Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Middle East and Turkey

When Emily and I talked generally about the Middle East we sighfully agreed that it’s in a mess.
She blames Israel and America more than I do. She focused her thoughts on America however, since she feels as an American that America is more her business than is Israel, which is an attitude I very much respect. Personally, I want to look more into the history of the region, and note how the problems might be traced to the collapse of The Ottoman Empire, which in its own bungling, tyrannical way until 1918 had at least kept the region in relative peace and harmony for most of the previous 400 years. The opportunity only arose for the French and the British (that would be people like me) to carve the region up into artificially devised nation states under their own Christian suzerainty because the allies had won the First World War, and because the Ottomans had elected to fight on the losing side. When I was in Gallipoli I learnt how Turkey’s decision to side with the Germans was actually a very close run thing. Nineteenth century tradition put Turkey on the side of the British and the French against the Russians, after all. Now, in 1914, while Russia was still the enemy, so too were Britain and France, and Germany, strong as she’d become in the late nineteenth century, was not strong enough to prove a good bet for the Ottomans to support.

The ‘What if’ train of thought regarding the Ottomans choosing different friends during the First World War interests me greatly.

· Turkey, had she joined the Allies’ side, would have allowed the Allies, early in the War, to open a third front against the Central Powers. The Allies would have quickly got what they would have only achieved eventually if Gallipoli had been successful: a way, with the Russians, of exerting an encircling pressure on Germany and Austria from three sides, from the South as well as from the East and West. Also, Turkey’s support would have allowed Russia and the West easier access for military co-operation through the Dardanelles. The War might not have ‘been over by Christmas’, but would it have lasted a full four years and led to as many deaths as it did? Would it, moreover, through the sufferings it imposed on the Russian people, have established the conditions appropriate for the reception there of the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. Would the Russian revolution have happened? Would we have witnessed Stalinism? Might the idea of communitarianism, of there being possibilities for communal life beyond the power of money, still be a relatively pure one? Might capitalism today not be quite as smug as it is, if communitarianism as a vision had not been mired as it has been by the disastrous legacy of the Bolsheviks?

· Although the Ottoman Empire had been weakening throughout the nineteenth century, without the experience of defeat in the First World War, would it have collapsed as it did? If Turkey had remained either neutral or fought on the Allies side the chances of Turkey losing the War would have been lower, the chances of her Empire surviving correspondingly higher. If it had survived, as it probably would have, how different would the Middle East be today? It is hard to know. Most probably Turkey’s empire would have been dismantled at some point because it had been ailing for so long. But perhaps this would have happened in a more gradual, less arbitrary manner, in a manner moreover overseen by Muslims, not Christians. Maybe the Persian, Arab and Turkish Muslims would have been able to come to some kind of peaceful agreement as to how best to reconfigure political relations between their peoples in a new dispensation replacing the Ottoman. Then, not only might the numerous twentieth century wars between Muslims not have happened, but the sense of humiliation that the Islamic world has felt in the face of Western and Israeli power in the region not have occurred. In consequence, Muslims not feeling such a resentment and injustice, would have meant far less impetus would have been given to the development of Islamic fundamentalism, a phenomenon which, as many a Muslim would agree, has wrought considerable damage not only on Islam itself but on the world in general.

· Quite probably, there’d be no state of Israel today, for good or ill (depending on your opinion). Or at least not the kind of State of Israel we have now. Zionism begins in the late nineteenth century so one cannot attribute the origin of the desire amongst Jews to increase their presence in the Holy Land to an opportunism provoked by the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. Quite probably Turkey’s nineteenth century decision to make land legally available for Jewish buyers would have continued. Had the Turkish Empire survived, the British wouldn’t have written the Balfour Declaration but possibly Turkey, as a victorious ally of the British and French, might have been persuaded to continue their history of relative toleration towards the Jews and allowed them some more land, or even a state of their own, under the umbrella of their continuing imperial dominion. That would have been more likely if Turkey underwent a degree of secularization in the years after WWI, something which might still have happened, at least to an extent, without the specific need of an Ataturk, though by no means necessarily. Also important is that much of the impetus behind the intensification of Jewish desire to settle the Holy Land in the 1930s and 1940s was the threat from, and the need to escape, the European Holocaust. Hitler may still have risen to power in a nationalist reaction to the German defeat in WWI. But how long would that war have lasted? Surely it would have been over sooner? And then, would the defeated Germany have been quite as seriously humiliated as it was by the 1919 Treaty of Versailes, a treaty which to a great extent was a calculated act of vengeance against Germany for the very expensive war that had lasted over four years and cost millions of lives? And if in consequence of Germany not being as crushed into the dust as she was, would we have seen Hitler? And if not, and had not experienced the holocaust might we have found that many more Jews would have been happy to stay as they had for generations in a Europe that many of them had grown to consider their home?

· There having been no need for the failed Gallipoli campaign, Australia and New Zealand wouldn’t have experienced their greatest military disaster ever. Nor, on the other hand, would they have felt the same impetus that they did feel, given the incompetent callousness of the British High Command, to sever (or loosen at least) the umbilical cord connecting them with the Motherland and so develop a sharper sense of separate, national identities.

· Would the population transfers/massacres of the Armenians have happened? Turkey justifies its understanding of the non-genocidal treatment it dealt out to the Armenians by referring to Armenian support as a fifth column within Turkey for the Russians, against whom Turkey was then fighting. So clearly, the Turks admit there were some significant attacks on the Armenians, even if they didn’t amount to genocide as they claim they didn’t. But if Turkey hadn’t supported Germany, there would have been no fighting against the Russians for the Armenians to support at all. On the other hand, if Turkey’s intentions and treatment towards the Armenians were indeed as genocidal as the Armenians and many other countries say they were, would they have behaved this way if they’d been on the side of the Allies? I suspect that had Turkey chosen differently, the country would have been less destabilized, which would have given Turkey less cover or justification for its policy. Also, it would also have given Turkey less need for such a policy, especially if the war had ended quickly and the Turkish nation had not felt under the mortal peril that it did feel under. After all, the Turks had not started massacring Armenians when the Ottoman Empire had been alive and kicking, albeit ailing. They only started, according to the Armenians, in 1915, when it was under the threat of invasion and collapse. And they only intensified their policies further when there was a need to ensure the new country's future identity against its potential internal enemies. I am explaining, not justifying, the genocidal policies, if indeed they existed, as I suspect they did.

This type of 'What if', or counter-factual historiography, has come in for a fair amount of criticism, much of it reasonable. That said, indulging in it is fun and can provide insights. Or at least it can help you imagine how things might have been different, as a result of causes that led us to the present not happening. The problem is that we cannot know if a similar (to whatever extent) historical reality might nevertheless have been arrived at by a different route. Nor can we know what unforeseen events might have happened which may have deflected events off unimaginably to us now. A shadow presumption I was loosely holding throughout the above was that it would have been 'better' for humanity as a whole (as well as for the Turks) if the Turks had fought alongside the allies. But who knows if it might have been worse ultimately, if unforeseen developments I cannot imagine had occured. And obviously I am not intending to blame the Turks for all that happened, since all agents are responsible for what they do. I was just thinking out loud, as it were, and reflecting on how so many things in history are interconnected, and how relevant the past is to the present.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just before WW1, Ottomen Government tried to be on the side of allied forces but they were refused. (Cemal Pasha-he was the one of three most powerful person of government, wisited France, Cahit Bey,minister of Financewisited england.) After these attempts being on the side of central powers was the only choice of Ottoman government.