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Copyright 2000 The Telegraph Group Limited SUNDAY TELEGRAPH(LONDON)
January 30, 2000, Sunday
Books: The fall of the Ottoman Empire Geoffrey Wheatcroft looks at the
reasons behind the rapid disintegration of one of history's great powers

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Empires of the Sand:

The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East 1789-1923 by Efraim Karsh and
Inari Karsh

Harvard UP, pounds 18.50, 409 pp pounds 16.50 (free p&p) 0541 557222

A HUNDRED years ago, most of central and eastern Europe and adjacent Asia
was covered by four great empires, German, Russian, Habsburg and Ottoman.
While the German Empire stretched, as the national anthem said, from the
Meuse to the Memel, and Austria-Hungary from the borders of Saxony to
Transylvania, the Ottoman Empire had receded from its 17th-century
high-water mark, when it had besieged Vienna. But it still ruled much of the
Balkans as well as most of Araby, if one can usefully revive that term.

Like its Habsburg and Tsarist rivals, Turkey was challenged by the national
currents which had been running since the French Revolution. Nevertheless,
at the turn of the last century, few foresaw that all four empires would
have vanished within 20 years. That was true even of "the sick man of
Europe", as Tsar Nicholas I had called Turkey. "The Eastern Question" in the
19th century had been not so much the decline of the Ottoman empire as the
efforts by the European powers to keep the sick man alive, if only to
prevent Russia dismembering the corpse.

When the Ottoman empire finally did collapse, it seemed that this was the
work of those powers, and the consequence of their Great War which began in
1914. In their new book, Empires of the Sand, Efraim and Inari Karsh tell
the story of Turkish decline from Napoleon's own eastern adventure, and the
first challenges by Greek and Egyptian separatists. And they argue that the
final fall was not imposed - as other historians have claimed - by the great
powers or cooked up by the schemes of Western imperialism. In effect they
say that the Ottomans had it coming to them, and were the architects of
their own fate.

Part of the Karsh thesis speaks for itself. "Greed rather than necessity
drove the Ottoman Empire into the First World War." But a sentence beginning
with those first five words could describe very many episodes in the stories
of very many countries. In the game of nations (as the authors might have
said), all powers do the best they can for their interests as they perceive

Sometimes they do so cleverly, sometimes stupidly, sometimes successfully,
sometimes not. In 1914-15, it was by no means obvious that the war would be
fought to a terrible finish and a disastrous outcome for the Central Powers.
As much by good luck as nice judgment, Italy backed the winning side; as
much by bad luck as poor judgment, Turkey backed the loser.

Equally, to say that the destruction of the empire was "a disaster
self-inflicted by a short-sighted leadership blinded by its imperial dream"
could be just as well said of Willhelmine Germany. But those words are
characteristic of the authors, who not only, and properly, present a
catalogue of Ottoman misdeeds against Bulgars and Armenians, but cannot find
a good word for anything the Porte ever did.

If they disdain the Ottomans, they are even more contemptuous of Arabism and
the attempt during the First World War by Ibn Ali Hussein to create a new
empire of Araby. It didn't happen, and the authors have no difficulty in
showing that Hussein was an untrustworthy rascal who tried to play off all
sides against one another. And yet the ferocity with which he is denounced
suggests axe-grinding.

This contempt is highlighted by the uncritical spirit in which the Karshes
write about that other extraordinary national movement known as Zionism. To
say that "the Jews' longing for their ancestral homeland, or Zion, occupied
a focal point in their collective memory for millennia" is far-fetched, at
the least, especially when set against the statement that "there was no
'Arab Nation' at the time" the Ottoman empire fell.

In truth, whether it was a bad idea or good, political Zionism - from its
beginnings more than 100 years ago - was a pure example of an "invented
tradition". It had no roots in existing Jewish tradition, of which it was a
drastic rejection; why else did most Jews originally react to it with
indifference or hostility? No doubt early Arab nationalists were trying to
make the bricks of Arab nation-states without the straw of true Arab
national consciousness. But then there is the very example of Zionism to
show that this can be done.

This is a fascinating book in its way, but I wasn't quite sure what that way
was meant to be. Based on archival as as well as printed sources - in
Turkish and Arabic besides European languages - it is doubtless learned; but
the story is told in a style which, though it at first seems agreeably
old-fashioned, soon becomes fusty or even hackneyed: "lull in the storm . .
. fought tooth and nail . . . the seeds of change were sown . . . the
writing on the wall . . . nail in the coffin".

One of the first rules of studying history, a wise historian used to say,
was to ask of any document why it was written. Perhaps the same question
should sometimes be asked of history books.


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