By Professor Justin McCarthy

By the time of World War I, prejudice against Turks had already existed in Europe and America for centuries. During that war, however, anti-Turkish prejudice was deliberately fostered and enlarged by two cooperating agencies–the American missionary establishment and the propaganda office of Great Britain.

While there is no space here to consider the effect of missionary propaganda, it is important to realize that during the war missionaries had undertaken a vast effort that vilified Turks. This was partly a continuation of a long tradition of rhetoric against Muslims that had characterized the missionary effort since its inception. There was, however, another motive unique to the period of the world war: By the end of the nineteenth century, the efforts of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had largely become a Mission to the Armenians. Even though other Christian groups took some advantage of missionary schools, most pupils in the schools and nearly all the converts to Protestant Christianity were Armenians. With the coming of international war between Ottomans and Russians and intercommunal war between Armenians and Muslims, the missionaries saw the imminent destruction of their Mission, and they felt great sympathy for Armenian losses. They organized massive relief efforts to aid Armenian and Assyrian Christians. Propaganda against Turks, much of it probably believed by the missionaries and their supporters, was a tool to increase donations. The missionary establishment hoped for an Armenian/Russian triumph in the war. They therefore made use of their considerable place in American society to influence popular and political will against the Turks.

This article considers only British propaganda, but it is important to understand that the missionaries were the willing helpers of the British propaganda effort. Missionary propaganda and British propaganda fed each other and depended on each other.

Through most of the war, British wartime propaganda was in the hands of the Foreign Office. A War Propaganda Bureau was established by the Foreign Office in 1914 at Wellington House. Its director was the Right Honourable C.F. Mastermann. When Lloyd George became Prime Minister in December of 1916 propaganda was organized under a Department of Information, headed by Col. John Buchan (February, 1917), with Mastermann as deputy, and later under a Ministry of Information, headed by Lord Beaverbrook (March, 1918). Whatever its formal structure, British Propaganda remained known as “Wellington House.” Wellington House drew on some of the best minds in the British government and academe, including the historian Arnold Toynbee.

By the standards of the time, the British propaganda effort was a major undertaking. By 1917, Wellington House had a staff of 54 and could call on help from other departments and ministries. The first report (June, 1915) of Wellington House listed distribution of approximately 2.5 million copies of books, pamphlets, and other written propaganda in 17 languages. The second report (February, 1916) listed 7 million copies circulated.

The United States was the most important focus of British propaganda. America was important as a supplier of goods, a moral force, and a potential ally against Germany. In propagandizing the United States, the British benefited from a common language and longstanding American sympathy for Britain. Those sympathetic to Britain were cultivated. Careful lists were kept of “pro-Ally” newspapers that could be relied upon to print appropriate materials. However, even those newspapers, such as the Hearst chain, which were not friendly to the British, were ultimately forced to base their stories on British materials, because the British had destroyed German transatlantic cables, and British cables were the only way to get news to America. This meant it passed through British censors.

From the beginning, the British propaganda enterprise was completely secret, known neither to the British nor the foreign public. Propaganda materials were secretly funneled through individuals and organizations in the United Kingdom and friends of Britain in the United States. Sir Gilbert Parker, a Canadian by birth and member of the British Parliament, was in charge of the campaign. His appointment, and that of his successor, Geoffrey Butler, were never made public. The materials he distributed were always sent as if he were a private citizen engaged in personal distribution of information. As he had 170,000 addresses on his list of Americans by 1917, it seems unlikely that all recipients were fooled, but there is no record of anyone publicly labeling him as a British propagandist. Parker also supplied 555 American newspapers with Wellington house propaganda. The American government knew of his position, but Woodrow Wilson’s government seems to have been pleased with it. Parker himself summarized the effect of his efforts:

In fact we have an organization extraordinarily widespread in the United States, but which does not know it is an organization. It is worked entirely by personal association and inspired by voluntary effort, which has grown more enthusiastic and pronounced with the passage of time. . . . Finally, it should be noticed that no attack has been made upon us in any quarter of the United States, and that in the eyes of the American people the quiet and subterranean nature of our work has the appearance of a purely private patriotism and enterprise.

