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

The Middle East Before 1914: The Ottoman Empire

The dominant political force in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world in the centuries before 1914 was the Ottoman Empire. The history of the Ottoman Empire began in the late 1300s and lasted until the end of the First World War. It rose to incredible heights of power, crushing the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15h century and throughout the next two hundred years capturing large swathes of southern Europe, the Levant, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. It put the Austrian capital Vienna under siege in the 16th and the 17th centuries, though failed to capture it. It fought for control of the Mediterranean and cast its power over the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina on the Arabian Peninsula. It controlled Egypt and much of North Africa after the defeat of the Mamluk Empire in the early 16th century.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was weakening. Though the Ottomans undertook a serious of consolidating and centralizing reforms that strengthened the empire in the mid-19th century, they were up against some inauspicious historical trends. One trend will be familiar by now: the demands of minority groups within the great empires of the Eurasian world to gain political independence. This trend unfolded with special drama across the diverse Ottoman domain. Greece gained its independence in the 1820s. In 1831, the Ottoman Egyptian governor, Muhammad Ali (an Albanian), rebelled against the rule of the sultan and invaded the Ottoman controlled province of Syria. Only European intervention could halt Ali’s imperial ambitions, though Egypt was lost and would soon become part of the British imperial orbit. The next fifty years saw some gradual withering away of Ottoman rule. The Crimean War, even though the Ottomans were not the military losers, weakened Ottoman control in the northern Balkans and did much to distract the empire while revolutionary sentiment fomented to the south. This foment would boil over in the 1876 with the revolt of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Russians intervened on behalf of their “Slavic brethren” and the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878 ripped a huge chunk of territory away from Ottoman rule -- Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania gained their independence (though for some this independence was short-lived).

Russia’s crushing victory on the side of the South Slavs over the Ottomans meant that Russian influence moved deep into south-central Europe. Alarmed, European powers, primarily Austria and Germany, called a general European congress to discuss the continental balance of power, which succeeded in checking further Russian advance and basically guaranteeing, for a while at least, the sovereignty of the remaining Ottoman Empire. Still, the question was this: which states would benefit from the Ottoman Empire’s gradual weakening or eventual collapse? The Ottoman Empire came to be called “the sick man of Europe.” Most European powers agreed that the status quo was better than the eventual vacuum of power that would result from the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.

Despite this weakening, the Ottoman Empire was very much alive in the years before 1914, and it should be pointed out that the Ottoman Empire was not militarily defeated in the First World War; it went down with the ship when its allies, the Central Powers, collapsed in defeat. The fact that the Ottoman Empire, which existed for 500 years, did not fall on its own is a remarkable thing. The European balance of power was one reason why this didn’t happen, but it was not the main reason. The Ottoman Empire survived because it had enough flexibility within its structures to innovate when faced with challenges. The first phase of this innovation was the Tanzimat, or Reorganization. Tanzimat was a multifaceted reform program that modernized the empire’s governing and military structure to increase the power of the central authority in Istanbul. Reorganization pushed a process of industrialization on the European model, which included mining, textiles, and the manufacturing of arms. The movement sought to increase agricultural efficiency by reclaiming and developing lands, similar to what the British did in the Enclosure movement decades earlier.

While Tanzimat ushered in badly needed reform, it did so at a high price. Two main negative consequences of Tanzimat set the stage for future Ottoman social and political turmoil. First, the push to Westernize the Ottoman economy, which meant technological modernization and industrialization, required a large amount of capital investment. This investment was provided mostly by the British and the French. European investment, however, came with strings attached, including demands to open markets. Eventually, the Ottoman inability to repay its debts justified Anglo-French control over the empire’s finances. Second, modernization directly attacked the Muslim base of the empire and thus weakened the empire’s legitimacy as the primary guardian of Islamic heritage. We will see that when the empire made the call for holy war during WWI, it was met largely by deaf ears. Tanzimat, in other words, created divisions in Ottoman society between an elite Westernizing class and the vast majority of average people who had no interest in fundamentally changing their way of life.

The torchbearers of Tanzimat formed into the Young Ottoman movement, which succeeded in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s military defeat in 1878 to win a constitution from the new sultan. When the new sultan backed out of the constitutional bargain and instituted authoritarian rule, a generation of liberal Ottomans emerged with an even stronger pro-Western orientation. This group of reformers came to be known as the Young Turks. It would be members of this group, together with military elite, who would eventually bring down the sultanate and emerge as the leaders of the newly formed Turkish state in 1919, a much shrunken offspring of the Ottoman Empire. One Young Turk, Mustafa Kemal, a military general and the founder of the Westernizing Fatherland Society, would eventually rise above the rest and become known as Atatürk.

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