Beyond Lawrence: The First World War in Ottoman Perspective

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 12:10 PM
Washington Room 6 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Mustafa Aksakal, Georgetown University
Nearly a century after it took place, the First World War as experienced in the Middle East has remained largely unknown.  Those who do remember the Ottomans typically think of them as the owners of a peripheral stage on which the main actors were outsiders: Germans declaring jihad, Australians and New Zealanders perishing on the Gallipoli peninsula, Sykes and Picot parceling out the Arab lands (into future Western “mandates”), T.E. Lawrence setting the spark for the so-called Arab Revolt, and Lord Balfour’s letter, pledging British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”  In most histories, the one aspect of the war in which Ottomans themselves played an active role is the Armenian genocide.  These events of the war, however, as significant as they are, have been told episodically, in isolation from each other – without the deeper Ottoman context they deserve.  The so-called Arab revolt, for example, must be read in the context of the famine in Syria, which claimed over half a million lives, rather than the activities of a British provocateur.  The First World War in the Middle East claimed at least two and a half million lives, mostly civilians and – though it is impossible to know for sure – probably many more, perhaps as many as five million.  The material and environmental devastation caused by the war has never been assessed, and the war’s civilian experience has still not been studied in any detail. But even with all the questions still remaining, it is clear that the mayhem and suffering unleashed by the war incinerated the empire’s social fabric.  This paper emphasizes a local history of the war, one in which the Near Eastern theater, the Ottoman state, and the various Ottoman peoples become subjects in their own right.