Context &
 & Atrocities
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Ambassador Morgenthau's Story - Former American Ambassador to Turkey

By Henry Morgenthau

efore I came to Turkey I had entertained very different ideas of this organization. As far back as 1908 I remember reading news of Turkey that appealed strongly to my democratic sympathies. These reports informed me that a body of young revolutionists had swept from the mountains of Macedonia, had marched upon Constantinople, had deposed the bloody Sultan, Abdul Hamid, and had established a constitutional system.

Turkey, these glowing newspaper stories told us, had become a democracy, with a parliament, a responsible ministry, universal suffrage, equality of all citizens before the law, freedom of speech and of the press, and all the other essentials of a free, liberty-loving commonwealth. That a party of Turks had for years been struggling for such reforms I well knew, and that their ambitions had become realities seemed to indicate that, after all, there was such a thing as human progress. The long welter of massacre and disorder in the Turkish Empire had apparently ended; "the great assassin", Abdul Hamid, had been removed to solitary confinement at Saloniki, and his brother, the gentle Mohammed V, had ascended the throne with a progressive democratic program. Such had been the promise.

By the time I reached Constantinople, in 1913, many changes had taken place. Austria had annexed two Turkish provinces, Bosnia and Herzegovina; Italy had wrenched away Tripoli; Turkey had fought a disastrous war with the Balkan states, and had lost all her territories in Europe except Constantinople and a small hinterland. The aims for the regeneration of Turkey that had inspired the revolution had evidently miscarried, and I soon discovered that four years of so-called democratic rule had ended with the nation more degraded, more impoverished, and more dismembered than ever before. Indeed, long before I arrived, this attempt to establish a Turkish democracy had failed.

Their leaders, Talaat, Enver, and Djemal, had long since abandoned any expectation of reforming their state, but they had developed an insatiable lust for personal power. Instead of a nation of nearly 20,000,000 developing happily along democratic lines, enjoying suffrage, building up their industry and agriculture, laying the foundations for universal education, sanitation, and general progress, I saw that Turkey consisted of merely so many inarticulate, ignorant, and poverty-ridden slaves with a small, wicked oligarchy at the top, which was prepared to use them in the way that would best promote its private interests.

Talaat, Enver, and Djemal were the ostensible leaders, yet back of them was the [Union and Progress PartyJ Committee, consisting of about forty men. Besides the forty men in Constantinople, sub-committees were organized in all important cities of the empire. The men whom the Committee placed in power "took orders" and made the appointments submitted to them. No man could hold an office, high or low, who was not indorsed by this committee. They had wrested power from the other factions by a deed of violence. This coup d'etat had taken place on January 26, 1913, not quite a year before my arrival.

By becoming Minister of the Interior, Talaat gained control of the police and the administration of the provinces, or vilayets; this gave him a great amount of patronage, which he used to strengthen the power of the Committee. Though he afterward became the man who was chiefly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, at this time Talaat maintained the pretense that the Committee stood for the unionization of all the races in the empire, and for this reason his first cabinet contained an Arab-Christian, a Deunme (a jew by race, but a Mohammedan by religion), a Circassian, an Armenian, and an Egyptian.

Early in January, 1914, Enver became Minister of War. At that time Enver was thirty-two years old; like all the leading Turkish politicians of the period he came of humble stock and his popular title, "Hero of the Revolution," shows why Talaat and the Committee had selected him as Minister of War. His nature had a remorselessness, a lack of pity, a cold-blooded determination, of which his clean-cut handsome face, his small but sturdy figure, and his pleasing manners gave no indication.

As soon as Enver became Minister of War, Baron Von Wangenheim (German Ambassador to Turkey) flattered and cajoled the young man, played upon his ambitions, and probably promised him Germany's complete support in achieving them. In his private conversation Enver made no secret of his admiration for Germany. Thus Enver's elevation to the Ministry of War was virtually a German victory. Wangenheim and Talaat, in the latter part of 1913, had arranged that the Kaiser should send a military mission to reorganize the Turkish forces. Talaat told me that, in calling in this mission, he was using Germany, though Germany thought that it was using him.

By January, 1914, seven months before the Great War began, Germany held this position in the Turkish army: a German general was Chief of Staff; another was Inspector General; scores of German officers held commands of the first importance, and the Turkish politician who was even then an outspoken champion of Germany, Enver Pasha, was Minister of War. And now for several months we had before our eyes this spectacle of the Turkish army actually under the control of Germany. German officers drilled the troops daily-all, I am now convinced, in preparation for the approaching war.

Since Germany, however, had her own plans for Asia Minor, inevitably the Greeks in this region formed a barrier to Pan-German aspirations. Any one who has read even cursorily the literature of Pan-Germania is familiar with the peculiar method which German publicists have advocated for dealing with populations that stand in Germany's way. That is by deportation. Accting under Germany's prompting, Turkey now began to apply this principle of deportation to her Greek subjects in Asia Minor. The events that followed foreshadowed the policy adopted in the Armenian massacres. The Turkish officials pounced upon the Greeks, herded them in groups and marched them toward the ships. They gave them no time to settle their private affairs, and they took no pains to keep families together.

