A century after the catastrophic blunder that led to the destruction of the then longest-surviving empire on earth, culpability is still ascribed to the European powers. Rather than view the Ottoman entry into the First World War on the losing side for what it was – a failed imperialist bid for territorial aggrandizement and reassertion of lost glory – the Muslim empire has been portrayed as the hapless victim of European machinations, driven into the world conflict by overbearing powers eager to expedite its demise and gobble up its lands.
Emblematic of the wider tendency to view Middle Easterners as mere objects, whose history is but a function of their unhappy interaction with the West, this conventional wisdom has proved remarkably resistant to the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and Eugene Rogan's The Fall of the Ottomans (2015) is no exception to this rule.
To begin with, in an attempt to underscore the Ottoman Empire's untenable position on the eve of the war, Rogan reproduces the standard depiction of the protracted period preceding the empire's collapse, or the Eastern Question as it is commonly known, as the steady European encroachment on Ottoman territory. "The looming prospect of a European general war", he writes, "raised the imminent threat of a Russian annexation of Istanbul, the straits, and eastern Anatolia – and the ultimate dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire among the Entente Powers. France was known to covet Syria, Britain had interests in Mesopotamia, and Greece wished to expand its grip over the Aegean."
Reality, however, was quite different. Far from setting their sights on Ottoman lands, the European powers had consistently shored up the ailing Muslim empire for well over a century, saving it time and again from assured destruction – from Muhammad Ali's imperialist bid of the 1830s, to the Balkan crises of the 1870s, to the Balkan war of 1912–13. And it was none other than Russia that acted as the Ottoman Empire's latest saviour, halting its former Bulgarian subject at the gates of Istanbul, not once but twice: in November 1912 and March 1913. Several months later, St. Petersburg joined London and Berlin in underscoring "the necessity of preserving the Turkish Realm in its present form".
All this means that by the outbreak of the Great War, the Ottoman Empire was scarcely a spurned and isolated power in danger of imminent destruction. Rather, it was in the enviable position of being courted by the two warring camps: the German-Austro-Hungarian Central Alliance wished its participation in the war, while the Anglo-French-Russian Triple Entente desired its neutrality. So much so that on August 18, 1914, less than a month after the outbreak of hostilities, the Entente's ambassadors to Istanbul assured the Grand Vizier of the empire's continued survival were it to stay out of the war, while the British Foreign Secretary vowed the preservation of Ottoman territorial integrity "in any conditions of peace which affected the Near East, provided she preserved a real neutrality during the war". Five days later, at Ottoman request, the three powers put down this pledge in writing.
Had the Ottomans accepted this guarantee and kept out of the war, their empire would have readily weathered the storm. But then, by the time the Entente made its far-reaching proposal, Istanbul had already concluded a secret alliance with Germany that had effectively transformed it into a belligerent. This, nevertheless, didn't prevent it from maintaining the false pretence of neutrality vis-à-vis the Entente, or even feigning interest in joining its ranks, while at the same time laying the groundwork for war and exploiting Berlin's eagerness for the immediate initiation of hostilities to extract substantial military and economic benefits.
Preserving the myth of immaculate Turkish victimhood, Rogan claims that "the Ottoman leadership had no wish to enter a general European conflict" and was grudgingly driven to the German embrace by the Entente's indifference, if not hostility, to its predicament. His proof is the supposed French rebuff of an alliance proposal, allegedly made during a visit to Paris in July 1914 by the military leader Djemal Pasha, as well as the British requisition of two warships commissioned by the Ottomans. "The British decision to requisition the ships was treated as a national humiliation in Turkey and ruled out the possibility of any accord between Britain and the Ottoman Empire", Rogan writes. "The very next day, 2 August 1914, the Ottomans concluded a secret treaty of alliance with Germany."
The problem with these well-worn stories is that there is no shred of evidence of Djemal's alleged overture (its only mention is in his memoirs, written after the war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire with the clear aim of exonerating himself from responsibility for this calamity), while the requisition announcement was made on August 3 – a day after the conclusion of the secret Ottoman-German alliance.
