Recently, the year 1908 has been all over the the press, talked about on countless talk shows, and made the daily news feed of millions- because of a sports team. However, 1908 holds much more historical significance than the last time the Cubs won the world series. While the old greats were swinging a bat on an American baseball diamond, a world away a region began to change. In his book, Shattered Dreams of Revolution, Bedross Der Moatossian tells the story of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution that changed the face of the Middle East. The late days of the Ottoman Empire might lack the level of current fascination, yet the argument could be made that this event has a much greater claim to public interest than any baseball team. The events surrounding the Revolution had a lasting effect and are very much still in play today.
In his book, Matossian begins his discussion of the 1908 Revolution with the day the constitution was reinstated following the fall of Abdul Hammid II and follows the narrative of the Revolution to the days of the Counterrevolution that shredded the great dreams of the people. The discussion of the aspirations of this revolution and what caused their downfall is an important one in the attempt to understand the situation in the Middle East today. The dismantling or unraveling of the aspirations of the 1908 Revolution can be seen through Matossian’s discussion of the changing power dynamics of the region, the role of political competition, ethnic tensions, nationalistic ideas, and the effect these issues had and continue to have on the ethnic minorities; the lessons of this revolution remain both significant and relevant today.
Before examining the causes that lead to the ultimate failure of the revolution it is important to understand the hopes and dreams of the Revolution and the immediate atmosphere in the aftermath of the fall of the dictatorship. Matossian terms the time period directly following the implementation of the constitution as one of “euphoria,” and upon examination of the public feeling following the Revolution it certainly seems appropriate. The Empire following the revolution was one filled with countless parades and speeches that emphasized repeatedly the importance of unity in the Ottoman Empire under constitutional law. This period also saw the rise of national heroes such as Fuad Pasha or Prince Sabahaddin who represented the end of a long dictatorship and the beginning of new era of freedom. Though this euphoria may seem to illustrate the beginning of a bright new future, “revolutionary festivals prosper as long as patriotism is in danger”. As Matossian later points out, this stage of euphoria represented just that, and not a stage of mutual understanding among the various groups that made up the Ottoman Empire at this time.
While there may not have been an understood common goal among these different groups, the ideology of the Young Turk Revolution was embraced across all of the Empire. This ideology was heavily influenced by that of the French revolution which was especially apparent in the legacy of “trinity of ideals” liberty, fraternity, and equality. In the Ottoman context, the idea of liberty was primarily expressed through the idea of freedom of the press.This freedom allowed for the creation of a mired of different ethnic newspapers all of whom had differing perspectives and ideas that catered specifically to their ethnic group. The ideas of fraternity and equality were one of the founding ideas of the revolution; these ideas represented the concept of uniting the vast array of ethno-linguistic peoples of the Ottoman Empire under a single banner of the ‘Ottoman citizen’.
While the ideas of the French certainly played their role, there were certain ideas that were unique to the Young Turk Revolution. One of these principles would be the importance of overcoming the ancien regime that had ruled the people under the pre-existing system. Matossian discusses this struggle through the discussion of the three main groups at the time the Armenians, Jews, and Arabs.The downfall of the ancien regime was more than a defining portion of the 1908 Revolution; understanding this process is imperative to a greater understanding what happened to this revolution. In the days following the revolution the press began to warn people of the former officials of the ancien regime. Due to the bloodless nature of the Young Turk Revolution many senior officials of the old government still held their posts. There was an idea that the Revolution couldn’t bring any real change until there was a change in leadership.
For each of the minority groups of the revolution the fall of the ancien regime and the rise of subsequent representative forces took a different path. In the case of the Armenians the ancien regime of the Ottoman Empire was completely embodied in Patriarch Ormanian; following the revolution Ormanian was both resented and criticized for his complete power and his apparent collaboration with the palace. After his resignation, power fell to the Armenian National Assembly and the Armenian National Constitution was reinstated.
This narrative is echoed by the shift in power that the Jewish Millet underwent during this same time period. Following the revolution, the Jewish progressive movement took power back from Rabbi Halevi who had occupied the powerful position of locum tenens for over 35 year under the influence of a group of Jewish notables called the black camarilla without any kind of formal appointment. The progressive movement is seen as overthrowing the ancien regime through the implementation of Rabbi Haim Nahum as the new locum tenes.
