Near Contemporary Decline

The events that led to the dissolution of the Ottoman State.

Constitutional rumblings

After the culmination of successful independence movements in both Serbia and Greece, the Ottoman Sultans knew they needed to do something to stem the tide of new nationalistic identities which would otherwise threaten the empire. To many at the court, there were two options: either reform the state’s structures to appease those calling for modernism or double down on reforming the army so any attempts at rebellion could be oppressed.

In the end, the Ottomans chose to do both.

Through a process called the Tanzimat, which occurred between 1839 and 1876, the Ottomans secularized law, improved civil liberties, and decriminalized homosexuality. Suddenly, the Ottomans experimented with semi-democratic bodies and established state education. Moreover, the mechanism of recruiting and organizing the army was changed to standardized conscription from devshirme in 1856 to decrease the power that influential generals wielded over the state.

The Crimean War

Although the disbandment of the Janissary Corps ultimately provided benefits to the Ottoman State by separating military influences from political and economic decision-making processes, it left the Ottomans without a full-time standing army in the short term. This meant that the Ottomans were vulnerable to attack from the increasingly belligerent state of Russia, who were looking to expand.

This powderkeg was set alight when, in 1854, a dispute over the rights of Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians led to Ottomans declaring war on Russia. In response, Britain and France, determined to restrict Russian power and expansion in the region, came to the defense of the Ottomans, causing the Crimean War.

Although the Ottomans won the war, it was something of a pyrrhic victory, contributing significantly to the exhaustion of the Ottoman state and leading to a loss of desire for Ottoman rule, given the heavy conscription costs.

Financing the Crimean War

Another key impact of the Crimean war was on the economic situation of the Ottoman Empire. Because of the high costs of fighting a war that saw nearly three years of intense fighting, the Ottomans had to find a way to restructure their economic status to finance their expenditure.

As a result, as part of the Tanzimat, the state also enacted banking reforms, the first printing of banknotes, the opening of post offices, and rapid factory industrialization, attempting to stabilize the state’s financial situation. This coincided with the establishment of the Ottoman Bank and the Ottoman Stock Exchange in 1856 and 1866, respectively. Moreover, the Ottomans were forced to take out £5 million worth of loans from other states.

This led to the Ottoman Empire further representing a standard European state rather than having its own unique Islamic system.

Russo-Turkish War

Despite attempts to appease breakaway groups through concessions made during the Tanzimat reforms, the Ottomans were largely unable to stop increased calls for independence. In 1875, uprisings in Herzegovina and Bulgaria led to strong suppression from the Ottomans, drawing international outrage.

After the Crimean War, the Russian Tsars wanted revenge for their loss as well as the recovery of lands confiscated from them by the Ottomans. After the international reaction to the Bulgarian uprisings, many in Russia also felt that this time, other European powers wouldn’t come to the aid of the flailing Ottomans. As a result, when Romania declared its independence in 1877, it was a perfect moment for Russia to come to the aid of a breakaway state, provoking Ottoman wrath.

This led to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 to 1878, which led to a resounding Russian victory and the formal acceptance of the independence of Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania, further weakening the Ottoman.

Cyprus and Disraeli

Even though the Ottomans agreed to the treaty of San Stefano, which benefited Russia greatly, they still sought to improve its terms. Capitalizing on the Ottoman desperation for an improvement, Britain’s Benjamin Disraeli offered to help the Ottomans negotiate – for a price. In exchange for British help at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the Ottomans were expected to cede Cyprus to the British.

Ultimately, the outcome of the congress was a success for the Ottomans. Although Romania and Bulgaria were left independent, Bulgaria and Greece became much smaller nations. Moreover, it was decided that Montenegro would remain Ottoman, provided the Sultan agreed to reform local governance. 

Nonetheless, even though the Congress of Berlin was seen as a success for the Ottomans, the loss of Cyprus reconfirmed their position as a state in decline.

First Balkan War

Just before the First World War, there was another lesser-known European war. In October 1912, the Balkan states of Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro attempted to take even more Ottoman land in Central Europe. Although the Ottomans had a large productive population, most were Christians, who were seen to be untrustworthy regarding conscription. As a result, the Ottomans had a relatively small army to draw upon.

As a result, the First Balkan War turned out to be a resounding defeat for the Ottomans and led to them losing all of their Albanian and Macedonian territories. The effect of this is that it essentially extinguished the Ottoman flame, losing nearly all of its territory in Europe. It was so clear that the Ottoman state was in decline by this point that it was labeled as “the sick man of Europe.”

First World War

During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire initially declared a neutral position so that they could negotiate with both sides to secure the best possible deal. In the end, the Ottoman Empire struck a secret deal with Germany. 

Although Ottoman forces were viewed as superior to the Allied forces, they were nonetheless able to emerge victorious in one of the significant campaigns of the war. However, their success was nonetheless immaterial as their allies capitulated in Europe, leading them to be treated as a defeated power, securing another unfavorable settlement and further pushing them into decline.

The Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920, removed all territories from the Ottoman Empire not inhabited by Turkish peoples, reducing the Empire to a fraction of its former size.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

In reaction to the Treaty of Sevres, one outraged Turkish Ottoman, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, revoked the citizenship of the signatories of the treaty, sparking the Turkish War of Independence. This movement sought to create a new Turkish state separate from the Ottoman Empire and remove British troops from their presence in Constantinople.

Ultimately, they were successful in their mission after an extended campaign of resistance.

In the Treaty of Lausanne, the National Assembly in Ankara was recognized as having sovereignty over Turkey by the international community, formally extinguishing the Ottoman Empire and founding a secular republic. On November 1st, 1922, the Ottoman Sultanate was abandoned, and Mehmed VI, the last Sultan, was sent into exile.

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