Sunday, February 15, 2009

What Happened to the Ottoman Empire?

What about the Ottoman Empire? It was a very important component of the Central Powers. I've touched briefly on some of the Arab politics related to the Turkish Empire, but we should get down the core of things here. Today: how did the war end for the Ottoman regime?

First off, a definition. The Ottoman Empire was an empire led by an Islamic and Turkish dynasty and administration which covered much of what we today call the Middle East. It had its origins a thousand years ago, and it grew by leaps and bounds at the expense of the Byzantine Empire in the 1300s and 1400s. In fact, the Ottomans ended the final vestige of the Byzantine Empire (and hence the final vestige of the Roman Empire) in 1453 by capturing Constantinople (eventually to be called Istanbul). Thereafter, the Ottoman Empire included the Balkans, most of the Black Sea coast, the whole Eastern Mediterranean rim, Syria, Palestine, much of Arabia, Egypt, and even some of North Africa west of Egypt. Plus much island real estate. Huge!

It was, also, a strange mixture of fearful autocracy at the top (the Sultan) and highly variegated society reflecting complex rights, privileges, negotiations, discriminations, dissatisfactions, and satisfactions. The majority of the population was Muslim, but significant minorities were Christian: Greeks, Armenians, etc. Dubbed the "sick man of Europe" by the Russians in the nineteenth century, the Ottomans had gone through three major periods of reform from the 1830s to 1914. This "modernization" thus impacted society as yet another layer of this complex mix. For the most part, ideas of ethnic nationalism grew year by year in the Ottoman Empire as in the other European Empires. And though Turkish elites considered many possibilities of how to increase cohesion in the vast, porous empire, the option of Turkish nationalism—a mode of cohesion based on only one of many nationalities—seemed inevitable. This was especially the case after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 reformed the empire in a nationalist mode.
So Ottoman Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers. It fought on many fronts, achieving success that was really amazing in the face of many difficulties. By 1918, of course, Turkish armies were being pushed back on the Russian fronts, in Syria, and elsewhere. Hence, the trio of Young Turk nationalist leaders who had ruled as a troika during the war signed the Armistice of Mudros on October 30, 1918.

What did this Armistice do, apart from stopping hostilities? Well, as the headline of The New York Times put it, "Turkish Armistice Signed: Equivalent to Unconditional Surrender, Opens Black Sea to Allies." Well, yes. The Allies were to have free access to the two straits, the Dardanelle Strait and the Bosporus, at Istanbul itself. And Ottoman forces were to withdraw from certain positions to a more compact version of the Empire, and much of that territory to be abandoned had been captured by the Allies already.

On the other hand, it was not clear from the document which parts of the Empire were to be occupied by Allied forces. The Turks didn't think that Istanbul would be. Neither did the British admiral who signed the Armistice. But one way or the other, French and British forces occupied Istanbul two weeks after the Armistice. And Allied forces proceeded to occupy naval installations, such as Izmir (Smyrna) and strategic tracts of territory. Sultan Mehmet VI, who had been on the throne since 1909, continued to be Sultan in name, but his shadowing presence in the occupied city of Istanbul did not give much confidence to the confused populations of the defeated and occupied Empire.

By the time of the Peace Conference, numerous countries were armed with well-developed plans for parts of the Ottoman Empire (we have seen some Greek and some Arabian statesmen pursuing such goals already), usually based on historical precedent, ethnic unanimity and "self-determination," or recent (in most cases, secret) promise. In the line-up of those seeking pieces of this particular rock were Italy, Greece, the Arab dynasty of Faysal, Persia, certain Armenian political organizations, France and Britain (in line for indirect control of certain areas), and some others.

So this enormously complex picture sits in the background to all the talk about the settlement in the Middle East at the Conference. Two other issues come to mind immediately in discussing all this: the invention of the Mandatory Power system by the peacemakers, and the promises made to various parties during the war. We will be unpacking all this over the next few weeks. But for the moment, we leave foreign armies occupying considerable portions of the shadowy Ottoman government's territories as foreigners are lining up in Paris to talk the Four into handing over parts of the Empire.

1 comment:

  1. When parts of the Empire were "handed over", land was given to some of these countries: Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. Then after several years of events in Kemal's opposition, the country of Turkey was born.


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