in instigating the Armenians to rebellion in order to provoke the collapse of the Ottoman State Russia led them on to disaster. The Armenians were used by England in a propagandist manner and by Russia as cannon-fodder as a means of destabilizing the Ottoman Empire and disrupting Turkish resistance behind the lines. There were, obviously, Armenian revolutionaries who are willing to participate in this process but its main effect was to make the ordinary Armenians’ position impossible within the Ottoman Empire. It was made impossible for them to remain a loyal community and a functional part of the Empire, which they had been for centuries.

Justin McCarthy’s book ‘Death and Exile – the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922’ describes the internal situation in eastern Anatolia as the Great War began.

The last decades of the Ottoman Empire had seen a significant extension of Ottoman power in Eastern Anatolia. Law and order had been established through renewed Ottoman military power in the region. However, when the Great War began these military forces withdrew and civil order began to end. Ottoman troops were withdrawn from garrisons in eastern and central Anatolia and sent to fight the Russians on the Caucasian border. Only a minimum of the gendarmerie remained to control the Kurdish tribes in the area remained. In theory, Kurdish tribesmen should have been conscripted into the Ottoman army but the Ottomans find this was more trouble than it was worth. The Ottomans would have had to employ considerable men and military forces to subdue the tribes in the middle of a war situation. The Kurdish tribesmen were not loyal or compliant citizens and they began to attack and pillage local villages, Christian and Moslem alike, when this Ottoman state apparatus was absent.

In the same areas in preparation for war Armenian revolutionaries had stored vast stockpiles of weapons, largely provided or paid for by the Russian army. When the war was declared, the Armenian revolutionaries mobilised and were joined by substantial numbers of Armenian deserters from the Ottoman army. Great internal migrations began to take place with Armenians and Moslems who lived in mixed villages migrating to purely Armenian or purely Moslem villagers and populations even began to cross Russian and Ottoman lines for safety.

Armenian revolts and attacks on Ottoman forces in various districts of the East were in full swing by May 1915. There were three sides in the battles and massacres. On one side were the settled Moslems (Turks Kurds and others) and the Ottoman military forces. On the other side were Armenians (and other native Christians) and the Russian army. On the third side were tribal Kurds, an essentially neutral force that pursued its own agenda, both attacking and cooperating with the Russian and Ottoman forces as the need arose. From the first, the war was distinguished by attacks on civilian populations from all sides. The innocent and peaceful on all sides were forced to fight in order to survive.

McCarthy details the extensive attacks that took place by Armenian bands on Moslem villagers and reproduces accounts of the killing, pillaging and rape that occurred before the relocations. He acknowledges that similar things happened to the Armenians. He stresses that the most dangerous situation for all communities occurred when state forces of either side, Ottoman or Russian, withdrew from an area and security began to break down. The Russian army tended to have a controlling influence on local Armenians but when they withdrew from an area the local Moslems became very vulnerable to massacre.

McCarthy says the following about the relocations:

The decision to force the Armenians to leave was sound in purely military terms, but it caused hardship and great mortality among them, and these were deplorable. Nevertheless, it did have the desired effect: Armenian Revolutionary attacks dwindled in areas still occupied by the Ottoman government… In the end, the Armenian deportations did reveal the Ottoman state as a failure in its ability to protect its own citizens – the most important aspect of any state. It was the weakness of the Ottoman state that forced it to choose between two groups of its citizens. The blame for the deaths of Armenians in the convoys must be shared by the Ottomans – shared with the Armenian revolutionaries and their supporters and with the Russians.” (pp.195-6)

Prof. McCarthy notes that the Ottoman relocations were the standard military response to guerrilla warfare behind the lines at the time. The British had used similar measures only a decade previously in South Africa to deal with Boer resistance. Tens of thousands of relocated civilians had died in British concentration camps. The difference between what the British did in South Africa and what the Ottomans attempted to do in eastern Anatolia in 1915 was that the Ottomans were confronted by a much stronger enemy and assault on their state. The Armenian relocations were conducted in a situation of external invasion, blockade, starvation, inter-community killing and general lawlessness of a collapsing state apparatus.

Prof. McCarthy produces figures (p.229) to show that the Moslem population of Eastern Anatolia declined by about one million people during the decade to 1922. He states that the exact number of deaths can never be accurately known (on all sides). But there is strong reason to believe that the number of Moslems (Turks and Kurds) and Armenian Christians who perished were comparable in the general mayhem that occurred.

The use of the word ‘genocide’ with regard to what happened to the Armenians during the Great War is an attempt to connect Turkey with Nazi Germany. However, a much better analogy would be that which happened on the Eastern Front during the Second World War when different groups of people became destabilized by the Nazi invasion of Russia. This is much closer to the events which McMeekin describes than what happened to the Jews between 1943 and 1945.

In the hinterland of war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia terrible things were done as state authority began to collapse, society began to return to its raw elemental condition and ordinary people struggled to survive in the circumstances. In 1915 the Russian and British invasions of the Ottoman Empire had a similar effect on the patchwork that was Eastern Anatolia. The Russians and British raised some people’s expectations so that they were willing to exact retribution on people they had grievances against and in turn those people exacted revenge on them. No one quite knew under whose authority they would exist when the war was over and as a consequence all restraint was removed on behaviour. It was under these circumstances and in this context that the relocation of the Armenians took place.

Essentially the responsibility for what happened to the Armenians and the other minorities that existed happily and peacefully within the Ottoman Empire for centuries must be placed at the hands of those who attempted to destabilize and ultimately destroy this multinational Empire. It was not in the Turkish interest that the Armenians should rebel and resort to war but it was very much in the Russian and British interests that they should do so. That both powers were ultimately unable to complete the task they set themselves left the Armenians in a situation not unlike that of the unfortunate East Prussians in 1945 (although it is not politic to show any sympathy for them).

Whose ‘genocide’?

Michael Reynolds’s book, Shattering Empires – The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918, makes some interesting points in relation to the context of the Armenian relocations:

“At the same time as the Van rebellion was unfolding, the Russians were entering from the East, the British pushing on Baghdad from the South, and, most ominously, the British and French were storming ashore at Gallipoli. The simultaneous attacks stretched the wobbling Ottoman army to breaking point. As the Unionists debated how to handle the Van uprising, an Ottoman colonel pointed to Russia’s expulsion of Moslems into Ottoman territory and urged a reciprocal expulsion of the rebels and their families either into Russian territory or into the interior of Anatolia… Small scale deportations of Armenians had begun in February, but it was the combination of the Van uprising and the landings at Gallipoli that triggered the decision to deport the Armenians en masse…

The decision to define whole populations as suspect and to uproot, expel, and relocate them was not particular to the Ottomans or Unionists. The manipulation of borderland populations was hoary imperial practice. In the 19th century, however, two things changed. The first was that, beginning in Europe, state institutions began to employ sciences such as statistics, sociology, and ethnography to vastly increase their capacity to identify, classify, and control population groups. The second was that these institutions, including armies, came to imagine ethnicity to be a key predictor of political behaviour. Armies anxiously trained ethnographers to advise on how to manage and exploit the ethnic identities of friendly or hostile populations alike. By the beginning of the 20th century, forced population exchange was emerging as an almost routine practice, one that many regarded as logical and even salutary… During World War I, Russia forcibly relocated not just Moslems from the border region in the Caucasus but also Germans and Jews by the hundreds of thousands on its Western front… Ottoman military officers referenced the Russian precedent in the Caucasus during the debate on how to respond to the uprising at Van…

 The destruction of the Armenians… must be understood as part of a nascent programme of ethnic homogenisation that involved the resettlement of a multitude of other population groups, including Moslem Kurds, Albanians, Circassians, and others in small, dispersed numbers so as to break up clan and tribal ties and facilitate assimilation… These measures were aimed at the long-term Turkification of Anatolia. This larger programme, in turn, was a direct response to the global order’s adoption of the national idea. If the legitimacy, and security, of state borders was dependent on the degree of correspondence to ethnographic lines, the Unionists would ensure that the latter conform to the former. They would reshape the square peg of Anatolia to fit the round hole the global order favoured…

 It is no coincidence that nearly half of the Unionist leadership came from the Balkan and Aegean borderlands, i.e. those territories that had witnessed repeated violent expulsions and massacres of Moslems and the establishment of nation states. Significantly, these men fostered no fantasies of irredentist in the Balkans. They nurtured no illusions about the relative power of the Ottoman state. Difficult though it must have been for them, they recognised that their homelands had been lost for good… Experience had taught them that the global community of states accorded no legitimacy to pluralistic and weak empires. As long as Anatolia remained ethnically pluralistic it would be vulnerable to subversion and partition. The homogenisation of Anatolia was the surest solution to the dilemma they faced.” (pp. 147-9)

The logical implication of this is that if what happened to the Armenians in 1915 is to be described as ‘genocide’ we must look much wider for those responsible than just the C.U.P. and Ottoman authorities directly responsible for relocating the Armenians. Firstly, there was the responsibility of the Anglo-French and Russian invasion forces whose arrival in May 1915 signaled that the destruction of the Ottoman Empire was a distinct probability. Secondly, there was the exportation from Europe of Social Darwinist ideas of race homogeneity as the ideal type for societies that undermined the old heterogeneous Ottoman attitude toward race that had promoted ‘live and let live’ in the Empire. Thirdly, there was the promotion of nationalism from Europe in order to destabilize the Ottoman State and make multi-ethnic units impossible.

I have not seen any evidence that the Ottoman State actively pursued a policy of religious homogeneity in 1915. Events from then to 1923 certainly resulted in the heterogeneous Ottoman State giving way to the largely homogeneous Turkish Republic.

In 1915 the Ottoman Empire was collapsing under the weight of problems that came to it from Europe and the C.U.P. looked for solutions to its predicament in that direction too. It had been a multi-ethnic state based on a healthy disregard for any notions of racial hierarchy. But what was being imposed upon it from the West, in the name of ‘progress’, was the requirement that society should be based on the nation state rather than a multi-ethnic/religious combination, with as much racial homogeneity as possible.

What happened to the Armenians in 1915 was qualitatively different from what had ever happened to that community before. And that can only be seen as being so because the Ottoman Empire was being assailed from without and within and being dissolved in the name of Western ‘progress’.

Sean McMeekin has an interesting section on Russian plans for the government of the Armenians. He relates that, despite the assistance given by Armenian revolutionaries to the Czarist forces, the Russians began to have doubts about how far they should trust the Armenians with any measure of autonomy:

“Armenian partisans, despite playing a certain useful role for the Russians at Van and Bitlis in 1915, had long since worn out their welcome at Tiflis’s command, which kept hearing about the atrocities they were committing against Moslems. ‘The Armenians,’ General Pechkov wrote on 29 June 1916, ‘have shown themselves to be a very cruel people. It appears they have massacred the Kurds without pity.’ The report spoke of rampant ‘lawlessness and looting’ by Armenian volunteer units, which were now disbanded by direct order of Grand Duke Nicholas himself. Another decree from Tiflis’s command imposed ‘strict censorship on Armenian publications’… In a letter dispatched from Tiflis on 27th of June 1916, Sazanov reminded Grand Duke Nicholas that Russia had pushed for greater Armenian autonomy – under Ottoman rule – during the reform campaign of 1913-14. But now the Armenians were under Russians suzerainty, things looked different… Sazanov noted that ‘the Armenians nowhere constitute a majority’ in the area he called Greater Armenia – particularly after the deportations of 1915. Armenians now comprised, even in the areas of their greatest concentration, at most 25% of the population. In view of this fact, for Russia to grant Armenian autonomy ‘would mean unjustly enslaving the majority to the minority.’ Tensions between Christians and Moslems would explode yet again, this time in Russia’s face instead of Turkey’s. An enduring peace would only be possible, Sazanov argued, if the Czarist government could rule ‘ on the basis of its own laws, its own system of justice, and with complete impartiality towards all national elements in the land’…  The only concession Russia’s Foreign Minister was willing to grant Armenians was to allow them to use their own language and to run their own churches and schools… Grand Duke Nicholas agreed to all of these stipulations.” (pp. 211-2)

I think this confirms the view that it was the attempted destruction of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire with its delicate balance of order between the patchwork of peoples that inhabited it that led to disaster for Balkan Moslems and Jews, Anatolian Greeks and Armenians and many more besides. It was possible that a Russian victory and the reincorporation of these peoples in another multi-ethnic state might have preserved the balance in a new form leading to some kind of stability. But that is the stuff of counterfactual conjecture. The Russian Revolution saved the Ottomans in the East and closed off this possibility for good.

Sean McMeekin has now written two books attributing blame for the Great War. The first argued for the guilt of the Germans and Ottomans. The second blames the Russians. Perhaps another would make him ‘third time lucky’ but it is also unlikely.


Appendix: Correspondence between the partners of the Triple Entente for the secret Constantinople Agreement of March 1915 (as later revealed by the Bolsheviks):

Aide-mémoire from Russian Foreign Minister to British and French ambassadors at Petrograd, 19 February / 4 March 1915

“The course of recent events leads His Majesty Emperor Nicholas to think that the question of Constantinople and of the Straits must be definitely solved, according to the time-honoured aspirations of Russia.

“Every solution will be inadequate and precarious if the city of Constantinople, the western bank of the Bosphorus, of the Sea of Marmara and of the Dardanelles, as well as southern Thrace to the Enez-Midye line, should henceforth not be incorporated into the Russian Empire.

“Similarly, and by strategic necessity, that part of the Asiatic shore that lies between the Bosphorus, the Sakarya River and a point to be determined on the Gulf of Izmit, and the islands of the Sea of Marmara, the Imbros Islands and the Tenedos Islands must be incorporated into the (Russian) Empire

“The special interests of France and Great Britain in the above region will be scrupulously respected.

“The Imperial Government entertains the hope that the above consideration will be sympathetically received by the two Allied Governments. The said Allied Governments are assured similar understandings on the part of the Imperial Government for the realization of plans which they may frame with reference to other regions of the Ottoman Empire or elsewhere.”

British aide-mémoire to the Russian Government, 27 February / 12 March 1915

“Subject to the war being carried on and brought to a successful conclusion, and to desiderata of Great Britain and France in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere being realised, as indicated in the Russian communication herein referred to, His Majesty’s Government will agree to the Russian Government’s aide-mémoire relative to Constantinople and the Straits, the text of which was communicated to His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador by his Excellency M. Sazonof on February 19 / March 4 instant.”

British Memorandum to the Russian Government, 27 February / 12 March 1915

“His Majesty’s Ambassador has been instructed to make the following observations with reference to the aide-mémoire which this Embassy had the honour of addressing to the Imperial Government on February 27 / March 12, 1915.

“The claim made by the Imperial Government in their aide-mémoire of February 19 / March 4, 1915, considerably exceeds the desiderata which were foreshadowed by M. Sazonof as probable a few weeks ago. Before His Majesty’s Government have had time to take into consideration what their own desiderata elsewhere would be in the final terms of peace, Russia is asking for a definite promise that her wishes shall be satisfied with regard to what is in fact the richest prize of the entire war. Sir Edward Grey accordingly hopes that M. Sazonov will realise that it is not in the power of His Majesty’s Government to give a greater proof of friendship than that which is afforded by the terms of the above-mentioned aide-mémoire.

“That document involves a complete reversal of the traditional policy of His Majesty’s Government, and is in direct opposition to the opinions and sentiments at one time universally held in England and which have still by no means died out. Sir Edward Grey therefore trusts that the recent general assurances given to M. Sazanov have been most loyally and amply fulfilled. In presenting the aide-mémoire now, His Majesty’s Government believe and hope that a lasting friendship between Russia and Great Britain will be assured as soon as the proposed settlement is realised.

“From the British aide-mémoire it follows that the desiderata of His Majesty’s Government, however important they may be to British interests in other parts of the world, will contain no condition which could impair Russia’s control over the territories described in the Russian aide-mémoire of February 19 / March 4, 1915.

“In a view of the fact that the Constantinople will always remain a trade entrepot for South-Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, His Majesty’s Government will ask that Russia shall, when she comes into possession of it, arrange for a free port for goods in transit to and from non-Russian territory. His Majesty’s Government will also ask that there shall be commercial freedom for merchant-ships passing through the Straits, as M. Sazanov has already promised.

“Except in so far as the naval and military operations on which His Majesty’s Government are now engaged in the Dardanelles may contribute to the common cause of the Allies, it is now clear that these operations, however successful, cannot be of any advantage to His Majesty’s Government in the final terms of peace. Russia alone will, if the war is successful, gather the direct fruits of these operations. Russia should therefore, in the opinion of His Majesty’s Government, not now put difficulties in the way of any Power which may, on reasonable terms, offer to co-operate with the Allies. The only Power likely to participate in the operations in the Straits is Greece. Admiral Carden has asked the Admiralty to send him more destroyers but they have none to spare. The assistance of a Greek flotilla, if it could have been secured, would thus have been of inestimable value to His Majesty’s Government.

“To induce the neutral Balkan States to join the Allies was one of the main objects which His Majesty’s Government had in view when they undertook the operations in the Dardanelles. His Majesty’s Government hope that Russia will spare no pains to calm apprehensions of Bulgaria and Roumania as to Russia’s possession of the Straits and Constantinople being to their disadvantage. His Majesty’s Government also hope that Russia will do everything in her power to render the co-operation of these two States an attractive prospect to them.

“Sir E. Grey points out that it will obviously be necessary to take into consideration the whole question of the future interests of France and Great Britain in what is now Asiatic Turkey; and, in formulating the desiderata of His Majesty’s Government with regard to the Ottoman Empire, he must consult the French as well as the Russian Government. As soon¸ however, as it becomes known that Russia is to have Constantinople at the conclusion of the war, Sir E. Grey will wish to state that throughout the negotiations, His Majesty’s Government have stipulated that the Mussulman Holy Places and Arabia shall under all circumstances remain under independent Mussulman dominion.

“Sir E. Grey is as yet unable to make any definite proposal on any point of the British desiderata; but one of the points of the latter will be the revision of the Persian portion of the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 so as to recognize the present neutral sphere as a British sphere.

“Until the Allies are in a position to give to the Balkan States, and especially to Bulgaria and Roumania, some satisfactory assurance as to their prospects and general position with regard to the territories contiguous to their frontiers to the possession of which they are known to aspire; and until a more advanced stage of the agreement as to the French and British desiderata in the final peace terms is reached, Sir E. Grey points out that it is most desirable that the understanding now arrived at between the Russian, French, and British Governments should remain secret.”

French Ambassador in Petrograd to Russian Foreign Minister, 1/14 March 1915

“I should be grateful to Your Excellency for informing His Imperial Majesty that the Government of the French Republic, having studied the conditions of the peace to be imposed on Turkey, would like to annex Syria together with the region of the Gulf of Alexandretta and Cilicia up to the Taurus (mountain) range. I should be happy to inform my government, without delay¸ of the Imperial Government’s consent.”

Russian Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs to Russian Foreign Minister, 2/15 March 1915

“The French Ambassador has told me that it is his impression that Syria “includes Palestine”. I deemed it useful to remind him that there is in Jerusalem an independent governor.”

Russian Foreign Minister to Russian Ambassador in Paris, 3/16 March 1915

“After arrival at General Headquarters, the French Ambassador informed me of the contents of Declassee’s telegram which asks for consent by Russia to the annexation of Syria and Cilicia by France. Paleologue explains that in his opinion the French Government refers also to Palestine when speaking of Syria. However, since in this telegram there is no question of Palestine, it would be desirable to elucidate whether the explanation of the Ambassador really corresponds to the view of the French Government. This question appears important to us; for, if the Imperial Government should be prepared largely to satisfy France’s desires concerning Syria and Cilicia proper, it is indispensible to study the question with closer attention, if the Holy Places are involved.”

Russian Foreign Minister to Russian Ambassador in Paris, 5/18 March 1915

“On 23 February, the Ambassador of France declared to me, in the name of his Government, that France was prepared to consider in the most benevolent manner the realization of our desires relative to Constantinople and the Straits, which I explained to you in my telegram No. 937 and for which I charged you to express my gratitude to M. Delcasse. In these earlier conversations with you Delcasse had assured us several times that we could count on the sympathy of France and had simply pleaded the necessity of elucidating the attitudes of England, from whom he feared objections, before he could himself give more formal assurances in the sense already indicated.

“Now, today, the British Government has expressed to us in writing its full accord in the matter of the annexation by Russia of the Straits and Constantinople within the boundaries fixed by us; it has simply formulated one reservation concerning the safeguard of its economic interests and an equally benevolent attitude on our part toward the political aspirations of England in other areas.

“Insofar as it concerns me personally, the assurance received from Delcasse is amply sufficient, because of the complete confidence that he inspires in me; but the Imperial Government would desire the French Government to issue more precise declarations like [those of the] British Government regarding its assent to the complete realization of our desires.”

Russian Foreign Minister to Russian Ambassador in London, 7/20 March 1915

“Referring to the memorandum of the British Embassy here of 12 March¸ will you please express to Grey the profound gratitude of the Imperial Government for the complete and definitive approval of Great Britain to a solution of the question of the Straits and Constantinople that satisfies Russia’s desires. The Imperial Government appreciates fully the sentiments of the British Government and is convinced that the sincere recognition of their respective interests will guarantee in perpetuity firm friendship between Russia and Great Britain. Having already given assurances respecting the commercial regime in the Straits and Constantinople, the Imperial Government sees no objection to confirming its assent to the establishment (1) of free transit through Constantinople for all goods not deriving from or destined for Russia and (2) free passage through the Straits for merchant vessels.

“With a view to facilitating the capture of the Dardanelles undertaken by the Allies, the Imperial Government will endeavour to obtain the intervention on reasonable terms of those states whose help is considered useful by Great Britain and France.

“The Imperial Government completely shares the view of the British Government on the maintenance of the Muslim Holy Places under an independent Muslim government. It is necessary to elucidate at once whether [those places] will remain under the suzerainty of Turkey, the Sultan retaining the title of Caliph, or it is contemplated to create new independent states, in order to permit the Imperial Government to formulate its views in full knowledge of the case. For its parts the Imperial Government desires that the Caliphate should be separated from Turkey. In any case, the freedom of pilgrimage must be completely secured.

“The Imperial Government confirms its assent to the inclusion of the neutral zone of Persia in the English sphere of influence. At the same time, however, [the Imperial Government] regards it as equitable to stipulate that the districts adjoining the cities of Isfahan and Yazd, forming with them an inseparable whole, should be reserved for Russia in view of the interests that Russia possesses there; a part of the neutral zone which now forms a wedge between the Russian and Afghan frontiers and touches Russia’s frontier at Zulfiqar, must also be included in the Russian sphere of influence.

“Railway construction in the neutral zone constitutes for the Imperial Government a question of capital significance that will require further amicable discussion.

“The Imperial Government expects that in the future its full liberty of action will be recognized in the sphere of influence thus delimited and that in particular it will enjoy the right preferentially [to develop] its financial and economic policy.

“Finally, the Imperial Government considers it desirable simultaneously to solve the question of northern Afghanistan adjoining Russian in conformity with the wishes expressed on the subject by the Imperial Government in the course of negotiations last year.”

Note verbale from French Ambassador at Petrograd to Russian Foreign Minister, 28 March / 10 April 1915

“The Government of the Republic will give its agreement to the Russian aide-mémoire addressed by M. Isvolsky to M. Delcasse on 6 March last relating to Constantinople and the Straits, on condition that war shall be prosecuted until victory and that France and Great Britain realise their plans in the Orient as elsewhere, as it is stated in the Russian aide-mémoire.”









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The Events of 1915 in Eastern Anatolia in the Context of Britain’s Great War on the Ottoman Empire.


A Talk given by Dr. Patrick Walsh at the London School of Economics on February 15th 2013

The events that occurred in Eastern Anatolia in 1915 should be located in a broader context than simply that of Turk against Armenian. Both Turks and Armenians were, after all, actors in a much wider drama that was unfolding in the world and any judgement about their actions can only be made with the knowledge that they were caught up in circumstances that were not of their choosing and were largely beyond their control.

Even Atatürk was an actor in this great drama imposed from outside by the Imperialist Powers – although he succeeded in assuming a leading role in it and writing a different ending to the script that was intended for the Turks by its authors.

The context of what happened to the Armenians in 1915 is left out of consideration in most discussions. An event can only be understood in relation to other events in history within the context of cause and effect. If other events are extracted then historical understanding is impossible. But it seems that this is the objective of people who wish to replace historical understanding with legal argument in deciding about such events.

