Ermeni Sorunu, Armenian Question, Der Armenier Konflikt, Question Armenienne - FORSNET
  APRIL 24, 1915


British Propaganda and the Turks

This evening I am going to consider something that I have noticed for many years. That is the basic assumption in Europe and America that the Turks must be in the wrong, whether the question is human rights, activities in Cyprus, the Armenian Question, Turkish-Greek relations, or almost any other contentious subject. Often it is assumed that the Turks are evil. If there is a question of comparative guilt, it is assumed that the Turks were most guilty. Turks have to prove themselves three times for every one assertion provided by their opponents.

All of this may surprise those of you who have known Turks well and have found that Turks are human beings like anyone else. But the unfairness with which Turks are treated does not surprise those of us who have looked into the background of the views and prejudices people have of the Turks.

I will not be speaking only of British propaganda tonight, but of the effects of what the British propaganda machine produced in World War I. That means I will also be discussing America, where that propaganda had its greatest effect.

The reasons for the ill feeling against Turks that is often seen in Western countries, as all of you know, go back to the Middle Ages. They go back to the period in which the name Muhammad was virtually synonymous with the Devil in Western culture. Europeans and Americans had a long memory of conflict between Christianity and Islam, and Turks were the political leaders of Islam.

The particular image of the Turk as the enemy developed in the nineteenth century along what can be described as racialist lines. In the United States, as well as in Britain, books were printed which portrayed the Turks as members of groups of people who were described almost uniformly as vicious. ``Brutal" was the primary adjective that was used to describe them. In America, and I suspect in Britain as well, we feared something called the "Yellow Peril." The Yellow Peril supposedly was a great danger to the "white race" (a fine example of psychological transference, since at the time Europeans were much more likely to assault Asiatics than vice versa). The Turks were portrayed as being at the forefront of the yellow peril, the leaders of the Yellow Peril. Those who had never seen a Turk found this an easy mental exercise: Turks lived in Asia. Turks were great warriors. Therefore, Turks led the Yellow Peril.

Traditional racialist and religious animosity against Turks has left a legacy of prejudice that has affected Eruopean and American feelings about Turks in our own day. But Westerners have long held religious and racial prejudices about many peoples. None of these prejudices seems to rise to the level of the feelings against the Turks. No other group is assumed to be so violent and brutal, nor is any other group so often and routinely assumed to be wrong in all its disputations with other peoples. There is more to the feelings against Turks that traditional animosities.

From my experience in many years of teaching American students and in many years of dealing with the American public, I believe the Armenian Question has been the primary agency through which against the Turks has been advanced. The conflict between Turks and Armenians during , to World War I has had a permanent affect on the beliefs and prejudices of Americans and arts. In America today, if you ask someone, "What do you know about Turks?" you will very find that the only thing they think they know about Turks is summarized in one statement: killed all those Armenians, didn't they?" That is it, the sum of knowledge on the Turks.

Today in America, the alleged genocide of the Armenians is included in the books that teach the Holocaust to schoolchildren. Through political influence and writers' ignorance, it has been included as ;another example of inhumanity, a false example. Through the agency of Holocaust Studies, American children are learning what is usually the only thing they ever learn about Turks, and that is the so-called Armenian Genocide. Most American school children see nothing else about Turks in their schoolbooks. They only see Turks in their study of what Turks supposedly did to .Armenians. And. I might say, it is a completely one-sided description at that. The feeling about Turks is so ingrained that it is impossible to have rational dialogue on the subject. But the question remains--where does all this come from? Why do the otherwise caring and liberal academics who write on the Holocaust feel it proper to vilify one people, the Turks, without considering any other side of a contested issue? In studying the prejudices against Turks, I have found two basic causes for the ingrained anti-Turkish feeling in western society, and especially in America. The one is the work of American missionaries and the other is British propaganda during and immediately after World War One. This evening, as the title of my talk indicates, I am going to speak on the British and about British propaganda.

During World War I there were many reasons for propaganda, but the most common was simply the desire make your enemy look bad. Any propaganda organization intends to downplay the good side and emphasize the bad side of its enemies. The most well known example of this is the anti-German propaganda of World War I--the babies on bayonets, the starving Belgians , the rape of nuns. The intention of this propaganda was to draw neutrals to the side of Britain, the primary neutral of course being the United States. But propaganda is also useful as a morale builder for one's own side. It can make people feel they are fighting a holy crusade against evil. In some cases, especially in the second world war, this was true There was a definite evil to be opposed. In the first war it was much harder to identify one side as more evil than the other, and thus propaganda was all the more needed. In addition to the general desire to defame one's enemies, there were very specific reasons British propaganda would come out against the Turks. One of them was the traditional British opinion of the Turks, at least among those who thought of the Turks at all. Those Britons had a very ambivalent feeling towards Turks. This had been true for some time. The best example of this is probably the period of the 1876 Bulgarian Rebellion, when Disraeli's and Gladstone's visions of the Turks alternated in the public mind. At first, the public image was negative; the Turks were blamed for the "Bulgarian Horrors." But soon after the British changed their minds and the public cried out for war with Russia to defend the Ottoman Empire (and British se(f-interest). From that time until World War I, a number of travelers, diplomats, and others wrote kindly of the Turks, balancing the writings of those. especially British missionaries and other clergymen, whose opinions were not so favorable. A feeling devaloped that the Turks, while bad in some ways, still had many good qualities. They were ~t Christians, but they were honest and could be relied upon. The word of a Turk was good. -The feeling about Turks in Britain was not necessarily bad at the beginning of World War One. I his is cspecially true once Turks started actually fighting the British. Favorable reports of Turks came back to Britain, even appearing in some newspapers that were allied with the government. These reports described the Turks as men of honor. It seems to me, looking back without any good scientific evidence, that the British o~cer corps and the Turkiish officer corps had very much in common; honor was a very important thing to both of them and they both could re1y on the word and the actions of the other.

