Mustafa Aksakal. The Ottoman Road to War in 1914: The Ottoman Empire and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xv + 216 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-88060-2.
Reviewed by Emre Sencer (Department of History, Knox College)
Published on H-German (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
End Game on the Bosporus
The story of why and how the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War has often remained in the shadow of the other powers' involvement in the war and the events that followed the peace treaties of 1919-20. The ensuing struggle to carve out mandates in the region, and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey through nationalist resistance against the Ottoman Empire have attracted more attention from researchers than the motivations that led the empire to ally itself with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The decision to join that alliance brought about its eventual collapse and the partition of its territories. Mustafa Aksakal's book is the first book-length study in English that uses both Ottoman and European sources to answer the question of why the empire entered the war on the side of the Triple Alliance in October 1914, a decision that, in hindsight, was nothing less than catastrophic.
In his introduction, Aksakal begins by reviewing the assumptions and myths that influenced both the political commentators who considered the empire's options on the eve of the conflict and the historians who formed their opinions in the decades after World War I. Such analyses placed the role of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the ruling party of the empire, and its leading triumvirate of Enver, Celal, and Talat Pashas, at the center of their accounts. For the generation of Turkish bureaucrats and politicians active in the single-party era of the Turkish Republic (1923-46), the decision-makers of the CUP embodied all the negative attributes of the former regime from which the elite of the young republic tried to distance itself. While many of these cadres also came from the ranks of the CUP, the new regime in Ankara saw the former leaders of the CUP as responsible for the debacle of the war. The memoirs of key figures of the period repeated that line and claimed that the CUP leadership was pressured into the war by ambition and "'below-average' intelligence" (p. 1). Later official military studies built upon that premise to blame the entry into war on western imperialism and the Ottoman leadership's "secrecy and incompetence" (p. 12). On the other hand, western scholarship that focused on the relationship between Germany and the Ottoman Empire also criticized the decision-making process in Constantinople. Historical works published in the 1960s highlighted German interests in the region and the German desire to open a second front in the Middle East, but also shifted most of the blame for the German-Ottoman alliance to the "willing cooperation" of the Ottoman leadership and the motivations of key Ottoman figures (pp. 64-65). Aksakal argues that the many competing interests at the Ottoman capital led its leadership to consider various options for intervention in the war, and that the Germans tried to manipulate the new international situation in the region that had emerged after the Italian capture of Tripoli in 1911 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.
The first half of the book focuses on the Ottoman situation between the end of the Balkan Wars and the outbreak of the July Crisis. The second half presents a detailed study of Ottoman negotiations with Germany on the nature and degree of Ottoman intervention in the war. It is a major strength of the book that instead of examining Ottoman policy in isolation, Aksakal situates the events in a broader European context, a decision that tracks emerging trends in the field. Approached from that broader perspective, it is clear that the Ottomans saw the dilemma of intervention as one that brought together the problems the empire faced in the Balkans and the Middle East. The empire's recent losses in North Africa and the Balkans showcased its difficulties and signaled an end to the era of relying on the British and French for support against Russian expansionism. The survival of the empire required delicate maneuvering in such an environment. As a result, the Ottoman leadership, including Grand Vizier Said Halim Pasha's cabinet, tried to obtain the best deal for the empire from any possible alliance with European powers.
Germany's interest in and position for such an alliance were very strong. The "war party" in Constantinople was aware of the benefits Germany sought from such an alliance. German expectations included, but were not limited to, anti-colonial, Islamic revolutions; a shift in Russian military attention from the western front to the Balkans and Caucasus; a realignment of the alliance positions of the hesitant Balkan states; and a possible expedition against British troops in Egypt. The activities of the German mission at the Ottoman capital focused on getting such an alliance underway in the wake of the July Crisis.
The other factor in balancing the equation posited by any alliance, even before the outbreak of the crisis, was the attitude of Russia. Aksakal makes good use of Russian documents published after the Russian Revolution by Soviet historians and translated into German after 1931 to underline worries among Russian diplomats and politicians about Ottoman intentions toward such an alliance. Thus, we learn that a part of the immediate German interest in the Ottoman Empire in late 1913 and early 1914 was fueled by the kaiser's and the German Foreign Office's beliefs that the Ottoman empire could not be saved; Germany thus felt it had to act in order to forestall Entente expansion into the Mediterranean. The Russians, on the other hand, considered the empire to be gaining strength and threatening Russian foreign policy in the Near East. This situation increased Russian activity regarding the future of the Turkish Straits and Eastern Anatolia. In this environment, the Ottoman leadership was trying to choose the least dangerous path in preparation for a future conflict.
Competition to gain influence over the alliance calculations of the Sublime Porte in any future crisis focused the attention of the respective suitors on the Balkan situation. Aksakal shows how the Ottomans tried to manipulate their possible alternatives, for example, by negotiating with the Triple Alliance while concurrently sending a mission headed by Talat Pasha to Russia in the spring of 1914. The Ottoman desire to recoup some of the losses of the Balkan Wars lay at the center of these offerings of goodwill to the Russians. The forging of a theoretical Bulgarian-Ottoman-Romanian alliance was supposed to prevent a renewed conflict between the Ottomans and the Greeks, as well as continue to keep the straits open to the Russians. But such scheming brought no result in the end: Romanians could not remain neutral in a potential Ottoman-Greek conflict, and the Russians felt compelled to react to the slightest hint that the Ottomans might close the straits in response to a renewed Balkan crisis. For the Russians, a rejuvenated Ottoman presence in the Balkans was too high a price to pay for an alliance.
