Thought-provoking historical study of the closing years of the Ottoman Empire and the concurrent rise of the modern Middle East.
McMeekin (History/Bard Coll.; July 1914: Countdown to War, 2013, etc.) observes early on that there’s much more to that story than the smoothly duplicitous diplomacy that makes up the last hour of Lawrence of Arabia and much more than T.E. Lawrence himself. Certainly there is more than the Armenian genocide, horrible though it was. If there’s news in this scholarly treatise, it might be found in the author’s explanation for how that still-controversial event unfolded, an explanation likely to satisfy neither side precisely because it’s evenhanded. Without offering an apology or rationalization, McMeekin describes the exhaustion the Turks felt on fighting a multifront world war, “coming as it did after three years of war against Italy and the Balkan League” and so exhausting Ottoman resources that the military leader who would become Kemal Ataturk instituted the draft for non-Muslims and allowed men up to 55 to enlist. Thriving on untold stories, McMeekin looks at the punctuated collapse of the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe and its momentary successes following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which had the effect of exposing rivalries between the Ottomans and their German allies that almost resulted in war on yet another front. The author also gives a lucid account of the geneses of secular governments in what became Turkey and those of more theocratically or autocratically inclined ones in the neighboring former provinces. A particularly surprising note is the lobbying on the parts of numerous powers, not least the Turks, for postwar U.S. mandates over the Middle East—thwarted only by the fact that “the Americans themselves wanted no part of them.”
Though the book is mostly of specialist interest, it is vigorous and accessible and helps explain some of what’s going on in today’s headlines.