This was not the kind of thing that the British govemment wanted its people to believe about one of their arch enemies. It is very difficult to fight a war against people if you feel you must say good things about them. Something had to be done to change this image.

Another intent of British propaganda was to counter the image of Russia, especially in the Uuted States. Britain wanted the United States to take its side in the war, or at least to remain a friendly neutral. In the United States, Russia had a very bad image, a we11-deserved bad image, because it had been involved in the persecution of the Jews for some time, specifically in 1915. Then Russian soldiers had massacred large numbers of Jews during Russian campaigns against the Germans. Because of that and because reports of these atrocities reports had come back to the United States, Russia, one of Britain's allies, had become a very negative factor in trying to draw America into the war. It was feared that the Jewish irrfluence in America was so eat that the Russian actions would harm Britain. This was ridiculous. However, throughout World War I, from the very beginning days of the war through the Balfour Declaration and beyond, there was a great belief, a prejudiced belief, in something called "The Jews" and the "Power of the Jews." As we know, in the war the German Jews fought on the side of Germany and the English Jews fought on the side of England. But the feeling that there was some great and powerful intemational organization of Jews was strong even in the British government. People took action based on their belief in it. The British feared that the Jews were powerful in America and would favor the Central Powers.

Also, and again this is something that is hard for us to believe today, there was a great fear about India. There was fear at the time that Indian Muslims would engage in a Jihad, a holy war, against the Allies, alongside their brother Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. There was never really a chance this would happen. With hindsight, we can see that, but at the time the British Govemment feared a Muslim revolt. If you could make the Turks Iook evil, then you could teach the Indian Muslims that the Muslim Turks were really bad Muslims, not the sort of people who should be followed into war or anywhere else.

Looking back today, such things may seem hard to believe. I can only assrre you that they deLlnitely were believed at the time.

To the British, the most important of all things was to hrrr Americans against the Central Powers. Eventually, as you know, Britain was to successhilly draw America into dze war. Those who have looked over the archival record know that the Wilson adrninistration was in favor of the British and other Allied Powers long before America entered the war. They needed justifications to allow them to enter the war, to convince the American people that the Central Powers should be opposed. The Turks were a ready target, because propaganda against them was already available. One force available to the propagandists was the American Missionary. Propagandists could play upon the great respect Americans held for the missionaries who had gone to the Ottoman Empire, and who often appeared in the newspapers as national heroes for a Christian Nation. The American feeling of affection and respect for the missionaries could be mobilized as a force to oppose the natural anti-Allied feeling among many Americans, a feeling especially prominent among the Germans and the Irish. If the Turks could be portrayed as the persecutors of missionaries and murderers of Christians, the taint would also pass to the Germans. Portraying the Germans as the sort of people who would deal with those evil Turks, and indeed lead those evil Turks into battle, would show the American public how bad those Germans were. Indeed, this policy was to be greatly successful in affecting American public opinion.

The British agency entrusted with changing public opinion was at first called the War Propaganda Bureau. It was a part of the Foreign Office. In 1914 it was stationed in Wellington House. (I am sure someone here knows where Wellington House is or was, but I have never seen the place.) The Director was the Right Honorable C. F. Masterman. In December of 1916 it was made into the Department of Information under Colonel John Buchan, with Masterman as his deputy. Later, in 1918, a Ministry of Information was created, under Lord Beaverbrook.. However, to the people who were involved in British propaganda the propaganda office always was the same. It was simply called Wellington House.

The policy committee that operated Wellington House had some first class minds. In fact the committee was very heavy with historians. (You can tell a society has a very high level of culture if they recognize the worth of historians.) The committee included people such as Gooch and Toynbee, the latter of whom we will be saying much.

The Wellington House brief was simple, the same brief as that of all propagandists. They were to make the enemies look as bad as possible and make their friends, and especially the British themselves, look as good as could be. Their main focus was, naturally, Germany, but much effort was expended against the Turks. Propaganda was not considered to be a gentleman's game. Toynbee himself remarked that he would like to get out of it for that reason. Nevertheless it was something that had to be done and British gentlemen did it. They were probably always ashamed of their work, however, as indicated by the tact that they destroyed all the records of the Propaganda Office immediately after the war.

The only Propaganda Office records that exist have often been found by chance. Some few were found when the British again took up propaganda during World War II and found they did not know what to do. They said, "You know, we obviously had a propaganda ministry. They did good work, very good work actually. How did they do it?" They searched for documents from the first war and in total found four letters, all the records that had been kept, and these were hidden away. Over the years other documents have gradually emerged. I actually have found a number of them myself as I have gone through Foreign Office documents. They were records that had been sent off to other offices. Although the originals were destroyed, some copies were kept in relevant Foreign Office departments, especially in the Foreign Office records for the United States. So we have a modest number of documents. They indicate some small part of what Wellington House did.

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