The final group the Matossian mentions in the discussion of the shifting power dynamics following the 1908 Revolution is the Arabs. For the Arabs, the overcoming of the ancien regime “proved particularly difficult” due to the fact that unlike the Armenians and the Jews there was really no single figurehead or institution that represented the ancien regime. In the Arab case, the power shift can be seen in the struggle between the local Arab notables and the incoming CUP; these notables were represented by traditional sources of power such as the religious ulema and well known pillars of the community. Understanding this shift in power is critical in understanding both the dreams of the revolutions, as well as how they whole thing fell apart. While it is easy to understand why the people longed to over come the powers that had ruled over them for so long, this was a dramatic power shift in the region that had long term destabilizing repercussions. In the short term, this change brought new leadership and a chance for change. However, it also left very powerful traditional forces longing for a chance to seize their power back.
While understanding the role of the ancien regime and its importance provides an insight to the dream and the the subsequent destabilization of that dream. An examination of post revolutionary politics reveals a catalyst to the outbreak of the Counterrevolution and ultimately the outbreak of the first world war. The Revolution and the reinstatement of the constitution brought about an all but immediate “intraethnic discourse concerning the status of their respective communities in the new era.” This discourse manifested itself in several ways including the “reemergence of traditional ethnic political parties” along with the establishment of new parties that represented an array of different ethnic and interest groups. These new parties and their subsequent platforms began to reveal the cracks in the united face of the Revolution as they underscored the vast array of contradictory goals of these individual groups.
The 1908 elections revealed a competitive political world, and the differing social, political, and idealogical positions of the different ethnic groups. Although these elections were really a competition between the dominate CUP and the Liberal Party, these different groups had an important part to play. Understandably, the euphoria following the Revolution produced an expectation among the different ethnic groups for proportional representation and a general greater degree of fairness in the election process.
This expectation of proportional elections highlights one of the first political issues of the different groups following the Revolution. The issue of proportional elections had varying degrees of importance among the different ethnic groups; smaller minority groups such as the Jews and the Armenians put a greater emphasis on proportional elections in an attempt to have a greater voice in the Empire. While the Arabs who were the majority in their provinces made no attempt to emphasize or demand proportional representation. While Jews and Armenians made the case for promotional representation, the Young Turks argued vehemently for universal representation due to the fact one of the main concerns of the party was “the political aspirations of the non-Muslims in general”. The issue of representation demonstrated on of the first political issues of the new constitutional Ottoman Empire and provided the first glimpse of the political competition that would eventually tear the Empire apart.
Simply saying political competition does little to underscore the complexity of what all this idea really meant during the post revolutionary period; the struggles of the political competition during this time period were encompassed by complex and tense intra and interethnic negotiations and the struggle between the larger majority parties alongside the smaller ethnic parties. Interwoven amongst all of this was the issue of nationalism. At this time nationalism was considered a dangerous separatist ideal that threatened the whole of the Empire, yet many of these ethnic groups weren’t solely interested in committing to Ottoman citizenship for the sake of the Ottoman fatherland.
The interplay between politics and nationalism is most easily visible in examining the political platform of the CUP versus that of the Armenians, Jews, Albanians, Greeks, and Bulgarians. CUP and the non-dominate ethnic groups generally agreed on many administrative points; the disagreements were centered on religious and educational institutions. The non-dominate ethnic groups argued for a system that preserved religious and nationalist privileges and mandated the teaching of mother tongues in school. The CUP was strongly apposed to these ideas; they argued for centralization, the removal of all ethno-national privileges of non-Muslims, and they wanted to mandate the teaching of Ottoman Turkish in all ethnic schools. Many of the other minority ethnic groups saw this political platform as a Turkish nationalist effort to homogenize the Empire and rightly feared the future under such a platform. The parliament also saw the issue of political competition along nationalistic lines through an analysis of the deputies that made up the parliament; they represented Jews, Arabs, Armenians, or Turks. Even when the Empire was striving to create an Ottoman citizen through the Ottoman Parliament there wasn’t a single ‘Ottoman’ deputy.
