How Nationalism Resulted in the Ottoman Collapse

Countries disappeared and countries were created. But how did nationalism affect the Ottoman Empire?

What is nationalism?

There are many events in recent times you could link with the creation of nationstates. The beginning of the French Revolution, World War I, World War II and the post-war period where the dismantling of the colonies happened. Early 90s with the dismantling of the Soviet Union, liberating many countries putting their nation on top. All new nations that come up due to a very slow process that manifests in the creation of governments and the willingness for creating your own state. Some say this process is insufficient today but if we look at the 19th century.

We see that some pieces of the world are divided into nation states. South, Central and North America for example already had a good amount of nationstates. The Empire of Brazil for example or Argentina, Ecuador etc. But the rest was a patchwork of empires: Russian empire, Ottoman empire, Chinese empire etc. These old empires coexisted with new colonial empires. France and UK had been building huge colonial empires. So in the 19th century, the people lived under either an old or a new realm. Political units that have existed for a long time. Others are only a few decades old. But fascinating, almost all empires disappeared in the course of the 20th century. These political systems that existed for centuries will crumble altogether. Thus the history of the contemporary period is also the history of transformation from a world of empires — to a world of nations.

But what is nationalism? To understand this, it is important to know what makes a country, a nation. A nation is a group of people with the same ethnicity, language, religion etc. It tries to find the very thing that unifies a group in society. So nationalism basically is an extensive political system. So the biggest difference between the empires before the creation of nationalist states and the new realm is that in a nation state there is a homogeneity on paper. 1 people, 1 community, 1 language united over an area. But the old realms, the empires, have an overarching political system covering diverse languages and cultures. United over 1 common umbrella organisation. The head of that empire is often an autocratic emperor. While a nation state has a government representing the people. Thus in an empire there is no need for uniformity in governance. There is a hierarchy and diversity between communities. The different inhabitants of an empire do not have the same rights and duties with the central authority as others. In a nation state, in theory, everyone no matter what social class, has the same position. Because everyone shares the same cultural values which already is the key.

Dismantling of the Ottoman Empire

But nationalism can cause the dismantling of countries. To explain how this happens, it is evident to look into one inquisitive example. One dismantling of an empire that immediately comes to mind, is that of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire will go through various political changes through a period of great doubts. That is an immediate consequence of the Double Revolution. Through millennia, various exchanges and contacts throughout the Mediterranean areas would happen. Relations between north and south east shores of the Mediterranean are going to take a different turn in the double revolution. The rising power through capitalism and colonial expansion forces Middle Eastern to respond to the means of the Western World. To keep up with the global world, the Middle East had to adapt. Economic, cultural and political changes were thus salient in the Ottoman Empire. The fact that Europe is getting richer and more powerful brought two more dangers to the ottoman empire. Firstly European Colonial Expansion: Other Empires like Mughal Empire, had already disappeared as a result of the British Empire’s military power. It was only a matter of time before the Europeans would attempt to take over their territories. Secondly, since the existence of many cultural exchanges. The new European concepts of power and politics that are beginning to develop are having an impact on the Middle East. Liberalism, nationalism etc. are starting to spread. Therefore a new important question emerged: should they also adapt? Should they follow their example? If so, in what form? It is a question of, to what extent, their governance has to change in societies in order to realise the ideologies. Lastly there was a big economic problem, huge technological progress of the Europeans cannot be followed up by the ottoman economy. Growing economic inequality grew immensly between industrialised Europe and artisanal slow Ottoman Empire.

These dangers led to the emergence of struggles and rumours within the Ottoman Empire. This raised questions such as, should the Ottoman Empire be industrialised? should the principle of liberalism be applied? What would it mean for the place of religion in society? Some kind of form of nationalist policy must be pursued.

But the Ottoman Empire originated from Anatolia, North Africa etc. with diverse languages ​​and cultures. So applying nationalism here, how does that work? There was no way to unify properly. So how does this affect the Ottoman Empire in the long turn? As said, dismantling will happen. Late 19th and early 20th century, Ottoman Empire loses its territories more and more. They also started a war with the Russian Empire. Eventually the Peace of Berlin leads to the recognition of four new independent states that were former Ottoman territories: Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia etc. More famous was the defeat of Ottoman army and withdrawal of its territory in the Peloponnese region, meaning the start of the new independent state of Greece. Just before the First World War, several wars had also taken place in the Balkans and lead to the loss by the Ottomans of the rest of the European provinces around the city of Istanbul. Ottoman Empire was shrinking tremendously.

There was also a huge discussion about the association of different religious communities. European powers will feel responsible for the Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire. French say that they are guarantor for Catholics and Maronites. And the British felt the same but about the Jews and the Druze. There was thus major interference of powerful European powers within the Ottoman Empire. Another major problem is the economic slowdown due to Western Europe. The Ottoman Empire wanted to adapt to European rising power, they wanted to remain in economic competition with Europe and wanted to set up a more modern administrative system. These processes of industrialisating economy aquired a lot of investment. But they did not have the resources for such policies.

The Ottoman government needed money and requested various loans from European banks. The problem is they were going to take a lot of money in credit. 16 different loans signed with European banks were present between 1855 and 1875 but the Ottomans were quickly unable to repay the debts. They declared bankruptcy in 1875. A real catastrophe. It led to an agreement in 1881 and to the foundation of Ottoman war debt. Representatives of debt irons like the UK, Netherlands, Italy, France, Austria-Hungary got complete overview of the Ottoman economy. They could charge taxes for Ottoman debts. They had complete control and would therefore do everything to open the economy to national companies. It resulted in a greater dependence to european powers and a growing interference from european powers.

