Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 20: The End of the Ottoman Empire

Copyright ©2010 by T. Pavlidis


Ottoman Dissonance
The Tyrannical Sultan
German Inroads in the Middle East
The Balkans in Early 20th Century
The Asian and African Ottoman Possessions
The 1908 Coup of the Young Turks
The End of the Empire
War Casualties and Massacres of Non-Muslims

Ottoman Dissonance

The system of millets ensured on one hand the autonomy of the various religious communities of the empire and on the other hand ensured that there was no common identity amongst the citizens of the empire. The latter was fine with the sultans because it made unlikely a broad-based revolt against their rule but it became a problem when the empire had to compete with the nation states of Europe.

Nothing describes the Ottoman dissonance better than the pages of an Ottoman calendar, one of them shown on the right. The calendar contains six languages: Turkish, Greek, French, Bulgarian, Armenian, and Ladino (Spanish in Hebrew characters).

Source: The cover of the book by Elli Skopetea [ES92] and the comments about the calendar on page 99 (footnote No. 13). The title of the book is a clever pun of the double meaning of the words East and West in Greek. The closest rendering is the "Sunset of the East". Additional annotations from [BL02a, p. 270].

Figure 1 - Click on the picture to see a larger and annotated version.

The Tyrannical Sultan

Abdülhamid II came to the throne in 1876 after his older brother Murad V was deposed as being "mentally ill". Abdülhamid acquired the reputation of being once of the most tyrannical sultans even though some people expected him to be liberal. Indeed he offered a constitution and convened a parliament. But a few months later he suspended the constitution and dissolved the parliament. The "reforms" of the previous decades had eliminated all opposition to the sultan so now he had more power than ever before. Of course the "reforms" did little to modernize the army and the Ottoman suffered a disastrous defeat in the 1877-1878 war with the Russians (see Chapter 19).

The futility and cruelty of Ottoman actions is illustrated by what came to be called the "Bulgarian atrocity". The Bulgarians had rebelled in April 1876 but the rebellion was crushed ruthlessly with over 15,000 civilians killed. The cruel suppression created a big outcry in Europe with a lot of negative publicity for the "terrible Turks" [ES92, p. 38]. Even though the rebellion had occurred before Abdülhamid became sultan, it contributed to the bloody image of his reign. The sad irony is that the cruel suppression was futile. One of the consequences of the 1877-78 war was the establishment of an autonomous Bulgarian state.

Abdülhamid imposed extreme censorship. Not only criticism of the government was not allowed but also several other topics were forbidden including several words such as "Murad" (the name of the deposed previous sultan) or "Armenia" [ES92, p. 17]. Thus when the fifteenth-century mosque of Murad II was restored the structure was described as "the mosque of the heaven-dwelling father of ... Mehmed the Conqueror". Assassinations of kings and other prominent figures were another taboo subject. Their deaths were reported but attributed to fictitious illnesses. Thus the death of U.S. president McKinley was attributed to anthrax and the simultaneous deaths of king Alexander and queen Draga of Serbia (assassinated during a coup) were blamed on indigestion (BL02a, p. 187-188). Of course, censorship extended to books as well as newspapers.

Abdülhamid also created an extensive network of police spies that would report any "subversive" talk or action. Ottoman subjects were far less free at the start of the 20th century than they were at the start of the 19th century.

German Inroads in the Middle East

A Prussian military mission had been entrusted with the modernization of the Ottoman army as early as 1835 (see Chapter 19) and since that time the Germans were viewed by the Ottomans as friends. Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Istanbul twice during Abdülhamid's reign in 1889 and in 1898, the first Western sovereign to do so. The Germans embarked in a policy of encouraging Panislamism in the hope that Muslim rebellions would dislodge the British from the Middle East. McMeekin's book "The Berlin-Baghdad Express" provides a comprehensive history of such efforts [SM10]. The book is much broader than its title implies. It is better described by the subtitle: "The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power". The narrative starts with Kaiser Wilhelm's first visit that took place just a year after he had become emperor [ibid, pp. 7-10].

