[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Empire]: Jones on Rogan, 'The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Tue Sep 26 21:44:52 MDT 2017

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Tue, Sep 26, 2017 at 10:20 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Empire]: Jones on Rogan, 'The Fall of the
Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East'
To: H-REVIEW at h-net.msu.edu

Eugene Rogan.  The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle
East.  New York  Basic Books, 2015.  512 pp.  $32.00 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed by Kevin Jones (University of Georgia)
Published on H-Empire (September, 2017)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

In _The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East_,
Eugene Rogan offers a sweeping overview of the Middle Eastern theater
of World War I. Drawing upon published and unpublished documents in
Turkish, Arabic, English, and French, Rogan constructs a historical
narrative of the war that promises to "restore the Ottoman front to
its rightful place in the history of both the Great War and the
modern Middle East" (p. xvii). To accomplish this objective, Rogan
devotes considerable attention to documenting the lived experience of
war from the vantage point of ordinary soldiers fighting both for and
against the Ottoman Empire. This commitment to documenting and
analyzing the war from below is supplemented by the author's careful
attention to the political motivations of all relevant actors in the
conflict, a project made possible only by the author's impressive
command of multiple languages and exhaustive analysis of historical
archives and memoirs. _The Fall of the Ottomans_ is a rare example of
historical scholarship that successfully delivers on its promise to
simultaneously provide a more informative and more readable narrative
of a popular historical event that is relatively accessible to a mass
audience and to advance the historical knowledge of specialists by
drawing upon new historical sources and archival evidence.

Rogan's historical project in _The Fall of the Ottomans _is driven by
three overarching and interlinked thematic inquiries. First, the
historical scope of Rogan's narrative emphasizes the necessity of
understanding particular episodes of the Middle Eastern theater of
war in broader historical context. Second, Rogan's pervasive
attention to the exaggerated significance accorded to the Ottoman
call to jihad by virtually all interested parties--Turkish, German,
British, and French--underscores the extent to which the political
alliances forged during World War I were shaped by the global
dynamics of empire and imperial uncertainty about the nature of
religious, national, and imperial identities thrown into flux by the
onset of modernity in the Middle East. Third, the consistent emphasis
of Ottoman military tenacity and the gravity of Ottoman victories at
Gallipoli and Kut highlight the historical relevance of the military
conflict in the Middle East. Somewhat contrary to popular perception,
the Ottoman Empire did not suffer total defeat in the war, and the
Middle Eastern theater of war was not a marginal sideshow to the
conflict in Europe. Taken collectively, Rogan's approach to the
conflict enables him to construct an historical narrative that offers
the reader a more comprehensive and sophisticated understanding of
the war than more specialized accounts of particular aspects of the
war in the Middle East.

The strength of Rogan's historical approach to the Ottoman experience
of World War I is evident in his account of the Armenian Genocide.
While his account of the massacres adds little to the robust
historical literature on the subject, Rogan's telling of the story
provides substantive evidence of his narrative abilities as well as
his ability to successfully traverse the delicate ground of
explaining historical controversy from multiple angles without
falling into the trap of moral equivalence. Rogan carefully and
sympathetically documents the Young Turk regime's efforts to reach a
political agreement with its Armenian subjects (p. 105), notes the
widespread approval of "population exchanges" as "ethnic cleansing
with an international seal of approval" (p. 163), and acknowledges
the gravity of Armenian nationalist collaboration with foreign
enemies at an historical moment when the Ottoman Empire faced a
three-pronged invasion of its territory (pp. 164-165), but he does
not allow such contextual considerations to transform an explanation
of the Young Turks' annihilation of the Ottoman Armenian population
into a justification of these "crimes against humanity" (p. 184).
Rogan's emotional documentation of the Armenian massacres--recounted
largely through the memoirs of the Armenian priest Grigoris
Balakian--simultaneously underscores the overarching sympathy for
civilian populations caught up in the tragedy of war that shapes his
historical narrative and confirms his personal commitment to rebuking
the official commitment of the Turkish government to denying or
downplaying the complicity of the Ottoman government in the
genocide.[1] His discussion of the postwar Ottoman military tribunals
that thoroughly documented the Young Turks' direct complicity in the
annihilation of the Ottoman Armenians further gives the lie to
contemporary efforts to deny or downplay such a link (pp. 387-389).

