Modern history


The End of the Ottomans

FAR AWAY FROM PARIS, at the southeast tip of Europe, another great city had been lamenting the past and thinking uneasily about the future. Byzantium to the Greeks and Romans, Constantinople to the peacemakers, Istanbul, as it was to the Turks, had once been the capital of the glorious Byzantine empire and then, after 1453, of the victorious Ottoman Turks. Now the Ottoman empire in its turn was on a downward path. The city was crammed with refugees and soldiers from the defeated armies, short of fuel, food and hope. Their fate—indeed, that of the whole empire—appeared to depend on the Peace Conference.

Layers of history had fallen over Constantinople, leaving churches, mosques, frescoes, mosaics, palaces, covered markets and fishing villages. The massive city walls had seen invaders from Europe and the East, Persians, Crusaders, Arabs and finally the Turks. The last Byzantine emperor had chosen death there in 1453, as the Ottoman Turks completed their conquest of his empire. Underneath the streets of Istanbul lay the shards of antiquity; walls, vaults, passageways, a great Byzantine cistern where Greek and Roman columns held up the roof. Above, the minarets of the mosques—some of them, such as the massive Santa Sophia, converted from Christian churches—and the great tower built by the Genoese brooded over the city’s hills. Across the deep inlet of the Golden Horn, the old city of Stamboul, with its squalor and its magnificence, faced the more spacious modern quarter where foreigners lived. It was a city with many memories and many peoples.

All around was the water. To the northwest, the Bosphorus stretched up into the Black Sea toward Russia and central Asia; southwest, the Sea of Marmara led into the Dardanelles and the Mediterranean. Geography had created the city, and geography had kept it important through the centuries. From antiquity, when Jason sailed through and Alexander the Great won a great victory over the Persians nearby, to more modern times, when Catherine the Great of Russia and Wilhelm II of Germany both reached out to grasp it, the city had always been a prize.

Much of the diplomacy of the nineteenth century had revolved around controlling vital waterways such as this. Russia longed for warm-water ports with access to the world’s seas. Britain in turn bolstered an ailing Ottoman empire to keep the Russians safely bottled up in the Black Sea. (Only in the most desperate moments of the war had the British conceded Russian control over the straits; fortunately, owing to the revolutions of 1917, Russia would not be collecting its prize.) The Ottoman Turks, who had once reached the gates of Vienna, had little to say. Even the Young Turk revolt just before the Great War did little to arrest their decline. Their empire shrank, in the Balkans and across North Africa.

In 1914, the Ottoman leaders decided to confront Russia, now allied to their old friend Britain: the empire joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It was a gamble that failed. The Ottoman empire fought astonishingly bravely, given its relative weakness. In Mesopotamia and at Gallipoli, Turkish soldiers humiliated the Allies, who had expected quick victories. But by 1918, Ottoman luck had run out. The collapse of Bulgaria in September opened the road to Constantinople from the west, while British and Indian troops pushed in from the south and east. Out on the eastern end of the Mediterranean, Allied warships gathered in ominous numbers. Only on its northeastern borders, where the old Russian empire was disintegrating, was there respite, but the Ottomans were too weak to benefit. Their empire had gone piecemeal before the war; now it melted like snow. The Arab territories had gone, from Mesopotamia to Palestine, from Syria down to the Arabian peninsula. On the eastern end of the Black Sea, subject peoples—Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Kurds—struggled to establish new states in the borderlands with Russia. “General attitude among Turks,” reported an American diplomat, “is one of hopelessness, waiting the outcome of the Peace Conference.” Like so many other peoples, they hoped the Americans would rescue them; self-determination might salvage at least the Turkish-speaking areas in eastern Thrace and Anatolia. In Constantinople, intellectuals founded a “Wilsonian Principles Society.”1

