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Nobody's business but the Turks

History: On learning from and writing history

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Apr 26, 2012, 11:24pm Top

What do you know about the Ottoman Empire? Did your formal education offer anything more than the phrase "the sick man of Europe"? (Mine didn’t.)

As I've grown older I've become fascinated with the Osmanlı realm for a few reasons.

* The 14th-century clash between Timur (Tamerlane) and the young Ottoman state is a riveting story, to me. It's remarkable that the Ottomans survived, much less went on to build a vast empire.

* The diversity of the Ottoman Empire was exceptional, possibly unequalled in history. If there's a useable past or lessons to be learned in Ottoman history, it's probably in observing how the empire succeeded in holding its population together and forestalling persecution. The old Western historians' trope of "Oriental despotism" doesn't do the Ottomans justice.

* I don't entirely believe in the Italian Renaissance as a discrete phenomenon, but I do allow that something interesting was going on in Italy in the 14th-16th centuries. I also believe the Italians' proximity to and frequent contact with Turks, whether as partners or enemies, had an unacknowledged role in shaping all that — especially as the Venetians started throwing their weight around.

* Western imaginings about Turks are a topic to fill many volumes. The question of whether to admit the Republic of Turkey into the European Union recycles, to some extent, medieval and early modern Europe's dread of the terrible Turk. Islamophobes (at least, the less imbecilic ones who have actually read books) like to meditate on the fall of Constantinople and the siege of Vienna.

* The linguistic side of Turkish history fascinates me. Turkish was a steppe language with nothing in common with the cultured Arabic, Persian, and Greek spoken by Ottoman subjects. So the language pumped itself up on mostly Persian loanwords, much as barbarous Anglo-Saxon pumped itself up with Norman French. With the launch of the Republic, though, the language was purged of Persianisms and the Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic. It was a highly improbable transformation. It also presents a language barrier to present-day Turks who might like to study the Ottoman past.

* The empire existed for six centuries — a better record than Rome’s — but in the U.S., at least, the Armenian genocide of 1915 drowns out every other Ottoman historical event in present-day discourse. It's difficult to approach it as a historian rather than an advocate.

* It's interesting to see the reluctance of all the empire's successor states (whether Arab, Greek, Slavic, or even Turkish) to identify in any way with the Ottoman past, as if history began with nationalism. Each state has its own reasons for slighting the past, and they differ widely.

* Finally, the clumsy dismantling of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France in the early 20th century left us the problem of Palestine — that intractable whatsit that we call "the Mideast."

It's been several years since I read anything specifically about the Ottoman Empire, but the subject continues to fascinate me. Making the acquaintance of Turks living in the United States has certainly helped.

I suppose no online thread about the Turks would be complete without a link to "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

Apr 27, 2012, 2:31am Top

:) I grew up with this story - living next door and with Bulgaria being part of the Empire for almost 5 centuries - not a very happy or peaceful part but still a part of it.

Because of the old history, the history books were presenting the facts (or some of them) one sided. After the changes, in an attempt to draw Turkey closer some of the books were... rewritten and shifted on the other end of the spectrum. The truth is somewhere there. They came, they conquered. The rest is history.

Now... the successor states is a term that got applied to a lot of the countries that were ever part of the empire... and in a wrong way - Bulgaria had existed since 681 and when it emerged out of the empire, it emerged back in its full territory (it's a different story that it lasted only a few months... before the Great Powers decided to split it again). So even if it was part of the empire, it was an independent country (with the same name and territory) longer than it was in the Empire. Which probably proves your point for the widely different reasons for the reactions :) But I still oppose being lumped into a successor state category:)

The language history gets even more interesting when you consider the local languages on the Balkans -- all of them borrowed from Turkish; Turkish borrowed from all of them. And they were a mix enough even before that.

As for the last point (the dismantling)... the Great Powers did it a few times on the Balkans in the late 19th and early 20th century - causing enough troubles for the coming century.

