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 By Professor Norman Stone


Where There's Trouble, There Were Ottomans 
Look at many of today's trouble areas, and you find that they were once Ottoman. Kosovo, of course, comes to mind instantly, but you could also include Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Algeria. Throw in the Kurds and even, though more remotely, the Chechens, and a picture emerges. For centuries the much-storied Ottoman Empire kept a lid on all these pressure cookers. This is one reason why for much of the 19th century many of the Western powers — the British in particular— strove mightily to keep the enterprise going. They had a sense that when that vast amalgam of races and faiths disintegrated, there would be endless problems. And they were right — even if they may have made matters worse by postponing the breakup.

A look back reveals that whatever the Ottomans' many shortcomings, they did manage for a time to maintain a multi-ethnic, multi-denominational empire with cosmopolitan cities. It was not democratic, to be sure, but it was less oppressive, for example, than other contemporaneous multi-ethnic empires such as Russia and China, and later the Soviet Union. Despite this, and despite the fact that Britain officially tried to keep the Ottoman Empire from tottering away, Western liberals, Protestants especially, hated the Turks. None more so than the great British Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, who famously denounced the Ottomans in 1878 in long speeches about their alleged massacres of Bulgarian Christians. Gladstone faced opposition, particularly from his traditional foe Benjamin Disraeli, and was unsuccessful in breaking off British support.

Although Gladstone's oratorical performances were tremendous, attracting enormous audiences and severely damaging the image of the Ottoman Empire, they were, mainly, based on fiction. Many more Turks were massacred by Bulgarians than vice-versa, according to the careful research of Justin McCarthy. Gladstone had seen the Ottoman Empire firsthand in the 1860s when he visited Albania, then an Ottoman possession. In those days, Albania was almost a parable of backwardness — ubiquitous dirt, endless wives and children, prevailing illiteracy, hillside bandits. (Unfortunately, a communist system would keep Albania destitute long after it had gained independence from the Ottomans.)

The Gladstones of this world wished the Turks to be cleared out of the Balkans, "bag and baggage." In 1912, they were indeed mainly cleared out and Balkan Christian nations took their place, except for a small corner of the peninsula's southeast, which became part of present-day Turkey. After World War I, the Turks also left all their other possessions, which mainly fell to the Europeans as colonies.

  ...When the Ottoman Empire contracted, and the Turks retreated from their former domains, the regional problems did not end.

Before their demise, and especially at their height, the Ottomans exhibited a high degree of toleration of religious minorities, or at any rate Christians and Jews. Half of the empire was, after all, Christian. And the Christian half was, warriors aside, the more advanced part of the empire — promoting law, administration and trade. The various Christians might have faced certain nuisances — somewhat higher taxes, having to wear shoes of a particular color or, more onerously, having to ride donkeys rather than horses. But their communities, under an arrangement called the millet system, governed themselves. And each community had a religious leader who, as head of the millet, counted as an Ottoman Pasha, or general. The success of this policy can be seen in the architecture of, say, Sarajevo, where Christian churches, synagogues and mosques stand side-by-side.

Jews, during most of the Ottoman period, also fared well. They were closely identified with the empire, so much so in fact, that it required a considerable international effort in the mid-19th century to restrain the emerging Balkan nations from discriminating severely against their Jewish subjects. Still, many Ottoman Jews had to flee to Salonica which, until 1912, was primarily a Turkish town.

Prof. Norman Stone

Prof. Norman Stone  

It should not be surprising, then, that when the Ottoman Empire contracted, and the Turks retreated from their former domains, the regional problems did not end. Indeed, the old Ottoman regions became extremely troubled places. Paradoxically, the only area that flourished was Turkey itself, the heart of the empire. With a leader of genius in Kemal Ataturk, who himself was born in Salonica, the country was re-established as modern-day Turkey.

Why did the Ottoman Empire decline? In the 17th century, it had been very much a going concern, with an efficient administration. Around 1700, however, it became dogmatic and repetitive where once it had been innovative and inspiring. Some Turks have blamed Islam because its leaders were too slow either to adapt to modern times or to promote technical education properly. Other Turks have blamed Islam's leaders for not being powerful enough to follow through on their plans for modernizing reforms. Still others have put the onus on nationalism, saying that the Ottoman system prevented the introduction of this 19th century notion.

