Reviewed by Hans-Lukas Kieser
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (September, 2010)
M. Hanioğlu: Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire
Mehmed Şükrü Hanioğlu has been researching and teaching late Ottoman history for more than thirty years. Three bulky and groundbreaking books on the Young Turks have made him known among experts. Mehmed Şükrü Hanioğlu, Doctor Abdullah Cevdet. A Political Thinker and His Time, Istanbul 1981 (in Turkish); idem, The Young Turks in Opposition, Oxford 1995; idem, Preparation for a Revolution. The Young Turks, 1902–1908, Oxford 2001. His new book is a comparatively small and elegantly written compendium for a larger public. It is unique in that it makes a monograph of the late Ottoman Empire, that is its last 150 years until the aftermath of World War I.
The book divides this era chronologically into six chapters of which the last deals with the “longest decade of the late Ottoman Empire” (1908–1918), the first with the situation at the turn to the 19th century. This review concentrates upon aspects not dealt with in Hanioğlu's earlier books.
“The world is turning upside down with no hope for better during our reign/ […] We can do nothing but beg God for mercy.” Sultan Mustafa III wrote these verses shortly before his death in 1774, after a disastrous defeat against tsarist Russia, with a feeling of inferiority and decline that had already begun in the mid-century however. After him his son Selim III started a dramatic saga of late Ottoman reforms that culminated in the Tanzimat Era (1839–1876), though continuing until 1918. It consisted basically, Hanioğlu argues, in an attempt to centralize, and to fight regional abuse of imperially sanctioned power; resistance from the periphery against centralization informed the genesis of finally separatist movements.
Ottoman existential crisis, intensified Ottoman diplomacy, the “Eastern Question” in international affairs, and a Western secular modernity tied to industrialization and accelerated global expansion coincided in the late 18th century. Diplomatic history is therefore a key to understanding the late Ottoman Empire within European and world history – of which Ottoman history, Hanioğlu is right to remind us, is an essential part. He pays particular attention to the Anglo-Ottoman relations whose achievements and failures decided largely over the Ottoman fate, externally and internally. Late Ottoman diplomacy and intellectual thought – the book emphasizes both aspects – could however never be reduced to “reaction to the West”, the author stresses. Even if not on a par, it was interaction, at times creative and shrewd, at times fatally strained. The book skips the interaction with the USA which, too, marked the late Ottoman period significantly; US missionaries in particular richly documented the late Ottoman periphery.
Hanioğlu, who studied political science at Istanbul University in the 1970s, bases his narrative mostly on Ottoman documents of the central bureaucracy and the press, thus giving voice to the imperial elites, less to people in the provinces and to non Muslims. His original account attempts to represent the variety of actors and their time in their own right. A great strength is the author's intimate knowledge of the imperial élites (in a broad sense) and their sources, and of Ottoman Turkish, “one of the richest and most complex languages in the world” by the 19th century. Hanioğlu makes clear from the beginning that he has an axe to grind with Turkish nationalism, its teleological distortion of historical contexts, and its Manicheism of modern and old, secular and religious, national and cosmopolitan, pure Turkish and decadent Ottoman. This critical distance allows him to think about Ottoman history in alternatives, to ponder – without nostalgia – its heritage, and to consider its contingencies. An Ottoman Empire, for example one whose leaders had opted for armed neutrality in 1914, might not have collapsed; the same is true if British friendship and commitment to Ottoman reform had continued after the critical turn of the late 1870s.
In the three preceding decades, the Tanzimat statesmen, strongly backed by Britain, had believed in the idea of “a Rechtsstaat” (p. 108). Legal, ideological and educational innovations and an Europeanizing “process of acculturation” (p. 205) had led to a “uniquely Ottoman version of modernity” (p. 3) and “the supranational ideology of Ottomanism” (p. 106). This included “literary exchanges between the various Ottoman communities,” (p. 99) among which Armenians excelled as early authors, actors and actresses. One may speak of an original, not to say avant-gardist egalitarian plurality proclaimed in the Reform Edict of 1856 which abolished the hitherto existing hierarchical plurality and its political and legal privileges for the Muslims.
This Edict and the Ottoman Law of Nationality of 1869 made Muslims and the former non Muslim dhimmi legally equal Ottomans who could access positions in the state bureaucracy and local assemblies. At the same time the Edict institutionalized the millet system, that is the aterritorial autonomies of the Christian and Jewish communities, and demanded its reform toward a partly secular representative system. What put Ottomanism at risk was the emergence of ethno-nationalism from the millet as well as Muslim leaders who in the name of the sharî‘a refused imperial egalitarian plurality, in particular, as Hanioğlu stresses, a modern parliamentarian legislature in which non Muslims participated. The latter problem hampered the project of a full fledged constitution for the Empire. Moreover, rhetoric in favor of reforms emanating from the Great Powers was ambivalent; genuine or “not genuine” (p. 206), it obeyed Euro-centric interests that preferred a manipulable status quo to an innovative, self-reliant and in time territorially reduced Ottoman state. In contrast to contemporary Japan, the late Ottoman Empire gained “second-class membership in the European club”, but was not “free to develop its response to modernity in relatively insular security” (pp. 207 and 209).
The crises of the 1870s, including the war in the Balkan and Eastern Anatolia, delegitimized the Tanzimat principles. Subsequently, the Berlin Congress induced a seminal ethno-national post-Ottoman reordering of the Balkan and internationalized the “Armenian Question” – that is problems of security and legal stability caused by particularly significant failures to implement the reforms in the Kurdo-Armenian provinces. Hanioğlu elaborates more clearly the evolution of the Balkan than the eastern provinces whose Armenian Question remained – even more intensely and for longer than the notorious Macedonian Question – a core issue of both the Eastern Question and the challenge to establish an Ottoman Rechtsstaat.
Two ideological reactions to the crises of the Tanzimat, which had been liberal toward religion, crystallized according to Hanioğlu: The young sultan Abdulhamid II labored “to fashion Islamist modernity in opposition to the West,” whereas, in contrast, a “new intellectual elite expected the Darwinian triumph of science over religion” (p. 138). Part of this elite were the Young Turks, opponents of the sultan. Their Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) took power partly in 1908, and dictatorially in 1913.
As both a top expert on the CUP and its strong critic, Hanioğlu has long been expected to write on the CUP also for the period after 1908. He leaves, in contrast to a number of Ottomanist accounts before him, no doubt that the CUP turned to imperial Turkism instead of Ottomanism well before World War I; that it plausibly thought of establishing a “Great Turanian Empire” (p. 179) at the beginning of the war; and that it was largely responsible for the catastrophes that followed. Nevertheless he remains elliptical on Turkist demographic engineering in Asia Minor since 1914 and, in particular, the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians who, arguably more than any other group, had had to put their trust in an Ottoman Rechtsstaat and Ottoman modernity.
The strength of “A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire” is its view of the late Ottoman Empire both from the imperial inside as well as from a reflective and inspiring historical distance. This concise book is very appropriate for general history classes – I may only suggest adding translations or summaries of the Ottoman documents it reproduces.
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Hans-Lukas Kieser. Review of Hanioğlu, M. Şükrü, A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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