Jones on Rogan, 'The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East'

Author: 
Eugene Rogan
Reviewer: 
Kevin Jones

Eugene Rogan. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. New York: Basic Books, 2015. 512 pp. $32.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-02307-3.

Reviewed by Kevin Jones (University of Georgia) Published on H-Empire (September, 2017) Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

In The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, Eugene Rogan offers a sweeping overview of the Middle Eastern theater of World War I. Drawing upon published and unpublished documents in Turkish, Arabic, English, and French, Rogan constructs a historical narrative of the war that promises to “restore the Ottoman front to its rightful place in the history of both the Great War and the modern Middle East” (p. xvii). To accomplish this objective, Rogan devotes considerable attention to documenting the lived experience of war from the vantage point of ordinary soldiers fighting both for and against the Ottoman Empire. This commitment to documenting and analyzing the war from below is supplemented by the author’s careful attention to the political motivations of all relevant actors in the conflict, a project made possible only by the author’s impressive command of multiple languages and exhaustive analysis of historical archives and memoirs. The Fall of the Ottomans is a rare example of historical scholarship that successfully delivers on its promise to simultaneously provide a more informative and more readable narrative of a popular historical event that is relatively accessible to a mass audience and to advance the historical knowledge of specialists by drawing upon new historical sources and archival evidence. 

Rogan’s historical project in The Fall of the Ottomans is driven by three overarching and interlinked thematic inquiries. First, the historical scope of Rogan’s narrative emphasizes the necessity of understanding particular episodes of the Middle Eastern theater of war in broader historical context. Second, Rogan’s pervasive attention to the exaggerated significance accorded to the Ottoman call to jihad by virtually all interested parties—Turkish, German, British, and French—underscores the extent to which the political alliances forged during World War I were shaped by the global dynamics of empire and imperial uncertainty about the nature of religious, national, and imperial identities thrown into flux by the onset of modernity in the Middle East. Third, the consistent emphasis of Ottoman military tenacity and the gravity of Ottoman victories at Gallipoli and Kut highlight the historical relevance of the military conflict in the Middle East. Somewhat contrary to popular perception, the Ottoman Empire did not suffer total defeat in the war, and the Middle Eastern theater of war was not a marginal sideshow to the conflict in Europe. Taken collectively, Rogan’s approach to the conflict enables him to construct an historical narrative that offers the reader a more comprehensive and sophisticated understanding of the war than more specialized accounts of particular aspects of the war in the Middle East. 

The strength of Rogan’s historical approach to the Ottoman experience of World War I is evident in his account of the Armenian Genocide. While his account of the massacres adds little to the robust historical literature on the subject, Rogan’s telling of the story provides substantive evidence of his narrative abilities as well as his ability to successfully traverse the delicate ground of explaining historical controversy from multiple angles without falling into the trap of moral equivalence. Rogan carefully and sympathetically documents the Young Turk regime’s efforts to reach a political agreement with its Armenian subjects (p. 105), notes the widespread approval of “population exchanges” as “ethnic cleansing with an international seal of approval” (p. 163), and acknowledges the gravity of Armenian nationalist collaboration with foreign enemies at an historical moment when the Ottoman Empire faced a three-pronged invasion of its territory (pp. 164-165), but he does not allow such contextual considerations to transform an explanation of the Young Turks’ annihilation of the Ottoman Armenian population into a justification of these “crimes against humanity” (p. 184). Rogan’s emotional documentation of the Armenian massacres—recounted largely through the memoirs of the Armenian priest Grigoris Balakian—simultaneously underscores the overarching sympathy for civilian populations caught up in the tragedy of war that shapes his historical narrative and confirms his personal commitment to rebuking the official commitment of the Turkish government to denying or downplaying the complicity of the Ottoman government in the genocide.[1] His discussion of the postwar Ottoman military tribunals that thoroughly documented the Young Turks’ direct complicity in the annihilation of the Ottoman Armenians further gives the lie to contemporary efforts to deny or downplay such a link (pp. 387-389).