Geoffrey Robertson QC wishes for historians to stop discussing the Armenian tragedy altogether. He recently declared in Yerevan that: “The historians have completed their mission, now it is the time for judges, who will demand proper punishment for guilt and compensation for the Genocide victims. It is no longer a subject of historians but judges.”  And in the ‘New Statesman’ of 10th December 2009 Robertson made it clear that the case, for him, is already closed: “… genocide is a matter for legal judgment, not a matter for historians, and there is no dispute about the Armenian genocide among legal scholars.” 

Robertson is an advocate of ‘International Law.’ At the end of the day law is policy. It is, in effect, the foreign policy of the big states in the world. By reducing the event of ‘genocide’ to law one is making it into a subjective judgement of the big states and a weapon of foreign policy to gain leverage on other states. The nature of an event and whether or not it constitutes ‘genocide’ is therefore rendered incapable of being measured in any objective way. In such circumstances it is reduced to a mere slogan.

I do not share Robertson’s faith in International Law. It seems to me to be applied only when it suits the Western Powers and forgotten about when it does not. It is overwhelmingly used to keep the ‘lesser states’ of Africa and Asia in order and to subvert their sovereignty and independence when the West sees it in its interest to do so.

International Law is applied to the ‘lesser states’ by the ‘superior’ states who appear to be above it themselves. In many ways it is the old ‘civilizing’ mission of Imperialism in a new guise of ‘ethical foreign policy’.

Something that is so partially and inconsistently applied cannot be taken seriously as having moral credibility. And if you take this kind of law seriously at all it is surely debased through its arbitrary application. So I prefer to trust in the historians.

What constitutes ‘genocide’ has, therefore, become a subjective matter – indeed, a matter for policy about whether it would be in the interests of the dominant states in the world whether some event should be termed ‘genocide’ or not for political advantage. And it is being ruled out as a matter of historical fact or a subject for historical investigation.

Reorientation of British Foreign Policy

First of all, let us make no mistake about the single most important event that made what happened in Eastern Anatolia a possibility – the 1907 agreement between England and Russia that prepared the way for the Great War of destruction on Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

For England the war on Ottoman Turkey, which resulted in the Armenian massacres, came about from a revolutionary change of policy at the start of the 20th century. England had acted as an ally of the Ottoman Empire for most of the century before the Great War when Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman State as a giant buffer zone between its Indian Empire and the expanding Russian Empire. It was part of what was known as the ‘Great Game’ in England that ‘the Russians should not have Constantinople’ and the warm water port and access to the Mediterranean that this would have given them.

What completely changed British relations with Ottoman Turkey was the emergence of Germany as a serious commercial rival around the end of the 19th century. Britain had since 1688 practiced a ‘Balance of Power’ policy with regard to Europe. For centuries it had built its empire by keeping Europe divided and by giving military assistance to the lesser powers against any power that might be emerging on the continent. Then, whilst Europe was preoccupied with war England was able to get on with its business of conquering the rest of the world. It had the great advantage of being an island and therefore it could meddle with Europe and then retire from the continental battlefield and let others continue the fighting when enough had been gained. Its chief weapon of war, its Senior Service, was the Royal Navy, which established and controlled the world market for it. When the continent of Europe was at war the Royal Navy took over markets established elsewhere by the other European powers and in this way the British Empire went from strength to strength, both economically and in terms of expansion.

During the 19th century Britain’s traditional enemy in Europe had been France and her traditional rival in Asia was Russia. However, in the early years of the 20th century England gradually came to the conclusion that Germany was the coming power to be opposed. Therefore, it was decided to overturn the foreign policy of a century and to establish alliances with England’s traditional enemies, France and Russia, so that Germany could be encircled and then when war came about Britain would join the conflict and destroy Germany as a commercial rival. The alliance that Britain entered into with Russia in 1907, therefore, was the single most important event that made a British war on Ottoman Turkey inevitable.

This is where Russia came into the equation. As I have said, Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been opposed to military conscription. It would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself. Therefore, it needed the large French army and the even larger Russian Army to do most of the fighting on the continent for it. The Russian Army was particularly important and it was described in England as a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers.

The problem for Britain was that the Russians (unlike the French who wanted to recapture Alsace/Lorraine after their loss to the Germans in 1871) had little real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something had to be promised to the Czar for his help in destroying Germany. That something was his heart’s desire, Constantinople.

That fact should always be borne in mind when people suggest that Turkey brought the war on itself. The fact of the matter was that in order to defeat Germany Britain had to promise Constantinople to Russia and in order for the Russians to get Constantinople there had to be a war on Turkey.

Turkish historians are not alone in having overlooked the role of the famous British statesman, Maurice Hankey in these events. Hankey conducted extensive spying operations on behalf of Royal Naval Intelligence in the summer of 1907 based on the contingency that Britain would soon be at war with Germany and Turkey.

Hankey and his colleagues scrutinized the harbours and naval defences of the Ottoman Empire from Syria, through to Smyrna and Istanbul, up to Trabzon on the Black Sea. He surveyed, in particular, the coastal defences of the Dardanelles with an amphibious landing at Gallipoli in mind, to follow up a report of the Committee of Imperial Defence entitled ‘The Possibility of a Joint Naval and Military Attack upon the Dardanelles’ which had been produced in December 1906. And it was Hankey as Secretary to the CID who first proposed to the British War Cabinet in December 1914 that the pre-war plans should be put into operation as soon as possible.

The alliance with Russia was obviously the main factor that spelled trouble for the Ottoman Empire. But it was not the only factor that encouraged Britain to overturn her traditional foreign policy.

Britain began to show an increasingly aggressive attitude in relation to Istanbul as Germany showed interest in the Ottoman Empire. What worried Britain about the German involvement with the Ottoman Empire was that it was not the parasitic relationship of the other Imperialist powers. The German objective seems to have been to rejuvenate and modernize the Ottoman Empire, partly through the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, in exchange for commercial rights there. England and Russia had seen the Ottoman Empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and they had been waiting around for his death but now they looked on as Germany threatened to revive the ‘sick man’, and dash their dreams of conquest.

This great reorientation of British foreign policy had serious consequences for not only the Ottoman Turks but also for the Armenians. Prior to 1907 it was the Russians alone who wished to exploit the Armenians for political ends and the Armenians always had to consider the likelihood that if they rose in revolt Britain would restrain the Russians from taking advantage of the situation – and any uprising would be crushed without foreign help. The Russians complained that they were stopped in assisting the Armenians because of the Cyprus Convention of 1878 between Britain and the Ottoman Sultan. This guaranteed a British war on Russia if the Czar moved into Ottoman territory in return for Cyprus being occupied by Britain.

But this all changed in 1907. Under the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907 England and Russia agreed an immediate partition of Persia between them and envisaged a future partition of the Ottoman Empire in which the eastern provinces would go to Russia and Mesopotamia would go to Great Britain. Later, once Russia had shown its commitment to the war on Germany, in the secret Constantinople agreement of March 1915, the Ottoman capital which the British described as ‘the greatest prize of the war’ was awarded formally to the Czar.

Russian annexation of the eastern Ottoman provinces became the common program of Great Britain and Russia alike. (The fact must be emphasized that there has never been any Russian population in these provinces and that the Armenians constituted Russia’s only ground for intervention and eventual annexation.)

The pre-War Armenian revolts illustrate this point very well. In 1894-6 The Armenian nationalists believed they had got signals that the intervention of the Great Powers would take place if they could provoke the Ottomans into a harsh reaction. They attempted to do this but found that Britain had not changed its position at this point and Russia, therefore, could not act. In 1909 in Adana there were further raised expectations of foreign intervention amongst Armenian groups. However, Britain needed the preservation of the Ottoman Empire until Russia was prepared to advance against Germany in a European war. The result was disaster for the Armenians after they had initiated killings in the hope of foreign intervention only to be left to face the consequences of their actions from their neighbours, alone.

By 1914-5 England was in alliance with the Czar and all restraint was removed from Russia and the Armenian nationalists. Mayhem and mutual killings were instigated in the Ottoman Empire by the Entente Powers to bring about its collapse and to facilitate the absorption of its parts into the empires of Britain, France and Russia. In a general war situation which threatened the very existence of the State in which the Armenians lived and which forced them to choose between it and their deliverance by the Great Powers catastrophe for either them or for local Moslems was always going to be the most likely outcome.

Position of the Armenians

As I have said, the context is all-important.  The Russians and the other Entente Powers had every interest in stirring up Armenian rebellion to further their war effort while the Ottomans had every interest in preserving good relations with the Armenians.  Sean McMeekin’s book ‘The Russian origins of the First World War’ describes a 1908 Russian General Staff memorandum expressly specifying that ‘agents from the Christian population’ would cut off rail lines to Constantinople… whereupon native Christians would ‘burn down all the wooden bridges spanning the Golden Horn and set fire to Stamboul’. McMeekin comments: “A more explicit blueprint for using Armenians (and other Ottoman Christians) as a fifth column for an invading Russian army could scarcely be imagined.” (p.146)

Intention is a very important element in judging the nature of an event. The Ottomans had no objective interest in creating an Armenian ‘genocide’.  Their interest lay in maintaining the Armenians as a loyal and functional community within the Ottoman State and the C.U.P. would undoubtedly have preferred it if the Armenians had remained that way.

The breakdown in Ottoman State infrastructure and authority caused by the British blockade and by the invading Allied armies was the major factor in turning the position of Armenians and other Christian groups from one of mainstays of the commercial infrastructure of the Ottoman Empire and “the loyal community” into a problematic element within it. And since the objective of the Allies was the destruction of the commercial life of the Ottoman State through invasion and blockade what future, indeed, had the Armenians in it?

Lately I came across a speech by T.P. O’Connor made in the House of Commons during the debate on the Treaty of Lausanne. O’Connor was one of the last remaining pro-Imperialist Irish MPs left in the British Parliament after the Irish Party had been smashed by Sinn Fein in the 1918 General Election. He made an impassioned plea on behalf of the establishment of an Armenian state in Anatolia, which, he said, had been abandoned in the Treaty signed by the British Empire with the resurgent Turks.

The bulk of O’Connor’s speech is taken up with quotations expressing British support for the Armenians during the war and detailing the betrayal of the Armenians by the Entente after it. However O’Connor also credits the Armenians with having played a vital role in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, despite attempts by the Turks to gain their loyalty. It is interesting in relation to the matter of context. O’Connor said:

 “Let us trace what happened to the Armenians during the War. Turkey was in a tight place. She made every effort to obtain the support, or at least the quiescence, of the Armenians. She offered them autonomy when assembled at a National Congress in 1914. She applied the condition that the Armenians should join Turkey in carrying on the War against the Allies. The offer of autonomy was, of course, very attractive, but the Armenians declined to accept it… Not only did the Armenians refuse this insidious offer, but they actually sent 200,000 Armenian soldiers to fight the battle of Russia, then one of our Allies, and it was their splendid resistance, when The Russian army broke down, to the Turks in the Caucasus which helped us finally to win the War. I believe I am right in saying that nearly 200,000 Armenian soldiers lost their lives fighting for the Allies during the War. If it makes no appeal to our humanity, I think that enormous sacrifice in face of immense temptations gives the Armenians a supreme right to our gratitude…” (House of Commons Debates, 28 March 1923)

 As O’Connor states whilst the Ottomans attempted to retain the loyalty and service of the Armenians with concessions the Entente Powers sought to use them in their destruction of the Ottoman State. And when the Armenians were no longer useful and Atatürk had established Turkey as a power to be reckoned with, the Entente just left them high and dry.

Unfortunately for the Armenians, they, like other peoples in strategically important areas during 1914-18 found themselves being used as pawns in a new ‘Great Game.’ After being encouraged to insurgency and to try to form themselves into a national entity (that was never a practicality given their dispersion across Ottoman territories) they were quickly discarded and forgotten when their interests no longer coincided with those of their Great Power sponsors.

Edward Frederick Knight, the famous journalist from ‘The Times’ of London wrote in 1910: “Armenia is now but a geographical expression, and ancient Armenia has been partitioned between Turkey, Russia, and Persia. The Armenians in Turkish Armenia are vastly outnumbered by the Moslem population; and the creation of an independent Armenian principality, desired by a section of the revolutionists, was obviously an impracticable scheme. The more sensible Armenians realised that the only alternative for the rule of Turkey was that of Russia, and the experience of their brethren across the border had proved to them that, of the two, the rule of Turkey was to be preferred; for under it they enjoyed a measure of racial autonomy and various privileges — much restricted… which the Russian Government, ever bent on the Russianisation of the nationalities subject to it, would certainly have denied to them.” (‘The Awakening of Turkey’, p.80)

The Armenian nationalists relied upon external forces as the only means of creating an Armenian state within Ottoman territories. This was because they were a relatively small minority in Eastern Anatolia, constituting only about 1 in 6 of the population of the Ottoman lands they claimed. Only through outside help from a Great Power and extensive ethnic cleansing of their Moslem neighbours could they achieve their nationalist objective.

The two main uses that Britain had for the Armenians were: firstly, to encourage American participation in the war and secondly, to cultivate and construct a case against the Ottomans in order to justify the incorporation of Moslem lands into the British Empire after the war.

These were the primary interests of Britain in them and not their well-being or that they should be governed well. That can be seen in the way Britain failed to press the Armenian case after they had acquired Mesopotamia and Palestine and how they put the Blue Book (Lord Bryce and Arnold Toynbee’s account of the ‘Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire’) back on the shelf, perhaps for use on a future day.

After the Great War Britain had it in her power to bring about an Armenian state and to try those it had accused and detained in connection with the deaths of Armenians. But, despite attempting many things in the world that were immensely more difficult at the time it decided not to follow through with these two measures, as if it did not take the claims it made against the Turks as seriously as it pretended to, during the war.

Genocide and extermination

The Armenians did not possess land or resources required by the Ottoman Turks for any colonial programme. The major area in which they lived was mainly of interest to the Ottomans because it contained substantial numbers of Turkish and Kurdish Moslems. This can be compared with cases in other places in the world where natives were in possession of territory which Britain and the other Imperial powers required for their empires.  I am thinking of North America and Australia, particularly.

The policy of extermination of ‘inferior’ races that Britain carried out in the name of progress was openly proclaimed by Charles Dilke and many other important Imperial writers in the 19th Century. Dilke stated frankly and proudly in his immensely popular book ‘Greater Britain’ that the Anglo-Saxon race was the most effective genocidal force in world history: “The English everywhere attempt to introduce civilisation, or to modify that which exists, in a rough-and-ready manner which invariably ends in failure or ends in the destruction of the native race… A gradual extinction of the inferior races is not only a law of nature, but a blessing to mankind… The Anglo-Saxon is the only extirpating race on earth. Up to the commencement of the now inevitable destruction of the Red Indians of Central North America, of the Maoris, and of the Australians by the English Colonists, no numerous race had ever been blotted out by an invader.” (p.223.)

The word ‘extirpation’ is a much stronger word than the word ‘genocide.’ ‘Extirpation’ means the intentional and planned, total and utter destruction of a race. ‘Genocide,’ according to Article II of the 1948 Convention is a much wider legal concept under which practically all of the European nations could be charged for their activities between 1941 and 1946, when various peoples settled accounts with each other and vast amounts of ethnic cleansing and killing were done. But there does not seem to be any will to engage in such a process.

In effect, the word ‘genocide’ has meant the partial destruction of a people since ‘extirpated’ people no longer exist to commemorate their destruction.

Nothing like the ‘extirpation’ practiced by European colonialism is applicable to the Ottoman State in relation to the Armenians or any other minority within the territory of the Empire. In fact, the Ottomans were criticized by British writers for their easy-going tolerance of races which, it was suggested, was leading to the demise of their empire. The British Social Darwinists were, in particular, appalled at the way the Ottomans had inter-married and incorporated other races into the governing of their empire and had blended aspects of their cultures into the Ottoman mix. In those days of Empire the British believed in a distinct racial hierarchy and saw ‘race-mixing’ as an abomination and fatal to the ‘racial stock.’

Nationalism and War in the Near East’  by George Young, ‘A Diplomatist,’ edited by Lord Courtney of Penwith, and published by Oxford University Press in 1915 (at the time of the Armenian relocations) is a good example of this argument. The British and Ottoman Empires were seen as having entirely different notions of race and governing. It was argued that the British Empire was successful because it was founded on the principle of racial and religious distinction and hierarchy whereas the Ottomans played ‘fast and loose’ with these categories to the extent that, in the English biological view, they contravened the ‘laws of nature’, leading to an inevitable Ottoman extinction.

Arnold Toynbee in his famous work ‘Study of History’ argued that the Anglo-Saxon inclination toward ruthless extermination of other races was due to the inspiration that the savage Old Testament of the Christian Bible had on Protestant powers like England and America. He noted that Catholic Imperial powers, like Spain and Portugal, tended to try to convert subject races to Catholicism before inter-breeding with them. England rejected such a policy in the name of racial superiority and the preservation of a master race of Empire.

Such ideas, that were prevalent in the Anglo-Saxon notion of ‘progress,’ would have been seen as inexplicable to the Ottoman Turk.

A few years ago the British historian, A.J.P. Taylor reviewing a book about the Irish Famine of 1847/8 for the New Statesman (12.11.62), under the title ‘Genocide’ compared Ireland under British rule to one giant concentration camp, like Belsen. This analogy provoked a hostile reaction in England. However, the Liberal Government were simply doing in their policy what Dilke later praised by allowing the potato blight to get rid of the ‘human waste’ through famine. And in the same century Britain took to clearing an awful lot of territory in the world of its ‘human waste’ to create great waste spaces that the superior form of humanity – the Anglo-Saxon could colonize.

The long-term tendency of British policy in Ireland was genocidal from Elizabethan times. Of course, it was a failed genocide because it could not be sustained long enough to be fully effective. But there was nothing of this type of activity evident in Ottoman policy toward their minorities.

The point I am making is that if there was a racially genocidal spirit at hand in 1915 it was to be found on the opposing side to the Turks – amongst the Anglo-Saxons who had obliterated races across the world in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ and the creation of new great white settler nations, in the continents of America and Australasia.

Hitler may or may not have uttered the notorious question; “Who remembers the Armenians?” But the Armenians are remembered today to a much greater degree than the many races that perished as a result of the expansion of England across the globe. These races are now footnotes in history while the Armenians have had hundreds of books dedicated to them.

It was not those who killed the Armenians who inspired Hitler. The race he admired most and who he tried to emulate in the world was the Anglo-Saxon (The evidence for this is laid out most comprehensively in a book by the Armenian born Manuel Sarkisyanz entitled ‘Hitler’s English Inspirers’.)

After the war, when Atatürk had triumphed over the British, he was very generous to the enemy. But let us speak plainly here. Those who sailed into Gallipoli were representatives of the great genocidal nations of the world. The Turks surely would have seen what these ‘extirpating’ nations had done across the world to native peoples they had conquered and could have expected the same to be done to them. Those who invaded from the East had been responsible for the clearing of more than a million Caucasian Moslems within living memory. And I have read many British accounts from the period that speculated about what would happen if the Turks ‘disappeared’ without any concern for what would happen to the inhabitants of the State in such an event.

So who knows what might have happened to the Turks if the Czarist State had not collapsed in 1917 and Atatürk had not seen off the British and their allies in 1922.

The use of the word ‘genocide’ with regard to what happened to the Armenians during the Great War is an attempt to connect Turkey with Nazi Germany and what it did to the Jews. However, a much better analogy would be what happened on the Eastern Front during the Second World War when different groups of people became destabilized by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Here terrible things were done as state authority began to collapse, society began to return to its elements and people struggled for mere survival in the circumstances.

In 1915 the Russian and British invasions of the Ottoman Empire had a similar effect. The Russians and British invasions raised expectations so that some were willing to exact retribution on people they had grievances against and, in turn, those people exacted revenge on them. No one quite knew under whose authority they would exist when the war was over and therefore all restraint was removed on behaviour. It was under these circumstances and in this context that the relocation of Armenians took place and the mass killings of both Christian and Moslem peoples.

The problem of Nationalism

Attributing intention – as opposed to discovering actual intention – seems to take a large part in deciding what constitutes a ‘genocide’ these days and this seems to count more than actual deeds in determining what is ‘genocide’.

The cultivation of nationalism was a British Liberal tactic used to break up multi-national Empires of rival powers in the nineteenth century. It worked by sowing the seeds and cultivating the harvest of nationalism in them – whilst denying and repressing it closer to home. In this way Britain sought to undermine enemies or states it saw as rivals by destabilizing them through their ‘national’ minorities – whilst doing everything to repress and subdue minorities within their own Empire, of course – as they did in Ireland.

So the clearance of Armenians from Eastern Anatolia should have been seen, from the British perspective, as a ‘progressive’ development, since it was the culmination of the general process that England encouraged with regard to the Ottoman territories and elsewhere in the world. The responsibility for what happened to the Armenians and the other minorities that existed relatively peacefully within the Ottoman Empire for centuries must be placed, therefore, primarily at the hands of those who attempted to destabilize and ultimately destroy the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.

The importation of nationalism into the Ottoman Empire for the purposes of weakening it and gaining leverage for the Great Powers there is very much at the root of what happened to the Armenians.

Nationalism was a most unsuitable thing to promote in the region covered by the Ottoman Empire where a great patch-work of peoples were inter-mingled and were inter-dependent. Its promotion in the region by the Entente powers was as disastrous for the many Moslem communities of the Balkans and the Caucasus, who were driven from their homes of centuries, as it was for Christians caught up in the inevitable consequences of the simplifying process it ultimately encouraged.

The catastrophic effect of the Balkan Wars on the Ottoman Empire are often absent from Western accounts of this period. These, beginning in the time of Gladstone, sought to focus on Ottoman ‘atrocities’ against subject peoples, particularly Christians, and ignored the widespread ethnic cleansing and genocide that was practised on Moslems by the Balkan Christians and against each other once the Ottoman State began to disintegrate and after when the Turks had gone.

The Ottoman Empire had been a tolerant multi-ethnic Empire for hundreds of years, in which different races and religions had lived side-by-side in comparative peace and harmony. For instance, alone out of all the states in Europe at the time, the Ottomans accepted the entry and settlement of Jewish refugees fleeing from persecution so that these people could contribute their talents to the commercial life of the Empire.

As a result, the Ottoman Empire became the most successful example of collaboration between different peoples in history. This collaboration was sometimes accomplished through bribery, corruption, dealing, trade-offs and the occasional massacre (that encouraged the settlement of disputes between the various peoples before they became full scale wars). But from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries peoples of diverse races and religions intermingled contentedly and successfully under Ottoman administrations and even the Balkans became a relatively peaceful area.

If there was antagonism between Christian and Moslem in the region it was primarily the result of the Russian Imperial expansionism of the previous three centuries which had seen Tatars, Circassians and Abazians driven from their lands into the Ottoman territories. Armenians took the place of Moslems in the Erivan Khanate in what is modern day Armenia. During the 19th Century the vast ethnic cleansing of Moslems in the Caucuses by Russia and in the Balkan Wars (1912/13) by the emerging Christian nations set off a wave of inter-ethnic violence and population movements that set a pattern for the history of these regions during the 20th Century.

Raphael Lemkin, who Geoffrey Robertson describes as ‘the legal architect’ of the UN Genocide Convention, interestingly attempted to categorize the phases of Genocide: “Genocide has two phases: one, the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.” (‘Axis Rule’, p.78)

The Ottomans never attempted anything like this in relation to the subject races of the Empire. The Millet system did not even encourage assimilation and provided for the maximum expression of each community’s ‘national pattern’ – in great contrast to British Imperialism. It would not be going too far to suggest that there is a connection between what happened to the Armenian community in Anatolia in 1915 and what was done to the Moslems of the former regions of Ottoman Empire that were conquered by Christian powers in the years before and during the Great War.

If the Balkan Wars had one great effect on the Ottoman Empire and its Moslem inhabitants it was to begin to shatter the long-held faith in multi-ethnic communities existing together in mutual benefit that had characterised of the Empire for centuries. And the influx of large numbers of Moslem refugees amongst the Christian communities within the Ottoman Empire must surely have had serious consequences for public order as soon as Anatolia itself was threatened by the Western powers and state authority removed. They would have feared the worse for themselves and their families and be determined it would not happen again.