Similarly, while Middle East specialists might feel inclined to gloss
over Rogan's account of the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence and the
Arab Revolt, given the fact that the story has been told many times
and Rogan does not draw upon any particularly groundbreaking new
evidence, the narrative framework constructed by Rogan actually helps
to facilitate a new reading of the events. Frequently dismissed as
evidence of British subterfuge and the bad-faith dealings of
colonialism, Rogan's telling emphasizes the British desperation to
strike a deal with Sharif Husayn on leading an Arab rebellion against
Ottoman authority in the aftermath of the Gallipoli disaster and in
light of the pervasive British fears about the capacity of the
Ottoman jihadto undermine the imperial loyalties of Britain's Muslim
subjects in India and Egypt (pp. 282-285). If anything, Britain comes
out looking even worse than usual in Rogan's account; by emphasizing
both the military and political value of a Hashemite alliance to
British military planners and civilian politicians, Rogan magnifies
the colonial duplicity in the willingness of those same authorities
to deliberately obscure the nature of Britain's promises to the Arab
in vague language and later to casually abandon the general spirit of
the agreement. In this telling of the story, Rogan subtly challenges
recent historical accounts that diminish the entire episode as a
marginal contribution to the war effort and underscores the general
nature of his contribution to history in _The Fall of the Ottomans_.
Rogan's commitment to telling the story of the war from so many
different angles and vantage points allows the reader to understand
particular episodes of the Middle Eastern theater as greater than the
sum of their respective parts.

Given the relative proximity of publication, it is impossible to
avoid comparing the relative merits of _The Fall of the Ottomans _and
Leila Fawaz's _A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great
War_.[2] The fundamental difference in the scope of the two books is
indicated by the inverted subtitles; where Fawaz constructs a social
history of the Middle East in the WWI era, Rogan reconstructs the
military history of the First World War in the Middle Eastern
theater. _The Fall of the Ottomans_ instantly becomes the definitive
military chronicle of the war in the Middle East, as Rogan's
tremendous historical achievement is evident at the both narrative
and scholarly levels. No other historical text has so thoroughly
documented the political calculations and military maneuvers of the
war from so many different angles--British, Anzac, Ottoman, Arab, and
Armenian. Perhaps more importantly, the breadth of historical
scholarship that shapes Rogan's narrative is supplemented by his keen
attention to documenting the lived experiences of the war from the
perspective of soldiers. This commitment to presenting the war from
below where possible makes _The Fall of the Ottomans_ perhaps one of
the few notable military histories in recent memory to adequately
reflect the contemporary evolution of scholarly approaches to writing
history. The book nonetheless remains a product of its genre, and
both instructors and readers who find themselves bored by detailed
descriptions of military battles will undoubtedly gravitate toward _A
Land of Aching Hearts _for a richer description of how the war
reshaped Arab society and identity.

While there is no questioning Rogan's impressive narrative abilities
and authoritative command of historical sources in four different
languages, _The Fall of the Ottomans _is not without its flaws. While
one might note with some concern the relative absence of women in the
text, this oversight is quite simply a reflection of the genre
limitations of military history. Given his attention to the
surprising Anzac claims about Ottoman women snipers in the Gallipoli
campaign (pp. 192-193) and gendered dimensions of the Armenian
genocide (pp. 177-182), it is reasonably clear that Rogan has
endeavored to make the best of source limitations about women in the
war. Somewhat less understandable is the relative marginalization of
the war experience of the Indian, Egyptian, North African, and
Senegalese soldiers deployed to the Middle Eastern theater. To be
sure, Rogan has drawn attention to the presence of Muslim and Hindus
soldiers in the colonial regiments of the Entente powers,
particularly with respect to Ottoman and German hopes and British and
French fears of the capacity of the sultan's call for jihad to
undermine imperial loyalties and provoke military defections and
anticolonial rebellions. Given his painstaking efforts to reconstruct
the war experiences of Anzac soldiers in the Middle East, however, it
is at least somewhat disappointing that Rogan chooses not to afford
the same level of attention to the experience of other ethnic groups
involved in the conflict.[3] Rogan's narrative also occasionally
seems to convey the language and perspective of his colonial sources
without sufficient critical interrogation. This problem is most
apparent in his discussion of Sanussi resistance to the Italian
occupation of Libya, which Rogan frames as the Ottoman promotion of
"religious extremism" on the Libyan frontier (p. 238). While this
description might be dismissed as a simple lapse of linguistic rigor
in the author's otherwise exemplary commitment to conveying diverse
war experiences on their own terms, it does at least seem notable
that Ibn Saud's movement in alliance with Britain is never described
in similar terms.

None of these criticisms should detract from the inherent value of
_The Fall of the Ottomans _as an historical text. Together with
Fawaz's social history of the war in _A Land of Aching Hearts _and
David Fromkin's political history of the war in _A Peace to End All
Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern
Middle East_, Rogan's military history of World War I in the Middle
East immediately becomes essential reading for regional specialists
and graduate students.[4] Given the inevitable considerations of
length and level of historical detail, the book is unfortunately
probably not appropriate for undergraduate courses, with the
exception of advanced seminar courses.


[1]. Rogan makes his political stance on the applicability of the
term "genocide" to the Armenian massacres of 1915-16 explicit in a
footnote (17) on pp. 424-425.

[2]. Leila Fawaz, _A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the
Great War _(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[3]. Fawaz's attention to the experience of South Asian soldiers in
the war attests that such a project is possible. See Fawaz, _A Land
of Aching Hearts, _205-232.

[4]. David Fromkin, _A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the
Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East _(New York:
Owl Books, 1989).

Citation: Kevin Jones. Review of Rogan, Eugene, _The Fall of the
Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East_. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews.
September, 2017.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46351

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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