The Balkan Wars, WWI, and Ottoman Decline

by wtalbot ~ April 23rd, 2010. Filed under: Chapter 22: World War I: The End of Enlightenment.

Part of the success of the Ottoman Empire and its ability to be one of the longest lasting empires was its unparalleled leaders.   After breaking its long succession of great leaders, the empire finally collapsed after the poor decision of its leadership to ally itself with Germany in WWI.

The Balkan Wars

The history of Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth is a sordid history of land grabbing and conflict among European states. The Ottoman Empire, nearing its death, was dragged into these conflicts and beaten into its grave.

In 1911, Italy and France were in competition over Libya. Fearful that France might attack the Ottoman Empire and seize Libya, the Italians attacked first. They defeated the Ottomans and, through a peace treaty, obtained the Dodacanese Islands and Libya from the Ottomans.

Seeing this as a good idea, the states of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro attacked the Ottomans, hoping to gain all of the Ottoman provinces in the north of Greece, Thrace, and the southern European coast of the Black Sea. They easily defeated the Ottomans and drove them back, almost to the very edge of Europe. The Second Balkan War erupted just two years later (1913), when Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro disapproved of the amount of territory that Bulgaria had annexed. Joined by the Ottomans, these three powers managed to roll back Bulgarian territorial gains. This was the last military victory in Ottoman history. It is a strange note in history that this last defeat and triumph for the Ottomans would precipitate a situation that would snowball into the First World War. Although this is a story for another day, the Ottoman territories that fell into European hands precipitated a crisis among European powers that would eventually lead directly World War I.

As a result of this conflict and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Ottomans lost all their territory in Syria, Palestine, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. The European powers fought each other in Africa and the Middle East by encouraging revolution among the peoples there. The British, for instance, promised Arabs independent states if they revolted against the Ottomans and aided the British. By 1919, the Ottoman Empire was reduced to Turkey only, which extended from the southern European shores of the Black Sea, to Asia Minor in the west, to Iran in the east, and Syria and Iraq, newly created states in 1919, in the south. Ottoman power had effectively come to an end. The Russians, torn apart by a revolution in 1917, never did annex Istanbul and the Dardanelles; the city is still under the control of Turkey.

The Republic of Turkey

In 1922, Ottoman rule officially came to an end when Turkey was declared a republic. While the Ottomans were suffering from defeats in Europe, internally they were faced with revolution by liberal nationalists who wished to adopt Western style governments. These nationalists called themselves the “young Turks,” and in the early 1920’s, they began an open revolt against the Ottoman government. The goal of the revolution was to modernize and westernize Turkey, and the primary theoretician of that change was Mustafa Kemal,who is called in Turkish history, Ataturk, of “Father of the Turks.” As president of Turkey from 1922 to 1928, Ataturk introduced a series of legislative reforms that adopted European legal systems and civil codes and thus overthrew both the Shari’ah and the kanun . He legislated against the Arabic script and converted Turkish writing to the European Roman script. He legislated against the Arabic call to prayer and eliminated the caliphate and all the mystical Sufi orders of Islam. It is not an exaggeration to say that Ataturk is one of the most significant political figures in Islam, for he was the first to theorize and put into practice the secularization of the Islamic state and society. Nothing like it had ever happened in the whole of Islamic history, and, despite the radicality of Ataturks reforms, the Turkish republic has remained an independent and secular Islamic state. Efforts to emulate this secularization, however, have by and large been unsuccessful in other Islamic states.


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