Foreign Office documents record lists of propaganda material sent to the United States and distributed broadly. A British distribution list from July, 1916 indicated that their propaganda reached throughout the “opinion-makers” of American society:

  • Public Men generally 1847
  • Scientific Men 1446
  • Lawyers, etc. 1445
  • Y.M.C.A. Officials 830
  • Senators and Representatives 680
  • Libraries 619
  • Newspapers 555
  • College Presidents 339
  • Financiers 262
  • Bishops 250
  • Historical Societies 214
  • Law Schools 166
  • Clubs 108
  • Judges 81
  • State Superintendents of Public Instruction 35
  • Distinguished Men (for distribution) 585
  • Others and Miscellaneous 2212

Most of those on the list received copies of all the propaganda material, and some asked for and received additional copies for distribution. Wellington House was successful in turning respected American organizations into its agents. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for example, was cited by Parker as of particular help in distributing British materials.

While the primary focus of British propaganda was naturally the Germans, the British devoted much energy to vilifying the Turks, particularly in America. This was a part of the propaganda activity directed against all Britain’s enemies in the war, but there were specific reasons for targeting the Turks: The British had agreed with their allies, France and Russia, that the Middle East was to be divided among them after the war. Convincing the world that Ottoman rule had been a disaster and that the Turks were murderous tyrants would make European colonial rule more palatable. There was also the question of Russian persecution of the Jews, which was well publicized in America. The British feared that the actions of Russia would jeopardize friendly relations between the Allies and America. They could do nothing about Russia’s anti-semitism. Instead, they planned to create an even greater monster to take the Russians place in the news. The Ottomans were to be that monster.

The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, personally and specifically ordered the Propaganda Office to deal with the Turks. He directed that Wellington House should stress “the futility and iniquity of the Turk” and “above all, his massacres of all the industrious population.” The Prime Minister directed that the propaganda be completely surreptitious. John Buchan, the head of the Department of Information, took the job of anti-Turkish propaganda firmly in hand. While the British had published and otherwise distributed much anti-Turkish propaganda before 1917, Lloyd George’s direct intervention seems to have given them new purpose. Buchan directed the propaganda apparatus to give particular attention to the Turks:

We must organize an elaborate campaign in Britain, in Allied countries, and to a limited extent in neutral countries on the text,, “The Turk must go.” If Turkey in its present form disappears the German drang nach osten fails, and with it the major purpose with which Germany entered the war. We may have difficulty with the Allies and neutrals on some of our peace terms, but the impossible position of Turkey is a point on which we should be able to secure general unanimity. We have got to make it a platitude among Allies and neutrals.

The points we must emphasize are:

(a) The ancient riches and the great prosperity of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia.
(b) The blighting influence of the Turk on social and Commercial progress.
(c) The incapacity of the Turk for absorbing conquered peoples or for administering equitably subject races. For this we want a historical argument and an account of the recent treatment of Jews, Armenians, Syrians and Balkan races, et cetera.
(d) The impossibility of reforming the Turkish state. The Turk is a military power and nothing else. He has never shown any capacity for civil government.
(e) The danger of allowing a reactionary and incompetent state to control the avenue between Europe and Asia. Such a state must always be a satellite of a reactionary military bureaucracy like Germany
(f) The religious element might also be pressed. Turkey at present governs a sort of museum of opposing religions, and toleration in the modern sense is alien to her theory of government.

There is no necessity to present detailed themes for the future of Turkey. All we have to do is to convince people that the present situation is impossible and must be drastically dealt with.