The men who had led the empire into the war resigned in the first week of October and fled on a German warship, and a caretaker government sent word to the British that it wanted peace. The British government agreed to open talks promptly at the Aegean island of Mudros, partly to keep the French on the sidelines. Although the British had consulted with the French on the armistice terms, they made the dubious argument that since the Ottoman empire had contacted them first, it was Britain’s responsibility to handle negotiations. The French government and the senior French admiral at Mudros both protested in vain. All negotiations were handled by the British commander, Admiral Arthur Calthorpe.2

The Ottoman delegates were led by Hussein Rauf, a young naval hero and the new minister of the navy. On October 28 they arrived at Calthorpe’s flagship, the Agamemnon. The negotiations were civil, even friendly. Rauf found Calthorpe honest and straightforward—and reassuring when he promised that Britain would treat Turkey, for that was all that remained of the empire, gently. Constantinople probably would not be occupied; certainly no Greek or Italian troops, particular bugbears of the Turks, would be allowed to land. When Rauf arrived home, he told a reporter: “I assure you that not a single enemy soldier will disembark at our Istanbul.” The British had treated them extraordinarily well: “The armistice we have concluded is beyond our hopes.” Even though they had accepted all the clauses put forward by the British, Rauf trusted Calthorpe, who promised that the armistice terms would not be used unfairly. The British were really only interested in free passage through the straits; why would they want to occupy Constantinople, or indeed anywhere else? Rauf told himself that, after all, the British had already taken the Arab territories: “I could think of no other area they would want from the point of view of their national interests and so might try to seize.”3

When the two men put their signatures to the armistice on October 30, they cheerfully toasted each other in champagne. Rauf, the Agamemnon’ s captain wrote to his wife, “made me a very graceful little speech thanking me for my hospitality and consideration to him as a technical enemy.” The photograph of the captain’s young twin sons, said Rauf, had been a source of inspiration to him. “Wasn’t that nice?”4

In London, the British cabinet received the news of the armistice with delight and fell to discussing how Constantinople ought to be occupied, given “the mentality of the East.” The British and their allies had every intention of enforcing the armistice rigorously. All Turkish garrisons were to surrender; all the railways and telegraphs would be run by the Allies; and Turkish ports were to be available for Allied warships. But the most damaging clause was the seventh, which read simply: “The Allies have the right to occupy any strategic points in the event of a situation arising which threatens the security of the Allies.” Years later Rauf looked back: “There was a general conviction in our country that England and France were countries faithful not only to their written pacts, but also to their promises. And I had this conviction too. What a shame that we were mistaken in our beliefs and convictions!” 5

From his post far away to the south, by the Syrian border, a friend of Rauf’s who was also a war hero wrote to his government with dismay: “It is my sincere and frank opinion that if we demobilize our troops and give in to everything the British want, without taking steps to end misunderstandings and false interpretations of the armistice, it will be impossible for us to put any sort of brake on Britain’s covetous designs.” Mustafa Kemal—better known today as Atatürk—dashed north to Constantinople and urged everyone he could see, from leading politicians to the sultan himself, to establish a strong nationalist government to stand up to the foreigners. He found sympathy in many quarters, but the sultan, Mehmed VI, preferred to placate the Allies. In November 1918, Mehmed dissolved parliament and tried to govern through his own men.6

The great line of sultans that had produced Suleiman the Magnificent had dwindled to Mehmed VI. His main achievement was to have survived the rule of three brothers: one who was deposed when he went mad; his paranoid and cruel successor, so fearful of enemies that he employed a eunuch to take the first puff of every cigarette; and the timid old man who ruled until the summer of 1918. Mehmed VI was sane but it was difficult to gauge whether there were many ideas in his bony head. He took over as sultan with deep misgivings. “I am at a loss,” he told a religious leader. “Pray for me.”7

The power of the throne, which had once made the world tremble, had slipped away. Orders from the government, reported the American representative, “often receive but scant consideration in the provinces and public safety is very poor throughout Asia Minor.” Although Constantinople was not officially occupied at first, Allied soldiers and diplomats “were everywhere—advising and ordering and suggesting.” Allied warships packed the harbor so tightly that they looked a solid mass. “I am ill,” murmured the sultan, “I can’t look out the window. I hate to see them.” Atatürk had a very different thought: “As they have come, so they shall go.” 8

