The Ottoman Road to War: Mustafa Aksakal on the Ottomans' Fateful Decision


Detail from Ottoman Road to War book cover

ZACH DORFMAN: In The Ottoman Road to War, you claim that the dominant understanding about the reasons why the Ottoman Empire went to war is incorrect. The decision to side with Germany has been attributed to everything from the close personal relationship between Kaiser Wilhelm and the Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha to the "megalomaniac expansionism" (to use your phrasing) of the Young Turk leadership. However, you argue that, given the territorial ambitions of the Entente Powers—especially Russia—the Ottoman decision was rational, given its circumstances at the time. Can you tell us more about why, and under what assumptions, the Ottoman leadership went to war?

MUSTAFA AKSAKAL: The men at the helm of the Ottoman state were operating from positions of weakness both domestically and in the international arena. The party in power, the Committee of Union and Progress, had launched a revolution in 1908 and overseen empire-wide elections and the opening of a parliament. By 1910/11, Union and Progress' initial popularity began to wane, and its influence in parliament declined commensurately as well.

Italy's invasion of Ottoman Tripoli (Libya) in 1911 and the First Balkan War of 1912 established the circumstances that put the CUP back into the driver's seat at home. In the climate of war, the CUP staged a coup in January 1913, forcing the grand vezir to resign "in the name of the people." The CUP, led by Enver Bey [aka Enver Pasha], the future war minister, then went on the offensive in what became known as the Second Balkan War, taking back the city of Edirne/Adrianople.

For the leaders of the CUP, the military victory at Edirne—spruced up with muddled notions of Darwinism—encouraged the belief that initiative and determination could provide for the empire's security. CUP political, military, and intellectual elites viewed the empire threatened primarily by the powers of the Entente. They, in fact, had their own sense of "encirclement"—not unlike their ally Germany. They saw Russian influence in the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and northern Iran. Britain had already occupied Cyprus and Egypt and established bases along the Arabian perimeter, southern Iran, and the Gulf. French institutions were predominant in Syria and Mount Lebanon, the latter under internationally-guaranteed self-rule since 1861. Germany—and Japan, because of its victory over Russia in 1905—served as a model for developing rapid industrialization, centralization, and strong military power.

ZACH DORFMAN: Was there any kind of special economic or political relationship between the Ottoman Empire and Germany in the run-up to the war? Was there an elective affinity of some sort between the two states, or was theirs a simply strategic relationship, a "marriage of convenience"?

MUSTAFA AKSAKAL: It went beyond simple convenience. Germany had been investing heavily in the Ottoman empire, with the Berlin to Baghdad railway as the most ambitious project (it was not completed by August 1914, leaving transportation onerous especially between the Anatolian and Arab halves of the empire). With millions of Muslim subjects in the empires of Germany's rivals—British India and Egypt, Russian Central Asia and the Caucasus, French North Africa—Kaiser Wilhelm II sought to position Germany as the worldwide friend of all Muslims. The 1914 Ottoman declaration of jihad, which was very much desired in Berlin, was supposed to appeal to these colonial Muslim populations in particular (though the Ottomans had their own reasons for the declaration).

The Ottoman government that signed the secret alliance treaty with Germany on August 2, 1914, was able to do so only in the heated days of the July Crisis. Berlin had rejected earlier attempts by Istanbul for an alliance. Once the alliance was signed, however, Istanbul sought to delay its entry into the war. Its real aim was to save the German alliance into the postwar period, and thereby to draw on German resources and protection and to consolidate its own domestic and military power. Without an alliance, the empire would continue in its international isolation and be vulnerable to further attacks.

ZACH DORFMAN: Foremost among the Ottomans' fears was an attack on, and the potential annexation of, the Turkish Straits, especially by Russia. How real were the Ottomans' concerns about Russian expansionism? Was there historical precedent for them? Did Turkey's policy in the rest of the twentieth century vis-à-vis Russia (such as its joining of the NATO alliance) continue to reflect similar concerns?

