A Peace to End All Peace

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.

Now, there is an interesting topic for soc.history.what-if. I am sure someone has thought of it already.

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.

Categorized as Books

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. A while ago I commented that I had found a copy of The Realities of America-Palestine Relations by Frank Manuel (1949). I had been interested in the book because it was written before the creation of Israel. One thing I found interesting was that, while Americans and Britons were vulnerable to anti-Jewish prejudice, there was a widespread reflex to support the Jewish community in Palestine in order to modernize the Ottoman Empire (including its legal system, which made business relations a headache).

    In the 19th century the USA was not at all shy about applying pressure on the sublime porte to honor the rights of US nationals; all the while, there was a brisk commerce in US citizenship, which was highly prized in Palestine. However, not until the 1880’s was the US Ambassador to Ottoman Turkey himself a US citizen! While the effects of this were to allow the USG to cite its [demographically insignificant] interests in order to extrude favors from Istanbul, the Jewish community in Palestine was exceptionally keen to use its leverage on the tiny American community to extrude support from Washington.

    However, as you might expect, by 1920 the Jewish community in Palestine was almost gone. There were several waves of pogroms against the remaining Jewish population, which nearly reduced the numbers to zero. Then, of course, came 1932 and after that nothing could stem the tide of refugees from Central Europe.

  2. James: by 1920 the Jewish community in Palestine was almost gone.

    My understanding, which is limited, is that the Jewish population in that region increased over the time period from the late 19th century to the British mandate. I didn’t know of any significant decrease in Jewish population, though there was violence against them. Fromkin mentions Djemal Pasha’s actions against the Jewish population in Syria/Palestine during World War I. The US, Britain and Germany pressured the Sublime Porte to end that.

  3. Other voices

    I’m going to take a break from Qutb for at least one night, to try to get caught up on comments, but I thought I’d point out a few posts well worth reading.Both Meryl Yourish and Lynn B. of In…

  4. Here’s the first paragraph from Wilsons statement:

    “Once more, as repeatedly before, the spokesmen of the Central Empires have indicated their desire to discuss the objects of the war and the possible basis of a general peace. Parleys have been in progress at Brest-Litovsk between Russsian representatives and representatives of the Central Powers to which the attention of all the belligerents have been invited for the purpose of ascertaining whether it may be possible to extend these parleys into a general conference with regard to terms of peace and settlement.”

    Wilson was not dictating terms, nor should the 14 points be confused with the concept of “unconditional surrender” a la WWII. Only via Faustian quotation can his futile attempt to stave off the Imperial ambitions of France and Britain in the region be presented as an original proposal regarding the “dismemberment” of the Ottoman Empire. Wilson was a dupe, true, but certainly no willing stooge of London and Paris. Nor is it a minor detail that the United States Senate refused to sign off on the ToV (nor join the League of Nations)…

    Mr. MacLean, in the early 19th century Great Britain claimed the authority to impress its native born subjects into the Royal Navy. This included it’s former colonists who’d become Americans, all of whom were technically “born Englishmen”, even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Considering that when Lord Linlithgow declared Indias entrance into WWII without consulting the provincial governments he fostered a similar resentment, albeit more civilized than the American reaction a century earlier, it should occur that Americans were neither the first nor last people to discover themselves Englishmen when a tax or butchers bill was due, but wogs and savages otherwise. Is it really a surprise that Palestinian arabs and Israeli jews, like Indian hindus and Pakistani muslims, or Irish catholics and Ulster protestants, or Zulus and Boers, all dance/fight to a “divide et impera” British waltz?

    Before any Turks and Greeks start thinking about fighting each other in Cyprus, remember the old line: “Timeo Britannus et dona ferentes”

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