The biggest short term cause for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was its involvement in the First World War. So in this video I ask whether or not staying out of the war would have significantly prolonged the life of the Ottoman Empire. Do things turn out better for the Middle East, or just different? Watch to find out!
The Ottoman Empire’s ultimate fall was brought on by its involvement in the First World War, but why did they get involved? And what could they have done differently to avoid their demise?
The Ottoman Empire began under Sultan Osman I in 1299, and lasted until 1924, ending with the reign of Abdulmecid II. That’s over 600 years of history, and plenty to cover for future videos, but today I’m focusing on its fall. When exactly the fall begins is up for debate, but for narrative simplicity I’m gonna give you my breakdown of Ottoman History up to the point.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire from the reign of Osman I in 1299, through the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent ending in 1566. From this point we have a plateau of the empire, going from the death of Suleyman the Magnificent to the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683, which saw the end of unreversed Territorial gains for the Ottomans. The following period from 1683 to 1798 is the Decline period, which saw the Ottoman military begin to show signs of it falling significantly behind its European contemporaries, and this military weakness would create the opening for what I believe is the beginning of the Ottoman’s fall; Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. The fact that it was another European power that had to drive of the French out showed that any European power that can get an army to the Middle East could invade the Ottoman Empire, and the Turks could do nothing about it.
A few years after Napoleon invaded Egypt the Americans would invade Libya and made their first attempt at replacing a foreign regime. Now this didn’t work, but the fact that the Americans of all people at this time were capable of doing this was a big red flag, and unfortunately for the Ottoman’s it wasn’t theirs.
In the 18-teens the Serbians rose up against the Ottomans, and although they didn’t gain independence at first they did win autonomous rule within the Empire. 1830 saw both the loss of Algeria to the French, and victory for Greek rebels seeking independence.
The 1850s saw the Russian Empire attempt another swipe at Ottoman territory, but France, Britain, and for some reason Sardinia, didn’t want that to happen, so they sided with the Ottomans in what became known as the Crimean War. The impact of this war can’t be understated because although the Ottoman’s ended up on the winning side, they owed a lot of money to European banks. The Europeans would use this debt to leverage internal reform within the Ottoman Empire.
What kind of reforms? Oh, just little things like granting non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims.
At this point minorities in the Ottoman Empire were part of something called the Millet System. It’s basically a separate legal system for different religious communities. If a crime was committed by one person in a community against another person in that same community, the Ottoman’s allowed that community to handle it themselves. However if there was an intercommunity conflict, it would be tried in a Muslim court.
Since 1839 the Ottomans had been working on a series of reforms called Tanzimat, but after the Crimean War they had to get serious about them because they owed a lot of money to Christian Europe. The Ottoman’s had wanted to get rid of the Millet System because doing so would give the government direct control over all peoples in the empire, but they couldn’t do so without granting non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims.
Among these rights was that foreigners could own land in the Ottoman Empire. This was done in order to encourage foreign investment within the Empire, however it also planted the seed for future conflicts. It wouldn’t be just European Christians buying land in the empire, but also Jews.
The land law of 1858 required everyone in the empire to register their land holdings with the government. Some people avoided registering their lands out of fear that this would be used to increase their taxes and conscript them or their children into military service, and others refused to register their lands out of mistrust of the Ottoman regime. However, this resulted in some land owners in villages, many of whom were absentee land lords, registering the entirety of the village’s property under their own name.
These absentee landlords were then free to sell the land off to whoever they wanted. This is how Russian Jews began to buy up land in Ottoman Palestine as a means of escaping the Tsar’s anti-Jewish pogroms, and eventually give birth to the Zionist Movement. I could go deeper into this, but that’s a subject better left to its own video.
Anyways, along with these reforms we also saw economic reforms such as the opening up of the empire to foreign trade, which was a demand of the Europeans, as well as the establishment of their own courts where they would try cases involving their own citizens in Ottoman Territory.
In 1862 we saw the Ottoman provinces of Moldova and Wallachia merged together as Romania and granted autonomy within the empire.
The 1860s also saw a brief economic revival for the Ottoman Empire.
