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A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation… (1989)

by David Fromkin

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1,742206,823 (4.22)68
In our time the Middle East has proven a battleground of rival religions, ideologies, nationalisms, and dynasties. All of these conflicts, including the hostilities between Arabs and Israelis that have flared yet again, come down, in a sense, to the extent to which the Middle East will continue to live with its political inheritance: the arrangements, unities, and divisions imposed upon the region by the Allies after the First World War. In A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin reveals how and why the Allies came to remake the geography and politics of the Middle East, drawing lines on an empty map that eventually became the new countries of Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. Focusing on the formative years of 1914 to 1922, when all-even an alliance between Arab nationalism and Zionism-seemed possible he raises questions about what might have been done differently, and answers questions about why things were done as they were. The current battle for a Palestinian homeland has its roots in these events of 85 years ago.… (more)

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This book describes the dissolution of the Ottoman empire in and after the first world war, with a very strong emphasis on British politics. It is, in fact, misleading to call this a "definitive account" of the creation of the modern Middle East, as the back cover does. It can hardly be very definitive when the Turkish, Arab, Persian, German, Russian, French and American sides of the story, all taken together, receive less than half as much as space as the British one does. There's no doubt that Britain was the leading political power in the world before world war I, but especially in the beginning of the book the author drags into the narrative far too many unimportant British persons whose views didn't have any consequences worthy of mention and weren't particularly interesting to begin with. I skipped many sections of the book just out of boredom.

Nevertheless, it is certainly interesting to compare the imperial world-views of British leaders before the war to the humbled perspective they were forced to adopt after the war. It's hard to believe that a century ago leaders could still understand politics only from the narrow conceptions of colonial empire: a zero-sum game where only territorial possession mattered. The Ottoman empire was weak, so the British and the French thought it should be divided between them even though neither had any knowledge of the lands they wanted to divide. The contrast with the post-war worldview is quite striking, as the author also points out. In that sense it certainly seems to be true that this book describes a watershed moment.

The second half of the book, which describes events after the war, is more interesting than the first. British leaders eventually had to face the limits of their own power. They were instrumental in founding the countries of the Middle East in the settlement of 1922 before leaving the region for good. But the age of empires was coming to an end and the age of national self-determination was about to begin. It is a bit peculiar that Woodrow Wilson, who certainly did much more than any British politician to inaugurate this new age, is here written off as a naive buffoon who didn't have any idea what he was doing at the peace conference which ended the war. In any case, I think this book is too long and it's perspective is centered far too much on Britain. But it still has its moments, and there may not be any other book which tells the same story in this much detail.
  thcson | Sep 27, 2019 |
A Peace to End All Peace
Author: David Fromkin
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Published In: New York City
Date: 1989
Pgs: 635


The Middle East, long a battleground of religions, ideologies, nationalism, and dynasty, her history comes alive here. This history concerns itself with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and how it arrived at that point. How the secret agreements of the WW1 Allies impacted the peoples and the future of the region. The reasons, ambitions, and greed that drove the Allies to make the decisions that they made. And their ultimate failure to understand what they were dealing with in the peoples of the Middle East. The same mistake made today by policymakers in seeing the world of the Middle East as a single mass instead of the polyglot of ethnicities that exists there. This is a Middle East before the Petroleum Age. A time when allegiance was still possible between Arab and Zionism. A time before the founding of Israel. A time before the arbitrary drawing of lines on a map and lumping ethnicities together whose only history together was enmity and a share of the Ottoman yoke. This book follows the narrowing of paths and circumstances that lead the region toward the endless wars and escalating acts of terrorism that continue to plague the region to this day.


Why this book:
Always been fascinated by the Ottoman Empire and the Arab world.

The telling of Ottoman and Middle East history is well paced.

Hmm Moments:
The man who coined the term The Great Game in Asia to explain the competition between England and Russia for dominance and hegemony in Asia ended up beheaded by an Uzbek emir.

I had read the stories about the veneer that was Ottoman control of their empire; dominated by outside powers, Britain, Russia, Germany; barely ruling their subjects to the degree that estimates say the government only collected 5% of their taxes some years, the remainder collected by “tax farmers”. Effective national leadership elluded the Turks at the center of the Ottoman Empire. Reading the makeup of the Empire makes me wonder what could have been if they had hit upon a federal system that gave power to the ethnic minorities and the regions in a national assembly. What would the modern Middle East look like today? Would Europe have let that flower flourish or would they have yanked it out by its root and then split it up any which way they wanted to as they did in our world. In some cases putting tribes and ethnicities under a single national tent that were immemorial enemies. There was a Turkish Parliament, but it was disbanded by the Sultan Abdul Hamid during his reign(1876-1909). The Parliament’s makeup did not reflect the rank and file of Ottoman life.

