Review of “The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923” by Sean McMeekin

Czar Nicolas I of Russia is sometimes credited with coining the phrase “Sick Man of Europe” to describe the decrepit Ottoman Empire of the mid-nineteenth century. By the early 20th century, there could be little doubt that the disparaging sobriquet applied in spades. The Ottoman Empire was soundly defeated in two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913 by the comparatively pipsqueak countries of Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia. One result of the wars was that the Empire lost all of its European territories to the west of the River Maritsa, which now forms the western boundary of modern Turkey. Then, when World War I broke out, the Ottomans made the disastrous decision to side with the Central Powers against the Triple Entente, ending up on the losing side of that cataclysm.

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A popular theory is that the carving up of the Ottoman lands after the war, pursuant to the Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain, is the source of many of the problems of the current Middle East. In The Ottoman Endgame, Sean McMeekin concedes that it is not wrong to look to the aftermath of the war for the roots of many of today’s Middle Eastern problems, but the “real historical record is richer and far more dramatic than the myth.” For example, the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement was sponsored primarily by Russia, whose foreign secretary, Alexander Samsonov, was the principal architect of the agreement. McMeekin’s retelling of the demise of the Ottoman Empire and its recrudescence as modern Turkey is a fascinating and complicated narrative.

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Among the interesting facts McMeekin points out is that according to an 1893 census only 72% of the Ottoman citizens were Muslim, and that in the middle of the 19th century the majority of the population of Constantinople may have been Christian. The Balkan Wars started a trend, exacerbated by World War I, toward ethnic cleansing, with hundreds of thousands of Christians leaving the Empire and similar numbers of Muslims moving from territory lost by the Empire to areas it still controlled.

We in the West tend to think of World War I as a static slugfest conducted in the trenches of northern France. But the war in the East, particularly as it applied to the Ottoman Empire, was a much more mobile affair. In fact, the Ottomans ended up fighting the war on six different fronts, as the Entente Powers invaded them from many different angles.

Winston Churchill in 1914

Winston Churchill in 1914

At the outbreak of WWI, the Ottomans allied themselves with Germany out of fear of Russia, which had coveted control over the straits connecting the Black and Mediterranean seas for centuries. In 1914 the Russians invaded Eastern Anatolia and met with initial success. However, Russia feared its early success was quite precarious, and so it inveigled its ally, Britain, to launch a diversionary assault on the Gallipoli peninsula. The “diversion” became one of the most deadly killing grounds of the war, as the British poured hundreds of thousands of men into the battle in hopes of breaking the stalemate on the Western Front. The author credits Russian prodding more than Winston Churchill’s stubbornness for the extent of the British commitment. The Ottomans, led by Mustapha Kemal (later to be known as Ataturk, the “father of modern Turkey”), prevailed in this hecatomb, showing that there was still plenty of fight left in the “Sick Man.”

Turkish General Mustafa Kemal, center, at Gallipoli, 1915

Turkish General Mustafa Kemal, center, at Gallipoli, 1915

The Ottomans also soundly defeated the British in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in late 1915, but they were less successful against the Russians, who invaded across the Caucasus and held much of eastern Anatolia until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 caused them to withdraw voluntarily. The British ultimately prevailed against the Ottomans in 1918 by invading from Egypt through Palestine, with a little help from the Arabs of Arabia.

The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war in Europe in 1919, did not end the war for the Ottomans. The victorious Allies were ready to carve up much of the Empire for themselves. The Ottoman armies were to disband; England was to keep Egypt and to get Palestine and Mesopotamia; France was to get Syria, Lebanon, and parts of modern Turkey; and Greece was to get a large swath of western Turkey. All might have gone according to that plan, but Mustapha Kemal (Attaturk) was still in charge of a small but effective fighting force in central Anatolia. Attaturk husbanded his forces and fought only when he had an advantage. In a war that lasted until 1923, he was able to expel the Greeks from Anatolia and to establish the boundaries of modern Turkey.

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McMeekin deftly handles this complexity with a lucid pen. His descriptions of the various military campaigns are riveting. This is not to say that he shortchanges the political machinations taking place. He gives more than adequate coverage to the “Young Turks,” a triumvirate that ruled the Empire from 1909 until they eventually brought it to its ruin in 1919. He also covers the Armenian massacres as objectively as possible, given the enormity of the events described.

Evaluation: This is a very satisfying book and an excellent addition to the enormous corpus of World War I literature. The book includes good maps and photos.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2015

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