Counterfactual or alternative history had never gone out of fashion. As a history tragic with many kilometers on the clock, I enjoy such alternative history. “What if…?” and “if only…” are natural, if not instinctual responses to events around us – particularly the unpleasant ones. Hence the popularity of films like SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle (WW2 and the “Nazi victory” books they are based which on have always attracted us alternative history aficionados. There is currently excitement (and panic in some politically correct quarters) about the prospect of a project pitched by Game of Thrones’ show-runners visualizing a USA in which the Confederacy won the Civil War and slavery endures still. But such history is an indulgence that serious historians ought not take seriously – unless they are branching out into historical fiction, that is, which many indeed do. Popular English author Peter Ackroyd has said, the words “What if …” should never be on a historian’s lexicon. But writers of historical fiction have literary license to let their imaginations roam. Counterfactuals or alternative history is a fiction genre all of its own.
When we create alternative histories, we largely replicate a history we already know, often intimately. We replicate histories in which most of the same variables coexist, and the same historical trends prevail. Our motives are quite often as much to warn readers or audiences as to entertain them. Hence the tendency for such endeavours to drift into the depressing dystopian dramas that are so in vogue in these challenged times.
And yet, changing one or more of the players, removing or adding ingredients, hypothesizing different, even opposite scenarios, and imagining how events might have transpired differently, may not radically alter the result. In the case of the First World War, for example, if the conflict had not happened, the European empires may or may not gave endured. Often such multinational entities contain the seeds of their own demise – internal dynamics and contradictions, the impact of events in other countries. Whose to say what might have happened in say France, Germany, Russia, Türkiye or the US that might have upended the balance of power?
One surmises whether or not there is an iron law of inevitability that determines – predetermines, even – the same or similar outcome – a historical equivalent of Oedipus’ unsuccessful efforts to avoid his prophesied fate, affirming TS Elliot’s observation in Little Gidding: “And the end of all our exploring will be be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.
In this entertaining podcast, British historians Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland discuss many examples of what might have been if …
In an interesting if light-weight and indeed disappointing exercise in alternative history, with an absolutely meaningless but catchy play on the title of a fabulous song, title, The Sultans of Spring, The Economist recently pondered how events would have unfolded if the Ottoman Empire had sat out WW1 or joined the Entente of Britain, France and Russia instead of throwing in its lot with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. You may click on the above link, or page down to the full (and brief) transcript. Al-Sisi below, but preceding this is a brief précis of a a popular paperback historical novel published a short while ago which presented an imaginative if overcooked and totally different Ottoman history.
But first, here is my own argument:
So, what if?
Removing the Ottoman Empire from the strategic equation, or else placing it in the military scales against the Central Powers, would certainly have a significant impact upon the conduct and progress of the European war on both the eastern and western fronts. Russia and Britain would not have had to divert forces and materiel to the Middle East arenas. The Ottomans could have reaped the political and economic benefit of either neutrality or victory, with commensurate benefits for their own survival. The hypotheticals with respect to what may have happened next are innumerable.
The Economist surmises: “How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?”
But would things have turned out radically different if this had happened – notwithstanding the fact that three to five million Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Africans, Indians, and Europeans who lived in or soldiered through the Middle East theatre would have lived to die a natural death after fulfilling their own particular destinies or to perish purposefully or pointlessly in some other conflict.
The previous century had seen the steady decline of the Sultan’s Empire. It had commenced with Napoleon, and the rise of Muhammad Ali in Egypt, an Albanian “slave soldier” who in practical terms, seceded from the empire. Greece followed next, assisted by European states, and then, bit by bit, the Balkans. The Czar dubbed the empire the “sick man of Europe”, or so British politician John Russell misquoted him, and everybody wanted a piece. The European powers were circling hoping to pick up pieces as the Empire’s borderlands detached – Russia in the east, France in the Levant, and Britain in Egypt and the Gulf. The Crimean War was but one manifestation of “the Eastern Question” that had excited European Chancellories for a hundred years. France and Britain challenged Russia for power and influence in the East and went to war on the Sultan’s side, ostensibly to protect Christian rights in the Holy Land, but weightier matters were in play – alliances have always been fluid in this part of the world, as today’s shifting allegiances demonstrate. Crimea ended in stalemate, but Russia kept encroaching, whilst France established its presence in the Levant. Britain, meanwhile, has its sights set on Egypt and the Red Sea, (the vital route to its African and Asian empires), and when it was finally built, the Suez Canal, a strategic and commercial link that to this day concentrates the minds of foreign and state departments, military strategists and corporations worldwide.
