Book Review

Fall of the Sultanate: The Great War and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1922

Ryan Gingeras

Fall 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 3

The historical interpretation of events concerning the Ottoman Empire during the early twentieth century remains a subject of much debate, and circumstances surrounding the empire's collapse during World War I are complex. Many experts on the period are awaiting the answers to outstanding questions before drawing conclusions. Turkey's decision to fully open the Ottoman archives in May 1989 provided an excellent opportunity for historians to conduct extensive research into this period, though the debate rages on, partly due to the massive number of documents, memoirs, and articles from the contemporary press and other sources.

Over the past three decades, a number of studies have unearthed new information about important personalities, movements and fateful decisions; others have offered critical new perspectives for rethinking the origins and development of the disputes leading to the empire's demise. Studies are being produced by a new generation of scholars, often contributing to revised interpretations of the development of the historical clash between the Sublime Porte and the powers of Europe, as well as between Turks and their Christian subjects. Ryan Gingeras's Fall of the Sultanate: The Great War and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1922 is a welcome addition to this inquiry. An associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, Gingeras is the author of Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1912-1923 and Heir to the Empire: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He specializes in issues related to empire, organized crime, nationalism and intercommunal violence in the contemporary Balkans, Turkey and the North Caucasus.

The book explores the factors that led to the demise of the empire, tracing the causes that eventually led so many to view the legacy of the Ottomans with loathing and resentment. Fall of the Sultanate attempts to recount the empire's end from both provincial and imperial vantage points, with an eye toward local conditions, opinions and events. At the same time, the narrative draws heavily upon the struggles within the empire's leadership (p. 5).

After a brief but masterful introduction, the volume is divided into six main themes, worked out in several sections: "Revolution," "Collapse on the Margins," "Great War," "Deportation," "Empire Divided," and "Downfall and Repudiation." Part One opens with a discussion of the crisis and reform of politics in the contemporary Ottoman Empire. Part Two explores the signposts for catastrophe: the Balkans, Libya and Yemen. Part Three examines taking the nation to war: internal and external politics. Part Four sets the scene for disaster: Anatolia in the modern era. Part Five focuses on Arab politics and society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Part Six traces the fall of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP): Ottoman strategy and high politics at the end of World War I. The study is largely chronological, centering on the political, economic, social and international forces that brought about the empire's passing. Gingeras deals admirably with a wide range of historical issues, supporting his positions with cogent arguments — facilitated by his excellent Turkish and German.

Conspicuously missing from the sources, however, is the trove of unpublished materials in the Prime Minister's Office Ottoman Archive (BOA) in Istanbul and that of the Turkish General Staff's Military History and Strategic Studies Directorate's Archive (ATASE) in Ankara. Not only would these have helped to verify many published accounts; they might also have brought to light much additional information. Since the late 1980s, when almost all Ottoman state papers in the BOA became readily available to Turks and foreigners alike, historians no longer can claim inaccessibility as a reason for failing to use these repositories. The ATASE is also open to scholars, but it remains comparatively unused, possibly due to lingering reports that authorized access is difficult to obtain.

Documents from archives are, of course, not the only means of understanding the past. Much information is also available from newspapers and periodicals that flourished after the Young Turk revolution of 1908. These had to be effectively utilized by Gingeras.

Memoirs of those who experienced historical events require caution. Memories, even for eye witnesses, change over time. This, however, does not negate the value of the more than two dozen memoirs from statesmen and military commanders, which Gingeras translated. They offer much in terms of directness that histories written later on the basis of primary sources can never approach.

Gingeras puts forward the view that "Abdülhamid II staged a countercoup against the newly established assembly in March 1909" (p. 12). However, there is no archival evidence for that assertion. The events of April 13-17, 1909, began by a mutiny of troops at Istanbul demanding the restoration of the sacred law. This ended with the deposing of Sultan Abdülhamid II, enforced by Young Turk officers in control of the Third Army in Salonika, who marched on the capital. It was one of the most important moments in Ottoman history. In Turkish literature the episode is known as the March 31 Incident. The official investigation absolved the former sultan of responsibility for the rebellion. Abdülhamid II, the thirty-fourth sultan of the empire and (following the conquest of the Holy Places in 1517) the twenty-sixth Ottoman caliph of the Islamic faithful, remains a prime subject for historical reexamination. He is one of the rare late-period Ottoman figures who is still remembered and whose policies continue to be debated. That discussion, however, has generally been far from dispassionate, despite the high number of scholars engaged.