Nationalism then caused the start of the great Tanzimat, a set of reforms. They were an epitome of ottoman authority. The Ottomans wanted to modernise the empire to guarantee its sovereignty. They hope by modernising the political system that it would lead to legitimisation of power and sovereignty of the realm of neighbours and as a result, aqruiring more respect from European powers. We call this the time of the tanzimat or reordering.

During this period, the Ottoman Empire became a constitutional monarchy. It had taken a form of liberal politics. Torture became illegal, ottoman laws were codefied on the basis of liberal countries’ legislative patterns, process of rationalisation of administration and civil service. In order to set up this modern administration, civil servants had to be trained. That was done by schools that teached liberal European values. All inspired by European schools for training new modern bureaucrats. The students became the new administrative elites of the empire. They were also recognisable by the clothing, most of them wore a red hat that would become a symbol of that period. They were called the Young Turks.

The tanzimat was a slow process and led to an Ottoman constitution in 1876, giving access to a section of Ottoman men to citisenship. Well-to-do men who paid some level of taxes could participate in the elections. But there was a big difference between expanding liberal rights in the Ottoman Empire because it involved a change of status for Christian and Jewish minorities. First time in history of the Ottoman Empire, civil equality would exist between the Jews, Christians and Muslims. For centuries those minorities had coexisted in peace with the Muslims. They were important because they share books with Islam. They are considered people to be protected by the sultan. They certainly had a better social condition than the non-Christian middle classes. But the biggest difference between Muslims and non-Muslims was that non-Muslims had to pay extra taxes. A way of guaranteeing a free and peaceful life. Civil equality between different religions was a political strategy to avoid the interference of European powers in the domestic empire. The Ottoman said that everyone is equal but not readily accepted by various groups: anti-christian riots destroying schools, killing people etc. The ottoman constitution remained in place for two years. Later suspended by sultan who regained his position as absolute monarch.

The Young Turkish Revolution

This suspension of the constitution would cause tensions. As mentioned earlier, there was a new social political player in the Ottoman, late 19th century drama. the so-called young Turks. They belonged to the new social category of bureaucrats and can also be found as younger officers. They stand for westernisation and secularisation of Ottoman society. They caused the 1908, young Turkish revolution. They would unite their battalions and threatened the sultan to restore the constitution of 1878, else there would be a coup d’état. So that was exactly what he did to prevent that from happening. The constitution was amended in 1909. Several changes, would get adapted by the Ottoman Empire for a multi-party system. Creation of compulsory military service, westernisation of military pattern and organisation, relative freedom of press, more place for women in the public sphere through the foundation of various female associations.

But the period was also a period that the Ottoman Empire kept losing more territories. It became clear to the young Turks that the heart is rich in Anatolia. They would carry out a policy of Turkification. In that period, the multicultural period takes more the form of a Turkish nation-state. More centralised in Istanbul. This is were the damage of nationalism is visible. Turkish became the only tolerated language in the government, which was an issue for the Arab speakers.

When World War I started, they originally hoped that they could stay out of the war. But on November 1914, they had no choice but to form alliance with Austria-Hungary and the German Empire. Germany was continental Europe’s largest power. They had no geo-political interest in the Ottoman Empire, so they were ideal allies. They could worship war materials and advisers. But what happened in the East of Anatolia? The region was a wide area divided between the Ottoman and Russian Empire. Christian minorities could live there in peace for years. Time of warfare was a time of constant changes of ground lines. It was a time of rising nationalism and ethno-nationalism. In this area of ​​eastern Anatolia, people would offer constant help. Muslim Russians offered help to the Ottoman Empire and vice versa, Turkish Christians to the Russian Empire. Some volunteers of Ottoman origin joined forces to fight against Russia. It led to a declaration of an Armenian republic.

This situation caused a violent response from the young Turkish government. 100 Armenians were arrested and executed. 600,000 people died during this conflict due to genocide. This revenge by the young Turkish government also gave answers from the Armenians who were taking revenge. What we see happening to the Ottoman Empire is a form of ethno-nationalist tensions during the First World War. Violent dissolution of peaceful life between minorities and Muslims. These victims were 100,000 Christians who wanted to live in peace. The situation on October 1918, the military defeat caused a collapse of the Ottoman army. Ottomans had no control over the Arabian peninsula for the first time. Leading to a new geo-political agreement between victorious nations of triple entente, grafted UK, France, Russia and these three will divide the former territory into 3 spheres of influence respectively. Russia was in control of Istanbul, Anatolia, Silicia and Syria, British had Control of International Administration in Bakdat and Palastine . Thus ironically, the growing importance of “Turkish Idenity” led to the collapse of the 600 year old Empire.


In the Ottoman Empire, various cultures, with various languages and faiths could live together for centuries. From the taking over of Constantinople, to the beginning of its period of nationalism. The double revolution meant that the ottoman empire had to reform itself in order to go along with the europeans. There was a greater emphasis on identity, but minorities were also given some rights that they did not have before. But when the Young Turks came up, we saw how nationalism completely ruined the empire. Internal conflicts started, for example, with the minorities working together with the Allies, leaving them out of control both within their own regions and outside their own regions.


By Yaron

History for me is more than just a passion, it's a way of understanding mankind.

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