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When do empires end?

Credit: Getty

May 23, 2018   7 mins

In February, Recep Erdoğan issued an imperial warning to Donald Trump. The US military had backed the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and pushed ISIS out of most of northern Syria to a remote area astride the border with Iraq. Erdoğan sees the YPG as an arm of Kurdish rebels in Turkey, and launched an operation against the group in the north-western Syrian enclave of Afrin, threatening also an offensive towards the Syrian town of Manbij where US troops were training Kurd forces. If US troops stood in his way, said Erdoğan, he would deliver an “Ottoman slap”.1

Things have gone quiet since, but what does Erdoğan’s reference to the Ottoman empire have to say about modern Turkey’s relationship with its imperial past? Indeed, what does it say generally about empires eclipsed by defeat in war rather than by longer-term organic decline?

If Thomas Hardy had written his poem In Time of “The Breaking of Nations” in 1918 rather than in 1915, he might have written not “Nations” but “Empires”. The First World War was the end of four of them: the German, Austro-Hungarian, Tsarist Russian and Ottoman. It left only the British and (of a sort) the French, and begat a new one, the Japanese.

Das Kaiserliche Deutsche Reich came to an official end in 1919 at Versailles (where it had been proclaimed in 1871). The instinct for a greater German imperium quickly revived, however, and was only properly subdued in 1945 with Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies after almost six years of devastating war, and the making thereafter of the Federal Republic.

While Berlin has since 1945 been content with liberal democracy, recently Vienna and Budapest have taken a backwards look

The fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was linked to that of the Deutsche Reich. The Österreichisch-Ungarisches Reich was also dissolved at Versailles. Its two former monarchies were, however, inveigled by Hitler into seeking past glories, and they too paid the price in 1945. Ironically, though, while Berlin has since 1945 been content with liberal democracy, recently Vienna and Budapest have taken a backwards look. Neither, though, show any interest in moving their borders – only strengthening them.

The fall of Russia in 1918 came six months before that of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Exhausted by three years of war for which the Russian army was ill-equipped, revolution had swept the Tsar from his palace the previous year, and then the moderate socialist government that followed, and in March 1918 the new Bolshevik Russia signed a peace treaty with Germany. In consequence, the old imperial Russia lost much territory. Moscow (now the capital) had not surrendered unconditionally, though. Russia’s future was not entirely ordained by its former enemy, therefore, and its leaders soon proved keen for a new Russian imperium, if only for “security”. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics soon looked as great an entity as had imperial Russia in 1914. Indeed, in 1940 it became in effect even larger. “New General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is but old tsar writ large.”

Nor was Russia’s second defeat, in the Cold War, unconditional surrender either. And just as in the 1920s, after several years of civil war, albeit this time less bloody, the instinct for the imperium returned, and with it the new tsar: President Putin.

The case of the Ottoman Empire is rather different, and altogether more complicated. The empire was created some 800 years ago by Turkish tribes in Asia Minor. The word “Ottoman” itself derives from  the founding Turkmen chief: Osman – in Arabic, the language of the empire, ‘Uthmān. At its height, the Ottoman empire included modern Hungary, the Balkans, Greece and parts of Ukraine. On the other side of the Bosphorus – Asia – the Ottomans conquered huge tracts of the Middle East: modern Iraq, Syria, Israel and large parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Egypt and North Africa as far west as Algeria fell to them too. In 1529, however, the Ottomans were defeated at the gates of Vienna, and with that began their long recessional in Europe.

Although by 1914, the Ottomans in Europe had been pushed back to within 150 miles of Constantinople, much of the African empire had been lost to the British and French, (much of) Greece had broken free, and Cyprus was under British dominion, the empire still ranged extensively in the Middle East.2

Constantinople’s declaration of war on the Entente ended by violently fracturing the Middle East

One of the greatest catastrophes of the First World War was the Ottomans’ siding with the Central Powers. Successive British prime ministers, beginning with Palmerston, who viewed the empire as important to the continental balance of power, Gladstone who thought likewise, and Salisbury who wanted to see an orderly contraction to reduce great power rivalry, had been on good terms with the Porte, as the Ottoman government was known. (The Crimean War had in part been fought to stop Russian advances on Ottoman territory and suzerainty). Constantinople’s declaration of war on the Entente ended by violently fracturing the Middle East. Moreover, it eroded Russia’s ability to withstand German and Austrian aggression, from which arose the revolution.

But the Entente powers had been reluctant to give any guarantees respecting the future of the empire, and the Kaiser had assiduously courted the Porte in the decade before. And so in November 1914 “the Sick Man of Europe”, as Tsar Nicholas had called Turkey before the Crimean War, rose from his bed to put up a gallant but ultimately futile fight against the might of the British empire.

In October 1918, with the whole of the Middle East lost and the Entente closing in on Constantinople itself, the Ottoman rulers fled for Berlin. Soon afterwards British, French and Italian troops entered the city from the west.

