The Kaiserreich Wiki
Advertisement
This article is designated as vetted, meaning that it is up-to-date and accurate. Please ask before making changes.

The 1919 Constantinople Conference, commonly referred to as the Caucasus Conference, was held from 10 November 1919 until 30 November 1919 in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. Called in after the end of the Weltkrieg by Germany to find a solution for the chaotic and in many ways unresolved de jure situation in the Caucasus, its final protocol eventually led to the Partition of Armenia, the extension of the German political and economic sphere of influence into Azerbaijan and to a severe deterioration of German-Ottoman relationships, which would worsen even further after the Jerusalem Accords of mid-1920.

Prelude

Approximate Russo-Turkish frontline when the Erzincan Armistice was signed

Despite heavy defeats at the hands of the Germans in Eastern Europe, the Russians had advanced far into Eastern Anatolia by 1917. Nonetheless, the October Revolution and the beginning of the Russian Civil War forced them to lay down their weapons and the Armistice of Erzincan was signed on 5 December 1917, ending the armed conflict between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in the Persian Campaign and Caucasus Campaign of the Middle Eastern theatre of the Weltkrieg. Even though the war was now effectively over for the Russians, their occupation zone in Anatolia remained, but actual Russian military presence became less and less far-spread as most soldiers deserted or joined the armed struggle of the White forces against the Bolsheviks.

Boundaries of the short-lived Transcaucasian Committee (including the Russian occupation zones in Anatolia & Persia) during late 1917/early 1918

With most of the Russian heartland under Bolshevik control, the White-aligned regional government in the Caucasus (known as the OZAKOM) had proclaimed their independence in November 1917, and was henceforth solely responsible for the administration of the Eastern Anatolian occupation zone. The OZAKOM, which had officially turned into the Transcaucasian Commissariat after its proclamation of independence, was governed by an extremely unstable triumvirate of Armenians, Azeris and Georgians, and ethnic tensions threatened to tear the state apart from the very beginning. This internal weakness would be the main reason for its quick collapse around five months later. In March 1918, the Central Powers signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Bolshevik government in Moscow, which granted the Russian provinces of Kars, Ardahan and Batumi to the Ottoman Empire - even though these territories were not even under Ottoman control, but still in possession of the weak Transcaucasian Commissariat. The treaty gave the Turks a reason to launch a new offensive eastwards, in an effort to reconquer both Eastern Anatolia and the provinces that had been granted to them at Brest.

Borders in the Southern Caucasus after the Treaty of Batum, June 1918. The striped areas were contested by several countries.

The internally divided Transcaucasians did not have much to resist the Ottoman advance, and in the end, the Turkish invasion would deal the death blow to the unstable federation. In May, Georgia became the first to abandon the Commissariat after signing a defensive pact with the German Empire in the hope that this would protect them against an outright Turkish annexation of their country, soon followed by Azerbaijan, which decided to embrace the Turkish diplomatic overtures, shortly after establishing very close ties with the Sublime Porte. After the dissolution of Transcaucasia, the new-born Republic of Armenia was forced to stand alone against the superior strength of the Ottomans. A few decisive battles at least prevented the Turkish forces from completely overrunning the small country, but eventually the Armenians were forced to the negotiation table, with the Ottomans only standing mere miles away from the capital city of Erivan. On 4 June 1918, the Treaty of Batum would be signed between all Transcaucasian States and the Ottoman Empire: Georgia and especially Armenia were forced to make painful territorial concessions to the Ottoman Empire, while Azerbaijan signed a Treaty of Cooperation and Friendship with the Sublime Porte, which promised the Azeris to assist them in their fight against the Bolshevik and Dashnak occupation forces in Baku.

Forces of the German Caucasus Expedition, 1918

Germany however was not content at all with the treaty; Constantinople had arranged and signed it without German approval and assistance, greatly injuring Germany's interests and her war aims agenda in the Caucasus. Berlin thus announced her intent to renegotiate the treaty "more fairly" in the future, but this was not where the German resistance against the Ottoman visions stopped: On top of that, the Germans began to instigate an indirect proxy war with their own allies over influence in Azerbaijan throughout late 1918 and most of 1919. Out of their new power base in Georgia, the Germans began to gradually expand into Azerbaijan both economically and militarily, with the ultimate goal of gaining access to the Baku oil fields. Constantinople of course was not willing to compromise, considering the Caucasus Front had been the only place where they had managed to achieve a victory completely on their own, Tensions between the two empires continued to grow, almost tearing the entire alliance apart.

