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Archive for the tag “Ottoman empire”

049 Komitas Vardapet and the caravan of death

Komitas Vardapet

Komitas Vardapet

Ottomans focus their anger at the Armenian people

It is Sunday 30 May 1915. It is the 49th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia are urged on by the British during an amphibious operation which will be known as Townshend’s Regatta.

Eventually Major General Charles Townshend succeeds in conquering the town of Amara on the river Tigris on the Turks without any significant losses. 

The Austrians on the Isonzo front do not bow to Italian bombings and, supported by the Bavarian Alpenkorps, prefer to attack.

Austrian and German troops, united in the Mackensen Army Group, retake Przemyśl.

On the Gallipoli peninsula a trench war develops that is reminiscent of the western front: considerable losses and barely any gain of ground.

The Germans defend their West African colony of Cameroon to the death.

Bari and Brindisi, coastal towns in the heel of of the boot of Italy, are bombarded by the Austrian air force.

The Italian navy in its turn take the Dalmatian coast under fire.

The French succeed in taking trenches at Souchez by surprise during heavy fighting north of Arras, while the British gain ground at Givenchy.

And during their deportations to the east many Armenians collapse, while the most highly-strung among them is driven into a lifelong depression: Komitas Vardapet.

Mass murderers thrive when their deeds are ignored. The following quote from 1939 is attributed to Adolf Hitler: ‘Who is talking about the destruction of the Armenians today?’

Yet no subject from the First World War is so topical as the Armenian Genocide. This has been a raw nerve in Turkey for almost a century. When the new president of the United States, Barack Obama, visited Turkey in April 2009, the world held its breath. Was Obama going to say the G-word in front of the Turkish parliament?

During his election campaign he had made it absolutely clear that he considered the Armenian Genocide a historical fact. But in Ankara Obama avoided the sensitive subject, which the kindly ones interpreted as a wise decision. It would have been stupid of Obama to endanger the careful rapprochement that had been noticeable between the Turkish and Armenian governments recently.

In any case ‘genocide’ is not a concept dating from the First World War. It was not introduced until 1944 by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. He joined the Greek words for ‘people’ and ‘kill’. In 1948 the concept was taken over by the United Nations as those acts that are aimed at ‘the destruction, entirely or partially, of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group of people’.

Since then genocide has been considered the ultimate crime. It is not enough to kill on a large scale at random. It should be supported by a plan. The Holocaust is a very clear example of genocide. During the Wannsee Conference the nazis worked out their Endlösung der Judenfrage meticulously.

Even though there are western scientists who refuse to go any further than mass murder, outside Turkey the Armenian Genocide is widely recognized by historians. To a much lesser extent this holds good for the claims of other ethnic groups that had to tread very carefully in the Ottoman Empire during the Great War, Assyrians, Aramaeans, Kurds and the Pontic Greeks along the Black Sea coast.

It cannot reasonably be denied that hundreds of thousands of Armenians lost their lives during the First World War and the years following. But to start with, there is no agreement about the exact number. In Turkish circles it will hardly ever pass the 500,000 mark. Armenians themselves will rather give an estimate of a million and a half who perished between 1915 and 1923. For a clear understanding, the number of Armenians under Ottoman rule at the time of the First World War is estimated at one and a half to two million people.

More crucial than the matter of numbers is the official point of view of the Turks that ‘the Armenian question’ was part of a civil war, which simply goes hand in hand with famine and outbreaks of diseases. The Armenians were the enemy and in the fight for survival the Ottoman government was obliged to start ‘a relocation’ of the Armenian people. The language here clearly follows ‘the question’. ‘Relocation’ is the Turkish euphemism for ‘deportation’.

Even a delicate soul like Komitas Vardapet had to leave Contantinople, on 24 April 1915, the day that Armenians still remember as the beginning of their tragedy. He had tried to spread the music of his Armenian people in the Ottoman capital. He had started a choir, given presentations and lectures, played the flute and the piano and above all he had sung. Komitas was a baritone but could also reach the range of a tenor. At the Berlin conservatory he was trained to be a musicologist, but he had chosen the Ottoman countryside as his area of work. This is where Komitas had dug up his richly varied treasure of folklore music, which he had polished in mellifluous arrangements, even before Bela Bartok would do the same with the folklore music of Eastern Europe.

