The disappearance of the Ottoman Empire had been foretold since the end of the eighteenth century. But, since it was not finally abolished by Mustafa Kemal until 1924, in fact it survived its traditional enemies, the Russian and Habsburg Empires, and its disastrous ally, the German Empire, by six or seven years. Moreover, during the First World War, at Gallipoli and Kut, the Ottoman Empire was able to inflict some impressive defeats on its former ally, after 1914 its most ambitious and dangerous enemy, the British Empire.
The mysterious combination of weakness and strength which characterised the Ottoman Empire in its last decades is the subject of The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire. It contains seven chapters. The first, by Feroz Ahmad, author of the only account in English of the Young Turks in power, deals with aspects of the internal policy of the Empire. In the other chapters F. R. Bridge, R. J. B. Bosworth, Alan Bodger, Ulrich Trumpener, L. Bruce Fulton and Marian Kent describe, respectively, the relations of the Habsburg Monarchy, Italy, Russia, Germany, France and Great Britain with the Ottoman Empire after 1900.
Each chapter gives an excellent account of the subject, based on archival as well as printed sources, and there is an extensive and up-to-date bibliography. The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire, is therefore, indispensable for anyone interested in the history of the Middle East or of the First World War.
The relations of the Great Powers with the Ottoman Empire are particularly interesting for the light they throw on the relations of European with non- (or, in the case of the Ottoman Empire partly-) European powers in the age of imperialism. On the one hand it does seem that powers which were opposed to each other in Europe were prepared to collaborate when dealing with the Ottoman Empire. Because France had occupied Tunisia in 1881, and Britain had occupied Egypt in 1882, they both agreed, between 1902 and 1905, that Italy should acquire the Ottoman Province of Tripolitania (now Libya) as 'compensation' 'should the status quo be changed'.
Thus they acquiesced in the Italian invasion of 1911 which led to the installation in Libya of a colonial regime of unspeakable brutality. Germany and France in 1913, and Germany and Britain in 1914, reached agreement over the division of the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence, despite their antagonism in Europe. An indication that normal rules of political conduct were suspended in the case of the Ottoman Empire is that in 1912, at the beginning of the Balkan Wars, when the Great Powers assumed that the Ottoman armies would win, they insisted that there should be no change to the territorial status quo. But when the Ottoman armies were defeated conferences of Ambassadors helped divide Ottoman territory between the different Balkan states. At the end of his chapter, on 'The Late Ottoman Empire', Feroz Ahmad writes: 'Overall, however, the Ottoman-Turkish experience with Europe was a bitter one and it has left deep scars on the Turkish psyche. Its memory continues to haunt the Turkish people to this day.'
On the other hand, these excellent essays also show the degree to which the Great Powers accepted the Ottoman Empire, and often, particularly in the case of Germany, were prepared to support it against other European powers.
The Ottoman government was able to employ European technical advisers, French in finance, British in the navy, German in the army, without losing its freedom of manoeuvre or, as often happened with other non-European governments, abdicating its sovereignty. In 1914 not even those powers with the most ambitious designs in the area, Britain and France, wanted the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Why, then, did the Ottoman Government declare war on the side of the Central Powers in November 1914, 1ong after war had broken out in Europe? The Ottoman Government had been looking for an alliance with a Great Power, whether it was France, Russia, Britain or Germany, throughout 1914. It seems that the Young Turk government, whose dominating figure was the charismatic young Minister of Wax (who had obtained his office by murdering his predecessor) Enver Pasha, overestimated the ambitions of the Great Powers. The weakest section of the book is, however, that dealing with the Ottoman government. The policies of the different Ministers, four of whom resigned on the declaration of war, and of the Sultan, who was said to be opposed to the war, remain a mystery. This is particularly unfortunate since the Ottoman government's decision to enter the First World War led directly to the destruction of the empire, the division of the Middle East into the states which exist today and, through the closure of the straits to Russian trade, to the February Revolution.
