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David Barchard goes back to the year that ended Ottoman absolutism
Apart from an exhibition at the Sadberk Hanım Museum in Istanbul last summer, with its impressive catalogue, and a seminar in Ankara, the centenary of the 1908 revolution in Turkey went almost unnoticed. Until the 1930s things were very different. July 24, the date of Abdülhamid II’s restoration of the 1876 constitution, ending more than three decades of personal rule, was an annual public holiday, known as the Freedom Bayram.
However, the absence of celebrations today is no mystery. The revolution was a turning point in Turkish history which, far from achieving its aim of preventing partition of the Ottoman Empire, opened the way for a series of ever more terrible disasters, starting with the Balkan War of 1912, in which Turkey lost most of its European possessions, and culminating in defeat in the First World War.
This decade of catastrophes cost over 2.3 million Muslim lives in Anatolia alone. And Turkey did not regain the level of material prosperity it had enjoyed before the war until perhaps the late 1950s.
Had Atatürk not led his country to victory in the War of Independence (1919–1923), Turkey would have survived only as an inland rump state in central Anatolia. Nevertheless the Young Turk revolution of 1908–09 was one of the most momentous turnarounds in pre-First World War European history. Without it Turkey would not be the country it is today. After 600 years the very idea of absolute monarchy disappeared from the Turkish political landscape. Nationalism, parliamentary rule and popular sovereignty put down permanent roots. Though they were, ultimately, failures (villains in the eyes of the rest of the world) the Young Turk leaders, Enver, Talât, Cemal and Cavit, came from nowhere but were, by any standards, outstanding politicians.
Like most great revolutions, the events of 1908 took everyone – including probably the revolutionaries – by surprise. It was a difficult year – the time of the biggest recession in world markets until the 1930s. In Turkey violence in Macedonia in the summer months ran at around 200 deaths a month in cross-cutting conflicts between Greeks and Bulgarians as well as Muslims. Britain and Russia showed signs of wanting to intervene – something likely to trigger the break-up of the empire’s remaining Balkan territories. The creaking absolutist system of Abdülhamid appeared unable to respond effectively to the danger, designed more to suppress internal dissent than to defend the Ottoman lands.
In previous decades several groups of opponents to the Sultan had set up organisations in exile in Europe and Egypt with the aim of restoring constitutional rule. They attracted a good deal of press coverage, though European governments paid them no heed. It was not, however, the well-known exiles who overthrew Abdülhamid, but officers in the Ottoman Third Army in the frontline towns of Manastır and Selanik (Saloniki). These coup-makers were in a sense Abdülhamid’s children, products of the schools and training he had created to form the Ottoman army and civil service.
At the beginning of July 1908, army officers in Manastır took to the hills, led by Resneli Niyazi Bey and a Major Enver Bey. A few days later the Marseillaise, hymn to liberty and revolution, began to be played in the barracks. The plotters apparently hoped to bring down the Sultan by the end of August, the anniversary of his accession. The British Consul in Manastır was quietly warned on July 13 that a revolution was about to take place. Although a general sent by the Sultan to restore order had been murdered five days before, this seemed quite unlikely. But events moved with unexpected rapidity.
Just 10 days later, on the night of the 23rd, after a long meeting with his ministers in the Yıldız Palace in Istanbul, the Sultan recognised that the basis of his rule had crumbled and that he could no longer count on the loyalty of his armies, and he proclaimed the restoration of the constitution. Support for the Young Turk conspirators in Manastır had spread rapidly among civilians in the capital and among some, though not yet all, of the armed forces elsewhere – an indication that this small group was effectively eclipsing the exiled politicians to whom the name Young Turks had until now been attached.
The sultan’s unpopular ministers and the leaders of his spy networks were dismissed, and in one case lynched, after fleeing across the Bosphorus. As Abdülhamid’s police state collapsed, ordinary people flocked into the streets of Constantinople and other cities, embracing each other with a joy which at least temporarily transcended distinctions of religion, race or language. For the first time in 30 years it was possible to talk about politics and international affairs. Commemorative plates and shields were created, celebrating the constitution and the restoration of the Westernising reformist tradition in Turkey which had begun in the 1840s with the Tanzimat.
