Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why I am never invited to parties: Ottoman History edition.

The passing of the great Anniversary of the end of WW1 is good as any reason to offer up a third article in less than seven days about the Great War. The last two articles were a rather Eurocentric affair only lightly brushing on the last Empire to get hit by that epic event.

Of all the Empires sucked into the vortex of the War To End All Wars the one that had the most peripheral interest in the machinations of Western Europe was the crumbling majesty of Osman’s realm.

The seed of destruction had been laid long before. The Europeans, fractured, bickering and disjointed had blundered into their salvation. Just a few decades after Mehmet II had achieved the goal capturing Constantine’s city in 1453, Portugal and Spain had run into the Americas. Stripped of the Mediterranean Sea, literally the ocean in the middle of the land, Europe, of necessity, focused its efforts on the bigger, nastier, more dangerous Atlantic.

In two generations Europe had found its way around the horn of Africa and had cut out the Muslim middlemen of Asia Minor. In 1492 a mad Genoese captain relying on terrible mathematics got seriously lucky and stumbled across a whole “new world.” Adding insult to injury Spain’s conquest of Mesoamerica flooded Europe with vast quantities of gold. As the Centuries passed Europe’s Colombian exchange slowly shifted the center of power to those nations that had cut their teeth on the Atlantic trade. It was Prince Henry the Navigator and his spiritual heirs that laid the foundations for Western European Hegemony.


The long, slow, systemic decay of the Ottomans began internally. Osman’s heirs succumbed to same dynastic dissolution that every other monarchy has suffered since the beginning of documentation. Sooner or later, the ruling family stops producing marvels and starts producing mere mortals. Those mortals are then succeeded by fools and incompetents. Self absorbed rulers let corrupt secondary personalities rule while they indulge themselves in debauchery. Worse for the dynasty are the centripetal forces that are allowed free reign. Finally the self-serving elites hamstring any ruler who has even the slightest notion of enacting reform.

It was Napoleon who laid bare the fecklessness of the Ottomans. Napoleon’s disciplined and modern infantry squares exposed the sorry state of the Sultans military strength. Only the strength of the British Navy spared the Sultan further embarrassment.

Still the 19th Century was one long trudge through humiliation for the former terror of Europe. The Janissary might of the Ottomans was not even a pale shadow of itself; it was mostly an internal threat to the Sultan who finally wiped it out in 1826.

The replacement army was not much better. One by one the Orthodox Christian peoples of the Empire slipped away from the Sultan. The first to go was Greece. Other nations followed. Beginning in 1877 and not really ending until 1913 Ottoman arms and Ottoman control were pushed out of the Balkans. In 1913 the Sultan only held a tiny sliver of land on the West side of the Bosporus.

Not only was Europe irretrievably lost but so too was the entire Maghreb. First local potentates had detached the land from Istanbul’s control. Then, like vultures on a fresh kill, the Colonial powers descended. Lands that had been part of Dar el Islam since the conquests of the Umayyad Caliphate now found themselves being under the thumb of Christian colonial rulers.

There was little the Sultan in the far off Topkapi Palace could do about it. A succession of ill advised rulers had literally mortgaged off their realm to those same Colonial Europeans. 80% of the tax revenue of the state was siphoned off to pay the debts the Sultans had racked up with European Bankers. Whole portions of the Ottoman economy were in the hands of foreign interlopers. Worse for the empire those portions of the economy not being run by external forces were run by non-Muslim Armenians and Greeks.

Other than Russia one would be hard pressed to find a political entity less prepared for the hideous pressures of a war of attrition than the Ottomans. It took one of the worst examples of British Diplomacy to mange to bring the armies of the Sultan into war.

Ever since Napoleon had crashed into Egypt the United Kingdom had been the Sultan’s shield. Brittan did this not out of any love for the heirs of Osman but to keep Russia and Austria-Hungry out of the collapsing Empire. Britain preferred the incompetent Ottomans controlling the Dardanelles to the ever expanding Russian Empire. The U.K and France even managed to temporarily put aside their century’s long antagonism to rob the Russians of the Crimea in 1858.

All this hard work in propping up “The Sick Man of Europe” by the British came to naught in the early part of the 20th Century. For all intents and purposes British Diplomacy gift wrapped the empire to the up and coming power of Germany. The real power in the Ottoman Empire, the military officers known as the “Young Turks,” had enough of the slights of John Bull and eagerly accepted the ministrations of the Germans.

Much to their chagrin the Young Turks' new found friends got them embroiled in a war that the empire had little chance of surviving. What was amazing was how long and how hard the Empire fought for its existence.

British contempt for the empire was fully reveled by the Gallipoli offensive. It was a mad campaign right from the start. The principles of successful amphibious landings were a full generation and one whole war away. It was the wrong tactic, at the wrong place, with the wrong technology, with the wrong enemy. To this day the Dardanelles Campaign is studied by military planers as an example of how not to run amphibious warfare.

WW1 was a war that favored defensive strategy and tactics. With the Ottomans entrenched with their backs to their capitol the result was a bloodbath for the Commonwealth troops. Dug into their trenches and holding the high ground the Ottomans mercilessly slaughtered the hapless invaders. The same horrible calculus that ruled the Western front accumulated the same numbers of pointless deaths for the attackers at Çanakkale.

Gallipoli was the last great victory for Ottoman arms. It was however a Pyrrhic victory. Coming through the Sultan’s back door, the British were able to use their superior arms and tactics to slowly grind the Ottomans into a powder. Even the land betrayed the cause. In Gallipoli the empire could use the terrain and the short lines of communications to win the battle. But in the Levant and in Mesopotamia it was a war of movement. Without the backstop of geography and entrenchment to aid the Ottomans the British slowly overwhelmed the Sultan’s armies. Indifference or outright hostility of the locals to the Ottoman cause was the last and superfluous straw added to an already broken back.