Turkey from 1911 to the End of World War One
In 1911, Italy warred against the Ottoman Empire for the possession of what was then a part of the Ottoman Empire: Libya. Italy won this war, which demonstrated again the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece wanted the Ottomans out of Europe, and they overcame their differences as to how Ottoman holdings in Europe were to be divided. Bulgaria and Serbia were demanding autonomy for Bulgarians and Serbs within the empire, and Greece was calling for the liberation of oppressed Christians – Greeks – living within the Ottoman Empire. Montenegro joined in the opposition against the Ottoman Empire, and in October, 1912, these four powers mobilized for war, for territory they believed was theirs. Germany backed the Ottoman Empire, and France backed Serbia.
In January 1913, Ismail Enver, one of those who had participated in taking power in 1908, led another coup. He had been a progressive military officer and one of the revolution's heroes. Now he bore the title of pasha and was Enver Pasha. He and his clique put aside the revolution's early ideals and claimed absolute power. Enver led an army to defend the empire's control over the city of Edirne, just inside Europe in Thrace. Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia began fighting among themselves, and the warring ended with Enver's regime still in control of Edirne but exhausted from war. The Enver regime was forced to give up control of territory that was to become Albania. The empire had lost control over Macedonia, and Salonika came under Greek control after 482 years of Ottoman control of that city. The Ottoman Empire now extended into Europe only as far as Edirne.
Enver Pasha as the War Minister of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
Elections were held in the winter of 1913-14, but opposition parties did not participate, and the new parliament was docile to Enver and what was still called the Committee for Unity and Progress (CUP).
With the outbreak of Europe's Great War in August 1914, Enver saw opportunity to take back Islamic lands that had been absorbed by one of the belligerents – Russia. Enver dreamed of reinvigorating the Ottoman Empire. He feared that if Britain, France and Russia won against Germany and Austria-Hungary, they might deprive the empire of more of its territory. So Enver led Turkey into the war on the side of Germany.
Turkey helped the Germans bombard Russia on the Black Sea, Russia declared war on Turkey on November 2. France and Britain declared war on Turkey on Nov 5, and Britain found this an opportune time to cut the pretense that the Turks ruled in Cyprus and Egypt – lands that had been nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire but under British authority.
The Turks closed the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, preventing Russia from exporting wheat by way of the Mediterranean Sea or receiving shipments of materials from its allies. To protect its oil wells in the Middle East, Britain moved a military force up the Persian Gulf to Iraq– part of the Ottoman Empire – where it began engaging Turkish forces. And in December, the Turks began an assault into Russia's Caucasus Mountains.
The Turks suffered a disastrous campaign in the Caucasus, and wartime passions and scapegoating led to the massacres of Armenians – despite the original respect for minorities by the Committee for Unity and Progress. During war enemy catagorizing came more easily, and for many among Turkey's Muslims the war appeared to be against Christians – no matter that they were allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary.
German generals were with the Turks, directing the war effort, but with crucial help from one of Turkey's better generals, Mustafa Kemal, the Turks drove the Allies from the Gallipoli Peninsula, successfully defending their capital.
Meanwhile the Turks were failing militarily in the empire's Islamic lands to the south. Enver had hoped that the Egyptians would rally behind the war effort on the side of Islamic unity. Sultan (and caliph) Mehmed had declared a holy war (jihad), but despite Ottoman propaganda about Islamic unity the impact was minimal. The Arabs revolted against the Ottoman Empire in 1916. In January, 1917, the British drove the last of the Turkish forces from Egypt, opening the way for a British advance to Gaza. In March, the Turks pulled out of Baghdad, and the British moved in. In July, an Arab force with Lawrence of Arabia took control of Aqaba (on the gulf coast at the southern tip of Jordan).
In Turkey, corruption was on the rise among the newly rich, with people selling transportation permits and speculating in goods which the government was supposed to have requisitioned for the public. The public was growing demoralized and hostile toward the Enver government.
Enver was putting more hope in a German victory, but in the fall of 1918 the Germans were falling back on the Western Front in Europe, and under German generals the Turks were falling back on the Southern Front. The British in early October seized Damascus and Beirut. The war appeared lost, and Enver and his associates stepped down from power around October 8, with Enver not staying to see what the Allies would do with him. Sultan Mehmed V had died in July, and on October 30th the Ottoman Empire under a new Sultan Mehmed VI and a new cabinet led by Izzert Pasha, agreed to an armistice. And this left the Allies believing they were in a position to do what they pleased with the defeated Ottoman Empire.