Apr 27, 2012, 9:10am Top

I took a class titled "Eurasian Nomads & History" that covered too much in space and time for us to really learn any details. It went from the Scythians to WWI in time and from Korea to Hungary in territory. I do remember that when I heard that Muammar Gaddafi kept a tent on his palace grounds he was imitating the Ottomans more than honoring his own tribes heritage.

The Ottoman empire was simply the most modern empire built by Eurasian herders. In a very real sense they are responsible for the modern world. They domesticated the horse. Their wars sent ripples of refugee migrants across Europe who eventually formed modern Europe. Chingis Khan and his son Ogodei built the widest ranging empire in history. They ruled from what is now China and Korea down to Indochina, across Eurasia north of the Himalayas and south of the forests, into Pakistan and the modern Mideast, up to Russia. They reestablished the Silk Road and coined the first paper money.

Turkic people had a large empire before Kahn, the Seljuq Empire and many were part of Kahn's empire. However they reestablished their themselves out of Anatolia, an area once controlled by the Seljug Empire but that had managed to evade the Kahn's grasp. Much of what they ruled had been the domain of one of Chingis' sons, I have no idea which one, but they did expand well beyond that territory into Africa and Europe.

The Italian Renaissance did have a lot to do with contact with the Ottoman's and expanded trade in goods as well as ideas. It also had a lot to do with cultural changes forced by the population drop caused by the Black Death, also a product of trade with the east. At least that is my opinion.

Apr 27, 2012, 10:45am Top

Lord Kinross is my primary source for knowledge about the region; A History of the Arab Peoples also touches on the area.

I found it intersting that Atatturk and Turkey were among the few nations to successfully negotiate an arrangement with the U.S.S.R. that was generally honored by both sides. A tribute to the founder of Turkey, but one that often overlooked in Western accounts.

Edited: Apr 27, 2012, 6:26pm Top

Yeah, Lord Kinross's Ottoman Centuries is still, as best I can tell, the most widely read book of Ottoman history. Haven't touched it myself, but it seems to be a "rattling good yarn."

It seems a shame, though, that the book still touted as the "definitive" Ottoman history was penned by a historian who couldn't read Turkish. No one would tolerate such ignorance in a "definitive" history of, say, the French, Spanish, or Russian empires. Nor is it acceptable in current historical work about the Ottomans, much of it written by Anglophone Turks, such as Halil Inalcık, or people of Turkish descent, such as German scholar Suraiya Faroqhi (who writes beautifully in English), or Anglo-American scholars who not only know the landscape but are fluent in the right languages, like Donald Quataert (pronounced "quoddert").

Kinross, by contrast, seems to have ridden a late surge of orientalism — the phenomenon described by Edward Said that, at its height, sometimes allowed a single Western scholar to pose as an expert on every "Oriental" culture from Morocco to Hawaii.

One re-reader of Kinross has posted this critical review on Amazon. In a nutshell: Kinross is only worth reading for early Ottoman history, which he reconstructs without referring to Ottoman sources. His coverage of the 19th century wrongly portrays a passive, decrepit empire being acted on by the vital Western powers. Even the Tanzimat is described as if it were essentially a British invention.

P.S. The tiny symbols are links to further information about each author, showing where I got some of my information. It's called a "hat tip" link and is described (along with the "via" link) at curatorscode.org. Web authors may want to try it.

Apr 27, 2012, 7:08pm Top

It seems a little harsh; Kinross was generally favorable towards Atatturk, even though Kemal defeated British forces at Gallipoli and later defied British Imperial wishes (successfully) re the partitioning of what became modern Turkey.

Edited: Apr 27, 2012, 7:18pm Top

>1 Muscogulus: Like you, I learned virtually nothing of the Ottoman Empire in my formal education. What I knew about it I picked up from watching Lawrence of Arabia and Gallipoli, listening to "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," and reading Robert Silverberg's Up The Line. When your best source on a particular civilization is a science-fiction novel about sex and time travel -- albeit a very good one -- you've probably got some catching-up to do. :-)

Then I got hired to teach world history survey courses, and read enough to give myself a rudimentary, greatest-hits understanding of Ottoman history that I could work into my lectures. I've deepened that (some) over the years, but never had a chance to fill in the gaps . . . so my grasp of the Ottoman Empire is still spotty at best: Timur and Suleiman, Lepanto and Vienna, the fall of Constantinople, the Young Turks, the Armenian Genocide, the carving-up of the Empire, Kemal . . .

