18 December 1914 – Traitors

The British government accused Abbas Helmi II, Khedive of Egypt, of desertion when he refused to return home from a visit to Vienna. Abbas then urged the Muslims of Egypt and Sudan to answer the Ottoman Sultan’s call for jihad against Britain, and was named a traitor. Today, Britain declares a protectorate over Egypt and formally deposes Abbas (see above), replacing him with his uncle Husayn Kamil. In doing so, the British Empire drops the title Khedive, which Abbas’s grandfather assumed in order to assert Egyptian autonomy from Constantinople. Instead, Kamil is given the title of Sultan, directly challenging the legitimacy of the Ottoman sultanate as a governing force for the Muslim world.

Egypt and the Suez Canal are a vital radio, transportation, and communications link to the British imperial project in India. The ‘great game’ between Russia and Britain for control of the Middle East and Central Asia drove the great power conflicts of the 19th Century, with the Crimean War as the most violent manifestation of the Ottomans’ role as an increasingly-problematic buffer state between the great powers. Those tensions have now resolved into an alliance to carve up the ancient seat of Sunni Islam and give Russia control of the holy city of the Eastern church — and the strategic route to the Mediterranean that Tsars have coveted for more than a century. Britain has already declared the island of Cyprus a protectorate in order to support future operations in the Dardanelles. It is a complete reversal of a century of British policy that kept the strategic strait out of Russian hands — hands that now beg for military resupply from better-industrialized, better-governed allies.

The needs of the war have not changed minds all of a sudden. Political distrust grew stronger over time, with massacres of Armenian and Balkan Christians inflaming public sentiment in London against the Ottomans. Conspiracy theories about Jewish and Masonic influence in the ‘Young Turks’ have been taken seriously at the Foreign Office, hindering sane assessment by policy-makers who are already pessimistic about the ‘sick man of Europe’ for legitimate reasons. Britain has long encroached on parts of the Ottoman domain where Constantinople had no real administrative infrastructure. Since 1911, the Italian War and the Balkan Wars have left Turkey weaker than ever before while Britain stood by; Germany’s growing influence at the Sublime Porte, and the Kaiser’s open courtship of the Ottoman jihad, led the ‘Young Turks’ to open secret discussions with Berlin on the day that Vienna declared war against Serbia. London and the Porte both see this war as the inevitable end of a duplicitous relationship, but blame one another.

To prosecute the Great War in this new theater, the British Empire will need to recruit and deploy millions of Muslims. Arab subjects of the Porte must be convinced that they should fight for independence from their distant Turkish masters; Indian Muslims are already fighting and dying in Europe; the Shia Muslims of Basra have welcomed British troops, for they are no more fond of Constantinople than any other religious or ethnic minority living under the Turkish thumb. Fears of mass religious treason have informed prewar decisions, even driving Lord Kitchener’s policy as Egyptian Consul-General to some extent, but they prove unfounded. Instead, the mass defection of Sunni Muslims from the Caliph’s fatwa is just one instance of the Great War as a story of loyalties, alliances, and allegiances being broken forever in the fiery birth of the modern world.

L: Ahlers before the war. R: Ahlers being led down the courthouse steps after his trial

Left: Ahlers before the war. Right: Ahlers being led down the courthouse steps after his trial on December 9th

One can cite countless individual and aggregate examples: more than a million Armenians will die at the hands of an Ottoman regime which accuses them of treason. The final incorporation of Egypt into the British Empire follows the treason of a suzerain king, with the crime being formally charged with a willingness to prosecute. Indeed, Britain greatly values her strong legal traditions even as the fires of war burn away so much else of Edwardian England.

