Young Turks

excerpted from the book

The Splendid Blond Beast

by Christopher Simpson

Common Courage Press, 1995


...The concept of a crime against humanity was not well defined at this point, even by its advocates. But the definition had at least two important elements that set it apart from earlier understandings of war crimes, which were limited to acts that a government might take against the population or troops of a foreign power.

First, crimes against humanity included atrocities that were criminal not only under civil law but also under the most elementary morality, yet were not technically war crimes. The new definition included domestic campaigns to exterminate a particular ethnic or religious group as well as institutionalized slavery, even though neither of these was considered a war crime under the Hague of Geneva covenants.

Second, many atrocities committed by a government against its own people were defined as crimes against humanity.

It was the Turkish government's attempted genocide of that country's large Armenian population that had led to the demand for a clear international ban on crimes against humanity. Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire, and the Armenians were a large minority group whose ancestral home clustered around Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Turkish religious extremists and security forces seeking racial and religious purity in Turkey had repeatedly instigated pogroms, murdering tens of thousands Armenians. One result was that militant Armenians took up arms and began pressing for political independence.

Shortly before World War I, a secretive and disciplined cabal of young Turkish military officers known as the Ittihad took power in Turkey and brought the country into an alliance with Germany. These were the original "Young Turks," and their capacity for cruelty and violence still reverberates in that phrase today.

In the first months of World War I the Young Turks instigated a national effort to exterminate the Armenian population under the guise of modernization, suppressing domestic dissent, and securing Turkey's borders. The Ittihad bent the power of the Turkish state to their purpose. Beginning in late 1914 and accelerating over the next three years, the Turkish government rounded up Armenian men for forced labor, worked many to death building a trans-Turkish railway for German business interests, then shot the survivors. The government then secretly ordered mass executions of Armenian intellectuals and political leaders in the spring of 1915. The state also uprooted Armenian women and children from their homes and drove them into vast resettlement camps that were barren of supplies or shelter. When the camps became full, the Turks expelled the people into the deserts of what is today Syria and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died from shootings, starvation, exposure, and disease.

The state declared that all the property of deported Armenian families had been "abandoned," then confiscated it and used it to reward Ittihad party activists and others who participated in the extermination process. Many Turks prospered by liquidating Armenians' businesses, stealing their stocks, and seizing Armenian farms and real estate.

The genocide was particularly cruel to Armenian women and girls, who became the objects of a pervasive, tacitly sanctioned campaign of rape. Turkish police encouraged gangs of thugs to prey upon the deportees as a means of humiliating and destroying these women. Meanwhile, some Armenian girls were able to escape deportation by announcing a religious conversion to Islam, and in this way some Turkish men secured Armenian concubines and house slaves.

Surviving Turkish, German, and U.S. documents establish that the Ittihad expected to strike quickly, to keep the deportations and massacres secret, and to exterminate the Armenians as a race before the outside world learned of the atrocities. The Ittihad also persecuted substantial numbers of Greeks, Jews, and other minority groups, in some cases deporting them along with the Armenians. The Turkish government made a careful effort to explain away leaks that appeared in the press as nothing more than exaggerated accounts of the usual casualties of war.

But the Ittihad miscalculated. Their empire was primarily Islamic, and the Armenians were largely Christians. When the genocide began, a number of Western diplomats and Christian missionaries in Turkey (including a German, Pastor Johannes Lepsius) made determined efforts to record the massacres and deportations and to mobilize world opinion against Turkish actions. The U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, and several U.S. consuls publicly protested the deportations and began to aid refugees-an unusually courageous gesture by diplomats, who ordinarily make a point of washing their hands of such matters. These efforts struck a responsive chord in the countries of the Western Alliance and, to a lesser degree, inside Germany as well. Publicity against the atrocities became particularly strong in countries where the news media remained hungry for wartime atrocity stories involving Germans and their clients and were willing to give full play to deeply rooted Christian prejudices against Muslims.

Tragically, Armenia could supply an almost unlimited number of such accounts. Unlike some war propaganda, most of the stories were true. In the end, however, the Armenians and their supporters failed to mobilize enough international support to halt the mass killings and deportations, although they did succeed in placing the crime of genocide clearly on the public agenda for the first time in modern history.

At the height of the pogroms in 1915, the governments of France, Great Britain, and czarist Russia issued a joint declaration denouncing the mass killings of Armenians as "crimes against humanity and civilization" and warning the leaders of the Turkish government that they would be held "personally responsible."

