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.

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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