The reader is told that "non-Muslims occupied no obvious or distinct place within the Hamidian order" (p. 23), yet this is far from the case. Increasingly active in government after the proclamation of the Imperial Reform Edict of 1856, non-Muslims succeeded in reaching significant positions of power and influence in the state structure. When the Ottoman Empire moved to modernize in the middle of the nineteenth century, the first Christians to enjoy the benefits of full citizenship were the Armenians, who also provided the first Christian ministers and high dignitaries in the government. There were many Armenian Cabinet members, under secretaries of state in the ministries, members of the Council of State (the highest administrative court in the realm), ambassadors and mayors during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909). Kriton Agaton was the first non-Muslim achieving full ministerial rank in the Sublime Porte, becoming minister of public works in 1868. Garabed Artin Davud Pasha, who was successful in managing the construction of the Roumelian railway, later occupied the same ministerial post for a time. In 1877, Ohannes Chamich was minister of trade and agriculture, and Ohannes Sakisian was under secretary of state for public instruction. Armenians made up about one-third of the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by 1897. Artin Dadian was under secretary of state for foreign affairs, first in 1875-76, again in 1883-85, and continuously from 1885 until his death in 1901. There are many other examples. Greeks, Christian Arabs and Jews also played considerable roles in Ottoman politics and government in this period.

The author errs in not mentioning Dr. Nazım among the powerful figures beyond Talat, Enver and Djemal Pashas, who shaped opinions and executed policy (p. 109). Personalities in Ottoman history, even in the twentieth century, are crucial, often more so than issues. Dr. Nazım served for 10 years in the Central Committee of the ruling CUP until the party's dissolution. Every fortnight, the 13-member Central Committee, the highest decision-making body of the empire, met at the Nuruosmaniye office in Istanbul under the chairmanship of Talat Pasha. Dr. Nazım and the men of first rank — including Bahattin Shakir, Ziya Gökalp, Hüseyin Djahid, Ismail Djanbulat and Kara Kemal — took their resolutions, plans and schemes to the meeting for consideration and approval. Comments were made, criticisms expressed and proposals voted on. His colleagues almost always heeded Dr. Nazım's views. Being a trusted confidential aide, his opinion carried much weight in Talat Pasha's conduct of day-to-day affairs. A one-time secretary-general of the CUP, he was the secret influence behind the scenes. This all-important politician scarcely ever appeared in public; his name rarely figured in the papers; and he never took a governmental post, except as acting minister of public instruction for three months in 1918.

Gingeras refers only briefly to the reform of the remaining divisions of the Lightning Armies Group for further combat along a line north of Aleppo (p. 225) and to Mustafa Kemal Pasha's decision that this line would constitute the border between Turkey and Syria (p. 231). Unfortunately, he does not go further, as there are elaborations to be made. Despite the long and painful retreat to the north, the Turks were still full of fight. In the last tactical action at the Syrian front on Ocotber 26, 1918, Turkish troops had little difficulty brushing aside the advancing British Fifteenth Cavalry Brigade at Haritan, 12 kilometers northwest of Aleppo. Here the Turks fought on their own soil, for those hills and mountains behind them formed the natural boundary between the Turkish heartland of Anatolia and the Arab provinces of the empire. At nightfall on October 26, the Turks resumed their march to a position in the hills about 30 kilometers northwest of Aleppo on the Iskenderun road. Here they held the southern gateway to Anatolia. Beyond this line to the north, the Turks organized a formidable position along the Anatolian frontier under the direction of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, commander of the Seventh Army. The victory at Haritan enabled him to fix a natural boundary line below the Taurus and Amanus mountain ranges on the southern frontier of Asia Minor. The Turkish commander ordered that the British not be allowed to cross this line, and they never did.