British influence temporarily eclipsed that of Germany in Turkey and processions gathered at the British Embassy gates “to do honour” to Britain for its supposed support for the revolution. Sir Gerald Lowther, the new ambassador, was greeted by enthusiastic demonstrators. But the revolution had taken the British by surprise. They hankered a little for Abdülhamid’s personal rule, and the embassy turned out to be a poor ally.
Who would take over the government? The Sultan’s first choice was Sait Pasha, 78, regarded as pro-British and therefore pro-democratic, but he lasted just two weeks, for he was unacceptable to the revolutionaries. Behind the scenes the Young Turks were beginning to direct events. Their choice for head of the government was the more definitely Anglophile and liberal Kâmil Pasha, 76, who had been much less close to the Sultan and his despotism. Kâmil held the post for six months, until his dismissal in mid-February 1909.
The Sultan and the Young Turk revolutionaries now shared power. Abdülhamid proclaimed that he had always been a constitutionalist at heart. For the first time ever in Turkish history, a form of politics based on the people rather than the Sultan started to get under way. A new National Assembly, successor to the one that had shut down in 1877, had to be elected. The election process started in November but, as in other Ottoman elections, an indirect system of voting was used, and it was not until December 17 that it was eventually able to meet.
Two parties competed in the elections and the Assembly that emerged from it. The first was the Young Turks themselves, now organised with like-minded returning exiles, who campaigned as the Committee for Union and Progress. They represented, generally speaking, younger junior officials and the middle classes, who were seeking radical centralising modernisation and an end to foreign economic control in the empire. From mid-September they were opposed by a rival to their right, the Liberal Union, of which the grand vizier, Kâmil Pasha, soon became a member. One of their key figures was a journalist, Ali Kemal, an eloquent liberal-conservative writer in the anti-Committee for Union and Progress newspaper, İkdam, who quickly became a national, indeed international, figure. He had served several years in exile in Syria under Abdülhamid, had travelled in Europe and had an English wife, and favoured what we would now call multiculturalism. One of his descendants is, famously, the present mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Ali Kemal himself, for all his talents, could never win an election, and the Liberal Union itself was not much more popular. In the 1908 elections it won not one parliamentary seat in the capital, even though it presided over the government.
This weakness was at first disguised by the fact that Kâmil Pasha headed the government, while the Young Turks were largely in the shadows, not initially trying to hold the reins of power themselves. So their Liberal Union opponents overestimated their own strength. The carnival-like atmosphere in December, when the new National Assembly opened, was quickly followed by political siege warfare. On January 26 The Times reported a self-confident “Banquet of Ottoman Liberals”, at which Kâmil, Ali Kemal and İsmail Kemal Bey, a veteran Ottoman liberal and former disciple of Mithat Pasha, now an advocate of Albanian rights and greater decentralisation, toasted each other with speeches marking the anniversary of the foundation of the Ottoman Empire. But they must have had some sense of their own insecurity. The previous day the Ottoman liberals had decisively thrown out a parliamentary bill to introduce direct elections and universal suffrage in future elections.
Storm clouds were gathering at home and abroad. On October 11 the previous autumn, just two months after the revolution, Bulgaria had declared its full independence, casting off Ottoman suzerainty, and the same day Austria-Hungary announced the annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina. Other countries were now sizing up Turkish military strength to see if the empire’s remaining possessions, including the capital itself, might be grabbed.
In early February Kâmil Pasha inadvertently triggered his own downfall. The Young Turks seem to have been happy with him as long as he respected the power-sharing deal that brought him to power. But when he attempted to force out of office the two Committee for Union and Progress ministers in the cabinet controlling the army and the navy, he was clearly trying to eliminate the Young Turks. The pasha had triumphed in a vote of confidence a month earlier and supposed that he would do so again.
Even Abdülhamid saw the move as a naked play for power. “I know Kâmil Pasha. This man wants to become dictator,” he commented as he signed his approval as a dutiful constitutional monarch.
A leading Young Turk, Talât Bey, future grand vizier of the First World War and vice-president of the Assembly, moved a motion of no confidence. Kâmil refused to appear before the house and the motion was passed by 198 votes to eight. Hüseyin Hilmi Pasha, a senior general close to the Young Turks and the outgoing Minister of the Interior, took over as head of the new government – the first-ever grand vizier to owe his position to parliament.