Atatürk was a complicated, brave, determined and dangerous man whose picture, with its startling blue eyes, is still everywhere in Turkey today. In 1919 few foreigners had ever heard of him; four years later he had humbled Britain and France and brought into existence the new nation-state of Turkey. The tenth of November, the anniversary of his death, is a national day of remembrance. He could be ruthless, as both his friends and his enemies found; after his great victories, he tried some of his oldest associates, including Rauf, for treason. He could also be charming, as the many women in his life discovered. Children loved him, and he loved them; he always said, however, that it was just as well he was childless since the sons of great men are usually degenerates. He had a rational and scientific mind, but in later life grew fascinated by the esoteric. He refused to allow Ankara radio to play traditional Turkish music; it was what he listened to with his friends. He wanted to emancipate Turkish women, yet when he divorced the only woman he ever married, he did so in the traditional Muslim way. He was a dictator who tried to order democracy into existence. In 1930 he created an opposition party and chose its leaders; when it started to challenge him, he closed it down. He was capricious, but in his own way fair. His subordinates knew that any order he had given at night during one of his frequent drinking bouts should be ignored.9

The man who made Turkey was born on the fringes of the old Ottoman empire in the Macedonian seaport of Salonika. His mother was a peasant who could barely read and write, his father an unsuccessful merchant. Like the Ottoman empire itself, Salonika contained many nationalities. Even the laborers on the docks spoke half a dozen languages. About half of Salonika’s people were Jews; the rest ranged from Turks to Greeks, Armenians to Albanians. 10 Western Europeans dominated the trade and commerce, just as European nations dominated the Ottoman empire.

Early on Atatürk developed a contempt for religion that never left him. Islam—and its leaders and holy men—were “a poisonous dagger which is directed at the heart of my people.” From the evening when, as a student, he saw sheikhs and dervishes whipping a crowd into a frenzy, he loathed what he saw as primitive fanaticism. “I flatly refuse to believe that today, in the luminous presence of science, knowledge, and civilization in all its aspects, there exist, in the civilized community of Turkey, men so primitive as to seek their material and moral well-being from the guidance of one or another sheikh.”11

Over his mother’s objections, he insisted on being educated in military schools. In those days these were not only training leaders of the future; they were centers of the growing nationalist and revolutionary sentiment. Atatürk’s particular aptitudes were for mathematics and politics. He learned French so that he could read political philosophers such as Voltaire and Montesquieu. When he was nineteen, Atatürk won a place in the infantry college in Constantinople. He found a worldly, cosmopolitan capital. Less than half its population was Muslim. The rest were a mix of Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had escaped from Christian Spain centuries before, Polish patriots fleeing tsarist rule, and Orthodox Armenians, Rumanians, Albanians and Greeks. Despite four centuries of Ottoman rule, the Greeks still dominated commerce. (Even after the Second World War, over half the members of Istanbul’s chamber of commerce had Greek names.) Europeans ran the most important industries, and Western lenders kept the government solvent and supervised its finances. The Ottomans were now so weak that they were forced to give Westerners even more of the special privileges, which first started in the sixteenth century capitulations, which included freedom from Turkish taxes and Turkish courts. As a Turkish journalist wrote sadly: “We have remained mere spectators while our commerce, our trades and even our broken-down huts have been given to the foreigners.”12

The infantry college where Atatürk studied was on the north side of the Golden Horn, in the newer part of the city, with its wide streets, gas lighting, opera house, cafés, chamber of commerce, banks, shops with the latest European fashions, even brothels with pink satin sofas just like those in Paris. Atatürk explored it with enthusiasm, carousing and whoring and reading widely, but he always remained ambivalent about Constantinople. It was a place to be enjoyed but dangerous to governments.13 He later moved the capital far inland to the obscure city of Ankara.