Komitas was born as Soghomon Soghomonyan in 1861 in a family of Armenian origin that only speaks Turkish. His father is a cobbler, his mother a carpet weaver. Both parents will die young, after which Soghomon, their only child, is raised by his grandmother. It is a bleak childhood. For nights on end he has to sleep on the cold stone floor of the laundry room. But Soghomon could sing like a nightingale.

As an orphan he is selected to go to an Armenian Apostolic seminary. When he is introduced to the bishop, he says: ‘I do not speak Armenian, but if you wish I can sing it.’ In 1890 he is ordained as a monk. Three years later he becomes a priest, a ‘vardapet’. The name Komitas which he adopts, refers to a seventh century poet of hymns.

The Christian culture is deeply anchored within the Armenian people. In the year 301 an Armenian king was the first authority who turned Christianity into a state religion. The Armenian Apostolic community has not been dependent of a higher ecclesiastical authority for fifteen centuries either. The Armenian culture also has its own unique script.

The Armenia which detached itself from the Soviet Union in 1991 is only part of the old home country: the mountain areas in the southern Caucasus and the east of Anatolia. But over the centuries  Armenians had also settled in the Turkish towns, where, together with the Greeks and the Jews, they had begun to dominate business life.

In the nineteenth century there also developed a desire for independence among Armenians within the Ottoman Empire. The Bulgarians that had severed the ties with the Ottomans in 1878 were a shining example. Radicals were prepared to enforce an Armenian state using violence, but Sultan Abdul Hamid II firmly started to reduce all the efforts to naught. The years 1894 to 1896 showed massacres and pogroms among the Armenians. In the country the dirty work was frequently left to Kurds, another Ottoman minority with whom the Armenians had been at war for ages.

When in the years preceding the Great War the new rulers, the Young Turks, want to roll out the pan-Turkish ideal throughout Asia, they consider the Christian mountain people of the Armenians an annoying obstacle. Tension rises after the outbreak of the First World War when Armenian volunteers appear to enlist in the Russian army.

There is also talk of Armenian rebels that operate in the Ottoman hinterland, though apparently they have only become really active after the massacres. It is one of the main issues: was Armenian rebellion a cause of Ottoman repression or a reaction to it?

It is certainly true that in the first year of the war around a hundred thousand Armenians loyally followed the call to enlist in the Ottoman army. After the three Pashas have decided to deal with the fifth column of Armenians, it is they who will be first to get rid of.

The fateful Battle of Sarikamish around the turn of the first year in the war is the beginning of the hunt for the Armenians. Constantinople is convinced that they are bound to have helped the Russians put the Ottoman troops to the sword in the icy sub-zero weather of the Caucasus.

The resentment is first aimed at the Armenian men, inside and outside the Ottoman army. They are disarmed, killed or worked to death. After that the less resilient part of the Armenian people is forced to leave hearth and home. Camps in the north of Mesopotamia are the destination, but many will never get there. On the gruelling journey there an untold number of Armenians fall victim to sickness, exhaustion or famine. Robbers, rapists and murderers have free reign along the route.

Should this be called genocide? The answer of historian David Stevenson is as follows: ‘Who took the decision and why remains uncertain, and the relevant documents have been destroyed or withheld. In particular, it is unclear whether a security operation to protect the Caucasus border escalated because of Armenian resistance and the Special Organization’s indiscipline, or whether the aim from the start was to wipe the Armenians out.’

The world is too busy with the developments on the front, but the Armenian fate has not gone completely unnoticed. The German consul Johannes Lepsius tries to make his government fully aware of the tragedy the Ottomans have on their conscience. It is in vain. Berlin cannot afford to put the relationship with its ally at risk.