There would inevitably have been a gradual loss of faith in the multi-ethnic principles of the Ottoman Empire after the experience of the Balkan Wars. We know that some deputies in Istanbul called for a clean break with the Empire’s Imperial past advocating a withdrawal from territories that were not predominantly Turkish and a future reliance on the Moslem people of the Anatolian heartland as the one and only trusted basis of the nation. Such sentiment began to be expressed in publications that took the Western view that the Ottoman Empire, not being based on national principles, would collapse like a house of cards. This development is sometimes called ‘Turkification’ by those wishing to attach the label of ‘genocide’ to what happened in Eastern Anatolia.

In the course of thinking about this issue I read the QC Geoffrey Robinson’s Opinion; ‘Was there an Armenian Genocide?’ Robinson knows that intent is very important in legal matters and tries to suggest that the Young Turks “developed the kind of race supremacy theories that are particularly associated with a build-up to genocide. For example, the racist idea that Turanian nationality was a badge of superiority… public sub-humanising of minority groups… extreme nationalist fervour, demanding a ‘warrior nation’ to prevent the decay of the Turkish race…” (p.15)

Robinson is more accurately describing the characteristics and ideology of British Imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth century than he is the attitudes of the Ottomans to the peoples they governed. For instance, Karl Pearson, a Professor of Mathematics at this (London) University gave a famous lecture in 1907 about the ‘superiority of the Aryan race’ and the only ‘healthy’ option facing it: “that he should go and completely drive out the inferior race. That is what the white man has done in North America… The Australian nation is another case of a great civilisation supplanting a lower race.” (National Eugenics, Robert Boyle Lecture, 1907)

Robinson can present no evidence of a significant racialist body of writings that inspired and justified a programme of genocide like that of the English Social Darwinists in the late 19th Century. It is also clear that the Ottoman State did not actively pursue a policy of religious homogeneity in 1915. Events from then to 1923 certainly resulted in the heterogeneous Ottoman State giving way to the largely homogeneous Turkish Republic. But this was due to circumstance more than anything else.

In 1915 the Ottoman Empire was collapsing under the weight of problems that came to it from Europe and the C.U.P. looked for solutions to its predicament in that direction too. It had been a multi-ethnic state based on a healthy disregard for any notions of racial hierarchy. But what was being imposed upon it from the West, in the name of ‘progress’, was the requirement that society should be based on the nation state rather than a multiethnic/religious combination, with as much racial homogeneity as possible.

If some Ottomans began to lose faith in the multi-ethnic character of their Empire this was a consequence of a process instigated by Liberal Britain and Tsarist Russia in order to destabilize the Ottoman Empire. If a small minority of writers succumbed to British Social Darwinist ideas of ‘progress and civilisation’ then were they not merely coming up to the benchmark set and propagated successfully by British Imperialism? However, the continuation of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire did not require a genocidal policy on the part of the Ottomans but the establishment of a nationalist Armenian state in Anatolia did.

This was because, unlike the Greeks and Bulgarians in the old Balkan provinces of Ottoman Europe who possessed majorities and many of the elements of nationhood, in none of the eastern provinces did the Armenians constitute a majority of the population. So whilst it was comparatively easy for Greeks and Bulgarians, once Western ideas of nationalism had reached them, to enlarge the autonomy of their own community institutions into territorial independence, any attempt to transfer Armenian autonomy from a religious to a territorial basis was quite another matter. The population of the modern eastern provinces was such that a restoration of the old Armenian Kingdom was impossible without overcoming six centuries of history through the construction of a homogeneous Armenian State. That would, of necessity, have involved the ethnic cleansing of large numbers of Turks and Kurds and almost certainly have required a policy of genocide against them to achieve a functional and stable Armenia (At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference the area claimed for an Armenian State was gigantic and included territory as far west as Sivas and Adana).

The Ottoman State was an established functional entity built upon the peace and stability of six centuries whereas an Armenian State in the region would have been inevitably a violent revolutionary affair. These types of constructions are rarely good for any minorities that might find them obstructing the necessary process of ‘nation building’. Turks, Kurds and other non-Armenian groups in the new state would have more than likely been exterminated or been driven out.

The question of intention is also relevant. There are instances in which population movements involving slaughter were planned and done intentionally.  For instance, the area bombing of Germany during WWII by the RAF had the intention of killing the German workforce. It was planned and refined with the intention of maximising working class casualties within dense population areas. Nagasaki & Hiroshima also come to mind.

There were also huge population movements conducted by the British in Malaya and Kenya during uprisings, about which little was known until recently. The Harvard professor, Caroline Elkins reveals in her book, ‘Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, that the British detained almost the entire population of Kikuyu, one and a half million people, in camps and fortified villages. Thousands were beaten to death or died from malnutrition, typhoid, tuberculosis and dysentery. In many of the concentration camps, which were authorised at the highest level, almost all the children died. In the camps the inmates were tortured or used as slave labour and above the gates were slogans reminiscent of Auschwitz, such as “Labour and freedom.” The British did not bother with body counts, most victims were buried in unmarked graves and files were destroyed to cover up official direction. But tens of thousands died in the camps and during the relocations. Undoubtedly, the intention was to teach the support populations a lesson they would not forget in a hurry. And this was in the last half century, after the crimes of the Nazis had been exposed and people hung at Nuremburg.

It is not at all a convincing argument to suggest that the Ottomans had any intention or plan to wipe out the Armenians. There was a complete absence of such an ideal in Ottoman literature and the appliance of the basic historical principle of cause and effect suggests that the relocations were a practical response to an emergency situation, however badly they might have arguably been handled.

The Ottoman Response in Context

In the spring of 1915 three events precipitated and provoked the Armenian relocations: the Gallipoli landings by the British, a large ambush in Zeytun by Armenian insurgents which resulted in the deaths of 500 Ottoman soldiers on the main supply route into Syria and the Armenian rebellion at Van, which resulted in a massacre of Moslems. In April, Lord Bryce (of Blue Book fame) and the ‘Friends of Armenia’ in London made a widely publicised appeal for funds to equip Armenian volunteers fighting behind Turkish lines.

Any State will protect itself, if attacked, and these three events, which took place right across Ottoman Turkey, with the Russians on the advance into Anatolia, placed the State on an emergency footing of the highest order. Population movement was the primary defensive measure taken by the Ottoman State in relation to these events and the position of the Armenians. And most of the deaths occurred incidentally to this emergency measure.

The Russian reform campaign of 1913-14 had left little doubt at Istanbul that Russia aimed to annex Turkey’s six eastern provinces over which she had declared a proprietary interest – which was the usual preliminary to an Imperial power declaring a formal protectorate and annexing a region.

In the period between the outbreak of war in Europe and before the declarations of war on the Ottoman Empire the Russians had began arming the Armenians in preparation for invasion. The invading Russian armies brought with them Armenian groups armed with Allied weapons whose main purpose was to kill Turks and Kurds – which they proceeded to do. British and Russian agents circulated amongst the Armenians behind Turkish lines and provided them with weapons and money to enable them to create general disorder. In the Armenian capture of the city of Van and the general massacre of Moslems that followed Ottoman soldiers were diverted and prevented from reaching the front to fight the invading Russian forces. All these factors influenced the Ottomans to relocate the Armenian population from the area.

And along with the Armenian relocation there was also a relocation of up to 800,000 Moslems from the war-zone. But when the Ottoman authorities moved various peoples out of the war zones they became prey to other groups with scores to settle, such as the Kurds on the Armenians. Moslem civilians faced similar problems as they fled the attacking Russian armies only to be harassed by armed Armenian bands. And I have seen figures of up to 500,000 Moslems killed by Armenians, with extensive lists of names and modes of death recorded by the Ottoman authorities.

Even before 1915 Eastern Anatolia resembled a powder-keg. The Kurdish tribes were exceedingly well armed and virtually sovereign in the areas they roamed. They and the Christian townsmen, bought arms from the Russians and frequent skirmishes occurred between different groups. The Russians flirted with using the Kurds as well as the Armenians as instigators of chaos in the region prior to the war. Order was only maintained by an Ottoman presence between the various elements. If that presence were removed, as it inevitably would in war-time, it was predictable as to what would occur.

‘Relocations’ were the standard military response to guerrilla warfare waged behind the lines at the time. A decade and a half before the Turks relocated the Armenians the British ‘relocated’ Boer and African civilians away from the war-zone in the Transvaal – into concentration camps. This was not a defensive act conducted in response to encirclement, invasion and rebellion – as was the case in Anatolia in 1915 – but was done in the course of an aggressive expansionism aimed at neutralising a population resisting conquest.

The United States also conducted ‘relocations’ with regard to the native Americans putting them into reservations. And this was after multiple genocides were carried out over centuries on the American continent to establish the United States.

Britain conducted its ‘relocations’ and confinements in stable conditions, controlling the seas around Africa, under no pressure of blockade, with plentiful availability of food supplies, in a localised conflict fought in a gentlemanly way by their opponents. And yet they still managed to kill tens of thousands of Boer and African women and children in the process. It was called “methods of barbarism” at the time but I have never seen it called ‘genocide.’

The Armenians were not imprisoned by the Ottomans but resettled away from the war-zone. It is probable that the majority survived the forced migration into Syria and Armenians away from the war-zone in Istanbul, Izmir and Edirne were largely left alone. Therefore, the character of the Ottoman actions suggests they were more of a defensive emergency war measure than an aggressive colonial or extirpating campaign, practiced by the Imperial Powers.

The difference between what the British did in South Africa and what the Ottomans attempted to do in eastern Anatolia in 1915 was that the Ottomans were confronted by a much stronger enemy and assault on their state. The Armenian relocations were conducted in a situation of external invasion, blockade, starvation, inter-community killing and the general lawlessness of a collapsing state apparatus.

There was also a more recent example of relocations for the Ottomans to consider. In January 1915 the Russians and Armenians responded to an Ottoman offensive by massacring upwards of 50,000 Moslems in Kars and Ardahan. This was followed by extensive relocations of Moslems who were behind the Russian lines and in the potential war-zone.

Prof. Cicek’s book, ‘The Great War And The Forced Migration Of Armenians’ shows that the Ottomans did not have the intention of destroying the Armenian population in the course of moving those out of the front-line fighting areas and military security zones:  he shows that there were attempts to care for them in various ways. The Decree for the locations issued by the Ottoman Government insisted that those who were being moved should be cared for, protected and adequately fed and preparations were made to this effect. However, the war conditions imposed on the region by the Entente invasions and blockade ensured that such conditions could not be adequately met.

The whole relocation exercise was conducted under the watchful gaze of missionaries and diplomats sympathetic to the Armenians. The atrocity stories employed by the British propaganda departments are largely based on their (mainly) hearsay reports. To compare this with the Holocaust, where defenceless, peaceable Jews were relocated into Labour and Extermination Camps, with no foreign diplomats or missionaries to intercede for them, is quite unjustified.

The Christian Missions themselves have some responsibility for what happened to the Armenians. The Ottoman State was subject to a growing tide of missionary activity, particularly from the Anglo-sphere, before the Great War.  The mainly Protestant missionaries offered educational opportunities to Christians and a support base for emigrants. Moslems were impervious to conversion: it was the Christians that were susceptible.  This missionary work, which the tolerant Ottomans unwisely permitted, broke up the homogenous Armenian community (and other Christian traditions too).  In this situation, Nationalism gradually replaced Religion as a cohesive force in the Armenian communities. The missionaries also engendered dissatisfaction with the existing Ottoman arrangements.  The Christian missions had extra-territorial status and they acted in conjunction with their own governments and under their protection, outside the normal Ottoman governing system. All these factors tended toward the development of Armenian communities that were antagonistic toward their neighbours and undermined the existing social relationships that had preserved the peace for centuries.

There is a great double-standard at work here. Britain always wants to judge what happens elsewhere in the world in moral terms, quite apart from context. It judges what other countries do on grounds of high moral principle, but takes a very pragmatic view of its own conduct in the world.

That is why Turkey finds itself in the dock for the Armenian ‘genocide’ but Britain never seems to face any charges about its conduct in the world.

Hunger Wars and Starvation Blockades

The British blockade of the Ottoman Empire, which began even before the formal declaration of war, was carried out with the intention of starving Ottoman citizens to force them into surrender and encouraging a general collapse of Ottoman society into anarchy. A similar blockade was organised against neutral Greece to encourage regime change and her enlistment in the Allied ranks.

A significant component in the large numbers of deaths in Anatolia was the conditions brought about by the general lack of food in the region. This was largely caused by the military encirclement of the Ottoman Empire and the Royal Navy blockade organised in the seas around it.

It is difficult to ascertain exact statistics on the modes of deaths of victims in the Armenian tragedy. However, the effects of malnutrition and associated diseases are bound to have played a very large part. We are fairly certain that hundreds of thousands died in Syria and Lebanon during this period as British forces prevented food from being supplied from Egypt and Entente warships blockaded the coasts. Turkish soldiers in Mesopotamia and Palestine starved to death in their tens of thousands and the death toll from Typhus reached fifty per cent of the population at times. According to a recent study by Edward Erickson seven times as many Turkish soldiers died from illness than from wounds received in battle. In Eastern Anatolia where there was an absence of roads and railways transportation of food and medical supplies would have been very difficult, even if they were available.

Thousands of people moving around as refugees from the invading armies of Britain and Russia and the Royal Navy blockade, in chaotic conditions, with the transportation system collapsing, with bandits preying on them under the collapse of order, with the general shortage of food and with primitive sanitation conditions leading to famine, hunger and disease, inevitably resulted in a general reverse to a state of nature in much of the outlying areas of the Empire, particularly in Eastern Anatolia, the war zone between Russia and the Turks.

I have seen it argued that it was the neglect and incompetence of Ottoman authorities that were responsible for such high levels of deaths amongst its own soldiers, prisoners of war and the civilian populations within the blockaded area. However, it must be remembered that Germany suffered nearly a million deaths in some estimates from the starvation blockade organised against it by the Royal Navy. Germany was a highly organised society with great skills of improvisation that helped it to hold out against blockade for four years. However, it too failed and was ground down by the irresistible force of the Royal Navy.

Hunger and famine have been significant methods of British warfare for centuries. In the seventeenth century they were used by Crown forces to suppress Irish resistance in Ulster. In the nineteenth century during the Irish famine (which the Ottoman Sultan tried to alleviate with aid) at least a million of the population were left to die and more than a million forced out as a useful policy for weakening Ireland for conquest. The same was true of the famines in India presided over by Lord Curzon and others, not to mention what happened in Persia under the British occupation of 1917-19 (Dr. Mohammad Gholi Majd in ‘The Great Famine and Genocide in Persia, 1917-1919’ estimates that as much as 40% or 10 million of the population of Persia was wiped out because of starvation and the associated diseases when the British seized the country’s food supplies for its armies of occupation.)

Taking these considerations into account I cannot see how the Ottomans can be held wholly responsible for what happened in Eastern Anatolia. Those organising the invasions and blockade must surely have been aware of the effects of their war policy on the general population within the encircled area. It was designed to kill large numbers, regardless of race or religion, encourage the spread of disease, weaken the population and produce general disorder and conflict within the Ottoman State. And it accomplished all of these objectives.

Before the war considerable effort had been put into calculating the effects of blockading Germany on its civilian population. It had been openly speculated in the British press that not only would it lead to mass starvation, disease and social revolution but, in true Social Darwinist fashion, it would also weaken the German racial stock. It would be foolish to believe that any other eventuality would have been entertained in relation to the appliance of blockade to the much less developed state apparatus in the Ottoman lands.


The logical implication of all this is that if what happened to the Armenians in 1915 is to be described as ‘genocide’ we must look much wider for those responsible than just within the C.U.P. and Ottoman authorities directly responsible for relocating the Armenians. Firstly, there was the responsibility of the Anglo-French and Russian invasion forces whose arrival in May 1915 signalled that the destruction of the Ottoman Empire was a distinct probability. Secondly, there was the exportation from Europe of Social Darwinist ideas of race homogeneity as the ideal type for societies. This undermined the old heterogeneous Ottoman attitude toward race that had promoted ‘live and let live’ in the Empire. Thirdly, there was the promotion of nationalism from Europe in order to destabilise the Ottoman State and make multi-ethnic units impossible.

If the deaths of Armenians are seen as ‘genocide’ the powers that were most responsible for it were Britain and Russia (and to a lesser degree France). In the interests of destroying Germany and conquering the Ottoman territories they made the Ottoman State an impossible place for Armenians to live in the space of a few months after they had lived in it peacefully for centuries. If we are to talk of an Armenian ‘genocide’ and insist on an official apology we must put these countries in the dock first because without their actions it would never have happened.


Some Athol Books publications:

  • The Great War And The Forced Migration Of Armenians

by Prof. Dr. Kemal Çiçek

  • Forgotten Aspects Of Britain’s Great War On Turkey. 1914-24

by Dr. Pat Walsh

  • Remembering Gallipoli, President McAleese’s Great War Crusade

by Dr. Pat Walsh

  • Britain’s Great War, Pope Benedict’s Lost Peace: How Britain Blocked The Pope’s Peace Efforts Between 1915 And 1918 by Dr. Pat Walsh
  • The Rise And Fall Of Imperial Ireland. Redmondism In The Context Of Britain’s War Of Conquest Of South Africa And Its Great War On Germany, 1899-1916 by Dr. Pat Walsh
  • The Politics Of Pre-War Europe: The Catholic Bulletin on Peace, War And Neutrality, 1937-1939. Introduction: by Dr. Pat Walsh
  • Preposterous Paradoxes of Ambassador Morgenthau by Şükrü Server Aya
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The Talaat Pasha Question


A recent book by Professor Hans Lukas Keiser ‘Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide’ has the objective of establishing Talaat as the chief orchestrator of the event the author calls the “Armenian Genocide” and to establish him alongside Ataturk as “The Father of Modern Turkey. Prof Keiser makes the case that the charming Talaat Bey was the individual most responsible for the destruction of the Armenian community in the Ottoman territories during 1915. Talaat Pasha, of course, was Interior Minister in the pre-War C.U.P. Government and the last powerful Grand Vizier of the Ottoman era, during the Great War of 1914. He was one of the Triumvirate of Young Turk leaders, with Enver and Cemal Pasha, which largely presided over the affairs of state. Prof. Keiser makes a strong case for Talaat being the dominant one in that Triumvirate, and the driving force in the direction of Ottoman policy, particularly from 1913 onwards.

This is actually an interesting book for a number of reasons. It is certainly well-researched and has a lot of thought provoking information and argument. It is not the usual exercise in attempting to cobble together every conceivable hostile statement to damn the Ottomans. There is an attempt to clear the garbage from the house. If people read the book and listen to interviews with the author they will find that his information actually undermines other recent publications promoted by the Armenian Genocide lobby and advances an alternative view of the course of events that provokes thinking about the nature of what happened.

One further interesting aspect of Prof. Keiser’s book are the Armenian reviews of it. They obviously are a little deflated at Keiser’s failure to uncover anything new they can use as ammunition against the Turks and his failure to land a knock-out blow on their behalf. For them he is a boxer who had great billing and demonstrated some fancy ring craft, but who never really landed a serious blow on their opponent. In fact, the Armenian lobby, who, after all, only seek mud to sling, struggle to understand the Professor’s book because it is obviously at an intellectual level that far exceeds theirs. Maybe a better way of putting it would be that it has significantly broader horizons than the reductive simplifying world of the Armenian Genocide promoters. They are content with its provocative title which Prof. Keiser concedes was not his but the publishers, Princeton University Press. Which raises the question why are all these prestigious US universities issuing propagandist material lately on behalf of the Armenian lobby (Stanford being another example)?

For the purposes of this review I will quote from presentations and interviews Prof. Keiser gave in promoting his book. There are a number of these on YouTube and are easily found. They give a more focused view of what the book is about rather than the book itself.

Whither Fascism?

Prof. Keiser stated in one of his presentations (in Jerusalem) that he is making “a bold claim” in “revising the idea of fascism” and its origins in his book on Talaat Pasha.

He said he was arguing that “the Young Turks’ single party regime opened the greater European era of the extremes, dictatorships, extensive ethnic cleansing and genocides.” He notes that this “era of extreme violence is usually traced back to the Russian Revolution or the Nazis” but Keiser sees it as originating “in 1913 with Talaat and the Young Turks”. Talaat’s rule was “proto-fascism” according to Keiser. It was the shape of things to come in Russia, Germany and other places in what Keiser calls “greater Europe”.

In many ways, Talaat was not only father of Turkish nationalism but of Europe too!

I would say that Keiser has not got a historical grasp here but a political science or sociological notion of Fascism. Fascism, if it has any meaning at all, beyond a term of abuse, is historically related to the defence of Western capitalism/democracy/civilization against Bolshevism after the Great War cataclysm.

Bolshevism was the virus and Fascism was the antidote. That was the view of Winston Churchill, and I can see no reason to dispute it. In all cases where there was Fascism there were similar features – the fracturing of societies socially, economically and politically as a result of the Great War of 1914 that left them open to the possibility of Bolshevik style movements taking power. Fascism was how democracy defended itself against Bolshevism where such was necessary. And Fascism, like a vaccine, provided elements of the “Bolshevik poison”, as Churchill called it, to the population in order to ward off the full dose of the virus. That, after all, was why there was a National Socialist Party in Germany which captured much of the left wing as the political ground shifted.

How does Talaat and the C.U.P. fit into this historical understanding of Fascism? They don’t. For one thing, they predate the Great War, the midwife to Fascism. For another, they also predate the Bolshevik coming to power in Russia in late 1917. So how can they be Fascist, except in an unhistorical social science way? The Ottoman government would have been admired by Thomas Hobbes – it was a Hobbesian form of power, not a Fascist one.

It is, of course, possible that “proto-fascist” elements existed before Fascism took the political stage. But these – extreme nationalism, race pride and racialism, imperialism, elite government, social-Darwinist ideology, etc. were all present in the Mother of Democracy herself, Imperial Britain. While Talaat was governing in Istanbul the inaugural world conference of Eugenics was being presided over by Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill in London, with a delegation from the Institute of Racial Hygiene coming from Germany attending. Ottoman society was wholly out of sync with this form of “progress” that England was championing in the world. A number of Imperialist publications condemned in Britain for its lack of Social Darwinist presumptions, which were all the rage at the time, and for its race-mixing and the foolish allowing of inferior elements (Jews, Gypsies, Armenians etc.) into the corridors of power in Istanbul – something the British Empire, built on strict racial foundations, took great care of guarding against.

Prof. Keiser admits that the Young Turk revolution produced an “Ottoman Spring” after Sultan Abdul Hamid’s rule, but he argues that Talaat “abandoned constitutional democracy” at the end of 1912 and “embraced war politics”, leading an “Ottoman mobilization for war” in the Balkans through propaganda and mass rallies in Istanbul. Keiser depicts the C.U.P. as being ready to meet the challenge of the Balkan Christians, who themselves were mobilizing for war, rather than being victims of an aggression. The recovery of Edirne, according to Keiser was a crucial event in a kind of national rejuvenation for Ottoman Turkey after the disastrous defeat in the Balkans. Talaat then “assisted Enver Pasha in the putsch of January 1913 that established single-party repressive rule from 1913 to 1918”.

There is little here about the vast ethnic cleansing of Moslem populations that took place in the Ottoman heartland of the Balkans when the Christian states engaged in nation-building through the killing and removal of millions in the decade prior to 1914.

Prof. Kaiser believes it is more significant that the C.U.P. Government was “the first single-party regime at the head of an Empire” – a model for things to come in what he calls “greater Europe”. However, since most multi-party states are the result of a civil war, the only thing that the Young Turks were guilty of was not having been formed out of one. It was unlikely that there would have been civil war in the Ottoman State when it was under such threat by enemies intent on dismantling it.

Prof, Keiser sees late 1912/early 1913 as the watershed moment in Talaat’s descent into evil.

Keiser contends that “Constitutional Rule was never a priority for the C.U.P.” Instead it “developed a new Islamic pan-Turkism inspired by Talaat’s friend and Central Committee member Zia Gokalp”, who Keiser describes as “his Prophet”. Keiser sees Gokalp as “the spiritual father of Turkish nationalism” – for both Talaat and for Mustapha Kemal. Although Ataturk, while acknowledging his inspiration, repressed political Islam, President Erdogan and the AK Party have revived his project, according to Prof. Keiser, delving into current affairs. Prof. Keiser asserts that Gokalp framed Turkish nationalist ideology through his poetry and afterwards went on to Ankara to preserve continuity between the Ottoman C.U.P. and the new Kemalist Turkey. His influence on the Young Turks and the Turkish masses made the Shaykh al Islam very jealous, according to Keiser.