The Balkan states continued to decouple from the empire, and prior to 1914, engaged in several bloody wars with each other, drawing their neighbours deeper and deeper into the tangle. The slow countdown to WW1 accelerated with the Austro-Hungarian archduke being killed by a Serbian student. Gavril Princip’s “shot that echoed around the world” in Sarajevo in 1914 was but one part of a chaotic picture, igniting tinder that had long awaited a match. Russia, supported the Serbs, Germany, the Austrians, Britain, and France, the Russians. And the Ottomans, forever hard pressed by the Russians, French and Brits, had already moved into the German orbit. When the Ottomans entered the war on the side of the central powers, the cards were dealt.
The Empire was already on a revolutionary path what with the Sultan’s desultory efforts with constitutional reform, the ascendency of Young Turks, a cabal of Turkish nationalist army officers, and the parlous state of the economy. Efforts to institute political and economic reform had faltered, and sooner or later, something was going to blow.
Arab nationalism had already taken root in the Levant, a secular creed spear-headed by Arab Christian intellectuals, to be brutally suppressed by the Young Turk triumvirate, Enver, Talat and Jamal. “Martyrs” were being strung up in Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem. Perhaps the Ottoman Middle East would have unraveled like in the Balkans (and Balkanised too? Most probably). The “wars of the Ottoman Succession” that we are witnessing today amongst the states created in 1921 would eventually have erupted.
The Zionist project was already underway at the outbreak of war, with settlements of Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia well-established in Palestine, often encouraged by the Ottoman authorities. The pioneers included many of the founders of modern Israel, including its architect and first prime minister David Ben Gurion. The pressures that drove Jews from eastern Europe and Russia in the first place (the discrimination and the pogroms paramount) were unlikely to abate given the atavistic nationalism of Holy Russia and just as Holy Poland. Sooner or later, Zionism and Arab nationalism were going to collide. We will never know how the Ottoman state and its Arab provinces would have coped with the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine. It certainly would have put the popular (but highly qualified) narrative of Ottoman tolerance of other faiths through a rigorous stress test. The Zionists had a pretty clear road map, and they weren’t sharing it with their new neighbours.
The British, French and Russians had been involving themselves in Middle Eastern affairs – that confounding “Eastern Question” – since the Napoleonic wars. , and Germany, seeking its coveted “place in the sun”, wanted in. German influence was already strong amongst progressive army officers – Prussian elan, ethos, menswear and weapons have exerted a powerful influence on wannabe juntas, the “men on horseback”, since the days Frederick the Great. The Kaiser’s government was very keen on expanding German influence in the east as a counter to British and French imperial power. Meanwhile, the industrial powers were already sniffing around the Gulf, Iranian, and Mesopotamian oilfields, the economic impetus behind imperialism having yet to run its course. The sea-lanes that preoccupied policy-makers in London, Paris and Moscow were soon to be joined by railways and pipelines, with the Germans making the running with its backing of the Berlin to Baghdad Bahnhof. Petroleum would soon join the fabled Great Game as a western imperial obsession. And this too, in time, would have to come up against rising Arab nationalism.
Would Ataturk and Ibn Saud’s ascendency in Turley and Arabia respectively have happened? Perhaps. The political instability in Anatolia and the Arabian Peninsula, and also, as we have described in the Levant, would have created conditions which could have brought these ambitious, capable and charismatic men to power.
Mustafa Kemal was just one of many promising Young Turks. Whether he would have risen above his peers without his Gallipoli reputation is moot – he would still have had to shove aside the three amigos. His Turkish nationalism, like that of his Young Turk compadres, was not sympathetic to Arab aspirations. Nor was his agnosticism empathetic to what he considered to be a backward and suffocating Islam. Fezzes and face-coverings were amongst the first things to go once he established his secular republic. Whether he could have held the empire together is another question.
Ibn Saud was not the only kid on the Arabian block. The Hashimites (the descendants of Jordan’s King Abdullah) held the western edge of the peninsula, but also the most spiritually significant – the “haramayn” of Mecca and Medina, no less. The Hashimite princes has their eyes on an Arab Kingdom, but Ibn Saud had his eyes on them. The house of Saud, with its Salafi Wahhabi credentials of a cleaner Islam was way “out there” as far as Arab politics and religion went at the time. Apart from perennial outbreaks of intolerance towards and repression of religious and ethnic minorities and heterodox Muslim sects, Istanbul ruled its multinational and multicultural empire with a light if autocratic hand. But there was all that oil – and to British policy makers, that trumped loyalty to the Qurayshi wannabes in the west, for all their descent from the Prophet and their custodianship of the Holy Places.