The American ambassador Henry Morgenthau is another voice crying in the wilderness. The following quote is from one of his reports: ‘When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.’

What did Komitas Vardapet’s eyes see in the few weeks before he was allowed to return to Constantinople and leave the caravan of death, under pressure of friendly Turkish intellectuals and the outside world? Black-and-white photos show us the naked bodies of men, women and children, left discarded by the side of the road. Did Komitas see this in bright colours? And did these pictures from hell drive him to insanity for the rest of his life? Or is it true what can be heard on the Turkish side: Komitas Vardapet already showed signs of schizophrenia before the war.

In the autumn of 1916 Komitas ends up in a Turkish military hospital. When the war is over, he is lured to a psychiatric clinic in Paris in 1919 under false pretences. They are years of infinite fears and isolation, of prolonged silence and crying of pain. In room 3 of the Villejuif Hospital he gets older and greyer, and finally dies in 1935, as an icon of Armenian suffering, which is also reflected in the Hymn of the Kiss of Peace that Komitas Vardapet composed.

Next week: Nicholas Nikolaevich

044 Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and his order to die

Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal

Ottomans are not so sick after all

It is Sunday 25 April 1915. It is the 44th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

South Africans and Rhodesians give the Germans in Southwest Africa a beating.

Italian diplomats sign the secret London Pact: if Rome chooses the side of the allies, it is entitled to claim parts of Austria-Hungary, among which South Tyrol, Gorizia, Istria and half of Dalmatia.

An Austrian submarine, commanded by Georg Ritter von Trapp, succeeds in eliminating French cruiser Leon Gambetta in the Adriatic Sea, killing 547.

A new type of Zeppelin bombs the Sussex coast of England.

Germans and Austrians prepare for an attack at Gorlice in Galicia.

Despite warnings of the German embassy, ocean liner Lusitania leaves New York, destination Liverpool.

A French attack at Ypres results in heavy losses, in spite of support by the British artillery.

The Germans continue to target the allies with chlorine gas.

And the allied invasion of Gallipoli paints the sea red, while on the Turkish side a true hero emerges, Mustafa Kemal.

A lot has perished because of the First World War. Even headwear has been subject to demolition. Think of the Pickelhaube, the spiked symbol of the Prussian military. Or the fez, the round red felt hat – leftover of Byzantine culture in the Ottoman empire.

In post-First World War Turkey the fez was banned. It was Mustafa Kemal who was behind the Hat Law of 1925. He was the strong man, especially honoured by secular Turks as Atatürk, Father of Turks.  No Turkish living-room would be complete without his portrait on the wall. Insulting him would be the equivalent of lese-majesty, hence forbidden by law. Atatürk was in the hearts of all the Turks and it was he who made a town in the heart of Turkey its capital: Ankara. His sarcophagus is there, too.

Back to the fez. Why does a head of state want to interfere with headwear? For the same reason why Atatürk exchanged Arabic script for the western alphabet. The reason also why he granted women the right to vote, but forbade them to wear veils. Why he closed down monasteries of the Dervishes. Why he introduced family names and abolished all sorts of titles and nicknames and epithets. Why he established a civil code. Why he founded museums and stimulated the arts. Why he adopted the international calendar and time indications. And why he, above all, separated  mosque and state. Atatürk wanted Turkey to become a modern European nation.

Historian Bernard Lewis describes it as follows in ‘The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years’: ‘Atatürk, the master of social symbolism, was not pursuing the idle caprice of a despot when he decreed that the fez and all other forms of traditional headgear must be abandoned and European hats and caps adopted in their place. This was a major social decision, and he and those around him knew perfectly well what he was doing.’ Says Lewis.

The Turkey of Atatürk radically broke with the traditions of the Ottoman Empire, the once so mighty realm of the sultans. The First World War had been the fatal blow, but the decline had begun much earlier. When the peoples of Europe tried to find their way out of the Middle Ages in utter blindness, the civilization of the Ottomans had been at an unprecedented level for ages. Medically, mathematically, chemically, astronomically, philosophically and even theologically speaking, the islamic world was a long long way ahead of Europe.

