Tremors of WWI still felt in Middle East today: Eugene Rogan

Tremors of WWI still felt in Middle East today: Eugene Rogan

William Armstrong -
Tremors of WWI still felt in Middle East today: Eugene Rogan The idea that history in the Middle East was ruptured by the First World War, leading to a century of chaos and illegitimate rule, is central to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s view of the region. Not dissimilarly, plenty of journalists suggest that the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire is the source of all problems in today’s turmoil-ridden Middle East. Both perspectives may be over-simplistic, but there is little doubt that the Great War and its aftermath led to tremors in the region that are still felt today.

Professor Eugene Rogan’s blockbuster new book (reviewed here) on the First World War in the Middle East and the collapse of the Ottoman dynasty is the first major title in the West to foreground the experiences of Turkish and Arab soldiers. Over 400 pages, the narrative sweeps through various campaigns, the wartime diplomacy of jostling Allies voraciously encircling the crumbling Ottoman Empire, and the post-war order that emerged across the region. Rogan also deals head on with the fate of the Ottoman Armenians – one example of an issue from the conflict that continues to simmer a century later.

As director of the Middle East Centre at the University of Oxford and the author of a major recent history of the modern Arab world, Rogan is well-qualified to fill such a vast canvas. The Hürriyet Daily News spoke to him about his book, his experience researching it, and the lingering controversies on the war’s centenary.


Professor Eugene Rogan, author of

'The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great
War in the Middle East, 1914-1920.'

Could you talk a little about the importance of the First World War in shaping the Middle East and how it is perceived there today?

A lot of discussion today focuses on the wartime partition plans and the boundaries of the modern Middle East that emerged after the war. People say those colonial boundaries lay the foundations of a century of conflict that defined the region as a volatile part of the world. For Turkey, people focus on the crafting of Turkish nationalism based around the Kemalist movement and the national war of liberation. A lot of attention has centered on how Turkish nationalism became an exclusive nationalism with the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, which were equally traumatic for both sides.

The enduring legacies of the war that have really captured people’s interest have to do with these issues, rather than what the war meant for the civilians and the soldiers who were caught up in battlefields that stretched from Anatolia through Iran, across the Arab provinces, and across North Africa. It was these battlefields that drew the Middle East into the First World War, reshaping the region forever and also turning what was a European conflict into a world war.

Throughout the book you turn to the accounts of ordinary soldiers from all corners of the world. What did you personally learn from examining those sources? What new perspective did they give you?

The most original contribution that the book offers to Western readers is its introduction of the diaries and memoirs of Turkish soldiers and low-ranking officers. I’m very indebted to the İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları publishing house, which over the past 10 years has been publishing war diaries and memoirs from virtually every Ottoman front. The contribution they have made towards our study of the Ottoman experience of the First World War is immeasurable.

What I took away from my reading of these accounts varied. A figure like Corporal Ali Rıza Eti, a source I used in the book, is absolutely outstanding on the opening months of the war, the Sarıkamış campaign, and growing tensions between Turks and Armenians in the Ottoman army. I found much of his diary an utter revelation. Other accounts gave a sense of the campaigns from the opposite side of the trenches.

What is really striking is how common the experience of that horrible conflict was to all sides. It shouldn’t surprise us, but they all experienced the industrial warfare of the Great War in very similar ways. They suffered the same discomforts and unhealthy conditions in the trenches, they suffered equally from what we would call shellshock, or traumatic stress disorders that are associated with relentless warfare. What’s more, so many of them on both sides of the trenches chose to express their experiences in poetry. This was something common to both sides of the trenches. Faced with experiences that so transcended anything they’d ever known before, many “Mehmetciks” also resorted to poetry. Often it was very bad poetry, they weren’t all Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. They were just trying to find the words with which to capture the experience that nothing in their life had prepared them for.

For the most part, Ottomans and Britons - under Britons I’d include the Anzacs as well - really had no hatred for each other. They hadn’t expected to find themselves fighting each other. The Britons assumed they would be fighting on the Western Front, while the Ottomans had never anticipated making war against Great Britain. So they had no predisposition to hate each other. When the trenches got close to each other in moments of calm, they could hear each other speaking and they would exchange greetings or jokes in mutually incomprehensible languages. They would even throw things to each other out of kindness - a Turk would throw a pack of cigarettes or a Tommy would throw a pot of jam. One Turkish diarist comments on how nobody ever took the opportunity to mix dirt in with the jam, and nobody followed up a pack of cigarettes with a hand grenade. They threw gifts into each other’s lines in genuine acts of comradery. Such examples leap out as extraordinary human exchanges in the monstrous machine of war.

Once they had entered the war, Sultan Mehmed V formally declared jihad against the Allies, encouraged by the Germans. Hopes and fears for this jihad continued until 1918. Could you explain how all sides viewed it?

The Germans had a very clear idea of the limits of Ottoman war preparedness in 1914. Colonel Liman van Sanders and the German Ambassador to Constantinople Baron von Wangenheim both wrote to Berlin to warn against cutting an alliance with Turkey. They thought the Ottomans would be an economic and military drain on the resources of any country allied to them. But the Kaiser, encouraged by German orientalists, came to believe that the Ottomans might hold a kind of secret weapon. A declaration of jihad by the Ottoman sultan-caliph might be able to stir Muslims around the world, particularly in British India and Egypt, in French North Africa, and in the Russian Caucasus. Muslims may rise up collectively against the Entente powers, opening internal fronts in the colonies that would weaken them on the Western Front, thus giving Germany a strategic edge to win the war. So as soon as the Ottomans entered the conflict they were under great pressure from Germany to declare the jihad.