Ideology, of course, is recognized as an essential ingredient in mass murder, these days. So the Ottomans need to be connected up with extreme nationalism, pan-Turkism, and pan-Islamism, among other things. But the sheer fact that such a variety of “ideologies” needs to be accumulated against the Ottomans tends to suggest we are not dealing with a totalitarian system here but rather a conglomeration of things thrown together to bolster the security and cohesion of the Ottoman State in a shifting environment. Again, it is a case of the antidote warding off the virus by the taking on of features from it.

Prof Keiser, therefore, argues that Talaat’s “ideological personality” was Gokalpian and Golkalp’s ideas were executed through the chief executive, Talaat, in a kind of synergy. From 1913 Talaat developed from primus inter pares within the C.U.P. Central Committee and Triumvirate to effective dictator, according to Prof. Keiser. Enver Pasha was the figurehead that many liked to pretend was the leader of the C.U.P. for various reasons.

Keiser strangely depicts Talaat as being “far right” in politics and says this is “a core element” in his argument and “a crucial part of his book”. He also describes Talaat as a “conservative revolutionary” – part of the movement later seen in Germany that wanted modernization within tradition. That is a peculiar notion. I would have thought that the idea of left and right was a completely alien notion in Ottoman politics. Although the Young Turks were inspired by the French Revolution if its divisions were somehow transplanted to Istanbul the C.U.P. would have been the left to the Sultan’s supporters on the Right. But I must admit to finding this baffling and perhaps an attempt on Keiser’s part to associate Talaat with the German conservative revolutionaries who are often bracketed with the National Socialists, but actually shouldn’t be. It is a construct rather than reality.

Genocide as a product of the Great War

Keiser significantly does not see Talaat’s behavior in the context of a “30 year Genocide” of Armenians and offers good explanations why this latest manifestation of the Armenian lobby is deeply flawed (See Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924, Stanford University).

He notes that the Young Turks had good relations with the Armenian revolutionaries in the decade before the war and mentions the fact that Garegin Pasdermadjian (“Armen Garo”) helped hide and shelter Talaat from the Sultan’s forces surely proving that even the Dashnaks did not see the Young Turks as genocidal. Some of the Dashnak deputies turned down offers of positions within the Ottoman administration in Istanbul where they would have joined Armenian ministers. With his C.U.P. colleagues and Dashnaks present at his side, Talaat appeared at commemorative events marking the Hamidian “1896 pogroms” against Armenians. Certainly, there was no pre-War plan for any punitive measures against the Armenian community, let alone genocide, and Prof. Keiser acknowledges this, implicitly and explicitly. The C.U.P. and Armenian Dashnaks were political allies, if anything.

The Armenian position in the Ottoman Empire was entirely different to the Jewish position in Nazi Germany. Count von Moltke rather accurately described the Armenians as “Christian Turks.” The Armenians served in significant positions within the Ottoman State throughout much of its later history. Sultans took Armenian women as wives and the Ottoman line became mixed with Armenian blood – something the English saw as “race suicide”. At least 12 Ottoman ministers between 1867 and 1913 were Armenian. They also served as Ambassadors, Bankers, translators, consuls and deputies in the Ottoman Parliament – 14 in 1908. The Ottoman Foreign Minister in the year before the Great War was an Armenian. It is extraordinary that the belief exists about Ottoman desire to destroy the Armenians when they were such an important pillar of the Empire and its functioning. Can it be imagined that Hitler had a Jew as his Foreign Minister in 1938?

So here we see immediate problems with the comparisons made between the Ottomans and Hitler and his Nazis. But whilst dismissing the substance of such a view about pre-War Ottoman society, Prof. Keiser cannot resist pursuing it in later events.

This is surprising because Prof. Keiser sees “a totally different outcome” as having been possible for Turks and Armenians if it had not been for the July crisis and Great War of 1914. He argues that the failure of the 1913 Eastern Reform process in “Turkish Armenia” was a “turning point” after which Talaat was re-born as a “war-monger.” Things therefore “could have evolved differently” according to Prof. Keiser – presumably on the basis of “no war/no genocide”. Prof Keiser argues that if it had not been for the outbreak of War in Europe, Talaat would have operated the Reform programme for the Eastern Provinces, perhaps obstructing it on occasion in the Ottoman interest, but he was “pragmatic and a man of reality” and would have undoubtedly seen it through, according to Prof. Keiser. He “did not have a fixed personality” and he “would not have become genocidal” if it were not for the circumstances of the Great War.

This is very interesting because in arguing this point – which is undoubtedly correct – he is focusing the case for Genocide almost exclusively on the event of War. Of course, the Prof. would point to the ideological basis of Turkish nationalism underpinning the clearing of non-Turkish minorities from the former inclusive Ottoman State – but this is a different argument. After all, it is not a requirement that such a process would emerge from any ideological inspiration and if the Reform process had taken root undoubtedly it wouldn’t. And we know that Talaat even suggested to the British that Lord Milner oversee the administration of “Turkish Armenia”. That would have involved a drastic loss in Ottoman sovereignty.

So the crux of the matter is the catastrophe of the Great War of 1914.

Keiser knows that there is a weakness in the historical case for Genocide if the issue is the Great War. This is because the issue of war responsibility then becomes important. So Prof. Keiser is forced to argue the point of Talaat’s responsibility for the conflict, bringing it to the Ottoman Empire, and using it as a state building exercise in a form of salvation for the Turkish nation.

It is usually argued that Enver Pasha’s maneuvering with the Germans brought war on for a reluctant Ottoman government. Prof. Keiser, however, claims that Talaat himself instigated war in Europe by pressurizing Austria to be tough on Serbia after the assassination of the Arch Duke and intimidating the Germans into war by threatening an alliance with Russia, unless they supported the Germans against the Tsar. Keiser claims that the Great War was seen “a war of restoration and expansion” by enthusiastic C.U.P. This is what he means when he calls Talaat “a war-monger” after 1913.

It seems very much that Prof. Keiser has to compensate through these claims for the weakness of an argument, that his demolition of the “30 year genocide” case entails. In Prof. Keiser’s view “Total War was an opportunity for Genocide”. In the course of this “the Expansionist war was lost but the domestic war war that created the Turkish Republic was won through Genocide”

Prof. Keiser is emphatic: “There was no blueprint for genocide, it was something that was evolving from early Spring 1915”.

Keiser claims that what happened to the Armenians “was not a collateral occurrence in a different much bigger event called World War” but was in fact “the central element, the main exploit and legacy of Talaat’s war policy”. He says that “Talaat was never so busy, excited and focused than when he was removing the Armenians from Asia Minor from April to September 1915”.

But nobody has ever claimed the Ottomans were instrumental in the outbreak of the European war and this seems like turning the world upside down to advance a new theory. Neither were the Ottomans responsible for Britain’s decision to join this European war and turn it into a much more catastrophic and wide-reaching world war. This was the decisive decision in bringing catastrophe to the Ottoman Empire because it placed its territory in a vice between the British and Russian Empires for the first time. It put its capital under direct threat in a way that it never had been before, because the British had always warned the Tsar away from it on the threat of war.

The Ottomans, far from being instigators of war, were victims of the great geopolitical shift in the world that occurred between 1906 and 1914 under Sir Edward Grey. They struggled. like all others, to take account of this and respond to it. They were actors within a much wider and bigger drama that came upon them in 1913-14 and who tried to avert to by offering alliances with all and sundry. Only the Germans were serious about responding to the Ottomans, because they were the only state without an interest in the destruction of the Ottoman State. If Talaat and Enver were the ones who acknowledged this, rather than the other more Anglophile Young Turks, that only confirms Prof. Keiser’s view that they were the realists.

It is noticeable that Britain does not figure to any great degree in Prof. Keiser’s work and that is entirely understandable. It is a result of history itself that such an important influence on events should be an absent blank in things. But how are the decisions that the Ottomans took conceivable without taking into account the great geopolitical shift that Britain brought about and its determination to wage war with its new Tsarist ally upon Germany? (This geopolitical aspect is something that has been largely ignored in the Armenian issue and I intend to address this in a substantial way soon).

We know that there was a substantial attempt made by the Ottomans to dissuade the Dashnaks from supporting a Russian invasion and an assault on the state which was made at the Dashnak world conference held in Erzurum at the start of the European War in late Summer 1914. The Dashnaks seem to have been divided about whether to take up the Ottoman offer of autonomy, which suggests they took it seriously. Those who wished to prevent a catastrophe were overridden by the hardliners who had already made plans and preparations for the greatest of opportunities that would be presented to them. Pasdermadjian stated in a later publication, issued at the time of the Paris Peace Conference, that the Dashnaks were fully aware of the casualties the Armenian community would take if there were an armed insurrection organised as part of the Allied war on the Ottoman State and it had been worth the sacrifice!

Prof. Keiser notes that “the Prophet” Gokalp wrote a poem in September 1915 describing Talaat as “the Noah of Turkey,” and praising him as the father of the Turkish nation. I don’t understand how the Noah story is supposed to count against Talaat. After all, Noah, after being confronted with a coming deluge, attempts to save as much of the old world as he can. It is a very good analogy for what the Ottoman leadership attempted to do when confronted with the impending catastrophe.

Keiser sees Talaat as using the War as an opportunity for cleansing the Turkish nation of Armenians, Pontic Greeks and Assyrians. He shows pictures of trains “bringing the Armenians to the Syrian death camps” to create “a Turkish homeland in Asia Minor.” He points out that Talaat kept detailed information and maps detailing the demographic effects of the relocation in his Black Book (which have been published). It is obvious that this is all meant to demonstrate sinister connections to other times.

Trains, of course, would have been a much better means of moving the Armenians than marching them in columns, if the Ottomans had had a good railway system. Many more Armenians would have survived the relocations if they had been conducted with trains. Perhaps Keiser forgets that the railways didn’t kill the Jews and, if anything, lured them into a false sense of security, prior to their final destinations. The Ottomans didn’t have many train tracks toward the east and it was Britain and Russia who did everything to prevent them and the Germans from building these railways. If the Armenians died on marches during the relocation, rather than surviving on trains, it was Britain and Russia who were responsible for the difference this would have made.

Keiser also looks for an equivalent of the SS or einsatzgruppen to further damn the Ottomans. He finds it in the Special Organisation, formed in November 1913. But this had no role in the Armenian locations, and was used largely for special military operations in the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. The 1919 court-martials in Istanbul indicted the organisation but failed to provide any evidence for anything but special operations behind Russian lines.

There is no evidence that the Ottomans had any intention or plan to wipe out the Armenians. Relying on the U.S. Ambassador, Henry Morgenthau’s diary, with its second and third hand hearsay and rumours, constructed by two Armenians hostile to the Ottomans, is not evidence. The fact that Morgenthau was on a mission to convince President Wilson to join the war and used his correspondence to him about the Armenians to achieve this objective further takes away any validity from such “information”. Ambassador Morganthau frankly stated he had given his diary to his Armenian assistant, Andonian, to “elaborate” upon freely and was, therefore, relieved of taking any responsibility for any error himself. How can such a process of fabrication be relied upon as evidence?

Keiser’s other secondary literature is highly selective and constructed by officials of enemy governments to form a diplomatic record – in other words, a case for themselves and their actions, which aimed at producing a case for relieving the Ottomans of their territory.

There was a complete absence of any ideal in Ottoman literature of annihilation and the appliance of the basic historical principle of cause and effect suggests that the relocations were a practical response to an emergency situation, however badly they might have arguably been handled.

The clearance of Armenians from Eastern Anatolia should have been seen, from the British perspective, as a ‘progressive’ development, since it was the culmination of the general process that England began to encourage with regard to the Ottoman territories and elsewhere in the world. The responsibility for what happened to the Armenians and the other minorities that existed relatively peacefully within the Ottoman Empire for centuries must be placed, therefore, primarily at the hands of those who attempted to destabilize and ultimately destroy the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. The provoking of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire for the purposes of weakening it and gaining leverage for the Great Powers is very much at the root of what happened to the Armenians.

Prof. Keiser’s attempt to shift the responsibility for the War onto the Ottomans is really a weak affair. The most that can be said is that the Ottomans failed to join the right side in a moral war – but it was the right side who rejected them, or never gave them enough assurance to keep them neutral.

The Real Battleground of the Issue

So what is left is the argument that Talaat availed of the catastrophe of the Great War to solve the Armenian issue, which had been causing problems for the Ottomans ever since the Dashnaks had begun to apply the Bulgarian model to their situation – insurrection, repression, foreign intervention. This is the real battleground of the Armenian issue.

In one of his presentations Prof. Keiser presents an entry from the diary of Mehmud Cavid Bey from 14 September 1915. It is damning of Talaat’s forced migration policy, which Cavid believed, from the reports he had read whilst away from Istanbul, had been done in a most inhumane way:

“Ottoman history has never known before such monstrous murder and enormous brutality even in its most sinister periods… One would hope these stories and reports are lies, or at least exaggerated. I am of the opinion that Talaat was involved in this with full conviction having embraced the underlying ideology together with a few deranged idiots in the Central Committee. The course started in the Armenian provinces and extended to the nearest provinces. Perhaps nearest provinces witnessed the most disastrous scenes.

One day, we were both together and Talaat said, ‘Sad thing, it comes into my dreams, but it was absolutely necessary for the country. What will we tell Paris?’

If you want to approach the Armenian issue by bloody politics, then scatter the people in the Armenian provinces, but scatter them in a humane manner. Hang the traitors, even if there are thousands of them. Who would like to keep among us Russians and supporters of Russians? But stop right there.

You dared to destroy not only the political existence but the life itself of a whole people. You are not only guilty, but also incapable. Of what quality is your conscience, when you accept that women, children, and elderly people, ousted from towns, are murdered at lakes and on mountains?…

In immense indignation, Talaat rails against this. He will establish an inspection committee. He will punish the culpable. But will the act be undone by this? They act like this to do away with the Armenians… A thoughtless and blindfold nationalist current has taken the place of common Ottoman bounds. What became of the beautiful humanity in the hands of foolish butchers? … By these acts we have condemned everything. We have put an inextinguishable stain on the present administration.”

I removed quite a few inserted words by Prof. Keiser from this passage – which were not in the original Turkish. These additions steered the meaning of Cavid’s words away from a condemnation of the forced migration policy and the way it was carried out, to imply disgust at an attempted annihilation/genocide policy, which is not what Cavid was saying, This is concerning because it indicates that Prof. Keiser was attempting to fit the diary entry into a pre-conceived narrative that twists its meaning to justify his argument.

Cavid Bey was an old Ottoman disgusted at the reports he had heard of the results of the relocations. He received letters when he was in Berlin and confronted Talaat when he returned to Istanbul about what he had heard. Cavid was on the liberal wing of the C.U.P. and had been the victim of a notorious attempt in 1911 by the British Embassy in Istanbul to whip up anti-semitism in the Young Turks. Ambassador Lowther and his dragoman Fitzmaurice had an obsession with the power of the “crypto-Jews” or Salonika donmes of which Djavid was the most prominent. Prof. Keiser chose not to mention this in his presentation in Jerusalem. Is this because the British attempted to damn Cavid as a Zionist? Cavid resigned from the government when the Ottomans joined the War in November 1914. He was later executed for an assassination attempt on Mustapha Kemal.

Cavid Pasha changed his views about the relocations when he later discovered the large scale killings that the Moslems of Eastern Anatolia suffered. Anyone who asked him after 1918 about whether he thought the relocations were right was met by a statement that 400,000 Moslems had been killed so what else was there to do? He seems to have abandoned the view that hanging a few thousand Dashnaks would have been an adequate response in the circumstances.

The Cavid diary entry was powerful enough without the leading additions. I am surprised I do not see the Cavid quote more often in Armenian accounts. It has been available for about 5 years now after the Turkish Historical Society got permission from the family to release it and it is certainly quite thought-provoking. Perhaps it is a question that Armenian writers would not dare answer: Could the Ottomans have dealt with the situation and saved the state without a relocation policy through a pin-point targeting of Dashnak activists? They do not do so because they support the attempt to destroy the Ottoman State, whilst pretending that there were no implications for the Armenians in doing so. They want it both ways, of course.

The removal of the Armenians from the 6 eastern vilayets constituted a counter-insurgency campaign in the minds of the Ottoman leadership. It was far from systematic in its execution: In some areas nearly all Armenians were killed and in others nearly all survived. The big variable was local circumstance. The Ottoman State took active measures in the summer of 1915 to halt the relocations and stop the killings, holding to account some of those who were responsible for them. Many Ottoman officials, like Cemal Pasha, protected Armenians effectively, enabling a high proportion to survive the relocations. Around 350,000 Armenians remained in their localities in the western parts of Asia Minor. Armenians moved back and forth with the progress of the Russian Imperial armies in the east. Approximately 300,000 fled to Transcaucasia during the first 6 months of the war and others followed with the collapse of the Russian lines in late 1917, as a result of internal collapse of the Russian State and its forces.

Talaat himself, “the Architect of the Genocide”, instituted the prosecutions against those who had mishandled the relocations or used them as an excuse for killing and robbery. He set up commissions to investigate what happened late in 1915. Hundreds of Ottoman officials were tried by military courts, including commanders and soldiers from the ranks. Dozens were executed, like the commander in Sivas, who had failed to protect Armenians. Although this period saw the greatest numbers of mass locations (Cuba, South Africa, Balkan Wars) such punishment for acts committed within them was unknown.

This is the territory of discussion that the Armenian issue should really centre on if this were a truly historical debate and not a battle over a slogan or a label.

The Talaat/Ataturk Continuum

The other main objective of Keiser’s book is to associate modern Turkey with the “Armenian Genocide” through Talaat. The title of Prof. Keiser’s publication describes Talaat Pasha as the “Father of Modern Turkey” – a position usually reserved for Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk, father of the Turk). Whilst Keiser is not challenging the role of Ataturk in creating the Turkish State, what he does do is suggest that he was “standing on the shoulders” of Talaat in doing so. Keiser claims Ataturk used this phrase himself.

Prof Keiser argues that Ataturk accomplished what he calls Talaat’s “minimalist goals” in the creation of the Turkish Republic. Keiser does not actually make clear what these maximalist goals of Talaat actually were, but says that Talaat decided to limit himself to his “minimalist goals” around 1913 – presumably after the heart of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans was lost.

Did Talaat support the drive toward Baku in 1918? I always thought that was Enver’s project. I may have missed that in Keiser’s book.

After the War Talaat had to leave Istanbul for Germany. While the British occupied Istanbul they decided to squeeze the Germans through the Royal Navy Blockade, which was operated until July 1919. The Germans remained undefeated on the battlefield after an orderly retreat. Prof. Keiser says that Talaat’s “agitation in exile contributed to the winning of the war against the West” through the “Bolshevik/Kemalist alliance” that Mustapha Kemal organised from Eastern Anatolia. It was through this alliance that Talaat’s goals were accomplished by Ataturk, says Prof. Kaiser.

While Prof. Keiser maintains that he is a historian who takes into account that “events could have evolved differently” he does not seem to apply that principle to the biggest variable of all – Britain. The Turkish alliance with the Bolsheviks was entirely a consequence of Lloyd George’s policy of imposing a punitive treaty on the Ottomans and using the Greeks, and to a much lesser extent the Armenians, to carry it through to fruition. Lloyd George’s War Minister, Churchill was against this policy, seeing the danger from Bolshevism, and wanted to enlist the Ottomans as a bulwark against Russia – as in the days before Sir Edward Grey upset everything in his 1907 Convention with the Tsar.

If Lloyd George had not followed his policy of using the Greeks as a cats paw to strangle and partition the Ottoman territories, and had concluded an honourable peace what would the effect of this have been on the resistance movement in Ankara?

Talaat’s support for Mustapha Kemal was a consequence of Britain’s attitude to the Ottomans. He makes that clear in his last interview and no one can doubt it. The Turkish Republic was not a plan of Talaat’s (his “minimalist policy”) it was a consequence of what Britain did from October 1918. It was, of course, brought about by Mustapha Kemal, in an extraordinary feat of military and political agility. But nothing was certain, and when Talaat gave his final interview things were really on a knife-edge to the west of Ankara.

Talaat was right in his warnings to Audrey Herbert and some say that is why the British had him assassinated through an Armenian gunman. I have no way of knowing if that were true or not. But we know that Basil Thomson was involved and it was Thomson who made sure Sir Roger Casement was hung.

The Turkish Republic was one of the consequences of Britain’s Great War of 1914. No Ottoman had such a state in mind as an objective prior to 1914. If anything it could be said to have been a British objective of the War to reduce the Turks to a territory of their own, and take the parts of the Ottoman territory that were of strategic value for itself (e.g. the Arab parts of Palestine and Mesopotamia). The survival of the Empire in some shape or form was the objective of the Ottoman leadership in 1914, and probably the only objective.

Before the Great War the C.U.P. had struggled with a formula to rejuvenate the Empire. They had been told they had a “Sick Man” on their hands and they certainly believed it. The era of nationalism, which had descended upon the Empire in its heartland, the Ottoman Balkans, and uprooted its Moslem community, seemed to be the requirement of the future and progress. But at the same time, the British, French and Russians maintained their empires and expanded them. Mixed messages were everywhere. It seemed to be one law for some and one law for others. But who were the some and who were the others? The winners and the losers, perhaps?

So what was there to do? Various blends of Ottoman nationalism, Islamism or Turkification were all advocated at one time or another and a mash up sought that would rejuvenate the Empire. But the intention was never a Turkish national state and a process of simplification. That was actually the Armenian aim.

An answer to the problem was never found by the Young Turks and it had to be solved as a consequence of the War by Mustapha Kemal in war, politics and at the conference table.

If someone attempts to maintain the structure of a building facing collapse during an earthquake, by taking extraordinary measures to keep it standing, can we really correctly call them an architect?

Britain won the Great War of 1914 against the Ottomans and destroyed their state, placing a Turkish state of some kind as the only item on the agenda. Lloyd George lost the war he subsequently waged to reduce the Turks to an Anatolian fragment and in the end the Turkish Republic conceded by the British at Lausanne reflected quite well the territory where Turks were in the majority (Mosul was debatable). All were relatively content with the result – except Greeks and Armenians who proved to be pawns in a losing game.

Between 1919 and 1921, as resistance was put up to Lloyd Georges scheme (whatever it actually was), the existence of any form of Turkish political entity was in the balance. Seeing Ataturk’s achievement from this position as the culmination of Talaat’s plan is simply bizarre.

In conclusion, the problem with Prof. Keiser’s book is that he has determined on a fixed position with regard to the Armenian issue and has then applied all the information he can gather to support that position, ignoring everything that undermines his arguments. However, what he offers as evidence is very insubstantial and is outweighed considerably by the evidence that opposes his view. Prof Keiser’s zeal in spreading the word is almost religious and has resulted in the type of closed mind that is consequent from such a disposition. At one point, toward the end of the book he expresses pleasure that he has played a part in consigning Talaat Pasha to Hell! Such moral animosity to historical figures is curious, to say the least, in a scholar.

That lethal combination turns history into propaganda – as Bryce and Toynbee demonstrated a century ago. Therefore, although Prof. Keiser presents enough evidence to falsify other accounts that are being used by the Armenian lobby, in the end he joins them all in their declarations of the one true faith, in which all dissent is damned as “denialism”. That is not historical inquiry, it is religion.



a. The Last Interview

Let us now look at Talaat Pasha’s own account and explanation of what happened to the Armenians, and why he did what he did.

The last interview with Talaat Pasha was conducted by Aubrey Herbert in March 1921, a week before he was assassinated by an Armenian in Berlin. Talaat’s assassin, Tehlirian Soghomon had earlier killed Haroutounian Mkrtchian, in Istanbul in 1920. Haroutounian was accused of being the head of the Ottoman secret police who began the round-ups of Dashnaks in April 1915, the event that is marked as the beginning of the ‘Armenian Genocide”. The Head of the Ottoman Secret Police who began the “Armenian Genocide” was an Armenian!