I objected vigorously to his treatment of the Greeks; I told him that it would make the worst possible impression abroad and that it affected American interests. Talaat explained his national policy: these different blocs in the Turkish Empire, he said, had always conspired against Turkey; because of the hostility of these native populations, Turkey had lost province after provinceGreece, Serbia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Egypt, and Tripoli. In this way the Turkish Empire had dwindled almost to the vanishing point. If what was left of Turkey was to survive, added Talaat, he must get rid of these alien peoples. "Turkey for the Turks" was now Talaat's controlling idea. Therefore he proposed to Turkify Smyrna and the adjoining islands. Already 40,000 Greeks had left, and he asked me again to urge American business houses to employ only Turks.

The Greeks in Turkey had one great advantage over the Armenians, for there was such a thing as a Greek government, which naturally has a protecting interest in them. The Turks knew that these deportations would precipitate a war with Greece; in fact, they welcomed such a war and were preparing for it. So enthusiastic were the Turkish people that they had raised money by popular subscription and had purchased a Brazilian dreadnaught which was then under construction in England. The government had ordered also a second dreadnaught in England, and several submarines and destroyers in France. The purpose of these naval preparations was no secret in Constantinople. As soon as they obtained these ships, or even the one dreadnaught which was nearing completion, Turkey intended to attack Greece and take back the islands.

The requisitioning that accompanied the mobilization really amounted to a wholesale looting of the civilian population. The Turks took all the horses, mules, camels, sheep, cows, and other beasts that they could lay their hands on; Enver told me that they had gathered in 150,000 animals. They did it most unintelligently, making no provision for the continuance of the species; thus they would leave only two cows or two mares in many of the villages. This system of requisitioning had the inevitable result of destroying the nation's agriculture, and ultimately led to the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people.

The Government showed precisely the same shamelessness and lack of intelligence in the way that they requisitioned materials from merchants and shopmen. Practically none of these merchants were Moslems; most of them were Christians, though there were a few Jews; and the Turkish officials therefore not only provided the needs of their army and incidentally lined their own pockets, but they found a religious joy in pillaging the infidel establishments. The prevailing system was to take movable propertv wherever available and convert it into cash; Misery and starvation soon began to afflict the land. Out of a 4,000,000 adult male population more than 1,500,000 were ultimately enlisted and so about a million families were left without breadwinners, all of them in a condition of extreme destitution. That the Germans directed this mobilization is not a matter of opinion but of proof.

Up to January l, 1915, Turkey had done nothing to justify her participation in the war; on the contrary, she had met defeat practically everywhere. Djemal had left Constantinople as the prospective "Conqueror of Egypt," but his expedition had proved to be a bloody and humiliating failure. Enver's attempt to redeem the Caucasus from Russian rule had resulted in an even more frightful military disaster. He had ignored the advice of the Germans, which was to let the Russians advance to Sivas and make his stand there, and instead he had boldly attempted to gain Russian territory in the Caucasus. This army had been defeated at every point, but the military reverses did not end its sufferings. The Turks had a most inadequate medical and sanitary service; typhus and dysentery broke out in all the camps, the deaths from these diseases reaching 100,000 men.

That England was preparing for an invasion of Mesopotamia was well known, and no one at that time had any reason to believe that it would not succeed. Every day the Turks expected the news that the Bulgarians had declared war and were marching on Constantinople, and they knew that such an attack would necessarily bring in Rumania and Greece. It was no diplomatic secret that Italy was waiting only for the arrival of warm weather to join the Allies. At this moment the Russian fleet was bombarding Trebizond, on the Black Sea, and was daily expected at the entrance to the Bosphorus.

Meanwhile, the domestic situation was deplorable: all over Turkey thousands of the populace were daily dying of starvation; practically all able-bodied men had been taken into the army, so that only a few were left to till the fields; the criminal requisitions had almost destroyed all business; the treasury was in a more exhausted state than normally, for the closing of the Dardanelles and the blockading of the Mediterranean ports had stopped all imports and customs dues.

And now, surrounded hv increasing troubles on every hand, the Turks learned that this mighty armada of England and her allies was approaching, determined to destroy the defenses and capture the city. At that time there was no force which the Turks feared so greatly as they feared the British fleet. All this seems a little absurd now, for, in fact, the Allied fleets made no attack at that time. At the very moment when the whole of Constantinople was feverishly awaiting the British dreadnaughts, the British Cabinet in London was merely considering the advisability of such an enterprise.

The political committee headed by Talaat, Enver, and Djemal, controlled the Central Government, but their authority throughout the empire was exceedingly tenuous. As a matter of fact, the whole Ottoman state, on that eighteenth day of March, 1915, when the Allied fleet abandoned the attack, was on the brink of dissolution. All over Turkey ambitious chieftains had arisen, who were momentarily expecting its fall, and who were looking for the opportunity to seize their parts of the inheritance. In Smyrna, Rahmi Bey, the Governor-General, had often disregarded the authorities at the capital. In Adrianople, Hadji Adil, one of the most courageous Turks of the time, was believed to be plotting to set up his own government.

