The Ottoman Endgame

This one I also read as research for my post on Robert W. Chambers’ The Dark Star. I wanted to learn more about the Ottoman Empire in World War One, and, having been very impressed with McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War, this seemed a logical choice.

Review: The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923, Sean McMeekin, 2015.

McMeekin has argued elsewhere that World War One could rightly be thought of as the War of the Ottoman Succession, a war that lasted from 1909 to 1923. You could even argue, as McMeekin does in his concluding chapter on the pros and cons of Ottoman administration and what happened when it ended, that that war is still going on in the Middle East.

Of all the nations that inherited the remains of the Ottoman Empire, it was Turkey, in the heartland of the empire, that has had the most stable borders since 1923.

Edward Gibbon famously noted that we shouldn’t wonder that the Roman Empire it fell but that it lasted as long as it did. The same could be said of the Ottoman Empire. Some have put the date the irresistible rot set in as far back as 1529 when the empire failed to take Vienna. The famous remark about the empire being a “sick man” was uttered by Tsar Alexander Nicholas I to a British ambassador in 1853.

But, the sick man’s greatest defense was, paradoxically, the number of his enemies. They wanted Ottoman lands and to deny them to other great powers. The two most important of those powers were Russia and England.

McMeekin’s 593-page history (with additional notes, bibliography, photos, and several very useful maps) shows how that theme played out again and again from the Turco-Russian War of 1877-1878 to Italy’s invasion of Tripoli in 1911 (a forgotten war that saw the first use of many military technologies) to Soviet Russia arming the Ottoman Empire against a Greek invasion in 1921, an invasion supported by Britain.

This history covers both combat on the battlefield (one source is, surprisingly, a Venezuelan mercenary with the Ottomans) and political intrigues. McMeekin covers the grand sweep of things with the occasional illuminating detail about personalities and small incidents. He also covers relevant events outside the empire like the intrigues of the British cabinet and Russian revolutionaries. And, of course, the turmoil of Ottoman politics – the coups, countercoups, and counter-counter coups between 1908 and 1909 – are covered. 

McMeekin mentions several seldom-discussed events.

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Dark Star

One of the many ongoing series at this blog is World War One in Fantastic Fiction, and it’s time we got back to it, this time with scholarly accoutrements.

I came across a mention to this novel in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia’s World War One entry.

Review: The Dark Star, Robert W. Chambers, 1916.

First serialized starting in the October 1916 issue of Cosmopolitan, this novel puts most of its fantastic content at the beginning in a prelude of dark prophecy and occult matters.

After a poem featuring two of the novel’s characters and a bit of prophecy, we get a section, “Children of the Star”, which, in narration sweeping into the recent past and around the world, introduces us to the novel’s characters.

We hear about the Dark Star Erlik and how it is a “a bloody horoscope” cast over the births of millions. The Dark Star makes a a 200,000 year orbit, and it’s come around to effect Earth again. (Chambers’ 1920 novel The Slayer of Souls also features the followers of Erlik according to the editorial notes in Delphi Classics’ Chambers collection.)

Those millions include Princess Mitschenka, painter James Neeland, daughter of missionaries, Ruhannah Carew (known as Rue), singer Minna Minetta aka German spy Ilse Dumont, and Minna’s husband Eddie Brandes.  

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The Russian Origins of the First World War

As usual on every Armistice Day, I got out one of my unread World War One books off the shelf.

Review: The Russian Origins of the First World War, Sean McMeekin, 2011.

The thesis of this book is that Imperial Russia, using the criteria of Fritz Fischer’s famous Griff nach der Weltmacht aka Germany’s Aims in the First World War) bears as much responsibility for starting World War One as Imperial Germany.

McMeekin, using research into Turkish, Russian, French, German, and English archives, shows that Russia was anxious for war to pursue two objectives: the seizure of Constantinople and Persian lands on the other side of the Caucuses.

Russia consistently pursued those aims to the detriment of its allies almost to the end. The only time it abandoned them, during the post-Revolution Kerensky government, was probably the one time it should have continued them to help prevent a Bolshevik take over.

The reason for the long-term Russian goal of seizing Constantinople wasn’t just a symbolic significance as indicated by the names sometimes used for that city: the Second Rome or Tsargrad. Constantinople and the Bosporus Straits were key choke points that could be used to limit Russia’s trade. Roughly half of it passed through the area. The vulnerability it represented was brought home when Russia lost access to them briefly in 1912 during the Italian-Turkish War.

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