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The story of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, published to coincide with the centenary of its dissolution
The Ottoman Empire had been one of the major facts in European history since the Middle Ages. By 1914 it had been much reduced, but still remained after Russia the largest European state. Stretching from the Adriatic to the Indian Ocean, the Empire was both a great political entity and a religious one, with the Sultan ruling over the Holy Sites and, as Caliph, the successor to Mohammed.
Yet the Empire’s fateful decision to support Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1914, despite its successfully defending itself for much of the war, doomed it to disaster, breaking it up into a series of European colonies and what emerged as an independent Saudi Arabia.
Ryan Gingeras’s superb new book, published for the centenary of the last Sultan’s departure into exile, explains how these epochal events came about and shows how much we still live in the shadow of decisions taken so long ago. Would all of the Empire fall to marauding Allied armies, or could something be saved? In such an ethnically and religiously entangled region, what would be the price paid to create a cohesive and independent new state? The story of the creation of modern Turkey is an extraordinary, bitter epic, brilliantly told here.
Ryan Gingeras is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, California. His previous books include Eternal Dawn: Turkey in the Age of Atatürk and Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire, which was shortlisted for the Rothschild Book Prize in Nationalism.
“In his impressive centenary history, Ryan Gingeras recounts not just the death throes of the old realm but the painful emergence of Turkey as a nation state … It is a complicated story that still reverberates under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Gingeras narrates it with lucid authority.”
Michael Prodger, New Statesman
“Gingeras takes an even-handed approach to each issue, while never making light of the horrendous tally of human suffering that emerges on every side. Turks have long been treated to an over-simplified account of their modern history. This book teaches the beginning of wisdom, which is that most human history, as it actually happened, was a terrible, bewildering mess.”
Noel Malcolm, The Telegraph
“Dispassionate and well-researched … Gingeras sets out the twisting, turning story of decline through the later part of the 19th century.”
Peter Frankopan, Financial Times
The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire, 1918–1922, takes as its starting point the military capitulation of the Ottoman Empire in October 1918. It ends with the deposition and departure into exile of the last sultan, Mehmed VI , in November 1922. The four years in between, known as the National Struggle (Milli Mücadele), were marked by foreign occupation and unspeakable violence, in which hundreds of thousands lost their lives and homes, and from which virtually no part of Anatolia was spared. It was not until after the Battle of Sakarya in September 1921, when the Nationalist army stood firm against the Greek army 100 kilometres west of Ankara, that it became clear that Turkey as we now know it had started to emerge from the chaos.
With the Armistice declared in 1918 many Ottomans were relieved to see an end to hostilities. After four years of war the Empire was exhausted and bankrupt, and large parts of Anatolia were virtually lawless. Even when, in November of that year, British and French troops occupied Istanbul and foreign warships were moored in the Bosphorus there was hope of a fair peace. The war had gone badly for Turkey, but many, including the Sultan and his grand vizier Damad Ferid Pasha, believed that the Allies would respect Ottoman frontiers at the time of the Armistice.
However, when the victorious Allies – the USA, France, Great Britain, Italy and Greece – assembled for talks in Paris in 1919 it soon became clear this would be far from the case. France and Italy claimed “zones of influence” in southern Anatolia and Cilicia, while the British prime minister David Lloyd George had promised Greece territorial gains at the expense of the Ottoman Empire if it entered the war on the Allied side.
In May 1919 the first Greek army units began to land in Izmir on the Aegean coast and to occupy its hinterland, while the French army garrisoned Antep and Urfa and the Italians occupied Antalya.
When the Allies eventually presented peace proposals to the Sultan in summer 1920 their terms were brutal. The Treaty of Sèvres, which Mehmed VI and his Council felt obliged to sign, ceded large parts of Ottoman territory to France, the United Kingdom, Greece and Italy, as well as creating occupied zones within what remained of the Empire. So it came as no surprise that such harsh terms provoked a Nationalist Resistance, which by the end of 1922 had swept foreign armies from what is now Turkey. The story of how Atatürk and his fellow Nationalist officers resumed the war against the Allies and eventually overthrew the Sultan is as complex as it is heroic. It required great leadership but also involved opportunism, good luck and acts of wild destruction such as occurred in Izmir in September 1922. The Treaty of Lausanne, signed in July 2023, established modern Turkish borders (without İskenderun and Antakya at the time). It also authorised the exchange of 400,000 Muslims from Greece xwith 1.2 million Orthodox Christians from Turkey.
Though densely written – you sometimes feel the material for five books is being compressed into a single volume – there is much that is fascinating and enjoyable in The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire. The author goes to great lengths to find Turkish sources and voices. He devotes several pages, for instance, to the career of Ahmet Şükrü Oğuz, a now obscure but once vital fellow Nationalist and potential rival to Atatürk. This is a useful reminder that the Nationalist resistance was not a solitary initiative and that Atatürk’s leadership of it was not inevitable until well into 1920. At the time of his landing in Samsun in May 1919, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, as he was then known, was by no means a household name.
This is a well-researched, readable and comprehensive overview of how modern Turkey came into being.
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