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Modernizing the State Modernizing the State

In 1874 Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservatives defeated British Liberal Party Prime Minister William Gladstone. In defeat and opposition, Gladstone turned to pamphleteering to attack his rival’s government and prepare his return to power. His pamphlet, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, was a fierce attack on the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman policy in the Balkans, and by extension, the claimed friendly inaction of Disraeli’s government.1 Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid II came to power the same year, 1876, advanced and selected by the leaders of a constitutional revolution in the Ottoman capital.

In Istanbul the leaders of the constitutional movement had forced the abdication of the previous sultan. The constitutionalists advanced Abdul-Hamid II as the first monarch intended to rule under the limits of a basic law. All major dynastic powers underwent similar nineteenth- century processes of constitutional challenge to royal prerogative. Gladstone’s screed dripped racist contempt and stung modernizing Ottoman elites. Sultan Abdul-Hamid II was a disaster for the constitutionalists, and under cover from war and the international crisis, he dismissed the assembly and ruled without constitutional oversight. Most of his European royal contemporaries tried, and sometimes succeeded, in reinstituting royal autocracy in the late nineteenth century.

The end of war in the Balkans, and the division of South Eastern Europe between the Russian and Ottoman spheres, was negotiated and concluded at Bismarck’s Congress of Berlin in 1878. The sting of the British denunciation and betrayal and the occupation of Ottoman Cyprus helped move modernizing Ottoman elites into the emerging camp of unified imperial Germany. Gladstone rode populist outrage and nationalist fervor against the “Tyrannical Turk” back to power in 1880, and within eighteen months had bombarded, invaded and occupied the autonomous Ottoman province of Egypt. Gladstonian contempt for the Ottoman state was long lived, and endless discussion of the “Sick Man of Europe” predisposed Gladstone’s admiring successors, like Winston Churchill, to repeatedly underestimate Ottoman resilience and vitality on the battlefields of the World War I. Gladstone was remembered in the Ottoman lands too, and almost fifty years later, and decades after his death, he was still reflexively cursed by Ottoman elites.2

In 1884 Prussian General Colmar Von der Goltz, author of the seminal book on the militarized nation, Das Volk in Waffen [The Nation in Arms], became the leader of the new German military mission to the Ottoman state. Three years earlier Sultan Abdul-Hamid had made a personal request to Bismarck to send a military mission. Bismarck proceeded slowly and informed both British and Austrian embassies of the request. When Bismarck finally sent several officers, followed by Von der Goltz, he insured they would be under formal contract to the Ottoman staff command, and be on leave as serving German officers. Von der Goltz stayed in Istanbul for twelve years until 1896. He retired an honored Prussian general in the early years of the new century, but he stayed in touch with his admiring former students among the Ottoman general staff, who wrote frequent letters to their old teacher and friend. Baghdad-born Mahmud Sevket Pasa was Goltz Pasa’s closest friend and ally among Ottoman staff officers, and spent several years in Germany in the 1890s. Mahmud Sevket wrote, translated, and published prolifically on military topics, between 1890 and 1910 including at least two training and theory manuals in collaboration with Goltz Pasa. The two agreed, and transmitted to their students and disciples, the conviction that elite army officers should be the leading vanguard of modern, self-confident, militarized nations.3

Career officers were divided into two broad groups: a usually illiterate majority promoted through the ranks, called alayli, and a smaller elite called mektebli who had experienced an intensive, decade-long, cadet- education process. In outlook, culture, and socialization, the two groups could scarcely have been more different. Tensions between these two groups played out on the streets and barracks of the capital in the period between 1908 13, and were arguably central to late Ottoman internal conflict.4 When the alayli officers launched the counter-revolution in April 1909, the young mektebli officers considered Mahmud Sevket Pasa the savior of the revolution and their intellectual godfather, and he served as Grand Vezir between 1909 and his assassination in 1913. A large display in today’s Turkish Military Museum, in the old military academy in Istanbul, remains a shrine to Mahmud Sevket Pasa. Kaiser Wilhelm II recalled Von der Goltz from retirement in 1914 and he returned to Ottoman service soon after. Goltz Pasa died of typhus near Baghdad in April 1916, at the age of 72, a week before General Townsend’s surrender of a British army division to the Ottoman force that had been under his command, at nearby al-Kut. The surrender is sometimes considered the gravest British defeat of the Great War. Goltz was buried in Istanbul.

The Ottoman modernization project long predated Von der Goltz’s mission, and owed far more to processes of nineteenth-century transformation common to all the Great Powers of Europe, than to the actions of any one individual. Indeed, there was nothing unusual about military missions and consultation between powers in the period, and while Von der Goltz’s book was immediately translated to Ottoman Turkish, and became a basic textbook in the rapidly expanding Ottoman State school system, it was widely influential in France, Britain, and America where it was translated and read somewhat later than in Istanbul. The Prussian military example and Bismarck’s unification of Germany gained admirers far and wide in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Like many state elites in Europe and America, Sultan Abdul-Hamid himself likely read Von der Goltz’s book, and sought to fashion a strong and authoritarian Ottoman-Islamic “nation in arms,” albeit with the officer class subordinate to royal authority.5

Ottoman modernity was part of a universal discourse of nineteenth- century modernization, militarism, and progress, and was fully integrated into and inseparable from wider European trends and processes. Indeed, the Ottoman project could be denounced and intervention, imperial annexation, or partition justified for domestic political gain in Britain and Russia by Czarist and Gladstonian invocation of the “Sick Man of Europe,” but not apparently the “Sick Man of Asia.” The Ottoman state remained part of the story of Europe. The features of nineteenth-century modernity were similar in all the eventual belligerents of the Great War of 1914: mass standing armies, conscription, state education, censustaking, state networks of communication and mobilization, mass collective ritual and participation, the notion of popular sovereignty, and more-or-less willing, and sometimes eager, collective sacrifice for God, king and country and the living body of the nation.