You see, up to the 1860s the American South was the biggest exporter of cotton in the world, providing a large sum of the cotton supply used by the European Textile Industry. Well, the international cotton market was interrupted by the American Civil War which included a blockade of the south, which prevented Southern Cotton from reaching Europe. The Europeans needed new suppliers, and this is where Egypt, India, and Ottoman Empire picked up the slack in the Cotton Market, and even after America’s civil war ended, the gains made by these other countries weren’t completely reversed.
But 1873 saw the first world wide economic depression. The subsequent decline in the world economy saw the sale of Cotton and other raw materials from the Ottoman Empire decline to the point where government revenues were too small to make the interest payments on their debts. In July of 1875 the principalities of Romania and Serbia, along with the regions of Montenegro and Bulgaria rose up against the Ottomans, receiving support from the Russians, Austrians, Germans, and France. These revolts exacerbated the Ottoman financial crisis, which forced it to declare bankruptcy in October of 1875.The economic crisis resulted in a political crisis that saw the reigning Sultan Murad V abdicate, and be succeeded by his brother, Abdulhamid II, sometimes known as Abdul the Butcher, which will be explained later.
Abdulhamid II came into power at the worst possible time, with the empire under dire financial constraints, revolts in the Balkans, and foreign pressure on both.
The Europeans held a meeting in the Ottoman capital in 1876 to discuss a resolution to the crisis going on in the Balkans. During this crisis Abdulhamid II introduced a new constitution for the Ottoman Empire to the great powers in hopes that this would convince them that they were making significant reforms so the Europeans could withdraw their presence from the empire and leave the Turks to their own internal affairs. But the Great Powers were all like, “Yeah, no, we’re gonna need more than this.”
Despite that, though, the constitution still went into effect in late 1876, with the first parliament being elected in early 1877. This parliament wouldn’t have much time to operate because Russia declared war on the Ottomans in April. Abdulhamid II would use the war with Russia as an excuse to “temporarily” suspend the constitution until the international crisis was settled.
Things weren’t going too well for the Ottomans, so the other great powers of Europe decided to intervene, not so much out of sympathy for the Ottomans but out of fear of the Russian advances. So in the summer of 1878 the Congress of Berlin decided that Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro would become fully independent states, while Bulgaria would be made an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire. On top of that Austria-Hungary was allowed to occupy the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Britain was allowed to occupy Cyprus, which functionally separated those provinces from the empire.
The 1880s would see France yoink Tunisia, and Britain take Egypt. However, those countries had long since cut de-facto ties with the Ottomans, but Constantinople didn’t take the hint until they were literally occupied by someone else.
After the Congress the Armenians became somewhat restless. As a religious minority they always faced some level of discrimination from the Turks, even after the Tanzimat.
Being Orthodox Christians, they hoped that all Armenian lands would one day be under the control of the Russian Empire, but Abdulhamid II was aware of these aspirations. The Sultan believed that the weakening state of the Ottoman Empire was the fault of predacious Christian countries, and in turn saw the Christian Armenians as a fifth column that would aid the Christian Imperialists in wars with the Ottomans, and the thing is, he wasn’t entirely wrong to think this.
Yes, the Christian nations were taking advantage of a weakening Ottoman Empire, however it’s a stretch to say that it was the Christian’s fault that they were weak in the first place. Most Ottoman Historians agree that the Ottoman’s weakness was largely self-induced, thanks to resting on their laurels during their plateau.
It’s also not crazy to distrust the Christians within the empire, especially those who live in territories that are constantly being invaded by the Russians. During each conflict between Russia and the Ottomans, the Balkan and Armenian Chrisians sided with the Russians, or at least they collaborate with them once the Russians are occupying their territory. However, none of this justifies what the Ottomans would do to them.
The 1890s would see several massacres of the Armenians when they assembled in protest of the Ottoman regime. Police units, along with zealous Muslim Ottomans would attack and massacre these protestors. These massacres against the Armenians would usually overflow into indiscriminate attacks on Christians in general. The most conservative estimate for the number of casualties is about 80 thousand, with the numbers reaching as high as 400 thousand. These massacres were called the Hamidian Massacres by foreign press, named for the Sultan who’s hostility towards Christians was blamed for it. This, along with harsh treatment of the Bulgarians during the Balkan Crisis in the 1870s got Abdulhamid II the title of, The Butcher.
