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 171st installment in the series.
March 1, 1915: Ethnic Violence Around the World
The outbreak of the Great War took the lid off the cauldron of ethnic and religious tensions that had long been simmering across Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. But even the United States – still at peace and idealized by many in the Old World as the upholder of mankind’s equality – suffered from racial violence, albeit on a smaller scale. Around the world, in March 1915 a number of unrelated events crystallized the growing animosity of this troubled time.
Young Turks Suspend Ottoman Parliament
By the beginning of March 1915 the leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the “Young Turks,” had already set in motion their plan to commit genocide against the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian subjects, pointing to the threat of an Armenian uprising as justification. The Allied attack on the forts guarding the Dardanelles on February 19 only served to accelerate these plans, as the CUP rushed to secure the empire’s strategic heartland in Anatolia.
On February 25 War Minister Enver Pasha ordered all Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman Army disarmed for duty in “labor battalions,” removing a potential source of resistance. Meanwhile the “Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa” or Special Organization was removed from military control and placed under the command of Bahaettin Şakir Bey, whose reports on Armenian disloyalty had helped spur the CUP’s ruling triumvirate of Enver, Interior Minister Talaat Pasha, and Navy Minister Djemal Pasha to action.
However Enver and Talaat knew some of their colleagues would likely object to mass murder, and might even try to stop it by warning Armenians and foreigners or condemning the plot in public statements. To maintain secrecy and hide their guilt the CUP leaders decided to get the Ottoman Parliament out of the way while they carried out the plan, recalling it only when they could present the legislators with a fait accompli.
On March 1, 1915 the CUP had the empire’s figurehead monarch, Sultan Mehmed V Reshad, dismiss the Parliament for six months in accord with a special law passed on February 11. Talaat Pasha, who later denied the genocide occurred but admitted some internal deportations took place, confirmed that these plans were linked to the decision to dismiss Parliament:
The Special Organization was aware that some non-Turkish members of both the Chamber of Deputies and Chamber of Notables would leak vital information and decisions to the [Armenian] patriarchy and the embassies. As long as the assemblies were in session, it would be impossible to prevent such individuals, who supposedly represented the nation, from such action.
The following day Talaat wrote to provincial officials ordering them to continue preparing for the mass deportation of their Armenian populations to central Anatolia, to begin in April:
It is confirmed that the Armenians should be transferred to the indicated region as communicated in the Feb. 13th telegram. As the situation has been evaluated by the state, the probability of rebellion and protest indicates the need to take action. The increasing possibility of Armenian uprisings requires that every effective means of suppression needs to be applied.
In fact, internal deportations were already under way in the Çukurova district of the Adana province in southeast Anatolia, where Ottoman officials accused local Armenian communities living along the coast of collaborating with the British Royal Navy.
Meanwhile the Allied campaign to force the Turkish straits and capture Constantinople gathered speed on March 2, 1915, when the British ambassador to St. Petersburg, George Buchanan, told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov that Britain recognized Russia’s claim to the Ottoman capital. Then on March 12 Buchanan and his French colleague Maurice Paléologue presented Sazonov with Britain and France’s own territorial claims in the Middle East, with France to receive Syria and Palestine and Britain the neutral portion of Persia (between the Russian and British spheres of interest in northern and southern Persia, respectively).
Russians Begin Mass Deportations of Jews
Of course popular hatred and official distrust of ethnic and religious minorities were hardly confined to the Ottoman Empire, as illustrated by the Tsarist government’s mass deportation of Jews from areas near the front beginning in March 1915.
Russia had long been one of the most anti-Semitic countries on earth, the product of a combination of factors including traditional Christian prejudices; poor peasants’ economic resentment of Jews, who often worked as craftsmen, tinkers, tailors or shoemakers (a classic dynamic also pitting country folk against townsmen); xenophobia against Jews descended from refugees who immigrated from Germany and other parts of Europe in the medieval period; and scapegoating, with the reactionary regime offering Jews as a target for ordinary people frustrated with its failures to deliver prosperity and responsive government.
In the 19th century and early 20th centuries a series of pogroms, some instigated by the okhrana (Tsarist secret police), left thousands of Jews dead and prompted many more to emigrate. Ironically this made their neighbors even more intolerant of the Jews who remained, as the latter – understandably terrified by the constant threat of random violence – withdrew from society and appealed for foreign diplomatic and humanitarian intervention. Their apparent “disloyalty” in turn fueled conspiracy theories drawing on longstanding suspicion of “cosmopolitan,” “nationless” Jews, most notably the “Protocol of the Elders of Zion,” fabricated by the okhrana in 1903.
Like many other minority groups, during the Great War Eastern European Jews became a pawn in the larger struggle, extending to propaganda and psychological warfare. Germany and Austria-Hungary played on Jewish fears of Russian persecution to ensure the loyalty of their own Jewish populations, while wooing oppressed Jews on the Russian side with promises of liberation. Thus on August 17, 1914, the German high command published a proclamation in Yiddish calling for Russian Jewry to rise up against the Tsarist regime – and, implicitly, their gentile neighbors.