In 1453 Constantinople had fallen into the hands of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. That signified the end of the Byzantine Empire as advanced post of Europe. The Ottomans had already  earlier managed to penetrate Europe via the Dardanelles. The Balkans were overrun, but in the sixteenth century the Ottomans were also at the gates of Vienna and even made attacks on the Spanish coast. Everywhere in Christian countries Allah’s hordes were feared.

However, in 1699 after a battle against a Holy League the Ottomans are forced to sign the Treaty of Karlowitz. It is the first time that they have to face a real defeat. The realization has dawned upon them that only the western way of waging war can be successful. Military reforms will precede a cultural merger. It is the French Revolution – with its ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity – that really breaks open Ottoman civilization. Napoleon brings the printing press to the Middle East.

A new western principle is introduced past the Bosphorus: nationalism. It is the aim of merging a state with a people. The Ottoman Empire has been organized differently. Numerous cultures have lived together there for centuries relatively harmoniously. Compared to Europe the Ottoman Empire was the epitome of tolerance and cultural diversity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Persecuted minorities from other countries found a place there and minorities from their own empire enjoyed a lot of freedom.

However, in the nineteenth century more and more ethnic groups – Greeks, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs and Jews – began to experience Ottoman rule as tyranny. This made the realm of the sultan sick. The eastern Question was put on the map. In 1853 the Russian czar Nicholas I expressed his worries: ‘We have a sick man on our hands, a man gravely ill, it will be a great misfortune if one of these days he slips through our hands, especially before the necessary arrangements are made.’

Despite the caring words of the czar, the Russians repeatedly wage war with the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. The sultans succeed in holding their own thanks to the European powers. They are opposed to a Russian extension at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. In the Crimean war, between 1853 and 1856, the French and the British even fight together with the Ottomans against the Russians.

Six decades later the situation is completely different and the Ottomans stand between the Russians on one side and the British and the French on the other. They do not allow an allied rapprochement across the water, via the Dardanelles, and across the land, via Gallipoli. The common Turk appears to be a lot more vigorous than the sick man of Europe for which the Ottoman Empire had been held.

When the allied forces land on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915, a German by the name of Liman von Sanders is in command of the Ottoman troops. But commander Mustafa Kemal will be the star on the front. It seems that Australians and New Zealanders chase the Turks away from their slopes and their trenches, but then Mustafa Kemal straightens his back. The beach where the Anzacs land turns into a bloodbath. Every Turkish child learns how Mustafa Kemal Atatürk encouraged his men never ever to give up: ‘I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die.’ And these words proved to be very successful. In nine months’ time around a hundred thousand were killed during the batlle of Gallipoli. More than half of them were Turkish martyrs. The number of wounded soldiers on the side of the Ottomans is calculated to be another 140,000.

Mustafa Kemal was born in the Ottoman town of Salonika, which is now known as the Greek town of Thessaloniki. His surname ‘Kemal’ means something like ‘the perfect one’. His father was a government official, who later went into the wood trade. Mustafa Kemal was born in 1880 or 1881. Due  to the absence of a proper civil registry, there has always been some disagreement about the exact date of his birth. The theory that Mustafa’s father was of Jewish descent is not accepted by everyone either.

Mustafa Kemal joins the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks. He serves as a professional soldier in the Turkish-Italian War of 1911-1912 and in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Strong man Enver Pasha does not like the heroic role of Mustafa Kemal at Gallipoli, where he has also been hit by shrapnel. Mustafa Kemal has also spoken against the commitment to Germany in the first year of the war, though this has not prevented him from serving in the Ottoman army. After Gallipoli he is first sent to Edirne and then to the Caucasus front, far away from Enver’s power base in Constantinople. When he is in command of the Turkish Second Army after being promoted general in 1916, Mustafa Kemal made life for the Russians very difficult. After that things become tougher for him on the Arab front. Syria and Palestine offer very little perspective for him.

