Azerbaijani emigration and Caucasus project of Western powers during “Phoney War” (1939-1940)

The Caucasus issue unexpectedly took center stage in  the  agenda  of  the  French  and  British  governments in the second half of 1939 and the first half of 1940.  Wehrmacht’s  crushing  victory  over  Poland  in September 1939 and the ensuing division of the country between Germany and the Soviet Union in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was concluded on August 23, had a shock effect in Paris and London. Faced with the threat of an imminent German attack, both the French and the Britons began anxiously developing strategic plans, in a move to deal a blow upon Germany’s military and economic capabilities. Given that up to 80 percent of Soviet oil was extracted in the Caucasus in that period,  this  region  immediately  drew  the  attention  of both Paris and London. Interestingly, the USSR’s supplies
accounted for one-third of the Third Reich’s oil imports, which totaled 617,000 tons in 1940.

Miryagub Mirmehdiyev Differences between Western powers. Fearing the Wehrmacht’s incursion into its territory, France, which was geographically more vulnerable than its British ally, sought to distance the prospect of war from its eastern borders as much as possible. For this reason, Paris was more irreconcilable toward the USSR, the Third Reich’s ally, which began supplying Germany with oil after the conclusion  of  the  non-aggression  pact.  The  oil  was of  strategic  importance  for  the  Wehrmacht’s  further warfare. As a result, as early as in September 1939, the French ruling circles started internal discussions at the level of  politicians and then military officials on ways of  rendering  the  oil  fields  in  Baku,  Grozny  и  Maikop inoperative.  Addressing the Senate committee on foreign affairs on September 22, French Socialist MP Paul-Boncour mentioned the possibility of intercepting and taking control over the vessels transporting Soviet oil to Germany from the Black Sea (1).

Unlike  France,  which  had  a  rather  hardline  stance toward the Kremlin in that period due to the country’s overall vulnerability, most of the British leaders treated the French projects in the Caucasus with more restraint. Britain’s location on islands gave the country an advantage over its continental ally, making it less prone to a German invasion. In addition, Britain believed a bombing of the oil fields in the Caucasus would definitely trigger retaliation from the Soviet Union, which would put Britain’s strategic interests in the Middle East at risk. In particular, Iran’s oil fields, which had been in the sphere of Britain’s special interests, could come under the threat of  a  Bolshevik  attack. Therefore,  London  was  increasingly hesitant. A part of the British political and military leadership was in favor of potential bomb strikes upon Baku, Grozny and Maikop, while the other part, which was wary of bitter ramifications of such a move, supported a diplomatic solution of the problem and hoped that the USSR would eventually pull out of its alliance with the Third Reich.

Jean Giraud
Jean Giraud

Turkey’s position. The Turkish stance also played an extremely important role in the implementation of the Caucasus plans of the Western powers. Turkey’s territory could be a starting point for bombing oil production facilities in the Caucasus; it would at least be traversed in the event of such a strike.

Wehrmacht soldiers break the barrier at a border checkpoint in Sopot (border between Poland and the Free City of  Danzig), 1 September 1939

Following Italy’s annexation of Albania in April 1939 and  in  particular,  the  German-Soviet  Treaty  of  Non-Aggression signed on August 23, 1939, Ankara began to increasingly lean toward an alliance with Western powers. A British-French-Turkish mutual assistance pact was concluded on October 19 that same year. Although the signatories undertook a commitment to provide each other with political and military assistance, the focal point of the agreement was countering Germany and Italy, since the obligations enshrined in it would have been in effect only in case Britain, France or Turkey faced aggression from a European country. Ankara, which was wary of the Soviet Union, insisted upon supplementing the agreement with Clause No.2. The clause stipulated that the commitments under this deal could not prompt Turkey to take action potentially resulting in its involvement in an armed conflict with the USSR (2). Nevertheless, the Western allies, and France in particular, still bound hope with drawing Turkey to the anti-Bolshevik struggle; even if the country’s  formal  participation  was  impossible,  at  least,  they sought to use its territory for this purpose. A convention on military issues, signed simultaneously with the mentioned treaty, did not preclude such a possibility either. In particular, it envisaged the allies’ use of roads, airports, seaports and other facilities, as well as the construction of bases in the Turkish territory. Turkey was also expected to ensure transit traffic of soldiers and weaponry of the allies through its territory.

