Shattered Dreams of Revolution is an outgrowth of Bedross Der Matossian's unpublished 2008 doctoral dissertation drafted at Columbia University. It traces the ethnic politics in the post-1908 Ottoman Empire and the stories of Armenians, Arabs and Jews in the ensuing two years. The author argues that the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 raised these communities' expectations for new opportunities of inclusion and citizenship, but as postrevolutionary festivities ended, these feelings soon turned to pessimism and gave way to a drastic rise in ethnoreligious strife.
The book is thematically rather than chronologically arranged, the descriptive-analytical account divided into six basic chapters: "The Euphoria of the Revolution," "Debating the Future of the Empire," "The Historical Period and Its Impact on Ethnic Groups," "From the Streets to the Ballots," "From the Ballots to the Groups," "From the Ballots to the Parliament" and "The Counterrevolution and the ‘Second Revolution.'" Two-thirds of the book concerns the restoration of the Ottoman constitution of December 23, 1876, and the reconvening of the parliament; the rest deals with the 1909 period. The absence of a bibliography diminishes the study's utility as a scholarly resource; there are no statistical tables, charts or appendices.
Matossian eschews ideological explanations, prefering to examine the respective strengths and weaknesses of the Ottoman constitutional government and the Armenians, Arabs and Jews, the stated purposes of their leaders and the factors that influenced their decisions. The author's tone is judicious and nuanced.
The study nonetheless has major defects. It heavily relies on published sources, especially the contemporary press. It is regrettable that the author did not consult the voluminous files available at the Office of the Prime Minister Ottoman Archive in İstanbul and the Turkish General Staff Military History and Strategic Studies Directorate in Ankara. These records' extensive material on the events in the Ottoman Empire before and after the Young Turk Revolution provide a broader perspective in assessing Turkish-Armenian-Arab-Jewish relations. Matossian, who reads both Ottoman and modern Turkish, could have used them to supplement, and amplify, his findings from other sources. One also wonders why he did not use published or unpublished French sources.
Nevertheless, one cannot but agree with Matossian's statement, "The inclusion of archival documents from the Dashnak Archives housed in Watertown, Massachusetts, would have shed more light on the activities of the ARF [Armenian Revolutionary Federation] in the postrevolutionary period. However, the author was not granted access to this important material after several attempts. It is to be hoped that in the near future all reasonable requests from legitimate scholars to make use of this valuable trove of documents will be approved" (p. 204, n27). In contrast to the open Ottoman archives, the ARF collections and the archives of the Armenian patriarchate in Jerusalem and Catholicosate in Echmiadzin are not open to all researchers. The archives of the Armenian patriarchate in Jerusalem are said to contain over a half million documents. According to Matossian, for reasons ranging from disorganization to the lack of professional staff, these archives have not been open to historians (Bedross Der Matossian, "The Genocide Archives of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem," The Armenian Review 52, nos. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 2011), p. 22).
Whereas there is available a superfluity of unpublished and published Turkish material on which to base a history, Armenian sources are problematic. Of archival material, the life-blood of history, little has been made available. Armenian documentation is often difficult or impossible to access. In many instances, access is restricted for political or other reasons. Often records have not been adequately catalogued, which also severely impedes the researcher. Full accessibility to Armenian archives most certainly would be welcomed by all scholars in the field.
Matossian claims that "the Young Turks were not wholeheartedly committed to constitutionalism. For them constitutionalism was only a means to an end: to maintain the integrity of a centralized Ottoman Empire" (p. 3). However, he offers no trustworthy authentic evidence that either corroborates or proves this assertion. By all accounts, during the revolutionary fervor of 1908-09, the Young Turks proceeded to remove many of the ambiguities of the revived constitution and to establish beyond doubt the sovereign power of parliament. Sultan Abdülhamid II was obliged to take an oath of fealty to the nation and to the constitution. The sultan's veto of legislation was curtailed and subject to being overridden by a two-thirds veto of the Chamber of Deputies. Parliament was authorized to meet on the first of November of each year without formal convocation, and the calling of special sessions was authorized by petition of a majority of the members. Ministers were made individually and collectively responsible to the Chamber of Deputies; the decision of a general election on any issue was declared to be definitive and final. As amended by the Young Turks, therefore, the Constitution of 1876 became a liberal charter of parliamentary government.
Contrary to the author's contention, the Young Turks' version of Ottomanism did not entail "the assimilation of ethnic difference, [and] Ottoman Turkish as the main language" (p. 7). The Young Turks had no scheme of Turkifying all subjects of the Ottoman Empire. It was centralization, not Turkification, that was the government policy. As the Tufts professor Leila Tarazi Fawaz rightly points out in her most recent work, research by many historians suggest that "the Young Turks did not have a language policy that was substantially different from that of Sultan Abdülhamid II, but used centralization for purposes of integration as a safeguard against secessionist trends and planned for an Ottoman multinational imperial entity" (Leila Tarazi Fawaz, A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War, Harvard University Press, 2014, p. 251). The Young Turks' aim was to modernize the empire. This meant, in contemporary European terms, legal and economic reforms, greater bureaucratic efficiency, a well-armed professional army recruited by conscription, and patriotism (defined in terms of the Ottoman nation).
Matossian says, "The ethnic groups perceived Ottomanism as a framework for promoting their identities, languages, and ethno-religious privileges, as well as an empire based on administrative decentralization" (p. 7). In fact, despite the measure of sincerity that lay behind the promises of the Ottoman constitution, and although the Ottoman government continued to speak of "the union of elements," the spread of nationalism among the subject peoples of the empire ended the ideal of the free, equal, and peaceful association of peoples in a common loyalty to the country. Yorgi Boşo, a Christian deputy from Serfice in the Balkans in the Chamber of Deputies, infuriated the Turks by his ironic remark, "I am as Ottoman as the Ottoman Bank."
It is misleading to refer to a "homogenization of Anatolia" on the eve of the First World War I (p. 178). The removal of some elements from strategically sensitive areas was clearly a war imperative. These relocations were pragmatic actions by a state facing the challenge of insurgency, intending to tighten security in vulnerable zones. The author is on much less solid evidentiary ground when arguing that "this transition, influenced by social Darwinism, was implemented through social engineering" (p. 178).
Factual errors are surprisingly few, but Nissim Russo was never an undersecretary of the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior (p. 208, n80). He acted for a while as director of the private cabinet of Minister of Finance Cavid Bey in the years following the reintroduction of the constitution in 1908.
Despite the above criticisms, Matossian has provided a thoughtful and well-written addition to the field of twentieth-century Ottoman studies, a work that illustrates the separatist role of the ethnoreligious politics in the Second Constitutional Period (1908-18).