The oil fields of Baku, August 1918

In November 1918, Sultan Mehmed VI performed a symbolic coup against the CUP leadership by ousting the Young Turk Triumvirate from their high-ranking positions in the military and the government - among them Enver Pasha, nominal commander-in-chief of the Army of Islam, the main Ottoman military force in the Caucasus. The Germans would capitalise upon that situation and began to move troop segments of the German Caucasus expedition, reinforced with spare forces from Ukraine, towards Baku without consulting their allies. With most of the Army of Islam (under the on-site command of Nuri Pasha, Enver's half-brother) preoccupied in Dagestan and Constantinople in upheaval, the Turks havebarely anything at hand to counter the advance. The incident would cause a grave diplomatic crisis between Germany and the Ottomans, but due to the latter still being in a very weak and unstable situation, Constantinople eventually was forced to give in, handing over the Baku Oil fields to Germany control.

Nonetheless, the circumstances in the Caucasus remained chaotic and unsettled, and Azerbaijan continued to act as a major bone of contention between Constantinople and Berlin, despite German presence in Baku - mostly due to the generally pro-Turkish stance of the newly-created and mostly Ottoman-educated Azerbaijani Armed Forces. Following the end of the Weltkrieg in late 1919, most fighting across Europe had largely ceased, however, in the Caucasus peace was nowhere in sight. To prevent the escalation of the situation, Germany proposed to hold a multinational conference in Constantinople, later widely known as the Caucasus Conference, which had the aim to settle the various border disputes in the Caucasus once and for all and establish peace, while simultaneously ensuring that German interests in the region would be respected.

Negotiations

Negotiations began shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in early November. The conference was attended by Turkish, German, Georgian and Azerbaijani delegates, while representatives of the diplomatically isolated Republic of Armenia were not invited. This decision was a main pillar of the German strategy on the conference: The Turks' attention should be diverted away from Azerbaijan towards Armenia to strengthen the German claim on Azerbaijan. To achieve this, the German delegation consciously banked on a potential outright partition of Armenia - in their perception an easy way to compensate the Turks while securing the most valuable parts of the Caucasus for themselves. This aproach had been carefully prepared by the German Foreign Office for a long time; throughout 1918 and 1919, the Armenians had tried to get in contact with Germany multiple times to establish proper diplomatic relations, a move that was declined by the Germans who were well aware that recognizing the small and insignificant country could have harmful consequences for their far-reaching future vision in the Caucasus.

Germany's primary interest was focused on Georgia and Azerbaijan; the ports of Georgia would connect Germany to the Caucasus via the Black Sea routes from German-influenced Ukraine, while Azerbaijan was extremely precious due to its enormous oil reserves. Georgia had already been a firm German ally and to a certain degree even a puppet state since spring 1918, but the Azeris were more difficult to bring into the German sphere of influence. The Azerbaijani government and armed forces still maintained close and friendly relations to their Turkish neighbour, and it turned out quite difficult for Berlin to convince Baku of close cooperation with Germany. Eventually however, it were financial incentives and territorial expansion that managed to win over Azerbaijan for the German cause: Berlin promised Azerbaijan far-reaching investments and a recognition of their most extreme irredentist territorial ambitions, including Armenian-held Zangezur and Karabakh, Georgian-held Zaqatala and the Ottoman-held Nakhchivan.

Borders in the Southern Caucasus after the Caucasus Conference, November 1919.

Of course this bold German diplomatic advance had the risk of affronting both the Turks and the Georgians - this is the point where Armenia came into the picture. To compensate the Sublime Porte for their hypothetical loss of Nakhchivan, Germany proposed to the Ottoman delegation the annexation of the entire Armenian rump state as well as the cession of the predominantly Armenian-inhabitated territory of Lori from Georgia. Georgia was to be reimbursed for their loss of Lori by re-gaining the Georgian-populated province of Meskheti-Javakheti, a territory that they had lost to the Ottomans as part of the 1918 Treaty of Batum.