While clearly there is a question of whether or not unity was every truly achieved following the Revolution, there is no question of the fact there were efforts made to work together and yet the Revolution failed. The examination of how the political competition and differing nationalistic agendas devolved into the violence and chaos that characterized the Ottoman Empire in its final days is important in understanding how the 1908 Revolution failed. The political and differing nationalist agendas help understand the implications of this failure in the region to this day. Matossian discusses how soon after the elections “justice gradually degenerated into the reality of a single party dictatorship”. This line encompasses much that lead to the Counterrevolution and the following violence. The people were promised a chance to equally participate, to have a chance to have a say in the issues that mattered to them; what they got instead was a single party dictatorship that failed to protect basic freedoms.
The CUP become just another institution that slowly began to represent everything the Revolution attempted to overcome. The disgruntled people will always look for a new hero, and in this case this idea was represented in the new Society of Mohammad. The society represented a return to the old ways and had a strong islamic and anti western tone that advocated for the return to sharia law. The interplay between the political competition and nationalism led to a single party dictatorship that created great amounts of tension throughout the Empire; this tension was further agitated by traditionalist groups such as the Society and eventually lead to the decent into the chaos that lead to the First World War.
It is important to take the time to examine the repercussions of the 1908 Revolution on the ethno- linguistic and religious minorities. These communities had their traditional sources of power up-ended which dramatically effected the daily lives of many and undermined centuries old traditions, yet the effects went so much father then the dynamic power shifts that dramatically effected the traditional leadership. These groups had one shinning moment where they were promised a voice before that dream quickly faded and degenerated to a degree one might argue didn’t exist before the Revolution. These communities were just as involved as everyone else in the politics and greater attempts to support the Revolution, and when the Counterrevolution began they joined in the Action Army to support the constitution. During the Counterrevolution the ethno-lingusitc group that suffered the most would have to be the Armenians; this was primarily because they were seen as the CUP’s greatest ally. This devolved into the dissatisfied local elements attacking the Armenians; in the first wave this lead to massacres like the Adanna Massacre and these tensions eventually lead to the Armenian genocide where and estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed. It could easily be agreed the effects of this Revolution on the different ethnic groups can still be seen.
The Revolution of 1908 still has a role in the region today; the CUP went from being a voice of freedom promising the world in the hands of a constitution until they became the zealous protectors of the constitution who embraced the hypocrisy of doing unconstitutional acts to protect said constitution . It is a story of an Empire that embraced all the different ethnic groups that lived within to an Empire that would stop at nothing to homogenize a country which lead to the collapse and formation of the nation-state system; as Matossain says it “opened a Pandora’s box of ethnic issues” a box that remains open today. The lessons from the failure of the 1908 Revolution include eliminating the ambiguity that eventually lead the to more tension throughout the empire. A revolution must have a common goal greater than simply overcoming a system of government; the different ethnic groups were never going to agree on what was most important and there was no common dream. A final lesson is perhaps overly simple the end result must at least resemble what the people fought for; the single party dictatorship wasn’t what people asked for just like the Middle Eastern dictators of today were never the end goal. Overall perhaps there is some legitimacy to the idea of administrative decentralization in the Middle East and maybe it is a political ideology that is worth trying considering nearly all regimes use administrative centralization which inevitable cause some sort of issue with one group or another.
In the end the shattered dreams of the 1908 Revolution can be attributed to several factors including the dynamic shifts in power from the traditional sources and to the hands of new representative groups. The vast array of different ethnic groups in the Empire led to bitter political competition that was heavily influenced by nationalistic ideas. As time went on without the emergence of any common ground this competition completed the inevitable collapse into violence and chaos which set the scene for World War I. It has been said a thousand times and yet it bears repeating, one must look back before there can be a future; there is little doubt in the fact that the 2016 Cubs team read all about the 1908 team at some point. History in a way resembles the film you watch before a big game: if you don’t watch the film you wouldn’t be any better the next time. 1908 was a year that encompassed more than a baseball game. It was a year that helped to define a century. Perhaps there should be a talk show about that.
*** All quoted sections taken from Matossian’s book Shattered Dreams of Revolution