Hasan Kayalı, Imperial Resilience: The Great War’s End, Ottoman Longevity, and Incidental Nations (University of California Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Hasan Kayalı (HK): Historians widely acknowledge today that the Great War in the Middle East warrants analysis beyond the temporal confines of 1914 to 1918. The book was driven by my conviction that this perspective has nevertheless eluded monographic investigations. The Ottomans’ military conflicts that preceded the Great War, starting as early as 1911, and the concomitant social, political, economic, and geopolitical upheavals have in recent years been increasingly incorporated into broad narratives of a “long war” in the Middle East. On the other hand, despite the recognition that the military conflict that engulfed the world in 1914 continued to convulse the Middle East for another half decade after 1918, this period has received less integrated scrutiny within the “long war” perspective. The general premise of the precipitous dissolution of Europe’s timeworn land empires upon the armistices, on the one hand, and the punishing Ottoman military defeat and ensuing large-scale foreign occupation, on the other, have engendered a conceptual rupture that has befogged a relational ten-year-war frame of analysis. Even as definitive studies, such as those pioneered by Erik Jan Zürcher, have re-appraised the presumption of rupture, the Ottoman successor states have appropriated the post-World War I half-decade for their national histories and thus readily subscribed to the expiration of empire in 1918. In writing Imperial Resilience, I wanted to argue for the endurance of Ottoman imperial institutions, mentalities, and allegiances during the years that followed World War I and preceded the belated peace treaty in 1923. I interrogate over-deterministic explanations of geopolitical outcomes, including the foregone conclusion of the disassociation of Arabs and Turks, by investigating historical contingencies and alternative paths that presented themselves in this epoch.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HK: Studies on nationalisms, World War I, empire-to-nation transitions, and anticolonialism in the Middle East inform the narrative’s backdrop, as the book addresses some of the certitudes that these literatures have reinforced in the histories of the long-war period. Middle East scholarship has long presupposed an inveterate Turkish nationalism while assuming that other nationalisms—foremost Arab nationalism, which has been studied widely and debated rigorously—have crystallized in response. Recent studies on World War I, with new attention to the persecution of religious minorities, have further privileged the notion of the actualization of a Turkish ethnonationalist project undermining the vision of a multi-ethnic empire. Further, the historiography of the Turkish republic has subscribed to an exclusively ethno-nationalist depiction of the anti-colonialist movement in Anatolia premised at the same time on a sharp division between the geopolitical objectives of the Ottoman monarchy and those of the resistance movement. The book explores the grey areas in the scholarly strictures by examining both Istanbul and Ankara’s perceptions of diplomatic developments and by dissecting the evolving discourses on how to salvage the Ottoman patrimony under the contingencies of war, diplomacy, and internal struggles of power. In doing this, the book incorporates the diverse local military struggles and attendant political visions in Syria and Iraq into the mainstream of an anti-colonial struggle aimed at preserving the widest extent possible of the vestiges of empire.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HK: Imperial Resilience is integrally related to my previous work on Ottoman policy in the Arab provinces and Arab-Turkish relations in the aftermath of the 1908 Constitutional Revolution. It is a logical sequel to Arabs and Young Turks (California, 1997), chronologically and thematically. I have generally been interested in complicating nationalist and nation-centric vantages in historical narratives, including interpretations that are shaped more by backward extrapolations of nationhood in the successor states than the growing salience and politicization of nationalism in the late Ottoman empire. My earlier work belonged to a succession of studies, which appraised nationalism among the Arabic speaking peoples of the empire by way of different conceptual approaches and methodologies. The recent book turns the focus to a critical assessment of an inexorable Turkish nationalism bursting forth with Ottoman defeat in 1918 (or alternatively after the Balkan Wars in 1913, or upon the outbreak of the World War in 1914, or with Mustafa Kemal “stepping foot on the soil of Anatolia” in 1919) and harboring a defined and methodically pursued set of ethnocentric geopolitical goals. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HK: Many of us have in mind a cohort of scholars in our discipline and our general field of study when we develop research projects. As a book addressing subjects at the intersection of geopolitical upheaval and world historical transformations that have defined contemporary outlooks and categories in the Middle East, I would hope that the book will be read broadly by the students of the twentieth-century Arab world and Turkey. In addition, I expect that it will have an appeal to historians and social scientists concerned with the empire-to-nation upheavals and transitions. I have tried to write a book accessible to the general reader who is interested in exploring the historical background of contemporary themes that prevalently feature in the media, including the relationship between religion and nation, external versus indigenous agency in the formation of the modern Middle East, neo-Ottomanism, construction of historical memory, and so on. These themes have arisen in the context of systematic projects of regime legitimation and consolidation and such high-profile geopolitical developments as the ISIS political enterprise and civil conflict in Middle Eastern states. As I write these lines, for instance, anti-Arab sentiment in Turkey is on the rise aggravated by Syrian immigration, political malaise, and near economic collapse. I hope the book provides a historical perspective that calls into question the premises of such a nationalist backlash.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