How would British-controlled Egypt’s politics have developed? Resistance to Britain and its puppet monarchy (headed by the descendent of that famed Albanian schemer Muhammad Ali, who had caused the Europeans so much angst in the early days of the Eastern Question) was growing and would develop into a secular Egyptian nationalism on the one hand and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood on the other.
So: no Gallipoli campaign (Churchill would have had to find another project, and young Australia another patriotic shibboleth); no Arab Revolt – the Hashemites would have remained just another influential desert clan and TE Lawrence would not have become a legend; no Balfour Declaration or Sykes Picot agreement to distort and dismember the Arab Levant with two conflicting and irreconcilable nationalisms, so, no Syria, Iraq and Lebanon; no British (and Australian) advance on Gaza, Jerusalem and Damascus (General Allenby might have ended up on the Western Front instead of the steps of King David’s Tower in Jerusalem) and arguably, therefore no Mandate, no Palestine, and no Israel; no Armenian genocide to darken Türkiye‘s reputation and prefigure the Shoah that was to come, or then again, perhaps never came; and no Türkiye as we know it today (although President Erdogan is certainly acting out his inner sultan).
As former and unlamented Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice prematurely proclaimed in 2006 too much ridicule from Arabs generally, “a new Middle East”.
© Paul Hemphill 2017 and 2023 All rights reserved
For further history stories in In That Howling Infinite, see Foggy Ruins of time – from history’s back pages
For stories about the Middle East in In That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany
The Ottoman Secret
By Raymond Khoury
The Ottoman siege of Vienna of 1683 sees the city fall and the Christian forces annihilated. Western Europe is conquered soon afterwards and in 2019, an increasingly repressive Sultan still rules the continent (though Britain and Russia withstood the onslaught and remain independent nations). A lot has happened in the world since 1683, and as Christendom was vanquished, many things just didn’t happen. Russia is still ruled by the Czars, and America by a post-Mayflower Christian theocracy. Concepts like democracy, freedom of thought and expression, and gender equality are ideas still struggling against heavy odds to be born.
We are in Muslim Paris in 2019. Kamal Arslan Agha is a patriotic, loyal subject of the the Sultan and a special investigator of the Tashkeelat-i Hafiye, the secret police, on the front line of the empire’s harsh response to increasing political and economic turmoil throughout Europe. The Caliphate’s efforts to maintain law and order spare no one, and soon, Kamal’s own family attracts the Hafiye’s attention.
His brother and sister-in-law discover a secret so dangerous, the Caliphate must suppress it, and with the foundations of the Empire under threat, Kamal’s family have no choice but to run. Whether or not they can escape the pursuing Hafiye will determine their own fate, and that of the Caliphate itself – its past, its present, and its future.
Khouri’s vision of a world dominated by conservative, repressive regimes combining religious conformity with modern technology is not a pleasant one. Western democracy might have its faults, but as Churchill said, it’s better than most of the alternatives.
This is, of course, fiction, written by a novelist and not a historian. Its political, cultural and technical milieu is predicated on “what if? What if the Ottomans had expanded and prospered for three centuries instead of gradually transforming into the “sick man of Europe” to be dissected and defeated by western powers? What if through serendipitous and underhand means, the empire has acquired the military, industrial, scientific and technical wherewithal to build over four centuries a world that in many ways in not unlike our own? What if their had been no enlightenment, no French or Russian revolutions, no Hitler, no Holocaust, no Hiroshima?
Incidentally, the siege of Vienna in 1683 gives its name to ‘Gates of Vienna’, a fanatically anti-Muslim far-right blog. Its essential thesis is that this was only one battle in a long war and that Europe and its civilisation are constantly threatened by a Muslim invasion.
As Kurt Vonnegut’s avatar Kilgore Trout would say, “so it goes …”
Sultans of Spring – if the Ottoman Empire hadn’t collapsed.
Imagine the mayhem that might have been avoided had the Ottoman Empire been saved rather than sunk. Blame, among others, Winston Churchill
When a Serb gunman shot an Austrian archduke in the summer of 1914, the nations of Europe tumbled into war with all the grace of bowling pins. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, whose ally Russia declared war on Austria, whose ally Germany declared war on Russia, whose allies France and Britain declared war on Germany and Austria. By early August the continent was in flames.
