Dossier 1914-1918

A Consul for all Seasons: the Spanish Diplomatic Mission in Jerusalem during World War I

Antonio de la Cierva y Lewita, Count of Ballobar, was a Spanish consul in Jerusalem from 1913 to 1919. In charge of protecting Spanish institutions and possessions, he became involved with other religious orders, then was gradually brought to manage British and French interests in Palestine; later still, those of Italians and Americans, and even, ironically, of Austrian and German troops at the end of the war. He became “a consul for all seasons”, representing virtually all foreign nations.

Jerusalem from the North (Nablus Road).
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, 1914.

In the summer 1913, a young Spanish diplomat set out for the Holy Land in order to take office as the Spanish consul in Jerusalem. Antonio de la Cierva y Lewita, Count of Ballobar arrived in Jerusalem during an extremely problematic period for the Ottoman Empire: constantly under internal and external threats1. Central to Ballobar’s mission in Jerusalem was the protection and support of the Spanish clergy and properties in the region: in particular, of the Custody of the Holy Land that had jurisdiction over the Catholics in Palestine, parts of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus and Rhodes. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the relationships between the Spanish clergy and other nationalities were poor, at times nonexistent, and the Custody was in a state of anarchy. In 1913, a Vatican attempt to fix the problems of the Custody triggered the growth of diplomatic tensions between the Vatican and Spain, but more importantly in Jerusalem a full scale diplomatic conflict erupted between the Spanish consul Casares and the Italian clergy over the so-called national privileges in the management of the Christian Holy Places2. Ballobar was sent to soften the relationship between Spain and the Custody and possibly challenging Italy and France over the protection of the Catholics in the Holy Land. However, the outbreak of the war in the summer 1914 radically altered Ballobar’s mission and his historical agency.

Born in Vienna in 1885, his mother was Austrian of Jewish origin and his father was the military attaché to the Spanish embassy in the Austrian capital. In 1911, Ballobar entered the consular service and was appointed vice-consul to Cuba. In May 1913, he was appointed consul in Jerusalem; though he arrived in August 1913, he traveled through the region for several months and served in Jerusalem until 1919. During his stay in the Holy City Ballobar wrote a diary recording events, feelings, impressions and opinions, proving to be a very attentive observer of war-time Jerusalem3. After the end of the war he married in 1920 Rafaela Osorio de Moscoso, Duchess of Terranova, and in 1921 he resigned his commission as consul. Ballobar kept working for the Spanish Foreign Office, with a particular interest in the relation with the Holy See. He was offered several important appointments, which he turned down; however in 1949 Ballobar was once again appointed consul in Jerusalem serving until 1952. He then moved back to Spain where he was appointed Director of the Obra Pia until his retirement in 1955. Ballobar eventually died in Madrid in 1971, aged 864.

Protecting the religious institutions

At the outbreak of the war in July 1914, the Ottoman Empire remained neutral though a secret agreement between the leaders of the Ottoman government and Germany had been already signed. When Ottoman warships opened fire on a Russian naval base in the Black Sea, Palestine was not directly involved in the conflict and remained virtually unscathed as the British focused their war efforts against the Ottomans in the Gallipoli Peninsula and Mesopotamia. Besides military action, the beginning of the hostilities led to a great deal of planning, and in 1915, Britain agreed to the Russian occupation of Istanbul and the Straits, while the French government began to claim Syria. Regarding Palestine, and particularly Jerusalem, the De Bunsen Committee—established by the British in 1915 to make recommendations on the future of the Middle East—, the McMahon Correspondence and the Sykes-Picot Agreement produced only vague statements. While the future of the region was discussed in Europe, Palestine was ruled by Cemal Pasha, a leading figure of the Ottoman government, who was appointed Military Governor of Syria.

The major concern for Ballobar at the beginning of the war was the status of the Catholic religious institutions in the city and broader region. At the end of 1914, Ottoman authorities informed religious orders to abandon their convents and gather in residences in Jerusalem. Several times the Spanish diplomat ran to see the local Ottoman military commander, Zaky Bey, asking him to stop the occupation of convents and hospices. Ballobar was also concerned with the fate of the French and other clergy who were deported from Jerusalem to Syria, or left for Egypt. Ballobar was charged with the protection of British and French interests in Palestine, later on also with Italian and American interests; ironically when the Austrian and German troops left, he had to take care of those interests too, becoming the universal consul in Jerusalem representing virtually all foreign interests in Jerusalem. Ballobar also became involved with the protection of the Jewish community. At first he helped the Jews as needy citizens of war-time Jerusalem, however, as a consequence of the breaking of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Ottoman Empire in the spring of 1917, he was charged with the distribution of financial help to the Jews which was mainly coming from America. Life in Jerusalem was not easy as inhabitants had to face several challenges during the war, including an invasion of locusts that destroyed whatever was in their path as witnessed by Ballobar in March 1915. The damage caused by the locusts was instrumental in a further rise of prices, causing even more hardship for the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Palestine. Famine and scarcity of food hit everyone in the region, including Ballobar. However, the same Ballobar, through his diary, tells of a city that despite suffering a great distress was a city that fought back and dealt with the brutal disruptions of the war: annihilation was prevented thanks to the fluidity of communal relation, regardless of religion and social class.

