Dossier 1914-1918

The Armenian Question and the Turkish-German Alliance (1913-1914)

This article examines the German role concerning the reform question in Eastern Anatolia in 1913 and 1914, in particular to resolve the Armenian issue. It sheds new light on the degree of involvement of Germany in the Ottoman Empire before the war.

One hundred years after the beginning of the First World War, historiography still concentrates on the Western Front and the diplomacy inside Europe. Forgotten seem the German dreams of a German-dominated Orient and the continuation of the “special relationship” between Kaiser and Sultan. The reform question concerning the Armenians in Eastern Anatolia in the months before the Great War shows the complexity of the Eastern Question and the height of German entanglement in the pre-war Ottoman Empire.

Germany was a “newcomer” in the global history of colonialism and imperialism. Under Otto von Bismarck, imperial strategy was more defensive than under Wilhelm II. The famous search for a place in the sun — “Platz an der Sonne” — did not begin until the late 1890s, when hardly any spot on the world map was blank and spheres of influence from the so-called Great Powers divided almost every inch of the known planet. As “free space” was becoming harder to obtain, the strategy was to fight against weak powers and to replace them. A long-term fix point in German geostrategic thinking was the antagonism towards its neighbour France and its colonial hemisphere. The relationship with Russia worsened under Wilhelm II. England was a desirable partner but Germany was not willing to simply become its junior associate. Prestige and being among the big players was a main motive to get involved in the Eastern Question.

First steps were made under Bismarck and Abdul Hamid. In 1880 the Sultan demanded to get German officials for administration, finance, and military. The entanglement began with a civil matter because German officers were held back at first. Germany did not oppose the Sultan during the Crete crisis and the Armenian massacres in 1895-96.

1898 was the year Wilhelm II himself travelled to the Orient, which had a symbolic impact for their deep relationship. The emperor approved the prestige project of the Baghdad railway, which took several years to be built. German banks and arms industry such as Krupp strengthened their ties to the Sublime Porte and Anatolia under Abdul Hamid II. The Young Turk revolution brought — along with the tensions in the Balkans — an even closer friendship. Many of the Young Turk officers knew the German military system due to the exchange programme between both armies. German military advisors tried to reform the army and especially Colmar von der Goltz gained much admiration for his involvement. But not all the Young Turks welcomed the rising German influence. Some were more oriented towards Paris or London. This was important for the search of an ally in the crucial moment of the July crisis in 1914. German diplomats like ambassador Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim were considered to be friends of the Turks. The German imperial means were warships, officers and railroads. England, France and Russia were watching them with suspicion. Sometimes Vienna and Rome defended the German position, since with the Dreibund (Triple Alliance) they had established a counter-balance to the Entente. Germany wanted its place among the big players in the Orient.

Reforms for the Eastern Provinces of Anatolia

The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and their outcome showed the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. Time was running out for most European powers, which were not ready yet to follow their imperial dreams in the Near East, and the partition of the territory should be postponed. Russia wanted “the Straits”1 but was not ready for war until 1917 according to internal calculations. Despite this fact, the Russian rhetoric in 1912 and 1913 was rather belligerent. Its strategy was to undermine Ottoman stability and gain influence on the territory beyond its common border. One way to do so was to arm and radicalize both Kurds and Armenians against the central government.

Under these circumstances another reform discussion started. In 1895 Russia blocked the possibility of an intervention on behalf of the Ottoman Armenians and in 1908 Russia was the greater oppressor of the Armenian revolutionary movement. Only the events of the Balkan Wars changed the strategy and the Armenian condition made Russia demand reforms in the six Eastern Provinces with the threat of military intervention. In June of 1913, Russia proposed a draft for an agreement in order to improve the Armenian status, by means of including proposals that representation in the courts and the administrative bodies would guarantee them equality. German diplomats knew about the Russian wishes for new reforms in Eastern Anatolia and their strategy in spring 1913 was to prevent a Russian dominated region inside the Ottoman Empire and to prevent the empire of the “sick man”2 of the Bosphorus from partition. When in June the Russian proposal became official, the dragomans3 of the European powers discussed in eight meetings during July the reform project. Germany defended Turkish interests and opposed many issues of the proposal. After the diplomatic deadlock in summer, Germany and Russia agreed to continue the negotiations on a bilateral level. By the end of October 1913, a solution could be found, but Turkish resistance to foreign control and new tensions between Berlin and St. Petersburg delayed the process once more.

On 8 February 1914, an agreement was signed by the Ottoman Government and Russia after six months of intense negotiations between the European powers and the Sublime Porte. In particular due to German intervention as well as counter proposals respecting Ottoman sovereignty wishes, this agreement differed substantially from the initial Russian proposal. One of the main differences was that the main point of the Mandelstam proposal — one region and one inspector for the Eastern Provinces — changed to two sectors and two inspectors. The inspector-generals had still to be chosen among European “neutral” states. Therefore another round of negotiations took place after the agreement in order to name two inspector-generals who should implement and monitor the reforms in Eastern Anatolia, but they took place in early summer when Europe was already on its way towards war. From the Ottoman side, everything was done to delay the installation and work of the two foreign inspectors Major Hoff and Louis C. Westenenk which where chosen in April and came to Istanbul in May.

In the ensuing war, Germany became the Ottoman ally and the reforms were thus rendered obsolete in December 1914.

