Young Turks and "Deutschland über Allah" in the 1910s

The spirit of universal Ottoman brotherhood soon melted away, revealing a harder, more exclusive ideology. The Young Turks [who seized power in 1908] embraced something called “pan-Turanianism”—the notion that all Turks from the Russian steppes to Anatolia came from a single ancestral land called “Turan.” In this view, the entire historical orientation of the Ottoman Empire toward Europe and the Middle East had been misplaced. Instead, the empire should be focused on reuniting the Turanic peoples in Russia and Central Asia. In his book Allah Is Great, Lev [Nussimbaum aka Kurban Said] compared the Turanian obsession to “blood and soil” ideas in Germany. In a kind of Turkish parallel to the German idea of lebensraum, the future was to be found in the East—in an invasion of Russia to reclaim ancestral lands from the thirteenth century and earlier, not only those of the Ottomans but of the other great Turanians, the Mongols and the Huns.* (*Since at least the eighteenth century, Russian ministers and theorists had referred to the Ottoman capital not as Constantinople but as Czargrad, in anticipation of absorbing it into the new world-dominating Super Russian Empire. The counter-theory of the pan-Turanian principle meant that if the Russians wanted to reconquer Constantinople, the Turks would do them one better, reconquering half of Russia.)

What clinched the Turkish-German axis in the First World War was really the personality of Enver Pasha. A dark fireplug of a man who had served as the Ottoman military attaché in Berlin, Enver had embraced all the pointed helmets and polished boots and talk of Wagnerian Götterdämmerung-cum-Jihad. (Kaiser Wilhelm did his part by spreading the rumor that he had converted to Islam.) When Enver led the Young Turks to power in 1908, as war minister, he was sporting a Kaiser Wilhelm mustache, which should have been a clue as to which way things would go. What ensued may have amounted to the most dramatic “self-colonization” in history: in the name of achieving instant modernization and international power, the Young Turk junta turned the Ottoman Empire into a virtual military colony of the German Reich. “Deutschland über Allah,” said some diplomatic wags. But it was a dead serious maneuver, and it happened with lightning speed. Enver turned over the entire Ottoman officer corps to the Germans; more than twenty-five thousand German officers and NCOs assumed positions of direct command. A Prussian officer founded the Turkish Air Force, and two German battleships arrived in the Golden Horn. The German crew brazenly donned fezzes and sang “Deutschland über Alles” beneath the seaside villa of the Russian ambassador.

The Young Turks had launched the Ottoman Empire off a cliff. It is hardly remembered now what a large role Turkey played in the First World War, except for the storied Gallipoli landing, where the defending Turks slaughtered British, Australian, and New Zealander expeditionary forces. Almost everywhere else, it was the Turkish soldiers who were slaughtered. More than three hundred thousand Turkish soldiers died fighting the Russians in the Caucasus alone, as a result of Enver’s plan to begin a great reconquest of the ancient Turkish heartland. The plan was to take Baku so as to launch Turkish armies across the Caspian in oil tankers, landing at Kizel-Su and crossing Turkestan, conquering Bukhara, Samarkand, and eventually, even Mongolia. On the eve of the revolution, the czar’s forces poised for a final attack on Constantinople. Had Russia stayed in the war and the Bolsheviks not prevailed, Istanbul might today be called Czargrad and the Middle East might be an imperial Russian federation. The Turkish rout was the fault of poor planning and bluster—Enver sent Turkish troops to fight in the Caucasus in winter with no overcoats and without even boots—but the increasingly fanatical Young Turk junta looked for someone else to blame for the failure of the Turanian dream. Thus, the infamous Armenian massacres of 1915 were set in motion.

SOURCE: The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, by Tom Reiss (Random House, 2005), pp. 106-108

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