Ottoman Empire before World War I

ottoman empire
A cartoon depicting the Ottoman Empire under threat

During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was one of the world’s most expansive empires. By the outbreak of World War I, however, the Ottoman Empire was in a state of rapid transition and decay.

A medieval superpower

Through the medieval period and into the modern era, the Ottoman Empire was one of the world’s largest imperial powers.

In the 17th century, the Muslim Ottomans ruled vast swathes of eastern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East. Ottoman power extended from the Persian Gulf to central Europe.

The Ottomans ruled almost the entire north coast of Africa and west to Egypt and the Holy Lands (modern-day Israel and Palestine). Their navy ruled the waters of the Mediterranean while their traders rivalled those of Spain, Portugal and the Italian city-states.

The empire was governed from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). Its ruler was the sultan, the heir to a powerful royal family.

Conflict with the West

In 1683, the Ottomans invaded Austria with an army of 200,000 men and laid siege to Vienna, a city they had long coveted.

It took a massive combined force of Austrians, Germans and Poles to defend the Austrian capital and drive the Ottomans from central Europe.

This defeat, along with the inept leadership of several weak sultans, saw Ottoman expansion stall during the 1700s.

Degradation and decay

The 19th century was one of problems and degradation, as the Ottomans struggled to retain control of their empire in the face of external pressure and internal turmoil.

By the 1850s, the situation was so desperate that Tsar Nicholas I of Russia famously described the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe”. It was a sickness that would soon become terminal.

There were several reasons for the Ottoman decline. As in other large empires of the time, the Ottomans were confronted with rising nationalism and opposition, as ethnic and regional groups demanded self-determination and independence.

The once-formidable military power of the Ottoman Empire also decreased significantly during this period. The Ottomans were driven out of North Africa and Egypt after a series of unsuccessful wars.

Recognising their weakening military position and incapacity to wage war, Ottoman leaders began seeking alliances with European nations.

A failing economy

Internally, the Ottoman Empire was also suffering from a failing economy.

Centuries before, the Ottomans ruled the world’s richest empire – but by the 1800s they had long been overtaken by the trading strength of the British, French and other European powers. By the 1870s the Ottomans owed more than 200 million pounds to European banks; the annual repayments on their loans and interest comprised more than half the national revenue.

The push for modernisation

ottoman empire
Enver Pasha, one of the ‘Young Turks’ who sought to reform the empire in the early 1900s

By the mid-1800s, the empire’s internal problems, as well as the infiltration of Western ideas, led to calls for modernisation. The Edict of Tanzimat (1839) introduced sweeping European-inspired reforms to Ottoman military organisation, farming, public administration, even uniforms and dress.

In 1876, a group of young Ottomans educated in European universities launched a short-lived revolution. They overthrew the sultan, drafted a liberal constitution and backed a moderate leader to rule as a constitutional monarch.

These political reforms did not last, however, they were revived in 1908 by the Young Turk movement, which restored the constitution and the Ottoman Parliament. One of the Young Turks, Mustafa Kemal, later made history by commanding Turkish forces at Gallipoli (1915) and leading his nation to independence from Allied occupation (1923).

The crumbling edifice

By 1908, the Ottoman Empire was a crumbling edifice. This interested the rulers and diplomats of Europe as the Ottomans occupied an area of geographic and strategic importance, including the extensive Mediterranean and Black Sea coastline and the Bosphorus, a strait of water connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

Russia and Austria-Hungary saw the break-up of the Ottoman Empire as an opportunity to increase their own territory and influence. Control of the Bosphorus would also give Russia’s strong Black Sea navy access to the Mediterranean.

Conversely, Britain and Germany hoped the Ottomans could maintain their empire and act as a buffer against the territorial ambitions of Austria-Hungary and Russia.

The quest for alliances

To serve these agendas, European leaders – particularly those of Britain, France and Germany – all sought some form of Ottoman alliance in the early 1900s. This placed Ottoman politicians in the precarious position of having to choose foreign allies – or proceed with none at all.

There was little support in the sultan’s ranks for an alliance with France, since its closest ally was Russia, a bitter enemy of the Ottomans. A moderate faction favoured an agreement with Britain, which controlled nearby Egypt and southern Iraq and could offer trade deals.

Others among the Ottomans preferred neutrality, believing the empire should remain disconnected from European intrigues and tensions. It was Germany’s strong position against Russia, along with promises of financial support and the construction of a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, that ultimately won the day.

A historian’s view:
“The periodic crises of the Eastern Question – the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire with its implied threat to European peace – had produced rivalry and tension in the political relations among the Powers… The Ottoman Empire was vulnerable to many pressures. Spread over a vast area… it contained many subject peoples and many diverse regions. Fighting a rear-guard battle with nationalist independence movements within its borders, and European imperial ambitions from without them, the Empire had one trump card: the general desire of the European Powers for it to survive as a political entity, for its total disintegration was a worse alternative.”
Marian Kent

ottoman empire before world war one

1. The Ottoman Empire was once a superpower, ruling the Middle East and much of northern Africa and eastern Europe.

2. By the end of the 1800s, the empire was in decline, shrinking in size and subject to internal problems and instability.

3. There were attempts at political reform, such as the Young Turk rebellion, though they did not arrest the decline.

4. Despite its 19th century problems, the Ottomans occupied a critical position, controlling access to the Black Sea.

5. The European powers showed a strong interest in the future of the empire, particularly Germany, which invested in the Berlin-Baghdad railway that passed through Ottoman territory.

Title: “The Ottoman Empire before World War I”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 11, 2017
Date accessed: March 11, 2023
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