I'd still like to fill in those gaps. Anybody have a recommendation for a good single-volume overview?

(I found David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace fascinating on the much narrower subject of the death of the empire at the hands of the Allies in 1919 . . . but he is, like me an anglophone outsider looking in)

May 2, 2012, 3:22am Top

Like Annie said, the Ottoman Empire was mostly seen as "the enemy at the gates" for centuries - for many Europeans. On the other hand, in my country (the Netherlands) we are now commemorating 400 years of fairly friendly diplomatic relations with Turkey.

The reason was that both Turkey and the Dutch Republic were then at odds with Habsburg (Catholic) imperialism. A rallying call of the early Dutch revolt had even been "rather Turkish than popish" - a clear provocation (not to be taken literally).

May 4, 2012, 3:17am Top

The British Empire has the Commonwealth and the French Empire has the Francophonie, but like the OP said, none of the 'successor states' of the Ottoman Empire wants anything to do with Turkey. I think that says a lot about its legacy.

Some historians blame the Ottomans for the lower level of development in the Balkans today. If you look at a map of Europe, showing GDP per capita, you'll see that ex-communist countries, of course, are poorer. But the countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire are poorer still. The line is quite distinct.

"The diversity of the Ottoman Empire was exceptional, possibly unequalled in history."

I can't agree with that. Every large empire includes a diversity of people. The Ottoman's neighbour, the Habsburg Empire, included Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Bosnians, Croats, Slovenians, Jews, Roma, Italians and Poles. The Roman Empire included Gauls, Britons, Illyrians, Greeks, and pretty much all the diverse people of the Mediterranean region.

Then there's the British Empire, which at its height included everyone from Inuit to Australian Aborigines, Chinese (Hong Kong), Malay, Burmese, Indians, Irish, Canadians, Australians, Arabs, Jews, Africans (from hundreds of cultures), Jamaicans, Polynesians, etc., etc. There were probably 2,000 languages, or more, spoken in the British Empire. Now that's diversity!

May 4, 2012, 8:02am Top

Slovenia has higher GDP than, say, Greece and Portugal; Czech R. isn't far behind.


Thanks for the references. I have only the mildest lay interest in history (meaning I don't read much straight history), and even I noticed the ignorance and arrogance bedevilling Anglo (possibly Western) historical scholarship whenever it touches on the East. Norman Davies in his introduction to Europe was the first and almost only still-living historian I noticed commenting on those failings.*

I couldn't come up with a better example than that analysed by Irwin Schick in The erotic margin--it concerns one element of Eastern (in fact largely Ottoman) culture, sexuality; but the mechanisms employed to "describe" and "explain" are the same as those used in historical narratives. Besides, descriptions of sexuality and racialist theories set the norm for what I see as the still prevalent view of the East, so they are essential to understanding the approach of the historians who dealt with the Ottomans and their subject nations as radically different and inferior to the West.

Edited: May 4, 2012, 11:48am Top

> 9 ...like the OP said, none of the 'successor states' of the Ottoman Empire wants anything to do with Turkey. I think that says a lot about its legacy.

The OP would like to clarify: The reasons that successor states discount the Ottoman past are diverse and should not be assumed to arise from resentment or hatred of the Turks.

Turk-hating has been a popular sport in Greece, and nationalist Turks have reciprocated. The Balkan states (especially Serbia) have typically defined themselves in opposition to Turkish rule (with Bosnia being the most complicated exception). In their case, the rejection of the Ottoman past could be compared to the attitudes of other (non-Russian) Slavic peoples to the Habsburgs or Romanovs. But in the Ottoman case, the secular religion of nationalism (every people entitled to their own state) blended to a greater or lesser degree with some form of holy war.