Meanwhile he accompanies on a tour through Germany the heir apparent of the throne of the Ottomans, the later sultan Mehmet VI. On his return he first takes sick leave and goes to Vienna and Karlsbad to recuperate. He is not only plagued by kidney problems, but also has to cope with the remnants of the venereal disease gonorrhoea. During his rehabilitation in Austria he becomes more familiar with the western lifestyle. Once returned to active service Mustafa Kemal, too, has to acknowledge defeat. On 31 October 1918 the armistice of Mudros is signed on board the British warship Agamemnon. The Ottoman Empire is left completely stripped.

On 8 February 1919 French general Franchet d’Espèrey parades through Constantinople on a white horse, just as Mehmet the Conqueror had done in 1453. The pride of the Turks is wounded. Their defeat is finalized in the Treaty of Sèvres, which will be signed by the new Turkish sultan, but which is rejected by an alternative government in Ankara. That government is led by Mustafa Kemal. He will gloriously lead the Turkish war of independence, which will result in the Treaty of Lausanne. In 1923 the Republic of Turkey is composed of Asian Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, which on the other side of the Dardanelles is considered to be a part of Europe.

Mustafa Kemal then remodels his country. Above all, he shows himself to be a Turkish nationalist. Threfore his name is not hallowed in Greek, Kurdish or Armenian circles. But whoever claims that Atatürk’s ruthless modernization has gone hand in hand with ethnics cleansing, will be addressed by any true Kemalist with the words of Atatürk: ‘It is not important that you are a Turk, but that you feel Turkish’.

He gets married in 1923, but the marriage is dissolved after two years without issue. He will, however, adopt seven daughters and a son. In 1934 Mustafa Kemal accepts the title Atatürk, Father of Turks. Four years later he dies at the age of 57 of cirrhosis of the liver, a disease that must have been the result of his consumption of large quantities of raki. In that respect, too, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was far removed from straight Islam.

The Turks have erected a memorial at Anzac Cove, the bay of Gallipoli where so many Australian and New Zealand boys were killed on 25 April 1915. It carries the following words that Atatürk spoke to them and their loved ones in 1934: ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of  a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.’

Next week: Alfred Vanderbilt

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


027 Enver Pasha and ‘Deutschland über Allah’

Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha

The Turks suffer heavy losses in the Caucasus

It is Sunday 27 December 1914. It is the 27th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Belgians occupy German trenches east of Lombardsijde and take prisoners of war.

The Germans attack Dunkirk from the air.

Both the Germans and the Austrians have to continue their marching off in Poland and Galicia.

Incited by the Austrians Albanian troops make a futile attack on Montenegran posts.

In Berlin the German commanders Erich von Falkenhayn and Erich Ludendorff and their Austrian counterpart Conrad von Hötzendorf get together to confer.

The War Council in London is bending over Winston Churchill’s plan to joint the Russians via the Gallipoli peninsula, before Constantinople.

In the English Channel German submarine U-24 sinks British flagship Formidable, killing 547 crew members.

The British create a new decoration, the Military Cross, for officers in the lower ranks. 

And the Russians get the upper hand in the battle of Sarikamish, which is a downright failure for the Turkish minister of war, Enver Pasha.

Whoever in present-day Turkey wants to stand up for democracy, civil rights and the separation of State and Mosque, should go to the Monument of Liberty in Istanbul. It was erected three years before the Great War:  a gun firing into the sky in memory of the 74 soldiers who had sacrificed their lives to prevent the return of an absolute monarch.

A westerner who wants to lay his bouquet there as a child of the Enlightenment, will hesitate when seeing the names Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha. Talaat Pasha is the man who is associated with the Armenian genocide during the First World War. Enver Pasha was in the same period the minister of war and commander-in-chief, who was also called ‘the little Napoleon’, a title he could rather lay claim to posthumously than when alive. Enver Pasha was anything but a great strategist. But his poor remains could make the return trip to Istanbul, just as Napoleon’s bones were allowed back to Paris from Saint Helena. It was not until 1996 that Enver Pasha was entrusted to the Monument of Liberty.