Preserve the Turkish interests

The Eastern provinces of Anatolia were not part of the German interest zone. The main concern in Berlin was the future of Cilicia. The ports of Alexandretta and Mersina, a connection from the coast to the Baghdad Express and influential officers in high Ottoman army positions in order to control the military were the German concerns.

A permanent topic for German diplomacy was the Russian threat. During summer 1913, Wangenheim and state secretary Gottlieb von Jagow spoke about the Russian expansionism as if it were a law of nature. The German-Russian antagonism was the key position during the reform discussions.The Mandelstam Project was dangerous in the eyes of the German diplomacy, because the creation of an almost autonomous region with one single man on top of the political power could be the beginning of the partition of the Ottoman Empire. A German-Russian approach in October 1913 was only possible, because Wangenheim and Jagow really wanted reforms, but in a more modest and pro-Turkish way. A way of doing so was to speak of Turkey as a “sovereign” power and accusing Russia of involving in internal affairs.

One reason for the long time interval between the Mandelstam proposal and the agreement in February 1914 was the new German military mission, which was sent to Constantinople in November. After the terrible defeat in the First Balkan War, the Ottoman government asked the German Kaiser for more officers. Germany tried to keep this secret and prepared a new mission with forty officers under the command of Otto Viktor Karl Liman von Sanders. Since Britain obtained a naval mission and French experts trained the Ottoman gendarmerie, the German mission was only the continuation of the traditional German help to reform the Ottoman army. As Russia heard of the new mission, crisis broke out in November 1913.

The so-called Liman von Sanders crisis would almost trigger hostile actions on the part of Russia and a European war was once again a potential risk. The status and commando of the high-ranking German officer made the Armenian reforms depend on finding a solution in a new field between the classical antagonists of the diplomatic deadlock from summer 1913. British protest was moderate since Sir Arthur H. Limpus as admiral of the British naval mission in Constantinople had a similarly high rank and influence. Another important reason for the British reaction was the on-going negotiations with Germany over their interests in the Near East, particularly the route and details of the Baghdad railway project.

Concerning German interests, Berlin created two goals with one method: German diplomacy should help Turkey to implement reforms and to help with the much needed reforms both the Ottoman integrity and the Armenian situation. Germany would gain more influence in doing so. If there would be a partition, Germany could use the help from the Armenians in Cilicia to create a own interest zone, which was at the time defined as “working zone” (Arbeitszone), since German engineers were working on railway infrastructure, ports and other means of trade-related facilites. One very obvious observation was that due to the lack of information sources inside Eastern Anatolia, the knowledge of the problem zone and the Armenians and Kurds was rather simple. The German reports only scratched the surface and were thus not able to reveal the underlying complexity regarding the different Armenian groups, their respective objectives and their options. Better known was the coastline. The Mediterranean German Fleet reported the situation at the Ottoman coast, fleet movements, and transportation of officials between Germany and Istanbul.

Attack Russia

On 2 August 1914, Germany and the Ottoman Empire signed a secret agreement. War started in Europe and it was only a question of time when it would engage the Ottoman Empire. Referring to the Armenian reform plan, one war goal was to end all international agreements as it had always been — in the Ottoman view — a violation against sovereignty. The two inspectors were recalled to Constantinople even before the Ottoman Empire was at war. With Germany being at war, considerations for the security in Anatolia were now made in reference to war preparations of their ally. The Ottoman Empire should attack Russia for the benefit of the German Eastern Front. Berlin tried to fasten the war preparations and the mobilisation of the Ottoman forces, while the Armenian future was uncertain. Wangenheim did not recognize until summer 1915 that the Ottoman entry into the war was not only the end of the Armenian reform attempts, but also the end of any possible coexistence of the Christians in Eastern Anatolia with their Muslim neighbours.

The German-Ottoman relationship was seen by the ruling elite in a more global perception. Berlin hoped for a general Muslim uprising against the Entente colonial powers, while the Sublime Porte adapted panislamistic and panturanistic4 visions. Both strategies did not work out. The Young Turks and the Kaiser kept their loyalty to each other and to their dreams of territorial gains in the East, especially with the unexpected development of Russia in 1917. The Turkish territorial wishes were always meant as an extension of the existing territory and its borders. When the Empire lost its European and African territories, the vision of a new extension into the Asian heartland was only the consequence of the imperial mindset. War would be the solution to the Ottoman problem of the decline of its empire through the last century, as it should unleash the German possibilites to reach the Wilhelminian conception of Weltpolitik. Interestingly, both German ambassadors Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim and Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff in Istanbul in the decisive years 1914 and 1918 shared the same rule for German entanglement: one should only engage into political activity in a foreign territory if a direct connection on land or water from the homeland is possible. The German prestige project of the Baghdad railway was finished during the World War, just in the moment when British territorial aims in Palestine became true. In the end, the German-Ottoman war entanglement ended as it started: in the shadow of the Western Front.

1Editor’s note: series of waterways in Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea (and hence the Mediterranean) to the Black Sea. They consist of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. They are conventionally considered the boundary between the continents of Europe and Asia.

2Editor’s note: phrase attributed to Tsar Nicolas II about the Ottoman Empire. By extension, a country which faces great difficulties, particularly economic.

3Editor’s note: from Arabic tourdjoumân, {} initially refers to an interpreter or, as here, the officials of the Ottoman administration.

4Ed.: nationalist political and cultural movement which proclaims an ethnic/cultural unity for disparate people who are supposed to have a common ancestral origin in Central Asia, using the Iranian term “Turan” as the designation for this place.