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After the Armageddon: Ottoman Military, Intellectuals, and Press, 1918-1923

Panel III-17, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
After the Armageddon: Ottoman Military, Intellectuals, and Press, 1918-1923 The First World War was a momentous event for the Ottoman Empire, which utterly decided the fate of its lands and peoples. In recent years, historians have become increasingly interested in the Ottoman experience of WWI. They have explored not only the diplomatic talks and military campaigns during 1914-18, but themes such as the home front, collective memory, environmental history of the war, population movements, interethnic violence and genocide, and the lives of conscripts, workers, women and children. In contrast, the immediate post-war period remains understudied in a wholistic manner. This panel probes the very question of “What now?” that Ottoman intellectuals and political-military elite engaged in and responded to after the Mudros Armistice in October 1918. We will examine the period through multiple complementing themes by scrutinizing the political and social aspects of the Ottoman military demobilization; the complex interplay between the politics, fortunes of war, and press censorship; and the changing attitudes of Turkish and Armenian intellectuals as regards the fate of their peoples and the lands they lay claim on. The panel reconsiders the various linear approaches to this era that are riddled with nationalist tropes of all stripes. Instead, it will underline the fluidity and various possibilities that were in fact were present, and were discussed by the Ottoman literati in this transitionary period. Between 1918 and 1923, there was nothing constant nor inevitable in the context of mass violence, active international intervention, and colorful political debates and discussions about the post-war order in Anatolia and the larger Middle East.
International Relations/Affairs
  • Dr. Laila Parsons -- Chair
  • Dr. Yigit Akin -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Laura Robson -- Discussant
  • Dr. Veysel Simsek -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Ari Sekeryan -- Presenter
  • Fatma Esen -- Presenter
  • Dr. Veysel Simsek
    Demobilization of the Ottoman Army, 1918-1919 This paper will examine the Ottoman military demobilization after the Moudros Armistice with its political and social aspects. Even though the demobilization was one of the most significant chapters of the Ottomans’ “Long Great War” (c. 1911-1922), the subject has been usually overlooked. Between 1914 and 1918, the Ottoman state mobilized about 3 million servicemen out of a diverse population of 22-23 million. After the appalling losses and rampant desertion, Ottoman army still had about 400,000 men at the time of the armistice. These were scattered across Transcaucasia, Northwest Iran, Yemen, Hedjaz, and even modern Libya, and were either to surrender to the Allies or withdraw completely. Subsequently, from the beginning of November 1918 to the end of March 1919, at least 337,600 men and 10,000 officers were discharged from the military. Many Ottoman officers on the field and in the imperial headquarters, a large number of whom eventually became part of the future Ankara government’s military machinery, tried their best to stall the discharges and disarmament, while also stubbornly kept negotiating with the Entente authorities to maximize the retention of the heavier weapons, such as machine guns and artillery pieces. Lack of adequate transportation, proper accommodation, and bad logistics in general made the withdrawal and disbandment extremely difficult. Men had to march long distances back to Anatolia without sufficient supplies, and many got sick and died in the process. The pace and scope of demobilization closely impacted the immediate post-war setting in Anatolia too: the Entente scrambled to occupy certain cities and regions while the Ottoman commanders strove to retain them and prevent their entire units becoming prisoners. The correspondence and reports by the high-ranking Ottoman officers demonstrate that the actual struggle for the “nation” was far from over but just commenced. Furthermore, these texts provide fascinating clues about the ethnic and regional ambitions and objectives of the leading figures, such as Mustafa Kemal, Kazım Karabekir, and Ali İhsan (Sabis), for the post-war Asia Minor as well as the larger Middle East. The topic that was described above did not take as much attention of the existing scholarship as the various political, military, diplomatic, social, or cultural aspects of the Ottomans’ war experience. My primary and secondary source base will include internal military communiques, orders, and memoranda, memoirs and contemporary eyewitness accounts, all of which I’ll use to create a single analytical narrative.
