Prewar Years: Ottoman Empire (Turkey)

Map of Ottoman Empire (1900) in German

Map of Ottoman Empire (1900) in German (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the southeast of Europe, the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire was still – barely – keeping a toehold in the continent. The Sublime Porte had once extended its influence throughout much of the eastern territories – in the seventeenth century, for instance, Ottoman forces had penetrated so far into Christian Europe that they had besieged Vienna – but that considerable power in Europe was now long gone. Instead, the Empire had for a century been suffering a period of slow decline. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, not yet emperor of the French, had launched an “expedition” to Egypt and Syria, then Ottoman territories, with some 40,000 men, and though outnumbered and cut off from resupply and reinforcement, managed to remain there for a good three years. In particular, the French conquered Egypt, and this conquest was only ended by a combination of local revolts and British intervention; as a consequence of this, though Egypt remained nominally an Ottoman territory, in practice the administration of this vital area fell to the British. Strategically, this made sense for London, since a stronghold in the Levant would safeguard the land route to India. What this meant to the Ottoman Empire, though, was that it was now largely dependent on European – particularly British – support and charity.

Ottoman control over areas of North Africa and into the Balkan areas of southeastern Europe continued to weaken. In 1853, the Russians disputed Ottoman control of the Holy Lands of Palestine, and declared war. The resulting conflict would have devastated the Ottoman Empire, had an unlikely alliance of Britain and France not intervened, dragging the war out until 1856, when Russia finally sued for peace. As it was, the Russians had made impressive gains in the Balkans (reversed, once again, only due to expeditions by Anglo-French forces in support of the Turks), and had devastated the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Sinop. Moreover, even though the Treaty of Paris, which ended the conflict, ostensibly tipped the balance of power firmly in the favour of the Ottoman Empire – all European powers, for instance, guaranteed the integrity of the Empire, and Russia was forbidden from militarising the Black Sea – in reality it created severe problems. Firstly, the war had demonstrated that the Empire was incapable of defending itself in the face of an opponent as powerful as Russia. Secondly, the demilitarisation of the Black Sea created a trigger between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. With no ability to station a large military force in the region, Russia felt itself to be at a severe disadvantage, and since much of Russia’s international trade revolved around commercial traffic passing into and out of the Black Sea, the ever-present worry in St. Petersburg was that, if it so felt the need or desire so to do, Turkey could close the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits to Russian traffic, thus strangling Russian trade. Thus, for the next several years, a key aim of Russian foreign policy was to abrogate the Treaty of Paris, and to establish some form of armed presence in the region. Russia’s hand was made all the stronger by Turkey’s willingness to allow warships from other states to enter the Straits. Finally, in 1870, Russia urged a changing of the treaty terms, choosing that moment to do so because of France’s preoccupation with its own war with Prussia/Germany. While this had no immediate consequence, the muted response from the western powers – and France’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Clauses, once Napoleon III was deposed and the Third Republic founded – demonstrated an unwillingness to defend the Ottoman Empire. When Russia once again went to war with Turkey, in 1877, neither London nor Paris jumped to Constantinople’s defence militarily, and it was only after Berlin applied diplomatic pressure to St. Petersburg that the total annihilation of the Ottoman Empire was avoided.

English: After the attack. Plevna, 1877-1878 П...

Siege of Plevna, 1877. In spite of its inherent weaknesses, the Ottoman Army managed to keep the Russians at bay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All these conflicts, and the state of decline, had crucial territorial, economic, and political ramifications. As the name suggests, the Ottoman Empire was an imperial power, with territories stretching beyond its core, Turkish holdings. These territories included Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Rumania, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt; Greece, which had been an Ottoman imperial state, had won its independence in the 1820s. In all of these areas, a majority of local inhabitants were ruled by a minority of Ottoman elites, installed as foreign rulers. This caused tensions on both ethnic and religious levels. During the 1877 war with Russia, for instance, the Empire found to its discomfort that the Serbians, Bulgars and Montenegrins rose up against their Ottoman rulers, managing to grasp for independence while their imperial master was in the grip of this existential crisis. In Egypt, decades of economic mismanagement led to the bankruptcy of the Khedivate there; the consequences of this were, in the first place, an uprising led by Ahmed Urabi Pasha, an Egyptian colonel who sought to overthrow the Ottoman-placed khedive and replace him with more sober leadership, and in the second place, an invasion and occupation by Britain, ostensibly at the behest of the khedive himself, in order to defeat Urabi’s forces. Britain’s true intent was likely that it wished to avoid Urabi defaulting on the massive loans extended by British banks to Egypt (in 1880, for instance, the khedive personally took a loan for some £100 million). Moreover, British investments in Egyptian infrastructure and manufacturing meant that, by 1881, the British controller-general in Cairo, Sir Auckland Colvin, sent an advisory to Prime Minister Gladstone, insisting that only through total control of Egypt could Britain guarantee returns on its massive expenditure there.

Sick man of Europe

Punch‘s depiction of the “sick man of Europe.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By 1900, then, the Ottoman Empire was almost totally a spent force. Its European territory had been whittled away by war and revolution. Its North African territories, likewise, had been ceded to European powers without a fight. In 1853, Tsar Nicholas I had referred to the Empire – with which he was about to go to war – as a “sick man, a very sick man.” By the twentieth century, his words were certainly ringing true, and the Empire had acquired the unfortunate sobriquet as the “sick man of Europe”, preyed upon by would-be regional empires looking to expand their territories at Ottoman expense. Not only was the Empire weak internationally, but its modernisation was largely dependent, once more, on foreign capital. So, while Britain and France had their own heavy investments in the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s interests began to increase significantly after two German banks – Deutsche Bank, and the Württembergische Vereinsbank – formed a rail cartel in the Anatolian interior in 1888, with the intention of building a rail network; by 1903, the German government had become officially interested, and began planning in consultation with the Turkish government for what would eventually be called the Berlin-Baghdad Railway.