Herbert had met Talaat back in 1908 when the Young Turks had come to power in Istanbul. After the armistices Talaat wrote a letter to the Englishman declaring he was not responsible for the Armenian massacres during the War and saying he could prove it. Herbert took the letter to “a distinguished man who is famous for his spotless integrity.” The dignitary persuaded him to refuse a meeting as “it was illegal to correspond with the enemy.”

However, in February 1921 Sir Basil Thomson of British Intelligence invited Herbert to see him at Scotland Yard and told him to go out immediately to Germany to speak to Talaat. Herbert asked for a letter to make his dealings official, which Thomson provided. Thomson presumably wanted information about the dangerous things that were emerging in the Near East out of Lloyd George’s policy – the developing Turkish/Bolshevik alliance that had been cemented by the carving up of the Southern Caucasus, the Bolshevik propaganda aimed at setting the Moslem world ablaze against the British Empire. He wanted to know what Talaat’s role was in all this and perhaps the German’s role too.

The interview is included in Herbert’s book ‘Ben Kendim: A Record of Easter Travels’. The reader needs to be a little bit careful with the interview since it is Aubrey Herbert who is reporting Talaat’s account. But the gist of it is certainly Talaat’s story.

Herbert first asked Talaat about “the attempted extermination of the Armenians”. Talaat replied that such a thing would be “impossible, and a country that adopted such methods” would “cut itself off from civilization.” He had, “twice protested against” the relocation policy “and had been overruled by the Germans.”

Talaat Pasha continued:

“In England you hear only one side of the case,” he  said. “Now, I don’t know what is happening in Ireland, and I don’t believe all I hear, but you are certainly doing some very stiff things to the Sinn Feiners; and, after all, what is your Irish problem to ours of Armenia? Can any nation go through a war and acquiesce when it is stabbed in the back? What would you have done if you had had Sinn Fein enclaves all over England, fighting you during the war?” He said that he was in favour of granting autonomy to minorities in the most extended form, and would gladly consider any proposition that was made to him.

“You remember,” he said, “years ago, I asked you to go to Lord Milner and beg him to become Governor-General of Armenia. I knew that we had either to reform ourselves or to perish, and I knew that we were incapable of reforming ourselves when every man’s hand was against us, and all the world was waiting to exploit our country. But your Government, rightly or wrongly, had decided upon a Russian policy, and would lend no official support to Englishmen entering Turkish service, or, indeed, do anything that was disliked by St. Petersburg. You English cannot divest yourselves of responsibility in this matter. We Young Turks practically offered Turkey to you, and you refused us. One undoubted consequence has been the ruin of the Christian minorities, whom your Prime Minister has insisted on treating as your allies. If the Greeks and the Armenians are your allies when we are at war with you, you cannot expect our Turkish Government to treat them as friends.”

“Rightly or wrongly,” said Talaat Pasha, ”you made friends with Russia; that was your policy at home, and that was your policy at the Embassy in Constantinople. I liked Sir Gerard Lowther; he was an English gentleman, and I suppose he carried out his orders; but never, I think, in the history of the world, did one Power have such a commanding position and so obsess about as did Great Britain Turkey when we made our revolution. For if the leaders liked you, the people adored you; they took the horses out of your Ambassador’s carriage and they pulled it up to the Embassy. That was a very little thing, a small symbol; they would have let it go over their bodies if he had wished it. There was nothing in those days which we would not have given if you had asked it of us. But you wanted nothing of us, and gratitude cannot live on air. The Ambassador was cold; Fitzmaurice was hostile; we had to find means to live. But even after our estrangement, we still tried to regain your friendship. We accepted Kiamil, our determined opponent, as Grand Vizier, to please you. It did not please you — nothing that we could do pleased you. You drove us into the arms of Germany. We had no alternative: anything else was political death and partition.”

I asked him at what point friendly relations between ourselves and Turkey became impossible. He said, at the time when Mr. Asquith made his speech on the question of Adrianople. Sir Edward Grey saw Tewfik Pasha; he and Mr. Asquith both said the same thing, publicly and privately. “If the Turks go to Adrianople, they must take the consequences.”

Talaat continued: “I went to the Turkish Cabinet, and said: ‘ This is bluff; neither Russia, France nor England is prepared to do anything. I resign now. You can continue, but I shall go down to the Chamber and will tell them why I have resigned, and you will fall.’ Meanwhile troops marched on Adrianople, and British prestige received a great blow, as no penalty followed.”

He then talked about the war, and his own experiences in it. He said that in his opinion soldiers were the salt of the earth, but that they were often stupid people. He himself had been present when the Brest-Litovsk Treaty had been signed. Czernin was also there, but they had been beaten by Ludendorf and Hoffmann. Ludendorff counted for everything, the Kaiser for very little. Talaat Pasha said that once Count Czernin had shouted in a burst of passion: “By God, if I ever have a reincarnation I shall be born a British subject, even if I have to be born black.” “Ah,” said Talaat, “I do not know if he would say that now. It is sad for you; you have lost a great deal of your prestige.”…

I asked him what had been their relations with the Germans during the war. He laughed and said, “Detestable.” He said that what the Turks had wished for was not a war that should end war, but a war without a decisive victory on either side. If we won, as we had won, it meant the partition of Turkey. If, on the other hand, Germany won, it meant the enslavement of Turkey. On one occasion a Q.M.G. arrangement had been come to between the Turks and the Germans without his knowledge. He found himself completely handcuffed by the Germans, and said to the Council of Ministers, “I often wondered why the English wanted to fight the Germans, but now I know.”

He talked at length of the end of the war. He had been on a mission in Europe, where he had seen the kings, the military leaders and the politicians. His account was dramatic. He had seen the Emperor Charles, who was, he said, “bon enfant ” in Austria. The Emperor, he said, wanted peace, in order to enjoy his Empire, and for his Empire’s sake; the continuation of war would be the end of Austria. He saw was peace over-ripe. He talked with the Kaiser. “Quand le Kaiser m’a vu, il a crie, ‘Eh bien, Talaat, si c’est la trahison de vouloir la paix, moi aussi je suis traitre. Je veux la paix.’ ” He returned to Turkey with Tewfik Pasha, whose son was Talaat’s military secretary. On the way they received a telegram inviting them to the palace at Sofia for an audience with the Tsar Ferdinand. Then came another telegram cancelling the first, and saying that there would be a reception at the station for them. Tewfik Pasha was inclined to be affronted, but Talaat told him that the Tsar Ferdinand was  “un homme tres ruse,” and would not have changed the programme without a very good reason.

There were enormous crowds at the station at Sofia. “Moi j’ai apercu tout de suite que quelque chose s’etait passe.” Malinoff came up to Talaat and said, “It is finished. The 11th Division have broken ; Bulgaria is done, and we have sued for an armistice.” Talaat replied, “You are wrong to have done this; we should all have asked for an armistice together. What terms shall we be given now?”

He went to see King Ferdinand. That monarch talked to him only of the character of the new Sultan, and Turkish politics. He avoided immediate political issues. Talaat grew restive, and interrupted: “Your Majesty, I have had an hour’s talk with Malinoff, and I know what has happened. What are you going to do now?” King Ferdinand, he said, threw out his arms in a gesture of despair.

Prince Boris, said Talaat, had great charm, but he did not believe that he took the defeat very much to heart. He showed no sorrow, and in the ex-Grand-Vizier’s opinion he was as much in favour of peace as was the Emperor Charles, though possibly for different reasons.

Tewfik and Talaat pursued their journey to Constantinople, where Talaat Pasha laid his resignation before the Sultan, who refused to accept it. Talaat said to the Sultan: “It is essential for your Government to have someone else to talk to the victors. They do not like me: my personality is disagreeable to them. Choose Rahmy; they will be glad to have discussions with him.” Talaat’s advice was not taken, but he was allowed to resign.

He spoke with angry indignation of the imprisonment of Eyub Sabri, his friend, and of Rahmy Pasha and other Turks who were our prisoners in Malta. By what right, he asked, were these men — many of whom had been against the war, and were pro-British — seized during the Armistice and imprisoned for two years without a trial? No other country had been treated like that. “It is only to us poor Turks, to whom you are always preaching principles, that you behave like that,” said Talaat Pasha.

Khairy Effendi, formerly Sheikh-ul-Islam, had been in the Government that had declared war upon us. He was liberated, while others, who had opposed the war, were held prisoners. It was possible that Rahmy Pasha had been imprisoned in Malta because of the expulsion of the Greeks, but as a matter of fact Rahmy had vehemently opposed this measure. He knew that the littoral Greeks (Greeks on the coast) would give the Allies what assistance they could, but he thought their help would be insignificant; and he believed that if they were expelled, it might very easily bring King Constantine and the Greeks into the war against Turkey. But the Germans had insisted, and neither Talaat nor Rahmy felt that they could be “plus royaliste que le roi.”

Rahmy had treated the English throughout the war with a friendship that was more than consideration. He asked me if Rahmy had not been officially thanked by our Minister in Athens, Sir Francis Elliot, for his kindness to our people. I answered that all he said was true and made Englishmen like myself very heartily ashamed. Our Government was sent to us as an affliction from God.

The ex-Grand Vizier talked much about himself. He said that he was born a rebel, and that when he was young he had read much French literature, which added an extra varnish to his mutinous soul. The condition of Turkey was enough to make anyone, with a spark of manhood in him, fierce. Talaat came across the infamous Fehim, Chief Constable of Constantinople, whose amiable habit it was to seize any woman who caught his fancy, forcing her husband to play some version of the part of Uriah.

I asked him if he thought the spies of Abdul Hamid very efficient. “No, not very,” said he. “Mine were fairly good, I think; but then, I had much to appeal to with my people, and also I used your English system.” “What?” said I. “Well,” he said, “we were told that the noble youths of England offered their service gratis to the secret police. Was not that true? ”…

I… asked him if assassination was often in his mind. He said that he never thought of it. Why should anyone dislike him? I said that Armenians might very well desire vengeance, after all that had been written about him in the papers. He brushed this aside.

He made a number of inquiries about old friends, and asked warmly after Louis Mallet. Speaking of Enver, I said I liked him, and thought him modest, but not at all clever. “No,” he said, “you could not call him clever, though he is a brave man and patriotic.”

He spoke of his own family ; he was living with his wife in Berlin, he said, and, like most people, he had been selling all that was available; but he looked forward to a swift ending of these troubles. England and Turkey would soon be on terms of friendship.

Next morning, he told me that good news had come from England. Bekir Sami Bey had been invited to tea with the Prime Minister. They had, he believed, agreed upon the autonomy of Armenia, where the majorities were recognized, and to an inquiry in Thrace and Smyrna.

“Now,” said the ex-Grand Vizier, “let me make a summary of my proposals to you, which amount to an Anglo-Turkish alliance. Though I am not in power at the present moment, you will find that these proposals are acceptable to those who are, and their acceptance will bring peace to you as well as to us.

“Let us realise the present complicated position,” said he.” My thesis is, that there is only one civilisation in the world, and that if Turkey is to be saved she must be joined to civilisation. Before the war, I was anxious that England should be her teacher; you will remember that, and my proposals about Lord Milner. Well, England refused, and the war came; then, quite frankly, I looked to Germany in victory to do what we had once hoped for from England. For I believed that Germany would win the war. In that belief we signed a treaty with Germany one month before war was declared. Germany has not won; we have all been defeated.

“The house that we had has been burnt to the ground, but that house was badly built; it was full of Naughts, and it was not sanitary. We still possess the site upon which it stood. Our geography is a fortress to us — a. very strong fortress. Our mountains are the strongest of our forces. You cannot pursue us into the mountains of Asia; and stretching back into Central Asia are six republics, composed of men of our blood, cousins, if not brothers, and limited now by the bond of misfortune. I will speak of that later.

Then, too, the war forced us to cut our losses, and that is an advantage. We shall be no more troubled by the rebellions of the Albanians, the Macedonians and the Arabs,” said the ex-Grand Vizier.

He elaborated the situation. The urgent need of Turkey was to be helped, and for this help he and his friends looked eagerly to Great Britain. But the Turks would not accept help at the price of financial or military servitude. Mr. Lloyd George, in his opinion, had believed that Turkey could be destroyed, and had been persuaded that this was the case by his Greek friends, Venizelos and Sir Basil Zaharoff. Mr. Lloyd George was wrong. Talaat did not wish to exaggerate the strength of Turkey, but he thought that England ought not to underrate it. If there was not a unity of ideas between Angora and Constantinople, there was, at any rate, unity of ideals.

‘‘Now,” he said, when again speaking of the six Red republics, “they are red, but not deep red. They are Moslem populations, and are naturally influenced by all that Turkey does, and they are affected by all that Turkey suffers. Bokhara is a potential force; there are latent possibilities to be developed there for good or for evil. At the present moment” Talaat Pasha continued, “Turkey is at war with England, and we are engaged in propaganda throughout the East, and inciting India, though not very effectually. Turkey is, in fact, pursuing a policy of enlisting as many people as she can against Great Britain, and undertaking all possible reprisals open to her.”

It was, he admitted, an ineffective reply to the French policy of conscription of native races in Africa, and it was a pity that this policy of Turkish propaganda had not been begun earlier, and had not been better organised.

“It is not a grand policy,” he said. “No grander than yours has been. Yours was a violation of the Armistice, and ours was the best that we could do.” He said it was a “jeu de gamin,” and compared it to cutting telegraph wires. That might do very little damage, but, on the other hand, it might do a great deal of harm.

“Turkey,” he said, “is a Power, and, do what you will, she will remain a Power. There is, at the present moment, only a political hatred of Great Britain in Turkey.” He would go so far as to say that there was more hostility to us amongst the Arabs and the Hindus than amongst the Turks. The Crimea, although it happened long ago, was not forgotten; the Dardanelles would not weigh in the balance against it. England had often intervened on behalf of the Turks, and they were a grateful people. He could not pretend to know the Indian question, but he did not believe that there was any real hatred of us in India.

He discussed Bolshevism with acute dislike. He said it might suit Russia; it could not suit the rest of the world. The human race could not change, or, at any rate, not to that extent, outside Russia. It could not accept such a lunatic system. “But,” he continued, “as the Russians chose to go in for Bolshevism, that is their business. There is no danger to Turkey in it now; nor do I consider that it is a peril to England, as long as it remains in its own borders, and with propaganda for its only weapon.”

There were many of his countrymen who hoped that Bolshevism would boil over the Russian border, and go foaming into Europe, foreseeing salvation to Asia in a general European catastrophe. He was not one of those. He did not want a safety that came from ruins. He preferred to see an ordered Europe, and a peaceful Turkey helped by Great Britain. But he would refuse to join an anti-Bolshevist alliance at the present moment, when his country was at war.

Men, said the ex-Grand Vizier, were Bolshevik by conviction, by policy, or by interest. He might be the last; he was certainly not the first. An alliance with the Bolshevists was purely a matter of expediency. You might say it was a double-edged sword, but its edge, as far as the enemies of Turkey were concerned, was sharp, and its dangerous edge to Turkey was very blunt. The Turk and the Bolshevik had nothing in common but a temporary alliance, a convenience from the point of view of Russia that answered a need from the point of view of Turkey.

He had not been to Moscow recently, nor had he seen Lenin, but he had seen Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk, and had a poor opinion of him. Trotsky, he thought, like the majority of the Russian Jews, was a degenerate.

He told me that Enver was at the moment in Moscow, for the same reason that he, Talaat, might have been there, not through any liking of Bolshevism. Enver, he said, was colourless, as far as policy was concerned. He was doing the best in his power for his country.

Halil Pasha (whom I had last seen between Sanayat and Kut on the day that Townshend surrendered) was also in Moscow. He was an exception, and had a penchant towards communism. Djemal Pasha was engaged in propaganda against Great Britain in Turkestan.

He spoke of the natural antagonism between the principles of Bolshevism and Islam: fire and water were not more different. I asked him what part pan-Islam was likely to play in the future, and he expressed the Nationalist, or the Young Turks’ point of view. Islam, he said, in itself is a grand religion, and though it was preached in the desert, it is still compatible with civilisation, and can be adapted to modern needs. But, in common with all other religions, it can swiftly become intolerant in the hearts of fanatics. By their actions the Young Turks had shown that they did not mean to use pan-Islam as a weapon. That had been the policy of Abdul Hamid, but it was a short-sighted policy, because in the end it could not succeed, and meant war between Islam and the rest of the world, and that could have no other result for Islam as a creed than fanaticism and barbarism.

The deeds of the Young Turks were a proof that they did not favour pan-Islam. Had they not incurred the greatest unpopularity by putting the rayah (native Christian) on a level with the Moslem? There were other features of their policy that gave offence — amongst them their intention to abolish polygamy. His party had deliberately adopted the milder and less fanatical creed which was useless as a fiery torch.

He spoke of the Caliphate question, using the usual arguments, and again wondered what demon of madness had taken possession of the British Government. If the question of the Caliphate was satisfactorily settled, a big step would be taken to restore our popularity among the Indians. I said it was always more easy to raise a storm than to allay it; and I asked him if there was any Turk with sufficient prestige to calm the Indian agitation, if such a course was ever desired by Great Britain. He said that the trouble in India would cease automatically when we entered into friendly relations with Turkey. We could send any Turk to India whom we pleased. He laughed, and added, “It is very unlikely that your Government would trust me. But if they did, I would guarantee to do my best.”

I asked him if he thought it likely that the pan-Turanian movement would develop. He answered that the events of the last years had given all those who were related a closer sense of kinship. Often men only remembered a poor brother when they themselves became poor, but he saw no future in our lives for Turanianism, though Asiatics were drawing closer to each other.

He said that he had written a memorandum on the Armenian massacres which he was very anxious that British statesmen should read. Early in the war, in 1915, the Armenians had organised an army, and had attacked the Turks, who were then fighting the Russians. Three Armenian deputies had taken an active part; the alleged massacres of Moslems had taken place, accompanied by atrocities on women and children. He had twice opposed enforced migration, and he had been the author of an inquiry which resulted in the execution of a number of guilty Kurds and Turks.

He and his friends were willing to consider sympathetically any proposition for Armenian autonomy. But facts must be faced. Even if all the Armenians who had been driven into the Caucasus were to return, they would represent only a small fraction of the population, who are mainly non-Armenian. He himself favoured the rights of minorities in its most extended form. After President Wilson’s speeches, and in the present state of the world, opposition to this principle was folly. If Great Britain came to an amicable agreement with Turkey, she would be in the position to do what she liked with regard to Armenia. The first, and most practical, step would be the organisation of an efficient gendarmerie to pacify and create order in that country…

Talaat Pasha spoke with more emphasis and fire of Greece than of any other question. Greece had no title to Smyrna, To give Smyrna to Greece was in contradiction to all that we had promised, and was a reward to her for the massacres that had taken place there. Smyrna was Turkish, and must remain Turkish. He rejected a compromise which I suggested, but without violence. “No, no,” he said; ”you must give us back Smyrna, and peace will be restored, and when peace is restored all the resources of Asia Minor will be at the disposal of Great Britain. Asia Minor is a rich land, crying aloud for development, and the only serious condition that we will ask you, excluding your friendship, is recognition of our independence.

The other details can easily be arranged. There is, of course, the question of the islands. If we are ever going to have peace, steps must be taken to see that the islands immediately adjacent to the mainland are not made a sanctuary for Greek comitadjis.” I asked him if a compromise could not be arrived at with regard to Thrace, and he answered that no compromise was possible with regard to Eastern Thrace, for Constantinople could never rest in security under the guns of her enemies.

He was, however, quite ready to agree to the internationalisation or to the neutralisation of the Straits. He looked upon the occupation of the Dardanelles by the Greeks as provocative, and wished to bring it to an end. When Russia was out of action, he said, the question of the Dardanelles had almost ceased to exist. He had lately been approached by a Greek official, whose name he gave me, on the question of coming to an understanding. But the time was not ripe. The Greeks said that Mustapha Kemal was bluffing. Very well; let them prove that by the force of arms…

The ex-Grand Vizier then talked of Europe generally, but asked me to respect certain confidences of his. It was evident from his conversation that he and the Turks of Angora were in close touch with the big forces of the moment, and with all the chief European Governments, except that of Great Britain. He said he thought the Irish situation had been badly handled. It was the first time in our own days that we had had to deal with a question of that kind, and we had made crude mistakes. He had seen some of the Sinn Feiners in Germany, but had a poor opinion of them. He thought that the position in Germany itself was dangerous, and he believed that the French were determined to go into Germany, though he did not think that such an action would bring them any nearer to getting their money. A French invasion of Germany would drive the Germans to join hands with the Bolshevists. Relief might then come to Turkey through European chaos, but, as he had said before, he hoped for relief through other channels.

I asked Talaat Pasha if his views were Right or Left, and he answered that he was Liberal, but would not admit to any political colour, saying that politics changed, and that patriotism was constant.

“Now,” said Talaat Pasha, “I have put all my cards on the table, and I hope you will be able to persuade your Government of these facts, which, after all, can easily be proved. We are ready to make great concessions to achieve our object, which is peace and friendship with England, I do not want power nor office; I speak for myself, but I am in the centre of things. Mustapha Kemal in Angora will not be in disagreement with me; and Bekir Sami Bey is saying in London to-day what I am saying in Dusseldorf to you. His propositions have been favourably considered ; the Allied Governments propose to have an inquiry into the question of Smyrna and of Thrace. The Armenian question is on the way to being settled. Bekir Sami has had friendly discussions with Mr. Lloyd George at Downing Street, and now I have said all I have to say. If the British Government desire it, peace can be obtained immediately, and with it the development of Asia Minor. You can never achieve the partition of Turkey. England and Turkey are not industrial rivals, but customers, who depend upon each other, and surely it is better for customers to be friends.”

I said good-bye to Talaat Pasha, and we went our different ways. I returned to London, where I saw Bekir Sami Bey several times. He was a straight man and a gentleman, who was ready to go to the limit of concession to obtain peace and British friendship. His proposals, which did not materially differ from those of Talaat Pasha, like many other things of that time, were discreetly broadcasted, it was said, from Downing Street, and became known to the Bolshevists, who demanded Bekir Sami Bey’s head upon a charger, and duly received it.

The Greeks advanced triumphantly during the Eastern Armistice. Negotiations broke down, and war raged again in Asia Minor, and so things continued for a year. The Foreign Office was ignored, and the Eastern policy of No. 10 Downing Street remained a mixture of frivolity and fanaticism, until Mr. Lloyd George effectively combined them in his speech of August 4, 1922. That fervent oration was sent out as an Army Order to the unhappy Greek troops, whom it hurried to their doom. For the sake of the Greeks and Turks, and, indeed, our own reputation, it is a pity that Talaat Pasha was not able to have his way and to achieve peace. But if the revolver of the murderer had spared him, it is not likely that he, or indeed any other man, would have been able to convince Mr. Lloyd George of the truth of facts. They might as easily have persuaded Sir Basil Zaharoff.

Talaat returned to Berlin, where he was immediately murdered by a Persian Armenian. He died hated, indeed execrated, as few men have been in their generation. He may have been all that he was painted — I cannot say. I know that he had rare power and attraction. I do not know whether he was responsible or not for the Armenian massacres. All I know is that he was fearless; and anyone who, like myself, only knew him superficially, found him to be kindly and with a singular charm.

So died Talaat Pasha, the Young Turk, and, I incline to think, the genius of that movement. But, Young Turk leader though he was, he still had much of the old Turk in him. He was not envenomed against England by the protracted persecution of Mr. Lloyd George. Is what Talaat Pasha proposed to me, what Bekir Sami Bey suggested in London, and the peace terms that Ali Fethi Bey brought fruitlessly to deaf ears in London in 1922, still open to us to-day, or is the chasm that separates us from Turkey and from Islam unbridgeable? I think not. Our interests lie together, and whatever the reason may be, it is a fact that the Turk and the Englishman, in nine cases out of ten, get on with each other and like each other. We have been left the heirs of the incompetency of Mr. Lloyd George and his Government, and the Turks have inherited the legacy of hatred that recent years have bequeathed to them.