With the Arab states the case is different, and it differs from region to region within the Arab world. We make a serious historical error when we take the views and ambitions of T.E. Lawrence's Hashimi friends as representing "the Arabs" as a whole.

As for the lower level of development within former Ottoman territory, we're just now learning what contributed to it. One key factor, which the Ottomans themselves were aware of and tried to compensate for from the sixteenth century on, was the limited supply of iron ore, coal, and other natural resources that were abundant in parts of Europe. Historians have written about the incentives sultans offered to entice European merchants to defy a papal ban on selling iron to the infidels. As for coal, according to my quick web search, Turkey has only lignite (brown coal) and I believe the Balkans are similar. Even as lignite goes, the stuff in Turkey makes a poor fuel.

Donald Quataert, mentioned earlier, devoted much of his research to Ottoman industrialization efforts. I haven’t read the results, so I'm just guessing here — but one political factor in the pace of industrialization may have been the attempt by Muhammad Ali of Egypt to rapidly modernize as a way of getting out from under both the sultans and the Europeans — until an Austro-Turco-British triumvirate combined forces to stop him, with tacit support from France. Muhammad Ali, incidentally, was no Arab nationalist; he was a Turkish-speaking Albanian ruling a mostly Arab populace.

On the diversity of the empire, I accept that the ancient Romans may have matched it, but not the Habsburgs. Most of the peoples you mentioned also lived under Ottoman rule. The later British Empire definitely eclipses all the others, but (hoping this doesn’t sound like a cop-out) it belongs in a class by itself.

May 4, 2012, 11:59am Top

>2 AnnieMod: BTW Annie's comment made me realize how little I know about Bulgaria, located at that very interesting junction of Europe and Asia. For instance, I had never worked out the disconnect between the modern Bulgarians, who are lumped together with the Slavs, and the ancient Bulgars, who are not. We should start a thread on that.

May 4, 2012, 1:08pm Top

How much of the neglect of development in subject regions can be explained by the fact that the Ottomans weren't colonisers? (They weren't big on proselytising either; just enough to ensure the local power would be in the hands of Muslims and subservient to the Porte. The--largely poor, i.e. non-land-owning--masses weren't invited to the club.)

May 4, 2012, 1:17pm Top

Googling a vaguely-remembered factoid about paved roads in Bosnia (shockingly lacking on annexation by Austria, that's the extent of my memory), I came across this book Balkan Worlds: The First and Last Europe. Going by the name I'd say the author is Bulgarian. Going by the review on Amazon, the focus is the period of Ottoman rule.

May 4, 2012, 1:33pm Top

> 9, 13

Good point: The Ottoman Empire was not colonial or extractive. Its initial economic success, like that of ancient and early modern empires, rested mainly on internal trade of commodities and the products of household industry. From a European perspective, the trade in Eastern luxuries, facilitated by Muslim middlemen and enriching Italian merchants and bankers, looks more important than it actually was in Ottoman economic terms.

The absence of colonialism goes along with a greater toleration for polyglot administration. Turkish was the language of the Sublime Porte — though actually, even there one would hear a lot of literary Persian, if I'm not mistaken, to say nothing of religious Arabic. But administration at regional levels was not necessarily in Turkish IIRC. Greeks, Armenians, and others held administrative and military posts in the empire. It was proverbial that the typical Ottoman seaman (levend) was a Christian.

May 5, 2012, 10:54am Top

>11 Muscogulus:. I don't think lack of resources had anything to do with lower levels of development in the Ottoman Empire. Remember, their empire stretched from the Balkans to Arabia and North Africa. That vast area had to include some resources. If they didn't have coal, for instance, they certainly had plenty of oil.

