11 PM | 25 Nov

The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923

Cover of The Ottoman Endgame

Author: Sean McMeekin

Publisher: Penguin Press

Date of Publication: October 2015

Date of Review: November 2015

I thoroughly enjoyed “The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923” by Sean McMeekin. It rapidly addresses the intercontinental disruptions across the Ottoman Empire. McMeekin strikes a balance between military history and geopolitics, while writing a compelling narrative that flows with ease and depth. I happen to love studying this time period, and have read quite a bit about the fall of the Ottoman Empire, yet I also discovered new insights into this much written topic. I do have one slight complaint; I wish McMeekin delved deeper into the inner workings of the Ottoman Empire, particularly during World War I. Still, “The Ottoman Endgame” is an excellent read, which even draws extremely interesting parallels to the Middle East of today.

The Prologue opens with 1876, the “year of three sultans,” which really does set the reader up for a clearer understanding of later developments. By the end of chapter one, the reader is rapidly brought to 1906, when Muslims and Christians were migrating to and from Ottoman territory, and European powers were courting the Ottomans. At the end of Chapter 2, the reader learns about the German’s increased support to the Ottomans.

For me, Chapter 3 is where the plot thickens. Nineteen-eleven, Tripolitania, always framed in the periscope of Sicilian/Italian warriors (think I, II & III Punic Wars), becomes a hotbed of angst. Italy attacks while the Ottomans are obviously preoccupied with internal strife and unrest in the Balkans. Enter the Tripolitanian War, also known as the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912. This, predictably, leads to the First and Second Balkan Wars, which escalated the fall of the Ottoman Empire and readied the “Guns of August.” (A reference to Barbara Tuchman’s famous book about the start of WWI. If the reader is interested in delving into the Tripolitanian War, I strongly suggest reading “Italo-Turkish Diplomacy and the War Over Libya 1911-1912” by Timothy W. Childs. It sounds dry, but it is not!)

Chapter 4 truly stands out, providing stupendous detail on the growing alliance with Germany against Russia. Further, Chapter 5, predictably, covers the Goeben; however, McMeekin does a stellar job of laying out the Ottoman response to the Goeben. Chapter 6 covers in detail the duplicity of the Turks at the beginning of WWI, when they were still trying to court England and France, while not selling out Germany, a true feat that ultimate led to the Ottomans siding with Germany. Chapter 7 highlights the ever-conflicted areas of Shatt al-Arab and Kuwait, which rose to modern prominence in the Iran-Iraq war and later the First Gulf War. At one point, Germany started creating propaganda to propel the Ottomans into the war, which I found particularly interesting in light of terrorism today. McMeekin quotes a German-produced Arabic language holy war pamphlet, circa November 1914, which states: “The killing of the infidels who rule over the Islamic lands has become a sacred duty.”

Chapter 8 is where McMeekin begins to focus a bit too heavily on the British and Russian mentality, while not delving deeply enough into the Ottoman’s thoughts.

I was glad to see coverage of the Armenian genocide—I’m choosing to use a word that for some is still contentious—in enough detail to show the complicated nature of the relationship between Armenians and the Turks. Furthermore, McMeekin goes into the relationship between the Kurds and the Turks, a relationship that is still highly belligerent.

I’m pleased with the manner in which McMeekin covers T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). I felt he is honest, separating legend from truth, which provides enough context to explain Lawrence’s rise to fame. I’m also glad that McMeekin chooses not to write too much about Lawrence.

By Chapter 13, we learn about the Fall of Erzurum, “a signature victory in the First World War,” between the Terek Cossacks and the Ottomans. It would seem that the Ottoman Empire would have fallen at this point, but, as McMeekin points out, “at this critical and still little understood juncture of the First World War, the only thing keeping the tottering Ottoman Empire together was the friction between the Entente Powers greedily carving her up.”

The United State’s entry into the war is appropriately covered, including a reasonably short discussion of the Zimmermann Telegram between German and Mexico, promising that if Mexico joined the war and attacked the United States, Mexico would receive Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. We also learn a bit about President Wilson’s guiding principles in “self-determination” of people creating new national lines.

Unfortunately, “self-determination” was more of a utopian ideal, and was of little interest to the Entente Powers or the Ottomans. We learn, for example, about the creation of a “Zionist state,” which was popular with some, but certainly not popular with the Muslims. Interestingly, the King-Crane Commission “reported nearly unanimous sentiment in favor of the American mandate in Palestine and Syria, because the United States was seen as the power most likely to accept Arab independence.” However, in President Wilson’s words at the end of World War I, he “could think of nothing the people of the United States would be less inclined to accept than military responsibility in Asia.” Ultimate, British and French mandates split the area up.

The Ottoman Empire was certainly fractured at the conclusion of WWI; however, it wasn’t yet dead. Key cities, like Smyrna, went to various competing forces, which later sparked enormous unrest in Anatolia. The final acts involving the end of the Ottoman Empire happened from within, with the rise of modern Turkey created by the destruction of the sultanate and the abolition of the caliphate in March 1924.

“The Ottoman Endgame” concludes with a brief overview of how these events have set the stage for World War II, the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the Syrian civil war of today, and the rise of the Islamic State. McMeekin does a stellar job of linking past events with today’s crisis in the Middle East, and by virtue of the intertwined histories, Russia and Europe. “The Ottoman Endgame” struck me as a cautionary tale of the trap that is Arab/Middle Eastern politics.

Here’s the one thing I disliked: “The Ottoman Endgame” contains an incredible amount of information about other countries, namely Russia, Germany, and England. This is especially true once the reader reaches the discussions on World War I. Certainly one cannot discuss the “Endgame” of the Ottoman Empire without covering those playing the “game,” but I had hoped to learn more about the internal working of the Ottomans. Entire chapters discussed Russia and German, with a few pages devoted to the Ottomans. McMeekin is a skilled author, and Penguin has some of the finest editors in the English language. I would have enjoyed another one hundred pages to cover in greater detail what was happing in the Ottoman Empire. Given the state of the world, I think sacrificing these details while rehashing the rise of the Bolsheviks—which McMeekin admits has been voluminously written about—was a missed opportunity to provide the educated reader with newfound knowledge. It would be unfair to say that the Ottoman Empire is not discussed, it certainly is, but at times I felt like its internal workings were afterthoughts when they should have been forefront.

Platitudes are frustrating because they are unsatisfyingly true. In this case, history is repeating itself: Turkey is involved in a war against Syria and ISIS, Russia is playing both hands, and Europe is endlessly involved in staking a claim, while the United States tries to placate allies while resisting making more enemies. I can’t help but think, shouldn’t the U.S. follow the 1919 U.S. Senate’s wisdom and extract itself from the Middle East all-together? After all, the “Ottoman” Endgame is more like a game of Dungeons and Dragons, that’s to say, a never-ending charade, and less like a game on Monopoly with a clear end.