Eugene Rogan is a fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the university’s Oriental Institute. His latest book, The Fall of the Ottomans, came out in 2015. Margaret MacMillan is warden of St Antony’s College and a professor of international history. Her most recent work, History’s People: Personalities and the Past, came out earlier this year.
Tank It feels like you cannot have a panel that talks about the Middle East at the time of the First World War without someone bringing up the present situation in that region. There seems to be no way out of interpreting its history through our current situation.
Margaret MacMillan People so often use history because it seems to give a validity to what they want to do in the present. So they will argue: “History says, ‘We must have this territory’, because historically, it has always been ours, or history says that, ‘We have a right to this’, because we just do.”
Eugene Rogan History’s not the prime instigator, but it’s an awfully useful justification or excuse for whatever it is you’re doing now. We had a question in the audience in the last session about the Crusades, and whether this is the deep, longue durée explanation for ISIS. It’s like if people know their history, they may harness it to justify things, but I think there are many more immediate motives that drive political action then the longue durée.
MM I think they often use history—
ER And indeed abuse it!
MM And abuse it, indeed. Well, it’s used as a mobilising force so that what the Chinese do, for example, is they go on and on about the century of humiliation. They’ve got 20 centuries of history and they talk about one, because it’s useful to say, therefore we must have control of the South China Sea – we must have this because of what happened to us. Or, as Al Qaeda does, it’s used as mobilisation: we once had a golden age; we promise you that again. So it’s a mobilising force, and it’s a tool, and it’s often abused.
Tank Eugene, I am interested that you called your book, The Fall of the Ottomans…
ER It wasn’t my choice of title and I don’t think I’m giving away any household secrets in saying that your publishers often have a lot to do with what ultimately they want to market the book under. I had wanted to call it The Ottoman Front, which was to play against the idea of the Western Front or Eastern Front. That was a more neutral title because it didn’t predict defeat. The thing that’s most striking to me is the way the Ottomans managed to fight for years before ultimate defeat. They defied all the bookmakers’ odds and fought a good war, and at times won some pretty important battles, so the fall was not foreordained. For reasons that had to do far more with marketing than with history, the publishers thought that the [historian Edward]Gibbon touch of the “fall of the Roman Empire” was going to be a better thing to market. I was happy to go along with that, but it made me rethink what, in this experience, did represent the fall of the Ottomans. I come to the conclusion that it wasn’t losing the war, actually, but rather signing the peace. In signing the peace the Ottoman Sultanate severed its ties to the Kemalist movement, which was the one force that could protect Turkey from partition and dismemberment. By signing the peace and putting their support behind the Treaty of Sèvres, they were condemned to fall with the Kemalist movement, which would eventually overturn the Sèvres agreement. So it was signing the peace, not losing the war that led to the fall of the Ottomans.
MM I think that the peace was so deeply unpopular because it basically partitioned not just the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire, but it partitioned the Turkish homelands as well. There were going to be a series of mandates: the Straits would be internationalised; there would be no independent entity left in the Ottoman Empire. I think you’re absolutely right when you say that the regime was rather exhausted. The last Sultan was a rather sad old man who didn’t have much authority, but he still had residual support simply because of the position.
ER His predecessors had been short on authority as well. The Young Turks were so dominant in the war years, which meant Mehmed VI’s authority was not what held it all together. It would have been the weight of institutions that held the Ottomans together.
MM One of the dangerous things with history is because we know how the story ends we tend to think that it was bound to end that way and we think that the Ottoman Empire was bound to disappear or the Austro-Hungarian Empire was bound to disappear because of the forces of nationalism. It’s not clear, but there were alternatives and they were discussing them in the Ottoman Empire. They were certainly discussing them in Austria and Hungary – ways of decentralising, protecting national identities within the empire. I think it is possible to imagine a world in which both of those empires could have survived in a different way.
ER It was killed. The Ottoman Empire didn’t die; it was actively killed. That was because, in a sense, countries fought this Great War with no ideological grounds to justify it and then went back to their war-weary peoples and their orphans and widows and said, “Well we’ll get great prizes for you in Asia.” And they needed Ottoman land to show that the glory of France, the glory of Britain, would be somehow advanced by what they’d sacrificed. In that, of course, they saddled themselves with difficult territories that would prove expensive, frustrating and ultimately, futile to retain as part of their empires.
MM Yes, and war aims tend to grow as the war goes on. I mean Clemenceau, the French prime minister said, to Lloyd George, “It’s better for France in the long run to work with Germany and perhaps we shouldn’t want so much in the way of reparations.” But he also said, “I can’t go to my French taxpayers and say, I’m sorry, we’re not going to get a penny to pay for the damage done by Germany, which attacked us in the north of France.” It was very, very difficult – it’s actually one of the difficult sides of democracies in making current policy, because you get public opinion and it’s not always reasonable.
