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Thursday, April 16, 2015

How the Ottomans Ruined the 20th Century

 
World War I was only a global conflict when the Ottoman Empire joined the fray. Those consequences—from genocide to new borders—are still felt today.
 
After reading the fascinating initial chapter of Eugene Rogan’s new history of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, I was struck with a recurring thought: The wonder is not so much that this sprawling 600-year-old Muslim empire fell victim to the convulsions of world conflict in 1918, but that it somehow managed to survive at all as a world power up to the war’s opening salvos. Founded by Central Asian Muslim tribes in 1299, at its height in the late 17th century the empire spanned three continents, taking in the Balkans in southern Europe, Arab lands from Mesopotamia to Morocco, and much of Asia Minor. Since the beginning of the 18th century Istanbul found itself almost continually at war with Europe’s imperial powers.

Invariably, it came out on the losing end. Egypt and most of North Africa were lost to Britain and France by 1882, while Russia gobbled up one province of eastern Anatolia after another.

Nor were the predations of the Great Powers the only serious problem. The Ottomans were mired in internal conflicts between the dominant Turks and the many other peoples who paid allegiance to the Sultan in Istanbul, including Serbs, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, and Arabs. These groups had begun to absorb Western ideas of nationalism and self-determination—ideas that sparked numerous rebellions and crackdowns on suspected subversives within the Empire. The most notorious of the latter would ultimately fester into the 1915-1916 deportation-mass murder campaign against the Christian Armenians from their Anatolian homelands. As many as a million defenseless Armenians lost their lives.

It was not a foregone conclusion that the Turks would fight in World War I at all. Many leading political figures in Istanbul favored neutrality as the surest road to bringing about long-overdue administrative and economic modernization with the aid of investments from all the European powers. In the end, however, the triumvirate of pashas who ruled the Empire came to believe an alliance with an ascendant Germany, in which Berlin would pay for much of the war effort and military training, would be the surest path to re-conquest of lost provinces, the shoring up its faltering influence in the Middle East, and internal modernization. It was the Ottoman entrance into the war on the side of the Central Powers that transformed a European war into a truly global conflict.

For their part, the Germans gained the use of a large Ottoman army that could take the pressure off their inevitable battle against Russia in the East by launching a campaign in the Caucasus. More important, Germany hoped to exploit the Ottoman sultan’s role as caliph over the entire world community of Muslims. Of course, the British, Russian, and French empires contained millions of Muslims. The Germans wanted the Caliph to declare a jihad against their adversaries, hoping to bring about mass uprisings that would cripple the war efforts of the Triple Entente, and the Caliph was happy to oblige.

The initial Ottoman campaigns did not go well. Enver Pasha, the Ottoman minister of war, hoped to duplicate the Germans’ masterful envelopment at Tannenberg against the Russians, prompting the destruction of an entire Russian army. Geography, poor weather, and inadequate logistics, however, led to a crushing Ottoman defeat and the loss of 80,000 troops. Several divisions of Armenian Christians fought on the Russian side in the campaign, and in the wake of the loss, the large Armenian population within the Ottoman Empire found themselves victims of the 20th century’s first genocide. Rogan unpacks the complicated tragedy of the Armenian persecution deftly and sensitively, concluding that “the bitter irony is that the annihilation of the Armenians and other Christian communities in no way improved the security of the Ottoman Empire,” though that was its primary object.

More: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/14/how-the-ottomans-ruined-the-20th-century.html

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