War and Peace

World War I and the End of the Ottoman Empire

“World War I is industrial war, it’s total war, which means these belligerent states are forced to really extract everything they can from these societies. That is true both in a material sense – all the guns, the shells, the uniforms, the mass-produced food – and it’s also true in human terms. These armies are so large that they also have to use their human capacity to the limit. Which means that the Ottoman Empire is basically an underdeveloped country engaged in an industrial war. And that in turn means that almost all industrial products, be they rails for the railways or shells for the artillery, guns, and even bandages have to be imported from Europe. The Ottoman Empire is really an economic wreck.

What happens when war breaks out in my view is a combination of programme and improvisation. The programmatic side is this: the Young Turks were convinced that they should learn a lesson from the Balkans. And the lesson was that you needed to be a nation state to survive and that a nation state needed to be homogeneous: one people, one state. That is what they’ve learned, that is their programme.

But what happens then is of course that from the early days of 1915, they lost a major battle against the Russians in the East. From March 1915, the British and the French attacked Gallipoli, the Dardanelles, so they were squeezed and they panicked. And then the two things as it were start to interfere: this ideal of nation building, of homogenising the population and this panic of being on the defensive, the back to the wall, in the west against the British, in the east against the Russians. And that is the situation in which they launch the deportations of the Armenians.

So that is what becomes known as the Armenian genocide. Of course, that is a major step as it were, an immense tragedy; but also a major step for the Young Turks towards this homogenisation of the country, building the nation.”


© Erik-Jan Zürcher
Dr. Erik-Jan Zürcher
is Professor of Turkish Studies at the University of Leiden. He is primarily interested in the period of transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Republic of Turkey (ca. 1880‒1950) and in the role of the Young Turk generation/ movement in this process.