By the end of the war those structural failures of the empire were working overtime. The empire lacked critical resources of men and material. The corrosive ideas of self-determination and nationality ripped the social-political underpinnings of the empire. Islam was no longer an overarching identification. More local and parochial identifiers came to the fore. People like the Kurds began to dream of their own nation run by their own ethic leadership. No longer were they interested in the identity offered by the religion of the prophet. The long and incompetent rule by Sultan had too deeply poisoned that well.

The Muslim faithful no longer accepted the claim of the Sultan to be the Caliph of the religion. The arms of the prophet, while still hanging in the Topkapi Palace, no longer symbolized anything more than how far the heirs of Osman had fallen from the true faith. The disastrous 19th Century had evaporated any claim the Sultans had to being rightly guided guardians of Islamic world. The Sultans could not even prevent their Viziers from routinely deposing them. If the Sultan could not even keep his worthless palace servants in line who was he to try to rule over Dar el Islam? When the Sultan declared jihad at the urging of his German allies, the odd dog barked but the faithful studiously ignored the call. The very idea of Dar el Islam and its Caliph no longer held any sway. There was a new idea coming in from the infidel West.

That idea was nationalism. It was, and continues to be, the great bug bear of Dar el Islam. In the place of the rule of Islam, nationalism offers much more tempting and understandable prospects. People know their culture, they know their traditions, they know their ethnicities, they know their neighbors, they know their history, and they know their land. Nationalism revels in these particulars. Combined with secularism, the other bug bear of Islam, nationalism can deliver results. Power, Prestige, economic growth, and other benefits flow from nationalism. Islam could only offer vague promises in the afterlife and distant majesty that had no bearing on the present situation.

It was nationalism that saved Anatolian Asia Minor. Without the core idea of a Turkish nation and the man to lead it, the land would have been carved up into pieces by the Colonial machinations of Sikes-Picot. A huge, unsustainable Greece would control the coast while Kurdistan, Armenia and other creations of the fevered imaginations of far off Western Europe have left only a pathetic rump of territory to the Turks. Love him or hate him Mustafa Kemal, latter called Atatürk, saved Asia Minor that fate.

Islamists despise the man with good reason. Atatürk looking at the endemic weakness of the Ottoman Empire placed all of the blame for its sorry state on the concept of the Caliphate. When he gained power he went into secularist overdrive. What followed was nearly 75 years of the oppression of Turkey’s Islamic soul. The iron boot of a thinly disguised military dictatorship stood on the neck of a deeply religious and rural people. Western observers love to ramble on continuously about the “moderation” of Turkish Islam conveniently forgetting that it was “moderation” secured by a bayonet to the backside.

Turkish laïcité, brutally enforced by Atatürk and his heirs has been high price to pay for the salvation of the nation. Kemalist nationalism has also been a heavy burden on the non-Turkish peoples of the nation. The Kurds have been ruthlessly oppressed by Ankara and the Armenians have never forgotten there horrific slaughter at the founding of modern Turkey.

Still with all his faults Atatürk manage to do a credible job of saving something from the wreckage of the Great War. The late Ottoman Empire did not have the strength to survive that calamity. It had nearly insurmountable structural deficiencies. Reform, when it came, was always too little and too late. Even the modest and inadequate reforms were too much for the entrenched selfish interests driving the empire to ruin. Reforming Sultans were routinely and depressingly deposed by conniving, corrupt, conspirators who only cared about their own personal prerogatives. Court intriguers installed weak, incompetent rulers who only hastened the general collapse. The old guards were termites busily chewing away at the very structures that protected them. It is an old historical tale which repeats in many nations, many empires, and many cultures. It is the triumph of the mediocrities. It is the victory of the ants. Great cultures and great empires become corrupt, ridged, and unmanageable. At a point some great force of history comes in and kicks in the rotten structure.

The final death of the Ottoman Empire was both an accident of history and an inevitability. The social, political and religious underpinning of the empire had no real response to the huge, impersonal forces rising up to overwhelm it. The corrosive idea of nationalism had dissolved the structures of Europe that given it rise. The power of modern corporate capitalism had smashed the old ways of doing business. The ever accelerating speed of modern science and technology left the theological underpinnings of Islam choking in the dust of the past. Learned scholars, still trying to make heads or tales about whether the potato was haraam or not, could not adjust to the ever increasing novelties the West was dropping at their congregants’ doorstep. The Islamic scholars had no real response to fact that the infidel Christians had all the cool toys. They were left to splutter how evil, anti-traditional, and un-Islamic this all was but they had no real way to rectify the imbalance. All the angry Mullahs could do was to make the situation worse by stemming any and all reform. Totally tied to tradition, the empire was unable to cast off the unnecessary ballast and the ship of the Ottoman state was unable to steer to a safe harbor. Instead it broke apart in the treacherous seas that sunk all the other Empires of the early 20th Century.

Like their Christian counterparts the Austrian-Hungarian empire, the only way the Ottomans could have survived the Great War was to not participate in it in the first place. Unfortunately for the leaders of the empire they did not have the ever crafty and totally amoral Atatürk to lead them. In the next war Atatürk's successor had learned the lesson of his feckless predecessors and stayed coolly, calmly and resolutely neutral. Give the devil his due; İsmet İnönü , having learned at Atatürk’s feet, knew a bad bet when he saw one.

Cross Posted at History Is Not What it Used to be
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