Azerbaijani  emigration:  the  establishment  and launching  new  entities  in  France.  Azerbaijani  emigrants did not stay away from these developments, but sought to use the rapidly changing political situation of that period for their ends to the greatest possible extent. The defeat of Poland in September 1939 obviously led to a temporary disruption of the ties within the framework of the “Promethean Front” among Azerbaijani political organizations based in Iran, Turkey, Poland and France.

Meeting of Soviet and German troops  in Poland. September 1939
Meeting of Soviet and German troops in Poland. September 1939

M.A. Rasulzade,  who  was  in  Warsaw  during  the German invasion of Poland, managed to leave the country, just like many Polish politicians, moving to Romania where the central bodies of the Promethean movement were temporarily relocated (3). Most of the Azerbaijani officers who were serving in the Polish army worthily fulfilled their duty to Warsaw, like the other Caucasians, and ended up in German captivity. Following the severing of the links with their fellow countrymen, members of the Azerbaijani diplomatic mission in France decided to take matters into their hands. Form then onward, the Azerbaijani National Center, whose representatives were based in a number of countries and maintained no con-tact, actually suspended its operation. The Azerbaijani National  Committee  chaired  by  M. Y. Mehdiyev  and comprised of the delegation members was established in Paris (though the Azerbaijanis continued to refer to this  entity  as  the  Azerbaijani  National  Center  in  their internal  correspondence).  Accordingly,  each  of  these organizations had its own domain of competence. The Azerbaijani delegation was in charge of issues pertaining to foreign policy, relations with other countries and propaganda  activities,  while  the  Azerbaijani  National Committee dealt with general political issues and maintaining covert ties with Azerbaijan (4). The founding of a body responsible for keeping illicit ties with the country was also justified due to the fact that French military intelligence  representatives  had  contacted  Caucasian emigrant organizations based in the country, which included Azerbaijanis, as early as in September 1939, ac-cording to the intelligence data of the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). This information, which could not yet be verified by the French archival data, suggested that “training of saboteurs” had started in Paris for their further immediate “transfer to Transcaucasia through the Turkish and Iranian borders” (5). Although such plans were still in the stage of initial  development  by  September  1939,  the  Azerbaijan SSR’s NKVD was ordered to bolster security at the Baku oil  fields  as  much  as  possible. Lubyanka (the  security service headquarters) demanded that local security officers send very reliable agents to all the Azneft sites, clearing the area of random people and those deemed suspicious persons (6).

Warsaw in 1939. The Royal castle burns
Warsaw in 1939. The Royal castle burns

In  addition  to  launching  consultations  with  representatives  of  the  French  intelligence  bodies,  members  of  the  Azerbaijani  delegation  in  Paris  forged  ties with  France’s  government  agencies.  On  September 12, Mehdiyev issued a special note to French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet on behalf of the Azerbaijani delegation. Recalling briefly the history of Azerbaijan’s declaration  of  independence  and  describing  the  circumstances  that  accompanied  the  Azerbaijani  diplomatic  mission’s  delegation  to  Paris, Mehdiyev  noted with regard to the ongoing developments, “Currently, humanity is witnessing a new turn of history. The Polish nation,  whose  very  existence  and  territorial  integrity have been jeopardized, is waging a defensive and heroic struggle. France and its allies immediately threw their weight behind its fair cause.”

Hinting  at  the  Azerbaijanis’  involvement  in  the Promethean  movement,  Mehdiyev  wrote  that  “the Azerbaijani people had centuries-old friendly ties with the Polish nation and sensed utmost appreciation and sincere empathy toward France; an immortal defender of the rights of nations to free existence in accordance with human dignity”.

Expressing  regret  that  Azerbaijani  immigrants  in France had been called up to serve under the French flag  with  the “Russian  refugee”  status,  Mehdiyev  told the French government that the Azerbaijani delegation “hoped for a triumph of the sacred cause of freedom”, voicing confidence that “the circumstances would facilitate an effective struggle for these ideals” (7).

In conclusion, Mehdiyev said the delegation representatives were ready “to do everything in their power to be useful for France’s cause” (8).

Following this diplomatic note, which merely indicated general willingness of the delegation members to serve France, which at the time was keen on liberating the Caucasus from the Kremlin’s dominance, the Azerbaijanis  went  on  to  draw  up  specific  proposals. They were supposed to focus on familiarizing the general  public  in  the  country  with  the  issue  concerning the Caucasus, Azerbaijanis and other Turkic nations of the USSR. It was necessary to make it clear that only in case of liberation of the Caucasus and an overall col-lapse of the Red Empire, the Soviet Union, deprived of oil resources, would be unable to provide Germany with economic  assistance  under  the  Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  Furthermore,  Mehdiyev  sent  a  diplomatic  note on September 21 to France’s General Commission for Information,  an  agency  established  in  July  1939  and restructured  in  April  1940  into  a  ministry,  which  was charged  with  conducting  propaganda  aimed  at  sup-porting the French military effort after convincing the public in the country of the need to wage war and endure relevant challenges.

