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The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire

By Philip Mansel | Published in History Today 1985 
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Book review by Philip Mansel.

The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire

edited by Marian Kent. 237 pp. (George Allen and Unwin, £18.00)

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.



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