The new administration lasted only a turbulent month and a half. There were military mutinies in Yanina and Yıldız Palace. The Sultan’s guard was purged of its Kurdish, Laz and Albanian men. There were demonstrations around mosques, ostensibly over the persecution of Muslims in Bulgaria, and a campaign for sharia law. At the start of April, Islamists set up a party, the Ittihad-ı Muhammedî, or Mohammedan Union. Meanwhile, the liberal press was engaged in an onslaught against the Young Turks. Hasan Fehmi Bey, editor of a leading liberal paper, became the first of several Turkish journalists killed before the First World War.
As in other revolutions, a brutal test of strength had to follow. Before dawn on April 13, 1909 – March 31 in the old calendar, still officially used – there was a full-scale military mutiny in the capital. Serving men seized and bound their officers, then marched 20,000-strong on Ayasofya Square and proclaimed the sharia. The Sultan quickly announced his acceptance. In the power vacuum anti-Young-Turk liberals quickly struck deals with him.
Turkey seemed poised to go down an Islamist path. The Young Turks, fearing for their lives, vanished into hiding. The new middle classes trembled. Only Istanbul’s foreigners, protected by their privileges, were safe. Mahmud Muhtar Pasha, commander of the First Army, fled to safety in the Moda home of the Whittall family. A mob chased him to their door, only to be repelled by Mrs Whittall, wielding her umbrella. Nearer by, around Taksim Square, foreign residents such as Woods Pasha, an English naval officer in Ottoman service, watched the street violence from the rooftops of their homes. In Adana and Mersin supporters of the mutiny killed local Armenians.
The British Embassy’s official line tilted towards the Islamic counter-revolutionaries, almost certainly on the advice of Gerald Fitzmaurice, its chief dragoman, who detested the Young Turks and was widely suspected of having a hand in the uprising.
To support Ismail Kemal, temporarily head of the Assembly, Lowther issued an unwise statement saying that the constitution was still functioning. If the Ambassador intended to stop military intervention, he failed. Within 10 days the Third Army, under the stern leadership of General Mustafa Şevket Pasha, arrived from Selanik and easily regained control of the city. His chief of staff was an officer in his early thirties named Mustafa Kemal, the future founder of the Turkish Republic.
Eighty ringleaders of the revolt were hanged in the streets. Abdülhamid was deposed to finish his days in exile and his more intimate retainers hustled out of the place. “Eunuchs and wretched women from the Imperial harem who had never been in the streets before in their lives came along into the town in hundreds, and bands of captive soldiers were driven along with them,” recalled Sir Thomas Hohler. What became of them? Well, one of the ladies in the Sultan’s harem was a Circassian girl with the palace name Neşesaçan. She married a middle-ranking official, but died young of tuberculosis in 1923, though not before she had made a clear and perhaps typical transition from Palace lady to modern middle-class wife.
Hüseyin Hilmi Pasha returned as grand vizier but with Mahmut Şevket Pasha as a powerful martial-law commander in Istanbul. The Committee for Union and Progress moved closer to the centre of power. A relatively peaceful phase opened: there were two years to go before an attack by Italy plunged Turkey into the first of the terminal wars of Ottoman history.
The Young Turks themselves were riding high in international esteem, as was shown on the first anniversary of the revolution. On July 22, 1909 a delegation headed by Talât Pasha was received in London by King Edward VII and entertained to lunch at the House of Commons by the prime minister, Mr Asquith. As he raised his glass to toast friendship between Britain and Turkey, Talât – who 12 months earlier had been a recently dismissed post-office official in Selanik, working in an illegal organisation – must have reflected on the extraordinary changes that a year can bring.
The catalogue of the Sadberk Hanım Museum’s exhibition, published in June 2008 in English and Turkish, contains pictures, photographs, documents and memorabilia of the 1908–1909 revolution. Edited by Bahattin Öztuncay, with an introduction by Ömer M Koç, the book contains articles by Sinan Kuneralp, Paul Bessemer, Sacit Kutlu, David Barchard and Edhem Eldem on aspects of the period, including the early life of Enver Pasha, Ottoman Jews and Ottoman Greeks
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