Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Monarch Profile: Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey
That being said, Sultan Abdul Hamid II was willing to work with the “Young Ottomans” toward some measure of constitutional government. He could see that some sort of changes were needed as the Ottoman Empire was being left far behind by the other powers in industry and technological advancement. It was also a precarious time for the empire since the sympathy of the Christian empires that manifested itself in Britain and France aiding the Turks against Russia in the Crimean War had evaporated after the brutal suppression of a number of Christian uprisings in the Balkans. The pacification of Bulgaria had been particularly heinous with 58 villages burned, 5 monasteries destroyed and 15,000 Bulgarian civilians massacred. Imperial Russia was moving to take retribution for this and, this time around, none of the other European powers would be offering any help. The British were concerned about Russian expansion, but the actions of the Turks had made any assistance to them impossible. Constitutional talk was put on hold as the Russian Czar declared war on the Ottoman Empire on April 24, 1877.
During the settling of affairs in the Balkans, an international conference assembled in Berlin demanded that Ottoman authorities grant greater rights to minorities within the empire. Sultan Abdul Hamid II agreed to this as a matter of necessity in the crisis of the time but was reluctant to follow through with the promises made. He saw, not unrealistically, that such changes could result in the unraveling of the Ottoman Empire entirely. This first proved true with the subject population of Armenian Christians. When they demanded the rights that had been promised to them, Sultan Abdul Hamid II tried to thwart them by playing off the two minority groups against each other; the Kurds and the Armenians. The Kurdish forces unleashed havoc on the Armenians and the Armenians responded by forming revolutionary organizations but, seeing through the Kurds, aimed at the Sultan who was supporting them. In the effort to suppress these revolutionary forces, some 300,000 Armenians were massacred and the outraged west dubbed Abdul Hamid II the “Bloody Sultan”. It also resulted in an Armenian assassination attempt on the Sultan, however, a delay caused the car bomb to explode before he arrived and so he survived though 30 bystanders were killed and 54 wounded.
However, Sultan Abdul Hamid II was a more complicated figure than that. He could see as well as anyone that the Ottoman Empire had been left behind by the other major powers. They were more stable, more prosperous, more militarily powerful and more technologically advanced. He wanted to revive the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire and so he did encourage greater education and more industrialization. Yet, this also went hand in hand with strictly limiting what could be taught to Ottoman students, what they could study and what they could read. To keep the empire together, the Sultan resorted to harsh repressive measures, particularly against Christian populations such as the Bulgarians. Yet, a long period of economic mismanagement also meant that the Sultan had no choice but to basically hand control over Ottoman finances to (Christian) foreign powers. His decisions laid the foundation for the progress Turkey was to make in the years to come, particularly with the German-backed spread of the railroad network. However, his fear of dissent also caused him to stagnate the navy which would have dire consequences in the future war with Italy over the provinces now known as Libya.
It is worth noting that the Ottoman Empire, which had stood for centuries over the crossroads of three continents, swiftly collapsed under the administration of the Young Turks. However, it was largely under Abdul Hamid II that the stage was set for that downfall. The suppression of the Slavic Christians alienated the Great Powers of Europe so that, ultimately, only Germany and Austria-Hungary remained as supporters (Bulgaria was on the same side but obviously was not inclined to be helpful) and internal suppression led to the rise of the Young Turks. The loss of territory naturally prompted a desire to see the Ottoman Empire restored to its former size but this led to an overreaching in World War I that brought about the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and its final dismemberment. Having lost the European provinces, during the war the Arabs finally rose up in revolt as well and the Ottoman Empire was doomed.