In his second visit Kaiser Wilhelm visited Jerusalem on October 29, 1898. He dedicated a German Protestant church but he also take care of the Catholics by sending a telegram to Pope Leo XIII offering his protection of Catholics in the Holy Land. On November 2 he met with Theodor Herzl and made a public statement "Your movement ... is based on a sound, healthy idea. There is room here for everyone ..." [ibid, pp. 12-13]. The Kaiser next visited Damascus where he laid a wreath on the tomb of Saladin and offering to build a marble mausoleum in his honor. He topped it all by declaring in a speech: "May the Sultan (i.e. Abdülhamid) and his 300 million subjects scattered across the earth, who venerate him as their Caliph, be assured that the German Kaiser will be their friend for all time". There were several problems with this declaration: the Shia Muslims of Persia and what is now southern Iraq did not accept the Ottoman sultan as their caliph; and most important, many of the 300 million Muslims were subject of Britain or France. But of course, that was the point for the German Kaiser. He wanted to use Islam to cause trouble for the British and the French [ibid, pp. 14-15].

It was another Drang nach Osten (Push Eastward). The term originally referred to German expansion to the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe, this time the push was in the Ottoman lands and beyond. Pillars of this policy were the German organizers/advisers of the Ottoman army and navy and projects such as the Berlin-Baghdad railroad. The construction of the railroad did not begin until 1903 and only on the flat section from Konya to the Taurus mountains (there were already lines from Berlin to Istanbul and from Istanbul to Konya) but it created significant German presence in Ottoman lands [ibid, p. 45].

The Balkans in Early 20th Century


Bulgaria was formed by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. The European powers installed as prince of Bulgaria the German prince Alexander of Battenberg. In 1885 Bulgaria absorbed the autonomous Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia and this led Serbia to declare war against Bulgaria. Serbia lost the war and Bulgaria kept Eastern Rumelia. Alexander lost the throne as a result of military coup and left the country in 1886. The Bulgarians "invited" an Austrian prince to rule them, who reigned as Ferdinand I. Bulgaria declare itself a kingdom in 1908 and Ferdinand took the title of tsar.


Greece had become a kingdom in 1832 under Otto of Bavaria, a foreign king imposed upon the Greeks by the "protector powers" of England, France, and Russia. On September 3, 1843 he was forced to grant a constitution. However, the role of constitutional monarch did not suit Otto very well and he kept interfering in politics so another revolt broke out and he was forced to abdicate and leave Greece. The choice of the next king fell again on the "protector powers" who chose the 17 year old Danish prince Wilhelm who became king of Greece as George I in 1864. To keep the "balance of power" in 1867 he married a Russian princess, granddaughter of tsar Nicholas I, who became queen Olga. She was only 16 years old at the time of the wedding. (A bit of trivia: She is the paternal grandmother of prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.) Britain showed her approval of the new king by ceding the Ionian islands to Greece.

Greece acquired Thessaly in 1881 as a consequence of the treaty of 1878 treaty of Berlin, but it almost lost it when it waged an unsuccessful war against the Ottomans in 1897. It kept Thessaly only because of the intervention of Britain and Russia. The island of Crete became autonomous in the same time and Prince George, second son of George and Olga, was appointed high-commissioner of the Island, again under the sponsorship of the protector powers Britain, France, Russia, and Italy.

Greece remained a poor country and in 1893 it declared insolvency. As a result the foreign debtors put a lien on several of the state revenues, conditions even more onerous than those imposed recently by the IMF.

The sad state of affairs both in finance and the loss to the Ottoman armies led to a military coup in 1909. The army installed the Cretan politician Eleftherios Venizelos as prime minister and he set on to reorganize the army and the state.


