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 73rd installment in the series.
June 11-13, 1913: Grand Vizier Assassinated, Serbia and Bulgaria Prepare for War
On Wednesday, June 11, 1913, Mahmud Shevket Pasha, who was serving as both Grand Vizier (akin to prime minister) and Minister of War for the Ottoman Empire, was on his way to the War Ministry in Constantinople when his car broke down on the busy Divan Yolu avenue running through the old city center. After the driver pulled over to make repairs, another open-topped car—one of just 100 in use in the city at that time—pulled up alongside Shevket Pasha’s car and two men, each holding revolvers in both hands, stood up and unleashed a fusillade which hit both the Grand Vizier and his aide, Ibrahim Bey. The audacious assassins then jumped out of their car, approached the Grand Vizier’s car, and fired ten more shots before driving off. Shevket Pasha’s supposed last words were suitably dramatic: “My country; alas, my country!”
Judging by newspaper coverage, the brazen murder of the Ottoman Empire’s elder statesman (Shevket Pasha had played a key role in establishing constitutional government) elicited expressions of sympathy in Europe – but not much surprise. Political murders were all too common in the years leading up to the First World War, as demonstrated by the assassination of Greece’s King George by an anarchist just a few months before, and there was a long tradition of Ottoman Grand Viziers coming to bad ends. It was widely believed that Shevket Pasha’s assassination was revenge for the murder of the previous War Minister, Nazim Pasha, in the coup in January 1913, with one newspaper noting: “It has been generally believed that ever since Nazim Pasha’s murder Shefket Pasha has been virtually under sentence of death.”
The circumstances of the crime were obviously suspicious, beginning with the alleged breakdown and the fact that Shevket Pasha’s driver apparently escaped unharmed. Equally suspicious was the fact that the third passenger, Echref Bey, “escaped as if by a miracle” and then had not one but two pistols misfire when he tried to shoot back at the assassins. In their haste to escape the attackers left one assassin behind, a “lame innkeeper” who conveniently implicated a group of known gangsters and bookies. On June 24, 1913, the innkeeper and eleven other “real or alleged plotters” were found guilty and promptly hanged.
Whoever killed Shevket Pasha, his demise was viewed as a blow against the Committee of Union and Progress, or Young Turks, who supposedly relied on his reputation and prestige to govern; it was also seen as a major setback for the Ottoman Empire’s efforts to reform its military following its humiliating defeat in the First Balkan War.
In fact, both of these contemporary analyses turned out to be wrong. After Shevket Pasha’s death the Young Turk triumvirate – Enver Pasha, Taalat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha – simply appointed a weak-willed Egyptian member of the CUP, Said Halim Pasha, as a figurehead Grand Vizier, and consolidated power in their own hands. Shortly afterwards, in January 1914, the energetic, charismatic Enver Pasha took the reins as Minister of War and pushed military reforms at an even faster pace, including a purge of old officers who were no longer fit to command, a new structure for Turkish divisions based on the cutting-edge Germany model, and new, more efficient plans for conscription and mobilization. As a result of all these reforms the Ottoman Empire, viewed by Europeans as a negligible quantity after the First Balkan War, presented a much greater threat than any of its opponents realized in the coming conflict.
Serbia and Bulgaria Agree to Arbitration, But Prepare for War
In spring 1913, tensions between Serbia and Bulgaria reached a boiling point, as the former allies turned on each other over the spoils of the First Balkan War. By June 1913, the situation was so alarming that the indecisive Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, felt compelled to use Russia’s traditional role as patron of the Slavic states to force a peaceful resolution on its feuding client kingdoms. On June 12, 1913, Russia demanded that Serbia and Bulgaria agree to submit to arbitration by Russia over the division of conquered Turkish territory in Macedonia. Both sides naturally agreed – one didn’t just say “no” to Russia – but as usual Sazonov’s efforts were too little, too late.
The rival claims of Serbia and Bulgaria were simply irreconcilable: their attachment to Macedonian territory was emotional, dating back to the medieval period, and neither Serbia’s King Peter nor Bulgaria’s Tsar Ferdinand could afford to be seen as weak by their own subjects. Thus even as they agreed to submit to Russian arbitration, Serbian and Bulgarian armies continued to concentrate near their shared border; meanwhile Serbian diplomats cemented a military alliance with Greece directed against Bulgaria, and Serbian officers organized paramilitary units in Bulgarian-controlled territory to sow chaos once fighting began. The Second Balkan War was less than three weeks away.
U.S. Senate Committee Recommends Women’s Suffrage
The years before the First World War were a time of political and social upheaval in the New and Old Worlds alike. In the U.S., the main causes of turmoil were the shifting balance of power between rural and urban areas, industrial labor unrest, and a huge influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. But the U.S., like Britain, was also divided by the issue of women’s suffrage.
Women on both sides of the Atlantic had been demanding more legal rights, including the right to vote, since the mid-19th century, if not before (Abigail Adams was advocating women’s rights as early as 1776 in private letters to her husband). In Britain, the women’s suffrage movement developed as part of the broader push to eliminate property requirements and extend the franchise to the working class; in the U.S., it was closely connected with the abolitionist movement, with female Quakers and evangelical Christians (many from New England) playing a key role in advancing both causes. Notable events in the U.S. included the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, while in Britain the London Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed in 1867.
After the Civil War, the American suffrage movement received new impetus from the Progressive Movement as well as from trailblazing Western states and territories. Those granting women the right to vote in local and state elections included Wyoming in 1869, Utah in 1870 (later repealed), Colorado in 1893, and Idaho in 1896; they would later be joined by Kansas (1910); California (1911), Oregon and Arizona (1912), and Alaska (1913). But most states still denied women the right to vote, and women’s suffrage advocates turned to Congress in hopes of a federal amendment.
On March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, suffragists paraded in Washington, D.C., where they were harassed by angry mobs. They convened on the capitol again on April 7 to present petitions demanding a women’s suffrage amendment: the “Anthony Amendment,” after Susan B. Anthony. This goal seemed even more plausible after the 17th Amendment, providing for direct election of the U.S. Senate, was formally adopted May 31, 1913. Democracy was in the air; maybe it would now include women as well.
The prize seemed within reach on June 13, 1913, when the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Women’s Suffrage published a report that recommended giving women the right to vote. The report noted that women already owned property and paid taxes, highlighting the embarrassing fact of taxation without representation. The Senate also recommended creating a parallel committee on women’s suffrage in the House of Representatives, which would remove the issue from the purview of the House Judiciary Committee which had “tabled” (ignored) several earlier suffrage laws.
It wasn’t going to be that easy, however. In addition to their traditional prejudices, Congressmen were simply leery of granting such a huge expansion of the franchise, which would force them to take into account the needs and desires of a vast new constituency. Thus the Anthony Amendment ran into the political sands in 1913 and 1914, when America’s attention turned to cataclysmic events unfolding overseas. Women’s suffrage would also be delayed on the other side of the Atlantic, as the British House of Commons voted down a law which would have given women the right to vote on May 7, 1913.
But the struggle was far from over, and suffrage advocates were increasingly militant. On June 4, 1913, the radical suffragist Emily Wilding Davison was trampled after trying to block a horse owned by King George V at the Epsom Derby; her death on June 8 made her a martyr for women’s rights, and her funeral procession on June 14 attracted tens of thousands of mourners. In the end it would take the destructive upheaval of the Great War, which laid bare the bankruptcy of all the old political arrangements, to break men’s resistance to women’s suffrage in the U.S., Britain, and Europe.