Some historians have noted that it was Christians (especially Armenians, Greeks and Lebanese) as well as Jews, who did most of the commerce in the Ottoman Empire. For various reasons, including the Muslim ban on charging interest, the Turks themselves did not engage in much commercial trade. The only advantage the subject people of the Ottoman Empire gained, if any, was that they could trade freely over a large area. But I don't think that made up for what they lost by being isolated from the rest of Europe, and the scientific and technological developments there.

Overall, I'd have to say that the people of southeastern Europe were disadvantaged by being occupied by the Turks, and that disadvantage has continued to the present day. If only the Turks had stayed in Central Asia!

May 15, 2012, 9:29pm Top

> 16

You do realize that the exploitation of oil — assuming you mean petroleum — only dates from the 1850s, and full-scale commercial exploration started in the 20th century. That was a bit late for the Ottomans (1299-1922). You might as well blame them for not coming up with the semiconductor.

May 16, 2012, 12:56am Top

>17 Muscogulus: The Ottoman Empire survived into the early 20th Century, as you said yourself. By then, oil was an important resource. Not that the Ottomans ever ever made use of it.

Anyways, there WAS coal in the Ottoman Empire. Romania (parts of which were Ottoman controlled), Serbia and Turkey itself have extensive deposits of both hard coal and lignite. There are also lignite deposits in Bulgaria and Greece.

The failure of the Ottoman Empire was not in it's lack of resources. It must be looked for elsewhere. The decline of Mediterranean trade had a lot to do with it. So did the lack of technological innovation within the empire. The Scientific and Industrial Revolutions skipped that part of Europe.

Empires rarely benefit anyone other than the Empire's creators. Did the native people of Central and South America benefit from the Spanish Empire? Did the Cherokee, Navajo or Iroquois benefit from the American Empire? Did the Finns, Estonians, Latvians, etc. benefit from the Russian/Soviet Empire? Or the Chinese from the Mongol Empire? Similarly, the only people to indisputably benefit from the Ottoman Empire were the Ottoman Turks themselves.

May 16, 2012, 11:13am Top

Kemal Attaturk (who must be considered a bit of an expert on the matter) believed that the problem with the Ottoman Empire was their system of rule, combined with the huge influence religion had on secular matters. Kemal purposely modeled modern Turkey on what he felt were the 'best' parts of Western culture; separation of church and state, elected representatives, etc. Turkey has managed to endure and thrive as a nation, so Kemal must have done something right...

May 16, 2012, 2:01pm Top

>18 madpoet:

You seem to have assumed that I am carrying a brief for the Ottoman Empire, as if I wanted to revive it or use it as a model. That's not it at all. What I am opposed to is superficial history based on meagre research and/or cultural chauvinism.

That's why I don't care for the judgmental tone of your analysis: Western Europe is a "success"; the Ottoman Empire was a "failure." History-as-propaganda has a long and storied history, and empires thrive on it. The Ottomans certainly penned their share of it. But I find it predictable and rarely enlightening. I'm just not interested in sneering at the Turks for not coming up with the Model T.

It's true that the Ottoman Empire was not a republic with a Lockean rights-of-man ideology. AFAIK it was not especially hospitable to either liberal capitalist or Marxist socialist theory. The same charges can be leveled at its neighbor empires, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Persia. I happen to think the Ottoman is the most interesting of the four, but others may disagree.

I'm inclined to agree with your assessment of empires' effects on their subjects. Certainly empires were not created to benefit the peoples they conquered and ruled. Still, empires changed drastically over time and their effects even on subject peoples could be complex, unpredictable, and often unintended. "Absolute" rulers never really exercised absolute control.

May 16, 2012, 2:11pm Top


In one way or another, all countries, civilizations, and governments ultimately fall. So, how does one measure 'success'?

Longevity? How well their subtjects fared under their rule? How the successor states view their ancestor? Influence on contemporary history?

I'm not being snarky; I'm genuinely curious.