Stephen Gaselee, a well thought of junior in the Foreign Office, was given charge of the matter. Arnold Toynbee was asked as the resident expert to give his suggestions as to possible authors of anti-Turkish propaganda. He responded with a detailed list. It included Mark Sykes , professors who studied the Middle East, and others. Toynbee suggested that he could find an American to write on “the Work of American Missions in Turkey,”. He offered to deal with Armenia himself. Gaselee thanked Toynbee for his list and told him that Buchan would be contacting the people on the list. He added, “I send you a copy of a short memorandum drawn up by myself on the subject. It is intended for simple minds and will probably be handed to newspaper editors and others who have no particular knowledge on the subject, to serve as a guide.” The respect for the ever-useful editors was obviously not great. The memorandum was what might be expected. It stated in hostile language that the Turks had single-handedly destroyed the Middle East through their rule. Gaselee sent the memorandum off to editors, professors, et. al., without mentioning what he thought of their simple minds.

Most specifics of the British campaign against the Turks are impossible to obtain, because the British destroyed almost all of the records of their propaganda office immediately after the war. What original documents remain are a small amount of material forwarded through the Foreign Office and retained in Foreign Office records. as well as some documents retained through bureaucratic confusion. For example, the Foreign Office kept copies of reports Parker sent through the British Embassy in Washington, so something of the extent of the propaganda effort in America is known. An important list of the books secretly written for, subsidized, or distributed at British government expense by the propaganda bureau was mistakenly retained in two places: one incomplete, handwritten list sent with other volumes to the Foreign Office Library, probably because it was bound, and looked like a book, and a complete, printed list which found its way to the Imperial War Museum.

The registers of propaganda publications, “Wellington House Publications,” were lists of publications subsidized and distributed by Wellington House. Amidst a much larger number of anti-German publications, the documents cataloged 37 books and large pamphlets dealing with the Turks. (The list did not include press releases, articles, and other materials, and was probably not even a complete record of propaganda books.) The books included works by Armenians, by members of the Wellington House staff, and even one fictitious “Bedouin Notable of Damascus” [sic]. The general themes of the propaganda were consistent from work to work: Turks were illegitimate rulers who have destroyed all lands in which they have ruled. They were Muslims who hated all other religions, particularly Christianity. They had always treated Christians badly, and now were committing inhuman atrocities against Armenians and other Christians, including mass murder and awful sexual crimes. The Germans stood behind Turkish evil deeds. The mass of the people of the Ottoman Empire, even the Muslims, looked to the British for salvation.

The Wellington House publications were most often published by Hodder and Stoughton in Britain. In America, the chosen publisher was Doran, a company that was partly owned by Hodder and Stoughton, although Hodder and Stoughton also published some volumes in New York under its own imprint. According to Wellington House, George H. Doran, head of the publishing company, was “in close cooperation with Mr. Geoffrey Butler [Parker’s successor], in New York, and has been in touch with Lord Northcliffe–the head of the American Mission.” “Messrs. Doran have produced and distributed a large number of books and pamphlets for Wellington House in the U.S.A., and, so far as these are concerned, Mr. Doran may be said to be the representative of Wellington House . . .” Doran also published a number of missionary tracts directed against the Turks, as well as other propaganda literature that was not on the Wellington House list. Because of the destruction of most Wellington House records, it cannot be known if these were also “sponsored” by British Propaganda.

It is not possible in the space available here to analyze all the Wellington House books. The most famous of the publications, the “Bryce Report” is perhaps the best example of the propaganda and its effects.

The most influential of the Wellington House documents was also the only one that admitted some association with the British government. Although the British government did not admit that the book had been written by its propaganda arm, it did publish it under its own imprimatur, as a publication presented to Parliament. It was distributed all over the United States by Parker’s organization.

Viscount Bryce was an inspired choice to author propaganda aimed at Americans. He had served as a popular British ambassador in Washington and had many friends in American political circles, among them President Woodrow Wilson. His history of the United States, The American Commonwealth, first published in 1888, had been well received by academics and the public. He had, moreover, a reputation as an honorable man and a friend of America. Reviewing propaganda printed under his name, the St. Louis Republican commented: “If there is a man in the entire British Empire whom the people of this nation are prepared to believe implicitly, it is James Bryce.”