Montenegro was never part of the Ottoman empire and since the Middle Ages had been ruled by a bishop. Eventually it became a principality whose independence was recognized by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. At that time it was ruled by prince Nicholas I who proclaimed himself king in 1910. Its name means "Black Mountain" (in Venetian dialect of Italian) and it is a very small country (and it was even smaller in the past). At about 5,000 square miles is a little smaller than the state of Connecticut. (After WW-I Montenegro was absorbed into Yugoslavia but it became an independent state again after the breakup of Yugoslavia.)


Romania was formed from the Ottoman provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia. There were several revolts against the Ottoman in mid 19th century and the "United Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia" were formed in 1859 under the Moldavian prince Alexander John Cuza. In 1862 the principalities were merge into one country named Romania. Alexander was forced out by a military coup in 1866 and was replaced by the German prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen who took the name Carol I. He ruled first as prince and since 1878 (after the Treaty of Berlin) as king.


Serbia had become an independent kingdom in 1878 with its ruling prince taking now the title of king. In contrast to Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania the Serbian kings were natives of their country with two dynasties fighting for the throne: Obrenovitz (1815-1842 and 1858-1903) and Karageorgevitz (1807-1815, 1842-1858, and 1903 to post WW II). The last Obrenovitz king Alexander and his queen Draga were killed in a military coup that restored the Karageorgevitz dynasty.

The Macedonian Question

The Ottoman Province of Macedonia contained a mixture of ethnic groups with the two major Christians groups being the Greeks and the Bulgarians. Both the Greek and the Bulgarian governments supported their respective ethnic groups and there was considerable three-way irregular warfare with each group fighting the other and both fighting the Ottomans. The conflict reached its peak in the 1904-1908 period. Western Europe tried to intervene and then sent military missions, supposedly, to re-organize the Ottoman police. Macedonia was divided into six zones, each assigned to one of the European powers: England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Russia. The goal was to create eventually an autonomous state under Ottoman suzerainty. However, that plan was rendered irrelevant by the subsequent Balkan wars.

The Balkan Wars 1912-13

In 1912 Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria formed an alliance and on October 18 declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The armies of the alliance made rapid progress. Thessaloniki was taken by the Greek army on October 26, on the feast of its protector Saint Demetrius. The Ottomans lost all their European possessions except for a small region around Istanbul. A new independent state of Albania came into being in 1912.

The victors fought a second war amongst themselves to divide the spoils. Greece and Serbia won over Bulgaria. Romania also joined the fray to grab some land from Bulgaria. Macedonia was divided largely between Greece and Serbia with only a small part going to Bulgaria.

The Asian and African Ottoman Possessions

North Africa

At one time the Ottoman empire included all North African countries along the Mediterranean sea. However, Algeria was taken by France in 1830, and Tunisia had the same fate in 1883. Libya was taken by Italy in 1911. Egypt had been de-facto independent from the sultan since 1840 and it came under the British in 1882.

Immigration of Jews

The Asian possessions of the Ottomans were still intact at the turn of the century but there was a new development in Palestine, immigration of Jews from Europe. There had always been Jews in Palestine but their numbers started increasing in the 19th century as a result of European anti-Semitism. As the 19th century was drawing to a close European hostility to Jews reached new heights, exemplified by the Dreyfus Affair in France and the rise of the anti-Semitic Austrian politician Karl Lueger. Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) came with the idea that since the Jews were not accepted in Europe, they must have there own state in the old land of Israel. It is claimed that Herzl was inspired from the example of the Greek revolution where another ancient people established claim on their old homeland.

Herzl tried to negotiate an agreement with sultan Abdülhamid II but he was not successful. Still Jewish immigration continued and the area saw increased economic prosperity. The net result was that the conditions of the Balkans (and Macedonia in particular) were replicated in Palestine.

