INTERVIEW: Ryan Gingeras on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire

INTERVIEW: Ryan Gingeras on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Ryan Gingeras on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Minister of the Navy Cemal Pasha inspects Austrian troops entering Jerusalem, 1916.

The current upheaval in the Middle East has led many observers to look back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the search for answers. The violent regional meltdown amounts to a fundamental challenge of the state order that emerged from the ashes of Ottoman collapse almost 100 years ago. 

Meanwhile, the centenary of the First World War has also prompted a renewed focus on the conflict’s Eastern Front. A new book by historian Ryan Gingeras, “The Fall of the Sultanate: The Great War and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1922” (reviewed in HDN here), considers the impact of both. Gingaras spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about his work, what the fall of the Ottoman Empire meant 100 years ago, and what it means today.

Your book looks at extraordinarily turbulent decades across a broad geography. Why do you think it is important to situate the First World War in this broader context?

I didn't want the book to just be about the events that led to the collapse, but also about the underlining causes of it - the structural problems within the empire. I also wanted to foreground the anxieties that both people in power and regular people had toward the last years of the empire. For that you have to go back at least a hundred years. I tried to write with reference to how people talked about the politics and the crises in the region in real time. So it was not just me speaking but witnesses who were involved. That is why the book flashes backward and forward; people refer to events and trends well before the wars that ultimately decided the end of the empire. If you want to understand the bitterness and violence that encapsulates the empire's end, you have to go beyond the brackets of just the wars. 

The empire’s end happened after over a decade of almost continuous war from the Balkan Wars starting in 1912. That experience of the crumbling of a whole order completely reshaped the region.

The war in Libya in 1911 also has to be included more directly, as well as the violence in the European provinces like Macedonia going back over a decade before then. That fighting also left very strong impressions on people. Even though people have a greater appreciation of the Balkan Wars now than they did 10 or 20 years ago, those earlier battles had very important personal and political consequences for the people who ended up captaining the ship of state.

If you look at the accounts of people who feature prominently at the end of the empire, Libya is very important. You think of the end of the Ottoman Empire as this long slippery slope leading to a definitive end, but in some ways the Libya crisis was a redeeming moment for the Ottomans. Later, when they looked back, they felt that they had collectively proven something. The fighting in Libya was something of an adventure, and the relationships they created there were very impactful later on. They took great pride in the fact that they took on this European power [Italy] and at the very least prevented it from achieving what it wanted to achieve. The loss in Libya was a technical knock-out, rather than something as bitter or as conclusive as what happened in the Balkan Wars or the First World War.

The Ottoman Empire famously had a huge variety of ethnicities, religions and sects. Eventually it all came crashing down and groups were sorted into ethno-religious based nation states. But that didn’t just suddenly happen with a click of the fingers. There was a decades-long process where the idea of modernity and progress became inextricably linked to various “national” movements. How important is it to understand the long process of how that happened?

I try to handle issue of national movements and the issue of demographic politics somewhat separately. In some ways the national movements are important only in hindsight. When you look at what happened in the two decades leading to the end of the Ottoman Empire, national movements are not definitive in determining its breakup. Other things are more important. The Entente, the great powers of Europe, and the empire's neighbors in the Balkans all have a lot more to say about how the empire comes apart than the people who actually live in it. 

Looking at demographics, it's clear that the Ottoman government had been engaged in a preemptive politics since the 1860s. It was understood that to make the nation more governable and the state stronger, populations had to be re-engineered. Demographics had to be changed in key regions in order for the state to endure. In the book I try to foreground the anxieties that led to this kind of conclusion, this attempt to remake society. 

The general outcome of that attempt is real bitterness. One can't emphasize enough the degree to which this process embittered virtually everyone in the Ottoman Empire. We typically think about this with respect to the Armenians, for good reason, but I think it is a much broader story - one that leaves very few communities untouched, not just in Anatolia but also in the Levant. These demographic politics are among the reasons why the notion of the empire is so unpopular by its end.

You devote a chapter to what happened to the Armenians in 1915. I get the sense that you're slightly exasperated with the semantic debate that rages around the word genocide. 

The way I try to deal with the Armenian deportations and massacres is by looking at the broader policy of the government during the war years regarding the general question of demographics. The Armenian genocide is one component of a much larger attempt to destroy and then remake Ottoman society. Armenians occupy a very important place within this policy and in some ways receive the worst treatment. But if you look at the way the government talked about the population as a whole, destroying Armenian society was one part of a broader effort to break up and re-engineer large sections of the Ottoman landscape, to destroy and reconstitute society to make it more manageable, to make it look more like the government wanted it to look.

When you look at the events immediately after the war, its clear that groups in civil society - including provincial leaders, who were quite supportive of the Ottoman government up to and including the war - were embittered by what happened and understood it as a criminal act. I don't use the word genocide in the text because it was not a word that was used at the time. I try to use the voice of the people who were witnesses or participants in the era as much as possible. But clearly people saw it as destructive and criminal, and it was something that played a big role in delegitimizing the notion of the Ottoman Empire.