In hindsight, many dismissed the “jihad made in Germany” as having no material influence in the war. In fact there were low-level mutinies and defections of Muslim troops. But if you’re looking for the real impact of the jihad you need to look no further than Whitehall. In Britain, war planners remained convinced that the Ottoman jihad declaration posed a threat to the peace in India throughout the war. This conviction drew the British deeper and deeper into the Ottoman Front, looking for a decisive victory that would prove to Muslims across the world that there was no substance to the call to jihad. So in an ironic way the sultan’s call found most fertile soil in Britain, not in the Muslim world.

Let’s get into some dangerous counterfactual territory. The Ottoman alliance with Germany was motivated by a desire to defend the Ottoman territorial integrity. Hypothetically, what would have happened if they had emerged victorious from the war? Would the Germans have respected Ottoman territory any more than the British and the French?

There was nothing in German policies before or during the war to suggest that they had their eye on Ottoman territories. The Central Powers would have been unlikely to have fallen out over territorial squabbles in the event of victory. Germany’s eyes went beyond the Ottoman Empire, to India. I think replacing Britain in India would have satisfied Germany’s ambitions for imperial grandeur, rather than partitioning the Ottoman Empire. A defeated Britain would not have been in a position to withstand the appeal of a German-Ottoman overture towards British India. The British had faced resistance in the Indian Mutiny in the 1850s, and since then they had struggled very hard to strike a balance that gained them consent and cooperation from the Indians. But it would have been difficult for the British to continue their minority rule system over India in the aftermath of a catastrophic defeat in the First World War.

The interesting counterfactual is what the Ottoman Empire would have looked like if it had won the war alongside Germany. It would have been an empire shorn of its European possessions, but there was no reason why the Ottomans could not have continued to rule over the Arab provinces. Indeed they may have replaced British influence in the Persian Gulf, which would have made the Ottoman Empire the ultimate oil sheikdom, or oil sultanate. That could have led to a very different Middle East, possibly one without the Arab-Israeli conflict because there would have been no Balfour Declaration. The sudden influx of oil wealth would also have allowed the central government in Istanbul to redistribute across Arab provinces, perhaps with greater efficiency than the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] states achieved by concentrating the wealth in the Arab Peninsula.

How did you try to approach the Armenian question?

Obviously for Turkish audiences much of the book will read exactly how they want it, and then they will come to the Armenian question and feel very awkward. The way I tried to approach the issue was first off to recognize it as a genocide. One hundred years on, I don’t understand why there’s still an open question here. I don’t see how historians can credibly question whether what happened to the Armenians in the First World War constitutes a genocide.

But I didn’t want to get embroiled in that debate, I wanted to try to give a context to what happened there and then. I wanted to examine what gave rise to the existential threat that led people to believe it was a national duty to exterminate Armenians. I think someone like Ali Rıza Eti gives a very on-the-ground, eyes-on-the-scene perspective, showing how mistrust grew into hatred. That explains a lot about the context in which genocide can take place. It really required the sense of an existential threat to take a population that had previously lived together at peace with another community and then turn violently against them.

I’ll be really curious to know what Turkish audiences make of the book. So much of it covers the remarkable and heroic war effort by ordinary Ottoman soldiers. They fought an incredibly tenacious war and they achieved remarkable victories against very strong enemies, but the Armenian question is the terrible stain running through the middle of the Ottoman war effort. I don’t think you can approach the Ottoman Front to the exclusion of the Armenian genocide. But I think many in Turkey are ready to break the taboo and move on.

Turkey’s official international commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign has been moved from March 18 to April 24 this year, to coincide with the Armenian genocide commemorations. What do you think about the move? And more broadly about these questions still being live today?

I think Turkish President Erdoğan has wavered when trying to find a formula that will bring closure to Armenian claims for a historic recognition. A year ago he expressed regrets for Armenian wartime suffering, along with the suffering of everyone. While many Armenian observers found it inadequate - it certainly wasn’t recognition of a deliberate policy to exterminate Armenians - it was nonetheless further than any Turkish leader had gone before in recognizing the magnitude of Armenian suffering in the Great War. It looked like he was trying to move Turkey forward towards recognition of its tragic history with the Armenians.

But I think this latest decision to shift the commemoration of Gallipoli from March 18, and even from Anzac Day on April 25, to April 24, was an act of global clumsiness. It will leave him looking embarrassed in the international community, as the world leaders he has invited to Turkey will almost without exception decline the invitation.

It’s a shame because there has been a culture of war remembrance - particularly between the Turks, Australians and New Zealanders on Anzac Day - which has really commemorated Ottoman accomplishments in the Great War with dignity, and with a sense of post-war reconciliation and camaraderie. For the Turks, the way forward with the Armenians surely must lie in establishing the kind of remembrance of tragedy that the Turks have with the Australians and the New Zealanders. They must recognize the magnitude of the conflict, address the history in an open and honest way, and vow to each other the kind of eternal friendship that will ensure that the horrors of the past will not be relived again and won’t be forgotten. But I don’t think this will happen under Erdoğan.

Pressure over the issue will continue through the centenary years of the Great War, and Erdoğan will continue to be faced with coming to terms with Turkey’s wartime history. I’m afraid that April 24 is going to be a very awkward day in Turkey. It really shouldn’t be like this. It’s a shame that Erdoğan has chosen this misconceived remembrance day.