But even if the announcement had been made a few days earlier, it would have made no difference whatsoever for the simple reason that the terms of the Ottoman-German alliance had already been agreed on July 28. Moreover, it was the Ottomans rather than the Germans who had opted for an alliance within days of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 – weeks before the outbreak of hostilities; who were the driving force in the ensuing secret negotiations; and who largely prevailed over their German counterparts in deciding the alliance's broad contours. As Kaiser Wilhelm ordered his more sceptical negotiators: "A refusal or a snub would result in Turkey's going over to Russo-Gallia, and our influence would be gone forever . . . . Under no circumstances whatsoever can we afford to turn them away".
The truth of the matter is that the Ottoman Empire was neither forced into the First World War in a last-ditch attempt to ensure its survival, nor manoeuvred into it by an overbearing German ally and a hostile Entente, but rather plunged head on into the whirlpool. War, for the Ottoman leaders, was not seen as a mortal danger to be averted, but a unique opportunity to be seized. They did not seek "an ally to protect the empire's vulnerable territory from the consequences of such war" but a powerful underwriter of their imperialist ambitions; and apart from their admiration for Germany and their conviction that it would ultimately be victorious, the Entente had less to offer by way of satisfying these ambitions, first and foremost "the destruction of our Muscovite enemy to obtain a natural frontier to our empire, which should include and unite all branches of our race" (in the words of the Ottoman declaration of war).
Just as the fall of the Ottoman Empire was not the result of external machinations but a self-inflicted catastrophe, so the creation of the modern Middle East on its ruins was not an imperialist imposition but the aggregate outcome of intense pushing and shoving by a multitude of regional and international bidders for the Ottoman war spoils in which the local actors, despite their marked inferiority to the great powers, often had the upper hand.
While Rogan occasionally alludes to this reality, these allusions are far too sparse and timid to break from the standard misrepresentation of the post-war regional order as an artificial Western creation. He aptly notes that "the map drawn by Sykes and Picot bears no resemblance to the Middle East today", yet reiterates the standard depiction of the agreement as a colonial imposition rather than a British effort "to reconcile the interests of France with the pledges given to the [Arabs]" (to use Albert Hourani's words), or indeed – the first-ever great power recognition of Arab right to self determination (well before President Woodrow Wilson turned this principle into a driving force of international politics). He similarly observes that Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia (or the Hijaz, as it was then known) "achieved independence within frontiers of their own devising", yet parrots the conventional wisdom that the imperial powers outlandishly "imposed the borders and systems of governments of most states in the region".
In fact, most states in the region were established pretty much as a result of local exertions. The modern state of Iraq, to give a prominent example, was created in its present form (rather than divided into three states in accordance with the existing realities of local patriotism and religious affinities) on behalf of Emir Faisal of Mecca and at his instigation, while Jordan was established to satisfy the ambitions of Faisal's older brother Abdullah. Likewise, the nascent Zionist movement exploited a unique convergence of factors to harness British support to its national cause, to have this support endorsed by the international community and incorporated into the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, and to cling tenaciously to these achievements until their fruition in the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948.
Eugene Rogan acknowledges that "the borders of the post-war settlement have proven remarkably resilient". Yet he fails to draw the self-evident conclusion that this state of affairs reflects their congruity with local realities, instead echoing the common refrain that ascribes the region's endemic volatility to the supposed dissatisfaction with these boundaries. Had this actually been the case, Arab leaders would have seized some of the numerous opportunities they had over the past century to undo the post-Ottoman order and unify the so-called Arab Nation; and they could have readily done this by peaceful means rather than incessant fighting. But then, violence has hardly been imported to the Middle East as a by-product of European imperialism; it was a part of the political culture long before. And if anything, it is the region's tortuous relationship with modernity, most notably the stubborn adherence to its millenarian religiously based imperialist legacy, which has left physical force as the main instrument of political discourse to date.
But to acknowledge this would mean abandoning the self-righteous victimization paradigm that has informed Western scholarship for so long, and treating Middle Easterners as equal free agents accountable for their actions, rather than giving them a condescending free pass for political and moral modes of behaviour that are not remotely acceptable in Western societies. Sadly, The Fall of the Ottomans signals no such paradigm shift.
"Times Literary Supplement," May 13, 2015