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Sean McMeekin
Russia, Turkey, and the First World War

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The First World War is still alive in Turkey, in a way it has not been in Europe for decades. To the extent most westerners think about the conflict, they tend to follow what we might call the “European Union” narrative, chalking it up to outmoded militarism (mostly Germanic), which produced a senseless Civil War between European nations who learned to live in peace only after an even more terrible rerun from 1939-1945. By contrast, in Turkey as across the Greater Middle East, World War I is remembered as something like a deliberate western plot to dismember the Ottoman Empire, the last great Islamic power on earth. One does not have to credit the wilder conspiracy theories to see an important grain of truth here. The war in Europe began in 1914: but Turkey had been fighting since Italy invaded Ottoman Tripoli in 1911. In 1912, the Balkan League, egged on by Russian pan-Slavists, piggybacked on this war by invading Turkey’s European provinces. The Balkan Wars lit a fire under Serbian irredentism, which produced the Sarajevo incident of 1914. The Ottoman war did not end in 1918, either, but in 1923, when Turkey won her independence in the Treaty of Lausanne (this treaty, not Versailles, is the one Turks remember).

Viewed through a Turkish lens, the First World War of 1914-1918 begins to look more like “The War of the Ottoman Succession, 1911-1923.” To students of the war who remember trench warfare in Flanders, this might seem far-fetched. But the Ottoman angle, I discovered through years of archival research, helps explain the European conflict as well. The key to the puzzle is Tsarist Russia, and her increasingly desperate aim of preserving access to the Ottoman Straits, which came under mortal threat in 1912, 1913 – and 1914. Only if we appreciate the dire strategic geography of the Eastern Question can we understand how the Sarajevo incident produced the most terrible war the world had ever seen – a war which was building towards a climax in 1917, when Russia, having already conquered much of eastern Turkey, finally launched her long-awaited amphibious assault on Constantinople…

Time: 11:50 am

Location: RKC 200