Teaching History Differently

1915: Armenian Genocide. The Triple Entente Condemns it but Makes No Move

On 24 May 1915, the Triple Entente nations (France, England and Russia) publicly condemned the Armenian massacres using a new vocabulary, mentioning for the first time crimes “against humanity and civilisation”. Though most often in French school books their declaration figures only in the complementary documents and though it was never acted upon it does provide interesting perspectives on the evolution of international law.

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For about a month, the Kurd and Turkish populations of Armenia have been massacring Armenians with the connivance and often assistance of Ottoman authorities. […] At the same time in Constantinople, the Ottoman Government ill-treats the inoffensive Armenian population. In view of those new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilisation, the Allied governments announce publicly to the Sublime Porte that they will hold personally responsible [for] these crimes all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres.

While the different French schoolbooks do a good job of contextualising the genocidal process and while its concrete procedures are described quite clearly, the declaration of the Triple Entente1 is scarcely exploited. Most of the time it is merely incorporated, with no lines of analysis or proposed insights, into a larger corpus of documents: eyewitness accounts by victims or foreign observers, maps, photographs which actually, at first glance may seem more explicit and easier to use in a classroom.

We may also suppose that the authors and editors of these textbooks have felt the need to navigate between two pitfalls which have appeared contradictory: on the one hand the national school programmes which explicitly require the inclusion of the Triple Entente’s declaration and on the other the material constraints of space and accessibility peculiar to this type of volume which require a subject like the Armenian genocide to be dealt with clearly but in two or three pages at most. Yet the study of that declaration offers several interesting perspectives, whether for analysing the evolution of international law, propaganda in time of all-out war or Western European policies in the Middle East.

“Laws of humanity”

With that declaration of 24 May 1915, the nations of the Triple Entente officially condemned and with a new vocabulary, the massacre of the Armenians perpetrated by the Ottoman government.

Indeed, in 1915 the term “genocide” had not been coined yet, it is a concept that was to be forged in 1943 by a Polish Jew, Raphael Lemkin and written into international law when the UN Convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, adopted it unanimously in 1948. Yet the huge scale of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman government in and after 1915 was well known to many people at the time and certainly provided them with food for thought.

The first thing that strikes us about the declaration is its precocity: as it is generally considered that the arrest and execution of thousands of Armenian dignitaries and intellectuals in Constantinople in 1915 marks the beginning of the genocide, it was scarcely a month before the Triple Entente reacted to these events. The declaration was submitted to the Grand Vizir by Henry Morganthau2, US ambassador in Constantinople.3 Moreover, the declaration constitutes a legal innovation. The notion that there was such a thing as “the laws of humanity” (yet undefined) – the wording originally proposed by Russia, “new Turkish crimes against Christianity and civilisation” was rejected by France and Britain for fear of alienating the Muslim populations of their colonial empires – had existed ever since the 19th century. But it was the first time that the term “crime” was associated with it: implicit here is the idea of inflicting criminal punishment on those responsible, which is in total contradiction with the traditional immunity of the ruling classes.

“Civilisation” versus “barbarity”

Although the wording is unprecedented, this condemnation of Ottoman crimes was nonetheless part of a long tradition. Ottoman “barbarity” had been the target of accusing fingers in Europe ever since the Greek war of independence (1821–1829). At the turn of the new century (especially after the great massacres of 1894 to 1897), it was precisely the plight of the Armenians which increasingly worried Western Europeans.

While their governments never went further than verbal condemnations, several intellectuals and politicians of all persuasions did act, first in England, then in France Georges Clemenceau, Jean Jaurès, Albert de Mun), where a veritable “Armenophil party” came into existence. The press too was a powerful relay, forging a deprecatory image of the Sublime Door: thus, in 1916, the French satirical weekly L’Assiette au Beurre, published in its 16 August issue a caricature of the “grand saigneur” (the great blood-letter – i.e., the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid), with a knife between his teeth and his hands dripping with blood next to a pile of human skeletons.

