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MODERNIZATION OF TURKEY

The Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey had the bad luck to begin modernization in the worst days of European Imperialism. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, all over the world Europeans were taking the lands of others. Modern techniques of warfare allowed the British, French, Germans, Austrians and Russians to create great empires. Few lands in Asia or Africa remained independent -- Japan, Liberia, Thailand, Turkey and a few regions too remote for European power to reach. The success of Turkey in remaining its own master is not often appreciated. Nevertheless, Turkey was a success, because it survived.

Because it slowly lost the majority of its territory, the Ottoman Empire was known as the "Sick Man of Europe." The image was sadly accurate. Compared to Britain, France or Russia, the Ottomans were militarily weak. Without European education, European industry, or powerful European armies, the Ottomans were at a great disadvantage. They were forced to fight losing wars in defence of their empire. While they tried to copy Europe and reform their system, the Ottomans were buffeted by attacks from powerful neighbors, especially Russia. As they tried to reform, the revenues they needed to pay for modernizing were committed instead to hopeless defense. Russian armies detached Rumania and Bulgaria from the Empire. Britain took Cyprus and Egypt, Austria took Bosnia. Eventually Britain and France divided the Ottoman Arab lands between them. The worst calamity was the exodus of millions of Turks and other Muslims from the conquered lands into what remained the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman losses demanded enormous expenditures. Just as the Ottoman reform had begun to revivify their lands in Europe those lands were seized by others. Great sums were spent in modernizing regions, then more spent to defend them -- all lost. The millions of refugees had to be housed, and they became a disruptive element when Ottoman poverty meant that the refugees could not be settled quickly. The Ottomans were forced to borrow at ruinous rates both to modernize and to defend themselves, until even the interest could not be paid.

The Ottomans were indeed sick, but they were not allowed to cure themselves. Instead, those around them did what they could to insure that the illness resulted in death. Like other countries, the Ottoman Turks ultimately could not stand against the forces of imperialism. This is in no way exceptional. The remarkable fact is not that the Ottomans lost land to European imperialists. How many non-European countries did not lose land? How many survived at all? No, the remarkable fact was that the Ottomans held on so well. Ottoman loses to more powerful Europeans began at the end of the seventeenth century and went on for more than 200 years. Despite their military inferiority, the Ottomans survived European imperialism for more years than the United States has so far existed. The Ottoman Empire did finally succumb in World, War 1. Yet even at its end the empire held on amazingly well. Fighting against the English, the French and the Russians, the Ottomans lasted through almost four years of war. And after those four years the Turks regrouped to retain their independence.

At the end of World War I, the victorious Allies decided on brutal treatment for their late enernies, reserving the worst punishment for the Turks. The Ottoman Empire was to be divided with little land left for the Turks. The Allies promoted an Armenian takeover in Eastern Anatolia and a Greek takeover in Western Anatolia, in lands that were overwhelmingly Turkish in population. Allied warships landed troops and supplies for their surrogates. Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, was seized by the Allies themselves. The Turks were to be left only a small region in Central and Northern Anatolia, far too small for the Turkish population.

Where would the Turks go? Millions of Turks and other Muslims had been driven: into Anatolia from the Balkans, the Crimea, and the Caucasus Region in the past 100 years. Now it was all too possible that the Turkish presence in Anatolia, land that had been theirs for 800 years, would be all but eradicated. No shelter remained.

Faced with imminent destruction, the Turks fought desperately. Led by General Mustafa Kemal (later Kemal Ataturk), they amazed the Europeans by defeating first the Armenians in the East, then the Greeks in the West. Even the Europeans, who would have been forced to fight a major war to enforce their plans for the Turks, capitulated and evacuated Istanbul. The Turkish Republic was born.

The Turks triumphed by finding a national identity. Under the Ottoman Empire, a sense of nationalidentity had been discouraged. Turks were taught to see themselves as Muslims or Ottomans or subjects of the sultan, but not as Turks. Other Ottoman subjects -- the Bulgarians, Greeks, Romanians, Armenians, and others -- adopted European nationalism and began to see themselves as "peoples"who should have their own countries, but it took disaster before the Turks saw themselves as members of a Turkish nation.

The result was amazing. After World War I the Turks literally had all the real power of Europe against them. Power was in the hands of the Allies who had won the war, and the Allies had decided to end the rule of the Turks. Those who the Turks could turn to for help were few. Moreover, the Turks had not organized themselves outside the Ottoman system for more than 500 years. The.Ottoman government was prostrate before the Allies. Anyone estimating the chances of a disorganizing people standing against the greatest powers of the world and winning would have come up with very poor odds. Yet the Turks won, and survived.

The Turkish success did not end with victory in war. Once again led by Mustafa Kemal, they proceeded to renew their country internally. In a space of twenty years Turkey was turned from an empire into a republic with new laws and a new philosophy of government. Education was reformed along Western models. Rights were guaranteed for women, who began to vote and were elected to parliament. Even the clothes on the Turkish backs were changed , from fezes and veils to an approximation of European clothing. A whole society was being rapidly transformed. Many of the old ways, but very few cultures have been able to reform and modernize so quickly and so well.

The extraordinary fact of modern Turkish history is that the Turks managed to endure as a nation in their own state when so many others were falling under the imperial grasp of Europe. It is extraordinary that the Turks could survive militarily against all odds. It is also extraordinary that the Turks could modernize their society and economy along European lines if they were to keep their independence from the European powers. Despite the efforts of his neighbors, the Sick Man recovered and lives on.


 


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