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 August, 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 102nd installment in the series.
February 8, 1914: Origins of the Armenian Genocide
The Armenian Genocide of 1915 to 1917, in which the government of the Ottoman Empire killed approximately 1.5 million Armenians through mass shootings, forced marches (shown above), exposure, and starvation, couldn’t have taken place without the First World War, which radicalized Turkish public opinion and freed the “Young Turks” from the constraints of international law. But the stage for genocide was set on February 8, 1914, when Europe’s Great Powers forced the Turks to accept reforms they viewed as an existential threat.
An ancient ethnic group attested as far back as the sixth century BCE, the Armenians weathered the rise and fall of empires for millennia before the Ottoman Turks finally conquered the multiethnic Caucasus region in the 16th century CE. During the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, the Christian Armenians enjoyed considerable religious freedom and legal autonomy under the Ottoman “millet” system, which allowed religious minority groups to live by their own traditional laws.
But in the 19th century the millet system was undermined by the rise of nationalism, as various Ottoman subject peoples (including Armenians as well as Greeks, Slavs, and Arabs) embraced national identities and began demanding more autonomy, or even independence. The issue was further complicated by the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the encroachment of Europe’s Great Powers—especially Russia, which grabbed large chunks of Turkish territory in the Caucasus over the course of the 19th century, including some of the Armenian lands.
Now divided between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, the Armenians became a pawn in St. Petersburg’s devious gambit to grab even more Turkish territory in eastern Anatolia. Essentially the Russians used the Muslim Turks’ mistreatment of Christian Armenians as an excuse to intervene and assert Russian control over the region—and to move things along they were quite willing to stir up trouble between the Armenians and their Muslim neighbors, including the Kurds, who the Turks often employed as local enforcers (when they weren’t busy rebelling themselves).
This cynical ploy succeeded in turning international opinion against the Turks, who were their own worst enemies anyway. In 1895, clashes between Kurds and Armenians led to massacres that left at least 100,000 Armenians dead; these and subsequent atrocities generated public support for reforms in Europe and America. However the Turks had one (sort of) ally in Germany, which didn’t stand to benefit from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire—at least in the near term—and now threw its diplomatic weight behind the Turks, delaying and watering down the proposed reforms.
After years of debate, in early 1914 the Turks (and their German backers) finally agreed to a compromise reform package that included some concessions by Russia: Among other things, the proposed administrative units included more Muslims to dilute Armenian political power, and the Armenians gave up any right to restitution of land previously seized by Kurds. But at the end of the day the Turks were still being forced to grant foreigners sweeping powers over an area they considered part of the Turkish homeland.
Under the terms of the Yeniköy Agreement signed on February 8, 1914 (so-called because it was signed in the Yeniköy district of Constantinople), seven Turkish provinces in eastern Anatolia would be grouped into two new inspectorates, both presided over by a European inspector general with the authority to appoint and dismiss local officials, arrest officials they suspected of criminal misconduct, suspend judges, and render decisions on new land disputes. They were also given command of the police and the military. Meanwhile the Kurdish irregular cavalry units were to be disarmed, even as the Russians continued covertly funneling arms to the Armenians (as part of their double game the Russians had also secretly armed the Kurds before, but never mind).
Unsurprisingly, the Turks viewed the Yeniköy Agreement as the opening move in Russia’s final push to dismantle the Ottoman Empire. And there was plenty of evidence fueling Turkish suspicions: Around this time, Zaven, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, called for “the unification of all Armenia under Russian sovereignty,” adding, “the sooner the Russians arrive here, the better for us.”
Similarly, Konstantin Gulkevich, the Russian charge d’affaires in Constantinople who signed the Yeniköy Agreement for Russia, reported to Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov that the Yeniköy Agreement “signifies without doubt the opening of a new and happier era in the history of the Armenian people … The Armenians must feel that the first step has been taken towards releasing them from the Turkish yoke.” Furthermore, “the outstanding role of Russia in the Armenian question is thus officially emphasized… This circumstance will certainly not fail to exert a most favorable influence on the international status of Russia, and to place a halo on the head of her sovereign in the eyes of the Christians of the Near East.”
The Young Turk junta in Constantinople desperately looked for ways to stem the rising Russian tide; one member of the ruling triumvirate, Djemal Pasha, recalled simply, “We wanted to tear up that Agreement.” But there was nothing they could do in the face of the united front presented by Europe’s Great Powers—unless, that is, the situation were suddenly changed by some unexpected event, some great upheaval that would allow them to cancel the reforms and redraw the map on their own terms, with their own methods.