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 95th installment in the series.
December 15, 1913: British Back Russians on von Sanders
In the autumn of 1913, Europe was gripped by yet another in a long series of diplomatic crises, this time triggered by the news that a German officer, Lieutenant General Liman von Sanders, was to be appointed commander of the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople. The Russians in particular vehemently opposed this arrangement, arguing that it would effectively turn control of the Ottoman capital over to Germany, thus threatening Russia’s foreign trade, half of which flowed through the Turkish straits; the Russians also hoped to conquer Constantinople for themselves someday.
As in the previous crises caused by the Balkan Wars, Europe’s Great Powers tried to avoid a wider conflict but nevertheless found themselves dragged into a cycle of escalation by less powerful client states—in this case, the Ottoman Empire.
For the Committee of Union and Progress (Young Turks) led by Enver Pasha, the German military mission was more than just a step towards overhauling the Turkish army; it also held out the possibility of a more serious commitment from Germany to protect the beleaguered Ottoman Empire against the other Great Powers. If the Turks could just get Germany to sign a formal defensive alliance, it would buy them time to carry out sweeping reforms to get the empire back on its feet. For their part the Germans were leery of deeper Turkish entanglements, viewing the ramshackle empire as essentially a lost cause and a dangerous liability in military terms (the von Sanders mission was as much about staking a claim to Turkish territory as it was about defending it). But the Young Turks were willing to play hardball with their reluctant partners.
On December 4, 1913, the Turks delivered a fait accompli to the Great Powers—including Germany—by formally announcing von Sanders’ appointment as commander of the First Army Corps. By escalating the situation the Turks hoped to force the Germans to make a clear stand at the side of the Ottoman Empire, using the diplomatic crisis surrounding the von Sanders Affair as leverage; with their prestige on the line, it would be harder for the Germans to back down and leave the Turks hanging.
Unsurprisingly the Russians were not at all happy with this turn of events. On December 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov rang the alarm bells in St. Petersburg, warning Tsar Nicholas II that “to abandon the Straits to a powerful state would be to place the economic development of the whole of South Russia at the mercy of that state.” And two could play the escalation game: on December 7, Sazonov raised the stakes by suggesting that Russia might be forced to seek compensation in the form of Turkish territory—specifically the province of Erzurum in Turkish Armenia. Thus the wily foreign minister, ever opportunistic, hoped to either get rid of von Sanders or use the crisis to advance Russia’s devious long-term plan to annex Turkish territory.
As intended, Sazonov’s threat triggered serious alarm in Western capitals, with France and Britain hurrying to restrain their Entente partner while also urging Germany to back down—not unlike friends trying to prevent a drunken bar fight. But their efforts were overtaken by events: von Sanders left Berlin for Constantinople on December 9, arriving five days later. Meanwhile on December 12 Sazonov informed Britain and France that Russia considered this a test of the Entente, adding, “This lack of… solidarity between the three Entente Powers arouses our serious apprehension...”
Up to this point British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey (top) had avoided involvement in the von Sanders Affair, which didn’t directly affect British interests. But with war in the air, on December 15, 1913, the phlegmatic foreign secretary finally left the sidelines, warning the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, that “Russia might demand compensations in Constantinople in the form of the transfer to her of a command in Armenia. Such a solution seemed to him to be fraught with danger, as it might mean the beginning of the end—the beginning of the partition of Turkey in Asia.” Later Grey told Lichnowsky “the Russians are more concerned than ever and must be satisfied somehow…”
Lichnowsky conveyed Grey’s warnings to Berlin, and the Germans—who had no desire for a confrontation with the Entente over the von Sanders mission—began thinking of ways to satisfy Russian demands while still maintaining German and Turkish prestige. The answer was clear enough: to save face von Sanders would give up command of the Constantinople army but remain in Turkey in a military capacity, which, in the Kabuki-like world of European power politics, would technically mean no one had backed down.
On December 18, von Sanders (with a nudge from the German ambassador to Constantinople, Baron von Wangenheim) suddenly realized that reforming the Turkish army and commanding an active army corps was too much for one person to handle, and requested a transfer to command of the Turkish army corps at Adrianople, leaving Constantinople in Turkish hands once again. This wasn’t quite the end of the von Sanders Affair, as the Turks still required some convincing, but it showed that the Germans were trying to defuse the situation, and tensions began to subside.
However the Liman von Sanders Affair revealed dynamics that would help precipitate the First World War less than a year later. For one thing, the Turks’ decision to escalate the crisis showed that Germany, having encouraged its allies in a particular course of action, couldn’t necessarily control them once they embarked on it. At the same time Grey’s initial reluctance to take sides, which allowed the situation to escalate dangerously, foreshadowed Britain’s belated intervention during the final crisis of July 1914, when the world’s fate hung in the balance.