The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire by Ryan Gingeras – fall of the sultans | History books

BAt the end of 1918, after four increasingly grim years of warfare, revolution was in the air across Europe. Thrones wobbled; abdicated rulers. In the space of months, the great, centuries-old dynasties of the Romanovs, Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns were all toppled from power.

At the eastern edge of the continent lay the vast, ancient empire that the Ottoman sultans had built up since the 14th century. At its height, around 1700, it had stretched across north Africa, Arabia, Mesopotamia and around the Black Sea, also encompassing Greece, the Balkans and the Danube valley, stopping just short of Vienna. But in the course of the 19th century, as its economic and military power declined, many of its outermost lands were lost to conquest or insurrection. Local nationalist movements, and rival colonial powers such as Russia, Britain and Austria-Hungary, stripped away Greece, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Macedonia, the lands around the Black Sea, and all of its African possessions. When the Ottomans sided with Germany in the first world war, the British and French gradually captured all of the Middle East. After the war, humiliatingly, they even occupied Istanbul itself.

Gingeras’s book compellingly charts the chaotic meltdown that followed, until the empire was abolished in 1922 and succeeded by the new nation state of Turkey.

As the territory shrank, its internal politics were increasingly riddled with divisions and conspiracies, as different groups of reformers and revolutionaries struggled for power, and over the fundamental question of what kind of nation they were. Should they regard the great European powers as sources of enlightenment and assistance, or as hostile, rapacious colonisers? And what was the essential character of their own Ottoman people?

The latter question had grown ever more intractable as, decade after decade, vast numbers of Muslim refugees arrived in Anatolia from the empire’s crumbling outer regions, fleeing rapes, mass killings, starvation and forced conversions. Within the first few weeks of the Greek war of independence in 1821, the rebels massacred 20,000 local Muslims. Russia’s conquest of the north Caucasus displaced perhaps a million; the end of the Balkan war in 1913, more than half a million more.

The rise of militant nationalisms on the periphery in turn fanned Ottoman Muslim hostility towards the millions of Christian Armenians, Greeks, Kurds and Arabs who lived in the Turkish heartland. From the 1890s onwards, successive brutal attempts by imperial governments to crush Armenian separatism and root out supposedly “disloyal” populations led to mass killings, culminating in the Armenian genocide of 1915, in which a million or more people perished. Hundreds of thousands of other Orthodox Christians were purged from government service, driven from their homes, forcibly relocated or expelled. For centuries, the empire had been renowned for its religious, ethnic and linguistic pluralism. Now, increasingly, “Turkish” national identity came to be defined in exclusionary terms.

In May 1919, the Allies allowed Greece to seize Izmir (or Smyrna) and its hinterland – ancient Greek territory, but also the main imperial port on the Aegean. The following year, under the Treaty of Sèvres, the sultan would accept various other expropriations, including the principle of new breakaway Armenian and Kurdish states in eastern Anatolia. In disgust at these shameful concessions, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a senior commander, resigned from the Ottoman army in the summer of 1919, and began an organized military and political campaign to oust foreigners from Anatolia.

After the fact, Atatürk and his followers would portray the foundation of Turkey as a triumph of clear-sighted modernization over the perfidy of western powers and the reactionary forces of the sultanate, which together had weakened the nation by pandering to “minorities” such as the Greeks and Armenians. That it was “natural” for a multi-ethnic empire to be carved up nation into states was also the accepted view in the west.

As Gingeras shows, the reality was far messier, more continuous and frequently tragic. Many leading modernists were hostile to the nationalist movement, as were different groups of Muslim minorities and conservatives. Even the basic notion that the empire itself should be succeeded by a different kind of polity was, in 1918, far from obvious or widely desired. Exactly how and why it nonetheless came about is a horrific bloody and complex tale, which Gingeras surveys in a tour de force of accessible scholarship – surefooted, dispassionate and rich in human detail.

The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire by Ryan Gingeras is published by Allen Lane (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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