History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey Summary

Ezel Kural Shaw

History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

With this book the Shaws complete their two-volume history of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. In it they describe the attempts to regenerate the empire in the nineteenth century, its ultimate collapse, and the birth and growth of the twentieth century republic. Since books in English on the history of Turkey are rare, this is a valuable addition to the literature, especially as it gives an excellent account of the economic and social changes that have occurred in the last two centuries. Furthermore, since the authors write from an unashamedly Turkish point of view, it presents an interpretation almost never seen in scholarly literature.

The major emphasis of the history is on the process of reform and modernization within the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. The authors take us from the initial efforts of Mahmut II—especially the “Auspicious Event,” that is, the destruction of the corrupt conservative and outmoded Janissary military corps—through the Tanzimat (reforms) of the nineteenth century; the constitutional projects of Midhat Paa and the Young Ottomans; the Young Turk movement of the early 1900’s under the direction of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP); ending with the truly revolutionary transformation of Turkish society carried out under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Previous accounts of Turkish reforms almost universally explained them as reactions to external pressure from the Great Powers of Christian Europe and dwelt on the failures and inadequacies of the attempts. The Shaws pay almost no heed to the external factors and explain the reforms as genuine native Turkish programs to modernize Ottoman society. Furthermore, while admitting insufficiencies and lack of hoped-for achievement in a number of areas, the authors consistently stress the successes.

Although the Shaws clearly sympathize with the efforts of Ottoman reformers, they also are apologetic for the various governments and rulers, whether the Sultans, Young Turk triumvirs, or republican presidents—at times even to the detriment of dissident reformers. Thus even though Abdulhamit abrogated Midhat’s constitution and probably had its author assassinated, the Shaws are loathe to condemn the autocrat; rather, they emphasize the progress of his reign to counteract his reputation among Europeans as a tyrant. Most of all, the Shaws admire the Young Turk leaders of the CUP. This logically follows their opinions not only because in many ways the CUP represents the epitome of all they admire in Turkey, but also because the group has been the target of unjust attacks from the Christian West. In Western eyes the CUP triumvirs were the pro-German tyrants of the World War I era, those who had promised so much by bringing down Abdulhamit but in the end fulfilled so little of that promise. To the Shaws, however, the CUP were reformers who did not find it necessary to tear down Ottoman institutions à la Atatürk. (The Shaws to be sure also admire Atatürk as a Turkish hero, a great patriot, and of course the legitimate successor of the Sultans; but they still leave the clear impression that they have more sympathy for the kind of reform within the old institutions that the men of Tanzimat and Young Turks like Talat, Cemal, and Enver hoped to accomplish. Furthermore, Atatürk is treated much more sympathetically as a ruler than as a rebel.) With some justice they try to salvage the reputations of the Young Turk leaders by demonstrating the effects of their legacy on republican Turkey. As they do with the other imperial and republican rulers, the Shaws minimize the CUP’s faults as resulting from circumstances beyond their control.

In a further example of excusing government excesses, the Shaws distort the effects of the prejudicial Capital Levy Tax of World War II. This tax discriminated against non-Turkish minorities in the republic and was a blemish on the record of the usual egalitarian rights extended to all citizens by Atatürk and generally continued by his successors. (Bernard Lewis in his superb The Emergence of Modern Turkey, which gives a scholarly yet sympathetic history of the modern state, has an excellent analysis of the tax and its effects.) The Shaws, however, imply that the tax affected all citizens equally and explain away its injustices as bureaucratic misunderstandings....

(The entire section is 1770 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

American Historical Review. LXXXII, October, 1977, p. 1029.

Choice. XIV, March, 1977, p. 115.

History: Reviews of New Books. V, May, 1977, p. 151.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LIII, Summer, 1977, p. 99.