The Fall of the Ottoman Empire

Eyal Offenbach is an exceptionally fluent and knowledgeable lecturer, who started his series on Turkey at Netanya AACI by covering the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  He pointed out that the date of the decline of the Ottoman Empire can be specified as 1683, which was the date of the final defeat of the Ottoman Army by a Christian European coalition  at the gates of Vienna.  But, as the historian Bernard Lewis makes clear in “What went wrong: the clash between Islam and modernity in the Middle East,” the decline of the Ottoman Empire was already well advanced by this time.  One example was the defection of Mehmet (Mohammed) Ali Pasha who essentially separated Egypt from the Empire in 1867.   The designation of the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe,” was accurate, but while the British occupied Egypt in 1882 and had eyes on the rest of the Middle East, it was British policy not to accelerate the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, because they were afraid that their rivals, the Austro-Hungarians would take the Balkans and Russia would take the Dardanelles.

Nevertheless, by 1908 the Ottoman Empire was so inept, backward and corrupt that a group of the so-called Young Turks essentially carried out a coup d’etat and the Ottoman Caliph from then on was a mere figurehead.   The Young Turks were a group of military officers who had received training abroad and who had seen how far advanced the Christian West was compared to the Ottoman Empire and realized that major reforms were needed.  However, they were unable to do anything before WWI started, and since their Army was largely trained and officered by the German Army, paid for by the Ottoman State, they naturally sided with Germany in WWI.

During WWI the residual Ottoman Empire was ruled by a triumvirate of Young Turks.  They set policy and strategy, including the ultimately futile defense of Palestine from the British Army in Egypt under Gen. Allenby. After WWI, the British and French each took their share of the former Empire in the Middle East, but under Mandates that were entrusted to them by the League of Nations.  These were designed to satisfy Pres. Woodrow Wilson of the USA, who insisted that they not take these territories as colonies but would ultimately allow the native populations to achieve independence.  This included the Balfour Declaration by the British Government that recognized the right to a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the establishment of two Arab Kingdoms, one for each of the sons of the Emir Faisal of Mecca.  Since the French refused to give up Syria, the British established Transjordan in 1921 and Iraq in 1920.

Problems arose because although the Ottoman Empire was defeated, some of its Army was intact and they retreated into the hinterland of eastern Anatolia and there reorganized under their own Generals.  They were prepared to accept the terms of the British ceasefire, but a Greek Army, taking advantage of the weakness of the Ottomans, invaded Eastern Anatolia, occupied Izmir and declared it the Greek city of Smyrna.  The Greeks were encouraged by British PM Lloyd George, who was Welsh and supported self-determination of minorities, including the Greeks and the Jews.  The remaining Turkish Army then appointed Kemal Mustapha later known as Ataturk, as their Commander.  He was a member of a faction of the Young Turks and had been the successful Turkish Commander at Galipoli.

Ataturk led the Turkish Army into battle against the Greeks.   The war during 1920-23 was a bloody affair on both sides, during which many tens of thousands of Greek civilians were massacred, sharing the fate of the previous Christian Armenians of the Ottoman Empire.  Ultimately the Turks prevailed and Ataturk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1922 after 623 years and declared the independence of the new Turkish Republic in 1923.  He immediately instituted many reforms to westernize Turkey, including adopting the Christian calendar, the Roman alphabet, and most significantly, declaring Turkey a secular Republic.  But, in the Middle East attitudes die hard and the Turks still largely put religion and clan before western ideas of secular democracy.   This may explain the more recent changes taking place in Turkey under Pres. Erdogan, and may also explain the current violent schisms in the Arab world.

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