The old caliphate was abolished, all remaining members of the Ottoman dynasty expelled from the country, and (from 1928) Islam was no longer the state religion: the republic was to be avowedly secular

What then was to be done with the Sultan’s old empire? Half the Middle East was in no state to look after itself; promises – some of them contradictory (Balfour had promised the Jews a homeland in Israel; Lawrence of Arabia had promised the Arabs self-government and a tract of Palestine) now looked impractical; and there were oil fields into which much British investment had been poured and out of which much oil needed to pour to help the recovery of the former allies.

Initially, Russia had been promised Constantinople (Istanbul) and the straits – their longed for opening into the Mediterranean – together with tracts of Asia Minor along the southern coast of the Black Sea. By the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of January 1916 (named after the two “diplomats” who drew the lines on the map), the French were to have a sphere of influence in Syria, extending eastward to Mosul in Iraq, while in addition to ruling Egypt as a protectorate, the British sphere of influence in Mesopotamia was to extend from the Persian Gulf to Baghdad, and Palestine was to be placed under international control. Italy, too, had been promised a share, in return for joining the war on the Entente’s side – the Dodecanese and a large area of south-western Anatolia, including Izmir.

Russia’s withdrawal from the war in early 1918, and other factors, led to modifications of the agreements, however, which were not were finally presented to the new government in Constantinople until 1920. By the Treaty of Sèvres (some of the negotiations actually took place in the famous porcelain factory in the Paris suburb), the Turks would retain Istanbul, a part of Thrace (European Turkey), but would lose all the Arab provinces, and cede a large tract of Asia Minor to a newly created Armenian state with access to the sea. The straits would be internationalized, and strict control of Ottoman finances established.

However, in early 1919 a campaign of resistance had begun, led by the former army general Mustapha Kemal – “Ataturk”. The Allies found the campaign impossible to counter – there was actually little fighting, except between Turkish factions and some ethnic minorities – and conceded the declaration of a Turkish republic in October 1923, with Ataturk its first president. The old caliphate was abolished, all remaining members of the Ottoman dynasty expelled from the country, and (from 1928) Islam was no longer the state religion: the republic was to be avowedly secular.

In choosing to use the word “Ottoman” in his warning to the United States, President Erdoğan reveals that to him too, Sèvres is unfinished business.

The Sèvres treaty was modified accordingly, but ever since it has helped fuel what has been described as a form of nationalist paranoia – a “Sèvres syndrome” – which plays a part still in Turkey’s sensitivity over, for example, Kurdish separatism. It is at the heart, too, of Istanbul’s belief that the Armenian genocide — widely used at Sèvres to justify the plans for redistributing parts of Anatolia — was always an anti-Turkish conspiracy rather than a historical truth. Furthermore, Ataturk’s struggle against “colonial occupation” by the allied powers left a legacy of persistent anti-imperial nationalism, directed first against Britain, then during the Cold War against Russia (Turkey was an eager member in the first – 1952 – enlargement of Nato), and now increasingly against the United States.

History seems to suggest that the violent end of empires, if not terminal by a supreme act of violence such as the dropping of the atomic bomb, which ended Imperial Japan, leave unclean wounds wherein infection develops and then threatens to spread. These wounds need long-term dressing, and the essential organs of the state need to be kept working properly, if the successor polity is to remain healthy.

In choosing to use the word “Ottoman” in his warning to the United States, President Erdoğan reveals that to him too, Sèvres is unfinished business. (Although the rapport during his visit to London at the beginning of the month suggests that the mutual respect that historically has underlain Anglo-Turkish relations – even in war – continues.3)

His speech in Sarajevo last week – a city which in the lifetime of his grandparents was the capital of an Ottoman province – declaring that he wanted to be the protector of Muslims in the EU, was an imperial gesture. And repeating the reference to the days of the caliphate, with which he had taunted the US, asking the expatriate Turkish crowd “Are you ready to give the terrorist organisations and their local and foreign henchmen an Ottoman slap?” was not so much a gesture of incipient imperialism as the raising of an imperial standard.

The recidivist imperial gene is evidently a strong one, and if history has an imperial lesson, it is that empire means permanent war or conflict – notably with other empires or quasi-empires. President Erdoğan appears to be on increasingly good terms with that other re-emerging imperium, Russia. If history has any tendency to repeat – even to echo – itself, this does not promise to be too lasting an affair.

  1.  A full-bodied blow with the palm of the hand, said to have been used by Ottoman imperial troops to incapacitate their enemies when they found themselves unarmed.
  2.  In 1914 the total population of the Ottoman Empire was approximately 25 million, of which some 10 million were Turks, 6 million Arabs, 1.5 million Kurds, 1.5 million Greeks, and 2.5 million Armenians.
  3.  During the Gallipoli campaign, 1915, which saw some of the toughest fighting between British and Turkish troops, a letter written the night before to his wife was found on the body of a dead Turkish officer – a tender letter, filled mostly with personal matters. In it were the lines, “These British are the finest fighters in the world. We have chosen the wrong friends.”

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier, one-time Anglican seminarian, Catholic convert. Author of the Matthew Hervey novels and four works of history on the British Army, and the First World War (Penguin RandomHouse). Times and Spectator contributor.


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