Yet the Ottoman Middle East has long been considered apart from the story of nineteenth-century modernization, militarism, nationalism, and the eventual cataclysm of the Great War. In common with other countries, devastated in the Great War, the central feature of the nineteenth century was a re-negotiation and codification of the contract between the state and its subjects or citizens. The Tanzimat decrees began the process in 1839, declaring the equality of imperial subjects before the law, and introducing the idea that the sovereign’s right to govern flowed, at least in part, from the fulfillment of a contract with, and eventually from the consent of, the governed. Much of the Ottoman modernization project has been considered in isolation from the wider world of ideas of the time. Likewise, influential scholars since the midtwentieth century have argued that the essential character of Ottoman modernity was reactive, imitative, defensive, and ultimately defective relative to the presumably more successful modernization projects of Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and America, which while exemplifying and eventually monopolizing claims to modernity, also brought two world wars, the Holocaust, the nuclear immolation of Japanese cities, and the Cold War, among other worldwide cataclysms.6

Ottoman and Middle Eastern modernization is usually characterized as a failed project. It has usually been styled as “westernization,” secularization, and defensive modernization. Lost in this story is both the universal character of nineteenth-century modernization and the culturally unique elements of the Ottoman modernization project. Just as French, Prussian, and Russian nineteenth-century modernization efforts borrowed heavily from one another, each had many features that were unique and often culturally specific “invented traditions,” in Eric Hobsbawm’s evocative phrase.7 For the Ottoman state, these elements of common state culture and invented traditions focused on Islam, the sultan and caliph, the glories of the Ottoman and Islamic past, and the anxiously hoped-for return to splendor and worldly power.

Ute Frevert, in studying Prussian conscription, identified a series of common themes among the major states of post-Napoleonic Europe. All states recognized the need for standing armies and all reluctantly embraced mass conscription. The imperative to conscript soldiers forced monarchs and war ministers to slowly concede to changes in the relation between state and subject. Through the middle decades of the nineteenth century, state builders as diverse as Napoleon, Muhammad cAli of Egypt, Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, and Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II, confronted the limits of armies made up of aristocratic and often uneducated officers, paid and often unreliable professional soldiers, and press-ganged and often absent recruits. For most aspiring reformers, Napoleon’s revolutionary army was the demonstration case. But mass conscript armies required a change in relations between the state and its subjects, ultimately creating citizens and eventually producing demands for limits on the power of the sovereign. Friedrich Willhelm’s minister of war had great difficulty convincing him to accept what he considered the revolutionary potential of universal conscription. The threat of Napoleon decided the issue, but Friedrich Willhelm did not welcome the notion of “turning everyone into a soldier.”8 It was only when the survival of the state itself seemed to hang in the balance that the monarchs of Europe accepted conscript armies.

The Ottoman state, too, followed this path. State elites throughout Europe worried ceaselessly that conscription and the creation of citizen soldiers would lead to demands on the state for constitutional limits on the power of the sovereign. They had good reason to fear the revolutionary potential of armed, trained citizen-soldiers. It is noteworthy that when a mass conflict finally engulfed Europe in 1914, the monarchs of every combatant state except Britain were among the casualties. The royal houses of Russia, Imperial Germany (Prussia), Austro-Hungary (Habsburg), and the Ottomans, all succumbed to the forces unleashed by nineteenth-century modernization.

Mass conscription required mass identification with the state and its official narratives. In the Ottoman realms, famous mid-century Ottoman statesmen like cAli Pasa, Rashid Pasa, Fuad Pasa, and Midhat Pasa expected that mass identification with the state would eventually come to mean wide participation in the state in the form of constitutional and representative government. In this they, like their counterparts throughout Europe in wake of the 1848 revolutions, were disappointed. The Ottoman State did experience a constitutional revolution, but the constitutional assembly only governed for a year, until new Sultan Abdul-Hamid II dissolved it in 1877. While sanction for rule had once been seen as a contract with God for the care of the flock, it was evolving to become a constitutional contract between ruler and ruled.

The centerpiece of Ottoman modernization, as in every other European power after the French Revolution, was military conscription and state education. Armies of citizen conscripts frightened monarchs and state elites with their revolutionary potential, and state education and state nationalism were the two prongs of the approach to acculturate the citizen-soldier to conservative ruling-class hegemony. In the Ottoman realms this took the effect of a state education law in 1869, and after Abdul-Hamid’s ascension to the sultanate in 1876, a state identity based on Islam, anti-imperialism, and a series of invented traditions intended to cement loyalty to the state and its sovereign. Like every other European power, by mid century the Ottomans had devised a national flag, anthem, and costume. Like all his fellow monarchs, Sultan Abdul- Hamid feared citizen-conscripts, politicized military officers, and constitutional government. His fears were well founded.

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