HK: I am engaging in projects at the confluence of my general interest in the empire-to-nation transition in the Middle East and my own family history. This is driven in part by the innate desire to recover the life stories of our forebears. I rationalize that in my case this endeavor neatly dovetails with my broader research interests. The historical profession has increasingly validated the experiences of ordinary people as well as methodologies like oral history. I regret not having pursued projects in this vein before the passage of time made their execution more problematic. I am now grappling with the biographical study a grandfather, who emerged as a public figure from the opportunity spaces of the very post-World War I years that are the focus of Imperial Resilience. His premature death and the dearth of personal papers that remained with the family pose challenges for a humbled historian.

J: How has the research and scholarly landscape in your field evolved during your career? 

HK: Archival research on the very late empire was encumbered well into the 1980s by political sensitivities and the institutional sensibilities of archive administrations, compounded by the practical limitations intrinsic to primary research in the pre-digital era. In the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, for instance, researchers who managed to gain admission after an extended application and vetting process were entitled to a total of only one hundred photocopied pages per major research project. Post-1914 holdings were strictly classified, which did not allow meaningful research on the last Ottoman decade. The easing of these restrictions in more recent decades has been nothing short of revolutionary. Meanwhile, auspiciously for those of us who work on the very late Ottoman empire, the past decade coincided with the centenaries of the momentous events of the 1908-1922 period. Newly catalogued and declassified Ottoman archival holdings have productively informed scholarly works produced on commemorations of these centennials and attendant academic events and projects. Imperial Resilience was the beneficiary of the confluence of declassification and dissemination of bodies of Ottoman documents and their assiduous utilization in the production of secondary works by an increasing number of scholars. While Arabs and Young Turks was a product of the research landscape of the earlier era, Imperial Resilience is the beneficiary of this richer scholarship.


Excerpt from the book (from the Conclusion, pp. 175-81)

Throughout the Great War, the Ottoman government devoted an extraordinary effort to the defense, retention, and regeneration of the Arab provinces, most notably in Greater Syria governed by Cemal Pasha. At the core of these efforts was the restoration of the authority and legitimacy of the empire. Ottoman policy in Syria during the war, informed by the oppressive stringency of Cemal’s enactments, signified a reversion of the center’s post-1913 proclivity to accommodate demands for decentralizing reform. Under the strains of the violence that Syria confronted on both the battlefronts and the home front and the destitution that permeated the society owing to exactions, deprivation, and pestilence, the objective to bolster the legitimacy of the state became unmoored from the increasingly dire realities on the ground and was severely challenged by Sharif Husayn’s revolt in Mecca in 1916. Toward the end of the war, the Ottoman government strove to redeem its authority and explored federative initiatives to reintegrate the empire with the Arab provinces intact. Expanding Allied occupation at the end and in the immediate aftermath of the Great War both complicated these efforts and, paradoxically, revived them as a platform upon which anti-colonial resistance was articulated across the empire by both elite and popular groups motivated by Muslim nationalism.

Just as the accommodation of long-standing Russian aspirations set the stage for the parceling out of the Ottoman imperium, Bolshevik Russia’s precipitate withdrawal from the war after the October Revolution in 1917 muddled the very project. The truce with Russia was followed by the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with its favorable terms for the Ottoman Empire, including the restitution of large swaths of occupied territory in eastern Anatolia and the abandonment of the Russian quest for Istanbul. Peace with Bolshevik Russia gave a new lease on life to the Ottomans in the last year of the war and strengthened the prospects for the state’s survival in tandem with a rejuvenation of the Central Powers’ war effort in Europe. By the fall of 1918, however, the tide had turned against the Central Powers everywhere and forced them to negotiate for peace.

The path to the relinquishment of arms in October and November 1918, the “pre-Armistice agreement” and the armistices themselves, was paved by rhetoric to uphold the Wilsonian principles, which both resonated and vied with Lenin’s formal denunciation of imperialism. Istanbul’s appeals to the Wilsonian imperatives in its quest for peace would not find a sympathetic ear among the victors of the war. The Armistice of Mudros, negotiated and signed at the end of October 1918, was not predicated on the letter or the spirit of the Fourteen Points. It validated Allied military control of Ottoman territories that Britain and France had partitioned by secret treaty. Its provisions also included loopholes to expand the occupation and ensure the pursuit of territorial war aims not achieved in their entirety at the time of the signing. The Allies immediately took action to achieve these objectives, effectively nullifying the agreement and undermining the sovereignty of the Ottoman state. Their actions plunged the Middle East into renewed armed conflict, extending the warfare and mobilizing the Ottomans into a new phase of the struggle aimed at salvaging the state and redeeming territorial losses. In subsequent years, histories erroneously consecrated the Mudros cease-fire as having deliberately effected a separation of Turkish and Arab ethnonational populations.

