WWI Centennial: Coup in Constantinople, Betrayal in the Balkans, Conniving in the Caucasus

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 53rd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

January 23, 1913: Coup in Constantinople, Betrayal in the Balkans, Conniving in the Caucasus

In January 1913 there was reason to hope the First Balkan War was winding down. After the Ottoman Empire suffered crushing defeats at the hands of the Balkan League—Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro—the two sides agreed to a ceasefire and entered into peace negotiations at the Conference of London beginning in December 1912.

As might be expected, these negotiations were a bit rocky: On January 1, 1913, the Turks said they were willing to give up almost all of their European territory, but not the key city of Adrianople, where the Turkish garrison was still holding out against a Bulgarian siege. The Bulgarians wouldn’t make peace if they didn’t get Adrianople. This conflict threatened to deadlock the negotiations, which were suspended on January 6.

On January 17, Europe’s Great Powers intervened by warning the Turkish representatives that if they didn’t make peace soon, the Ottoman Empire faced the loss of its Asian territories as well—a bold-faced threat. This arm-twisting paid off; on January 22, the Turkish negotiators thought better of their earlier refusal and agreed to give up Adrianople. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief.

But their relief was premature. On January 23, 1913, the Turkish “Liberal Union” government that agreed to the deal was overthrown by military officers from the rival Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks, led by Enver Pasha, the commander of the Constantinople reserve army.

Emboldened by their defensive victory at Chataldzha and horrified by the suffering of some 400,000 Turkish refugees streaming in from the Balkans, the nationalist officers refused to give up Adrianople before it had even been lost. Instead, they deposed the Grand Vizier, Kamil Pasha, and shot the Minister of War, Nazim Pasha, as punishment for his failure in the First Balkan War. Hoping to reinvigorate the Turkish military, the officers appointed a non-political general (and recent Minister of War), Mahmud Shevket Pasha, as the new Grand Vizier. The First Balkan War would drag on.

The Balkan League Begins to Fray

The Turks had reason to be hopeful. Although the members of the Balkan League presented a united front in their peace negotiations with the Ottoman Empire, tensions were rising over the division of spoils from the First Balkan War. In June 1913 these disputes would lead to the Second Balkan War, pitting Bulgaria against its former allies Serbia and Greece (plus Turkey and Romania for good measure).

The trouble was already brewing in January 1913, as intervention by Europe’s Great Powers triggered a chain reaction of conflicting territorial demands. Fearing the growth of Serbian power, Austria-Hungary was determined to prevent the small Slavic kingdom from gaining access to the sea, raising the possibility of war with Serbia’s backer Russia. To avoid a wider European conflagration, the Great Powers moved to placate Austria-Hungary by convincing Russia to agree to the creation of a new, independent Albania, which would block Serbia from the sea.

Albanian independence was crucial to defusing broader European tensions, but it did so at the cost of local stability in the Balkans. Because Serbia was forced to give up its conquests in Albania, it became even more determined to hold on to its conquests to the east, in Macedonia – including territory also claimed by Bulgaria. On January 13, 1913, Serbia sent Bulgaria a diplomatic note formally requesting to revise their treaty of March 1912 to give Serbia a bigger chunk of Macedonia, noting that Bulgaria hadn’t committed the promised number of troops to their joint operations in Macedonia.

Of course this was bound to infuriate the Bulgarians, who felt that their focus on defeating the Turks closer to home, in Thrace, had benefited the whole Balkan League. Meanwhile Bulgaria also had a bone to pick with Greece over the city of Salonika, the southern gateway to the Balkans. To top it all off, Romania was also demanding territorial compensation from Bulgaria in return for recognizing its conquests in Thrace. A new coalition was coming into being, this time directed against Bulgaria.

Russia Uses Kurds and Armenians as Pawns

In addition to losing its Balkan territories, farther east the beleaguered Ottoman Empire faced the threat of Russian aggression in the Caucasus. Here the Russians employed a time-tested ruse, combining covert action and diplomatic pressure, as cynical as anything dreamed up by a modern intelligence agency in the 21st century.

The ruse entailed using the Armenian and Kurdish populations of the Ottoman Empire as pawns to justify Russian intervention. Essentially, the Russians secretly armed the Muslim Kurds and Christian Armenians and encouraged them to fight each other as well as the Turkish government, thus creating a pretext for the Russians to step in as the “protectors” of the Armenians, incorporating the Armenian region into the Russian Empire while they were at it.

On November 26, 1912, the Russian ambassador to Constantinople, Baron von Giers, demanded that the Turks institute “reforms” granting more autonomy to the Armenians – a preamble to Russian annexation of the region. Meanwhile on November 28, 1912, Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov sent a secret directive to Russian consuls in eastern Anatolia telling them to work to unite the Kurdish tribes (never an easy task), and between December 1912 and February 1913 several Kurdish chiefs secretly swore fealty to the Russians.

In short, the Russians were creating a problem so they could solve it. Of course, by setting themselves up as the Armenians’ saviors, the Russians also stoked Turkish paranoia about Armenian loyalty (or lack thereof), laying the groundwork for the horrific Armenian Genocide during the coming Great War.

The other Great Powers were aware of what was going on, at least to some degree: on January 23, 1913, the German ambassador to St. Petersburg, Count Friedrich Pourtalès, wrote a letter to the German chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, warning him that Kurdish atrocities against Armenians would create an opening for Russia to expand into eastern Anatolia. As noted previously, this was unacceptable to the Germans, who feared they would lose out if the other Great Powers started dividing up the Ottoman Empire; a Russian advance in Anatolia would also threaten the proposed “Berlin to Baghdad” railway, a key part of Germany’s push to increase its influence in the Middle East.

See all installments of the World War I Centennial series here.

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