But the Turks have a proverb, which those Englishmen who were sent out between the lines on the various occasions when an armistice was proclaimed during the war often heard. It became familiar to them between mounds of Turkish and British dead — “Eski dost Dushman olmaz ” (an old friend cannot be an enemy). If we can convince the Turks that we have a similar sentiment here, the memory of recent quarrels may be forgotten in the recollection of a more ancient understanding.

b. Talaat’s Memoirs

Talaat’s Memoirs, which he referred to in his final interview, came to light not long after his murder in Berlin and were published posthumously in New York. (Note: English translations of Talaat’s memorandum use the word “deportation” for the word “tehcir.” The word “deportation” is incorrect, because Armenians were moved within the country, and not out of the country. They were also allowed to return their homes after September 1915. This meaning is not conveyed by the word deportation – either relocation or forced migration is more accurate.)

Here are the parts of Talaat’s memoirs to do with what happened to the Armenians:

“The relocation of the Armenians, in some localities of the Greeks, and in Syria of some of the Arabs, was used inside and outside the empire as a source of attack on the Turkish Government. First of all, I wish to inform the public that the rumors of relocation and assassination were exceedingly exaggerated. The Greeks and the Armenians, taking advantage of the ignorance of the American and European public of the Near Eastern situation and of the character of the Turks, used the relocations as a means for propaganda, and painted it as best suited their aim. In saying this, I do not mean to deny the facts. I desire only to eliminate the exaggerations and to relate the facts as they occurred.

I admit that we relocated many Armenians from our eastern provinces, but we never acted in this matter upon a previously prepared scheme. The responsibility for these acts falls first of all upon the relocated people themselves. Russia, in order to lay hand on our eastern provinces, had armed and equipped the Armenian inhabitants of this district, and had organized strong Armenian bandit forces in the said area. When we entered the great war, these bandits began their destructive activities in the rear of the Turkish Army on the Caucasus front, blowing up the bridges, setting fire to the Turkish towns and villages and killing the innocent Mohammedan inhabitants, regardless of age and sex. They spread death and terror all over the eastern provinces, and endangered the Turkish Army’s line of retreat. All these Armenian bandits were helped by the native Armenians. When they were pursued by the Turkish gendarmes, the Armenian villages were a refuge for them. When they needed help, the Armenian peasants around them, taking their arms hidden in their churches, ran to their aid. Every Armenian church, it was later discovered, was a depot of ammunition. In this disloyal way they killed more than 300,000 Mohammedans, and destroyed the communication of the Turkish Army with its bases. The information that we were receiving from the administrators of these provinces and from the commander of the Caucasian Army gave us details of the most revolting and barbarous activities of the Armenian bandits. It was impossible to shut our eyes to the treacherous acts of the Armenians, at a time when we were engaged in a war which would determine the fate of our country. Even if these atrocities had occurred in a time of peace, our Government would have been obliged to quell such outbreaks. The Porte, acting under the same obligation, and wishing to secure the safety of its army and its citizens, took energetic measures to check these uprisings. The relocation of the Armenians was one of these preventive measures.

I admit also that the relocation was not carried out lawfully everywhere. In some places unlawful acts were committed. The already existing hatred among the Armenians and Mohammedans, intensified by the barbarous activities of the former, had created many tragic consequences. Some of the officials abused their authority, and in many places people took preventive measures into their own hands and innocent people were molested. I confess it. I confess, also, that the duty of the Government was to prevent these abuses and atrocities. or at least to hunt down and punish their perpetrators severely. In many places, where the property and goods of the relocated people were looted, and the Armenians molested, we did arrest those who were responsible and punished them according to the law. I confess, however, that we ought to have acted more sternly, opened up a general investigation for the purpose of finding out all the promoters and looters and punished them severely.

But we could not do that. Although we punished many of the guilty, most of them were untouched. These people, whom we might call outlaws, because of their unlawful attitude in disregarding the order of the Central Government, were divided into two classes. Some of them were acting under personal hatred, or for individual profit. Those who looted the goods of the deported Armenians were easily punishable, and we punished them. But there was another group, who sincerely believed that the general interest of the community necessitated the punishment alike of those Armenians who massacred the guiltless Mohammedans and those who helped the Armenian bandits to endanger our national life. The Turkish elements here referred to were short-sighted, fanatic, and yet sincere in their belief. The public encouraged them, and they had the general approval behind them. They were numerous and strong. Their open and immediate punishment would have aroused great discontent among the people, who favored their acts. An endeavor to arrest and to punish all these promoters would have created anarchy in Anatolia at a time when we greatly needed unity. It would have been dangerous to divide the nation into two camps, when we needed strength to fight outside enemies. We did all that we could, but we preferred to postpone the solution “of our internal difficulties until after the defeat of our external enemies.

As to the relocation of the Greeks and the Arabs, this charge is based more on propaganda than on real fact. The truth is that the Greeks living on the coast of the Sea of Marmora supplied food and petrol to the enemy submarines, which, passing through the strait, entered the Marmora and threatened our communication by sea. In order to prevent the Greeks from aiding the enemy, we relocated those who were guilty to Anatolia? But their relocation was carried out in a very regular way. They suffered neither loss of life nor of goods. As to the Arabs of Syria, we confined ourselves to the application of martial law, and punished only those who promoted a revolution to overthrow the Turkish authority in Syria.

These preventive measures were taken in every country during the war, but, while the regrettable results were passed over in silence in the other countries, the echo of our acts was heard the world over, because everybody’s eyes were upon us.”




Azerbaijan Britain's Great War Geopolitics Russia Second World War Turkey and Ottoman Empire

Why Baku Fell to the Soviets a Century ago today

EO-9IVOXkAA-_E7A hundred years ago an event of great geopolitical significance occurred – the fall of Baku and the Republic of Azerbaijan to the Red Army.

When the question is asked: why did this happen it is usually answered with an explanation of how it happened, neatly side-stepping the actual issue why? It seems to be in few peoples’ interest to ask the reasons why Baku, Azerbaijan and then the whole Southern Caucasus, including Armenia and Georgia, were mopped up by the Red Army and the Soviet Union in around a year. And it would have been quicker if Marshal Pilsudski of Poland had not had a hand in the matter, delaying Lenin’s and Stalin’s plans.

So we are told that Baku fell, opening the door for the Red Army to Transcaucasia, because of the Soviet Union’s desire for the oil of Baku. But anyone would have wanted and taken these very important oil fields if they could – the British had held them during 1919, the Ottomans had sent an army to them in late 1918, the Germans had their eye on them at the same time. the White Russians would have taken them if the Red Russians hadn’t defeated them, and the Armenians certainly would have taken them if they had had the power.

There were a number of economic, political and strategic reasons why the Soviets wanted to take possession (or repossession from the Russian viewpoint) of the area that had become Azerbaijan. First, of course were the natural resources, and in particular the oil fields of Baku, which composed 75% of the Soviet supply and which was vital for industrialization and the survival of the Communist State. Second, the conquest of Azerbaijan, the gateway to the Southern Caucasus, opened the way to Armenia and Georgia as well as to Persia for Bolshevism. Thirdly, it facilitated the export of communist propaganda in all directions from this strategic hub. And lastly it blocked the access and influence of the Western Imperialists, particularly Britain, from the region.

Lenin said that the oil of Baku was indispensable to the Soviet State. He was right. No oil, no industrialization; no industrialization no future in a world dominated by the Western industrialized capitalist nations. Twenty years later Hitler sent his armies to get the oil of Baku on a great diversion toward the Caucasus. His Generals promised him it as a birthday present. But he only got a cake with “BAKU” icing on it and his armies perished at Stalingrad, the great turning point of the biggest war in history. Baku was very important.

So the importance of Baku and its oil were a given. If the Bolsheviks did not take it someone else would have. And it is very unlikely that the small and very new Azerbaijan Republic could have fended off most of the forces desiring it without substantial allies to back them.

And that takes us to the real answer to the question: why did Baku fall in April 1920 to the Soviet Union? The answer to that can be summed up in a sentence: Great Britain and its relationship to the Armenians. Let’s take the two elements one at a time.

First of all, it has to be remembered that Britain occupied Transcaucasia from late 1918, when it won its Great War, until well into 1919, when it suddenly decided to withdraw the bulk of its military forces.

About 2 years ago I started writing a book about the geopolitical struggle between Britain and Russia in the Caucasus. It will be published in the Summer (Insallah). It is a complex story but I will attempt to simplify the 1918-20 part for the purposes of this article.

At the end of 1918, as a result of its Great War victory, the British Empire had gained control of a vast land area stretching eastward from Istanbul into Anatolia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Behind this area a great belt of land, running east from Palestine, through Mesopotamia/Iraq and into Persia lay in England’s hands, to do what it wished with.  In front of this Britain was supplying and supporting various military forces that were disintegrating the Russian state through civil war. The Great War of 1914 had not only succeeded in destroying Germany, and the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, but it had also seemingly won Britain the Great Game of a century of geopolitical rivalry with Russia. Russia had been disabled by being lured into a disastrous war on Germany that Britain insisted it fought to the last Russian. And when the Tsar and then the Revolution’s Provisional Government continued to oblige they let in Lenin and the Bolsheviks. And Britain effectively pinned Russia down through stoking a civil on its territory for nearly 3 years. It believed it had the Bolsheviks and Russia on the ropes.

Yet in the moment of triumph of Imperial Britain, and in less than two years, Russia was back in the Caucasus and it was pressing down on British Persia/Iran. And Russia was no longer Tsarist Russia but Bolshevik Russia.

This extraordinary turn of events is not explained to any satisfactory degree in the history books of the Anglosphere. Consequently, accounts are bemused by England’s behaviour in 1919, which is really only understandable within a geopolitical context. Why the great statesmen of England did what they did deserves more attention and explanation. The history of Transcaucasia and its Anatolian hinterland is really inexplicable without trying to understand their calculations and effect on events.

Winston Churchill, who features strongly in this story, once called Russia “a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma.” But Russia is hardly an enigma. For the most part of two centuries it has controlled the Caucasus and unless someone prevented it from doing so, it remained in authority over the region. The peoples of the Caucasus were simply too many and too divided to resist the power of the Russian State. Only two internal collapses of it, in 1917 and 1990, provided the space for new states to be born and to thereafter function with a degree of independence.

Britain is much more an enigma in relation to the Caucasus than Russia actually is. Of course, the Caucasus is hardly in Britain’s backyard, but neither are the great expanses of the world she conquered and controlled for centuries elsewhere. But Britain, despite its immense power, had a fundamental problem with the region. That was because British power was sea power and the Caucasus were too continental for Britain’s main weapon of war, the Royal Navy, to be employed there to any great effect. Lord Salisbury once warned the Armenians that his navy could never traverse the Taurus Mountains to assist their objectives. Neither could it climb over the mountains of the Caucasus. What was needed were soldiers and that is what Britain lacked.

During the Great War Britain had built a massive army, larger than it had ever accumulated in its history. Soldiers were available to Britain: in Persia, Turkey and among the Moslem peoples of the Caucasus, who were opposed to Russian domination and would have willingly fought against it. And there lay the key to a successful defence of the Caucasus against the Russians if the will was there to make it a reality. In 1918-19 it seemed that the foundations of a very advantageous situation were there for Imperial Britain to dominate the region and put the Great Game of a century to bed. There was even Russian state collapse during the previous year to assist it. And then…?

Where there is a will there is a way. But in 1919 Britain’s will failed and there was no way. Imperial Britain, seemingly at the height of her power, having won its greatest of wars, baulked at the situation that confronted it, and the Imperial retreat began, unexpectedly, in the moment of victory. The Caucasus region and its peoples, who had been encouraged to form buffer-states and given a brief taste of independent existence, fell back into Russian hands – now Bolshevik hands – for nearly three quarters of a century. And the locals were left to make the best of it.

Much of the world is very credulous about Britain. That is hardly surprising, since Britain imposed itself upon the world in three great worldwide wars, conquered a large part of it in the course of these, established successful and powerful colonies as a result, and made the English language the default language for the writing of history, among other things. That historical process of forceful action, sustained over centuries, has produced conditioned reflexes which have inhibited thought and resulted in a great deal of credulity about the reality of events. That is why, I presume, I cannot find a realistic explanation for the fall of Baku in the English language today.

But any attempt to write the history of this period without considering the primary role of Great Britain in shaping the destiny of the peoples of the Southern Caucasus and Anatolia, is really “Hamlet without the Prince”.

In one major respect did Lenin have the advantage over Lloyd George: Britain had a divided mind when it assumed the mastery of the Caucasus in 1918, which meant that it did not know what to do as clearly as the Bolsheviks did. Was it operating the European Balance of Power or fighting the Great Game? These two fundamentals of British Foreign Policy had become tangled up since Edward Grey made the alliance with Russia in 1907 to encircle Germany. And having tangled up the two issues Britain just couldn’t untangle them again and see what had to be done in the world it had become master of.

And this same predicament in Britain’s divided mind, that was never resolved, produced the disastrous turn of events of the 1930’s when England zig-zagged all over the place and just could not decide who its real enemy was (this phenomenon is given the term ‘appeasement’ to dismiss thought about it).

The thing about the period just after the Great War was that although a new world had dawned – not least of all because the New World (America) had been drawn into the War – the people who presided over this new world had minds that had been formed in the period of the old world, before the cataclysm. They could not act how they would have acted in the old world and had to adjust for a new world that was unfamiliar and which they had no experience of in practice. History, the basis of past understandings and consequent actions, could not help them. And without bearings, they blundered.

The very act of fighting the Great War had also changed the minds that had considered issues in an entirely different light before the fighting had begun and had went on, and on, and on.

But, to get back to the Caucasus…

Although Britain signaled its intention to withdraw from its newly acquired Transcaucasian territories in mid-1919, citing financial restraints and the demobilization of its massive armies as reason, it gave many indications that it was prepared to establish a new order there, which it was prepared to defend.

Lord Curzon took over the Foreign Office and he was known to be one of the greatest of the Great Gamers from the Indian Empire, with a special interest in preserving Iran for the British Empire. He sent the famous Sir Halford Mackinder into Southern Russia as High Commissioner, and Mackinder had put forward the famous geopolitical dictum of “who controls the heartland, controls the world.” Mackinder had theorized about the importance of buffer-states to separate Germany and Russia and stop the Bolshevik virus from contaminating Western Europe. In July 1919 Curzon had managed to secure the appointment of Oliver Wardrop, an academic expert on Georgia and the Caucasus, as Britain’s High Commissioner in Tiflis. Wardrop was a strong supporter of the independence of the Caucasian states. Colonel Stokes, another supporter of this policy, was appointed representative in Baku.

At this point Britain attempted to encourage the Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis to become their cordon sanitaire by holding out the carrot of League of Nations recognition to them.

But just as the Supreme Council of the Allied Powers was conceding de facto recognition to Georgia and Azerbaijan through the League of Nations the British Cabinet and military were sabotaging their defence. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, insisted he did not have the army to defend the Caucasus line, although stating that losing the Caspian to the Bolsheviks would represent a “first class disaster” for Britain. To defend the Batoum-Baku line, Wilson knew that Britain had to make friends again with the Turks and allow them to retain Istanbul. In this argument he was supported by Churchill, Bonar Law and Edwin Montagu. However, opposition came from the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, who had great hopes for his Greek adventure in imposing a punitive treaty on the Turks.

The Caucasus states having been recognized by the League of Nations, Bonar Law, leader of the Conservatives, stated the Allied Governments’ position clearly in the House of Commons, on 24 February 1920:

“If the communities which border on the frontiers of Soviet Russia, and whose independence or de facto autonomy they have recognised, were to approach them and to ask for advice as to what attitude they should take with regard to Soviet Russia, the Allied Governments would reply that they cannot accept the responsibility of advising them to continue a war which may be injurious to their own interests. Still less would they advise them to adopt a policy of aggression towards Russia. If, however, Soviet Russia attacks them inside their own legitimate frontiers, the Allies will give them every possible support.”

This was understandably taken as a British guarantee to provide all support necessary in the event of a Soviet invasion. However, in late April, when the Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan called the British Foreign Office, expressing his fear of an imminent Bolshevik attack, Lord Curzon cabled the British High Commissioner in the Caucasus, Oliver Wardrop, with the following advice:

“There is no question of our giving Georgia and Azerbaijan active military support in case of an attack on them by Soviet forces, and you should be careful not to put any such interpretation on Mr. Bonar Law’s statement of February 24th.”

The appeals of Georgia and Azerbaijan to receive the arms and ammunition promised by the Allied Powers were constantly turned down by the British War Office which argued, despite the Prime Minister’s approval in principle for the Republic’s to be supplied, that no decision had actually been taken to dispatch military assistance. George Osborne at the Foreign Office instructed his officials to inform the Georgians and Azerbaijanis that “we find we have not sufficient military supplies available…” This was despite the fact that there was a great surplus of ordinance produced in Britain on the expectation that the Great War would last into 1920.

The Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, wrote to Admiral Cowan on 11th March, informing him that the British Military had moved their focus elsewhere, in a policy of retrenchment: “My whole energies are now bent to getting our troops out of Europe and Russia… and concentrating all our strengths in our common storm centres, viz. England, Ireland, Egypt and India.”

As Richard Ullman notes:

“To provide even… two divisions – much less seven – was out of the question… The British government’s campaign of repression in Ireland was demanding increasingly large forces… And from India, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Egypt came insistent requests for military manpower… This meant giving up the Caucasus and even much of Persia, and concentrating on the defence of India and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf.”

More than any other state in the region the Azerbaijan Republic took British Democracy at face value and aspired to be a model for liberal democracy in the Moslem world. Its leaders were educated and earnest men who saw in the British occupation an opportunity for the building of democratic national structures within a stable and secure environment.

But it seems that the British forces needed to defend the Azerbaijan democracy were required instead to deal with the more important matter of repressing the Irish democracy and other dissatisfied peoples elsewhere in Britain’s expanded Empire!

The records confirm that Baku would not be defended, no military forces were to be provided to the Transcaucasian Republics and no military supplies were to be diverted from General Denikin’s retreating White Russians to the Georgians or Azerbaijanis. Sir Henry Wilson recorded his thoughts in his Diary that night, as to the military reality of the situation:

“Curzon, who with Lloyd George is in Paris, sends a ridiculous wire about Georgia and Azerbaijan and the necessity of supporting them… We had a meeting at the Foreign Office, and I gave a lecture on a map showing the impossibility of standing on the forward lines in defence of India. I showed that Palestine-Mosul-Khanikin-Burujird was the only possible line, and that we should adjust our policy to that line. It was quite true that Georgia and Azerbaijan would go Bolshevik, in spite of the fact that those fools in Paris only yesterday agreed to acknowledge the “de facto governments” of those countries. It was also true that we should clear out of Persia, in spite of the treaty Curzon had just made with Persia without consulting the War Office.”

Britain had provided substantial and unconditional assistance to the Armenian Dashnaks, pro-Entente Russians and even the Soviets who blocked the way of the Ottoman army in mid-1918, during the Great War. This contrasted sharply with the minimal and conditional help it provided to Azerbaijan and Georgia to defend themselves against Bolshevism in early 1920. Britain, in mealy mouthed fashion, sent only a token supply of some surplus and faulty weaponry to the Republics against the Bolsheviks, and Curzon refused them loans. The fear was that if they lost – which the expectation was that they would, in the event of no help – any munitions sent would simply fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, as those supplied to Denikin’s army had.

There was one other force which could have defended the Southern Caucasus against the Bolsheviks and that was the Ottoman Turks. Churchill was in favour of concluding an honourable peace with Istanbul and combining with the Ottomans against the Bolsheviks in the Caucasus. But Lloyd George squandered the moment in his efforts to employ the Greeks in slowly strangling Turkey.

Because of this the two states that were fighting for their existence – the Turkish Republic and Bolshevik Russia were forced together to ensure their mutual survival.

When Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia were granted de facto statehood in January 1920 by the Allied Powers this event was not celebrated in Ankara. In fact, it was viewed as an Imperialist manoeuvre to erect a “Caucasian barrier” between the Turkish Republic and a potential anti-Imperialist ally in Bolshevik Russia. Mustapha Kemal even considered a “coordinated offensive against them” if necessary. With such an understanding, joint efforts between the Turkish Nationalists and Russian Bolsheviks to dissolve the Transcaucasian Republics were logical and the only question remaining was how to dismantle them, particularly the Azerbaijan Republic, as bloodlessly as possible.

The British always suspected the Ottomans of having pan-Turanian impulses in them with designs to the east. In his interview with U.S.Major General Harbord, in September 1919, Mustafa Kemal had revealed himself to be a Turkish nationalist pure and simple with not a trace of Pan-Turanianism in him. It would be going too far to say that he was disinterested in Azerbaijan because Mustafa Kemal was deeply concerned at what the Dashnaks were doing to the Moslems of the Caucasus. However, whilst wishing the Azerbaijanis well for the future the Turkish leader saw what was happening to the East of Erivan to be beyond his power to determine, in the situation that existed. And it would have been very impolitic to have imagined, like Enver Pasha, that such things were possible, so that the number of enemies facing the Turks, already formidable, would be increased to such an extent that the house that was being built would come down.

Mustapha Kemal wrote an important letter to Kazim Karabekir, Rauf Bey and other leading figures in the national movement, on February 5th, 1920, summarizing the situation as he saw it, and emphasizing the importance of establishing and increasing relations with the Bolsheviks. In his letter, Kemal Pasha drew attention to the Allied threat in the Caucasus, where recognition of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had been aimed at establishing a barrier between the Turks and Bolsheviks. Kemal wrote that he believed that the success of this Allied policy would be a disaster for Turkey and could lead to the entire occupation of Turkey by Allied forces from the Caucasus. He argued that the priority of Turkish forces in Eastern Anatolia should be the preservation of communications with the Bolsheviks and the elimination of this barrier. Mustapha Kemal emphasized that if this Allied policy should succeed, then the Nationalists had to co-ordinate their military activity with the Bolsheviks against the Transcaucasian Republics in order to break this barrier.

This letter confirms that the Turkish Nationalists were forced by British policy towards the Bolsheviks, and had to take drastic action in order that Turkey would survive the strategy of Lloyd George that was aimed at strangling them, using not only the Greeks and Armenians but potentially the Transcaucasian Republics as well.

What we can conclude, therefore, is that geopolitical realities made the Turkish nationalist/Bolshevik alliance an imperative for mutual survival and it was Britain and its relationship with the Armenians that was responsible for it. It was essential that the “Caucasus Wall” be surmounted to secure the flow of material Westwards from the Bolsheviks to Ankara.

Mustapha Kemal did not abandon the Azerbaijanis – because the British position really made resistance to the Bolsheviks impossible for Ankara. Only with Turkish backing could the Azerbaijan Republic resist, and Turkey was, at that moment, engaged in a life or death struggle for existence with British Imperialism and its allies. What Mustapha Kemal did was to help secure a relatively bloodless takeover of Baku by the Red Army.

It is generally accepted that Halil Pasha, Fuat Sabit, Baha Said, Kutchuk Talat and other Turkish officers played an important role in breaking any will there was in Baku to oppose the Bolsheviks. It is difficult, of course, to say how crucial their part was, or the realization that resistance was futile, with no help from the British, played in the lack of resistance. Later, the Turks who were engaged in this coup activity preferred to suggest that they were not supporters of the Sovietization of Azerbaijan and claimed that they were deceived by the Bolsheviks’ intentions. It is unlikely, however, that they would have been taken in by the Bolsheviks and more likely that these were accounts written with a degree of politik after subsequent events unfolded. Perhaps there was a form of willing self-deception involved.

It was reported that Turkish officers serving in the Azerbaijani Army, some driving armoured vehicles assisted the Bolshevik takeover in Baku, helping them to seize strategic points, like the Railway station. From there the Government was prevented from leaving the city, for Ganje. The Azerbaijani flag was replaced with both the Red Flag and the Turkish flag, to give the populace the impression that this was a collaborative action. Leaflets printed in Turkish explained to the people that “the pro-English Musavat has been removed. 1. To save Azerbaijan. 2. To ensure Russia’s support of Turkey, which is fighting for its survival.”

Only a pragmatic British alliance with Turkey in the period after the Mudros Armistice, on the lines Churchill suggested to the Prime Minister in October 1919, would have made a defence of the Southern Caucasus possible, since the British Government showed itself unwilling to conduct one themselves. That would have created an entirely different situation. There would have been no alternative development in Ankara and Turkey would only have had to look east to secure its territory. The Imperialist War on Turkey condemned Azerbaijan to Soviet conquest. For Azerbaijan to survive Turkey, first, had to live. And Turkey would have found it much harder to continue in existence, let alone revive itself, with a hostile Russia and Armenia on her Eastern flank.

