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From Belle Époque to Great Depression

Europe before 1914: An Interactive Map

Turkey - Rachel Wilcox

(The Ottoman Empire)

The Socio-Economic State

In 1914 the Ottoman Empire was composed of an estimated 25 million people (14 million of which were Turks, with large Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Kurdian, Greek, and Circassion minorities as well).  Nationalistic and separatist movements existed throughout the Empire in several areas under Turkish control.  The various groups’ loyalty to the Sultan was, at best, uncertain.  The government was chronically out of money.  Industry was limited, and nowhere was the lack more apparent than in the problem of transportation.  To cover 679,360 square miles, there were only 3, 580 miles of railroad track.  The Baghdad line (all 580 miles of it) had 3 major gaps that necessitated multiple loadings and re-loadings for any personnel or supplies headed between Istanbul and the east and south-eastern regions (Syria, Palestine, Arabia, Mesopotamia…). It was, in fact, on October 9, 1918, three weeks prior to the Ottoman Empire leaving the war, that uninterrupted train service between Syria and the Bosporus became possible.

Turkey mustered 3 million troops during its engagement in the Great War, but due to casualties, disease, and desertion—and high rates of all—no more than 500,000 soldiers were ever under arms at any time.  The leaders who took the Turkish troops into the fight were predominantly young men, often in their 30’s—an example being the 32-year-old general and leader, Enver Pasha (it was also young army men who were behind the Young Turks movement, which forced the Sultan into the creation of a parliament in 1908). 

The Turkish army had not done well during the Balkan wars, and former military defeats had forced the granting of various zones of influence to the European powers: Egypt (Britain), Syria and the Lebanon (France), Bosnia-Herzegovina (Austria-Hungary), and Libya (Italy).  Russia, along with Italy, remained interested in the crumbling empire’s territory as well.  Modernization hopes, for the moment, were based mostly in the military and economic fields 

The Political Situation


            At the opening of the century, the Ottoman Empire, ruled from Turkey, was a theoretical constitutional monarchy (where the reigning Sultan-Caliph, his Grand Vizier, and his ministers were controlled by an elected parliament).  In reality, the Empire was a one-party state controlled by the party (“committee”) of Union and Progress, with a certain amount of autonomy experienced by the governors of Turkey’s 4 provinces (Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Kurdistan, and Arabia).  Incidentally, the archives of the Unionist Party (which were in control in 1914) disappeared after the war—making total conclusion on why exactly Turkey entered World War I not entirely known to this day.

A strong Turkish nationalism programme was in place (not unlike what was taking place in the Russian empire), mingled with a certain anti-imperialism intending to emphasize the Empire’s independence from and equality with the Great Powers of Europe. 

            In 1908 the Young Turks (a liberal reform movement among young army officers) forced Sultan Abdul Hamid II to create a parliament.  The Sultan attempted a counter revolution in 1909, the failure of which resulted in his being deposed and exiled.  The 32-year-old general with supreme control of the armies during the war years, Enver Pasha, became the country’s ruler. 

The Empire’s Final War

Entrance to Topkapi Palace     

The Ottoman Empire’s decision to enter the First World War will perhaps never be completely explained, as it seems much of the decision-making involved was done   outside the so-called “regular channels” and with limited (and missing) documentation.  For one, the decision to align the Empire with one of the two European power camps (the Central Powers [Germany, Austria-Hungary, and, later, Bulgaria] and the Entente Powers [Britain, France, and Russia]) could help prevent further disintegration of the Empire as well as provide a protective agreement.  Alliance with the Entente Powers would incur a British-enforced neutrality for the Young Turks (which would do little to help further their cause within the country), and there was also the question of halting Russia’s continued expansion.  Furthermore, it is suspected that a certain amount of German persuasion took place (such as German ships and German gold) to help Turkey towards the eventual signing of a secret defensive alliance between the two powers in 1914.  The crumbling empire thus decided to enter the war allied with Germany and, by definition, Austria-Hungary.

There were, in fact, two decisions for war—one coming in July of 1914  (envisioning mainly a Balkan war adjacent with the larger European war between the Great Powers) which remained inactive, and the other in October of the same year (as a direct attack on the Entente Powers on the largest possible geographical scale), resulting in a naval attack against Russia.   Russia responded by a declaration of war on November 2, followed 3 days later by both Britain and France.  The Empire retaliated by a counter-declaration of war on November 11, the same day the Sultan declared a holy war against the Entente Powers.  The striking fact in all this is that these decisions and alignments were made by small, conspiratorial groups of men within the Ottoman government, clearly displaying internal power struggles.

However, while the nuts and bolts of what went on can be made out, much is still lacking.  Archives remain silent or empty—or missing.  The conflicting agendas, the rivalries, the personal ambitions behind the decision to enter the War (and the alliance with Germany and the Central Powers) --all these are much of what remain—and will perhaps forever remain—a mystery.

Yet, as Pierre Nora has said, “History is the always incomplete and problematic reconstruction of what is no longer there."