It has been argued that the Ottomans entered the First World War because they believed an alliance with one of the major powers would end their isolation, which had been highlighted by the Balkan war. They were willing to accept any alliance rather than continued isolation since they were certain that this would destroy the Ottoman Empire.
The alliance offered a form of protection against their traditional enemy Russia. The Ottomans feared that if Russia won the war it would take Istanbul, but this defensive alliance would mean that Germany would protect Ottoman territory. The Ottoman Minister of war, Enver Pasha, explained to Wangenheim, the German ambassador, on 22nd July 1914, that the domestic reforms designed by the Young Turks could not be accomplished unless the Ottoman Empire were secured against attacks from abroad and had the support of one of the groups of Great Powers.
Despite this, the majority of the government wanted to remain neutral, at least until it was clear which side would win. It was a minority, led by Enver Pasha, that thought it perilous to delay. They, like almost everyone, anticipated a quick end to the war, but thought that neutrality might not save them from harm in a European Peace Settlement. They were afraid that they did not enter the war they would be excluded from the peace negotiations and Turkey would be partitioned.
Enver’s decision to enter the war would therefore appear to be based on “calculations of Ottoman self-interest” even though he personally admired Germany and was impressed by her army. Nevertheless, Enver was far too confident that Germany would win the war; this was a serious miscalculation.
The Ottomans may have made this miscalculation, firstly, because they over-estimated the strength of Germany and its allies - at that time the Germans were seen as stronger then any other Major Power in military terms - and secondly, because the they were unaware of Germany’s plans. Zurcher argues that they did not know that German strategic planning was dependent on first removing from the equation Russia’s ally France, by using an enveloping movement through Belgium. Such a plan would inevitably bring Britain as well as France into the war. It is plausible that the Ottomans expected the war to be with Russia alone, and if that were the case, they would be justified in expecting Germany and Austria to win.
In turn, if Russia was defeated, the Ottomans could make both territorial gains, in the Caucasus and the Balkans, and legal gains, by securing the abolition of the capitulations (grants or treaties establishing a system or extraterritorial jurisdiction and tariff limitation in the Ottoman Empire). Karsh describes the Ottoman decision to enter the First World War as a supremely reckless gamble by headstrong young rulers engaged in "an imperialist bid for territorial expansion and restoration of lost glory."
Germany, alone, was willing to sign an agreement with the Ottomans as equal partners. This would really have influenced the Ottoman decision to go to war because they had been trying to liberate the country from its semi-colonial status and entering the war would give them credibility. In fact, the Porte (central governmental apparatus in Istanbul) had made alliance proposals to members of the Entente but they were refused. It has been argued that because the majority of Ottoman ministers had wanted to remain neutral, if Britain or France had made more of an effort to keep the Ottomans out of the war, this majority may have prevailed.
Yapp gives two reasons why the entente did not try harder to keep the Ottomans neutral. Firstly, because they believed that the Ottoman participation would not really affect the issue, they underestimated the contribution the Ottomans would make. They were more concerned with securing Italy’s support as they saw it potentially as a much more valuable ally. Secondly, the British Foreign Office thought that the Ottoman decision would be made by the progress of the war, when they could see who would win. This was true to some extent; there was more support among Ottomans for the German-Ottoman alliance after Germany’s initial successes in the early months of the war.
In conclusion, it is clear that the financial crisis of the Ottomans and the psychological effect that the Balkan war had on them meant that they were afraid of the consequences of Russia winning the war, of being isolated and being excluded from a peace settlement. An alliance with a major power, regardless of which power this was, was seen as a way of protecting themselves from the possible consequences of war. They formed an alliance with Germany because it was the Germans alone who were willing to sign an agreement with them as equal powers; the entente was simply not interested. Far from having been dictated by Berlin, the Ottomans believed that the Germans would win and bring them territorial and legal gains and in this way they would regain their lost credibility - a miscalculation that led to “the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and to the emergence of an entirely new political structure in the region” and so was “the single most important event in the history of the modern Near East”.
by Harvard University Press. 409 pp. $29.95CommentaryJanuary 2000
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Let me draw attention to three points where their researches are of particular significance. First, why did the Ottomans decide-disastrously, as it turned out-to enter World War I on the German side? In the consensus view, this resulted from (in the phrasing of the historian Howard M. Sachar) a "stupendous" coup by Berlin, which pulled the wool over the eyes of the credulous Ottomans. The Karshes find this exactly wrong; they show how Ottoman leaders initiated talks with Germany to explore an alliance, and document the lukewarm reception accorded to these addresses by many German officials. It was also "by far the most important decision in the history of the modern Middle East," leading as it soon did to the fall of the empire and the emergence of the strife-filled order that still prevails today.
Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923
Malcolm Yapp The Making of the Modern Near East