Like many young officers in the years before 1914, Atatürk dabbled in secret societies which swore to give the empire a modern constitution. He shared the hopes of the revolution of 1908, and the disappointments when it failed to make the empire stronger.14 In 1908 Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria declared its independence. In 1911 Italy, the weakest of the European powers, declared war and seized Libya. After the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, Albania, Macedonia and part of Thrace, including Salonika, were gone. By 1914 the European part of the empire, which had once stretched into Hungary, was reduced to a small enclave in Thrace tucked under Bulgaria. In six years, 425,000 square miles had been lost.

When the Great War started, Atatürk was enjoying life as a diplomat in Bulgaria. He went to his first opera in Sofia; fifteen years later, he put an opera house into the plans for his new capital of Ankara. He took up ballroom dancing; later, in his new republic, civil servants were made to dance at official balls because “that was how they do it in the West.” At the beginning of 1915, he was offered command of a new division which was being thrown into the defense of the Gallipoli peninsula. Many Allied reputations were destroyed at Gallipoli; his was made. As the author of the official British history later wrote, “Seldom in history can the exertions of a single divisional commander have exercised, on three separate occasions, so profound an influence on the course of a battle, but perhaps on the fate of a campaign and even the destiny of a nation.” 15

The Constantinople Atatürk found at the end of the war was very different from the city he remembered. There was no coal and very little food. A Turk who was a boy at the time remembered his mother struggling to feed the family: “It seemed to us that we had lived forever on lentils and cabbage soup and the dry, black apology for bread.” The government was bankrupt. On street corners distinguished officers sold lemons because their pensions were worthless. And more refugees were pouring in: Russians fleeing the civil war, Armenians searching desperately for safety, and Turks abandoning the Middle East and Europe. By the end of 1919 perhaps as many as 100,000 were sleeping on the streets of the city. The only Turks who prospered were black marketeers and criminals. Crazy rumors swept through the city: one day crowds rushed to Santa Sophia because it was whispered that Christian bells were being hung again.16

Local Greeks, intoxicated by the hope of restored Hellenic rule, hung out the blue-and-white flag of Greece; a giant picture of Venizelos went up in one of the main squares. The Greek patriarch sent aggressive demands to Paris, denouncing the Turks and demanding that Constantinople be made Greek again. His office told Greek Christians to stop cooperating with the Turkish authorities. The Greeks were, said an English diplomat, “apt to be uppish.” 17 Some hotheads jostled Turks in the streets and made them take off their fezzes.

Allied officers and bureaucrats arrived in increasing numbers to supervise the armistice. “Life,” recalled a young Englishman, “was gay and wicked and delightful. The cafes were full of drinking and dancing.” In the nightclubs, White Russians sang melancholy songs and pretty young refugees sold themselves for the price of a meal. You could race motor-boats across the Sea of Marmara, ride to hounds on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and pick up wonderful antiques for pennies. The Allies unofficially divided up Constantinople into spheres of influence and took over much of its administration; they ran the local police and set up their own courts. When the Turkish press was critical of their guests, the Allies took over press censorship as well. When Constantinople was officially occupied in March 1920, it was hard to tell the difference.18

Outside the city, in Thrace and Asia Minor, Allied officers fanned out to monitor the surrender. The French occupied the important southern city of Alexandretta (today Iskenderun) and by early 1919 were moving inland. On the whole, the British were more popular; as one lady in the south commented, “Les anglais ont envoyés les fils de leurs ‘Lords,’ mais les français ont envoyés leurs valets” (“The English sent the sons of their lords, but the French sent their valets”).19 The sultan’s government, as weak and demoralized as its figurehead, did nothing, seeking only to placate the Allies.