The defence of the Southern Caucasus did not, of course, alone depend upon the Allied Powers but also upon a unified front being constructed by Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia against the threat from across the mountains. But the self-serving Armenians proved a great obstacle to this necessary unity of purpose.

During November and December of 1919 attempts were made by the Azerbaijani Government to resolve territorial disputes with the Armenians in conferences in Tiflis and Baku so that mutual co-operation could take place in the defence of the Caucasus. The Azerbaijani Government desired a final settlement of territorial disputes to stabilize matters in the region, but the problem was that the Armenians were completely intransigent and would never agree to settle outstanding issues when they were of the belief that they would get a better deal and more territory from the British Imperialists.

This meant that the British relationship with Armenia lay at the heart of the disabling of defence. Of course, the British ultimately let the Armenians down, but the persistence in Dashnak belief that they would be rescued by Britain and be awarded with Magna Armenia had serious consequences for relations in the region.

The proof of how much Armenian expansionism disabled the defence of the Southern Caucasus lies in the good relations established between Christian Georgia and Moslem Azerbaijan. Georgia and Azerbaijan were able to line up together in co-operation but Armenia could not even stand with their Christian neighbours in the common interest. This plain fact suggests that Armenian nationalism and irredentism was the major factor in the disablement of a common defence of Transcaucasia.

During January and March 1920 there were substantial ethnic cleansing operations conducted by Dashnak forces against Moslem villages which resulted in much destruction and many deaths.

With the Red Army assembling on the northern border of Azerbaijan, the Dashnaks saw their chance of grabbing Karabakh. They broke an agreement with the Azeris, which was brokered in order to assist the defence of the Southern Caucasus, and began an uprising against Baku’s authority. On the night of the Nowruz holiday of 22-23rd March, the Armenians mounted a large-scale armed uprising against the Azerbaijani government in Karabakh. Azerbaijanis were suddenly attacked in a number of places. Around the same time regular Armenian army units attacked Zangezur. The Armenian section of the Karabakh police, without warning, treacherously murdered their Azerbaijani colleagues, as they celebrated the traditional holiday. This massacre was part of a surprise assault by Armenian forces on Shusha which was rumbled by the Azerbaijanis, mainly due to poor co-ordination on the part of the attackers.

The Azeri population and units of the Azerbaijan Army began a counter-offensive against the Armenian quarter of Shusha and burned almost the whole Armenian part of the town. Shusha, which had been a great cultural centre and regional capital, never really recovered from this terrible event. The Dashnaks were driven out.

It was too late. Although the Azerbaijani national army had managed to defeat the Dashnak thrust into Karabagh and press into Zangezur they did so by having to concentrate their territorial defence to the west, leaving the road to Baku open to the Red Army. This was undoubtedly the correct decision as it largely preserved Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity for 70 years when, without Allied support, a defence of the state itself would have been problematic.

The other important contribution to the integrity of Azerbaijan was the presence of Nariman Narimanov in the Soviet forces which Bolshevized Azerbaijan. He had persuaded Lenin to take not only Baku but the whole of Azerbaijan and develop it as a Soviet Socialist Republic.

It should be noted that whilst Baku fell without a serious struggle some country areas of Azerbaijan put up a degree of resistance to the Soviet occupation, particularly in the Ganje district. Perhaps as many as 20.000 died in opposing the Red Army.

It was the failure of Britain to defend the Transcaucasian states it had sponsored at the League of Nations that led to their fall to the Red Army in 1920-1, beginning with the capture of Baku in April 1920. And it was the presence of an expansionary Armenian state with its pernicious nationalist ideology, that poisoned relations in the region, leaving the Southern Caucasus open to Bolshevization. Less than a year after the fall of Baku the Armenian Republic suffered a similar fate to that of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan Britain's Great War Geopolitics Turkey and Ottoman Empire

The Reality of Events

The following is the full transcript of an interview I gave to Eurasia Diary and which was published in 2 parts here:

Please explain for us, what was the reality of events which occurred in eastern Anatolia in 1915?

On 24th April 1915, which the Armenians commemorate as “Genocide Day,” what happened was the internment of a couple of hundred Armenians connected with the Dashnaks. Quantities of arms were seized by the Ottoman security forces, and suspects were moved by train to various locations and mostly placed under house arrest or told to report to police regularly. Those detained were granted a living expenses subsidy. Most detainees were subsequently released and survived the war. Only a minority, around 20, were subsequently hung as traitors. Probably nobody died on “Genocide Day”.

The relocation or forced migration of Armenians did not begin until June 1915. The forced migration policy is the centerpiece of the “genocide” allegation. It is suggested the Ottomans sent the Armenians on death marches into the deserts. However, the Turks acted in accordance with standard military practice. Britain, which considered itself to be the most civilized power in the world at the time, and who had been the greatest critics of the Ottoman Turks, had used a forced migration policy only a decade earlier in South Africa. It involved concentration camps, which were never employed by the Ottomans. Britain used the same policy again 40 years later in Kenya to suppress an insurgency. The U.S. and Russia did the same. Russia relocated huge amounts of Jews in 1915, in the months before the Ottoman operation, and nothing was heard of this in the Western media.

There was no evidence of a premeditated plan on the Ottoman’s part to remove the Armenians, let alone kill them. The forced migrations were improvised because of the catastrophic situation that had developed in early 1915 as a result of multiple invasions and an existential crisis. The famous British Cabinet Secretary once said the safety of the state is the highest concern. It is within this principle that the Ottomans acted. A Law was passed openly to declare the state’s intention and so that preparations could be made. Time was not always available in war areas, like the east, where Russian armies were close. However, it was insisted that convoys were guarded and life protected. A major problem was that most of the gendarmerie that would guard the columns had to be pressed into military service due to Armenian Dashnak action behind the lines – illegal in warfare.

Not the whole Armenian population was relocated, mainly those in the warzone and immediately behind the lines. Elsewhere migration was selective. Catholic and Protestant Armenians were less likely to be moved. Around 350,000 were totally exempted. Armenians in Istanbul were largely left alone and Moslems in the east were also moved. Other Christian minorities were treated differently. Armenians in the west were allowed back once the Gallipoli assault was beaten off. Convoys included their priests, canteens, and were provided with oxen and carts. Missionaries kept a watchful eye. Armenian possessions were neatly stored and labelled to await their return. All these things tend to suggest there was no genocidal intent. Individual Turks and Kurds did a lot of bad things to the relocated people, of course. Kurdish bands who were beyond the authority of the state, and who were outlaws in a war situation, resisting conscription, attacked many of the convoys. The Kurds, who the Armenians were deeply hostile to, took revenge for what the Dashnaks did to them. Ottoman employees robbed and killed people and there were some massacres in areas conducted by locals for various reasons that come to a head in catastrophic situations.

Talaat Pasha, the architect of the migration policy, established commissions in late 1915 to investigate abuse and crimes and ended the policy in the winter of 1915/16. Thousands of Ottoman officials were subsequently tried for maltreatment of the Armenians and about ten per cent were hung. These included commanders who failed to protect columns. The Armenians tried no one for massacring any Moslems. Criticism can be made about the inadequacy of the operation and the failure of the commissions to punish all who were guilty, but there is no evidence that the Ottomans had any intention of annihilating a race.

The forced migration policy adopted by the Ottoman State to deal with the Armenian insurrection was a western military measure employed to solve a military problem. It was outstandingly successful. Once the insurgents behind the front were separated from their mass base the small forces available to the Ottomans mopped up the Dashnak bands.

About 650,000 Armenians were relocated to Syria/Iraq. Around 400,000 went east to Russian territory, in Transcaucasia, under the influence of the war. Russia refused them the right to return when they captured the territory in which they lived. Over 160,000 died in this relocation which took place, entirely outside Ottoman territory. Around 500,000 Armenians were counted by U.S. observers in 1916 in Syria/Iraq. It appears, as far as we can be sure, that over three quarters survived their forced migration. Around 400,000 Armenians remained in their homes at the time of the Armistice in 1918, out of the pre-War Empire’s population of 1.6 million.

Tell us about the massacres committed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaks against Muslim and the local Armenian population.

Well, this is the element that is always left out of accounts in the West and, of course, Armenian writings. I have visited a number of places where large massacres of Moslems were carried out by the Dashnaks, including Erzurum, Baku and Quba. The documentary evidence is very complete and detailed and mass graves have been uncovered. However, there is little knowledge of this side of events outside of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Even in the years when I wrote about the Great War and the Ottoman Empire I was totally unaware about the extent of killings of Azerbaijanis that took place.  It was only when I visited Azerbaijan that I learnt of these atrocities and they shocked me. In the West the Armenian has the image of helpless, innocent victim and there is little knowledge of the Dashnak activities, which from 1915 were covered up by their allies in the West, who had developed a narrative they did not want destroyed, of the “terrible Turk” and the “ravished Armenian”. Of course, when you read honest accounts of people who were there, like British and Russian officers and later American investigators, the truth comes out. Professor Justin McCarthy, an Irish American geographer, has done extensive demographic analysis of casualties in Eastern Anatolia and has found that Moslem death rates were at least as high as Armenian. The Dashnaks perpetrated campaigns of extensive ethnic cleansing and killing in the Western Caucasus between 1917 and 1920 in Erivan, Karabakh and other areas. Armenian leaders like Pasdermadjian and Dro boasted of their exploits and how they had killed more Tatars than Armenians had died. And logic suggests this was true because the Armenians were the most militarized element in the region with long-standing organizations, who were well armed and trained, and capable of carrying out such terrorism against the Moslem civilian population.  I am aware, too, about Dashnak actions against their own people who they often terrorized into submission. I have no hesitation in seeing ordinary Armenians who just wanted to live their lives in peace with their neighbours but who became victims of the whole tragedy as just as much victims as ordinary Moslems. But you never see the same recognition of Moslem suffering in Armenian accounts.

Why does the world still believe groundless Armenian claims about so-called genocide, and do not want to see and hear bloody massacres done by Armenian rebel groups against the Muslim population?

Because the narrative in the West was created during the Great War as a form of propaganda against the Ottoman enemy and it has stuck ever since. Europe is not as Christian as it once was, but the Armenians were carefully presented as Christian, European and highly civilized and deserving of more sympathy as such than the peoples they lived amongst. Of course, the Armenians are as Asiatic as the Turks (or as European). But accounts written by people like James Bryce and others in the propaganda departments like Wellington House were careful to depict Armenians as a special people, and a higher form of humanity than their neighbours, presumably on the basis that they were Christians and therefore deserving of sympathy and help. This, of course, is sheer racism.

A lot of belief in an Armenian Genocide today is simply the product of ignorance. Journalists and pseudo-historians simply regurgitated the simplistic, emotional narrative of Armenian propagandists. A lot of these people are just lazy careerists in essence, who have never studied history in the proper way but are content to go along with any tales of victimhood without actually investigating the complex series of events that actually created the victims, who were just as likely to be Turk, Azeri or Kurd as they were Armenian, and in the Caucasus more likely to have been.

What is the main importance of Armenian issue in the foreign policy of western powers, especially the United States and France?

Both these countries have powerful and influential Armenian lobbies that can achieve the success of motions, resolutions and votes in favour of recognizing a Genocide. Of course, these things are meaningless in a historical sense. It is doubtful either whether they have any real effect on the Foreign Policy of States. Most states are sensible enough to realise that these votes are the frivolous stuff of politicians acting like student debating societies to show how well-meaning they are to gullible sections of the public who are impressed with empty gestures. However, in one respect they are important. They can be employed against Turkey, in certain circumstances, when the West is displeased with its political orientation – say, for instance, when it becomes closer to Mr. Putin or buys defence systems from Moscow instead of American ones. In these circumstances these empty declarations can be used as leverage. However, because the Turks have generally maintained a solid position against the Genocide lobby the use of this lever has generally been counter-productive. So some element of the U.S. democracy votes through a recognition of the Genocide and Turkey shifts toward Russia in response, which has also issued similar declarations. Nothing changes in reality. It is all just politics and does not influence the course of major events. The Armenian issue has always been like that.

Please tell us, how the Armenian lobby in the US and European countries continues to influence policy-makers and media to support the so-called Armenian genocide.

The Armenians have a great advantage in their diaspora which is 3 generations resident in the United States and writes very effectively in the English language. Lobbying and interest groups are the basis of U.S. politics and, actually, are one of the things that both undermines its democracy and makes the system dysfunctional. Because members of Congress are subject to frequent re-election – every 2 years in the House of Representatives – they are prone to great pressure from both lobby groups and powerful groups of citizens in a district. The U.S. is also the home of ethnic politics and identity politics. All these features of the U.S. system suit the Armenian lobbyists. And, of course, the thing that really oils the U.S. system is money and the Armenians are not afraid to spend it to buy influence for their cause. Armenian identity has unfortunately been boiled down to a single issue. This makes the Armenian lobby quite different from, say, the Irish Americans, who have a wide range of cultural pursuits and political causes to pursue. This is both a strength and weakness for the Armenians. Of course, they have great influence for the size of their community, but they are also myopic and have harmed the richness of their culture by this singular pursuit of bitterness against Turkic people.

Azerbaijan Britain's Great War Geopolitics Russia Turkey and Ottoman Empire

Nariman Narimanov – a patriotic, humanistic, Bolshevik


Nariman Narimanov, who was born 150 years ago this April, was a patriotic, humanistic Bolshevik. He was also the major figure who facilitated the Bolshevization of the Republic of Azerbaijan, which began around this time in the same month 100 ago.

It may seem strange to some readers to commemorate these two events. After all, the Bolshevik system rotted from within and collapsed about a generation ago and the era of nationalism returned with a vengeance to the Southern Caucasus and many other areas frozen in the Stalinist ice age.

Assisting in the Bolshevizing of one’s country is not likely to win someone many plaudits in the former countries of the Soviet Union today. However, history is made by those who work within the events that confront them and should be assessed in the light of what is achieved in the circumstances. It is not about anticipating how the world might look a century later and keeping on the “right side of history”. It is not about being judged on alternative courses of events that were never realistic propositions at the time.

Nariman Narimanov’s giant statue still commands the heights over Baku, a generation after the Soviet system came down and Gorbachev’s senseless massacre of more than a hundred civilians in  the city during Black January 1990. Alone among his comrades, Nariman Narimanov still takes a place of honour overlooking the city in which he lived and which he served. And that takes some explaining.


Before the cataclysm of 1914 the world lived in the age of Empires and there was no reason to suggest that this age was coming to an end. In fact, all the indications were that the future of the world was Imperial and all parts of the globe were to be taken in hand by the great Empires and that is where the destinies of all peoples lay. The age of nations seemed to be ending. That is what most of the Imperial literature said prior to 1914.

And then came the Great War.

The greatest Empire of all, in 1914, the British Empire, unexpectedly declared the beginning of a new era in the course of its Great War on Germany. It said that it was fighting for an ideal world in its great Millenarian war for civilization. This was a “war for small nations” and “democracy” against Prussian autocracy etc.

It was all propaganda, of course, to salve the consciences of the Liberals who became drawn into this latest British Balance of Power war for world predominance, and to entice smaller powers into the ranks of the Triple Entente, who might tip the balance against Germany and the Ottomans. But the trumpeted morality of the new world being heard, was acted upon and nothing was ever the same again. The Age of Empire was over – or if there were empires afterwards, they were nothing like what had been before 1914.

Between 1914 and 1918 there was a paradigm shift in the world.

Azerbaijan (or the “Tartars” as the people of this territory were called then) did not respond to Britain’s new world in 1914. The Moslems of the Southern Caucasus had been under Tsarist authority then for nearly a century. It would be an exaggeration to say they were content, but their politics suggested that discontent was largely a product of being second-class citizens in the Russian Empire, rather than anything of a separatist disposition. Any serious discontent or trouble nearly always occurred in relation to Armenian activity, as in 1905-06, rather than being directed at the state itself.

There was a small national movement with a maximum demand for cultural autonomy but the Russian Empire was largely its horizon (with cultural rights connected to Azerbaijan’s Turkish and Persian influences to the forefront). The same was true in Georgia and to an extent among the Armenians (although the Dashnaks had developed other ideas!)

In any case, Britain’s new world was not meant for the peoples of its own Empire, or its allies – Russia and France. It was only meant for peoples who could play a part in the weakening the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman states – the enemy. The Moslems of the Caucasus, despite the presence of their Turkish brothers in the ranks of the enemy, remained loyal to the Russian Empire which had ruled them for a century. Their only problem with the Tsar was that they, unlike the Armenians and Georgians, were not permitted to fight for Russia. They were expected to remain passive objects of history whilst everyone around them was becoming militarized in the course of the Tsar’s war.

And then the Tsarist State, under the pressure of the War it had catastrophically taken on, began to collapse. More accurately, it went into collapse as a result of Britain’s refusal to let it stop fighting the War, in order to preserve itself. It was driven to destruction by the blood sacrifice that was required of it in the war against the Germans. And that process of self-destruction was engaged in by the Provisional Government that had overthrown the Tsar in the February Revolution, no less than the regime it replaced. In fact, even more so. And its Allies were very pleased at the Russian Revolution that would enable the new democratic Russia to engage in war more vigorously than the Tsarist slackers who had put the brakes on the Russian Steamroller.

The collapse of the Russian State in 1917, under the pressure of war, was what changed the course of history for the peoples of the Southern Caucasus. All three of the main peoples – Georgians, Armenians and Azeris, at first attempted to run with the February Revolution and develop as part of a democratized and decentralized Russian State. They were prevented from doing so by what happened at the centre of the Empire. When the Bolsheviks took power in October the Georgians, Armenians and Azeris attempted to preserve Transcaucasia as an island of the February development, awaiting a return to the ideals of the original Revolution, as that Revolution showed itself to be unable to govern the state.

The Bolsheviks, who had no intention of driving the Russian Steamroller to destruction to assist the Imperialist war, attempted to trump the British Imperialist propaganda about small nations and freedom, which was at that point being amplified by President Wilson and the U.S. entry into the War, with their own “rights to self-determination.” The problem for Britain, with this, is that the Bolsheviks seemed to be making it a universal principle and therefore a weapon to be applied within the empires of the Entente as well as the Central Powers and Ottoman enemy. That would be hugely disabling to the Allied War effort and it was a very unwelcome development indeed.

All of this propaganda about nations and peoples becoming free had inevitable repercussions in the Southern Caucasus as nations began to emerge out of the catastrophe of war and the collapse of empire.

The Caucasian Moslem/Azeri national movement was centred around the Musavat party. The Musavat originally aimed at autonomy for Transcaucasia, but under pressure of events a fully fledged independence movement began to develop. Chief amongst the events that provoked a national awakening were the British financing and arming of the Armenians as a substitute to replace the dissolving Russian front, which had been disorganized by Lenin’s invitation to the peasants to take their land. Then there were the massacres of Moslems in Baku and Quba in March 1918 when the Armenians availed of an attack by the forces of the Baku Soviet on the Musavat to carry out an ethnic war on the “Tartars”. All this led to the May 28, 1918 declaration of Azerbaijani independence, the day after the Georgian Mensheviks had done likewise, under German protection.

The new Azeri national forces managed to capture Baku in late 1918 in conjunction with an Ottoman army that unexpectedly found its way clear to the East after the dissolution of the Russian lines. It took the city from a combined force of Red and White Russians, British Imperialists of the Dunsterforce and Armenian Dashnaks. This was an event that had a galvanizing effect on the Azeri national movement, despite the short duration of its success.

The Great War and consequent collapse of the Russian State had put everything in flux in the Southern Caucasus. Although the Moslems of the region had developed some of the features of a national movement prior to this catastrophic event, the very complexity of the people of the territory that became Azerbaijan, and their historical experience under the Tsarist State, required a jolt to kick-start the process of nation building. What happened between February and 1917 and March 1918 provided this jolt. No longer would the “Tatars” remain in the role that the Russian Empire expected of them, remaining largely inert as passive objects of history.

(It is sometimes asserted by Armenian propagandists that Azerbaijan is a “fake nation” created by Stalin. Stalin certainly knew what a nation was, being the Bolshevik’s expert on the subject, and he had no desire to create nations where there were none. So he took Azerbaijan as being a nation, just like Armenia and Georgia, and treated it accordingly, with a national territory, including Karabakh. The problem for Azeri nation building was not the non-existence of a nation but the complexity of the nation, which did not neatly fit into the narrow parameters of Armenian nationalism. Azerbaijan had a wider Moslem world beyond it, in Russia, Iran and Turkey, to which it was very much attached in a historical, linguistic, religious and social way, and a richer heritage which impeded the simplicity of the type of nation building that the Armenians engaged in – the mere sorting out of territory with the expulsion of all who did not conform to the Armenian racial construct.)

A few weeks after the battle of Baku the Turks were forced out of Azerbaijan by the terms of the Mudros Armistice, when Istanbul suffered defeat in the Great War, and the Musavat accepted the British occupation as a second opportunity for national development, rather than as a defeat of the Republic proclaimed on May 28th.

The impetus of events, and in particular the capture of the capital by national forces, meant that the Azerbaijani national movement was a force that had to be taken into account by the British occupation that began in November 1918. And this was particularly the case because whilst the British occupation of Transcaucasia seemed to be a great victory, not only in the Great War on Germany and Ottoman Turkey but also a strategic triumph in the Great Game against Russia, all was not what it seemed.

This is the context in which Nariman Narimanov operated from 1917 to 1920.


Nariman was born in 1870 into an Azeri family in multi-ethnic Tiflis/Tbilisi. He was the son of a merchant who also was a travelling musician singing in Armenian and Georgian, as well as the Azeri language. The family was not wealthy, but were able to send Nariman to a teacher’s seminary at Gori. He was one of only five Azeris there (Lilana Riga, The Bolsheviks and the Russian Empire, p.198). Nariman, became a teacher and a trained physician in Odessa and he went on to write a number of books, including the novel Bahadur and Suna as well as being the translator of Nikolai Gogol’s Inspector General into Azeri.

He was a humanistic socialist both in personal life and in his politics. Although Narimanov benefited, unlike most “Tatars” in the Russian Empire, from receiving a good education, he had to support 11 family members, the children of his brothers and sisters, for a period of nearly 30 years, until he was able to give the last girl away for marriage. And he even felt some guilt for not having helped improved the lot of wider humanity earlier, because of his domestic responsibilities (Azerbaijan International, Winter 2004, 13.4. pp.32-5).

During the 1890s, Nariman involved himself in various cultural nationalist pursuits, being an activist in promoting literature in the Azeri language. But he was a complex character, like most of the new national intelligentsia – a secularized Moslem, assimilated Russian “Tatar” who admired Peter the Great, linguistically Turkish/Azeri and ethnically Azerbaijani, from a background in ethnically diverse Tiflis, the capital of Transcaucasia. He was, in many ways, an assimilated Azeri, whose progressive politics came from the European influences within the Russian State (Lilana Riga, The Bolsheviks and the Russian Empire, p.203).

Nariman came to Baku around 1905 (the year of the terrible violence in the city) and joined the Hummet, which was a local political party connected to the Russian Social Democrats. The Hummet in Baku, was the world’s first socialist party of and for a Moslem population. It led Azeri and Persian oil and fishery workers in strikes and went on to play an important role in revolutionary activity. But it was not an entirely Moslem organisation, having an ethnically mixed leadership. A young Joseph Stalin, then living in Baku, and a Bolshevik Social Democrat, certainly associated himself with it, during his political activities in the city. Narimanov translated the RSDLP programme into Azeri. At this point most elected Azeris were aligned with the Kadets in the Dumas of 1906 and 1907 and Narimanov was part of only a small minority of socialists.

When the Persian Revolution broke out in December 1905 it provoked great interest in Baku with the close links. Nariman Narimanov, set up the Social Democrat organisation in Iran and the insurgents in Tabriz were supplied with arms from Baku. Nearly a thousand men from North of the Araxes river, which separated the Azeri population between the Russian Empire and Iran, fought in the rising in Tabriz in 1908 (Tadeusz Swietochowski, National Consciousness and Political Orientations in Azerbaijan, 1905-1920, pp.9-10).

Narimanov, now under surveillance from the police. was arrested after a search of his apartment in Tiflis, and after some months of imprisonment was sentenced, by the Tsarist authorities, to 5 years in exile at Astrakhan. After banishment Narimanov returned to Baku in 1913 and became a leading figure in the Hummet.

