PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Young Turks vs. Ottoman sultan
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Salonika and Constantinople
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Young Turks called for a restoration of the constitution abrogated by the sultan and sought to reform and modernize the corrupt and tottering empire
OUTCOME: Ultimately the Young Turks seized power and instituted reforms, but the empire collapsed in the Balkans, indirectly precipitating World War I.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Unknown
On July 3, 1908, the Ottoman Empire’s Third Army Corps in Macedonia launched a revolt against the provincial authorities in Resna that quickly led to rebellion throughout the empire and brought into positions of power and authority the Young Turks, European-influenced young revolutionaries intent on modernizing Turkey. Though they succeeded internally in reforming the government and fostering Turkish nationalism, their revolt seriously destabilized the Balkans and helped to launch World War I, during which their mishandling of foreign affairs resulted in the dissolution of the Ottoman state.
Established six centuries earlier, the Ottoman Empire had at its height controlled most of central and eastern Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. For the last 300 years, the Ottomans had steadily been losing ground, a process so rapidly accelerated in the previous quarter-century that by 1908 the empire was being called “the Sick Man of Europe.” All but bankrupted by constant warfare and corrupt rulers, the Turks had watched their provinces slip away “like pieces falling off an old house” Cyprus in 1878, Tunisia in 1881, Egypt in 1882. However decadent, the empire yet encompassed a vast territory including Macedonia, Albania, Palestine, Libya, Syria, Mesopotamia, Crete, Bulgaria, and lands along the Red Sea and Persian Gulf and still played a key political role in the European balance of power established by Otto von Bismarck’s (1815–98) system of interlocking alliances. The three great powers of Central and Eastern Europe Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia all cast greedy eyes on certain Ottoman holdings, especially in the Balkans, but since no one in Europe could agree on how to carve them up, it became essential to European peace that no single major player stake a claim. The nations of Europe including England and France saw to it that the tottering giant did not fall.
Late in the last century, the empire’s ruler Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842–1918) had revoked the constitution that governed its polyglot of provinces and unleashed a vicious secret police force. The sultan’s state terror horrified the empire’s intelligentsia, but it was his massacre of tens of thousands of Armenians in the 1890s that made him an international pariah (see Armenian Massacres [1894–1897]). Beset by a tide of rising nationalism among its subject peoples and Balkan neighbors, twisted hither and yon by the ambitions and demands of the Great Powers, Ottoman rule verged ever closer toward collapse. The Young Turks staged their revolt in 1908 to save the ailing empire, not destroy it.
By 1908, the Young Turk movement itself was some 50 years old, having begun back in the 1860s among writers inspired by European culture and philosophy. It was kept alive by exiled intellectuals, most of whom had fled to Paris in 1889 when a student-spawned plot against the sultan had been uncovered by his secret police. One faction, called the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which included the most notable of the liberal emigrés, Ahmed Riza (1859–1930), advocated orderly reform under a strong central government and the exclusion of all foreign influence. Another called for administrative decentralization and European assistance in creating the reforms. Both called for reinstating constitutional government; both prepared the groundwork for the future revolution against the sultan. When young officers from the Third Army Corps stationed in Macedonia’s Salonika (Thessalonika, Greece), frustrated by irregular pay and inferior equipment, formed the Ottoman Liberty Society and began conspiring with the exiled intellectuals of the CUP, the stage was set.
First came a series of mutinies, then an uprising in Macedonia. The rebels did not demand that the sultan step down however corrupt and tyrannical, he was the caliph (or spiritual leader) of many of the world’s Muslims. What the rebels wanted was a restoration of the constitution and a recall of parliament. On July 23, amid the spreading revolt, Abdul Hamid surprised everybody by giving the rebels what they wanted, in theory reducing his status to that of a constitutional monarch. But the deep-seated ideological differences among the Young Turks resurfaced, preventing them from taking effective control of the government, and over the next two years, the sultan staged a destabilizing counterrevolution. His intrigues led the extremely reactionary Muhammadan Union to step up pressure on the loyalist troops in the First Army Corps, who stormed the Chamber of Deputies and demanded restoration of the Sacred Law. The sultan, pretending regret, “gave in” to their demands, and the CUP government fell. There followed not only the proclamation of martial law, the arrest of the 1908 rebels, and the reduction of the Constantinople garrison, but also a renewed massacre of the Armenians, who were literally annihilated in Adana, to the outrage of the civilized world (see Armenian
Massacres ). In response, the Salonika CUP sent an army of liberation under Mustafa Kemal, later to be known as Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938), to Constantinople, where it deposed the sultan with the support of Muslim religious leaders and put his brother Muhammad V Reshid (1844–1918) briefly in charge of a new CUP administration. Not until 1913, when new leaders took over Riza’s faction the triumvirate of Talat Pasha (1874–1921), Ahmed Cemal Pasha (1872–1922), and Enver Pasha (1881–1922) did the Young Turks set themselves up as the arbiters of Ottoman politics.
