Balance of Threat:
Revisiting Ottomans’ Alliance Politics in the Great War
Since the beginning of the Ottoman retreat in the late 17th century, the imminent threat facing the Sublime Porte gradually shifted. First, it was the loss of supremacy in Europe, then it was a complete withdrawal from Europe but with the decisive defeat in the Balkan Wars the confronted danger was evidently the total collapse of the Empire. The post-Balkan Wars summary of the Ottoman situation, even to the most optimistic eyes was a crumbling economy, military backwardness and an increasing social unrest (especially among Armenians). Hence in 1913 the short term Ottoman resolution was to join a stable alliance in Europe which was divided between the Central and Entente powers, gain economic independence, reform the military, foster a new Turkish ethnic identity and avoid a new war. However, as the Continent was slowly drifting into war with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on the 28th of June 1914 none of these tasks were fulfilled and the news from Sarajevo created an atmosphere of panic in Istanbul as it was believed that the very existence of the Empire was at danger with no proper alliance backing it up. Similarly to the unsuccessful attempts of the past decade, Ottomans first approached the British then the French only to get a negative response. It was clear that no matter how many concessions were offered and how well intentioned the Turks were, finding a common ground with the Entente Powers was simply not possible rendering an alliance with the Central Powers as the only hope for survival and perhaps even salvation.
a) The British Factor
The first preference of alliance for the Ottomans was overwhelmingly with the British side, not only due to its overall strength but also due to the centuries old Turco-British friendship. Numerous attempts on the highest level from 1908 to 1913 were made by the Ottoman leadership to secure the British support. The CUP tried all means possible for a formal alliance including deploying a diplomatic mission headed by Kamil Pasha, the Grand Vizier of its time but the sincere efforts came to nothing as Britain’s reply was always a negative one softened by a carefully diplomatic tone. However, a possible alliance with Britain was not completely ruled out until Lord Kitchener told the Ottoman ambassador to London, Ahmet Tevfik Pasha in a private meeting during the July Crisis of 1914 that the Entente was not willing to see the Turks on their side in case of a general war.
When examined in context, the British decision of gradually terminating its traditional alliance with the Ottomans seems almost inevitable for a variety of reasons. In both public and government opinion there was a negative shift regarding the Ottomans. The British viewed the Christian minorities in the Balkans as subject to a cruel Islamic oppression and blamed the Ottomans of massacring 60 000 Bulgarians during the revolts of 1876. The British leadership changed from a pro-Turkish Conservative, Disraeli to an anti-Turkish liberal, Gladstone who had accused his predecessor (a converted Jew) for hating Christian liberty. Also, the construction of the Suez Canal (1869) and the annexation of Egypt (1882) decreased the strategic importance of the alliance with Ottomans. Furthermore, the 1877-1878 Russo-Ottoman War, which resulted in total Ottoman defeat was instrumental in changing the traditional yet pragmatic British policy of guarding Ottoman territorial integrity. Anticipating the possibility of total Ottoman collapse in the hands of the Russians, London was now interested in reaching a deal with the other European Powers about the future partitioning of the soon to be deceased sick man of Europe. This attitude could easily be seen from the British PM Lord Salisbury’s letter to the Ottoman Grand Vizier Sait Pasha in June 1895, twelve years before the Anglo-Russian Entente:
“General feeling in Britain is increasingly to the effect that the Ottoman Empire will not continue to exist. What contributes to the existence of the Ottoman Empire is the fact that Britain is not allied with Russia. If an alliance comes out, the Ottoman Empire will perish.”
To add insult to the injury, the authoritarian ruling style of Abdulhamit II (1978-1908) was yet another obstacle for a healthy relationship with the British, as he was profoundly unpopular in London’s liberal circles. Not only the Sultan was unpopular, he was also considered a danger since he was open in using his Caliph of the ummah status to provoke the Islamic subjects within the British colonies. Hence, it is of no surprise that when the Young Turks (the core of CUP) ended the Abdulhamit era and reinstalled the Constitutional Rule, bilateral relations with Istanbul were strengthened; nevertheless the hopeful atmosphere did not last long as the Young Turks too turned authoritarian once consolidating their power. The British political elite eventually found no difference between the Young Turks and the Old Turks and the mutual relations continued to decline until the Great War.