Around the turn of the century the Ottoman regime tried to modernize itself in hopes of either stalling or reversing their weakening state.
They did this by buddying up with the Germans, having the German military train Ottoman military, along with allowing the Germans to build railroad and telegraph lines within the empire. Kaiser Wilhelm II got along well with Abulhamid II, seeing him as a handy comrade in a fight against the western liberalism of France, Great Britain, and the United States, and this is where we get to the Young Turks. (Cenk clip saying “of course”)
No no no. I meant the Young Turks that perpetrated the Armenian Genocide, not the ones that deny it ever happened.
The Young Turks were a reformist movement in early 20th century Ottoman Empire, but much is misunderstood about them. They are normally portrayed as a monolithic organization with a single set of goals, but in reality the Young Turks were a collection of groups who’s only agreed on position was that the Empire could not continue on as it was. Some Young Turk groups just wanted a change in the policies of Abdulhamid II, while others wanted to abolish the Sultanate and change the Ottoman Empire into a secular constitutional republic.
The Young Turks had members from many walks of life; military officers, clerics, professors, journalists, and even members of the royal family. Many of these people had been exiled from the country, and in 1902 they met in Paris to formulate a set of goals and a strategy to achieve their goals. The meeting ended splitting up on the means of reform. Some wanted to involve the international community to pressure the regime, while the others wanted reform to come from within. Those that wanted international involvement started their own organizations that tried to get the British to aid them in a coup, but the British were never willing to commit. (Of Course) The ones that wanted to reform the empire from within formed a group called the Committee of Union and Progress, or CUP. They were more successful in organizing, especially within the military.
The Young Turks Revolution in 1908 started completely by accident (“Of Course”).
In July of 1908 a CUP aligned cell led by Major Ahmed Niyazi was discovered by an agent of the Sultan. Niyazi was afraid that he and his cell would be captured, so on July 3rd he and 200 supporters decided to start a revolt. They did this on their own without consulting the rest of the CUP. The leaders were not ready to revolt at this time, but their hand was forced, so they released their own declaration, and took credit from Niyazi. (“Of Course”) Their cells in the 3rd army led by Mahmud Sevket Pasha rose up, captured the Ottoman held Balkans, marched on Constantinople, and before they could fully capture the city, Abdulhamid II proclaimed the reinstatement of the Constitution that he had suspended back in 1877. Since this was the primary demand of the CUP’s declaration, they put an end to their rebellion, and through the 3rd Army placed themselves in as much of the government as possible.
A new Parliament was elected, and it contained members from the CUP as well as other Young Turk organizations, including those that had preferred to seek foreign intervention into the Ottoman Empire. The new parliament sought to make some big changes within the empire, but they were hobbled by their own dysfunctionality.
The new regime would be put to a test against foreign powers in late 1908 when Austria-Hungary announced their official annexation of Bosnia-Herzagovina, which they had been occupying since 1878. The Island of Crete announced its independence and annexation by Greece. The biggest territorial loss was Bulgaria declaring independence, leaving very little left of the Ottoman Balkans.
These territorial losses combined with some unpopular social policies that tried to discourage Islamic dress resulted in a counter-coup in April of 1909 that temporarily restored Abdulhamid II to his pre-revolution powers. The counter-revolution was put down by the 3rd army under Sevket Pasha, which also forced Abdulhamid II to abdicate the throne in favor of his brother Mehmed V, who became little more than a figurehead.
Things weren’t going to get better for the Ottomans from here. In 1912 the Italians annexed Libya, which triggered the Balkans wars, which saw the Ottomans lose everything except the territory surrounding Constantinople. The failed policies of the Ottoman government during the first Balkan War pushed the CUP into another coup in 1913, led by the Three Pashas, Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmed Djemal, who would rule the empire through World War One.
The Ottoman’s basically had to fight everywhere. They were fighting the Russians in the Caucuses, Fighting the Romanians, Serbs, and Greeks in the Balkans, as well as fighting the British in Palestine, Mesopotamia, and in Gallipoli, along with the Arabs who were riled up by T.E. Lawrence with promises of an Arab Caliphate.