The 1908 Coup of the Young Turks

The term "Young Turks" refers to a movement whose members were educated Ottoman Turks who advocated constitutional monarchy and modernization of the empire. Its main organization was the Committee of Union and Progress (C.U.P.). In July 1908 there was a mutiny in the Third Army Corps in Macedonia led by Young Turk officers. They sent an ultimatum to the sultan demanding the restoration of the Constitution and on July 23 Abdülhamid II gave in [BL02a, pp. 207-209]. There was great public displays of joy with Ottoman citizens of different creeds embracing each other. The constitution was granting equal rights to all citizens. However the euphoria was short lived. Lewis provides the following quote from the Turkish historian Y. H. Bayur [ibid, p. 210]:

"There are very few movements in the world that have given rise to such great hopes as the Ottoman Constitutional Revolution; there are likewise very few movements whose hopes have been so swiftly and finally disappointed."

In April 1909 there was a counter-revolution led by Albanian troops of the First Army Corps (stationed in Istanbul) and by the newly formed Muhammadan Union that advocated Muslim orthodoxy and a "revolutionary Islamic internationalism". The rebels claimed that the Shariat law was in danger and they wanted to make sure it remained in force. (A note to the reader: If you think that the al-Qaeda ideology is new, think again.) The rebellion spread to the provinces and in Adana there was a massacre of thousands of Armenians. The counter-revolution was short lived. It was put down in less than ten days by troops from the Third Army Corps. They also forced Abdülhamid II to abdicate and imprisoned him in Salonica. He was succeeded by his brother Mehmed V. [ibid, p. 215-217]

The turmoil of the revolution gave the opportunities to other countries to grab Ottoman territories. Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina (it had been governing them since 1878); Bulgaria became an independent kingdom; and Crete announced its union with Greece. The reaction of the new government was swift and hypocritical. In the name of "no distinction of race or creed" they initiated a process of Turkification that affected not only the Christian and Jewish subjects of the empire but also non-Turkish Muslims such as Albanians and Arabs. There were widespread hangings of Muslim opponents of the regime starting with the chief Eunuch of the imperial harem. In January 1912 they dissolved the parliament and held a new election where the governing party won 269 out of 275 seats in the parliament. There were further changes in the government but the next big event was the Balkan War that started on October 18, 1912 [ibid, pp. 218-224].

It may be instructive to compare the failed revolution of the Young Turks to the successful Meiji restoration in 1868 that led to the modernization of Japan. The Meiji restoration was achieved by an alliance between low-ranking samurai and merchants (who were considered the lowest class in the times of the shoguns). The Young Turks may correspond to the low-ranking samurai but the merchants of the Ottoman empire were from religious minorities, also held down, but not connected to the army officers who were the core of the Young Turks. The alliance that was all important in Japan was missing in the Ottoman empire. Trying to create a common Ottoman consciousness in 1908 was futile given the existence of several ethnic states in the Balkans. It might have been possible 200 years earlier before nationalism raised its ugly head.

The End of the Empire

The C.U.P. had been removed from power by a military coup in July 1912 but came back roaring in January 1913. By July 1913 the Young Turks had established a military dictatorship dominated by three relatively young men Enver Pasha (born in 1881), Talat Pasha (born in 1874), and Djemal Pasha (born in 1872). They unleashed a veritable "reign of terror" [ibid, pp. 223-226].

Given, the German involvement in Ottoman affairs (see above) it was not surprising that the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers. The sultan took the extraordinary step to declare Jihad although the response amongst Muslims outside the Ottoman Empire was lukewarm [CF05, pp. 528-529]. However, the Germans took the call to Jihad seriously and tried to recruit jihadists amongst Egyptian army and police officers as well as Islamic insurgents from Persia to target Russia. A campaign against the Suez canal by the Fourth Ottoman Army under Djemal pasha received major German support and a German officer, colonel Kress served as advisor to the Ottomans. Kress tried to recruit Bedouin warriors with little success. The army reached its target in February 1915 but it was easily repulsed by the British [SM10, pp. 89-95, 166-179]. The German hopes for Muslim deserters from the British army did not materialize and the Arabs in the Ottoman ranks proved poor soldiers. McMeekin quotes German observers to the effect that "the Bedouins, followed rapidly by Arab regulars, turned tail almost Immediately" [ibid, p. 177].