This topic of barbarity would be widely reactivated on account of the unprecedented nature of WW1, an all-out war which brought into play the full resources of the belligerent societies. In this context, an intense propaganda appeared from the very outset in France and Belgium, denouncing German atrocities – real or imaginary – and establishing a parallel with the Armenian massacres.

In both cases what mattered was to show that the Triple Entente was fighting to defend “civilisation” against a “barbarous” enemy who respected no rules and must therefore absolutely be defeated. However, establishing this equivalence between Germany and the Ottoman Empire turned out to be a two-edged sword. While some placed both on the same footing (British statesman Lloyd George spoke of “The Turk of the East and the Turk of the West”) or lay the blame primarily on Berlin (French journalist René Pinon saw the Armenian genocide as “a German method, [a] Turkish enactment”), others seemed to perceive clearly that the nature of these atrocities was quite different (for example, the journal La Baïonnette).

Primacy of strategic considerations

Thus, the declaration of 24 May 1915 legitimated the struggle against the Ottoman Empire and in the end would have justified the presence of the French, British and Russians in a region which interested all three of them. And yet it was followed by no concrete action to defend the Armenians, and the genocide was quickly overshadowed for various reasons: the small number of European eyewitnesses in the Ottoman Empire, the priority granted to civilian sufferings and to those of French and English soldiers even more, and the primacy of strategic considerations over humanitarian ones.

In the final analysis, Annette Becker feels that “hatred of the torturers was the true source of the denunciations, not compassion for their victims.” It is also likely that the members of the Entente did not have the forces for a massive intervention to protect the Armenians from the massacres under way, as was shown by the disaster of the Gallipoli campaign (April 1915 – January 1916) after which, at a cost of 100,000 casualties, the British and the French gave up the idea of controlling the Dardanella straits and opening a second front. The only rescue operation in favour of the Armenians was conducted by the French, in September 1915: their warships evacuated to Egypt 4,000 Armenians, who had been under siege for nearly two months on Musa Dagh Mountain.4

The short-lived Republic of Armenia

The immediate post-war period should have been favourable for the Armenians, with the prospect of an independent country (which had become an explicit war aim at the end of 1917) and the impending prosecution of those responsible for the genocide. Both objectives failed because of the evolution of the international context. In 1919–1920 the triumphant Entente was in a position of strength: they managed to organise a trial in Constantinople where a number of leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP)5 and some ministers as well, were convicted. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres between the Empire and the Entente also provided for the creation of a “free and independent Armenia.”

However, the Treaty of Sèvres was not recognised by Mustafa Kemal who rebelled against the imperial government, defeated the foreign troops occupying the country and came to power, founding the present-day Turkish Republic. A new peace treaty was then signed in Lausanne in 1923; the Republic of Armenia disappeared, while plans for an international special tribunal was abandoned. Moreover, the chief instigators of the genocide had managed to escape before the Constantinople trial was held or had been released in the meantime.6 Thus it was not until WW2 and the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (1945) that the notion of “crime against humanity” would be translated into legal reality.

1The First World War pitted the Triple Entente, – or Entente – mainly composed of France, the United Kingdom and Russia (until 1917), of Italy (from 1915) and the United States (after 1917), against the central empires, i.e., Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

2US diplomat who played an important role in the documentation and denunciation of the Armenian massacres.

3Many Germans who were present in the Ottoman capital deplored the massacres but felt that their alliance with the Sublime Door was more important.

Only tiny minority tried but could not succeed in influencing their government: such was the case of Protestant missionary Lepsius who in 1916 published his “secret report” in which he collected ample evidence of the genocide but had to take refuge in the Netherlands to escape the German secret service.

4This episode was made famous by Franz Werfel in his novel The Forty days of Musa Dagh published in 1933. Hollywood’s attempts to film the novel were foiled until the 1980s by Turkish pressures.

5Also known as the Young Turks, the CUP was a nationalist political party which seized power in Constantinople in 1909.

6At the end of 1921, for example, London released some sixty prisoners under pressure from Turkey and in the absence of any jurisdiction capable of prosecuting them.