Armenia and the Turks in the Time of Lawrence

March 8, 2011 Topic: HistorySociety Region: Middle East

Armenia and the Turks in the Time of Lawrence

How did T. E. Lawrence really feel about the people of the Middle East?

While Colonel T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") sympathized with Armenian aspirations for sovereignty and, indeed, in a map he drew up after the Great War of a desirable Middle Eastern share-out of the Ottoman Empire he provided for an independent Armenia (in Cilicia), he was also party to the prevalent anti-Armenian prejudices of his day.

Lawrence was a member of the British delegation to the 1919 postwar Paris peace conference. On November 3 he told Frank Polk, the American "Commissioner" in Paris, that the Armenians were prone to lend "money at exorbitant rates of interest" and took "the Turks' land or horses in security for payment," and this at least in part explained the Turkish atrocities against them during World War I.

But there was another factor. "Armenians," he told Polk, as related in Polk's report on their conversation, "have a passion for martyrdom, which they find they can best satisfy by quarrelling with their neighbors . . . They can be relied upon to provoke trouble for themselves in the near future."

In general, Lawrence felt, "it would be most undesirable to attempt to establish an Armenian state." Except in a specific territory, where they would be overwhelmingly preponderant. "The idea of an Armenian State infuriates all the other races, and it would require 5 divisions of troops (100,000 troops) to maintain it."

According to Lawrence, the Turks had been exhausted by the Great War and their "army is rotten with venereal disease and unnatural vice." Hence, their birth rate was falling. He thought that if the Turks were "confined to their own territories, in thirty years' time [Turkey] would once more be bounding with health and, incidentally, lusting for conquest." (Perhaps Lawrence's use of the words "vice" and "lust" were influenced by his personal experiences during the war years.)

About his friend the Emir Faisal, the military leader of the Arab Revolt and the de facto ruler at the time in Damascus, Lawrence said that he was "cautious, moderate, usually honest but capable of treachery if it suited him."

Surprisingly, Lawrence told Polk that "the Jews get on well with the Arabs " and added that, contrary to prevailing opinion at the time among British officials, "the Jew is a good cultivator both in Palestine and Mesopotamia [he was speaking here of Iraqi Jews]." The problem was that "the conditions [in the Middle East] preclude enterprise in the shape of improvements and [the Jew] requires five shillings a day to live on against the Arab's or Syrian's sixpence [i.e., half a shilling: there were twenty shillings to the pound sterling]."

Lawrence concluded by saying that "the Zionist movement has 'many prophets but no politicians' [had he lived into the 21st century he would have thought otherwise] . . . The movement has been mismanaged in the last nine months," he thought.

He offered Polk one general, final reflection about the Middle Eastern peoples: "No nation must expect gratitude from the East or anything but the 'Order of the Boot' as soon as they can manage it [meaning that the Arabs or the Turks would boot out foreign powers as soon as they could affect it, no matter how beneficial these powers had been to the locals in previous years]."