According  to  the  latest  research,  the  General Commission for Information, which was headed by J. Giraudeu, a French diplomat and writer, and derived information  from  both  legal  and  illegal  sources,  including  intelligence  data,  operated  more  effectively in 1939-1940 than it was previously considered by researchers (9). In order to provide this institution with unbiased information that would prove the strategic importance of the Caucasus for the Western allies and France, Mehdiyev said, “The members of the delegation are political representatives of the Muslim Turkic Azerbaijani people. Possessing an in-depth knowledge of the East, its languages   and traditions, as well as the Islamic  world  as  a  whole,  they  believe  that  they  are capable of maintaining useful cooperation, especially in the area of the propaganda service, which is designated to play the most significant role in the struggle waged by France and its allies. For this very reason, we are addressing you, Mr. High Commissioner, offering to be at your disposal in case you deem such collaboration interesting” (10).

Warsaw in 1939
Warsaw in 1939

In fact, the delegation members offered their assistance as experts to an institution that already included former  senior  diplomats  and  military  officers  specializing  in  certain  regions  and  fields  that  represented importance for the French government. According to the available archival documents, Mehdiyev’s proposal was of interest to the French commission’s executives and  they  concluded  that  the  Azerbaijani  representatives’ efforts could be useful for the “Islam” department of the commission’s foreign data service. However, the foreign  data  service  issued  a  query  to  the  Council  of Ministers, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of War on  December  7,  seeking  confirmation  of  the  political reliability of the experts it was hiring and thereby re-questing additional information about the Azerbaijani delegation in Paris and its members.

1.  Bartel  H.  Frankreich  und  die  Sowjetunion  1938-
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Ende der Dritten Republik. Stuttgart, Wiesbaden.
1986. S.319-320
2.  Önder  Z.  Die  türkische  Außenpolitik  im  Zweiten
Weltkrieg. München. 1977. S.33
3.  Докладная  записка  НКВД  СССР  №  4749/Б  в
ЦК  ВКП(б)  с  изложением  данных,  полученных

от  закордонного  агента  «Омери»,  о  положе-
нии  в  Турции  и  о  деятельности  грузинской  и
кавказской эмиграции в Европе и на Ближнем
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дел Германии. Вып. II. Германская политика в
Турции (1941-1943 гг.). Москва. 1946. С. 37.
4.  L’émigration des peuples de la race turque. [Mars
1940] // CERCEC. EHESS.   Archives d’Ali Mardan-
bey Toptchibachi. Carton n° 10/2.
5.  Указание  НКВД  СССР  №  4357/Б  НКВД  Азер-
байджанской  ССР  об  активизации  агентурно-
оперативных  мероприятий  по  выявлению  и
предупреждению  диверсионных  актов  на  ба-
кинских нефтепромыслах. 23. 9. 1939 // Органы
государственной  безопасности  СССР  в  Вели-

кой Отечественной войне. Сборник документов.
Накануне (ноябрь 1938 г. – декабрь 1940 г.). Т. I.
Кн. I. С. 94.
6.  Там же. С. 95.
7.  M.-Y. Mehtiev (président de la délégation) à Son
Excellence  Monsieur  G.  Bonnet,  ministre  des
Affairés  étrangères  de  la  République  Française.
Paris, 12. 9. 1939 // AMAE. CPC. 1914-1940. Série
Z (Europe). Dossier n° 1093, URSS (nationalités et
régionalisme). Fol. 331.
8.  Ibidem. Fol. 332.
9.  Georgakakis  D.  Le  Commissariat  général  à
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l’École française de Rome, Italie et Méditerranée.
1996. Vol. 108. N° 108-1. P. 39-54.
10.  M.-Y.  Mehtiev  (président  de  la  délégation)  à
Monsieur le Haut commissaire, Commissariat gé-
néral à l’Information. Paris, 21. 9. 1939 // AMAE.
CPC. 1914-1940. Série Z. Dossier n° 1093, URSS
(nationalités et régionalisme). Fol. 341 bis.