February Reading: A review of the Fall of the Ottoman Empire

Oluseun Onigbinde
6 min readFeb 18, 2018
Source: Wikipedia

I had the fortune of reading a book again. Thanks to recent long travels and discipline to harness the solitude of wifi-less aeroplanes. I had been reading “Nudge”, a masterful work of behavioural economics. Misfortune would allow me forget in the office and I had to check over my stack of 200 books to see which can thrill me on a long journey. Eugene Rogan’s book — “The Fall of Ottomans” appeared and I decided to take the plunge.

A conquest without the frontiers of knowledge ends in a crisis.

Eugene’s book took a direct lens at the theatre of Great War (known as First World War), at the eastern end. The Ottoman Empire existed for over 600 years and even ruled over Jerusalem for 400 years. Imagine right from the current corridors of Austria, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Israel, the empire held the sword at a particular time. States either fought off to stake their borders or negotiated to chip away its authority by establishing autonomous territories. European states mainly Britain, France and Russia were the Ottoman nemeses as they starved its dominance by occupying Aden, Mesopotamia (now mainly Iran), Balkans (Serbia, Croats, Bulgaria, Macedonia) etc. The empire like everyone did not end suddenly, it continuously extended its line beyond reaches it could defend. The Ottoman Empire fought four wars against Russia before its decline and won none. Even splintered Balkan states got bold and took down its territory, marking few miles into its capital in the First Balkan wars. Italy occupied Libya, forcing a surrender from the Ottoman sultanate.

Like it was seen later in the war, Ottoman just occupied large trove of lands mixed with Turks, Azeri, Armenians, Arabs and could not harness intellectual capital. It depended heavily on the British to build its ships (before the war), the Germans to supply the aerial support and ammunition as well as gold. It really feeds into my ideas that anything that would collapse starts from the deficiency in the contest of ideas mostly science and technology. Same can be said of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that underestimated Serbian neighbours till it lost 350,000 men in the early days of the war. The Ottoman offered too little, its sultanate constantly bullied by the Young Turks who could see the weakness right from their noses.

Propaganda works but only for a while

Going back to the British, one would have expected them to run over the Ottoman Empire but they just could not break the lines. Failure at Dardanelles, Gallipoli, Gaza (twice) and the awful surrender of General Townsend in Kut showed strains that the British overestimated its power. What it thought would be the easiest theatre of battle after the Western front has forced huge casualties in Somme and Verdun, ended in its serial humiliation.

If the British ruled over countries in its peak empire, why could it not face the Ottoman empire with a fast-paced victory? It was a difficult position. In areas the British Crown ruled in Egypt, Mesopotamia and India and the rest, there were huge Muslim populations. The Ottomans were raising religious symbols, asking Muslims to join the jihad. For the Ottoman Empire, the war against it was mainly a holy war, to preserve the reign of the Islam. (now Istanbul), conquered 600 years, was the former capital of Orthodox Christianity and now exists as the capital of the caliphate. Apart from securing the Bosphorus straits, that’s critically for its commerce, standing firm for its Serbian ally, a part of the motivation of Russia to enter to the Great War was the unification of the Orthodox churches in St Petersburg and Constantinople. The British could not entire the war in its full might lest it rallies Muslim-dominant lands against it. Religion was a good propaganda for the Ottoman Empire when it was only seeking survival with its pact with the Germans who led the offensive for the Great War.

The British desperation for solution created a multiple webs of Skye-Picot, Husayn-McMahon and Zionist agreements — Balfour declaration that preceded the creation of State of Israel. The jihad call was limiting the capacity to put in locals in the fight but time tells.

Defeat starts from within

The propaganda of the Jihad did not last with the Amir Faisal, the prince of the Hejaz region entering the war. The Hejaz region is partly located in the present day Yemen and had its King with the huge territorial ambition to become the King of Arabs. He devoted his sons to pursue the war against the Ottomans whose brave efforts despite limited resources, gave the war an Arabian hue and quietened the Jihad propaganda. In the end, the immediate collapse of the Ottomans did not come from an imperial power, the psychological advantage of the Jihad was lost immediately Arabs in their own territory entered the fray. With the courage of the Hejaz princes, the British (mainly through its Egyptians Forces) and French threw in their support. A multiple webs of war theatres confused the Ottomans, creating the opportunity for the British to finally assault the Ottomans from Baghdad to Jerusalem to Damascus. It tells a lesson, decay always starts from within, the final blow usually arrives outside.

Have friends

The US entering the war with almost one million men was the final blow to the Germans who had also wasted their men and now short of material. Germans had lost too many people fighting the war in at least four main points — Western (France & Belgium), Austro-Hungarian front, Russians and also supporting the Ottomans. The US entering the war on behalf of the allies after its delayed for years hastened the end. The US using the Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points played a huge part in the peace process that followed. The negotiations were tough and Germans faced the triple ridicule of destroyed economy, occupied territory and huge reparation payments. 21 years later, another theatre of war opens. Guess who will relieve the British again with its men and advanced warfare technologies? Their friends, their successors to the throne. The Americans.

The book is an eye-opener for me in a forgotten corridor that I have never dived into. The book revealed the naked and imperial ambition of the European powers and recognises the bravery of Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand), Indians and Egyptians in the war. The Armenian genocide that Turkey has failed to recognise till date despite the punishment of its officers is well written in a cruel manner. The parallels of the genocide with German “solution” in the Second World War is painfully noted.

I kept asking: why was France obsessed with Syria that Britain had to renege on its promise to Amir Faisal? That got me teary-eyed. The demarcation of the current Middle East and the follow-up crisis rears its ugly head again. What started as a marker for territory ended in religion squabble — Sunni (Iraq) vs Shittes (Iran), the occupation of Lebanon (planned to be predominantly Christian) by Syria, the assasination of the Iraqi Hashemite dynasty, the conquest of House of Saud and the multiple wars of Israel and the Arab world.

While European footprints in Africa reeks underdevelopment after its own years of contradiction and wars, the Middle East is still largely in search of true peace. A substantial blame goes to the disorganised mosaic of states, painted by the Europeans.

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Oluseun Onigbinde

God's Unfinished Sketch. Policy & Data Wonk. BudgIT Lead. Ashoka, Aspen Voices & Knight Innovation Fellow