Bryce’s views on the Turks were not temperate:

Turkish government has been the very worst which has afflicted humanity during the last fifteen centuries. The Turks have always been what a distinguished European historian of the last generation called them–“nothing better than a band of robbers encamped in territories which they had conquered and devastated. They have never become civilized, they have never imbibed or tried to apply any of the principles on which civilized government must be conducted. So far from progressing with the progress of the years, they have gone from bad to worse. Savages they were when the descended into Western Asia from the plains of Turkistan, savages they were when Edmund Burke so described them one hundred and thirty years ago, and their government still retains its savage and merciless character.

Given his views, it would not have been odd for Viscount Bryce to produce a volume such as The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire , which was avowedly his personal work. In the introductory material of the volume, he wrote that it was a personal enterprise, “I wrote to all persons I could think of likely to possess or to be able to procure trustworthy data, begging them to procure trustworthy data, begging them to favor me with such data. . . . I had the good fortune to secure the co-operation of a young historian of high academic distinction, Mr. Arnold J. Toynbee, late fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. He undertook to examine and put together the pieces of evidence collected, arranging them in order and adding such observations, historical and geographical, as seemed needed to explain them.” This was pure fabrication. Toynbee, working for and assisted by the propaganda bureau, was the actual author and Bryce the figurehead. The book as in no sense a private undertaking. It was in fact a piece of British government propaganda.

The book on Armenian Atrocities was a companion volume to the first Bryce atrocity report, also “edited” by Toynbee. That first report was on the “German atrocities in Belgium,” and has been thoroughly discredited by historians. All the techniques seen in the Armenian Report had been refined in the earlier report on alleged German atrocities in Belgium–anonymous reports collected from “unimpeachable sources,” but no physical record of what the sources really said or wrote. In both reports the few statements that were accompanied by identification or some other “proof” were much more temperate than the anonymous reports. Postwar attempts to find the sources of the Bryce report on the Germans were unsuccessful, and a Belgian postwar investigation of the atrocities failed to find evidence that most of the atrocities listed by Bryce ever occurred. In particular, the more spectacular crimes, the sort that tugged at one’s heart and turned one’s stomach, such as breasts cut off of women, bayoneting of pregnant women, and murders of priests, seem almost entirely to have been fabrications or, at best, exaggerations. In his analysis of wartime propaganda, H.C. Peterson described the Bryce report on the Germans: “His report is one of the most extreme examples of ‘assassination by word.’ It was in itself one of the worst atrocities of the war.” Interestingly, the same sorts of crimes appear with regularity in the Bryce report of Ottoman Armenians.

The two Bryce reports, along with additional books by Toynbee and others, were part of a well constructed British propaganda effort. They were successful attempts at painting Britain’s enemies black and thus affecting the outcome of the war. In the case of the Germans, they were instrumental in bringing the United States into the war against “the Hun.” In the case of the Turks, they were instrumental in creating a lasting stereotype of Turks as vicious killers. While the British propaganda against the Germans has been thoroughly studied and labelled for what it was–wartime propaganda with little veracity–the propaganda against the Turks has never been put to the same scrutiny.

The Bryce allegations against the Germans was based on depositions avowedly taken from Belgian refugees in the United Kingdom and British and Allied servicemen. No names were given, ostensibly to protect the families of the accusers, though why the Allied soldiers could not be identified was not explained. The Bryce report on the Armenians followed the same basic principles of investigation. Bryce printed reports and analyses from unidentified sources supposedly within the Ottoman Empire. Like all other British propaganda publications, the work of Bryce and Toynbee never mentioned a single dead Muslim. To them, the only dead were Armenian and Assyrian Christians. Given their aims and their sources, this was not surprising.

Who were Bryce’s sources? The names or original copies of the Belgian “sources” never have been discovered or published, giving some critics cause to wonder if at least some of the reports were pure fabrications. In a like manner, the report on the Armenians mainly listed its informants by coded letters and descriptions–“Mr. A,” “Miss B,” “A Foreign Resident,” etc. The names of the informants were not to be known, ostensibly to protect them from reprisals. However, the British did keep a record documenting the real sources; this was misplaced in Foreign Office records and thus not destroyed with other propaganda office registers. It was discovered by chance among unrelated documents.

