The sick man of Europe

The sick man of Europe
The siege of Vienna in 1683 was effectively the Ottomans’ last tilt at expanding further into Europe. It failed, as had an earlier attempt in 1529. Thereafter it was a downward spiral, the more bumpy for occasional minor rushes of victory. At the treaty of Karlovitz in 1699 the Ottomans sued for peace for the first time, and were forced to give up the Peloponnese, Transylvania and Hungary. The empire was still vast and powerful, but it had lost its momentum and was rapidly falling behind the West on many levels: social, military and scientific. Napoleon’s swashbuckling campaign through Egypt in 1799 was an indication that an emboldened Europe was now willing to take the battle right up to the Ottomans, and was the first example of industrialised Europe meddling in the affairs of the Middle East. It wasn’t just Napoleon who was breathing down the neck of the empire. The Hapsburgs in Central Europe and the Russians were increasingly assertive, while Western Europe had grown rich after several centuries of colonising and exploiting the ‘New World’ – something the Ottomans had missed out on. In some regards, the Ottomans themselves had to endure a quasi-colonisation by European powers, which dumped their cheaply produced industrial goods in the empire while also building and running much infrastructure: innovations such as electricity, postal services and railways. Indeed, the Ottomans remained moribund, inward looking and generally unaware of the advances that were happening in Europe. An earlier clear indication of this was the fact that the Ottoman clergy did not allow the use of the printing press until the 18th century – a century and a half after it had been introduced into Europe. But it was another idea imported from the West that was to greatly speed the dissolution of the empire: nationalism. For centuries manifold ethnic groups had coexisted harmoniously in the Ottoman Empire, but the creation of nation-states in Western Europe sparked a desire in the empire’s subject peoples to throw off the Ottoman ‘yoke’ and determine their own destinies. So it was that pieces of the Ottoman jigsaw wriggled free: Greece attained its freedom in 1830. In 1878 Romania, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia went their own ways, while at the same time Russia was encroaching on Kars and boldly proclaiming itself protector of all of the empire’s Orthodox subjects. As the empire shrunk there were various attempts at reform, but it was all too little, too late. In 1829 Mahmut II had abolished the janissaries, and in so doing had slaughtered them, but he did succeed in modernising the armed forces. In 1876 Abdülhamid had allowed the creation of an Ottoman constitution and the first ever Ottoman parliament. But he used the events of 1878 as an excuse for doing away with the constitution. His reign henceforth grew increasingly authoritarian. But it wasn’t just subject peoples who were determined to modernise: educated Turks, too, looked for ways to improve their lot. In Macedonia the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) was created. Reform minded and Western looking, the CUP, who came to be known as the ‘Young Turks’, forced Abdülhamid in 1908 to abdicate and reinstate the constitution. Any rejoicing proved short-lived. The First Balkans War saw Bulgaria and Macedonia removed from the Ottoman map, with Bulgarian, Greek and Serbian troops advancing rapidly on İstanbul. The Ottoman regime, once feared and respected, was now condescendingly known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. European diplomats and politicians bombastically pondered the ‘eastern question’, ie how to dismember the empire and cherry-pick its choicest parts.