As the late Elie Kedourie, himself of Iraqi-Jewish origin, has discussed, the attempt to foment nationalism in the disparate Ottoman lands was itself the problem. It coincided with the realization on the part of some highly intelligent Ottoman administrators in the mid-19th century that any one central government would find it difficult indeed to run the Balkans, Anatolia, Mesopotamia and the Arabian peninsula. They tried to decentralize, but were not allowed to.

It may have proved to be too little, too late, even if they had succeeded. In the end, the empire broke up, mostly on the nationalist principle. And the states that emerged have had a very troubled time. David Fromkin's classic book on the peace negotiations and treaties at the conclusion of World War I carries a title — "The Peace to End all Peace" — that is sadly accurate.

Today, wherever one goes in what constituted the Ottoman Empire up to 1913, the same question arises: To wit, should peoples who want the benefits of democracy and a liberal economy divide into ethnically homogenous nation states, or should they pull together into heterogeneous unions, confederations and so on? 

"How happy is he that can call himself a Turk," was aimed not at "ethnic Turks" but at those who shared in this nationality.

It's an open question but, interestingly, Turkey itself is a state set up more along the latter lines. It has also flourished by regional standards. Not only was Turkey proper a collection of different ethnic groups, but it also received millions of Muslims, of varying degrees of conviction and of different ethnic backgrounds, in the latter part of the 19th century, in 1912, and again in 1923. They were refugees from the new nations in the Caucasus and the Balkans, which were flexing their muscles and extirpating every sign of the Ottoman past. Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic state where the different groups stayed together either because they had good government or because they had no other choice. When, under Slobodan Milosevic, the government became really inefficient, Yugoslavia broke apart. Milosevic attempted to break up the region along ethnic lines, and suffering followed.

As for Turkey, the Muslim refugees eventually became established, and formed a large part of the urban population and professional classes of modern Turkey. (Jews, who do not face the level of discrimination they face elsewhere in the Middle East, took a similar position in modern Turkey). Out of the wreckage of the heartland of the Ottoman Empire, these refugees created a state that was above religion and that granted rights to women. This required prodigious creativity. It's not for nothing that Turkey today is so attached to its secular, non-ethnic status. Ataturk's famous line, "How happy is he that can call himself a Turk," was aimed not at "ethnic Turks" but at those who shared in this nationality.

Since the end of the empire, there have been a great many strains on Turkey, some of them involving the Ottoman inheritance of Islam, and some of them new and European, such as the contest between the public and private sectors. The problem of the Kurds, which may at last be on the way to a solution, involves again the question of nationalism.

The Kurds, speaking various languages, and with an often nomadic past, were never a nation in the classic sense. But a terrorist movement, the PKK, sharing its ideology with Peru's equally murderous Sendero Luminoso and also taking its inspiration from Mao, tried to use Kurdish identity as a tool for revolution. That effort seems to have failed, now that the PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been caught, tried and sentenced to death. There now exists the possibility of a proper integration of Kurds into modern Turkey, on whichever terms are agreed. The whole boxes-within-boxes story of the Ottoman Empire thus ends in paradox: Anatolia, the part of the empire that retained much of its Ottoman character, may be the only one with a bright future.

--From "International Commentary,"  The Wall Street Journal Europe, July 19, 1999 


A Profile of Prof. Stone


The Director of the Russian-Turkish Centre, Norman Stone, born in Glasgow in 1941, has been Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara, since 1997. He was previously (after 1984) Professor of Modern History at Oxford, and before then (after 1965) Lecturer in Russian and German History at Cambridge where, latterly, he was a Fellow of Trinity College. His undergraduate education occurred at Cambridge (1959-62) but his graduate work was done on Central European History, in Vienna and Budapest (1962-65). His principal publications are The Eastern Front 1914-1917 (1975) which won the Wolfson Prize, Hitler (1980), Europe Transformed 1878-1919 (1983), all of which are still in print (Penguin, Hodder-Coronet and Blackwell, respectively). A further book, The Atlantic Revival 1970-1990, will be published in 2003 by Random House (it is centred upon the 1980's). He intends thereafter to work on various aspects of the Russo-Turkish relationship, past and present. He has been a frequent commentator, since 1985, in British press, and has also written for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Wall Street Journal.



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