Among the subject races the spirit of revolt was rapidly spreading. The Greeks and the Armenians would also have welcomed an opportunity to strengthen the hands of the Allies. The existing financial and industrial conditions seemed to make revolution inevitable. Many farmers went on strike; they had no seeds and would not accept them as a free gift from the Government because, they said, as soon as their crops should be garnered the armies would immediately requisition them. As for Constantinople, the populacae there and the best elements among the Turks, far from opposing the arrival of the Allied fleet, would have welcomed it with joy. The Turks themselves were praying that the British and French would take their city, for this would relieve them of the controlling gang, emancipate them from the hated Germans, bring about peace, and end their miseries.

The withdrawal of the Allied fleet from the Dardanelles had consequences which the world does not yet completely understand. The practical effect of the event was to isolate the Turkish Empire from all the world excepting Germany and Austria. England, France Russia, and Italy, which for a century had held a restraining hand over the Ottoman Empire, had finally lost all power to influence or control. For the first time in two centuries they could now live their national life according to their own inclinations. The first expression of this rejuvenated national life was an episode which, so far as I know, is the most terrible in the history of the world. New Turkey, freed from European tutelage, celebrated its national rebirth by murdering not far from a million of its own subjects.

Essentially the Turk is a bully and a coward, he is brave as a lion when things are going his way, but cringing, abject, and nerveless when reverses are overwhelming him. And now that the fortunes of war were apparently favouring the empire, I began to see an entirely new Turk unfolding before my eyes. The hesitating and fearful Ottoman gave place to an upstanding, almost dashing figure, proud and assertive.

The common term applied by the Turk to the Christian is "dog, " and in his estimation this is no mere rhetorical figure; he actuallv looks upon his European neighbours as far less worthy of consideration than his own domestic animals. "My son," an old Turk once said, "do you see that herd of swine? Some are white, some are black, some are large, some are small-they differ from each other in some respects, but they are all swine. So it is with Christians. Be not deceived, my son. These Christians may wear fine clothes, their women may be very beautiful to look upon; their skins are white and splendid; many of them are very intelligent and they build wonderful cities and create what seem to be great states. But remember that underneath all this dazzling exterior they are all the same, they are all swine."

Practically all foreigners, while in the presence of a Turk, are conscious of this attitude. The Turk may be obsequiously polite, but there is invariably an almost unconscious feeling that he is mentally shrinking from his Christian friend as something unclean. His religion comes from the Arabs; his language has acquired a certain literary value by borrowing certain Arabic and Persian elements; and his writing is Arabic. Constantinople's finest architectural monument, the Mosque of St. Sophia, was originally a Christian church, and all socalled Turkish architecture is derived from the Byzantine.

The mechanism of business and industry has always rested in the hands of the subject peoples, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and Arabs. The Turks have learned little of European art or science, they have established very few educational institutions, and illiteracy is the prevailing rule. The result' is that poverty has attained a degree of sordidness and misery in the Ottoman Empire which is almost unparalleled elsewhere. The Turkish peasant lives in a mud hut; he sleeps on a dirt floor; he has no chairs, no tables, no eating utensils, no clothes except the few scant garments which cover his back and which he usually wears for many years.

They could not understand that a conquered people were anything except slaves. It became a common saying with them that a horse or a camel was far more valuable than a man; these animals cost money, whereas "infidel Christians" were plentiful in the Ottoman countries and could easily be forced to labour. Foreigners in Turkey had their own courts, prisons, post-offices, and other institutions, yet the early sultan gave these privileges not from a spirit of tolerance, but merely because they looked upon the Christian nations as unclean and therefore unfit to have any contact with the Ottoman administrative and judicial system. The sultans similarly erected the several peoples, such as the Greeks and the Armenians, into separate "millets," or nations, not because they desired to promote their independence and welfare, but because they regarded them as vermin, and therefore disqualified for membership in the Ottoman state.

The buildin s in which Christians lived should not be conspicuous and their churches should have no belfry. Christians could not ride a horse in the city, for that was the exclusive right of the noble Moslem. The Turk had the right to test the sharpness of his sword upon the neck of any Christian. They taxed them to economic extinction, stole their most beautiful daughters and forced them into their harems, took Christian male infants by the hundreds of thousands and brought them up as Moslem soldiers.

They attempted to make all foreign business houses employ only Turkish labour, insisting that they should discharge their Greek, Armenian, and Jewish clerks, stenographers, workmen, and other employees. They ordered all foreign houses to keep their books in Turkish. The Ottoman Government even refused to have any dealings with the representative of the largest Austrian munition maker unless he admitted a Turk as a partner.

They developed a mania for suppressing all languages except Turkish. For decades French had been the accepted language of foreigners in Constantinople; most street signs were printed in both French and Turkish. One morning the astonished foreign residents discovered that all these French signs had been removed and that the names of streets, the directions on street cars, and other public notices, appeared only in those strange Turkish characters, which very few of them understood. 

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