The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 168th installment in the series. Note: This article has been updated.
February 15, 1915: Young Turks Plot Armenian Genocide
The Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, in which the Ottoman government killed around 1.5 million of its own subjects through massacres, forced marches, starvation and exposure, was unprecedented in its scale. But there were plenty of precedents in the history of the Ottoman Empire for violence against ethnic and religious groups, ordered or sanctioned by the state.
In the modern era these included the massacre of 20,000 Maronite Christians by Druze mobs in 1860; the massacre of up to 300,000 Armenians and 25,000 Assyrian Christians by Turkish and Kurdish paramilitary units and gangs in 1894-1896; communal violence by both Armenians and Azeris that left up to 10,000 in both communities dead in 1907; and the massacre of up to 30,000 Armenians by Turkish mobs in 1909. After the First Balkan War the Ottoman government also forcibly expelled around 200,000 Greeks from the coastal provinces of Asia Minor to the islands of the Aegean Sea in 1913-1914 (while 400,000 Muslim Ottoman subjects were also expelled from Europe by the victorious members of the Balkan League). State-sanctioned ethnic violence was also common in the neighboring Russian Empire, where the Tsarist government encouraged pogroms against Jews in hopes of driving them to emigrate.
In the Ottoman Empire all these violent campaigns had the single goal of producing a cohesive, ethnically homogenous Turkish stronghold covering Anatolia and parts of the Levant and southern Caucasus—areas famous (or notorious) throughout history for their ethnic diversity, due to their position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. In short the idea of using violence to settle internal ethnic problems was nothing new.
The last straw, as far as the Ottoman government was concerned, were the Armenian reforms forced on the Ottoman Empire by Europe’s Great Powers in February 1914. The ruling Committee of Union and Progress (known in Europe as the “Young Turks”) feared—probably correctly—that these reforms would allow Russia to undermine Ottoman authority in Anatolia by encouraging the nationalist aspirations of the Armenians, who looked to their fellow Christians in Russia as patrons and protectors.
This threat to the Turkish heartland was unacceptable to the CUP, who had long suspected the Armenians of disloyalty and now believed they meant to trigger the final breakup of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time the Christian Armenians were also a stumbling block to the geopolitical aspirations of CUP leaders who wanted to unite the Ottoman Turks with their Muslim Turkic cousins in Central Asia, an ideology called “Pan-Turanism” (pan-Turkish nationalism).
As early as February 23, 1914, War Minister Enver Pasha (top, left) wrote a memorandum asserting “the non-Muslims had proven that they did not support the continued existence of the state. The salvation of the Ottoman State would be linked to stern measures against them.” The outbreak of the Great War just a few months later provided the CUP with a unique opportunity to cancel the reforms, along with the rest of the humiliating “capitulations” to the Great Powers, and settle the “Armenian question” once and for all.
The Young Turk triumvirate composed of Enver Pasha, Interior Minister Talaat Pasha (top, middle), and Navy Minister Djemal Pasha, were finally moved to action in February 1915 by reports that Armenian volunteers were helping the Russian army in the Caucasus, along with rumors (again, possibly true) that Armenian militants behind the lines were stockpiling weapons in preparation for an uprising to help the Russian advance.
In the second half of February 1915 Bahaettin Şakir Bey (top, right), a key figure in the Ottoman government’s shadowy secret police, the “Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa” or “Special Organization,” traveled from eastern Anatolia to Constantinople to warn the other CUP leaders about the alleged preparations for rebellion by Armenian “gangs.” Şakir argued that in light of “the behavior which the Armenians had exhibited towards Turkey and the support which they extended to the Russian army . . . one needed to fear the enemy within as much as the enemy beyond.”
Although few authenticated records of their meetings in February have survived (perhaps because the proceedings weren’t committed to paper in the first place; much of the supposed documentation is disputed) by the end of the month the CUP had agreed on the outlines of a plan for the total extermination of the empire’s Armenian population. The CUP put the plan into motion swiftly but subtly. The first priority was to disarm thousands of Armenian soldiers serving in the Ottoman Army, the most likely source of resistance; the most delicate step, this had to be done without arousing any suspicions about the measures to follow. Using his authority as war minister, on February 25, 1915 Enver Pasha issued an order for all Armenian soldiers to turn in their rifles and report to labor battalions, where they would supposedly be employed building military roads and similar projects.
Another key step was getting approval from the Ottoman Empire’s ally and patron Germany, and on March 18, 1915 Foreign Minister Halile Mentese visited Berlin to inform the Germans of their plans and ask for their support. This was potentially tricky matter, as German leaders might understandably have qualms about consigning fellow Christians to a gruesome fate. However Kaiser Wilhelm II (who oddly considered himself the protector of the Muslim world) was more than ready to acquiesce in any measures Germany’s ally might take to shore up their fragile empire; likewise, German military leaders were prepared to excuse almost anything on the grounds of military necessity. Although some German diplomats protested, top German officials were aware of the plans for genocide from the beginning, and remained supportive to the bitter end.
Over the next few months, the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior sent secret orders to the governors of the eastern provinces, delivered in person by “Responsible Secretaries,” with instructions about how, when, and where to carry out the “deportations” and mass killing of their Armenian populations. Most of the dirty work would be left to paramilitary units organized by the Special Organization, including hardened criminals recruited from prison. Anticipating objections from the Ottoman Parliament, on March 1 the CUP decided to suspend the legislative body indefinitely.
Tragically the Russian advance from the east, and the Allied naval assault on the Dardanelles beginning February 19, 1915, only served to hasten these preparations, as the CUP rushed to secure the Ottoman Empire’s strategic core in case Constantinople fell. In fact the first deportations, in the Çukurova district of the Adana province in southeast Anatolia, were already under way by late February—justified on the grounds that Armenians living along the Mediterranean coast were cooperating with the British navy. Meanwhile a purge of high-ranking Armenians was also under way: the Armenian second director of the Ottoman Bank, S. Padermadjian, was quietly murdered on February 10.
Indian Troops Mutiny in Singapore
Although the Central Powers never succeeded in their plan of fomenting large-scale colonial rebellions to undermine the British and French Empires, their hopes weren’t entirely implausible. Across Asia and Africa, many native subjects were understandably resentful of racially discriminatory policies implemented by high-handed colonial governments, and native troops were no more eager than their Western peers to be fed into the cauldron of modern warfare.
On February 15, 1915, around 850 Indian infantry soldiers mutinied in Singapore as the city’s large Chinese population was celebrating the lunar New Year. Taking advantage of this distraction, the mutineers seized control of the city, murdering a total of 47 British officers and civilians and freeing German prisoners-of-war in the hopes the latter would join their insurrection (most of the POWs wisely stayed on the sidelines).
The mutiny was short-lived, as British troops quickly regained control of the city with the help of landing parties from French, Japanese, and Russian ships; within a week it was all over. Meanwhile neighboring Malaysian potentates came to their imperial masters’ aid by hunting down fugitives who escaped to the mainland and tried to hide out in the jungles of the Malay Peninsula. But as the violent episode made clear, Britain and France had their hands full: between fighting an industrial war in Europe and policing far-flung empires, where simmering discontent threatened to boil over into open resistance, it’s no surprise their resources were stretched almost to the breaking point.
Note: This article has been updated. See author's note in comments.