Meanwhile, the old empire fell apart. Bulgaria promptly took advantage of the chaos to declare its independence in 1908, and that same year Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it had ruled jointly and uneasily with Turkey. Turkish Crete proclaimed its union with Greece, though threats from Constantinople kept Greece from immediately acting on the declaration. In 1911, Italy invaded and overran Tripoli (Libya) (see Italo-Turkish War). The Italian conquest spurred the ambitions of the Balkans’ small Christian states, and Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria all once provinces of the Ottoman Empire suddenly attacked European Turkey in October, 1912 (see Balkan War, First). The Turkish army collapsed. By November 3 the Bulgarians had reached Constantinople, and five days later the Greeks entered Salonika. The Serbs took Durazzo on the Adriatic, and thus provided themselves with a seaport, on November 28. On December 5, the Turkish government begged the Balkan belligerents for an armistice.
Europe was shocked by the Ottoman defeat. England immediately called for a conference of the great powers, which opened a week later in London, on December 10, 1912. The Turks agreed to give up all they had lost to Serbia and Greece, but they drew the line at turning over to Bulgaria the city of Adrianople (Turkish Edirne), which their troops still occupied. The armistice collapsed. As the great powers continued to confer, the Balkans went back to war with the Ottomans for a second time in February 1913 (see the Balkan War, Second). Adrianople promptly fell to a combined army of Bulgars and Serbs, and the Turks again sued for peace. Back in London, Austria-Hungary simply insisted that Durazzo either be given back to the Turks or made independent; the Serbs could not have it. Russia put pressure on the Serbs to give up the seaport, and on May 30, 1913, everybody signed the Treaty of London. Adrianople went to Bulgaria, Salonika to Greece, and an entirely new state Albania was carved out of Durazzo and the surrounding area. Everything was quiet for about a month; then, on June 29, Bulgaria attacked her former Balkan allies Serbia and Greece grabbing Salonika for herself and trouncing the surprised Serbian army. Now Romania, neutral in the first two Balkan wars, attacked Bulgaria from the rear, crossing the Danube and marching up to the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Seeing that Bulgaria was for the moment distracted, the Turks took back Adrianople. Germany’s Kaiser William II (1859–1941) announced that he would support his cousin, King Carol (1839–1914) of Romania, but Russia’s Czar Nicholas II (1895–1917) refused to help out the czar of Bulgaria, Ferdinand (1861–1948), whom he considered a maverick. So, in the Treaty of Bucharest signed on August 6 Bulgaria lost everything she had won in the two previous wars, the Greeks took back Salonika, and a shank of Bulgarian territory was sliced off and handed to Romania.
Already the term “Balkanized” meant collapse into petty factions; everyone “balked” at anything that did not precisely suit them. For the Great Powers, still meeting in London, it mattered less who was stabbing whom in the back, or which country got which real estate. What mattered was that little wars not spread into general war. But without the “Sick Man of Europe” around to blame, they could not agree on what to do about his former property. Ten months after the end of the last Balkan War, the London Conference dissolved without settling anything, even the details of the new Albania’s boundaries. That year, a Serb angry at the treatment of Serbia would shoot the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand (1863–1914), and the old Europe Bismarck put together would vanish in the trenches and mustard gas clouds of the Great War that inevitably followed.
The Young Turks in power back in what was left of the Ottoman Empire were busy passing administrative reforms that would centralize their government, promote the industrialization of their economy, and secularize their legal system none of which would prevent them from making the fatal mistake of overestimating German might and hastily entering the Great War on the side of the Central Powers. Dismembered by the Balkan Wars, the empire was beheaded after its defeat in World War I.