One hundred years on, the Middle East is again going through a great upheaval and a lot of references are made to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Would you connect the current meltdown of the regional order to the forming of that order after the Ottoman state collapsed? 

I try to not over-attribute the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to contemporary affairs. A lot has happened in the century since the breakup of the empire. It's hard to talk about the hardships of a century ago in light of the contemporary hardships many people are enduring. 

But one has to discern that the interpretation of those events is manifold. Turkey is way ahead of other countries in memorializing the centenary of the First World War and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. For people outside Turkey, I don’t think the breakup of the Ottoman Empire matters that much a century later.

To take the recent centenary of the Battle of Kut al-Amara, which took place in Iraq in April 1916, the Turkish government went out of its way to mark the anniversary and editorialize it. But as far as I can see the battle was not memorialized to such a degree in Iraq. Probably it would be a little strange to talk about an Ottoman victory in 1916, and what it means to Iraq now, given the the degree to which today’s Iraq struggles with occupation, rebellion and war.

But of course the end of the Ottoman Empire was the beginning of a new chapter in the region. The book tries to look at the series of events that led to the collapse of the empire from the perspective of the different regions and peoples that comprised the empire. From that standpoint, there were various reasons to be bitter. One comes away with the impression that the Ottoman Empire was not something that was mourned or romanticized. Given the scale of hardships, people wanted to move on from it and build something very different in the aftermath.

President Erdoğan has made a few odd comments recently about the Ottoman performance during the war. He has almost seemed to suggest that the empire didn’t actually lose the war. Although this is bizarre, it is true that the Ottoman performance was actually far better than anyone on any sides had expected at the outset.

Erdoğan said a lot of things that one should try to unpack, including the point that the Ottoman army scored some victories and didn't collapse outright. But he also made some very strange comments about the leaders of Ottoman Iraq, who he said were intentionally forgetten. That's odd because firstly a couple of those leaders he mentioned weren't even involved in the battle; secondly, several of those leaders had demonstrably helped lose Iraq. Erdoğan specifically cited Süleyman Askeri, who actually committed suicide because he was so distraught at his own ineptitude in commanding much of the front in 1914 and 1915.

The comments spoke to broader issues of insecurity regarding how Turkish history has long been politicized, and a sense that the “real story” - whatever you think that is - is not really recognized. That's a problem that exceeds the Battle of Kut and the performance of the Ottoman army during the First World War. It is a political football that has become more sensitive due to the sea change in Turkish politics over the last couple of years. I'm always pretty skeptical whenever anyone in political life talks about the past; it rarely has anything to do with the past. It has more to do with how they think about events today.

There’s a popular history magazine called “Derin Tarih” that has basically been laying the groundwork in Turkey for this kind of reinterpretation for years. It’s full of fake documents and heavy on conspiracy theories, and although it may be bogus history it resonates with enough people. As an academic historian, who has to work with actual evidence, how do you feel about that kind of thing?

I think this is something that exceeds Turkey. In the U.S. there isn't an equivalent of "Derin Tarih," but there are radio programs, books, online publications and blogs that do virtually the same thing about historical issues. These are often websites that are very nationalistic and represent a broader discontent with politics. Personally, when I sit to write a book, I don't think about this stuff too much. In some ways it has nothing to do with history. People will pick and choose whatever they want to believe. People take deep moral lessons from history, even though those lessons may totally contravene what actually happened. If you believe that the spirit of the Turkish nation is pure and that the world is against Turkey and has always wished to destroy it, then you're going to believe in a history that resembles that. 

As I read about various nationalist movements breaking off from the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, I kept being reminded of the Kurds. Even the language used is similar: Decentralization, greater autonomy, and independence. Its another example of echoes from a century ago resonating today.

I find strong parallels in the core premise that was established decades before the Ottoman Empire's final collapse: Only a state governed centrally, and uncompromising in its treatment of regional centers of opposition, can survive. This is a lesson that gets drawn by leading Ottoman and later Turkish officials: Any time a provincial group demands some sort of renegotiation of the way the government works where they live, it is just the first step that eventually leads to rebellion or separatism and has to be clamped down on. Otherwise, essentially the state is committing suicide.
With Kurds in particular, it's clear that at the end of the Ottoman Empire there's no one single Kurdish politics. Politically, the Kurds were fragmented. There was a political ambivalence among many different segments of Anatolian society regarding the future of the state. Between 1914 and 1922, society was totally devastated in all the places where Kurds lived. There was simply not much incentive to debate heady ideas about the future of government when people are just trying to survive. When we finally see a debate about the future of Anatolia on the part of Kurds and Kurdish nationalists, the response within the Turkish elite has already been programmed that this is something that cannot be tolerated: Federalism, decentralization, and provincial autonomy are bad words and cannot be tolerated.

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