The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire

By Kushner, David | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire


Kushner, David, The Middle East Journal


The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire, by Justin McCarthy. London, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. x + 219 pages. Acknowledgments. Pronunciation guide. Maps. Notes to p. 223. Suggested readings to p. 226. Index to p. 234. $24.95 paper.

Reviewed by David Kushner

The theme of the book under review is the peoples of the Balkans and the Middle East, most of whom had lived in the past within the Ottoman Empire. The author examines their fortunes during the last phases of Ottoman rule and the early decades of their existence as new political entities, whether in sovereign states or under European colonial rule. His aim is not to provide a simple history of these peoples, but rather to answer a question which seems to trouble him most: Was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire of real benefit? The focus of attention is the people themselves, and the criteria for this examination are all in the simple human domain - survival versus loss of life, stability versus dislocation, prosperity versus destruction. Throughout the book, McCarthy shows, both in narrative and in statistical figures, what staggering human suffering was involved in the process of Ottoman disintegration and the emergence of the successor nation states. Furthermore, the move to life under new masters was not always for the best.

Setting out to disprove common notions, the author expresses his view that the Ottoman Empire was not all bad. For centuries, it had been home to a multitude of ethnic and religious groups who learned to live with each other. It had, of course, many faults and weaknesses, but the Ottomans were not totally to blame for them; in fact, in the closing years of the Empire, the Ottomans made a serious effort - not without results - to correct problems and embark upon a program of modernization. In the end, the Empire fell victim particularly to two related phenomena - nationalism among its ethnic groups and European imperialist greed. McCarthy tends to view nationalism in the Benedict Anderson fashion, as an "imagined community."

In the Ottoman Empire, nationalism reached the ethnic groups as an import from Europe which, supported by certain social classes, organizations and personalities, superseded other loyalties among the people, such as the past prevailing religious ones. Being ethnocentric, selfish, and aggressive, it became the cause of rebellions and wars, leading in turn to more and more loss of life, destruction, and human suffering. Closely connected with the process was European imperialism. Not only was Europe the source of nationalist ideas, but it knew how to exploit them for its purposes. This combination of forces is what led to the Ottomans' demise. The Europeans pretended to support Ottoman reform, but were not really interested in Ottoman well-being and hypocritically pursued their own imperialistic aspirations.

In his discussion of conditions after the fall of the empire, McCarthy attempts to weigh the benefits accruing to the successor states from their separate existence.

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