The Allies were not in a mood to be placated. Some, such as Curzon, who chaired the cabinet committee responsible for British policy in the East, thought the time had come to get rid of “this canker which has poisoned the life of Europe.” Corruption, nameless vices and intrigue had spread out from Constantinople to infect the innocent Europeans. The Peace Conference was the chance to excise the source of such evil once and for all: “The presence of the Turks in Europe has been a source of unmitigated evil to everybody concerned. I am not aware of a single interest, Turkish or otherwise, that during nearly 500 years has benefited by that presence.” Although as a student of history he should have known better, Curzon argued: “Indeed, the record is one of misrule, oppression, intrigue, and massacre, almost unparalleled in the history of the Eastern world.” His prime minister shared his sentiments; like many Liberals, Lloyd George had inherited his hostility to the Turks from the great Gladstone.20

For Curzon the question was, What would replace the Ottoman empire? Britain still wanted to ensure that hostile warships did not use the straits. It still needed to protect the route to India through the Suez Canal. There was a new factor, too: the increasingly important supplies of oil from Mosul in the Ottoman empire and from Persia. Britain did not want to take on the whole responsibility itself, and Greece certainly could not; on the other hand, it did not want another major power moving in, such as its ally France. After all, the two countries had fought for centuries, over Europe, North America, India, Africa and the Middle East. Their friendship, by comparison, was a recent affair. It had stood the test of the war but it was not clear that it would stand the test of peace. There had already been trouble over the Arab parts of the Ottoman empire. Did Britain really want French ships at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, French bases up and down the coast? Curzon was quite sure that it did not:

A good deal of my public life has been spent in connection with the political ambitions of France, which I have come across in Tunis, in Siam, and in almost every distant region where the French have sway. We have been brought, for reasons of national safety, into an alliance with the French, which I hope will last, but their national character is different from ours, and their political interests collide with our own in many cases. I am seriously afraid that the great Power from whom we may have most to fear in the future is France.

It would be a great mistake, he went on, to allow the French to acquire influence in the Middle East: “France is a highly organised State, has boundless intrepidity, imagination, and a certain power of dealing with Eastern peoples.”21

The French did not trust the British any more than the British trusted them. And France had considerable interests in the Ottoman empire, from the protection of fellow Christians to the extensive French investments. For France, though, what happened to the Ottoman empire or in the Balkans was much less important than dealing with Germany. Clemenceau, whatever his colonial lobby thought, would compromise with Britain because he needed its support in Europe. While he did not want to see the Asian part of Turkey disappear completely, Clemenceau did not, at least initially, have strong views about Greek claims there. As far as Europe was concerned, he supported Greek claims to Thrace. If Greece blocked Italian claims, so much the better for France. 22

During the war, Britain, France and Russia had held a number of discussions about the future of the Ottoman empire. In 1916, the British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot, had agreed that their two countries would divide up the Arab-speaking areas and that, in the Turkish-speaking parts, France would have a zone extending north into Cilicia from Syria. The Russians, who had already extracted a promise that they would annex Constantinople and the straits, gave their approval on condition that they got the Turkish provinces adjacent to their borders in the Caucasus. The decision of the new Bolshevik government to make peace with the Central Powers effectively canceled that agreement. Britain and France were now left as the major powers in the Middle East, and as the war wound down, they circled suspiciously around each other.

In the Supreme Council on October 30, Lloyd George and Clemenceau quarreled angrily over Britain’s insistence on negotiating the Turkish truce on their own. “They bandied words like fish-wives,” House reported. Lloyd George told Clemenceau:

Except for Great Britain no one had contributed anything more than a handful of black troops to the expedition in Palestine. I was really surprised at the lack of generosity on the part of the French Government. The British had now some 500,000 men on Turkish soil. The British had captured three or four Turkish Armies and had incurred hundreds of thousands of casualties in the war with Turkey. The other Governments had only put in a few nigger policemen to see that we did not steal the Holy Sepulchre! When, however, it came to signing an armistice, all this fuss was made.