When the Bolsheviks later excluded the Hummet from association with the RSDLP because of its nationalist tendencies, Narimanov joined the Bolsheviks. The RSDLP tended toward Bolshevism in Baku whereas in Tiflis/Georgia and the regions it was predominantly Menshevik. After the 1917 October coup, the Bolsheviks issued their decree proclaiming the rights of nations to self-determination. The implication of this was that any nation within the region of the territory of the Russian Empire could secede from it and form its own national state. This declaration impressed Narimanov and increased his involvement with the Bolsheviks, as respecters of national rights.


It was really in 1919/20 that Nariman Narimanov, the Azerbaijani Communist, and former Commissar in the Baku Commune, became a key figure in the course of events in Transcaucasia. But first, he had had involvement will the ill-fated Baku Soviet.

The Baku Soviet that had taken power in the city in 1917/18 was not a wholly Russian/Armenian affair. A number of Azerbaijanis held important positions on the Soviet of People’s Commissars, including Nariman Narimanov, who occupied the city’s Economic portfolio, and Mirhasan Vezirov and Meshhedi Azizbeyov, who served under their Armenian leader, Stephan Shaumyan (Adalet Tahirzade and Dilgam Ahmed, The Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1920), p.40).

In early 1918 tensions rose between the Baku Soviet and the Musavat, who the communists saw as the main barrier to their control of the city. Narimanov, seeing the dangerous progression of events, attempted a desperate last-minute intervention with Shaumyan to prevent the attack of the largely Armenian forces of the Baku Soviet on the Musavat, that he knew would spark off inter-ethnic killing, like in 1905-06 (Tadeusz Swietochowski, The Himmat Party: Socialism and the National Question in Russian Azerbaijan, 1904-1920, in Cahiers du Monde Russe, 1978, 19. p.125). But to no avail. After the Soviet shelling of the Moslem quarters of the city, the Armenians forgot about class solidarity and reverted to ethnic type and began a fierce massacre of Moslem civilians in the city that left about 12,000 dead during the “March Days” of 1918.

Incensed by the massacres of Moslem civilians in Baku by the Armenians fighting with the Baku Soviet forces, Narimanov, began agitating during 1919, with Lenin and Stalin, for a different Bolshevik approach to the Caucasian Moslems. Narimanov did not have the same view of the March events as more recent interpretations. He later told Stalin, in a memorandum, that he believed the class war had metamorphosed into an ethnic war in the space of a day:

“Since we didn’t have enough resources, in the time of need comrade Shahumuyan agreed that Armenian forces would act in defence of Soviet power. The right civil war had been proceeding as planned until noon the following day, but that afternoon I began to get reports that the war was turning into an ethnic massacre. A lot of characteristic scenes followed, but I shall remain silent on this subject… Finally, a Moslem delegation comes to me, and they ask to stop the war admitting their defeat. I call comrade Dzhaparidze right away. He promises to send deputies. At this very moment the Dashnaks hit on my apartment. I go into hiding. They take my brother. In an hour my family and I are rescued from the Dashnak “defenders of Soviet power” by comrade Shahumuyan. After that the Dashnaks ran wild in the city of Baku for three days. Those “defenders of Soviet power” took a lot of Muslim women with children hostage.” (Nariman Narimanov, K Istorii Nashey Revolyutsii v Okrainakh, pp. 59-60).

In a speech given not long after the fall of the Baku Commune, Narimanov blamed the collapse of Soviet power on the Bolsheviks’ single-minded desire for the control of the oil city (Sara Brinegar, The Oil Deal: Nariman Narimanov and the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, Slavic Review, Number 2, Summer 2017, p. 378. Izbrannye Narimanov, “Vzgliad na zakhvat kavkaza,” 2, pp.185–96, and Izbrannye Narimanov, “S kakim lozungom my idem na Kavkaz,” 2, pp.176–85).

He argued that the prioritizing of capturing and holding oil production, no matter what the consequences for the local population, was a deeply flawed policy. This was the primary reason for the demise of the Soviet stronghold, Narimanov suggested, since it had alienated the local population and brought them back with the Ottomans to expel the Baku Soviet. Socialists in future needed to have a policy for constructing an Azerbaijani Communist state, with the active participation of local Moslems, if they were going to succeed in expanding Bolshevism into Transcaucasia, contended Narimanov (Izbrannye Narimanov, Vzgliad na zakhvat kavkaza, 2, pp. 85–96).

In January, 1919 a Commissariat of Transcaucasian Moslems came into being at Astrakhan led by prominent local Moslems including Narimanov, Effendiev, Sultanov, and Musabekov. The Astrakhan Department’s aim was to prepare, through agitation and propaganda in the Azeri language, the ground for the Bolshevization of Azerbaijan. However, first the Bolsheviks had to see of the White guard armies of Kolchak, Denikin etc. that Britain was actively supporting with arms, ammunition and training, in order to secure regime change in Russia.

Narimanov emerged as the foremost proponent among the Bolsheviks for the occupation of all of the Azerbaijan Republic, arguing that Baku could never be safely held by the Communists without authority being exerted over the rest of the country, as the failure in 1918 had demonstrated. He wanted the Azerbaijani heartland to be fully integrated with the economy of Baku, making the peasants and Proletariat co-dependent. Furthermore, he argued that a Moslem-led committee within the Bolshevik Party was essential to the implementation of any future Sovietization (Sara Brinegar, The Oil Deal: Nariman Narimanov and the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, Slavic Review, Number 2, Summer 2017, p. 379). Narimanov was also in favour of the spread of Soviet power into Iran.

With this objective in mind, Narimanov worked for the incorporation of the Hummet Party into the Bolshevik Party. In late July 1919, Narimanov attended a conference in Moscow on the nationalities question and met with Lenin and the Russian Foreign Minister, G.V. Chicherin. Upon Narimanov’s request the Politburo agreed that the Hummet should be an autonomous Moslem committee of the Bolsheviks (Sara Brinegar, The Oil Deal: Nariman Narimanov and the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, Slavic Review, Number 2, Summer 2017, p. 379).

When the Azeri Bolsheviks had fled Baku with the collapse of the Commune, nearly all of them had become members of the Commissariat for the Affairs of the Moslem Caucasus within the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs (NKID). They thereafter worked to carry out revolution in Azerbaijan from North of the Caucasus in Bolshevik-held territory, in Astrakhan, where Narimanov had been in exile a decade earlier. In July 1919, Narimanov, acting as the Azerbaijani Communist Chairman of the Public Education Department of the Astrakhan Governorate, sent a letter to Nesib Bey Yusifbeyli, representing the Azerbaijan government in Baku. At that point the British had declared their intention to withdraw from the Southern Caucasus to shore up their territorial gains elsewhere.

In his letter of July 16th 1919, Comrade Narimanov accused Nesib Bey and the Musavat of betraying the interests of the Proletariat and the Socialist State that had been established in Russia, which Nariman believed would inevitably recapture Baku and be a progressive force in Azerbaijan and across the Moslem world:

“I have always spoken strictly against the supporters of inviting the Turks to the Caucasus… While you developed your ideas of panturkism and panislamism, I was resolutely against you as a communist… Turkey came with “victory” and left you shamefully… The main thing that has forced you to speak against Soviet power with foam from the mouth are the interests of a group of rich men – the interest of the Baku millionaires…

Kolchak has been smashed. Denikin will soon come to an end, too. The strong arms and hands of Soviet Russia will be opened. If you are as deaf and blind as you were before, if now you still do not see or hear what is happening across the world, especially after the Versailles Peace, then you are not scared of Soviet Russia… For your entire policy, the reckoning with is coming, when you will face the Court of Transcaucasian Moslem workers and farmers… Did you not understand that Azerbaijan, together with Baku, was of special importance to Soviet Russia? Soviet Russia’s relations with Armenia and Georgia do not have such a special place, but Baku is the life source for Soviet Russia… You cannot play with the life of an entire nation, but you are criminally playing… Let Soviet rule be established in all Islamic states and peoples. Then they will do in ten years the things they could not do in a hundred years…

You need brave honesty to confess this: “We did not understand the essence of the Russian revolution, we did not take into consideration all the consequences of the devastating Imperialist war, we are leaving the arena and let it be Soviet power in Azerbaijan!” (Adalet Tahirzade and Dilgam Ahmed, The Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1920), pp.108-90).

The Caucasus Republics could not, of course, respond to the Bolshevik appeals, even if they had wanted to, because of their dependence on the British Occupation. This British protection, while it remained, enabled them to dismiss Narimanov’s criticism out of hand. This was the point at which the White guard General Denikin was moving forward on Moscow and the Bolsheviks looked more likely to be pinned back by the Whites than to move forward to Baku. The Musavat government therefore, could afford to ignore Bolshevik communications, be glad that Denikin was moving North, having his hands full with his war on the Soviets, and hope that the British would see to it he did not come South in the future.

The Musavat had taken in earnest the new world proclaimed by Britain during the Great War and this was the main reason for their collaboration with Britain’s military governors, and the peaceful acceptance of the British occupation during late 1918 to mid-1919. The belief was that the Azerbaijan Republic, which had been ended by the Ottoman defeat, would be nurtured into a new existence by British power, in an orderly and stable region presided over by the predominant empire in the world, that had been vastly expanded through its victory in the Great War. The culmination of this would be recognition of statehood by the new League of Nations established by the Allies at the Paris Peace Conference.

There was some reason to believe this would indeed be the case. At the end of the Great War British forces had flooded into the Southern Caucasus and established a new frontier against the old enemy of the Great Game. that stretched from Istanbul eastwards to the Indian Empire. Britain had defeated its enemies – Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottomans – and had begun absorbing their territories, partitioning their states and re-ordering the world. in conjunction with its allies. at Paris.

But all was not as it seemed. In winning its Great War and gaining a large amount of new territory for its empire Britain had over-extended itself. Germany and Ottoman Turkey had proved impossible to defeat with its original allies and one – Russia – had collapsed in the course of the War. Other allies accumulated on the way, like Italy and Greece, had proved incapable of tipping the balance and it was only U.S. finance and finally, manpower that staved off the unthinkable – having to conclude a negotiated peace.

After the Great War Britain was in financial hock to the United States and had to take into account its emerging power in both the conclusion of a settlement and further Imperialist activities. Britain was also handicapped by the democracy which the Great War had brought into being through the necessity of conscripting the masses and making it a popular war. Concluding the settlement and conducting policy in the old way was impossible.

So Britain’s will to power in the world was something of an illusion and its staying power in Transcaucasia, as a new frontier in the Great Game against Russia, was transient. And to exacerbate everything it just couldn’t make up its mind about what to do against Russia. In the end it financed and helped organise the White guard element in the Civil War but baulked at Churchill’s demand that it commit itself to a full scale war to destroy Bolshevism.

The other major problem was British policy toward Ottoman Turkey. Churchill made the suggestion that a speedy and honourable settlement be made with the Turks (and Germans) in order that they could be turned against the Bolsheviks, and provide the forces Britain was incapable of supplying to defend the Caucasus front. But the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, would have none of it. He pursued the policy of using the Greeks (and Armenians) as cats paws to bring Istanbul to heel and impose a harsh treaty upon the Turks which would have confined then to an Anatolian wasteland.

Because of this the Turkish resistance was forced to seek out the only ally it could to facilitate a resurgence against the British Imperialists -the Bolsheviks. The Azerbaijan land bridge was indispensable to the alliance that enabled Ankara to fight the Imperialists. And this policy of the British Prime Minister sealed the fate of Transcaucasia.

In an ideal world Azerbaijan, and the other Transcaucasian Republics, could have developed into independent states in 1920 and taken their place among the nations of the world, with the imprimatur of the League of Nations. But Britain, which had declared the ideal world in its war, subverted it as soon as the war was over. It failed to follow through on what it had declared and encouraged others to believe in. It failed to help defend what it supposedly held in principle to be what it had fought its war for.

So where did that leave Azerbaijan? It could not proceed to independent statehood outside the hegemony of the victorious powers at Paris, as an isolated fragment, left to its own devices. For one thing it was not isolated, but had an aggressive neighbour (Armenia) mounting attacks on its territory to take that territory for itself.

It would inevitably fall within the embrace of Russia again. It was really a question of British Imperialist hegemony or Soviet hegemony. There really was no third course.

Britain also subverted the internal defence of Transcaucasia by leaving the territorial dimensions of an Armenian state undefined. Of course, the Armenians with their grandiose and unrealisable plans for state building on a vast scale, contributed much to such destabilisation. And the two things interacted to amplify the problem, with the British encouraging the Armenians to hold themselves aloof from territorial settlements with Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the common defence of the region, in the hope that they would gain something much more substantial from London than they could negotiate with neighbours at the conference table. So whilst Britain provided a degree of order and security through its occupation, it subverted this by leaving the question of Armenian territorial award open to destabilize everything in the region.

Nariman Narimanov had little faith in the British and knew that Azerbaijan, with the rest of the Caucasus would return to the Russian Empire after it revived itself. He therefore believed that the important thing to determine was which Russia – Socialist or White guard was to triumph?

In his assessment of the geopolitics of the situation Nariman Narimanov proved to be correct.

On August 16, 1919 Stalin, as Commissar for the Nationalities, wrote a letter to Chicherin on the necessity of removing Armenians from affairs affecting Azerbaijan and Turkey and putting Comrade Narimanov to the fore in order to implement the Sovietization of the Moslem countries of the Russian Empire. Stalin assured the Foreign Minister that Narimanov, who was known to be patriotic and independent-minded, would act as the Bolshevik’s “flag” to rally the Moslems of the Southern Caucasus, whilst the Central Committee retained overall control of policy (Adalet Tahirzade and Dilgam Ahmed, The Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1920), p.110.)

A week after this letter Narimanov was appointed head of the Near East Department of the Commissariat for the Foreign Affairs of R.S.F.S.R (ibid).

When in September 1919 a delegation of Turkish nationalists arrived in Baku to enlist the support of the Azerbaijani Government, they were refused support by the Musavat Government, who, now heavily dependent on goodwill from London, probably feared British retaliation (particularly in relation to Armenian territorial demands). The Musavat who had bound themselves to Britain in their Azerbaijani nation-building project were to now suffer the consequences of their dependency on British Imperialism. It was the Hummet who took up the Turkish offer and “played the role of a bridge between the proletarian revolutionary Moscow and the revolutionary movement in Turkey.” (Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaucasia, p.232).

Narimanov convinced Lenin to adopt his policy with regard to a Soviet Azerbaijani Republic and Lenin sent him back to Azerbaijan with a specific mandate to facilitate the integration of the oil city of Baku with the Azerbaijani countryside, in a new Socialist nation-building project. As the Red Army prepared for invasion under cover of an “people’s uprising”, Narimanov was appointed Commissar for the Affairs of the Moslem Caucasus and his colleagues were ear-marked for posts in a future Soviet government in Azerbaijan. Narimanov, was to head, first, the Azerbaijan Revolutionary Committee and subsequently, the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

Narimanov, as an Azerbaijani Communist with a Soviet nation-building programme, provided the Bolshevik conquest with the required legitimacy among the majority Moslem population, to overcome the previous association with Russian control of the city and Armenian terror. So, Narimanov emerged as the critical intermediary between the Bolshevik Party and the wider population of Azerbaijan, to facilitate its Sovietization (Sara Brinegar, The Oil Deal: Nariman Narimanov and the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, Slavic Review, Number 2, Summer 2017, pp. 372-9).

Narimanov therefore occupied a pivotal position between safeguarding the interests of the Proletarian Revolution and those of the Azerbaijani people.

As Sara Brinegar has noted of Narimanov:

“His goals were threefold. First, to shape Bolshevik modernizing policies in Azerbaijan among the Muslim population. Second, to mitigate the use of violence against the wider population, preventing a re-occurrence of the Baku Commune. Third and finally, to expand the revolution into Persia… Narimanov… understood that the Red Army was not simply going to walk away from Baku. It was too vital to the winning of the Civil War. In fact, he viewed a Bolshevik takeover, in some form or another, as both inevitable and ultimately desirable because he believed the Soviets were a modernizing force that would benefit Azerbaijan. Instead, he argued that for a renewed invasion of Baku to succeed in the long term, the Bolsheviks would have to maintain regional stability and avoid the violence of 1918 that bookended the Baku Commune… Narimanov agreed to do what he could to help supply Soviet Russia with oil and Lenin put Narimanov in charge of the Soviet government of Azerbaijan (Sovnarkom) with the understanding that he would be granted significant leeway in cultural policies. In other words, Narimanov promised to provide the political and social stability in Azerbaijan necessary to maintain Soviet power and assure Russian access to Baku’s critical oil reserves. Narimanov believed that Azerbaijan could walk a line where it was tightly bound to Russia out of both ideological affinity and economic necessity while maintaining a degree of independence in local and cultural affairs… Lenin, for his part, maintained that Narimanov was Moscow’s only real link to the Muslim peasantry of the south Caucasus and that he was, at least initially, indispensable. The implication was clear: access to Baku’s oil was an overriding concern to the stability of Soviet Russia. If the Bolsheviks took Baku, they would have to take all of formally Russian Azerbaijan.” (Sara Brinegar, The Oil Deal: Nariman Narimanov and the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, Slavic Review, Number 2, Summer 2017, pp. 373-4).


On September 1st 1920, the Bolsheviks convened the famous Congress of the Peoples of the East at Baku, broadcasting the message that the Soviet State stood with the oppressed Moslems against Western Imperialism. It was opened by Nariman Narimanov. The largest delegation to it came to the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan from Turkey. According to Bolshevik sources, nearly 2,000 delegates attended, representing a wide range of Asian countries and movements. There was a much greater attendance in Baku than had attended the first All-Russian Congress of Moslems in November 1918. (S. White, ‘Communism and the East: The Baku Congress, 1920’, Slavic Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, 1974, pp. 492-3). In his address, Zinoviev, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Comintern launched an appeal to the peoples of the Tsarist Empire in Central Asia and the Caucasus, to join the Russian revolution and wage war against British Imperialism (Touraj Atabaki and Solmaz Rustamova-Towhidi, The Making of Collective Memory; The Politics of Archive in Soviet Azerbaijan, p.320).

Narimanov’s influence at this juncture probably had a strong bearing on preventing Karabakh being detached from Azerbaijan by the Soviet power. Stalin insisted that it remain a part of the country when many of the Bolsheviks were willing to cede it to Armenia. Narimanov was less happy with the hand over of Zangezur to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and wrote to Lenin on the matter when he was one of the chairmen of the Union Council of the Trans-Caucasus Soviet Federated Socialist Republics. He was convinced that Armenian intrigues were responsible for the poor treatment of Azerbaijan:

“Azerbaijan has proclaimed its resources to be the resources of the Soviet republic and has proved this in practice. Azerbaijan has renounced its territories in favour of Armenia, even when at one time it was considered impossible for political considerations… The Centre has given as a concession undisputed Azerbaijani territory to Armenia and it is an historical mistake impossible to rectify; Armenia, which has always protected Denikin, gains independence and additionally gets Azerbaijani land, while Azerbaijan, which of all the Trans-Caucasus republics first embraced Soviet Russia’s authority, loses both its independence and territories, and the expression ‘independent Azerbaijan´ is never been heard on the lips; Azerbaijan is now in such a situation that the Mirzoyans decide its fate without any hindrance.”

Narimanov also had an influence on saving Nakhchivan for Azerbaijan. In January 1921, Ordzhonikidze and Kirov cabled the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks and argued, on behalf of the Armenians, that “the Turks could create in Nakhchivan their own buffer zone; they want to establish their own khanate here.  Then the railroad will be in their hands, they will cut us off from Tabriz and Iran and dismember Armenia.”

Ordzhonikidze’s argument was challenged by Narimanov who cabled Lenin in mid-February saying that in his view, “there is no doubt that the Ankara government sincerely wants to connect its fate with us against England.”  This was food for thought because handing the Azeri majority region of Nakhchivan would have undermined everything the Soviet objectives of defeating British Imperialism and spreading the revolution into the Moslem East. It came at a crucial point because at that moment a Turkish delegation was about to travel to Moscow to negotiate a peace treaty that would cement the alliance between Ankara and the Bolsheviks against the Imperialists. The Turkish delegation went to Moscow via Baku, where Narimanov gave them advice on how they should deal with the Soviets.  He told the Turkish delegates that Chicherin, the Soviet Foreign Affairs commissar, was not the man to do business with. He was on the wrong side of many issues in the East and the Turks should do everything possible to deal directly with Lenin or “if this was not achieved, to turn to Stalin for help.” It was good advice and led to a functional deal that paid dividends in the Turkish war of independence.

During the first years of Soviet Azerbaijan, Narimanov found himself increasingly at odds with the leaders of the Transcaucasian party who had been drafted in by Moscow, especially Sergo Ordzhonikidze. Narimanov’s opposition to the centre’s policies, especially the merging of the three Republics into a Transcaucasian Federation, led to his removal from Baku in 1922, with a “promotion” to Moscow.

Despite this Narimanov wrote a famous 1925 treatise “Lenin and the East” (Lenin i vostok), which honoured Lenin a year after his death. It praised the Soviet leader for having helped liberate Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan from Imperialist oppression. The essay was reprinted in 1970 as a pamphlet, and was popular in the homes of the last generation of Soviet Azerbaijanis (Leah Feldman, Red Jihad, p.232 and Nariman Narimanov, Lenin i vostok, p.37 ).

Narimanov lived to be disappointed with the Sovietization he had helped facilitate. He struggled hard to minimize the forcefulness of the Bolshevization of his country and the repression unleashed on those who resisted the process. In this he undoubtedly saved lives. The early years of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic were fruitful to the populace in many respects, after the instability of the previous few years. But the inhumanity Narimanov saw in the system inevitably distressed him.

Nearly five years on from the Red Army’s capture of Baku, during February 1925, when he was Chairman of the Soviet of People’s Commissars, he wrote a letter to his young son, Najaf, detailing his fears for the future, which centred around his belief that Bolshevism was proceeding down the wrong path, to self-destruction. Nariman told his son that although the ruthless pursuit of power of state had been absolutely essential in the circumstances of 1917-20, it was now necessary to pursue more humanistic ideals, or the moral emptiness of Bolshevism would ultimately result in its demise:

“I was a Social Democrat, but these days, more and more, I discern that they are abandoning their goals. I used to have confidence in the agenda of the Bolsheviks and envisioned my own goals being fulfilled through them. I thought slavery would be abolished in the world this way.

Maybe Bolshevism won’t exist by the time you read these lines. But if that be the case, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need Bolshevism. It means that we were not able to save it, that we underestimated it, and that our attitude towards these goals was shortsighted.

We must say it openly: we became so arrogant with power that we occupied ourselves with meaningless issues and arguments, and we forgot about the real work we had to do.

Power destroys most people. And thus it has happened: power has spoiled most of our outstanding leaders. They decided to take control of the fate of a great state and become dictators… It was necessary at the beginning. But to continue this path today will cause Bolshevism to collapse.

Now, as I write these lines to you, the situation is that the Communists can’t even talk among themselves about our major mistakes that have been caused by those carelessly ruling the government who have declared themselves as “the heirs of Lenin” after his death.

You’ll understand more fully about these issues from the extensive speech that I have written for the Central Committee. You’ll become aware of many things through that speech. You’ll understand that your father was not afraid of saying things that most others didn’t have the courage to say, or did not want to risk saying, out of fear of losing their position and power.” (Azerbaijan International,Winter 2005, 13.4. pp. 32-5 for details and the, unfortunately uncompleted, letter).

Less than 6 weeks later, after an argument with Stalin, Narimanov died in suspicious circumstances, claimed to have been a heart attack. He was only 55. His fate was far from unique among Bolsheviks who fell out with Stalin. After his sudden death Narimanov was cremated, given a full state funeral and was laid to rest in the Kremlin wall.

His son, Najaf, went on to join the Communist Party and commanded a tank division in the great patriotic war. He was decorated for his valour at Stalingrad, dying in battle with the Red Army defending the city of Volnokakha, in Ukraine, from the Germans and their allies.

Because Britain abandoned Transcaucasia in 1919-20 the national development of Azerbaijan had to take place within the Soviet system. That system lasted far longer than Nariman Narimanov thought it would, but it indeed collapsed, as he had predicted it would.

What lives on, however, is the Azerbaijan Republic, born in the collapse of the Tsarist State, and developed over two generations within the Soviet Union and reborn at its demise, with Nariman Narimanov watching over it all, high above Baku.