Had the sources of the evidence been presented at the time of publication, the Bryce report would have been seen as propaganda, not the evidence of neutrals. The main sources of atrocity stories were in fact American missionaries and Armenians. 59 of the 150 accounts in Bryce’s book were written by missionaries; 52 were written by individual Armenians or were copied from Armenian newspapers. Very few of the missionaries who were the documents’ authors were identified as such in the text. Most were identified as “foreign residents” or “foreign travelers,” with no indication that they were missionaries with long ties to the Armenians An American missionary, or wife or sister of a missionary, would be described as an “American traveler” if reporting on an area away from his or her mission station. Readers would most probably have assumed the “traveler” was visiting from America, but this was not the case. Other subterfuges were used, as well. For example, a Greek professor at the Armenian missionary college at Mersovan (whose student body was almost entirely Armenian), the author of three documents, was described in two documents as a “Professor at the College of X [sic],” and in the third document only as “a traveler, not of Armenian nationality.” The natural assumption of readers would be that here were two different authors, both of them neutral, one perhaps a professor in Britain or America. In fact there was one writer, a Greek professor who might very likely share the sentiments toward Turks of many other Greeks, particularly of Greeks employed by American missionaries to teach Armenians. In his introduction, Bryce (or whoever wrote the introduction) stated categorically that his respondents did not know each other, somewhat duplicitous when in fact they were sometimes the same persons.

Readers of the Bryce Report had no way to know how closely many of the sources were tied the Armenian cause. Writings of the Armenian Patriarch, for instance, were described only as the work of an “authoritative source.” Most incredibly, 7 of the 150 documents had been forwarded by the Dashnak Party. The Dashnaks had organized revolutions against the Ottoman government for decades and were the main party of revolutionaries fighting against the Ottomans in Eastern Anatolia at the time. The Dashnak source was never identified. Others documents were taken from articles in Armenian newspapers controlled by Dashnak sympathizers. A number of other documents were forwarded by Armenian political representatives, such as Boghos Nubar, representative of an Armenian independence organization.

The level of authentication in the Bryce Report was outrageous. According to the secret document, most of the non-missionary informants were known to the British only as Armenians. The British had no other information on their bona fides or veracity. Fourteen, nearly ten per cent, of the narratives had no known authors; the British had no idea who the authors were, but included the stories. Still other reports were admitted in the secret document to be based on reports from unknown persons, not on the knowledge of the putative “author.” Because almost all other names were hidden as well, all these unknowns appeared in the Bryce Report as if their identities were known but disguised.

Although destruction of records makes it impossible to ascertain, there is a question of the accuracy of the quotations from the hidden authors in the Bryce Report on the Armenians. Were all of the quotations and reports even true reflections of what the “authors” wrote? It is impossible to verify this, but the evidence of the Bryce Report on the Germans gives reason for doubt. Like the Armenian report, the earlier report was supposedly based on first-hand evidence, but has in fact been proven many times to have been largely altered or falsified. How many of the reports on the Armenians were similarly “improved” by Wellington House copy editors? If they lied in the report on Germans, how likely is it that they did not lie in the report on the Turks?

The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was a total propaganda victory for the British. There was no one to represent the Ottoman case, and the Bryce Report was taken as corroboration of the message that Americans were already receiving from the missionary establishment. Indeed, the use of the Bryce Report in America created an interesting relationship. The report itself was largely drawn from missionary and Armenian narratives, though it seldom identified the missionary and Armenian sources as such. The missionary establishment was also publishing reports from Armenians and missionaries. To convince American readers of the veracity of their reports, missionary organizations referred readers to the British reports. Missionary works on the Turks and Armenians often used phrases such as, “Now our old friend Ambassador Bryce has proven our contentions.” It appeared that they had found independent verification of their claims. In fact, the Bryce report was based on, and perhaps exaggerated, those same missionary and Armenian reports.