It was an unfair argument; as Clemenceau pointed out on a later occasion, the British had sent correspondingly fewer troops to the Western Front. “My opinion was and remains that if the white troops which you sent over there had been thrown against the Germans, the war could have been ended some months earlier.” The French nevertheless backed down on the armistice, as Pichon said, “in the spirit of conciliation which the French government always felt to apply in dealing with Britain.” There was not to be much of that spirit when it came to dividing the spoils. 23

The peacemakers did not get around to the Ottoman empire until January 30, 1919, and then it was only in the course of that difficult discussion over mandates for the former German colonies. Lloyd George, who had spent the previous week bringing the Americans and his recalcitrant dominions to agreement, mentioned the Ottoman empire briefly as an example of where mandates were needed. Because the Turks had been so bad at governing their subject peoples, they should lose control of all their Arab territories—Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Arabia itself. Since the Arabs were civilized but not yet organized, they would need outside guidance. The Ottomans also ought to lose territory on their northeast frontier. They had behaved appallingly to the Armenians, and clearly an Armenian state should come into existence, probably as a mandate of an outside power. There might have to be a Kurdistan, south of Armenia. That still left the predominantly Turkish-speaking territories, the slice in Europe, the straits and Anatolia in Asia Minor. Those, Lloyd George said airily, could be settled “on their merits.” (He did not mention the parcels of land stretching inland from the coast of Asia Minor that had been promised to the French, the Italians or the Greeks.)

The other important thing, Lloyd George argued, was to keep all the various groups within the empire from attacking each other. This was not a responsibility Britain wanted. As Lloyd George pointed out, the Allies had over a million troops scattered across the Ottoman empire and Britain was paying for the lot. “If they kept them there until they had made peace with Turkey, and until the League of Nations had been constituted and had started business and until it was able to dispose of this question, the expense would be something enormous, and they really could not face it.” 24 He had to answer to Parliament.

Lloyd George hoped that Wilson would take the hint and offer the United States as the mandatory power at least for Armenia and the straits. Better still, the Americans might decide to run the whole of the Turkish areas. House certainly hinted at the possibility. However, the Americans had not really established a clear position on the Ottoman empire beyond an antipathy toward the Turks. American Protestant missionaries, who had been active in Ottoman Turkey since the 1820s, had painted a dismal picture of a bankrupt regime. Much of their work had been among the Armenians, so they had reported at first hand the massacres during the war. Back in the United States large sums of money had been raised for Armenian relief. House had cheerfully chatted with the British about ways of carving up the Ottoman empire, and Wilson had certainly considered its complete disappearance. 25

The United States had never declared war on the Ottoman empire, which put it in a tricky position when it came to determining the empire’s fate. The only one of Wilson’s Fourteen Points that dealt with it was ambiguous: “The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” What were the Turkish portions? Who should have autonomous development? The Arabs? The Armenians? The Kurds? The scattered Greek communities?

When the Inquiry, that collection of American experts, produced its memorandum in December 1918, it said both that Turkey proper (undefined) must be justly treated and that subject races must be freed from oppression and misrule, which in turn meant “autonomy” for Armenia and “protection” for the Arab parts. Oddly contradicting this, the official commentary on the Fourteen Points, which had come out in October 1918, talked about international control of Constantinople and the straits, perhaps a Greek mandate on the coast of Asia Minor, where it was incorrectly said that Greeks predominated, and possibly American mandates for Constantinople, Armenia, even Macedonia in the Balkans. Before the Peace Conference started, it was generally assumed that, at the very least, the United States would take a mandate for Armenia and the straits. Not everyone was pleased. British admirals, having got rid of the Russian menace, did not want to see a strong United States at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The India Office was also concerned. Mehmed VI was not only the Ottoman sultan but also the caliph, the nearest thing to a spiritual leader of all Muslims. Turning him out of Constantinople, even putting him under the supervision of an outside power, might enrage Indian Muslims. Lloyd George simply ignored their objections.26

As so often, the Peace Conference delayed difficult decisions. At that January meeting, Wilson suggested that the military advisers look at how the burden of occupying the Turkish territories could best be shared out. “This would clarify the question,” said Lloyd George. Of course, it did not. The report duly came in and was discussed briefly on February 10; it was put on the agenda for the following day but in the event the boundaries of Belgium proved to be much more interesting.27

