BOOK REVIEW: THE FALL OF THE OTTOMANS: THE GREAT WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST
By Eugene Rogan
Basic Books, 485 pages
Review by J.C. Tejeda Jr.
Anyone desiring to understand the forces shaping the Middle East would find Eugene Rogan’s book, The Fall of the Ottomans, a good starting point. Although the book is about the final years of the Ottoman Empire, it does help the reader gain a special insight into the events that led to the current situation one see today. Rogan’s book is an easy to follow time line of events that reaches from the founding of the Young Turks Movement to the First World War, and ultimately the collapse of the Caliph itself. Rogan includes events like the Gallipoli Campaign, the Armenian Genocide, the Arab Revolt, to the Fall of Jerusalem. It is very refreshing to find a book that goes into great lengths explaining these events in great detail without bewildering the reader new to the subject. Here are some examples of what this book has to offer starting with the Young Turks Movement.
The Ottoman Empire was one rich in conquest and culture. However the late nineteenth century would see this empire being clawed apart by economic and military forces of the European Powers. Like its Austro-Hungarian counterpart, the Ottoman Empire was very much what Lenin described as a “Prison House of Nations”. Throughout its realm there are ethnic and religious enclaves that were spurred by nationalism. Each wanted to break away from direct rule of the Caliph in Istanbul. The Ottoman leadership at the time were under no illusions that their realm was in decline. The only question was how to preserve, and ultimately revive their imperial fortunes. The Young Turks was an example of a Coup D’état posing as a salvation movement. This movement operated under the name Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). It included liberal as well as military elements with a common aim of rescuing the empire from collapse. They view modernization of the realm as the key. Unfortunately it appears too focused on military modernization at the expense of other areas like industry. One example was the Ottoman governments attempt to procure two Battleships from Great Britain. Although these warships would have enhanced the Ottoman military, they were impounded by the British at the start of the First World War. Had the Ottomans been able to invest in the industry capable of producing modern warships, this could have been avoided which begs the question of their alliance with Germany.
The alliance between Germany and the Ottoman Empire was intended to serve as a counter weight to the Allied Powers during the First World War. Germany, under the Kaiser, sought to expand its influence into the Middle East both military, and commercial. One example was the Berlin to Baghdad Railway. Another was the Military Mission under the leadership of General Otto Liman von Sanders. His leadership during the First World War would prove decisive during the ill-fated Dardanelles Campaign (i.e. Gallipoli). In fact, one of the most crucial decisions he made was to promote a certain Mustafa Kemal to division commander. Not only did Kemal achieved fame in achieving victory over the allies, but he would later become the founder of modern Turkey. While the Dardanelles Campaign ended in victory for the Central Powers, another, more disturbing event was about to take place.
That event was the Armenian Genocide. As mentioned previously, the Ottoman Empire was an ethnically diverse mix of ethnicities and religions. It was during the war that the Ottoman leadership took to these minorities with looming suspicion. The Armenians were held in particular suspicion, for the fear was that this ethnic minority would side with the Ottoman’s traditional enemy, Russia.
What was most revealing about the Genocide was how the Turks handled the tragedy. At the end of the war, most of the Ottoman leaders were tried and convicted in their own courts. Some were put to death. The one exception was Enver Pasha, who fled Turkey only to die a violent death in what is now modern day Tajikistan. As for the events of the First World War, none was more illuminating than Rogan’s coverage of the Arab Revolt.
To most readers familiar with the film, Lawrence of Arabia, the Arab Revolt comes across as a romantic rebellion of the Arab people’s against their Turkish Oppressors. However, in Rogan’s book, the Arab Revolt was the end result of the German / Ottoman attempt to incite Jihad amongst the Muslims of both the British and French Empires. Inspired by a prewar event where the Ottomans were helping Bedouin Tribes in Libya fight against their Italian overlords, the Ottomans discovered the power and appeal of Islam to motivate their former Subjects to rise against their European masters. Not only did the Ottomans recognize this potential political weapons, the Germans under the Kaiser were actively formulating and pursing policies to see this through.
Fortunately for the allies, the threat of Global Jihad never materialized. Instead the powerful appeal of nationalism proved far more effective in stirring the Arabs to revolt. The most ironic thing about the Central Powers was that their attempt to incite Jihad against the Allies only ended up backfiring against the Ottomans. Although the First World War dominated the bulk of his book, It was Rogan’s own analysis and conclusion that prove most relevant to today’s Middle east.
As for this book reviewers conclusion, Eugene Rogan’s Fall of the Ottomans is a thought provoking summary of the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Not only would the reader get an interesting insight into the fall, but one will also get a far clearer understanding to the events shaping today’s Middle East.