Review: The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, by Eugene Rogan
Basic, 2015. 485 pp. $32
Not everyone will be interested in how and why the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War, and what resulted, but maybe they should be. Pick any current headline about that region, and you’ll find its roots in Rogan’s narrative, whether it’s Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide, machinations over Iraqi oil, or the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Of the four imperial thrones that the war toppled, Westerners probably know least about the Ottomans. (The other three were Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.) Turkey, having fought two revolutions and three wars between 1908 and 1914, needed peace desperately. By playing the Russians off against the Germans, Turkish diplomats adeptly sought promises that would allow their country to remain neutral. But hawks who feared that their empire would break apart unless Turkey backed the winning side, successfully pushed to join the Central Powers.
You have to wonder how history might have played out had Turkey stayed neutral. What, for instance, would have happened to Palestine and the oil-producing regions? I wish Rogan had devoted space to this, but he doesn’t go in for speculation. Rather, using an astonishingly impressive array of Turkish, Arab, and European sources, he traces military campaigns and the politics that influenced or resulted from them, quoting the participants. Rogan argues that the diplomatic promises the Allies made to each other, Arab nationalists, or Zionists, derived from panic (usually overblown fears of jihadists) or fuzzy, short-term thinking. If pressed, Allied diplomats would have insisted they had promised less than the potential beneficiaries believed. Little did they know how their words would be parsed for decades to come.
From the military side, Gallipoli gets much of Rogan’s attention, deservedly so. From the Turkish perspective, the Allied invasion signified the Crusades revisited, an attitude prevalent in the Middle East today concerning Western military power. The Turkish victory, which cost the Ottomans even more lives than the Allies, resulted from tenacity and brilliant generalship. The Allied disaster came about from ad hoc strategy executed by inept tacticians; if you believe, as I do, that the British and imperial soldiery were lions led by donkeys, Gallipoli could be Exhibit A. Rogan captures the misery, the heroism, and the fear, as with this memoir of the last moments before “going over the top”:
The moments appeared like hours–the suspense–then the officer, his eyes glued on his watch following that finger (of death) slowly, so slowly, but surely moving to destruction–maybe a second left to live–for this is sacrifice–this is the moment when all hearts are sad and heavy–when you will hear some muttering a prayer. . . .
But the greatest service Rogan renders in The Fall of the Ottomans is, I think, his thorough, vivid, and decisive handling of the Armenian genocide. To show how the tension between Turk and Armenian increased, he explains Turkish fears of Armenian collaboration with the Russian enemy, for which there was some evidence. As for what followed, Rogan names names, places, dates, and, when possible, numbers. His chilling descriptions recall aspects of the Holocaust, as with eager civilians who participated, or long, forced marches, during which thousands of Armenians, dying of thirst or starvation, were clubbed or bayoneted to death. I didn’t know that Greek Christians were deported and dispossessed (though not killed), or that Assyrian Christians met the same fate as the Armenians. These facts, rarely mentioned, are surely significant.
After the war ended, the Turkish government prosecuted eighteen defendants accused of ordering or carrying out the massacres, hanging a few and convicting the others in absentia. (Armenian agents tracked down the missing defendants and assassinated all but one.) Apparently, the Turks were trying to placate the victors, hoping to gain favorable peace terms. When that didn’t work, the country went to war again, led by Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, and fixed the borders more to Turkish liking. Whether that resentment led to Turkish intransigence about admitting the genocide, Rogan doesn’t speculate.
I’d have liked The Fall of the Ottomans much better had the author written more carefully. The narrative, full of repetitions and clumsy phrases, plods sometimes. But if you read this book, I guarantee that you won’t look at Middle Eastern politics in quite the same way again.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.