On February 26, the appearance of an Armenian delegation before the Supreme Council briefly reminded the peacemakers that the Ottoman empire remained to be settled. Boghos Nubar Pasha was smooth, rich and cultivated; his father had been prime minister of Egypt. His partner, Avetis Aharonian, was a tough, cynical poet from the Caucasus. Boghos spoke for the Armenian diaspora, Aharonian for the homeland in the mountains where Russia, Persia and Turkey met. In what was by now a familiar pattern they appealed to history—the centuries that Armenians had lived there, the persistence of Armenian Christianity—to their services to the Allies (some Armenians had fought in Russia’s armies) and to Allied promises. And, like other delegations, they staked out a claim for a huge area of land, stretching south and west from the Caucasus down to the Mediterranean. Less typically, they also asked for the protection of an outside power, a wise request for a country with such neighbors and such a past. They placed their hopes on the United States. “Scarcely a day passed,” said an American expert, “that mournful Armenians, bearded and black-clad, did not besiege the American delegation or, less frequently, the President, setting forth the really terrible conditions in their own native land.”28

The Armenians brought one of the saddest histories to the conference. Between 1375, when the last independent Armenian state was conquered, and the spring of 1918, when nationalist forces had proclaimed the republic of Armenia on what had been Russian territory, they had lived under alien rule. After the Russians had advanced down into the Caucasus at the start of the nineteenth century, the Armenian lands were divided up among Russia itself, Ottoman Turkey and Persia. The Armenians, many of them simple farmers, had become Russian, Turkish or Persian, but as ideas of nationalism and self-determination swept eastward, the vision of a reborn Armenian nation took shape. It was not a coherent vision— Christian, secular, conservative, radical, pro-Turkish or pro-Russian, there was no agreement as to what Armenia might be—but it was increasingly powerful. Unfortunately, however, Armenian nationalism was not the only nationalism growing in that part of the world.

“Who remembers the Armenians today?” Hitler asked cynically. At the Paris Peace Conference, the horrors of what the Turks had done to the Armenians were still fresh, and the world had not yet grown used to attempts to exterminate peoples. The killings had started in the 1890s, when the old regime turned savagely on any groups that opposed it. Ottoman troops and local Kurds, themselves awakening as a nation, had rampaged through Armenian villages. The Young Turks, who took over the government in 1908, promised a new era with talk of a secular, multi-ethnic state, but they also dreamed of linking up with other Turkish peoples in central Asia. In that Pan-Turanian world, Armenians and other Christians had no place.

When the Ottoman empire entered the war, Enver Pasha, one of the triumvirate of Young Turks who had ruled in Constantinople since 1913, sent the bulk of its armies eastward, against Russia. The result, in 1915, was disaster; the Russians destroyed a huge Ottoman force and looked set to advance into Anatolia just when the Allies were landing at Gallipoli in the west. The triumvirate gave the order to deport Armenians from eastern Anatolia on the grounds that they were traitors, potential or actual. Many Armenians were slaughtered before they could leave; others died of hunger and disease on the forced marches southward. Whether the Ottoman government’s real goal was genocide is still much disputed; so is the number of dead, anywhere from 300,000 to 1.5 million.29

Western opinion was appalled. In Britain, Armenia’s cause attracted supporters from the duke of Argyll to the young Arnold Toynbee. British children were told to remember the starving Armenians when they failed to clean their plates. In the United States, huge sums of money were raised for relief. Clemenceau wrote the preface for a book detailing the atrocities: “Is it true that at the dawn of the twentieth century, five days from Paris, atrocities have been committed with impunity, covering a land with horror—such that one cannot imagine worse in time of the deepest barbarity?” The usually restrained Lansing wrote to Wilson, who was strongly pro-Armenian, “It is one of the blackest pages in the history of this war.” “Say to the Armenians,” exclaimed Orlando, “that I make their cause my cause.” Lloyd George promised that Armenia would never be restored to “the blasting tyranny” of the Turks. “There was not a British statesman of any party,” he wrote in his memoirs, “who did not have it in mind that if we succeeded in defeating this inhuman Empire, our essential condition of the peace we should impose was the redemption of the Armenian valleys for ever from the bloody misrule with which they had been stained by the infamies of the Turks.”30