Tank Obviously you have the iconic republican date of 29 October 1923, when the nation is “born”…
ER It didn’t have to be republican any more than Britain had to be republican to achieve representative government. But the drive towards constitutional representative government dates right back to the last decades of the 19th century. It was a marginal movement when it was among the young Ottomans. It took bringing the military behind the Young Turk movement for it to finally gain ground and lead to a kind of constitutional revolution. There was, at the same time, loyalty to the institutions of the monarchy and the Sultan, but also a demand for those institutions to be modified to create rational government and legal limits on the authority of stakeholders and citizens. There was definitely change afoot, but I don’t think that change necessarily meant the end of monarchy in the Ottoman Empire. War achieved that.
MM The trouble was the Ottoman Empire didn’t have time and in the end the war finished it off. I think we also suddenly expect countries to become democratic and constitutional in two seconds – we see it today. Think of how long it took Britain to become a democratic constitutional country. Centuries, with a lot of back and forth, a lot of oligarchy, a lot of corruption along the way. These things need to be built and need to strike down roots, and I think that’s one of the tragedies of what’s happened to some of the countries in the Middle East. They haven’t had the time or the freedom from outside interference to actually try and build the institutions they need to function as states and societies.
ER And to form the civil action groups, like parties, that allow you to be effective in politics. What was so striking in both Egypt and Tunisia, which did have revolutions that led to constitutional movements and parliamentary elections, in both those countries the people behind the revolution formed between 40 and 60 parties. They were very individualised, very personalised. None had a critical mass of support behind them to be able to impose a vision of a political future and so it was, even after the elections, a total free-for-all. Had the liberals wanted to play a more active role in shaping post-revolutionary politics in Egypt, they would have needed to coalesce around one party, maybe two, and then put an action plan forward, address the challenge that the Muslim Brotherhood was going to pose to liberal, secular reformers. They were a million miles from that, which can be explained by the fact that they had been prevented by an autocratic government from organising for decades.
MM I think that’s what really made the difference in India actually, because the British government very reluctantly had conceded representative government. Conceded it, first of all, in the municipalities in the 1880s, then in the provinces during the First World War and then in the federal, or the central, government. It meant that by the time India became independent, it had people with a lot of experience with making these institutions work, a lot of experience with being in office and very fortunately, Gandhi created a single, dominant, nationalist party that was hugely important in the first years in India.
ER There you had a kind of institutional, national party that was able to bring out a mass base of support behind it, so it could operate with consensus in trying to achieve a new political reality. None of those elements was in place in Tahrir after Mubarak, and the best organised – in Libya, as well – was the Brotherhood. Until 2013 it looked like the Arab Spring was going to be the Muslim Brotherhood wave.
MM And you can see another outcome, can’t you? If the Muslim Brotherhood had behaved differently in Egypt, if they had behaved like Justice and Development in Turkey, which was an Islamic party originally, but which strove with sophistication and ability to manage a government... Not today.
ER It did, it’s lost that today…
MM But it did for a while – it confounded people’s expectations by actually functioning quite well within the constitutional framework. My sense is that the Muslim brotherhood of Egypt didn’t really get it.
ER No, no, no, they didn’t get it by a long shot. They’re crude instruments. They made a series of promises about the limits of what they would seek and the new politics, and they broke every promise. They wouldn’t seek a parliamentary majority; they wouldn’t run candidates in the presidency; they wouldn’t dominate the constitutional assembly. They violated every promise they made.
MM They started interfering with the judiciary, all the institutions.
ER Morsi declared himself above the judiciary.
Tank The comparison to Justice and Development in Turkey is interesting, but in Turkey you have at least, off and on, 50 years of democratic process, for a party to couch itself in…
ER But it’s so fragile. And this is where my secular Turkish friends are genuinely nervous: they see, with elements of the military eliminated, that there isn’t actually an institution for them and the secular values of Kemalism. And they’re critical of Kemalism’s rigidity, and they didn’t like the military holding these coups that overturn party politics – the military at many times was the enemy – but suddenly there are no guardians left to protect the secular values that Ankara and Istanbul took for granted. They’re nervous; they’re very nervous.
MM And I think that the signals coming from Erdoğan are very worrying. I mean the refusal to recognise the results from the last election, the attempt to make the presidency into something much more then it was envisaged under the constitution, the arrests of journalists – that’s been really stepped up. My own view is this war on the PKK, which was so nearly at an end and Erdoğan’s using it…
ER For party-political gain. The challenge is to advance political change in a way that gives more citizens rights. But the interests of those who would hold a monopoly on power are such that, if they have the force to do it – they will. This is why Tunisia stands out as the exception in the Arab Spring: the military was never involved in politics. It has no economic base; they are employees of the state. They’ve kept that role. So there isn’t any force that’s able to impose its will to preserve its power – and that allows politics to happen. §