End of an empire and the roots of the West Asian malaise

The Great War of 1914-18 wreaked havoc on the global political order destroying empires and killing in the process several million people. Now, a century later, it is the subject of several fresh investigations, with some of the best Western scholarship toiling to make sense of what led to that “catastrophe”, the title of a recent popular book on the subject by Max Hastings. Two other books, The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, and Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace, have discussed the political and diplomatic factors that influenced the decisions of the principal European role-players that led them to war and calamity.

Eugene Rogan’s book, The Fall of the Ottomans, is a welcome departure from these works in that, while its subject is the Great War, it looks at the less-discussed “Eastern Front”, focussing on the events that led to the ignominious end of the Ottoman Empire and its immediate reverberations across the West Asian landscape. As he had done in his outstanding book, The Arabs, published in 2009, he frequently uses native rather than Western sources, so that his works have a perspective that is different from most other books on the subject.

Emerging inconspicuously in 1299, the Ottoman Empire lasted for 600 years. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was the largest empire in the world, a powerful military force that generated extraordinary fear across Europe, and a rich and influential economic and cultural centre that played a major role in world affairs. Its sultan was the Caliph, and thus the spiritual head of the global Muslim community.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with Ottoman military officers during the Battle of Gallipoli, Canakkale, 1915. Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons

However, as with most empires, its last hundred years witnessed painful decline and deep humiliation, with increasingly incompetent rulers, an autocratic and degenerate regime, and a supine military force that took the empire from one defeat to another. Through the nineteenth century, Western powers took full advantage of this situation by making it a pawn in their geopolitical machinations, most seriously, by encouraging nationalist movements within the empire, so that large chunks of its territories were lost every year as new nations emerged from its breakup in south-east Europe.

A domestic reform movement attempted to put the empire on the path of constitutionalism, but its efforts were frequently undone by an uncooperative sultan, the mischievous interventions of foreign powers and, above all, the sheer scale of the political and economic challenges that did not admit of quick solutions.

It was this rather decrepit and moth-eaten empire that in 1914 faced the choice of joining the continental conflict on the side of the Entente powers, Britain, France and Russia, or the Central powers, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It made an effort to join the former, but could not obtain guarantees that its territorial integrity would be respected by Russia that had for several decades coveted the Bosphorus and Istanbul, as also eastern Anatolia. Germany, on the other hand, projected itself as the friend and ally of the world-wide Muslim community, thereby seeking to compete with Britain and France for influence among their Muslim subjects.

The Ottomans reluctantly joined the Central powers and thus, in their defeat, wrote their own epitaph. Their participation in the Great War also made it a “world war”, as the theatres of conflict expanded to include West Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, and brought soldiers confronting them from all the British and French colonies. Nearly a million-and-a-half Indian soldiers were mobilised, most of whom fought the Turks on different fronts in West Asia.

The narrative of Turkey’s role in the Great War is one of defeat and despair, of plumbing the depths of infamy and degradation, as also of reaching heights of heroism, military success and finally national redemption. The Ottoman forces lost to the Russians in the Caucasus, and thus feared the erosion of their ancestral lands in the east. They were then slowly but soundly defeated in Mesopotamia and the Levant, losing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and Baghdad after a gruelling conflict, and then quickly thereafter, Jerusalem, Amman and Damascus, territories they had controlled for several centuries.

Their one great victory was at Gallipoli, where in 1915 they defended the Dardanelles and their capital by holding off a powerful naval and then land attack which included British, French, Australian and New Zealand soldiers. The remarkably resilient Turkish resistance brought into prominence an energetic colonel, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who later went on to achieve even greater military and political successes.

This war also saw the Armenian massacre, perhaps the darkest deed of the conflict, in which over a million Armenians were systematically killed as state policy, the first genocide of the twentieth century. Rogan explains the background: the slow loss of compassion caused by successive military defeats, and the desperate desire of political and military leaders to find scapegoats in this fraught environment. The Armenians, already a deeply disgruntled minority in the empire, with some of them even sympathetic to the Russians, were an easy target and readily blamed for disloyalty. Thousands of men were killed, while hundreds of thousands of women and children were deported to the outskirts of the empire in present-day Iraq and Syria, in which many died due to fatigue, hunger, disease and mistreatment.

Rogan devotes considerable space to the mobilisation of local forces in the “Arab Revolt”, which began in Hijaz in the Arabian peninsula, and then swept northwards across the Levant, with the Ottoman forces in full retreat. He discusses the various diplomatic exchanges between the British officials and Arab leaders in which the former made promises for “the establishment of national governments and administrations” in the Arab lands on the basis of self-determination, almost all of which went unhonoured after the war. Popular uprisings for freedom from colonial rule in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Palestine were ruthlessly put down.  In fact, this conduct has enshrined in popular Arab perception the image of Western perfidy, duplicity and betrayal.

A disappointing part of the book is the conclusion. The period from the Treaty of Sevres of August 1920, which dismembered the Ottoman Empire but retained the sultanate, and the Treaty of Lausanne of July 1923, which saved Turkey but ended the sultanate, is dismissed in a couple of paragraphs. During this period, Turkey, under Atatürk, fought its enemies on three fronts: battling the Armenians and preserving its territories in its traditional heartland of Anatolia; fighting off Greek aspirations to occupy Turkish lands on the Asian side, and then denying France an enclave on the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

Again, the sorry legacy of the European role in West Asia after the war would also have benefitted from a more elaborate presentation, given that almost all the present-day contentions and political failures in West Asia have their roots in the decisions taken by highly flawed and short-sighted soldiers and politicians who went back on their promises and set up a pattern of Western hegemony and intervention in the region that persists to this day.

Endnote: The author is a former diplomat