Jews did in fact respond positively to German and Austrian occupation, as described by Laura Blackwell de Gozdawa Turczynowicz, an Englishwoman married to a Polish aristocrat, who wrote as the Germans advanced on Warsaw in February 1915: “The Jews who were always so meek, had now more self-assertion, strutting about, stretching up until they looked inches taller.” Needless to say this did nothing to allay Russian suspicions of Jewish disloyalty. At the same time Russian treatment of Jews in occupied Galicia showed that Jewish fears were all too realistic. On April 8, 1915, Helena Jablonska, a resident of the recently captured fortress city of Przemyśl, wrote in her diary: “The Jews are frightened. The Russians are taking them in hand now and giving them a taste of the whip. They are being forced to clean the streets and remove the manure.”
In March 1915 the Russian military began the mass deportation of the Jewish populations located near the Eastern Front, stretching from Courland (today Latvia) in the Baltic, through Lithuania and Poland, south into occupied Galicia. Altogether from March to September 1915 around 600,000 Jews were forced to relocate to the east, usually with little warning or time to prepare, with the result that around 60,000 died of starvation, exposure, or disease. On April 17, 1915, Jablonska recorded the deportation of Jews from Przemyśl:
The Jewish pogrom has been underway since yesterday evening. The Cossacks waited until the Jews set off to the synagogue for their prayers before setting upon them with whips. They were deaf to any pleas for mercy, regardless of age… Some of the older, weaker ones who couldn’t keep up were whipped. Many, many hundreds were driven along this way. They say this round-up is to continue until they’ve caught all of them. There is such lamenting and despair!
Although they weren’t subject to mass deportations, other ethnic groups including the Poles and Ukrainians were also employed as pawns by both sides. Germany and Austria-Hungary tried to exploit Polish nationalism to undermine Russian rule in Poland by promising Polish autonomy (under the protection of the Central Powers, of course); in August 1914 the Austrian government allowed the creation of “Polish Legions” led by Józef Piłsudski, the future Polish dictator, with the mission of liberating Poland. The Russians responded with similar promises of autonomy, and formed their own Polish military unit, the Puławy Legion, although this was disbanded not long after. For their part Polish nationalists were rightly skeptical of claims from both sides, which had after all cooperated in partitioning Poland (and would do so once again a few decades later).
“The Birth of a Nation” Premieres in New York City
Although racial violence in the United States never approached the scale of Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century, racism was endemic in American society, and discrimination was codified in the Southern states in the form of Jim Crow laws. Mob violence against blacks in the form of lynching continued unabated through this period (see graph below; recent scholarship suggests that these figures may be too low).
America’s fraught race relations were thrust into the foreground thanks to a new form of art and entertainment, the cinema, with silent movies exploding in popularity during these years. According to some estimates the number of movie theaters in operation in the U.S. rose from around 6,000 in 1906 to 10,000 in 1910, reaching 18,000 by 1914. By 1916 an estimated 25 million Americans, or one quarter of the population, were going to the movies every week, and 8.5 million went every day.
The burgeoning medium’s first blockbuster was D.W. Griffith’s epic “The Birth of a Nation,” which debuted in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915 and was widely released beginning in New York City on March 3, 1915 (top, a detail from the movie poster). Starring Lillian Gish, “The First Lady of American Cinema,” at the head of a cast of hundreds, the retelling of the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction through the eyes of two families on opposite sides of the conflict is still widely hailed as a cinematic masterpiece – whose artistic power made its racist depictions of African-Americans all the more toxic.
Based on the novel The Clansman by T.F. Dixon, Jr., the movie centers on the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, depicted as a heroic group fighting to protect Southern honor and virtuous Southern women – in part by battling rapacious black men (played by white actors in black face). The “birth of a nation” which gives the movie its name comes as Northern and Southern whites, formerly enemies, “are united in defense of their Aryan birthright.”
“The Birth of a Nation” spurred protests by African-American groups, but these failed to prevent screenings across the U.S., triggering outbursts of racial violence in cities like Boston and Philadelphia. In fact on March 21, 1915, it became the first movie screened in the White House at the request of President Woodrow Wilson, who relied on support from Southern Democrats and was also responsible for reintroducing official segregation in federal offices in Washington, D.C. Wilson raved about the movie: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The movie was said to have been a key inspiration for William J. Simmons, who founded the second Ku Klux Klan in Georgia on November 24, 1915.
Meanwhile the country’s old racial dynamic was already shifting, as the industrial boom associated with the Great War helped spark the First Great Migration of 1915-1940, when millions of African-Americans moved from the rural South to Northern cities in search of unskilled jobs in factories churning out war-related products (and later consumer goods). Although this would give many African-Americans access to greater economic opportunity, it also touched off a backlash among Northern whites, especially working class populations who felt threatened by the new competition. Thus the new KKK found a surprising number of adherents among alienated Northern whites in the post-war years, reaching its peak in the mid-1920s, when it claimed around four million members.