But too often there was little of substance behind the indignant rhetoric. At the height of the genocide, a factional split among the Young Turks opened the possibility that Turkey might put an end to the massacres in exchange for an agreement from the Associated Powers to abandon their claims on Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. Djemal Pasha, a member of the triumvirate that ruled Turkey, had settled into Damascus and exercised local control over much of what is today Syria, Jordan, and Israel. In late 1915, while Turkish efforts to exterminate Armenians were at their height, Djemal sought out an Armenian emissary and convinced him to carry an offer to the governments of the Associated Powers. If czarist Russia, France, and Britain would back him, Djemal promised, he would undertake a coup d'etat against his Young Turk rivals, end the massacres, and take Turkey out of the war. Djemal himself would then emerge as sultan.

The price for the plan was that the European powers would abandon imperial claims to what is today Iraq and Syria and provide reconstruction assistance to Djemal's government after the war. Djemal, for his part, was willing to concede control of Constantinople and the Dardanelles to Russia.

"Djemal appears to have acted on the mistaken assumption that saving the Armenians-as distinct from merely exploiting their plight for propaganda purposes-was an important Allied objective," writes David Fromkin, a historian specializing in Ottoman affairs. The Russians favored Djemal's plan and for a time assured him that the other Associated Powers would cooperate. But in early 1916, France rejected Djemal's offer and claimed southern Turkey, Syria, and parts of Iraq. Great Britain followed suit, claiming Iraq on behalf of a local "Iraqi" government created by London. "In their passion for booty," Fromkin writes, "the Allied governments lost sight of the condition upon which future gains were predicated: winning the war.... Djemal's offer afforded the Allies their one great opportunity to subvert the Ottoman Empire from within"-and to save innocent lives-"and they let it go." Nor did the Allies exploit Djemal's attempted betrayal of his colleagues for propaganda or intelligence purposes. As far as can be determined, the other Young Turks never learned of Djemal's secret correspondence with the enemy, and he remained part of the ruling triumvirate for the remainder of the war.

The pro-Armenian publicity may not have changed the West's basic policy toward Turkey, but it did have a significant impact on public opinion in the Associated Powers. By the time the Paris Peace Conference began, there was widespread sentiment among the victorious nations that justice required some form of trial and punishment for those who had perpetrated atrocities in Turkey.

The Ittihad dictatorship crumbled as the war drew to a close, and a new, Western-backed Turkish government signed an armistice with the Associated Powers in late October 1918. Two days later, most of the senior Ittihad leaders fled their country for Germany, which granted them asylum. They left behind many who had collaborated in the genocide, however, including state and local administrators, party activists, Turkish businessmen and farmers who had seized Armenian property, policemen, and a variety of specialists in mass violence. The new Turkish government arrested several hundred former party leaders who were suspected of direct roles in the mass deportations and killings, and began to prepare cases against them for murder, treason, theft, and similar offenses under Turkish law.

The new Turkish authorities carried out a series of such trials during 1919 and 1920, placing on the public record an important collection of confessions by former Ittihad leaders, secret state and party papers concerning the tactics of deportation and mass murder, and an evidentiary outline against several hundred Ittihad leaders who had been instrumental in the crime. Much of this evidence was published in the official Turkish parliamentary gazette, TakyImi Vekayi.

The trials were strongly opposed by a rising Turkish nationalist movement, however, which regarded the prosecutions as a symbol of foreign efforts to dismember Turkey. Led by military strongman Mustapha Kemal (later known as Ataturk), the new movement welcomed Ittihadists to its ranks and placed some party veterans in leading posts. Kemal's movement enjoyed great influence in the postwar Turkish military, interior ministry, and particularly the police. Kemalist sympathizers systematically delayed and obstructed Turkey's criminal prosecutions, destroyed evidence, organized escapes, and sparked large demonstrations and public protests against the trials.

Importantly, Britain, France, and the United States were at that time vying with one another to divide up the vast oil and mineral wealth of Turkey's Ottoman Empire. Kemal skillfully played the three powers against each other and insisted on amnesty for the Ittihadists as part of the price for his support in the division of the defunct empire.

Though often overlooked today, the Ottoman holdings were of extraordinary value, perhaps the richest imperial treasure since the European seizure of the New World four centuries earlier. The empire had been eroding for decades, but by the time of the Turkish defeat in World War I, it still included most of what is today Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and the oil sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. The European governments sensed that the time had come to seize this rich prize.

The British had been the dominant foreign power in the Middle East prior to World War I. Their Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later known as British Petroleum, or BP) and the Turkish Petroleum Company effectively controlled most of the oil reserves in the region. But the French acquired an important mandate in the area during the war, and by 1919 they were seeking substantial concessions from the British. Both countries preferred to keep the U.S.-backed Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (today known as Exxon) out of the area. The U.S. government meanwhile opposed many aspects of the European colonial rule in the Middle East, preferring instead what it termed "open-door" policies-those that facilitated U.S. penetration of new markets and acquisition of new sources of supply.