The British conquest of Jerusalem

As the war progressed, Ballobar became increasingly aware that the Ottomans were likely to lose the war, at the same time he developed a strong friendship with Cemal Pasha from whom he obtained a substantial number of favors, benefiting Ballobar’s protected people and institutions. Ballobar was quite critical of the Ottoman government; however, he came to realize that the Ottomans established a system allowing for a working coexistence between different communities. He was certainly aware of the tragedy occurred to the Armenians, and, he was afraid Christian and Jews could have suffered a similar fate in Palestine, but he acknowledged that Palestine was different and that the real enemy for the Ottomans was the growing Arab nationalist movement. The war came to an end in Palestine in December 1917, following a renewed British effort after several failed attempts to invade the region. Ballobar celebrated the event as a liberation: his delight was not political but rather personal, in fact he finally was able to free himself from the heavy burden accumulated during the four years of war. At this point Ballobar began to reflect carefully about the future of the region. When he arrived in Jerusalem he had virtually no knowledge of the Middle East, but by December 1917 he was certainly more knowledgeable than many of the so-called British-French experts involved with the redefinition of the region.

Few days after the British conquest of Jerusalem, Ballobar was made aware of the Sykes-Picot agreement, later to become void, but still used as a blueprint for the future planning of the Middle East. Ballobar reported that:

Italy seems to have nothing to do with the Franco-British agreement about Palestine. […] France promised her help on the Spanish aspirations in the Holy Land5.

This would have been a great triumph for the Spanish consul whose mission was indeed to curtail Italian, and possibly French, influence in the region. However it was only several months later that Ballobar, with more information available, began to reflect on what the future of Palestine might have been.

What future for Palestine?

Since the issue of the Balfour Declaration promising the Jews the establishment of a National Home in Palestine, Ballobar grew suspicious of the Zionists as he was afraid Zionism could have become an element of instability in the region. In July 1918, reporting the placing of the first stone of the future Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ballobar noted:

Dr. Weizmann read us a pedantic speech […] the same gentleman read a telegram of support and sympathy, signed by Lord Balfour. After, Captain Coulondre read another from the French Government. […] But with the respect due to those gentlemen, it seemed to me a huge political error. Why? Well, for one of two reasons: either it is dealing with the simple placement of the first stone of a university, it is dealing with a transcending political act, and both, when put like that, benefit Zionism. This last alternative would be putting oneself out in front of the Muslim and Christian element, especially the former.”6.

Ballobar was certainly right as the British had no plans to leave Palestine. Some of his fears about the impact of Zionism became true in November 1918 with the celebrations of the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

For that one it was announced that ‘there would be trouble’ and there was. Some young Muslims and Christians gave a beating to various Jews, which was followed on Monday by a demonstration by those religious groups before the military governor, whom they asked to telegraph their protest against the Jews to the British Government. The aggressors were condemned to several months in prison […]. Yesterday it was announced that they were inclined [the British] to let them go free if they asked the Jews for forgiveness, to which the detainees or their families answered that they preferred to rot in jail before doing that. From which one can see that my forecasts are coming true about Lord Balfour’s promises being well beyond his grasp.”7.

However, his historical agency faded away as soon as the British arrived; there was no room for a fine and critical observer as the Spanish consul. His diary remained private for decades, as predicted by the Governor of Jerusalem Ronald Storrs who was offered to read some chapters by Ballobar8; pity the British were not interested in this material as they might have learned not only about one man’s life but one city’s history and fabric.

1See M.S. Hanioğlu, A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

2See Daniela Fabrizio, Identitá Nazionali e Identitá Religiose (Rome: Edizioni Studium, 2004). National privileges included the control of specific institutions regardless of the overall French protection of the Catholics in the Holy Land.

3Conde de Ballobar, Ed. Roberto Mazza & E. Manzano Moreno, Jerusalem in World War I: the Palestine Diary of a European Diplomat (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011).

4Details about the life of the count of Ballobar are available at the Archivo General del ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores in Madrid, File P481, and in the obituary published by Tierra Santa (January 1972): 24–25.

5Conde de Ballobar, Jerusalem in World War I, 192.

6Ibid., 199–200.

7Ibid., 228.

8R. Storrs, The Memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973). Storrs was appointed military governor of Jerusalem at the beginning of 1918 and then served as civil governor until 1926. Though barely remembered in history, Storrs was responsible for major changes that occurred in Jerusalem, including the adoption of the famous Jerusalem—white to pink—stone for every building in the city.