There is another parallel between Napoleon Bonaparte and Enver Pasha. Both seriously underestimated the deadly combination of the frosty cold and the Russians as enemies. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was frozen to the bone in 1812, just like Enver Pasha’s Third Army around the turn of the year in 1914. Only 12,000 of the 90,000 soldiers that he sent fighting returned home.

The Causasus formed the backdrop for this dreadful battle. Turks and Russians had already met there with each other in 1877. Enver Pasha was the man to see some good in cornering the Russians again in the Caucasus. It was a long way from Saint Petersburg, where the Russians had first and foremost focussed on the battlefields in the east of Europe. The German Liman von Sanders, military advisor of the Ottomans, dissuaded Enver Pasha from attacking in the Caucasus. In vain, however. The Battle of Sarikamish, which lasted from 22 December 1914 till 17 January 1915, was to end in a military tragedy for the Ottomans.

Long before 1914 it became clear that the Ottoman Empire had had its day. Following the track of their first sultan Osman I, the Turks had become a power to be reckoned with in three continents, Africa, Asia and Europe, from the thirteenth century onwards. In the nineteenth century, however, the Ottoman Empire staggered on as the ‘sick man of Europe’, a somewhat peevish diagnosis attributed to the Russian Czar Nicholas I. But it was true that both militarily and economically speaking the Turks had only little to add.

In the twentieth century the Ottoman Empire had to surrender more of its territory to Europe quickly. In 1908 Austria-Hungary had been able to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina just like that. Three years later young Italy managed to fulfill its colonial  ambitions by founding Libia in North Africa at the cost of the Ottomans. Also islands like Rhodes and Kos were passed on from Constantinople to Rome. And another year later a league of Balkan nations chased the Ottomans away fom their last piece of European soil.

So the Turks found themselves hardest hit, yet there was some talk of new panache. The Young Turks had seized power in 1908. They were a mysterious and elusive group of people, who more formally passed off as the Committee of Union and Progress. Originally the Young Turks had believed in leftist liberalism. Their organisation reminded of the freemasonry. They specifically reacted against the autocratic regime of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who had sidelined the Turkish constitution and had started to revamp the Ottoman Empire along the lines of the Islam.

After the revolt of 1908 things looked promising. In ‘young Turkey’ liberty, equality and fraternity seemed to apply. Bulgarians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, Armenians and Turks became each other’s equals within the parliamentary framework of a constitutional monarchy. Abdulhamid II was traded in for his brother Mehmet V, who was to remain an insignificant sultan until a few months before the end of the First World War. The Young Turks invested considerably in education and public services, but soon they appeared to conduct a nationalistic programme as well.

The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire had to be stopped. Minorities who were suspected of collaborating with the enemy, especially Armenians and Kurds, were now having a hard time. The turkification of the Ottoman Empire was embedded in the romantic ideal of the Turanists who drew a far-fetched connection between Turks, Mongols, Japanese, Hungarians and Finns. These were all peoples that had had their origins in Central Asia long ago.

Enver Pasha was the personification of this Great-Turkish ideal. He was one of three pashas, which translated means ‘gentlemen’. The three had run the show since the coup d’état of 1913. The seizure of power had not taken place without bloodshed. Enver Pasha had been personally involved in the assassination of the minister of war.

The triumvirate of the pashas mainly sought to keep the threat of Russia under control. Relations with the big boys in Europe – France, Great Britain and Germany – all shared that purpose. Of the three pashas minister of war Enver, however, was the most pro-German. After all he had been military attaché in Berlin and as a result had a perfect command of the German language. Behind his desk on the wall hung a portrait of Frederic the Great, the Hohenzollern monarch who was dear to every true Prussian’s heart.

In the two Balkan wars that preceded the Great War Enver Pasha, a hawk of the opportunist kind, had been in command of the military. As we have already seen, the first Balkan war had ended in a Turkish fiasco. In the second Balkan war, however, Enver had succeeded in retaking the Thracian town of Edirne, former Adrianople, from the Bulgarians. His ego grew so big that it nearly burst. He was determined to continue on his path to victory with the help of his German friends. Even in the years before the three pashas something beautiful had blossomed between Berlin and Constantinople.The Bosporus was swarming with German soldiers and businessmen. The BBB plan would be the crowning glory of this friendship: a railway line from Berlin to Bagdad via the Bosporus.