Fine sentiments—but they amounted to little in the end. At the Peace Conference, even heartfelt agreement on principle faltered in the face of other considerations. Armenia was far away; it was surrounded by enemies and the Allies had few forces in the area. Moving troops and aid in, at a time when resources were stretched thin, was a major undertaking; what railways there were had been badly damaged and the roads were primitive. Help was far away, but Armenia’s enemies were close at hand. Russians, whether the armies of the Whites or the Bolsheviks, who were advancing southward, would not tolerate Armenia or any other independent state in the Caucasus. On Armenia’s other flank, Turks deeply resented the loss of Turkish territory, and the further losses implied in the Armenian claims.

In Paris, Armenia’s friends were lukewarm and hesitant. The British, it is true, saw certain advantages for themselves in taking a mandate for Armenia: the protection of oil supplies coming from Baku on the Caspian to the port of Batum on the Black Sea, and the creation of a barrier between Bolshevism and the British possessions in the Middle East. (In their worst nightmares, the British imagined Bolshevism linking up with a resurgent Islam and toppling the British empire.) On the other hand, as the War Office kept repeating, British resources were already overstretched. The French Foreign Office, for its part, toyed with ideas of a huge Armenia under French protection which would provide a field for French investment and the spread of French culture. Clemenceau, however, had little enthusiasm for the notion. The Italians, like the French, preferred to concentrate their efforts on gains on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey and in Europe. That left the Americans. 31

On March 7, House assured Lloyd George and Clemenceau that the United States would undoubtedly take on a mandate. Lloyd George was delighted at the prospect of the Americans taking on the “noble duty,” and relieved that the French were not taking on a mandate. House, as he often did, was exaggerating. Wilson had warned the Supreme Council that “he could think of nothing the people of the United States would be less inclined to accept than military responsibility in Asia.” It is perhaps a measure of how far Wilson’s judgment had deteriorated that, on May 14, when Armenia came up at the Council of Four, he agreed to accept a mandate, subject, he added, to the consent of the American Senate. This ruffled the French because the proposed American mandate was to stretch from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, taking in the zone in Cilicia promised to France under the Sykes-Picot Agreement. While Clemenceau, who took little interest in the Turkish-speaking territories, did not raise an objection, his colleagues were furious. From London, Paul Cambon complained: “They must be drunk the way they are surrendering . . . a total capitulation, a mess, an unimaginable shambles.” Although no one suspected it at the time, no arrangement made in Paris was going to make the slightest difference to Armenia.32

Many other schemes for the Ottoman empire were floating around the conference rooms and dinner tables in Paris that spring. “Let it be a manda [buffalo],” said one wit in Constantinople, “let it be an ox, let it be any animal whatsoever; only let it come quickly.” If all the claims, protectorates, independent states and mandates that were discussed actually had come into existence, a very odd little Turkey in the interior of Anatolia would have been left, with no straits, no Mediterranean coast, a truncated Black Sea coast, and no Armenian or Kurdish territories in the northeast. What was left out of the calculation in Paris, among other things, was the inability of the powers to enforce their will. Henry Wilson, chief of the British Imperial General Staff, thought the politicians completely unrealistic: “They seem to think that their writ runs in Turkey in Asia. We have never, even after the armistice, attempted to get into the background parts.” Also overlooked were the Turks themselves. Almost everyone in Paris assumed that they would simply do as they were told. When Edwin Montagu, the British secretary of state for India, cried, “Let us not for Heaven’s sake, tell the Moslem what he ought to think, let us recognize what they do think,” Balfour replied with chilling detachment, “I am quite unable to see why Heaven or any other Power should object to our telling the Moslem what he ought to think.” That went for the Arab subjects of the Ottoman empire as well.33

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!