I just finished reading “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East” by David Fromkin. The title of the book comes from a quote by Field Marshall Earl Wavell:
After the ‘war to end war’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end Peace.’
The first thing one should know about this book is that it is not about Middle Eastern politics and personalities around the World War I era, as Fromkin makes clear in the introduction.
Middle Eastern personalities, circumstances, and political cultures do not figure a great deal in the narrative that follows, except when I suggest the outlines and dimensions of what European politicians were ignoring when they made their decisions. This is a book about the decision-making process, and in the 1914—22 period, Europeans and Americans were the only ones seated around the table when the decisions were made.
His argument is definitely correct, but this means that it is mostly a tale about British bureaucracy. The biggest weakness of this book is the scarcity of local Middle Eastern points of view.
World War I is always an interesting read since so much of the modern world is based on that era. However, I don’t agree with some people that there was any significant difference between the two sides in the Great War. In many ways, it was an imperial war and this is especially true when you consider the allied intentions in the Middle East.
It also feels strange reading about the prejudices of major figures of the early 20th century. Anti-semitism was obviously not an uncommon thing then (and still isn’t.) What surprised me though was that there were British bureaucrats who thought that the Young Turks were actually a front for a Jewish Freemason conspiracy. I guess some things never change.
One reason for such conspiracy theories was Salonika, which is now known as Thessaloniki and is the second largest city in Greece. It played an important part in the birth of modern Turkey. The three main leaders of the Young Turkey Party, Talaat, Djemal and Enver, all had some connection to the city which become part of Greece in the Balkan war in 1912.
Mehmed Talaat, the founder of the Young Turks and later Grand Vizier, lived and worked in Salonika. Djemal Bey was a staff officer in the Third Army which had its headquarters there. The Young Turks gained power in 1908 when some troops in Salonika including Enver Pasha escaped to the hills and the Sultan sent troops against them. And finally, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was born in Salonika in 1881.
While we are on the topic of Jews,
David Ben-Gurion and Itzhak Ben Zvi […] offered to organize a Palestinian Jewish army in 1914 to defend Ottoman Palestine. But, instead of accepting their offer, Djemal deported them and other Zionist leaders in 1915. Ben-Gurion and Ben Zvi went to the United States, where they continued to campaign for the creation of a pro-Ottoman Jewish army. But early in 1918 they rallied to a Jewish army formation that was to fight in Palestine on the British side against the Ottoman Empire. Nothing the wartime Ottoman government had done had given them cause to remain pro-Turk.
You have most likely heard of President Wilson’s fourteen points, which he outlined to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. The 12th point deals specifically with the Ottoman empire.
The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.
But did you know that the United States was never at war with the Ottoman empire? United States entered World War I with a declaration of war against Germany in April 1917 after German submarines sank American merchant vessels. War against the German ally, Austria-Hungary, was not declared until the end of 1917. But the US did not declare war against the other Central Powers, Ottoman empire and Bulgaria.
Since the US was not at war with the Ottomans, point 12 seems anomalous. President Wilson was proposing dismemberment of a country with which the US was at peace. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee thought about the additional declarations of war but accepted Wilson’s decision in the end.
“A Peace to End All Peace” also has a very interesting discussion of how the Ottomans entered the Great War.
Overall, it is a good book worth reading and it would have been better it had had focussed more on local Middle Eastern politics and opinion in addition to the shenanigans of the Great Powers.