The military front at that moment ought to have set the outside limit for the permanent political frontier of the future Turkish state. The linguistic map of Asia Minor showed that the Arabs spread some 20-50 kilometers south of the Baghdad railway line. Thus, the advance of the British army was halted approximatly at the linguistic line of demarcation between Turkish and Arab peoples. In the months afterward, when it became necessary to define the national territorial limits of the new Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha chose this line, traced, as he said, by Turkish bayonets. A common language was not the only possible bond of modern nationality, yet it was the most obvious and prevalent one. There was Turkish linguistic unity north of the line drawn on October 26, and such a delineation of the border conformed, on the whole, to the principle of nationalities. Thus, the Mazzinian-Wilsonian ideal of linguistic self-determination came closer to realization in Turkey than elsewhere in the Middle East. [Yücel Güçlü, "The Last Ottoman Pitched Battle of the First World War and the Determination of the Turkish-Syrian Border Line," in Communications Presented to the International Conference on Atatürk and Modern Turkey, Ankara, 22-23 October 1998, ed. Sina Akşin (Ankara Üniversitesi Basımevi, 1999), pp. 627-35.]

Gingeras declines to label as genocide the forced displacement of Armenians in 1915-16 (pp. 135-183). Deciding what amounts to genocide is a matter for international law, not historians. Lawyers must judge whether the facts established by historians constitute a breach of international law. Gingeras also wisely reminds us that "the true death toll exacted as a result of the deportations remains unknown" (p. 182). Though the term deportation is commonly applied to the Armenian experience, it is erroneous. The Armenians were moved within the same country, not expelled to another, as deportation implies. In 1915-16, Syria was a territory of the Ottoman Empire; therefore, relocation would be a better word here.

A convincing theme in the book is that Djemal Pasha's military administration in Syria and Palestine during World War I "made efforts to demonstrate the empire's permanence through ways other than violence and suppression" (p. 217). Most revealingly, in 1914-17, Palestine underwent a great improvement in its railways, highways and sanitary conditions. Journalists reported this transformation at the time. For example, a letter to the Frankfurter Zeitung from its correspondent in Jaffa, the seaport of Jerusalem, involved an interview with Djemal Pasha, commander of the Fourth Army in Syria and Palestine: "Immediately after my arrival in Syria ... my first work was to take measures to improve and extend the roads. Many battalions of workmen were organized for the purpose of building important new roads and putting into repair old ones that had become useless. Formerly you could not go farther south in a carriage than Hebron, but already I can ride in my automobile through Hebron and Beersheba out into the desert." Here the correspondent remarked that he had spent a whole day the previous year riding horseback from Hebron to Beersheba, where the distance could now be covered by automobile in one hour. Djemal Pasha went on,

Within a short time, we have built over 100 kilometers of railway and have connected Jerusalem with the Hejaz railway [the road that runs south from Aleppo and Damascus, over the plateau to the east of the Jordan, and on southward to Mecca]. You know how anxious the English were to prevent the building of this connection. They refused to give the French the right to carry this road through Ramléh, because they were determined under any and all circumstances, to prevent a land connection from Syria to Anatolia to Egypt. Now we want to carry these roads still further.

The correspondent said that the building of this railway would prove of epoch-making importance for the development of Palestine ["Turks Clean Palestine, Stretching Out Railroads," The Washington Post, August 8, 1915, p.10.]. Halidé Edib noted in 1926: "Wherever he [Djemal Pasha] sojourned the people still enjoy good roads and good public buildings and have the memory of a period of great security and public order." [Halidé Edib, Memoirs of Halidé Edib (The Century Company, 1926), p. 390.]

Inevitably, as with any genuinely original piece of research, there are some minor errors. For instance, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation agents tried and failed to kill Sultan Abdülhamid II in a bomb attack in Istanbul in 1905, not 1907 (p. 20). Talat Pasha did not leave Istanbul on November 3, 1918, on board a German cruiser; he took a German torpedo boat, the Lorelei, on the night of November 1 (p. 236); on the back cover, it is not Mehmed VI, sultan of the Turks, riding on horseback between lines of Turkish soldiers in November 1922 but Abdülmedjid Efendi, caliph of the Islamic faithful. Such lapses are marginal to the arguments, of course.

This book is significant, containing many challenging ideas and useful insights, and it is well worth reading by anyone interested in late Ottoman history. It is hoped that this exemplary research and analysis will inspire another generation to emulate Gingeras's rigorous work and impressive writing.