- Rachel Wilcox
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,
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
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
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
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
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."