The Turkish reaction to Germany's proposal was reluctant and sceptical, but the Azerbaijanis were more than satisfied with these plans; already during the negotiations, the last remnants of the Caucasus Army were forced to withdraw from Azerbaijan on indirect German-Azerbaijani pressure, leaving the Turkish delegation in Constantinople driven into a corner. In the end, the Turkish government gave in and gave their approval to the plans laid out on the conference, well aware that in a potential military confrontation with Germany over the Caucasus question, they would inherently draw the short straw. On sunday, the 30 November 1919, the final treaty of the conference was signed; in accordance with the resolutions of Constantinople, Ottoman forces soon after began their advance into the remaining territories of the Armenian rump republic, caching the Armenians entirely off-guard. Within days and without any spectacular battles like the famous defense at Sardarabad in 1918, Armenia had been entirely wiped of the map, facing annihilation from all sides due to the opportunistic betrayal of their own neighbors and the Germans alike.

Aftermath

The outcome of the Caucasus Conference can be described as a humiliating diplomatic defeat for the Ottoman Empire, despite the acquisition of most of the formerly Russian part of Armenia; even though the Caucasus Front had been the only theatre of the Middle eastern part of the conflict in which the Turks had actively been able to make gains against the Allied powers, they were forced to withdraw entirely from Georgia and Azerbaijan, leaving these two countries to the sphere of influence of their powerful ally, the German Empire. Within days, the Ottoman dreams of grandeur about Pan-Turkic ambitions in the Caucasus had been ruined not by hostile powers, but quite ironically by the Sublime Porte's most important financial and diplomatic backer.

New York Times article about the trial of Talaat Pasha's (a key figure in the Armenian genocide) murderer in Berlin, June 1921

Even worse, the large presence of Armenians in the Eastern frontier of the Empire would turn out to be a major destabilising factor in the long term, while Germany simultaneously was able to take advantage of their far-reaching economic presence in Georgia and Azerbaijan without the drawback of being forced to actually deal with rebellious minorities on site, transporting oil and other valuable goods from Baku to Poti via their newly-constructed pipeline system and the strategically important Caucasus Railway, and from there by ship to Ukraine and Romania. Vengeful about both the Armenian Genocide, the 1918 massacre of the Armenian population in Baku and the Partition of Armenia, nationalist Armenian freedom fighters and assassins would embark on a bloody vendetta against their former perpretrators, killing countless of Ottoman and Azeri government officials both within the Ottoman Empire and abroad. During the early and mid 1920s, the Ottoman local administration in the Erivan Vilayet had serious trouble to successfully take action against the unruly Armenian population, only as time passed on and reluctant reforms were passed, a notion of stability finally returned to the Armenian highlands.

Repairwork on an oil pipeline section destroyed by Armenian sabotage near Ujar, Central Azerbaijan, mid-1920s

Azerbaijan and by extension their German allies would also eventually face consequences for their decisions in November 1919. Most of the territories that had been granted to Azerbaijan, especially the untamed mountains of Zangezur and Karabakh, found themselves under de facto control of Armenian rebel forces, most prominently the infamous band surrounding Andranik Ozanian that was renowned for the ethnic cleansing of everything non-Armenian within their controlled territory. While the Ottomans managed to bring peace to their newly-acquired territories pretty fast, mostly because large swathes of soldiers in the Levant could finally be demobilized and used in the Caucasus after the Jerusalem Accords of 1920, the still inexperienced and unorganized Azerbaijani Armed Forces had huge difficulties to root out the militias within their own borders, turning most of Western Azerbaijan into a warlord- and bandit-ruled anarchist wasteland for years. Their efforts were met with continued failure as the Armenians held their positions in the mountains and even briefly reasserted their control over the Nakhchivan region, which was disconnected from Azerbaijan proper. This still ongoing guerilla conflict would immensely destabilise the young Republic for years, while simultaneously harming German business interests in the region as Armenian-organised bombings on foreign property, including the German oil pipelines, became a common sight.

Advertisement