A brief history of the late Ottoman Empire

A brief history of the late Ottoman Empire

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
A brief history of the late Ottoman Empire ‘A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire’ by M. Şükrü Hanioğlu (Princeton University Press, 2008, 50 TL, pp 242)

It’s difficult enough to do justice to the fiendishly complex history of the Ottoman Empire’s “long 19th century” in little over 200 pages. To do so in a clear, balanced and authoritative way demands not only deep scholarly knowledge, but also considerable flair. Fortunately, M. Şükrü Hanioğlu displays both in this book, writing a penetrating history that is not only deeply informative, but also a real pleasure to read.

For the Ottoman Empire, the age was defined by the challenge presented by European modernity. Its response to this challenge ultimately resulted in the wholesale disruption of the old imperial order and the steady transformation of its governing principles. In order to sketch the background of this process, the book opens with a brief account of just how varied, fragmented, disparate, and decentralized the empire had become by the 18th century – socially, politically, legally, economically, and linguistically. In a sense, decentralization was the most salient characteristic of the Ottoman state, “Its administrative establishment, economic system, and social organization all calling to mind the structure of a premodern state.” However, with its weak central control, irrational nuances, messy compromises, and respect for local practices, such a governing structure was no longer sustainable in the Napoleonic era. By the end of the 18th century, abandonment of the empire’s old arrangement and adjustment to the new realities in Europe had become what Hanioğlu describes as an “existential imperative.”

Intrinsic to the drive to modernize was the center’s attempt to gain control over the periphery, and this tension is one of the principle threads that runs through the book. As Hanioğlu writes: “Perhaps the principle theme of late Ottoman history is the attempt of the central government in the imperial capital to assert its control over a loosely held periphery which had gradually accumulated administrative, economic, and even diplomatic independence from the center.” From the early moves toward reform during the reign of Selim III (1789-1807), through the Tanzimat era of the mid-19th century, through Abdülhamid II, to the “Young Turk” revolution of the Committee of Union and Progress, all shared the impulse to centralize. The struggle between the center and the periphery thus endured throughout the various intellectual guises of the modernizing period. For all their ideological incompatibility, every administrator of the late Ottoman Empire understood that its old structure had become politically untenable, and that survival depended on the effective centralization of the imperial administration.

Indeed, one of the book’s underlying assumptions is a suspicion of ideology as an engine of social change. In almost Tolstoyan terms, Hanioğlu writes that the “driving force of history” was in fact the “oppressive weight of circumstances, which inhibited the freedom of realistic policymakers who sought to innovate.” Illustrative of this oppressive weight of circumstances is the irresolvable paradox that centralization led to in such a heterogeneous empire – however existentially imperative it may have been. The very reforms that were designed to create a more coherent, unified society and a more centralized polity based on universal, standardized laws, actually had the effect of exposing and deepening the fissures within the Ottoman state and society. In the end, the center couldn’t hold, “the abandonment of the old order ... ended up abetting the very process of fragmentation that the reforms were designed to reverse.” In the final analysis, one is left with the impression that those inherent paradoxes were ultimately insurmountable.

Hanioğlu understands the unavoidably tragic arc to late Ottoman history, which he describes with methodical precision. The book is written for a specialist audience, but its arguments manage to remain crystal clear without ever compromising on their complexity. It all adds up to a very impressive feat.

Noteworthy recent release

A brief history of the late Ottoman Empire

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William Armstrong,