Similarly, while Middle East specialists might feel inclined to gloss over Rogan’s account of the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence and the Arab Revolt, given the fact that the story has been told many times and Rogan does not draw upon any particularly groundbreaking new evidence, the narrative framework constructed by Rogan actually helps to facilitate a new reading of the events. Frequently dismissed as evidence of British subterfuge and the bad-faith dealings of colonialism, Rogan’s telling emphasizes the British desperation to strike a deal with Sharif Husayn on leading an Arab rebellion against Ottoman authority in the aftermath of the Gallipoli disaster and in light of the pervasive British fears about the capacity of the Ottoman jihadto undermine the imperial loyalties of Britain’s Muslim subjects in India and Egypt (pp. 282-285). If anything, Britain comes out looking even worse than usual in Rogan’s account; by emphasizing both the military and political value of a Hashemite alliance to British military planners and civilian politicians, Rogan magnifies the colonial duplicity in the willingness of those same authorities to deliberately obscure the nature of Britain’s promises to the Arab in vague language and later to casually abandon the general spirit of the agreement. In this telling of the story, Rogan subtly challenges recent historical accounts that diminish the entire episode as a marginal contribution to the war effort and underscores the general nature of his contribution to history in The Fall of the Ottomans. Rogan’s commitment to telling the story of the war from so many different angles and vantage points allows the reader to understand particular episodes of the Middle Eastern theater as greater than the sum of their respective parts. 

Given the relative proximity of publication, it is impossible to avoid comparing the relative merits of The Fall of the Ottomans and Leila Fawaz’s A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War.[2] The fundamental difference in the scope of the two books is indicated by the inverted subtitles; where Fawaz constructs a social history of the Middle East in the WWI era, Rogan reconstructs the military history of the First World War in the Middle Eastern theater. The Fall of the Ottomans instantly becomes the definitive military chronicle of the war in the Middle East, as Rogan’s tremendous historical achievement is evident at the both narrative and scholarly levels. No other historical text has so thoroughly documented the political calculations and military maneuvers of the war from so many different angles—British, Anzac, Ottoman, Arab, and Armenian. Perhaps more importantly, the breadth of historical scholarship that shapes Rogan’s narrative is supplemented by his keen attention to documenting the lived experiences of the war from the perspective of soldiers. This commitment to presenting the war from below where possible makes The Fall of the Ottomans perhaps one of the few notable military histories in recent memory to adequately reflect the contemporary evolution of scholarly approaches to writing history. The book nonetheless remains a product of its genre, and both instructors and readers who find themselves bored by detailed descriptions of military battles will undoubtedly gravitate toward A Land of Aching Hearts for a richer description of how the war reshaped Arab society and identity.

While there is no questioning Rogan’s impressive narrative abilities and authoritative command of historical sources in four different languages, The Fall of the Ottomans is not without its flaws. While one might note with some concern the relative absence of women in the text, this oversight is quite simply a reflection of the genre limitations of military history. Given his attention to the surprising Anzac claims about Ottoman women snipers in the Gallipoli campaign (pp. 192-193) and gendered dimensions of the Armenian genocide (pp. 177-182), it is reasonably clear that Rogan has endeavored to make the best of source limitations about women in the war. Somewhat less understandable is the relative marginalization of the war experience of the Indian, Egyptian, North African, and Senegalese soldiers deployed to the Middle Eastern theater. To be sure, Rogan has drawn attention to the presence of Muslim and Hindus soldiers in the colonial regiments of the Entente powers, particularly with respect to Ottoman and German hopes and British and French fears of the capacity of the sultan’s call for jihad to undermine imperial loyalties and provoke military defections and anticolonial rebellions. Given his painstaking efforts to reconstruct the war experiences of Anzac soldiers in the Middle East, however, it is at least somewhat disappointing that Rogan chooses not to afford the same level of attention to the experience of other ethnic groups involved in the conflict.[3] Rogan’s narrative also occasionally seems to convey the language and perspective of his colonial sources without sufficient critical interrogation. This problem is most apparent in his discussion of Sanussi resistance to the Italian occupation of Libya, which Rogan frames as the Ottoman promotion of “religious extremism” on the Libyan frontier (p. 238). While this description might be dismissed as a simple lapse of linguistic rigor in the author’s otherwise exemplary commitment to conveying diverse war experiences on their own terms, it does at least seem notable that Ibn Saud’s movement in alliance with Britain is never described in similar terms.

None of these criticisms should detract from the inherent value of The Fall of the Ottomans as an historical text. Together with Fawaz’s social history of the war in A Land of Aching Hearts and David Fromkin’s political history of the war in A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, Rogan’s military history of World War I in the Middle East immediately becomes essential reading for regional specialists and graduate students.[4] Given the inevitable considerations of length and level of historical detail, the book is unfortunately probably not appropriate for undergraduate courses, with the exception of advanced seminar courses.

Notes

[1]. Rogan makes his political stance on the applicability of the term “genocide” to the Armenian massacres of 1915-16 explicit in a footnote (17) on pp. 424-425.

[2]. Leila Fawaz, A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[3]. Fawaz’s attention to the experience of South Asian soldiers in the war attests that such a project is possible. See Fawaz, A Land of Aching Hearts, 205-232.

[4]. David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York: Owl Books, 1989).

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Citation: Kevin Jones. Review of Rogan, Eugene, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46351

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