Senior officials of all three Western powers became preoccupied with oil politics in the Middle East. It even led to an awkward new term, "oleaginous diplomacy," that was used for years to refer to government initiatives on behalf of oil companies. "Oil," said French Premier Georges Clemenceau, "is as necessary as blood.''

For a short time after the war, the three allies pressed the new Turkish government on two fronts: First, they supported tough punishment for Ittihadist criminals, payment of damages to Armenians and Greeks for the lives and property lost during the massacres, establishment of an independent Armenian republic in northeastern Turkey, and transfer to Greece of the port city of Smyrna. Second, they demanded that the Turks surrender all claims to the resources of the former Ottoman territories outside of Turkey proper, particularly the Mosul oil fields in what is today northern Iraq. Although many Turks saw these terms as humiliatingly onerous, the first postwar Turkish government agreed to them in the Treaty of Sevres, signed in August 1920. That agreement was hailed at the time as the formal conclusion of World War I.

But the Associated Powers could not agree among themselves on the terms of the division of the Mosul oil fields, and new fighting broke out between the Armenian nationalists, who sought to establish the republic they believed they had been guaranteed at Sevres, and the Turkish Kemalists, who still regarded Armenia as a part of Turkey. Kemal's embrace of the Ittihadists contributed to an escalating cycle of revenge killings and renewed massacres in Turkey.

By the end of 1920, the Kemalists were clearly in the ascendance, having established a rival government at Ankara, in the center of the country. The increasingly shaky Turkish government at Istanbul, under intense Kemalist pressure to abrogate the Treaty of Sevres, abruptly shut down the criminal trials of Ittihadists. The Western allies then stepped up their jockeying for influence in the Kemalist camp.

The U.S. High Commissioner to Turkey was Admiral Mark L. Bristol, a man with a reputation as a bigot and a determined advocate of U.S. alliance with Mustafa Kemal. "The Armenians," Bristol wrote, "are a race like the Jews-they have little or no national spirit and poor moral character." It was better for the United States, he contended, to jettison support for the Armenian republic as soon as possible, stabilize U.S. relations with the emerging Turkish government, and to enlist Kemal's support in gaining access to the oil fields of the former Ottoman Empire. Bristol's argument found a receptive audience in the new Harding administration in Washington, whose affinity for oil interests eventually blossomed into the famous Teapot Dome bribery scandal.

As High Commissioner to Turkey, Bristol had considerably more power than might be enjoyed by any conventional ambassador. As the civil war unfolded inside Turkey, Bristol barred newspaper reporters from access to areas where renewed massacres of Armenians were taking place, purportedly to avoid inciting further atrocities against civilians.

His correspondent at the State Department in Washington was Allen Dulles. After the Paris conference, Dulles had served briefly as chief of staff to Bristol, then moved on to Washington to become chief of the State Department's Near East desk just as "oleaginous diplomacy" was reaching its heyday.

Dulles supported Bristol's initiatives. "Confidentially the State Department is in a bind. Our task would be simple if the reports of the atrocities could be declared untrue or even exaggerated but the evidence, alas, is irrefutable," Dulles wrote in reply to Bristol's requests for State Department intervention with U.S. publishers to shift the tone of news reports still dribbling out of Turkey and Armenia. ' [T]he Secretary of State wants to avoid giving the impression that while the United States is willing to intervene actively to protect its commercial interests, it is not willing to move on behalf of the Christian minorities." Dulles went on to complain about the agitation in the U.S. on behalf of Armenians, Greeks, and Palestinian Jews. "I've been kept busy trying to ward off congressional resolutions of sympathy for these groups.''

The change in the U.S. government's response to the Armenian massacres presents an acute example of the conflicts that often shape U.S. foreign policy. From 1914 to 1919, the U.S. government and public opinion sharply condemned the Turkish massacres. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau repeatedly intervened with the Turkish government to protest the killings, raised funds for refugee relief, and mobilized opposition to the genocide. A close review of the declassified State Department archives of the period shows that much of the government's internal reporting on Turkey was strongly sympathetic to the Armenians throughout the war and the first months after the war.

The Western press, too, was overwhelmingly favorable to the Armenians and hostile to the Turkish government. One recent study by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin found that between April and December of 1915, the New York Times published more than 100 articles concerning the massacres when the killings were at their height. All of the Times coverage was sympathetic to the Armenians, and most of the news stories appeared on the front page or the first three pages of the newspaper. A roughly similar pattern can be found in publications such as the New York Herald Tribune, Boston Herald, and Atlantic Monthly and in the journals of various Christian missionary societies. The volume of news coverage rose and fell with events over the next five years, but on the whole it remained strongly sympathetic to the Armenians.