The American missionary establishment was given advance page proofs of the Bryce Report on the Armenians so that it could be used in their own propaganda. The British also distributed parts of the report in advance of publication to American newspapers. Gilbert Parker reported “The New York Times, Philadelphia Public Ledger, and the Chicago Herald . . . devoted much space to the advance sheets of ‘these Armenian horror stories.'” They did indeed devote much space. Current History a monthly magazine feature of the New York Times made the Bryce Report the centerpiece of a series on anti-Turkish articles, quoting the entire lengthy introduction of the Bryce Report and summarizing the most ghastly portions of the book. The New York Times itself devoted three pages to extracts from the Bryce Report. The New Republic praised Bryce on his selection of sources and evidence, without mentioning that most of the sources were anonymous, then went on to summarize the material and condemn the Turks. Other papers and magazines did the same, summarizing or quoting directly from the report.

Wellington House used the Bryce Report as the basis of other propaganda publications. Two examples: Armenia and the War by A.P. Hacobian featured a preface by Bryce and 12% of the book was taken up by quotes from the Bryce Report. The remainder was stated as the product of “an Armenian gentleman belonging to a family originally from Ispahan in Persia, but now settled in England. He speaks with intimate knowledge as well as patriotic feeling, . . .” Once again, the anonymous informant, and this time a member of an Armenian family from Isfahan in Iran (far from any Turkish-Armenian conflicts). Germany, Turkey, and Armenia (no author or editor was listed) took some of its material from the Bryce Report, and most of the other material was anonymous (“Fraulein O,” “a German Eye-witness,” “two Swiss ladies”). The most incredible part of the book was two short “Reports by Mohammedan Officers” (“A.B.” and “C.D.”) which described imaginary decisions which, had the actually been taken, would have been known only to the Ottoman Cabinet and General Staff. The “Mohammaden Officers” also reported entirely spurious orders to kill Armenians, one of them from the Şeyhülislam!

Toynbee himself wrote, under his own name, three short books against the Turks: Armenian Atrocities: the Murder of a Nation, The Murderous Tyranny of the Turks , and Turkey: a Past and a Future, In Armenian Atrocities he summarized the charges and evidence he placed in the Bryce Report, but made a great effort to blame all on the Germans, using evidence such as “cables from Cairo” and letters in New York Armenian publications to prove his point. In Turkey: a Past and a Future, Toynbee was more temperate in laying blame, accusing the Germans only of complicity, not of ordering the deaths of Armenians. The Turks were compared to the Germans, to the benefit of neither. The quality of the scholarship is indicated by the map that accompanies the book, which indicates all Eastern Anatolia as “Armenian” in population, when more than three-quarters of the population of the region was, in fact, Muslim.

Today, reading the Bryce Report and other works of British propaganda, one naturally notices their main fault. Even if, as has so often been the case, the stories of atrocities committed by Turks are accepted at face value, the lack of any corresponding record of atrocities committed by Armenians indicates that the propaganda was at best selective and one-sided. But the audience for the propaganda was not made up of those who knew any of the realities of the Middle East in World War I. Virtually the only news read by Americans and British was the news forwarded by missionaries and British propagandists. The propaganda was read and believed.

More astonishing is the fact that British propaganda against the Turks has been ignored in scholarly publications on wartime propaganda. Every serious scholarly study of British propaganda during World War I rightly labels British propaganda against the Germans as a carefully constructed attack on the truth in the interests of victory. The same studies do not even consider British propaganda against the Turks, except when it also was an attack on the Germans. What British propagandists did to the Germans they also did to the Turks, yet no one has seemed to care. Propaganda against the Germans has been condemned while the calumnies against the Turks live on. The infamous Bryce Report on the Armenians is republished and quoted as gospel. It has acquired a patina of respectibility as an “Accepted and Reliable Source,” while the Bryce Report against the Germans properly lies unread on dusty library shelves. Annotated bibliographies on World War I or on genocide as a topic prominently feature the Report and other British propaganda publications directed against Turks, without any identification of them for what they were. The common rules of historical criticism, which include verification of sources, have not been applied. In fact, the Bryce Report on the Ottoman Armenians should be consigned to the same historical dust bin as the Bryce Report on the Germans. It is only a reliable source on the history of propaganda, not on the history of the Middle East.