In the second half of the book, Aksakal provides a detailed analysis of the signing of the alliance with Germany. Closely intertwined with this narrative is the dramatic story of the two German battle cruisers Goeben and Breslau, and their escape into Ottoman territory, which initiated the process of Ottoman intervention in the war. The alliance came into being on August 2, 1914, and the German military mission in the Ottoman capital mobilized to put the agreement into effect. While the Ottoman military awaited the arrival of the two German ships in Constantinople, Berlin expected the alliance to lead to an immediate campaign against Russia or Egypt. The person who committed the empire to such a pledge was the war minister, Enver Pasha himself. Three months would elapse, however, before those operations got under way.
The alliance did not put an end to the bargaining. In fact, according to Aksakal's account, the Ottoman government, especially Said Halim Pasha, seems to have considered the alliance a tool to gain additional influence over the Balkans. The imminent arrival of the German ships at the straits heightened the visibility of the German presence at the Ottoman capital. Said Halim used the situation to pressure the Germans to persuade the Bulgarians and Romanians to join the alliance. At the same time, he suggested that if the empire did not feel secure enough, it would look to the Entente for support. Aksakal argues persuasively that these maneuvers were a means of controlling the terms of the alliance and relieving pressure to begin operations immediately, and not a legitimate threat to side with the Entente. Just before the ships entered the straits, the government secured new conditions that ranged from German support for the abrogation of the Capitulations to the arrangement of reparations for the Ottoman Empire. Only then was permission given for the ships to enter the straits.
Throughout August 1914, the alliance partners continued to disagree over the timing of Ottoman intervention in the war, especially after the German ships were transferred to the Ottoman navy. Kaiser Wilhelm insisted that Ottomans join the fighting, preferably in the Near East, but Ottoman demands for supplies continued to delay operations. Aksakal states that a regular pattern developed, in which the Ottomans delayed involvement while drawing financial and military support from Germany. The result was what the author calls a "classic deadlock" (p. 138). Germans demanded intervention, but the Ottomans wanted to see signs of German military victory in other theaters of the conflict. By mid-September, the Germans rejected any request for military supplies without a corresponding Ottoman commitment to the joint military effort. German military planners accepted that the campaign against Egypt would take longer to prepare, but they insisted that the Ottomans show their support for the Triple Alliance against the Russians. Under the circumstances, with the presence of the newly transferred cruisers in the Marmara Sea, such an action could be initiated against Russian ports in the Black Sea. This pressure eventually led to the naval action of October that brought the empire into the war against the Entente.
In a crucial passage, Aksakal argues that for the Ottoman leadership, the Great War became a "great opportunity" (p. 152). They planned for the alliance to continue into the postwar era and hoped that, through such a partnership, the empire could obtain security and "regain its international status" (p. 152). Indeed, the empire received additional support in the form of an amendment to the original alliance treaty that guaranteed automatic renewal until 1926 (p. 185). But the alliance also locked the Ottoman Empire into German plans that eventually brought about the dismemberment of its territories. Aksakal believes that Ottoman public opinion of 1914 was dominated by feelings of having been "violated' by the Great Power system, and that imperial politicians and bureaucrats were not immune to this sentiment. Ottoman leadership wanted to use the system in order to extract revenge and regain status and prestige. It aimed to achieve "national renewal and reinvigoration" (p. 194). These attitudes lay behind Ottoman statesmen's attempts to play the Great Powers against each other to obtain the best deal.
Aksakal's argument that CUP greed and incompetence should be questioned as reasons for Ottoman entry into the war is thus supported by the evidence in the book, which presents its negotiators as competent political agents who participated effectively in the Great Power system. Even so, while "the great opportunity" was pursued as a means of renewing the empire, the main players at the top of the Ottoman state, especially Enver, still appear in Aksakal's account as adventurers who confused brinkmanship with astute analysis of the facts. In other words, it is plausible, as Aksakal argues, that the Ottoman leadership of 1914 was not wholly incompetent, and that such a characterization relies on the caricatures of later generations, or on the perceptions of the German leadership, which was attempting to position itself as profitably as possible for the potential dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and saw it as a suitable partner as long as it held together, but never an equal one. But the Ottoman leadership's attempt to play different European powers off against each other was a dangerous one that failed to convince any other potential ally, and did not leave the Ottoman government enough room to maneuver once a decision for a particular alliance was made.
Aksakal is right to suggest that the attitudes present among the Ottoman elite at the outbreak of the war did not die with the collapse of the empire. Militarism and nationalism, in particular, still make up an important part of the fabric of the modern Turkish state. One might wish that in his conclusion Aksakal had focused more on some of these connections with modern Turkey, but of course that was not the aim of the book. Overall, this work is an impressive and very valuable contribution to our understanding of the relationship between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, as well as their respective foreign policies, on the eve of the First World War. As a side benefit, it adds support to the argument that then, as now, Turkey was for Germany a piece in the European puzzle. One can only wish that the current leadership in Berlin paid more attention to that historic connection.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Emre Sencer. Review of Aksakal, Mustafa, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914: The Ottoman Empire and the First World War.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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