Review: ‘The Fall of the Ottomans’ by Eugene Rogan

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. Eugene Rogan. Basic. 512 pages. $32.
The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. Eugene Rogan. Basic. 512 pages. $32.

Given the critical role that Turkey plays and will play in the strategic Middle East, where the United States appears to be inextricably stuck in the mire of war, Americans’ understanding of its history is relatively weak.

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East fills many of the gaps in our understanding. Eugene Rogan’s presentation of a crucial part of that history, Turkey’s role in the First World War, is a painless, colorful and pleasurable means of getting a decent hold on it.

Among other aspects of the book that make it accessible, Rogan includes photographs of the sites and the people who were the principal actors in the drama, including Capt. T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia as played by Peter O'Toole).

Turkey as a country — then still the Ottoman Empire — on the eve of World War I was the equivalent of a patient undergoing heart bypass surgery who also suffered from crippling athlete’s feet and poison ivy. After six centuries of Ottoman imperial rule, starting at the end of the 13th century, it found itself sprawled out across Europe and the Middle East, with no money, having suffered bankruptcy in 1875, with lands coveted by Great Britain, France, and Russia, and in terms of morale greatly conscious of how far it had fallen.

In 1453 it had seized Constantinople, now Istanbul, as its capital. In 1529 it had come within a whisker of having taken Vienna. Now it was about to be cleaned. From 1908 to 1923 Turkey went from being ruled by a hereditary sultan, Abdulhamid II, to a republic headed by a successful World War I general, the legendary Mustafa Kemal, Ataturk.

In the meantime, its holdings in the region had shrunk horribly and its armies had been for the most part, whipped across the board (though Turkey severely bloodied the British, Australians and New Zealanders in the famous Gallipoli campaign, in which an estimated 500,000 died).

Rogan deals skillfully with the still steaming controversy over Turkish genocide against the Armenians, which started in 1894. The word “genocide” had not yet been coined but in his view, the Turks saw the Armenians as an existential threat and sought to exterminate them. The way the Turks saw it, the Armenians as Christians were siding with their enemies, the Christian Russians, against them, the Turks, and so had to be “cleansed,” as did the also victimized Assyrian Christians.

Without detailing too much, Rogan also signals the roots of the present, ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over the division of the territory of Palestine, referring to the disputable agreements involved. This book sets out history that is definitely worth mastering to help understand the present.

Dan Simpson reviewed this book for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.