Armed conflict remained endemic in the Middle East in the absence of a formal peace agreement. Allied military occupation expanded into different regions throughout the empire, the armistice notwithstanding. The resistance to occupation forces was local and isolated at first but became increasingly coordinated. Sequestered contingents of Ottoman forces continued the fighting in the Arabian periphery in Medina and Yemen. Once the utility of wartime alliances with local powerholders became moot, Britain left the Arabian Peninsula to the vagaries of internecine contestation, most significantly between Ibn Sa‘ud in Najd and the Hashemites. As a more unified political and military movement consolidated in Ankara, communal groups, including Circassians, Kurds, and Albanians, incited rebellions, jostling for power and influence in the wake of the seismic changes brought about by the events of 1914–1918. In the Caucasus, remnants of the Ottoman army under the command of Kazım Karabekir Pasha skirmished with forces of the Armenian Republic over contested Kars and its vicinity. Popular groups in Syria challenged Faysal’s attempt in Damascus to consolidate his authority under British auspices.

What is today known as the Turkish national movement (or the Turkish struggle for independence) developed as a series of local militia movements driven by the imperative to preserve the political rights of the Muslims. The “societies for the defense of rights,” which directed the local resistance movements, grew directly out of the local branches of the CUP. After the Greek occupation of Izmir and its environs in May 1919, these organizations coalesced on the regional level in a series of congresses. Even though the top leaders of the CUP had gone into exile, the secondary cadres of the Committee took the helm of the resistance movements availing of existing organizational structures in the provinces. As the local committees of defense became coordinated regionally, they articulated broader objectives for the resistance movement….

Clusters of resistance in the Anatolia-Syria-Mesopotamia nexus subscribed to a reconceptualized Ottomanism, namely a Muslim civic ideal. The resonance of an Ottomanism that accommodated the empire’s diverse religious groups had progressively weakened with the diminution of the numerical strength of the Christians. It received a fatal blow with the Armenian Genocide in the early years of the war. The understanding of the Ottoman political community as a civic Muslim one informed the re-integrationist policy of the CUP during the Great War. This concept of state and community prevailed in the immediate wake of the war, even as new governmental structures that impinged on the sultan-caliph’s sovereignty came into existence. The post-defeat vulnerability of the empire and the Allies’ support of the Armenians who survived the war to reclaim their domiciles and property further hardened the attitudes against the Christians. The Greek occupation of Izmir in 1919 in a manifestation of a clientage relationship between enemy powers and Ottoman Christians only exacerbated the anti-Christian sentiments. The project of setting up ethno-religious political entities at the Treaty of Sèvres heightened the existential concerns of the majority Muslims. The anti-colonial forces in Anatolia, northern Syria, and northern Mesopotamia maintained contact, collaborated, and kept alive the possibility of confederation.

The Kemalist leadership was motivated by the same consideration that had motivated Ottoman governments since the onset of military reverses, namely the preservation of the maximum extent of the empire’s territory. Wielding military force and motivated by state patriotism, the Kemalists reversed the dictates of the Treaty of Sèvres with military victories and diplomatic acts to preserve a geopolitically and economically viable state that included some of the contested territories at the Anatolia-Syria frontier. The territorial gains were demarcated in the south by the railway line that had been built by the Germans, was now shared with France, and would subsequently be touted as circumscribing lands inhabited by Turks. The determination of the new border in northern Mesopotamia proved to be more protracted and contested. A swath of land that Mustafa Kemal identified in 1919 as unalienable, reaching deep into the Euphrates basin down to Dayr al-Zur and east to Sulaymaniya, remained within the Syria and Iraq mandates. This region and the lands to its south, the political future of which the Kemalists had declared to be contingent on the will of the inhabitants as to be determined by their free vote, came to be included in the mandates without plebiscitary procedures, except spurious exercises in Iraq in 1919 and 1921.

The territorial boundaries of the rump Ottoman state remained fluid and subject to the contestations of international diplomacy. The Kemalist quest to reintegrate the domains of the imperial state continued until the consummation of the two armistice agreements with a peace treaty at Lausanne in 1923—considered an honorable settlement in that it reversed the disastrous terms of the rejected Treaty of Sèvres. The Treaty of Lausanne solidified the southeastern boundary that had been agreed upon in the Ankara accord with France in 1921 as a tactical concession. The resolution of the state borders and the consolidation of political power in the hands of Mustafa Kemal and his associates were mutually dependent. Having acquired authority and prestige owing to successes on the battlefield and the conference table, Kemal avoided further military entanglements as he sought to institutionalize his powers. The borders in the Anatolia-Syria-Mesopotamia nexus ensued from the vagaries of war, diplomacy and contestation for economic advantage, with scant regard to geography or ethno-national identity. They unfolded as accomplished facts or remained as unfinished projects with a destabilizing effect in the region for decades to come.