Yet it was not all about Germany. In maritime affairs the Turks would rather take their chances with the British. They had ordered two ultra-modern warships in England. They were virtually ready when the First World War was about to break out. Without batting an eyelid the British government informed the three pashas in Constantinople on 3 August 1914 that they would not get the two battleships. There was outrage, especially among the ordinary Turks, who had raised funds for the two warships on a large scale. After all the vessels were meant to impose the Russians on the Black Sea. The British offered some compensation, but the British decision has not gone into the history books as an example of advanced diplomacy.

It is in a much smarter way that the Germans manage to use the Turkish discontent about the two lost warships. Two German ships, Goeben and Breslau, which have both escaped the allies in the Mediterranean, hurry to the Dardanelles, the straits that lead to Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire is then not yet involved in the war. When Goeben and Breslau are allowed through, the Turks de facto choose the German side. Even to Enver Pasha this is all going too fast, after which the German ambassador plays a masterly trick. The Turks can have the two ships. Wearing their fezes the German crew on Goeben and Breslau let themselves be cheered by the people of Contantinople. And the German diplomats snigger ‘Deutschland über Allah’.

On 27 September the Turks decide to close off the Dardanelles for all shipping, which especially affects the Russians. Then German admiral Wilhelm Souchon, in Turkish service, gives the final boost on 29 October. He sails onto the Black Sea with Goeben and Breslau and attacks the Russian ports of Odessa, Sebastopol  and Theodosia. Followed by France and Great Britain, Russia declares war to the Ottoman Empire four days later. Sultan Mehmet V declares the jihad, a holy war, hoping that muslims under allied command revolt. But very little or nothing of this will be realized.


After the catastrophic Battle of Sarikamish Enver’s military reputation can no longer  be saved. Meanwhile one of his rivals, Mustafa Kemal, becomes the hero of Gallipoli, the peninsula the allied forces will waste their energy on in 1915. As Atatürk Mustafa Kemal starts building a new and modern Turkey after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.

There is no place in the new republic for a man like Enver Pasha. He is even sentenced to death, but together with the two other pashas he manages to escape on board a German submarine. When in 1921 Talaat Pasha is assassinated in Berlin, Enver Pasha will be the first man of the Committee of Union and Progress in exile. In the same year he explains his mission in a letter: ‘Today I am aiming for the same goal as before and during the 1908 Revolution, during the Tripolitanian War, the Balkan Wars and the First World War. And that goal is simply to organize and set in motion the islamic world of four hundred million people … and to save them from the European and American oppression, that keeps them enslaved’.

Meanwhile he has come into contact with Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks. The latter considers Enver Pasha a suitable ally to warm the islamic peoples to the Soviet Union. This leads to a military confrontation between the worldly troops of Atatürk and Enver Pasha’s warriors of Allah. Atatürk is the winner and makes peace with the Soviet Union. This is then a reason for Enver Pasha as leader of what has become known as the Basmachi Revolt to take up arms against the communists.

Enver sees himself as caliph, secular leader of all muslims. But in 1922 he is killed in the Caucasus. There are two versions of the exact circumstances of his death, when he was only forty years old. He is said to have been killed in a charge against a soviet brigade by a bullet just above the heart. Or he is supposed to have managed to escape, wounded, to be finished off not much later by the soviet commander himself.

Enver Pasha is laid to rest in 1996 in the town where he was born as the son of an engineer, Constantinople, since 1930 better known as Istanbul. Although Turkish president Süleyman Demirel showed few doubts at the reburial and called Enver Pasha ‘a nationalist, an idealist and an honest soldier’, the Turks still do not seem to know what to make of Enver and his role in the First World War.

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

Next week: Désiré-Joseph Mercier

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