The Dying Days of Empire

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, by Eugene Rogan

Between 1908 and 1913, the Ottoman Empire faced grave internal and external threats.

That’s putting it mildly.  The Young Turk Revolution; domestic reformers; European Imperial Powers; the Balkan Wars; Armenians and Arabs seeking greater autonomy.

On July 23 1908, Sultan Abdülhamid II convened a cabinet meeting.  The Ottoman army in Macedonia demanded a return to the constitution of 1876.  Some background on the Ottoman Constitution:

…Western educated Armenians of the Ottoman Empire drafted the Armenian National Constitution in 1863. The Ottoman Constitution of 1876 was under direct influence of the Armenian National Constitution and its authors. The Ottoman Constitution of 1876 itself was drawn up by Western educated Ottoman Armenian Krikor Odian, who was the advisor of Midhat Pasha.

The constitution remained in effect for two years.  Both before and immediately after adoption of the constitution, the empire was in turmoil: the treasury declared bankruptcy in 1875; the first session of the newly elected Ottoman parliament was held on 19 March 1877; war with Russia began shortly thereafter.

The edges of empire: Russian and Ottoman (and in prior years, Persian).  Russia viewed itself as the successor to Byzantium, protector of Orthodox Christendom; perhaps more important to Russia: the Straits and access to the Mediterranean.

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Russia declared war on the Ottomans in April 1877 and attacked through the Balkans and also through the Caucasus.  By January 1878, Russia had reached the outskirts of Istanbul; an armistice was accepted.  In February, the Sultan suspended the Constitution.  A result of the subsequent peace treaty: the Ottoman Empire lost two-fifths of its territory (in the Balkans and in eastern Anatolia) and one-fifth of its population.

Shortly thereafter, Britain secured Cyprus, France occupied Tunisia, and Britain placed Egypt under colonial rule.  These events convinced the Sultan that he needed to rule with an iron hand.  And this iron hand brought forward revolutionary elements, most importantly the Young Turks and its secret society, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

This movement was born in Macedonia, and it was due to the agitation of members of this movement that the aforementioned cabinet meeting on 23 July 1908 was held.  The end result was the restoration of the Constitution.  The Young Turks were seen as leaders of this revolution.  The leaders were best known as Cemal, Talat and Enver.

Banners in every city proclaimed “Justice, Equality, and Fraternity.”  This in an empire that included Muslims (both Shia and Sunni; Turkic, Arab and Kurd), Christians (of different communions), and Jews.  This in an empire where non-Muslims were treated as second-class by both the law and by the broader Muslim population.

It was a slogan that would both raise expectations in the minorities and be seen as a threat to the majority.  And the consequences for the minorities was less than pleasant, to say the least.  But I am getting ahead of the story.

The Young Turk revolution inspired hope and freedom for many – Muslim and Christian alike.  For the most part, the raised hopes ended in disillusionment.  No major changes in the government – as the Sultan was also the caliph, or spiritual head, of the Muslim world, he was left in place; the poor economy did not improve – it worsened, as lost confidence in the currency drove price inflation of 20 percent in two months.

Turkey’s European neighbors – far from supporting this move toward parliamentary democracy – took advantage of the turmoil to annex even more Ottoman territory: Bulgaria declared independence, the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, Crete announced union with Greece.

As the initial joy waned, the previously-existing political circles and influential elements of society increased their opposition to the changes.  Counter-revolution followed revolution; the Sultan took control for a short time – until the Ottoman Third Army in Macedonia once again exerted control.  Martial law was declared; the Sultan was deposed, replaced by his younger brother.

The back-and-forth-and-back again exposed the deep rifts in Ottoman society, most significantly the Turkish-Armenian antagonism.  Muslims crowds massacred thousands of Christian Armenians in the southeastern city of Adana.  Such atrocity had roots in earlier years, but within a few short years would grow into what is referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.

The fear was that the Armenians had a nationalist agenda.  Certainly, the Armenians had a distinct faith, ethnicity, and language.  They lacked only one thing that would be somewhat necessary – they were not concentrated in one geographic area; they were dispersed in parts of the Russian and Ottoman Empires.  The largest concentration was in Istanbul.

They succeeded in some of their territorial demands as a result of the 1878 Congress of Berlin – the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish war.  Three eastern Anatolian provinces – with a sizeable Armenian population – were transferred to Russia from the Ottomans.  They had further demands that were not met.

In the late nineteenth century, Armenian nationalist societies emerged – not in the Ottoman Empire, but in Europe.  The Hunchak Society was formed in Geneva; the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnak) formed in the Russian Empire.  The Hunchaks leaned toward socialism and national liberation; the Dashnaks promoted self-defense.  While they saw themselves as freedom fighters, the Ottoman authorities saw them as terrorists.

With the Revolution, these groups found reason for hope with the Young Turks and the Constitution.  These hopes were soon enough dashed.

Meanwhile, newly formed Italy was in search of its own North African colonies.  Tripoli and Benghazi – in today’s Libya – were available.  Having done nothing to provoke war, the Ottomans found these provinces under attack by Italy in 1911.  The Ottomans stood no chance – the Italians invaded with 34,000 against a defensive force of 4,200.

Enver responded with guerilla war; a young major, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) was among those who joined him.  Officially, these officers were disowned by their government; monthly payments from the treasury were made nonetheless.  Local tribesmen were recruited, including “the powerful Sanussi brotherhood.”

The Senussi or Sanussi are a Muslim political-religious tariqa (Sufi order) and clan in colonial Libya and the Sudan region founded in Mecca in 1837 by the Grand Senussi, the Algerian Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi.

They remained in power until overthrown by Muammar Gaddafi in 1969.  We know what happened to Gaddafi in more recent times.  But what of the Sanussi?

The Sufi heritage and spirit remains prominent today, and its sentiment and symbols have inspired many during the 2011 revolution. The image of Omar Mukhtar and his popular quote “We win or we die” resonated in Tripoli and in the country as Libyans rose up to oust Gaddafi.

The Sanussi being a Sufi order; Omar Mukhtar, being one of the leading revolutionaries, was executed by the Italians in 1931.

Returning to Enver’s guerilla war – it was quite successful, keeping the Italians pinned to a few coastal locations.  The Italians went on the offensive elsewhere against the Ottomans, using their navy to bomb Ottoman ports across the eastern Mediterranean.  Further, the Montenegrins were enticed to declare war against the Ottomans in October 1912.  Shortly thereafter, a peace treaty was negotiated, with the Ottomans abandoning their Libyan provinces.

But it was too late to save most of the Ottoman territory in Europe.  By the end of the first Balkan War, much of this territory was lost.  Sixty thousand square miles and four million inhabitants were signed away.  After defeat followed defeat, the Young Turks took control of the government; while the Sultan and grand vizier (prime minister) remained in office, their power was diminished.

Conclusion

Arabists within the Empire were now calling for decentralization, a confederation modeled after Switzerland; Armenians remained a concern, what with their brethren across the border in Russia and their Christian faith drawing European sympathy.

The Constitution was once again a dead letter.  Faced with the end of Turkic rule over even a stub of the former Ottoman Empire, this was not a time for liberalization.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.