Monday, December 21, 2009


by  LS. Stavrianos**

Abdul Hamid became the autocratic ruler of the Ottoman Empire following his dismissal of the first Turkish parliament in 1877. At first he was generally praised for being industrious and sober in contrast to many of his predecessors. This favorable attitude gradually changed with the Armenian massacres of the 1890's and the chronic anarchy and bloodshed in Macedonia. By the turn of the century Abdul Hamid had become "Abdul the Damned" and the "Great Assassin." Whether villain or hero, Abdul Hamid was the master of the Ottoman Empire for three decades.

In his relations with the great powers Abdul Hamid's policy was simply divide and rule, or more accurately, divide and survive. He acquired a reputa tion as a consummate diplomat in pursuing this policy, though it is doubtful that much skill was required to persuade the British to oppose Russian ambitions in the Near East. In domestic affairs Abdul Hamid strove to safeguard his absolutist rule against the disruptive forces of nationalism and constitutionalism. To this end he discouraged travel and study abroad, maintained a great army of informers, and enforced a strict censorship of the press.

Three trouble spots in the empire gave Abdul Hamid the most trouble. One was Armenia, where a nationalist awakening similar to that of the Balkan peoples manifested itself in the second half of the nineteenth century. Another was the island of Crete, where the predominantly Christian Greek population took up arms on every promising occasion in order to attain their cherished enosis, or union with Mother Greece. The third area of trouble was Macedonia, the.......
..... tinder box of the Balkans, to which Greeks, Serbians and Bulgarians laid claim. In the end Abdul Hamid was overthrown not by Armenian or Greek or Macedonian revolutionaries, but rather by his own Turkish subjects. And the successful revolutionaries were not the Young Turks in exile who had at¬tracted international attention as the opponents of the sultan, but rather a completely unknown group of conspirators within the empire.

We noted in Chapter 20 that from the time of the reign of Abdul Aziz in the 1860's critics of the Ottoman dynasty fled abroad, where they continued their defiance and where they came to be known collectively as the Young Turks. Their numbers increased markedly during the decades of Abdul Hamid's autocracy. Not only discontented Turks, but also revolutionary leaders of the subject peoples, Moslem as well as Christian, sought refuge in foreign capitals and especially in Paris. All these Ottoman exiles—Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Albanians, Kurds, and Jews—held a congress in Paris in February, 1902, with the aim of organizing a common front against Abdul Hamid. But they quickly discovered that they agreed on nothing except that they all disliked the sultan. One group, led by a veteran Young Turk, Ahmet Riza, stood for Turkish predominance and centralized rule, while another group led by one of Abdul Hamid's relatives, Prince Sabaheddin, favored a decentralized empire in which the subject people should have full autonomy.

While the exiled intellectuals were quarreling in Paris, Turkish army officers were taking decisive measures in Saloniki. One of the earliest leaders of these army officers was Mustafa Kemal, who was to win lasting fame after World War I as the founder of the Turkish Republic. In 1905 Kemal organ¬ized in Damascus the secret military society, Vatan, or Fatherland. This was later absorbed by another secret military organization, the Ottoman Society of Liberty, with headquarters in Saloniki. This organization spread throughout the empire very rapidly. Army officers were the backbone of the Society of Liberty, though they were greatly aided by other groups, and particularly by the Jews, who were the most numerous and wealthy element in Saloniki.

The Society of Liberty was organized into cells of five so that no one knew more than four fellow members. A new recruit had to be sponsored by a regular member and was observed closely during a probationary period. For the purpose of communication each cell contained a "guide" who received the orders of the top central committee from the "guide" of another cell, and who was required to pass on the orders without delay. The activities of the Society have been described as follows:This account brings out the glaring contrast between the rootless intel¬lectuals arguing with each other in Paris and the practical revolutionaries quietly building up their underground organization within the empire. The latter group staged its revolt in July, 1908, partly because the sultan's agents were beginning to penetrate its organization and also because the powers were openly considering intervention in Macedonia. The British foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey, proposed in March, 1908, an autonomous regime for Macedonia. A little later it was announced that the British and Russian monarchs would meet at Reval on June 10 to discuss reforms for Macedonia. The Saloniki conspirators, fearing that the end result would be Ottoman partition, decided to act at once.
To meet the expenses each member was compelled to contribute a fixed percentage of his income to the Committee chest, while rich members, in addi¬tion to this tax, made generous donations when funds were required. Arms and ammunition were secretly purchased. A considerable sum was set apart annually to provide for the families of members who lost life or liberty while working for the cause. Their several duties were apportioned to the members. There were the messengers who, disguised in various ways, went to and fro over the Empire carrying verbal reports and instructions. . . . There were the men who had to assassinate those whom the Committee had condemned to death—Government officials who were working against the movement with a dangerous zeal, and Palace spies who were getting on the scent. Other members were sent out to act as spies in the interest of the cause, and the contre espionage became at last so thorough that it baffled the espionage of the Palace. . . . The first and most im¬portant task . . . was, of course, that of bringing round to the cause the Macedo¬nian garrison—the Third Army Corps. ... By degrees a number of the young officers were affiliated and received instructions to win over the rank and file. . . . At last the whole Macedonian army was won over to the cause of the Young Turks. . .