The Anti-Semitism of the British embassy and it’s colorful reports to London impacted the British attitudes and actions in the Ottoman Empire for many years to come. Instead of seeing the rise of the Young Turks in the light of enlightenment, they saw it instead cloaked in Jewish adventurism, Latin intrigue, French fervor, and the conspiracy of the freemasons.

And when the Young Turks took control, Britain replaced its ambassador. Although this time instead of being fed a diet of Anti-Semitism, they were given rosey reports full of optimism that was misleading as well. The British Foreign Office was fed on the propagandic beliefs of their men on the spot time and again.

The Young Turks threw away their chance for true federalism by excluding all non-Turks and only allowing a fraction of the Parliament seats to be filled by Arabs. Of the 22 recognized ethnic groups in the Ottoman Empire, only Turks and Arabs held seats; 150 seats were held by Turks, 60 by Arabs. None of the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire identified as Ottoman, an opportunity that the Young Turks blew when they moved to insure the dominance of the Turks within the government. The text also refers to Turkey as not being the homeland of the Turks. Turkestan in the steppes of Central Asia being divided between Russia and China, giving both of them a claim to the leadership of all Turkish speaking peoples, of whom many weren’t of Turkish origin.

Churchill being described as “just losing the adolescence from his face” at the age of thirty-nine when he sought to transition from Home Secretary to First Lord of the Admiralty. Perfect example of the Harumphers holding onto power as the generational change comes to politics, a changing of the guard moment in politics that hits all systems eventually.

Where Woodrow Wilson high ideals clashed with the political realities in Europe, Asia, and America, he doesn’t come off looking so well. He was a President with razor thin margins allowing him to govern on sufferance by his enemies and occasional “friends”. He made America party to the Allies with the public proviso that there would be no secret quid pro quo on the postwar distribution of the spoils, even though he knew such agreements existed. The fall of Russia to the Communists lead to those secret agreements being disgorged into the press. He is attributed an off-the-record quote while aboard ship on his way to the World War One peace conference in 1919: “I am convinced that if this peace is not made on the highest principles of justice, it will b swept away by the peoples of the world in less than a generation. If it is any other sort of peace then I shall want to run away and hide...for there will follow not mere conflict but cataclysm.” Despite his prescience here, he failed to gather a working group to help plan the American stance on the post-war world that had any “real” connection to the world. He filled The Inquiry Group with academicians and a lot of brother-in-law syndrome as opposed to real world strategists with on-the-ground knowledge of what they were dealing with when looking at the Middle East and the actual circumstances within the Ottoman Empire that they were suggesting the dissolution and dismemberment of. This left America and the President with a program that was vague and bound to arouse millennial expectations which once in the hands of politicians would make it virtually certain to disappoint.

I had always accepted the history book version of the American Congress being the rock on which Wilson’s Fourteen Points foundered. Reading this book and seeing the plethora of behind the back, secret agreements that Britain made, sometimes contradictory, with enemies and allies makes one see that the political Britain of that era wasn’t trustworthy in the least sense. She was very much in the business of empire while espousing freedom as a balm for the sting of protectoratism and/or outright domination. They spent much of that era making secret diplomatic agreements and then throwing them away as circumstances showed them a more advantageous prospect.

Fromkin’s characterization of Woodrow Wilson makes me wonder if the President was so naive as to let himself be lead around by the nose by Lloyd George or if he was playing the “aw shucks, I’m just an American in Paris” to give him the position to negotiate the best treaty that he could in the areas of most interest to him. I believe that Wilson wanted this to have been the last war, the last meatgrinder that America ever had to feed her children to for the rest of the world’s peace. I wonder at how sad he would be today that his efforts came to so little when you look at the bloodshed of the 20th century and the way we have kicked off the 21st.

The Domino Theory existed long before it appeared in American foreign policy. The theory was put forth by British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon as early as 1919 though still about the Bolsheviks. The British in the immediate post World War era in the Middle East were facing a number of revolts and revolutions in both their recently acquired possessions and those of long standing: troubles were arousing in Egypt, Afghanistan, Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Persia. Some maybe, possibly could be lain at the feet of the Soviets, but a healthy bit of it is the fault of the British for failing to understand the situation on the ground in each of those countries and provinces, up to and including the British departments of government working at odds with each other, ie: like they did in Arabia where one department was supporting Hussein in the Hejaz with money and material while another was supporting Ibn Saud with same.