In fact, the treason conviction of Adolph Ahlers is overturned today by an appeals court in Sunderland. A naturalized German who served as the local Vice-Consul out of his business at York Chambers on St. Thomas Street, Nicolaus Emil Hermann Adolph Ahlers was arrested for helping German citizens return home to fight. His trial, which took place earlier this month at the Durham Assize court, began with a fifteen minute long reading of the indictment, charging that he “maliciously and traitorously did adhere to the King’s enemies” by assisting German mobilization. Incredibly, the appeals court today accepts Ahlers’s story that he had not heard the news of the declaration of war against Germany on the 4th and 5th, and so was unaware that he was committing treason.

Ahlers’s arrest came upon a wave of anti-German hysteria immediately following the outbreak of war, as soldiers suddenly appeared all over the coastal community to secure the roads, the rails, and ports against potential foreign spies and saboteurs. On August 8th, sixty German-born, able-bodied men of fighting age were arrested in the area to prevent them from returning to Germany. Ahlers, a 50 year-old leather belt merchant who made no secret of his love for his natal country in conversations, was subjected to a search after casually telling a director of the Sunderland football club on August 5th that he had spent the day sending eighteen German reservists home. He was arrested because lists of German nationals in Sunderland, with the words “backing out” written next to those who had decided to stay, were found in a safe in his office. At his trial, witnesses included some of the men he had recruited in person and by mail to return to Germany.

Although his death sentence is now vacated, Ahlers leaves town immediately on the orders of military authorities. The delayed announcement of his successful appeal on the 20th will cause a riot the next day in Sunderland, which is just a few miles north of areas hit by a shocking German naval raid two days ago that killed and injured hundreds of civilians. The windows of German-owned shops are smashed and shelves wrecked by an angry mob crying out for vengeance in the names of the dead.

Although Ahlers relocates to a London suburb under an assumed name, parliamentary questions and press coverage lead to his internment at a former workhouse in Islington in May. His wife is interned separately at a camp in Aylesbury, but she dies of an overdose of barbiturates in 1917 while being treated at a prison hospital; her death is ruled a suicide. Stripped of his citizenship, Ahlers is deported in 1919, remarries, and ends his days in Hamburg as a martyr to the German cause. Ironically, his British-born son Curt enlists in the British Army and serves honorably for the duration of the war.

Josef Johannes "Jopie" Fourie

To this day, Josef Johannes “Jopie” Fourie is still considered a martyr of the white Afrikaner cause

Unhappy under British law, and still resentful of the harsh treatment they received from the British Army during the Second Boer War, the ‘bitter enders‘ of the Transvaal took up arms against the Union of South Africa in October hoping to restore the old Boer republics. They were responding to calls from Manie Maritz, whose treason had already led to a minor defeat for Prime Minister Louis Botha’s invasion of German territory in Namibia. But there are far more Boers serving in the Army of the Union of South Africa than rising against it, and Botha has scored a series of wins to crush the rebellion.

Captured two days ago along with his brother, one of the rebels in government custody today is Josef “Jopie” Fourie. Leader of one of the most aggressive commandos, he reportedly killed a loyal officer during a cease-fire, and also failed to resign his commission in the Union Defence Force before taking up arms. As a result, he is now being held as a traitor, and has been sentenced to death. A delegation of Boer leaders, including future Prime Minister Daniel François Malan, is trying to lobby General Jan Smuts for clemency today, but Smuts makes himself unavailable. Fourie will die before a firing squad the day after tomorrow; he refuses a blindfold.

Fourie is the only rebel to be put to death for the uprising. Only a very few men will even spend time in prison for the Boer revolts, as Botha wants a fast reconciliation. Yet Fourie’s execution fixes his image as a Boer saint, and Smuts’s image as a traitor to the cause of Afrikaners. Fourie’s execution is still a source of controversy in South Africa today, where he has been a hero to the political right and a key martyr in the mythology of the conservative National Party that legislated Apartheid.

We say that one man’s traitor is another man’s hero, but replace the word ‘man’ with ‘city,’ ‘society,’ ‘ethnic group,’ or ‘nation,’ and the saying loses none of its meaning or truth. Treason is an inherently political act, and it is always defined by those who sense the betrayal.