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Ethnic Violence Around the World

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.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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Star Wars Premiered 41 Years Ago … and the Reviews Weren’t Always Kind
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A long time ago (41 years, to be exact) in a galaxy just like this one, George Lucas was about to make cinematic history—whether he knew it or not. On May 25, 1977, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Star Wars, Lucas’s long-simmering space opera that would help define the concept of the Hollywood “blockbuster.” While we're still talking about the film today, and its many sequels and spinoffs (hello, Solo), not every film critic would have guessed just how ingrained into the pop culture fabric Star Wars would become. While it charmed plenty of critics, some of the movie’s original reviews were less than glowing. Here are a few of our favorites (the good, the bad, and the Wookiee):

"Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star."

—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood."

—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."

—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

“There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp—that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

—Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal

Star Wars … is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach Star Wars, though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Viewed dispassionately—and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time—Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

—Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!”

—John Simon, New York Magazine

"Star Wars is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue, but from a technical standpoint, it is an absolutely breathtaking achievement. The special effects experts who put Lucas' far-out fantasies on film—everything from a gigantic galactic war machine to a stunningly spectacular World War II imitation dogfight—are Oscar-worthy wizards of the first order. And, for his own part, Lucas displays an incredibly fertile imagination—an almost Fellini-like fascination with bizarre creatures.”

—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

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