USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Introduction to A New Middle East: The End of Empire

We have already discussed the devastating effects of the First World War on one of the European empires: Imperial Russia. We learned that the war placed enormous strain on both the military and the civilian population. Beyond the millions of casualties on the fronts with Austria and Germany, many more millions were cut off from vital sustenance. In a world of more complex agricultural connections and global commodities markets, the disruptions of the First World War were disastrous. Historians have long argued whether revolution would have come to Russia had the WWI not weakened it severely and undermined the legitimacy of its ruler and ruling elite. Could Imperial Russia have reformed and modernized? The same basic question could be posed to the Ottoman Empire, an empire centuries older than Imperial Russia and built on the idea of unified Muslim political rule in the tradition of the original caliphates. It is arguable that there was no zone more devastated during WWI than the Ottoman Empire and its neighbor Persia. From a population of 21 million, it is estimated that five million people died (including some 1.5 million Armenians). Eighty percent of these were civilian deaths, caused by agricultural disruption, blockade and famine. Deaths in Persia, a neutral state, reached the same proportions. Localized losses were even more extreme. In the area of Mount Lebanon, nearly half of the population fell to famine. Anger, of course, turned against the authorities in Istanbul. The legitimacy and the power of the Ottoman government collapsed. By the end of the war, most of the former Ottoman territory was in allied hands—and most controlled by the British. The meetings in Paris in 1919 would do much to create a new order in the Middle East and the Levant. A system of small Middle Eastern states was born. I hope you keep in mind as we work through the materials in this chapter how the state-creation process in the former Ottoman zone and in Persia relates or compares to the emergence of nation-states in Europe, Japan, and China. Part of studying history with a global scope is to see the world as both a set of localized phenomena AND as part of a unified whole.

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