During the Great War the Ottomans engaged in Genocidal actions towards the Armenians, which killed approximately 1.5 million.
They were not the only ones who suffered from this genocidal rampage. Assyrians and Greeks were also targeted by Ottoman soldiers and mobs, making this not just an Armenian Genocide, but a Christian Holocaust. This is another big topic that is better left to its own video, but’s let’s just say that there is a vibrant denial community on the internet (“of course”).
And there’s this one little group that denies called “The GOVERNMENT OF TURKEY.”
As the war reached 1918 the writing was on the wall, and so in October the three Pasha’s resigned from their offices in the government, and their successors sought peace with the allies.
Now, during the war there were a bunch of attempts and plans for carving up the Ottoman Empire after an allied victory. There was the promise made to the Arabs mentioned earlier, where the British promised the Sheriff of Mecca an Arab Caliphate. They also promised the Zionists a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
There was also the Constantinople Agreement from 1915, which carved up the Ottoman Empire between the Allies, which was further expanded upon in 1916 with the Sykes-Picot agreement that is more famous than the other attempts at carving up the Middle East. These diplomatic dealings were initially secret, but became known to the Public after the Russian Revolution deposed the Tsar, and put Lenin and the Bolsheviks into power. Lenin hoped to trigger communist revolutions across Europe and the Middle East by revealing the secret agreements made between the Allies. Let’s call them Lenin-Leaks. Well, these leaks didn’t have the intended effect, but it’s the only reason we’re aware of these agreements in the first place.
In 1920 the allies signed the Treaty of Sevres with the Ottomans, which officially ended the war between them, and forced the Ottomans into a number capitulations. The Dardeneles were made an international zone, and couldn’t be closed off to any nation unless approved of by the League of Nations. Portions of Anatolia were carved up into spheres of Influence that different members of the Allies would occupy. Territory in Thrace was given to Greece. Armenia and the Hejaz were created as independent states. Iraq and Palestine were recognized as British Mandates, while Syria and Lebanon were recognized as French Mandates. But the remnants of the Young Turks wouldn’t take this lying down.
During the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Mustafa Kemal was put in charge of reorganizing the remnants of the Ottoman military. At this same time officials from the Ottoman government began organizing civilians into resistance groups to thwart and undermine the allies political goals in the empire. With the army under his control, Mustafa Kemal launched what is referred to as the Turkish War of Independence. In this fight they pushed the allied armies out of Anatolia, which earned him the title Ataturk, meaning “Father of Turkey.”
This ended with the Treaty of Lausanne, which replaced many of the provisions in the Treaty of Sevres. There would be no occupation or partition of Anatolia, while the Turks agreed to recognize their loss of everything outside of Anatolia, except for the city of Constantinople and the surrounding territory.
Before the Treaty of Lausanne, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey had formed as an interim government for the Ottoman Empire, and it voted to abolish the Sultanate on November 1, 1922, which gave a formal end to the Ottoman Empire. The last Sultan, Mehmed VI, left the city of Constantinople on a British ship and went into exile for the rest of his life. There was one last vestige of the Ottoman Empire left, the Caliphate.
In the Ottoman Empire there were two separate institutions in its rule, the Sultanate, and the Caliphate. The Sultan was a secular ruler, while the Caliph was a religious leader. Both of these positions were occupied by the same person at all times, and depending on the action being taken, the person in that position was either acting as the Sultan or as the caliph. When the Grand National Assembly abolished the Sultanate, this initially left the Caliphate in place, meaning that there was still a religious leader, and after Mehmed VI went into exile, it was his brother Abulmejid II.
A year later, on October 29th, 1923, the Grand National Assembly declared Turkey a Republic, and on March 3rd, 1924, they officially ended the Caliphate, putting an official end to the last vestige of the Ottoman Empire.
Abdulmejid II’s daughter Dürrüşehvar would marry one of the heirs to the Sultanate of Hyderabad in British India, which we covered in this video here. He died in 1944, where he was buried in the city of Medina upon the order of King Saud of Saudi Arabia.
And thus ended the over 600 year old Ottoman Empire. It’s death has left a complicated legacy on the Middle East and Europe.