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Home arrow History arrow The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East


The Ottoman Empire and its realms were far more central to the 1914 18 war than historians of Europe or the Middle East generally acknowledge. The collapse and disappearance of the Ottoman state was furthermore far more a direct, and intended, result of the war than is usually argued. British wartime aims, strategies, and agreements envisioned Ottoman partition and imperial expansion into newly conquered territories as a central goal of the war.

For Britain, the Great War in the East emerged from fear of the alliance between Imperial Germany and the Ottoman state. The war dictated all manner of odd decisions and arrangements, including the search of an Arab caliph to help calm worries about Indian Muslims, and sponsorship and alliances with nascent Arab nationalism and Zionism. The eventual structures of rule in the post-war Middle East were haphazard and improvisational. In every case they were designed to meet immediate problems. As many historians have observed, the mandates were conceived as temporary arrangements. Colonial administrators rarely bothered to contemplate the long-term consequences of their policies and they were rarely punished for anything apart from embarrassing metropolitan politicians. Shortsightedness and reactive policy-making characterized the colonial state.

The end of the war was accompanied by a determination to dismantle the empires of the Central Powers into dependent small states governed under the “national idea.” The League of Nations would help smooth relations between the victorious powers, and the various small nations, mandates, and protectorates. Representative government and ethnic- based nation-states had become ideas of wide acceptance. The states that emerged from the cataclysm of the war would be states based on the democratic ideals of consent, equal representation, popular national sovereignty, and theoretical equality of nations before the stage of the world. But the Ottoman state, like Germany and Austro-Hungary, had been constitutional monarchies with democratically elected parlia- ments.67 The partitions and imposition of colonial rule on any of the defeated states of the Central Powers could hardly be based on the principal of consent, but only on a preponderance of power and coercion. There was discussion of League-of-Nation-administered plebiscites in territories separated from Germany and Austro-Hungary, but in most cases the referendums did not take place, and they were not proposed for the Ottoman realms in any case.

Both France and Britain based their claims of legitimate conquest on the liberation of oppressed subject peoples, as in the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Maronite Christians of Anatolia and coastal Syria. Arab Muslims were added to this list in 1916. The war’s end brought various assertions of national rights and claims, many focused around the national rights and liberation of former Ottoman Christians. Such groups were in every case expected to become client populations of the respective victorious empire. Woodrow Wilson and the League of

Nations endorsed the tacit view that only Christian nations had legitimate claims to self-representation. Other, non-Christian, nations could conceivably receive acknowledgement, but the way was unclear, apart from the requirement to accept and endorse their subordinate status.

Conquest and partition of the Ottoman state was easier to contemplate if the inhabitants were defined as racially deficient non-Europeans in need of development, reform, and tutelage. In the speeches that accompanied Ottoman defeat and British victory, various nations had been liberated from “Turkish tyranny” and freed from the “Turkish yoke.” France entered coastal Syria with promises of the immediate fulfillment of the mission civilitrice, especially for the purposes of bettering what was claimed to be the miserable lot of the Eastern Christians. The discourse of Middle Eastern post-world-war colonialism was based on racial, civilizational, and ultimately legal justifications for the League of Nations mandate system. The colonizing Great Powers’ self-image represented everything the colonized population was claimed to lack: rationality, hygiene, modernity, moderation, and civilization itself. The League of Nations served as the principal support on which such claims to rule based themselves.

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