The British had little trouble with the Ottoman armies. Basra was captured in November 1914, Baghdad in October 1916, and Jerusalem in 1917 [CF05, p. 530]. Ottoman armies also fared poorly against the Russians. There was only one bright spot. An Ottoman army under the general Mustafa Kemal Pasha repulsed an allied landing in the Dardanelles and saved the capital from falling to the British-led forces.

But that stance was not enough to save the empire. As the World War came to end in the Western Front, the Ottomans signed an armistice on October 30, 1918 and by November 13 an allied fleet had anchored in the port of Istanbul. The three young pashas, Enver, Talal, and Djemal fled the country. On February 8, 1919 the French general d'Esperey rode into Istanbul on a white horse. The Ottoman defeat was complete. French troops took possession of Syria as well as Cilicia and Italian troops landed in Antalya (SW part of Turkey). The British occupied the Dardanelles and other strategic points and on May 15, 1919 a Greek army landed in Izmir (Smyrna) and began advancing in the interior of the country. The empire was going to be dismembered. The Greeks in particular intended to annex Western Anatolia and attempt to revive the Byzantine empire, a project known as the Great Idea. [BL02a, pp. 239-242].

The Ottoman empire was about to be dismembered when an internal revolt against the Ottoman government broke out. The leader of the revolt was the hero of the resistance in the Dardanelles, Mustafa Kemal Pasha. The revolt resulted in the final death of the Ottoman empire and the birth of the modern Turkish state. We discuss that in Chapter 21.

War Casualties and Massacres of Non-Muslims

The war had caused enormous losses amongst the Ottomans, about 800,000 combatants died, half from enemy action and half from disease [CF05, p. 530]. However, there were other victims, non-Muslim civilians who died as a result of Ottoman action. The deportations of Armenians and Pontiac Greeks resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The advance of Russian troops in the Caucasus front raised hopes for independence amongst Armenians as well as Pontiac Greeks and some of them took arms in support of the Russians. The Ottoman government reaction was ruthless. They ordered all non-Muslims civilians living in the North Eastern Anatolia deported to Syria and Iraq, far away from the front. The deportees had to walk on foot for hundreds of miles and were also subject to attacks by bandits [ibid, pp. 533-535]. See Figure 2 for a snapshot of such a deportation.

These actions were a prime example of ethnic cleansing and they are usually referred to as the Armenian Genocide and the Greek Pontiac Genocide. The modern Turkish government objects to the use of the term "genocide" and the thrust of their argument is that these people were not put deliberately to death by official orders. This is only partly true and even if it were complete true it would not absolve the authorities because their orders resulted in actions that led to the deaths. To understand the enormity of the Ottoman over-reaction imagine that the US government decided to deport all members of an ethnic group because some of them had engaged in criminal activity. The fact that there was provocation does not excuse the virtual extermination of civilians, many of them far from the war zone and many of them not sympathetic to the rebels. On the other hand, the extermination of Jews by the Nazis was a far worse crime than that committed by the Ottomans. To start with there was absolute no provocation and the Jews were deliberately killed in gas chambers or shot. It is probably best not to use the same term to describe on one hand the killing of Jews by the Nazis and on the other hand the deportations of the Armenians and Pontiac Greeks by the Ottomans. The criminal code provides different terminology for different kinds of individual killings (different degrees of murder and manslaughter) but there is no range of terms for mass killings resulting from official actions.

Figure 2: Armenians being marched while guarded by Turkish soldiers.
Source: According to Wikipedia the original was published by the American Red Cross.


First Posted: April 8, 2011. Latest Revision: May 1, 2011.

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