Much as it wobbled like the rest, however, one of those bowling pins could not make up its mind. Which way would Turkey fall? Should the fading Ottoman Empire join the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) or go with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary)
Turkey’s 500-year-old empire was shrinking. It had lost its territories in Africa, nearly all its Mediterranean islands and most of its Balkan lands as well as chunks of eastern Anatolia. It was debt-ridden, industrially backward and politically shaky.
Still, the sultan’s lands straddled two continents, controlling access to the Black Sea. His Arabian territories stretched beyond the holy cities of Islam to the mountains of Yemen and the Persian Gulf, where there were rumoured to lie vast caverns of the sticky black liquid soon to replace coal as the world’s chief source of power.
Confident of Turkey’s weakness, Britain, France and Russia could have clobbered the Ottomans and divided the spoils. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed. At a secret conclave aboard a British dreadnought off the coast of Norway in late July, a far-sighted politician by the name of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, worked with French, Russian and Turkish diplomats to forge a treaty. The Turks drove a hard bargain for, as they coyly revealed, Germany too was proffering arms and gold in exchange for an alliance.
The deal that was reached proved immensely beneficial to all concerned. From France, Turkey received generous debt relief. Russia scrapped all claims to Ottoman territory, and made a limited goodwill withdrawal from parts of Anatolia. Churchill waived further payment on two warships that British shipyards were building for Turkey. And Turkey received assurances that its vulnerable extremities would not be attacked; for an empire that for a century had been preyed upon like a carcass this was a new lease of life.
The rewards to the Triple Entente were equally big. Granted exclusive access to the Black Sea, Russia’s allies could resupply the tsar’s armies when they faltered at the start of the war. With no need to defend its Turkish frontier, Russia moved thousands of crack troops from the Caucasus to shore up its front lines. Turkey signed separate agreements recognising British control of the Suez Canal, Aden and the Trucial sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, securing the sea lanes for Britain’s massive deployment of troops from the colonies to the Western Front. Turkey’s own army joined in a broad front against Austria-Hungary. Together, these Allied advantages are thought to have shortened the war by as much as a year; the Central Powers might not have sued for a truce as soon as America entered the war, but fought on instead.
Reprieved from collapse, the Ottoman Empire’s government pursued radical reforms. Challenged by growing nationalist tendencies from Arab, Armenian, Greek and Kurdish subjects, Sultan Mehmed V issued a historic firman or proclamation that recognised these as individual nations united under the Ottoman sovereign.
The sultan got to keep the title of caliph, commander of the Sunni Muslim faithful, which his ancestors had acquired four centuries earlier. This proved useful when the empire had to put down a rebellion of religious fanatics in central Arabia, led by a man called Ibn Saud who gained followers by claiming he would restore Islam to a purer state. But mostly the empire was seen as a tolerant place. When Nazi persecutions drove Jews from Europe in the 1930s, many took refuge there (as they had done when expelled from Spain in 1492), particularly in the province of Jerusalem.
Needless to say, none of the above happened. Quite the opposite. Turkey aligned with Germany in the first world war, and the allies did attempt to invade and divide its empire. Churchill, instead of handing over the warships that ordinary Turks had paid for by subscription, had them seized for the British navy. In 1915 he ordered a catastrophic attack on Turkey; the landing at Gallipoli cost the allies 300,000 casualties. British campaigns against Turkey in Iraq and the Levant cost another million lives.
Turkey’s casualties mounted, by war’s end, to 3m-5m people, nearly a quarter of the Ottoman population. This included some 1.5m Armenians, slaughtered because Turkish officials believed they might become a fifth column for a hostile Russia. And when Britain and France grabbed the Ottomans’ Arab lands, their suppression of uprisings cost thousands more lives.
How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?
Here are other posts about Turkey past and present:
5 thoughts on “Ottoman Redux – an alternative history”
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The “Young Turk” regime was vicious. And the idea that Winston Churchill made them ally with Imperial Germany (“if only Churchill had embraced the Turk”) is absurd – they made a choice to do so, which was nothing to do with Mr Churchill. What is an interesting “what if” is – “what if the 1915 operation, Suvla Bay and so on, had not been so incompetently handled?”. The strategic idea of taking Constantinople and linking up with Russia was sound, but the British military showed terrible tactical incompetence in the operation. Had things gone otherwise the position of the Central Powers would have become hopeless and the war might have been won in 1915.