b) The French Factor
From an Ottoman perspective, the second most desired target for alliance building, especially when Britain could not be persuaded, was the French Republic. However, similar to the British case, the pan-Islamic policies of Abdulhamit II restrained the bilateral relations since the French regarded this as a clear threat for the stability of Islamic majority colonies. This barrier for a stronger relationship continued with the CUP in power as they did not convince Paris that the status of the Caliph would not be a foreign policy weapon anymore. The most serious attempt to enlist the French support was during the heated days of the July Crisis as Cemal Pasha, the Minister of Navy and a known Francophile arrived to Paris seeking a military deal. He told his counterparts the following: “Take us Turks into your Entente, at the same time protect us from terrible Russian threats and we will encircle the Central Powers like an iron ring.” This offer was practically turned down by the French insisting that such an agreement would need their allies (Britain and Russia) approval, which was not possible. Hence, Cemal Pasha left Paris with a sheer disappointment in French friendship and the Legion d’honeur.
c) The Russian Factor
It was no secret that the biggest threat to Ottoman territorial integrity and even to its survival was the Russian expansion since the early 19th century. The Ottomans and the Russian Empire had virtually no common interests to unite them and they were regarded to be natural adversaries. Ottoman retreat from the Balkans was the result of the Russian victory in 1877-1878 and the traditional pan-Slavic policies it pursued. The two empires were fighting over naval supremacy in the Black Sea for centuries, the Russians were open about their ambitions in the Straits, they confronted each other in the Caucasus and Russia annexed a significant portion of Asia Minor in 1878. Also, the two empires were actively aiding each other’s religious and ethnic separatist movements since the early 20thcentury. The Russians were seeking a buffer zone through an independent Armenia in Eastern Anatolia while the Ottomans pushed for an Islamic rebellion in Trans-Caucasia. Talat Pasha, the Minister if the Interior was convinced that Russia was planning to use Bulgaria and an independent Armenia to encircle the Turks and to cut off the land connection between the Ottomans and the Caucasian Muslims which would be followed by the occupation of the Straits. Russia’s call for reviving the status of the Straits and its proposal to unite the six Armenian majority East Anatolian cities under a single administrative unit in 1914 justified this theory and implied that Russia was conspiring for a full-fledged war against the Ottomans. Even though they knew it would come to nothing the Ottomans still tried their luck to form an alliance (almost asking for a miracle) during the July Crisis, sending a delegation headed by Talat Pasha to Russia that returned with empty hands not even meeting the Tsar.
d) The German Factor
Unlike the decline of British and French multilateral relationship with Istanbul after 1878, Germans were gradually building stronger ties with the Turks. This was apparent with the German Fountain built in 1901 in the heart of Istanbul, the agreement to construct a Berlin-Bagdad railway in 1903, the rapid rise in the German financial investment and the German military advisers sent to the Ottoman side. Internally, the pro-Turkish attitudes of Kaiser Wilhelm II coupled with the strong admiration of the CUP leaders such as Enver Pasha, the War Minister for the German Empire, and externally the common threat posed by Russia increased the possibility for a Turco-German rapprochement. Hence it was not surprising that Germany was the only European Power that was not interested in disintegrating the Ottomans and taking a share of the spoils.
However, this did not mean that they were considering an alliance with the Ottomans. Quite the contrary, the vast majority of the German leadership since the day it was first discussed in 1910 regarded an Ottoman alliance a dangerous diplomatic, economic and military liability given that the Turks had little to offer in any of these terms. On the 22nd of July, to his disappointment, Enver Pasha was informed by the German ambassador in Istanbul about the unlikelihood of such an alliance. Nevertheless, this did not stop the Ottoman push for an agreement. First, hoping to alley German concerns, Enver Pasha affirmed that the bleak situation of his country made it impossible for the Ottomans to be a full member of the alliance and expressed his wish to form a “secondary alliance” with a smaller set of responsibility. Furthermore, he made it clear that without the German support the Ottomans were in grave danger of becoming the “vassals of Russia” which was continued with bluffing that if a Turco-German alliance was not realised they would have no choice but to join the Entente Powers. After ten straight days of negotiation with the German representatives in Istanbul and Berlin both sides reached an agreement, forming a secret treaty on the 2nd of August 1914, just a day after the official start of the Great War. This was regarded by the Ottoman leadership as a significant diplomatic success against all odds, evident from Cemal Pasha’s commentary: “No European Power would take on the burden of a country like the Ottomans.”