Yet a remarkable shift in U.S. media content and government behavior took place as the new Harding administration established itself in 1921. "Those who underestimate the power of commerce in the history of the Middle East cannot have studied the postwar situation in Turkey between 1918 and 1923," Dobkin writes. "There were, of course, other political factors that proved disastrous for the Armenians . . . but the systematic effort (chiefly by the Harding administration) to turn U.S. public opinion towards Turkey was purely and simply motivated by the desire to beat the [rival Associated] Powers to what were thought of as the vast, untapped resources of that country, and chiefly the oil."

"It was not possible to bring about the desired change in public opinion without denigrating what the Armenians had suffered," she continues. Retired U.S. Admiral William Colby Chester joined Admiral Mark Bristol as a leading public spokesman for reconciliation with Turkey. Chester was not a disinterested party. The Turkish government had granted him an oil concession in Iraq that was potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Writing in the influential journal Current History, Chester contended that the Armenians had been deported not to deserts, but to "the most delightful and fertile parts of Syria ... at great expense of money and effort"-a claim that went well beyond even what the Kemal government was willing to argue. Dobkin reports that missionary leaders such as Cleveland Dodge and George Plimpton, who had once been instrumental in documenting the genocide, began to lend their names to publicity insisting that the reported Turkish excesses had been "greatly exaggerated." By mid-1923, the complex and interlocking challenges created by the demands for justice in the wake of the Armenian Genocide, on the one hand, and U.S. political and commercial interests in Turkey, on the other, had been settled in favor of a de facto U.S. alliance with the new Kemalist government. The day-to-day details of the U.S. diplomatic shift in favor of Kemal were handled by Ambassador Joseph Grew (who will reappear later in this narrative as acting secretary of state during a pivotal moment in World War II) and the chief of the Near East desk at State, Allen Dulles. The U.S., which had been the principal international supporter of the nascent Armenian Republic, withdrew its promises of aid and protection. Mustafa Kemal soon succeeded through force of arms in suppressing Armenia and in establishing a new Turkish government at Ankara. In July 1923, the Turks and the European allies signed a new agreement, replacing the aborted Treaty of Sevres with the Treaty of Lausanne. Western governments agreed to new Turkish borders, officially recognized Kemal's government, abandoned any claim on behalf of an Armenian republic, and specifically agreed to an amnesty for all Ittihadists who had been convicted in the earlier trials.

As things turned out, many of the top Ittihadists who fled Turkey in 1918 were assassinated by Armenian commandos. Talaat, the minister of internal affairs and grand vizier of the Ittihad state, was shot in Berlin on March 15,1921. Behaeddin Sakir (Chakir), a senior member of the "Commission of Supply," which had coordinated much of the extermination campaign, and Djemal Azmy, military governor during the height of the killings in Trebizond, were killed in Berlin on April 17, 1922. Enver, the former minister of war, is said to have been killed by the Soviet army in Bukhara in 1922, though many of the details of his death remain uncertain. Djemal, who with Talaat and Enver had constituted the ruling triumvirate of the Ittihad state, was gunned down in July 1922 in Tiflis. He was on his way to a trade conference in Berlin, where he was to buy weapons for the Afghan army.

Armenians lost a great deal under the terms of the Lausanne treaty while Western commercial interests prospered. The new Turkish leader Kemal agreed to relinquish all claims on the territories of the old Ottoman Empire outside Turkish borders, thus formally opening the door to the Anglo-American control of Middle East oil that was to continue with minimal change for the next fifty years. This was not a simple quid pro quo, of course. The agreement also involved other important elements, notably a settlement of most reparation claims against Turkey and an agreement between Greece and Turkey to repatriate thousands of ethnic Greeks and Turks to their respective countries of origin. There were to be several more years of squabbles before the U.S.-European disputes over the Mosul oil fields were finally settled.

The point was nonetheless clear. Western governments had discarded wartime promises of action against the Ittihadists who had murdered about a million people in order to help their political maneuvering over oil concessions in the Middle East. The dominant faction in Turkish society never accepted Armenian claims as legitimate, despite the strong evidence of genocide established by Turkey's own courts. In fact, the Turkish government even today continues to refuse to acknowledge Ittihadist responsibility for the Armenian massacres, and has instead in recent years financed a large and sophisticated publicity campaign aimed at rewriting the history of the war years.

Splendid Blond Beast

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