While the plan for the Berlin-Baghdad Railways was a boon for the flagging Ottoman economy, it also opened Constantinople to adverse attention from Britain, France, and Russia, since such a significant German presence in the Levant and Asia Minor could potentially threaten French territories in Africa, British trade routes to India, and Russian interests along the Black Sea shores. Moreover, the potential profits of the commercial aspects of the railway were almost entirely German; the Ottomans would have little to show for their concessions to Berlin.

English: Young Turk revolutionaries entering I...

Young Turks in Constantinople, 1909. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These weaknesses soon proved too much for the internal political situation in Constantinople. In 1908, a group of secular political opponents to the authoritarian regime of the sultan, known as Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, also known as the “Young Turks”), launched a rebellion that drove them to power. Since 1839, the Empire had followed a programme of civil liberties known as the “Tanzimat Reforms.” These aimed to integrate non-Turkish subjects into the Empire through the extension of rights, thus creating a broadly supportive population. In practice, Tanzimat was rarely achieved, but the fact that the Empire had a public declaration of the granting of rights to non-Turkish non-Muslims was important. The Young Turks, however, advocated a “Turkification” of the Empire, and a racial homogenisation – in essence, jettisoning the liberal elements of Tanzimat. In particular, this brought the CUP into conflict with the large population of ethnic Armenian Christians in the east of the empire. This ethnic struggle had been an ongoing source of unrest for many decades; between 1894 and 1896, a series of ethnic cleansing massacres undertaken by the Ottoman Army had resulted in the deaths of approximately 100,000 Armenians, and had helped foster the growth of the Hunchak and Dashnak Armenian revolutionary organisations, which saw themselves naturally aligned to Russia and its client population of Armenians. The Young Turk Revolution was all too briefly a cause for optimism among the Armenian population, since it removed Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who had presided over the 1890s massacres. However, this optimism was soon shown to be misplaced. As we shall see, the fate of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War acted as a blueprint for some of the worst crimes of the later twentieth century, as well as being an act of profound barbarity in its own right.

The seizure of power of the CUP may have been greeted with some joy by Ottoman subjects who despaired at the weakening of their state, but it did not arrest the downward spiral. In September 1911, Italy, hoping to expand its influence in the Mediterranean, launched an invasion of the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Though costly, the campaign was a successful one for the Italians, and within a year they had captured all of what then became Libya, as well as the Dodecanese Islands. This humiliating defeat only encouraged the small Balkan countries, which formed the so-called Balkan League, and jointly declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 8 October 1912. Once more, the Ottomans were defeated militarily, in spite of a coup of army officers hoping to spark a more vigorous war effort. The Ottomans lost nearly every remaining scrap of territory in Europe to the volatile Balkan states of Bulgaria, Rumania, and Serbia; when, in June 1913, Bulgaria felt aggrieved at its lack of gains from its victorious campaign, and declared war on its own allies, the Empire was able to recover the province of Eastern Thrace.

Constantinople from the Sea

Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, and regarded as a jewel of civilisation – in spite of the state’s major weaknesses. (Photo credit: paukrus)

By 1914, none of the great powers was in a more parlous state than the Ottoman Empire. In the space of three years, it had suffered three wars, and had been bested by supposedly inferior states. Riven with ethnic tensions and largely bankrupt, Constantinople had to increasingly rely on aid from the other European powers. As a result, the task of modernising the Ottoman Army and Navy had to be left to foreigners. Most notably, the reorganisation of the Ottoman Navy fell under the auspices of Admiral Limpus of the Royal Navy, while the army became the responsibility of the German Lieutenant-General Otto Liman von Sanders, who arrived in 1913. Of these, the most influential, arguably, was Sanders, who worked closely with Enver Pasha, the Ottoman minister for war and former military attaché to Berlin. Coupled with Berlin’s Baghdad Railway project, this indicated that Constantinople had begun gravitating towards Berlin’s sphere of influence.

Limping into the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire faced an interminable decline. Threatened not simply by fellow great powers, but even incapable of defending its territories from small, upstart, ambitious states, it also suffered from profound internal divisions, and a reliance on other states, particularly Germany. With the decline also came a political fatalism, though. Indeed, within the circle of pashas in Constantinople it was increasingly believed that, in order for the Empire to survive, it would soon be forced to assert itself drastically. It was not at all clear, however, where it would do so, or how.


Further reading

  • Ahmad, Feroz. The Young Turks: The Committee of Union and Progress in Turkish Politics, 1908-1914. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1969.

  • Ahmad, Feroz. “War and Society under the Young Turks, 1908-18.” Review 11, 2 (Spring 1998): 265-286.

  • Geyikdagi, V. Necla. Foreign Investment in the Ottoman Empire: International Trade and Relations in the Late Nineteenth Century. London. Taurus. 2011.
  • Hanioglu, M. Sükrü. Preparation for a Revolution: The Young Turks, 1902-1908. New York. Oxford University Press. 2001.

  • Kansu, Aykut. The Revolution of 1908 in Turkey. Leiden. E.J. Brill. 1997.

  • Kent, Marian (ed.) The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire. London. Allen & Unwin. 1984.

  • McMeekin, Sean. The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power. Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press. 2010.

  • McMurray, Jonathan S. Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire and the Construction of the Baghdad Railway. Westport. Praeger. 2001.

  • Medlicott, William Norton. The Congress of Berlin and After: A Diplomatic History of Near-East Settlement, 1878-1880. London. Frank Cass. 1963.

  • Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2005.

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