The revolts across Central Asia lead to an Emir retaking his family’s traditional power and position. He brought back the Dark Ages in a big way. He reopened a 12th century tower, the Kalyan Minaret, which was the Tower of Death. Condemned criminals were tossed from teh top of the tower to their deaths, though law and order and the way the government was run under him was at his decree. When faced with a choice between that, the Red Army, or Enver Pasha, the Ottoman Young Turk exile, who had been sent there by Russia to quell and pacify the locals ahead of the Red Army, but went over to the Emir to “help” him unify the Turks and throw off the yoke of the Russians. Pasha was only interested in his own power however and ended up drawing more and more power to himself before he found himself at odds with both the Emir and the Russians.

Last Page Sound:
The fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of Turkey; The rise, fall, rise, fall, and rise of Winston Churchill; From lines on a map to nationalism in the Middle East. Good stuff.

Author Assessment:
Absolutely read more by this author.

Editorial Assessment:
Was some repetitiveness chapter to chapter, but overall great stuff.

Knee Jerk Reaction:
instant classic

Dewey Decimal System:

Would recommend to:
genre fans

Errata: ( )
  texascheeseman | Feb 5, 2016 |
This is the single best book to understanding the background to the modern Middle East regarding Israel and Palestine. I have found it referenced in pro-Israeli, anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, and pro-Arab histories and polemics. If there is a book on the Middle East written since 2001, this book is likely in it's bibliography. ( )
  Hae-Yu | Apr 25, 2015 |
The Ottoman Empire was destroyed in WWI, and the attempt to create a structure to govern the area, and to reward the victors, is the matter of this book. Mr. Fromkin has done a good job describing the pitfalls that were dug by the arrangement, but the question arises as to how they could have been avoided. The Wilsonian plan of setting up a set of nation-states seemed to be the best plan for Europe, but the victorious Allies had plans of compensating themselves from the Ottoman territories that was far more on the eighteenth century model.
The inhabitants had some ideas of their own, drawn from the nationalist nineteenth century model, and attempted to modify the peace plan. The resulting collisions are still vibrating today. This book identifies the major players then and the modern still-operating fault-lines. ( )
1 vote DinadansFriend | Jan 28, 2014 |
These are comments, not really a review

What I liked about it:

Big picture view of Western European interests that were influential in creating what we call the Middle East out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey/Middle East/Central Asia). Particularly British, as well as (to a lesser extent) France, Russia/USSR.

My impressions:

Britain's interests were conflicted – they started out wanting to protect the overland path to the Indian Empire from their rivals in Europe & Russia. However, various parts of the empire (India = Simla, Egyptian protectorate, & various factions in London ) had different points of view at different times. Kitchener/Mark Sykes/ David Lloyd George/Winston Churchill are the names I have retained. Alliances & agreements between the Allies changed also.

Britain supported two sons of Sheriff Hussein of Mecca for “rulership” while France supported the Saud family. It’s no wonder there is conflict, as the form of government the region was accustomed to was destroyed, and there was no clear authoritative form of government or monarch to put in its place.

Britain ended up with the biggest “piece of the pie” – Palestine, “Transjordan” (which was part of Palestine), Egypt, Persia (Iran), Iraq (created out of 3 provinces of the empire); France with Lebanon (which started out as part of Palestine) & the Saudi Peninsula, including Mecca. And Turkey gained independence.

By the time World War I was over & treaties & agreements were concluded, Western European governments didn’t have the will or the funds to maintain a presence to control their client states. And the client states didn’t want to be clients, but independent in their own right.

Fromkin draws a parallel between the time it took for Western European government to develop after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire and the time it may take for a "secular" form of government to develop in the Middle East. Stilll chewing on this. ( )
1 vote markon | Oct 16, 2012 |
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"After 'the war to end war' they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a "Peace to end Peace.'"

Archibald Wavell (later Field Marshal Earl Wavell), an officer who served under Allenby in the Palestine campaign, commenting on the treaties bringing the First World War to an end.
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The Middle East, as we know from today's headlines, emerged from decisions made by the Allies during and after the First World War.
Chapter 1
In the late spring of 1912, the graceful yacht Enchantress put out to sea from rainy Genoa for a Mediterranean pleasure cruise—a carefree cruise without itinerary or time-schedule.
Moral claims and wartime promises were the stock-in-trade of those who came to plead a cause.  The texts of the wartime pledges by Allied leaders, and especially by various British government officials, were scrutinized and compare, as indeed they still are by scholars to see whether such pledges could be read in such a way as to be consistent with one another, and as though such pledges had given rights that could be enforced in a court of law.  (Part IX The Tide Goes Out, Chapter 46 Betrayal, pp. 400-401)
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