  • The Ottoman Empire emerged from the Great War defeated and devastated. The end of the war plunged the empire into a painful period of instability and uncertainty. In November 1918, Allied warships crossed the Straits, reached the imperial capital, and established a de-facto occupation regime. The collapse of the ruthless wartime regime, the arrival of the Allied troops, and the global spread of the Wilsonian promise of national self-determination politically energized the Ottoman non-Muslim and non-Turkish communities. Their claims found receptive ears at the Paris Peace Conference This heightened political energy amongst Ottoman non-Muslims and the great power backing they enjoyed at the Peace Conference triggered deep anxiety amongst the Ottoman Turks who constituted the empire’s demographic majority. Unlike Ottoman non-Muslims, however, the Ottoman Turks knew that they could count on very few supporters in Paris. The Allied statesmen were furious at them for their genocidal treatment of non-Muslim minorities during the war, particularly the Armenians. In the absence of great power support, the Ottoman Turks pinned their hopes of preserving the empire’s territorial integrity on Wilsonian principles. In a remarkably short span of time, the Ottoman Turks became proficient at “speaking Wilsonian” and deploying Wilsonian rhetoric against Greek and Armenian territorial claims. What was even more fascinating is that this process was not coordinated by the government or any other central body. The six months following the armistice saw a remarkable rise in political activism from the bottom up manifested in the emergence of dozens of local clubs and civil society organizations. Having heartily embraced the principle of “self-determination,” they collected material, drew up maps and statistics, and produced historical and ethnographic arguments to prove their locality’s “Turkishness” based on “scientific methods.” They bombarded local and imperial press, representatives of the great powers, as well as the Paris Peace Conference with passionate arguments to further their claims and make their voices heard. Although this unprecedented Ottoman activism failed to convince peacemakers in Paris, I would argue that it contributed significantly to the “ethnicization” of the Ottoman public sphere. The disruptive interplay between international climate and local ambitions irreversibly widened the gap between non-Muslims and the Muslim majority and dashed the prospects of coexistence forever.
  • Fatma Esen
    This paper analyzes the radical change in pre-print censorship and the censored content of Istanbul-based Turkish newspapers from 1918 to 1923. The main question that leads up to this research paper is why interallied censorship did not remove the writings propagating a nationalistic cause. That news could have easily led to incitement in public opinion, provided material or immaterial support to the Anatolian movement, and even a harsher reaction from the Muslim population of Istanbul under the Allied occupation. It also covers the questions of what kind of news might be censored, who censored the press, when it began, where was the censorship bureau and why it established in the first place. While the mainstream scholarship on the press censorship of Late Ottoman history focuses on the restrictive features of the regime on the news about the Anatolian movement, more recent writings on the issue demonstrated the lightening of censorship intensity, particularly after the battle of Sakarya. However, I will argue that the censorship regime had already been unstable and fluctuated throughout the period. I will also discuss that the only consistent censorship policy of the Interallied censorship mechanism was against the writings not to the Anatolian movement but to the news related to the Allied states from the beginning to its abolition. Therefore, the claim that pre-print censorship was loosened after the battle of Sakarya will also be discussed by admitting that the Interallied censorship regime eased against the writings about Anatolia. My sources will be the censorship guidelines published in several newspapers, the state archives, the foreign office documents in the British archives, and the Parliament and Senate minutes. I will also provide a unique first draft of the censored content of Tasvir-i Efkâr.
  • Dr. Ari Sekeryan
    This paper analyzes the role of the Armenian intellectuals in the reformation of Armenian socio-political life in Istanbul during the Armistice period. The paper demonstrates how the Armenian intellectuals shaped the public opinion through their publications in the Armenian press at a time when political chaos, change and power vacuum severely affected the general Ottoman public opinion. The major argument the paper puts forward is that, while both leftist, liberal and conservative Armenian intellectuals advocated the establishment of an independent Armenian state during the first two years of Armistice period (1918-1920), following the results of the Turkish-Armenian War in the Caucasus, the Greco-Turkish War in western Anatolia, and the retreat of the French from the Cilicia region, the majority of them moderated their discourses to avoid being the target of political pressure imposed by the emerging Turkish national movement. Benefiting from primary sources, including Ottoman Armenian and Ottoman Turkish newspapers and the memoirs of Armenian intellectuals, this paper focuses on a unique period in the history of Ottoman Armenians, and thus contributes to the historiography on the Armistice period.