May 16, 2012, 2:13pm Top

USSR's constituent states certainly DID benefit from the mutual aid society that came with federation--check out how they are doing since it dissolved. As regards other members of the Warsaw Pact bloc, one could debate whether and how they "benefited" from their communist organisation (in comparison to the capitalist neighbours, I suppose), but given that order, whether and how they benefited from the liaison with the USSR is clear--the USSR was their most important customer and supporter. Cuba comes to mind as the worst example of the post-Soviet catastrophe, besides some of the especially economically disadvantaged ex-USSR backwaters.

Ludicrous as it is to talk of historical "benefits", one could argue the Roman empire "benefited" the provinces and mainland equally. In the Americas, no one "benefited" the natives, but the industries based on their exploitation propelled many global economies. You can't capture these situations by cliches.

May 16, 2012, 2:14pm Top

>19 BruceCoulson:

Atatürk is certainly a fascinating historical figure and a man of many talents. His personality and his commitment to secularism did a great deal to shape the post-Ottoman republic, which was not supposed to exist at all.

I would add that the reform movement is also a part of Ottoman history, not just the dismantling of the empire. Tanzimât, the "reorganization" pursued from the top down, began in 1839 and contributed to the cultural environment in which Kemal, the Young Turks, and other reformers came to adulthood.

It's interesting that Tanzimât reforms were strenuously opposed, not only by narrow-minded interests within the empire, but by the rival European powers. It's not hard to understand why. A rival state running on warmed-over 14th-century institutions is easier to deal with than a modernizing state.

May 16, 2012, 2:39pm Top


That's a nice way of mentioning that Turkey was supposed to be partitioned into three states with the assistance of Greece post-WW I. (Britain's failure to impose its design on the area certainly speaks well of Tanzimat and Attaturk...)

Something that the West often forgets, but I suspect Turkey keeps in mind.

May 17, 2012, 10:13am Top

>24 BruceCoulson:. Unfortunately, but predictably, Greece's failed attempt to control western Asia Minor lead to the Turks retaliating by expelling Greeks from communities along the Aegean coast, where they had lived for 3,000 years. Later, despite assurances to the contrary, Turkey forced the Greek population of Istanbul to leave likewise.

That was around the same time that the new, 'reformed' Turkish government murdered over a million Armenians. A genocide that the rest of the world did nothing to stop. It convinced Hitler that he could get away with the Holocaust. He famously said, "Who now remembers the Armenians?"

But most people don't know that the Armenian Genocide was only the last, and worst, pogrom against the Armenians. There had been massacres before, by the Ottomans.

I'm sure the Ottomans must have done some good, somehow. No empire is entirely evil. But from the perspective of the Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians, etc., and especially Armenians, all of whom they ruled over, it's hard to see what that good might be, and easy to see a counterfactual history without the Ottoman Empire where they'd all be better off.

May 17, 2012, 10:59am Top

Most new states commit similar acts. Turkey is simply more recent, and slightly more remembered for Hitler's reference (although only slightly).

The aggressors never remember their acts; the injured never forget.

Edited: May 17, 2012, 11:45am Top

>25 madpoet:

I suppose it is necessary for me to begin by explaining that I do not support genocide or the forced expulsion of any ethnic group from anywhere.

As I mentioned in the initial post, "in the U.S., at least, the Armenian genocide of 1915 drowns out every other Ottoman historical event in present-day discourse. It's difficult to approach it as a historian rather than an advocate." What is certain is that one of the last acts of the Ottoman state was to condone the killing of a staggering number of people who presented no credible threat.

There is no question in my mind that this was intentional genocide. The question for me is whether this crime was typical of the Ottoman state or of the embryonic Turkish nation-state. On the one hand, slaughter of ethnic minorities within Ottoman territory had been occurring in the late 1800s, drawing sensational coverage in the Western press. The Ottoman entry into the First World War, and the Armenians' position on the border with hostile Russia, was used as cover for attacking Armenians. (Apologists still call it civil war and a kind of self-defense that got out of hand.) These factors argue for Ottoman culpability.