While the Ottoman justifications for alliance were evident in the context of foreign policy, which was the desire to end its international isolation and protect itself against serious threats of partition, the German rationale was more complex. Wilhelm the Seconds renouncement of the Bismarckian constrained foreign policy in favour of a more assertive Weltpolitik, the faith on the power of the Sultan’s call to jihad as a tool to destabilize British colonies and Russian Caucasus, the economic reliance of Russia on the Straits, the willingness to open new fronts in the Near East to divert Entente troops and the Austrian insistence on enlisting the Ottomans were the most important reasons for the German decision on the 2nd of August.
e) Internal Factors
The Ottoman leaders were aware that the state of emergency and general mobilization which would be inevitable after entering a full scale war could easily be used to further sociological change, propagate new ideologies and shape an entire population. During the mid-19th century, to complement the reforms on administration and social life the Ottomans favoured a policy as Ottomanism in which all subjects of the Empire were to be treated equally regardless of their religion. While it could be argued that Ottomanism delayed the subsequent independence of the Christian nations in the Balkans, it still was deemed to be a failure by 1878. Ottomans under the rule of Abdulhamit II tried a pan-Islamist policy to unite Muslims of all backgrounds under a common identity. Islamism too was not successful as the Kurdish and Arab nationalistic uprisings during this period hinted. The final blow to this idea was the independence of the Muslim majority Albania in 1913. Hence, in an age of nationalism, the CUP concentrated their efforts on the historically most neglected population of the Empire, the Turks in Anatolia. It was believed that creating a strong Turkish conscious was of utmost importance for the future of the Empire and a war effort would greatly help spreading Turkish nationalism.
One of the greatest problems facing the Empire was the unstoppable crumbing of the economy. The Ottomans were in need of foreign economic aid, heavily in debt and increasingly under the dependence of Entente Powers through extensive capitulations granted to them. Hence, the Young Turks considered the Great War and an alliance with the Central Powers as a great opportunity to get rid of these capitulations. Moreover, it was apparent that foreign aid could arrive only from Germany with the condition of entering the war. The urgency of economic assistance for the CUP is evident from Cemal Pasha`s post-war answer to the question on the reason for entering the war: “To pay for the wages.”
IV. Final Push into the War
On the 5th of August, during the first week of the war and alliance, two German battleships escaped the British navy in the Mediterranean and approached to the Dardanelles. Even though the Ottomans were obliged to accept the battleships due to the secret military agreement signed, the CUP used this crisis to win leverage over their allies, unanimously deciding to accept the battleships under conditions such as the German promise to support the abrogation of the capitulations and German diplomatic help for small border changes in Eastern Anatolia. Not to give away the Turco-German partnership prematurely the ships were fictitiously purchased and renamed Yavuz and Midilli.
In this period of time, The Ottoman leadership was expecting a short general war (a maximum of six months), hoped for a decisive German victory and did not consider entering the war until the end of the war became predictable, despite their pledge to attack Russia or British held Egypt as soon as possible. However, it didn’t take long to realise that neither a short war nor a swift German victory was on the horizon. Especially after the unsuccessful German offensive at the Marne on the 9th of September and the following Austrian defeats on the Eastern Front, the Allied pressure for immediate Ottoman entrance to war increased greatly to the point that the integrity of alliance was at risk. The German leadership made it clear by the 10th of September that without an Ottoman offensive to the Entente no further German financial or economic aid was possible. By the 20th of October bilateral relations had reached boiling point and had become obvious that for the alliance to survive the Ottomans needed to take immediate action asLiman von Sanders, the head of the military mission to Istanbul threatened Enver Pasha to return to Berlin shouting:
“Why are you keeping us here if you don’t intend to enter the war? Your government is not keeping its word (…) if you don’t intend to enter the war you should tell us openly so that we could go to defend our fatherland.”
The Young Turks eventually came into terms that the Empire would be in war much earlier than originally anticipated. War plans including a surprise naval offensive to Russian Ports in the Black See were being formulated by Enver, Cemal and Talat Pashas with the help of the Germans. On the 27thof October, Enver Pasha without consulting or informing anyone from the Ottoman government ordered Admiral Souchon, the captain of Yavuz and Midilli to attack the Russian fleet at a suitable opportunity. With a clear casus belli, the Russian Empire declared war on the Ottomans on the 1st of November, which was followed by the British and French declaration of war on the 5th of November.
The decision to enter the war with the Central Powers was neither a German conspiracy nor a Turkish error but to a great extent an objective necessity. While subjective perceptions of reality and biases certainly played a role, especially concerning the conduct of Enver Pasha, overall it remains insignificant. Even though the country was not ready for a general war after the embarrassing defeats in the Balkan Wars, the Ottomans as a declining Empire that was not only internationally isolated but also facing a serious threat of partition in the hands of the Entente acted rationally by allying itself with the Central Powers. Indeed, the Turks did not enter the war on a date that would be beneficial to them. However, given the tough circumstances the Young Turks found themselves in, it doesn’t seem likely that it could be delayed much longer without losing Germany.