MUSTAFA AKSAKAL: It is impossible to know for sure what Entente policy would have looked like if the Ottomans had stayed neutral. German and Ottoman intelligence services intercepted some of the correspondence between the Russian ambassador in Istanbul and Petersburg. In that correspondence, the Russian ambassador counseled keeping Istanbul neutral until Russia was ready to set foot in Constantinople. What exactly that meant is unclear, but Ottoman statesmen did not take it as good sign. Internal French discussions also show that keeping Istanbul out of the war was driven by temporary, tactical considerations, though we don't know the extent to which Istanbul was informed of these discussions.

ZACH DORFMAN: The Ottoman Empire, of course, did not survive its defeat in World War I. Would the empire eventually have collapsed on its own, regardless of its military defeat? Or, if it had stayed neutral—or even joined the Entente—could it have persevered for another quarter- or even half-century?

MUSTAFA AKSAKAL: OK, let's engage the counterfactual for a moment. If there had been no series of wars from 1911 to 1922, or no world war in 1914, it is possible that the empire might have overcome its not insignificant internal problems and survived further into the 20th century. The parliament that opened in late 1908 might have over the longer term proved to be an engine for reform; it might also have provided the institutional framework for overcoming ethnic and religious differences. There's no way to know, and I'm not nostalgic for the Ottomans, but you asked. I don't think the empire was necessarily doomed in 1914—to argue otherwise would be to miss the war's catastrophic impact on the region.

ZACH DORFMAN: For the Ottomans, World War I ended with the despised Treaty of Sèvres (1920). A few years later, in a major revision of the peace terms laid out at Sévres, the new Turkish government signed the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which solidified the borders of modern Turkey. Can you talk a little bit about content of both treaties? Why was Sèvres so reviled? What did Lausanne guarantee the new Turkish state? When all the dust settled, what were the human costs for those—like Cretan Turks and Anatolian Greeks—who lived on the "wrong" side of the border?

MUSTAFA AKSAKAL: Sèvres meted out heavy punishment on the Istanbul government. Among other things, it limited the empire's territory to parts of Anatolia, put the Istanbul Straits under the authority of an international commission, and placed the port city of Smyrna/Izmir under Greek administration. All of these terms were reversed through the armed resistance led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Ataturk). Lausanne rendered the Sèvres terms null and void. The new treaty enshrined Ankara's sovereignty over Anatolia and established the future boundaries of the Turkish Republic, proclaimed in October 1923. The government of Mustafa Kemal and Greece also signed an agreement in January 1923 to "exchange" Muslim populations residing in Greece with Christian populations in Anatolia. The agreement uprooted hundreds of thousands of peoples from their homes in the name of creating homogenous nation-states in Greece and Turkey, respectively.

ZACH DORFMAN: You argue that one of the reasons why the Ottoman rationale for war has been so misunderstood is that a transformative political revolution followed Ottoman military defeat: that is, the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922). Ottoman leaders were pilloried for their mismanagement of the war.How has this early chapter in modern Turkey's history affected contemporary Turkish views on the war and its aftermath?

MUSTAFA AKSAKAL: The Ottoman defeat in WWI is considered proof that the empire was no longer viable, that, first and foremost, it had failed to modernize and that its leaders were incompetent.

ZACH DORFMAN: In your opinion, what was the most important consequence of World War I? If there was one consequence or lesson you would wish to impart about how the effect of that war still lives today in the laws, norms, or culture of contemporary Turkey, what would that be?

MUSTAFA AKSAKAL: First, following the war the Great Powers and the League of Nations set up what must be described as colonial rule in the Ottoman empire's Arab lands. Direct administration by the liberal democracies of Britain and France by no means paved the way to Arab sovereignty, however. To the contrary, Anglo-French rule undermined the development of political and economic institutions that may have served as the foundation of future independent states.

Second, the new states that replaced the Ottoman empire all were shaped by the violence of the First World War. The war today is remembered in the countries of the Middle East mostly as national stories, stories of national birth. This is true in Turkey, of course, but also in Lebanon and Syria, where the famine of the war years continues to be recalled with horror. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, too, remains part of the national story.

The war, in other words, informs national identities in the region even today, even though the war itself is poorly understood. My hope is that a century after it took place the war can be seen in its many dimensions, not just marshaled for the purposes of ethnonational and ethnoreligious feeling.

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