On the other hand, the ideological motor behind ethnic hatred of the Armenians was Turkish nationalism, the Westernizing creed of the Young Turks. The rise in attacks on minorities coincides with a decline in the power of Ottoman state institutions. This (ca. 1890-1920) is the phase in which "sick man" is first coined and seems like an apt description for the empire. Tanzimât reforms had been shut down. A plurality (maybe a majority) of Ottoman state revenues went to the servicing of debts held by French and British banks. The Balkan provinces were in open nationalist rebellion. The Armenian genocide, then, may be better understood as a sign of the decay of the Ottoman state, not of its essential character.

Genocide and "ethnic cleansing" (to use the term Serb extremists coined for us by 1992) are recurring problems, and they are modern problems. Not since Hulagu Khan in the 13th century have we seen such large-scale slaughters as in the last hundred years. I believe it is a mistake to regard these events as throwbacks, destined to fade away as we modernize the world. It is irresponsible, in my view, to simply condemn the perpetrators, murmur "Never again," and rest on our own presumed moral superiority. We have a duty to try to understand what moves hundreds or thousands of people to take part in slaughter, in order to prevent it. Yet all too often, efforts to understand are conflated with efforts to justify or condone.

Here is what I have learned. An essential component of all these modern crimes has been the exploitation of mass media to induce mass hatred. (I wish I knew of scholarship in English about turn-of-the-century anti-Armenian propaganda in Turkish.) Next, there is the creation of layers of organizational complexity to shield any given individual from a sense of responsibility. In the Armenian case, a "Special Organization" within the armed forces carried out "special measures" authorized by "temporary" wartime legislation. The official objective was tehcir, or removal and resettlement.

Finally there is the mentality of those who do the actual killing. They must persuade themselves of the rightness of their actions, usually by erasing the humanity of their victims. A thought-provoking book on this subject, in all its aspects, is Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.

May 17, 2012, 10:06pm Top

Perhaps I was a little too negative about the Ottoman Empire. I was responding to what seemed to me rather gushing enthusiasm for it in the opening posts.

>27 Muscogulus: Majority-minority tensions most often arise not in times of stability, but rather in times of political uncertainty. There had been previous pogroms by the Ottomans against the Armenians, but like you said, the real impetus of the genocide was nationalist Turkish fears that the Armenians would try to create their own state (gee, why would they want to do that when the Turks had always treated them so well...?) combined with a new ideal of "Turkey for the Turks" which excluded Christian Greeks and Armenians, even though both groups had lived in Asia Minor for thousands of years before the Turks came.

We saw something similar recently (though less one-sided, and less apocalyptic) with the break up of the Soviet Union (violence in Chechnya, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Trans-Dniester, etc.) and of course Yugoslavia. Someone-- Croatian or Slovenian, I'm not sure which-- said, "I don't mind living in Yugoslavia, but I don't want to live in Serboslavia." Serb nationalism fueled Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian and Albanian (Kosovar) nationalism, which fed into more Serb nationalism, in an escalating spiral of distrust, fear and opportunism. Once "things fall apart, the center cannot hold" they can get very, very bad, very quickly.

Not that I'm in favour of authoritarianism, but times of change, of revolution, can be very dangerous for minorities. Look at what happened with the fall of Suharto in Indonesia. Anti-Chinese riots and Muslim-Christian violence followed soon after. Now, in the wake of the 'Arab Spring', we are seeing repeated attacks on the Christian minorities in Egypt and Syria, and on immigrant African workers in Libya. Also, it looks like tribal politics may be reviving in Libya, dividing the country and possibly leading to more violence.

May 18, 2012, 10:53am Top

This can be seen as a function of authority. No matter who is in charge, the leaders want to maintain a monopoly on violence. So, empires crack down on unauthorized pogroms, etc. not because they are unsympathetic with the mobs, but because allowing unsanctioned violence to succeed sends a dangerous message to the masses. There's also the fact that even minorities pay taxes, and sometimes their support of a regime is greater than that of the majority (the intelligent leaders of the minority are usually aware of what will happen when the empire crumbles).

Empires protect ethnic minorities (to an extent); but it's not out of any sense of morality.


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