Events now moved quickly and according to plan. The Saloniki group telegraphed an ultimatum to the sultan threatening to march upon Constanti¬nople unless the 1876 constitution was restored within twenty-four hours. The Third Army Corps solidly backed its revolutionary leaders. In Constantinople the State Council advised Abdul Hamid to comply with the ultimatum. Also, the Sheik-ul-Islam refused to issue a fetva authorizing suppression of the rebels. On July 24 Abdul Hamid proclaimed the restoration of the constitution.

The news of the sultan's capitulation was greeted with wild rejoicing. The long reign of repression was at an end. Christians and Turks embraced one another in the streets. The Young Turk leader, Enver Pasha, exclaimed: "There are no longer Bulgars, Greeks, Rumans, Jews, Mussulmans. We are all brothers beneath the same blue sky. We are all equal, we glory in being Otto¬man." 9 This euphoric atmosphere did not last long. The issues that had divided the exiles in Paris now had to be faced as urgent issues of policy rather than differences in theory. Three political groupings began to emerge at this point.

The dominant one comprised the Saloniki leaders, now popularly known as the Young Turks. In general they adopted the position supported by Riza in Paris. They were ready to grant political representation and religious freedom to all peoples of the empire. But in return they required that these peoples should support the imperial structure and accept Turkish predominance. They frequently stated that they wished all citizens of the empire to become Ottomans in the same manner that all citizens of France were Frenchmen. But this analogy was unrealistic. It failed to take into account the very different historical background and ethnic composition of Western Europe and the Near East. Genuine Ottoman nationality might have existed by the twentieth century if during the preceding centuries the Turks had not administered their empire on the millet principle, and if, instead, they had coerced their subject peoples into becoming Moslems. But they had not taken these measures, and as a result their empire remained from beginning to end an aggregate of self-governing communities. Now it was too late to attempt to fuse them into a homogeneous nation. Nationalist sentiment already had made each one of these communities self-conscious and desirous of an independent existence. The Young Turk pro¬gram was adopted at least a century too late to have had any hope of success.

The second political group that existed at this time was the Liberal Union headed by Prince Sabaheddin. This organization did not agree that centralization and Turkish hegemony were necessary to preserve the empire. Instead, it held that only through local autonomy and full development of communal life could the empire retain the support of its peoples and thus survive. There is no way of knowing whether this proposition was sound because it was never put into practice. It is worth recalling, however, that in the hectic early days of the revolution many Greeks in Smyrna unfurled the blue-and-white flag of the Hellenic Kingdom rather than the star and crescent of their own empire. In any case, the Liberal Unionists never had a chance to assume office. Many Turks suspected them because of the strong backing they received from the Greeks and other nationalities. More important was the military power which the Young Turks commanded and which Sabaheddin and his followers lacked completely. Thus the Liberal Union was condemned to the role of an impotent opposition party.

The third political group was the League of Mohammed. It professed to support the constitution but was most vocal in demanding strict enforcement of the Sheri, or Sacred Law. It opposed the Saloniki Young Turks, claiming that their leaders were Jews, freethinkers, or Westernized Turks who did not observe the precepts of the Koran and who set a bad example with their irreligious ways. This argument was effective with the devout Moslem population, as the brief counterrevolution of 1909 was to demonstrate dramatically.

On April 12, 1909, a counterrevolution in Constantinople broke the hold of the Young Turks from Saloniki and left the capital in the hands of con¬servative Moslem forces. The Saloniki leaders immediately assumed that Abdul Hamid was behind the counterrevolution. Acting on this assumption they de¬posed him later in the year when they regained power. But conclusive proof that the sultan inspired the counterrevolution is lacking. In fact, circumstantial evidence suggests that he was not involved. He remained passive throughout the struggle and made no attempt to guide the unorganized and leaderless rebels. In any case, the Young Turks gathered their forces in Macedonia, marched upon the capital, captured it after only a few hours' fighting, and then compelled Abdul Hamid to abdicate on April 27. The new sultan, Mohammed V, had spent his entire life in strict palace confinement and, according to his own account, had not been allowed to read a newspaper for ten years. The Young Turks therefore expected him to be a compliant figurehead, but to make doubly certain they revised the constitution in August, 1909. The sultan henceforth was to name the grand vizir, who in turn selected the other ministers. Also, the sultan was deprived of the power to dissolve parliament and the cabinet was made responsible to the parliament rather than to the sultan.

The Young Turks now were the unchallenged masters of the empire. With the exception of a few months they remained masters until World War I. All opposition having been crushed, they proceeded with their policy of centralization and Turkish hegemony. But the more they persisted in this policy the more opposition they created. Neither Turkish nationalism nor Ottoman nationalism could exorcise the inexorable awakening of Albanians, Arabs, Greeks, Bulgarians, and other subject peoples. Thus the result was a vicious circle of repression and resistance. Young Turk nationalism, as noted in the previous chapter, was responsible for the Albanian revolt of 1910. And, of more concern at this point, is the fact that the Young Turk revolt affected Balkan diplomatic development in two respects: it encouraged the Austrian and Russian foreign ministers to fish in the troubled Balkan waters, thereby precipitating the grave Bosnian crisis; and it stimulated the Balkan countries to form the Balkan League and, at long last, to drive the Turks almost completely out of Europe.

*Abstract from the book "The Balkans Since 1453", pages 524-528
**For fair use only.

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