Listen to this article
Before the first world war, the term “Middle East” was virtually unknown. The Ottoman empire had ruled for centuries over the lands from the Sahara to Persia but did not refer to them as part of a single region. Coined in the mid-19th century, the phrase became popular only in the mid-20th. It reflected the growing popularity of geopolitical thinking as well as the strategic anxieties of the rivalrous great powers, and its spread was a sign of growing European meddling in the destiny of the Arab-speaking peoples.
But Europe’s war changed more than just names. In the first place, there was petroleum. The British had tightened their grip on the Persian Gulf in the early years of the new century, as the Royal Navy contemplated shifting away from coal. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company opened the enormous Abadan refinery in 1912. The British invasion of Basra — a story of imperial hubris and cataclysmic failure that Eugene Rogan weaves superbly through The Fall of the Ottomans — thus marked the beginning of the world’s first oil conflict.
Second, there was the British turn to monarchy as a means of securing political influence. The policy began in Egypt, which British troops had been occupying since 1882. Until the Ottomans entered the war, Whitehall had solemnly kept to the juridical fiction that Egypt remained a province of their empire. After November, that was no longer possible and the British swiftly changed the constitutional order: the khedive Abbas II, who happened to be in Istanbul at the time, was deposed and his uncle, Husayn Kamil, was proclaimed the country’s sultan. In this way the British unilaterally declared an end to almost four centuries of Ottoman rule in favour of a puppet who would allow their continued control of the Suez Canal.
This was not the only way the British could have taken over: Cyprus, for instance, they simply annexed. But the Egyptian strategy was less of a slap in the face to the local population and this kind of imperial improvisation became the template for the region after 1918, when Hashemite princes were placed in charge of one new kingdom after another for no very good reason other than their likely subservience to British wishes. A fine system it was most of the time too, at least for the British, and it is not surprising that when the Americans took over in the region during the cold war, they did their best to keep it going.
Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Arabs: A History (2009), has written a remarkably readable, judicious and well-researched account of the Ottoman war in Anatolia and the Arab provinces. The Fall of the Ottomans is especially good on showing the fighting across multiple fronts and from both sides of the lines, and it draws effectively upon the papers, memoirs and diaries of soldiers and civilians. The Basra notable Sayyid Talib, the Armenian priest Grigoris Balakian and the Turkish corporal Ali Riza Eti provide perspectives that rarely make it into mainstream narratives of the first world war.
They depict fighting of extraordinary intensity — from the trenches of the Gallipoli peninsula, where Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) made his name, to the mountains of the Caucasus, where thousands of Ottoman soldiers froze to death. We see the plight of the Armenians in all its grimness but also the starvation that swept across much of Syria as the war ended. Between the fighting on multiple fronts, the deaths from massacre and starvation, and the almost complete dislocation of economic life across swaths of Anatolia and the Arab provinces, the war that ended Ottoman rule also destroyed many of the institutions that had sustained it.
In the second world war, Turkey made sure it remained neutral. Could not the empire have done so in 1914? When hostilities broke out that summer across Europe, the Young Turk triumvirate in Istanbul did stay out of the conflict for a few months, holding back until deciding to throw their lot in with the Central Powers.
This decision precipitated the disastrous campaigns — along the Suez Canal, in eastern Anatolia against the Russians, and in the Dardanelles in defence of the capital Istanbul — that nearly destroyed the empire completely. By April 1915, the Russians had crushed Enver’s Third Army in the east and the British were landing thousands of troops on the Gallipoli peninsula. It was at this moment of maximal threat that the Young Turk leadership took the decision to massacre Anatolia’s Armenians, a story Rogan tells with sensitivity, insight and judiciousness.
The ongoing political controversy over the genocide — Rogan rightly deploys the word but does not make too much of the dispute, consigning it to an excellent endnote — has overshadowed some critical historical questions. The basic point is that the war created a crisis of legitimacy that was especially severe in the Ottoman lands. Imperial tax-raising power was limited and the Ottoman bureaucracy did not have the capacity to organise a proper rationing system. This weakness forced it to rely much more than other states on political intermediaries and thuggish, well-armed irregulars. At the same time, the prospect of defeat made the Young Turk leadership ever more suspicious of vast swaths of the population irrespective of religion — Ottoman loyalists, refugees settled from Albania, Bosnia and all the other lost lands of the Balkans, and, perhaps above all, the Arabs.
Rogan documents the wartime repression in greater Syria in particular, which alienated so many notables. Meanwhile, starvation claimed a staggering 300,000–500,000 lives in Syria and Lebanon alone. The sense of social collapse is palpable and must have been intensified by something that Rogan does not discuss — the influenza of 1918–1919, which may have cost Iran alone up to one-fifth of its population. The losses in greater Syria and Iraq were probably just as devastating. This story of the war’s impact on social life across the region still awaits its historian.
Territorially, the ending of the Ottoman empire created the present Middle East. The new republic of Turkey eventually won independence for itself, primarily in its Anatolian heartland. Elsewhere, the former imperial provinces were handed over to the war’s victors by the new League of Nations and ruled under fictions of conditional sovereignty that they called mandates. With the exception of the as yet non-existent Israel, the map of the region that emerged in the 1920s looks much as it does today. Yet drawing boundaries round the conference table was one thing; coping with the catastrophic repercussions of four years of war was quite another. Helping us to understand the difficulties the states of the Middle East have endured since then, and the challenges they continue to face, Rogan’s book takes us back to the moment of their birth, a moment in which one imperial order collapsed and gave way to another.
The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920, by Eugene Rogan, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 512 pages, published in the US in March by Basic Books
Mark Mazower is a professor of history at Columbia University and author of ‘Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews’ (Harper)
Get alerts on Books when a new story is published