'The Ottoman Road to War in 1914' by Mustafa Aksakal

'The Ottoman Road to War in 1914' by Mustafa Aksakal

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
The Ottoman Road to War in 1914 by Mustafa Aksakal 'The Ottoman Road to War in 1914: The Ottoman Empire and the First World War,’ by Mustafa Aksakal (Cambridge University Press, 2011, $40, pp 234


With the centenary of the First World War on the doorstep, get ready for a deluge from publishers on the subject. The exact causes of the war and its alliances are still contested by historians, and there is still no consensus as to the Ottoman Empire’s exact motivations, or its entry and alliance with Germany. One resilient view has held that the alliance came in spite of a generally reluctant empire, resulting from the personal will of War Minister Enver Pasha, a hawk with impractical imperial delusions and dazzled by Prussian military clout. This book by scholar Mustafa Aksakal argues strongly against this hypothesis, suggesting instead that there was a general consensus among the Ottoman elite in the years leading up to 1914 that an alliance with Germany and a cautious engagement in the war was the best way for the empire to maintain its security and independence. Aksakal argues that joining the Central Powers was “the only decision [the Ottomans] believed could save the empire from partition and foreign rule.”

The book opens with a meaty section describing the psychological and intellectual climate of the empire in the period leading up to 1914. It explains how the gloomy Weltanschauung of the age was deeply shaped by the empire’s humiliating military and financial decline, emasculating territorial losses in the Balkans, and the realization that its survival had effectively depended on the Great Powers’ reluctance to upset the status quo for almost a century. The militarism prevalent among so much of the Ottoman elite at the time should be understood in this context, with many believing that military reform could be the only instigator of national renewal, and war – in one form or another – increasingly coming to be seen as inevitable, even desirable. Aksakal quotes a revealing passage from a geography textbook published in 1913:

“In 1912 the Balkan states formed an alliance against Turkey. After fierce battles, Turkey lost all of Rumelia … Much innocent Muslim and Turkish blood was shed during this period. Women and children, indiscriminately, were cut up and butchered. Villages were burnt and razed. Now, in Rumeli, under every rock and beneath the soil lie thousands of dismembered bodies, with eyes gouged out and stomachs slit … It is our children’s and grandchildren’s national duty to right this wrong, and to prepare for taking revenge for the pure and innocent blood that has flowed like waterfalls.”

As Aksakal writes, “A mix of pride, sense of violation, and revenge imbued the Ottoman intellectual climate on the eve of the First World War … By July 1914, bellicose notions of revenge, retribution, and recovery had become embedded in Ottoman identity.” A considerable tendency within the empire’s elite viewed its entry into the war as a historic opportunity for Ottoman liberation and self-assertion.

The majority of the book is taken up with details of the Byzantine diplomatic dance between the Ottomans and the various European powers in the years leading up to war, as alliances and agreements were floated, tested, and dropped. Such exhaustive primary source study is an impressive feat of endurance on the part of the author, but unfortunately demands a different kind of endurance from the non-specialist reader. Still, one thing that the months of pre-war prevarication do make clear is that the decision to enter on the side of the Germans could not simply have been the reckless personal whim of Enver Pasha. With most Ottoman decision makers intellectually and emotionally prepared for war and with economic, military and diplomatic relations between the Ottomans and the Germans so deep-rooted, perhaps the most puzzling aspect is why the negotiations dragged on for as long as they did.

In the end, however, the eventual Ottoman-German alliance was not one between equals. While Germany – unlike the other European powers - was not in favor of partitioning Ottoman territory, Aksakal suggests that its vision probably “would not have preserved Ottoman autonomy any more than the territorial acquisitions sought by the Entente Powers.” Had the German-Ottoman alliance ultimately defeated the Entente powers in the war, the bulk of the Ottoman Empire would probably have ended up as something like a German protectorate, Berlin’s long-sought “piece in the Middle East.”

Ultimately, the Central Powers’ defeat had long and far-reaching consequences. For the Ottomans, faced with direct partition between the victors, the stage was now set for the eventually victorious Turkish War of Liberation. It may have transpired in a way that few pre-WWI Ottoman observers would have foreseen, but many were proved right in the end: Turkish liberation was ultimately only secured by full-scale militarization and war.

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William Armstrong