World War I Centennial: Confusion Reigns in Constantinople

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 25th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

July 9, 1912: Confusion Reigns in Constantinople

Turkish fortunes took a sharp turn for the worse in 1911-1912, as the ailing multinational Ottoman Empire was first attacked by Italy, then assailed by an Albanian uprising, while the members of the Balkan League plotted to liberate their ethnic kinsmen under Turkish rule (and grab big chunks of land). Suffering reverses on all fronts, it’s no surprise that the ruling party, the Committee of Union and Progress – better known as the “Young Turks” – started looking around for a scapegoat.

That scapegoat turned out to be the Minister of War, Mahmud Shevket Pasha (pictured), who had been described by foreign observers as “the most capable and energetic of contemporary Turkish statesmen,” but who had only loose ties to the CUP and was therefore forced to take the blame for a military situation that was frankly beyond his (or anyone’s) control. On July 9, 1912, Shevket Pasha was forced to resign as Minister of War.

Shevket Pasha’s ouster was engineered in part by the Grand Vizier (prime minister) Mehmed Said Pasha, who ran the empire on behalf of the figurehead Sultan under the newly-restored constitution. To replace Shevket Pasha as Minister of War, Said Pasha wanted to appoint an army colonel with closer ties to the CUP, which would allow the CUP to consolidate control over the Turkish military.

No Confidence

But the Ottoman government was far from stable (as attested by the fact that this was Said Pasha’s eighth turn holding the office of Grand Vizier) and by cashiering Shevket Pasha, Said Pasha doomed his entire government. Indeed, the government was in such bad standing with the Turkish elite that no one who was qualified to be Minister of War would accept the position, leading Said Pasha to dissolve the government – even after he obtained a vote of confidence. He famously explained his decision to the Sultan: “They have confidence in me, but I have no confidence in them.”

Under pressure from a group of young military officers known as “The Savior Officers” – who mostly hailed from Macedonia and were concerned about the erosion of Turkish power in the Balkans – Said Pasha and his whole cabinet were forced to resign on July 16, 1912. On July 22, 1912, Gazi Ahmed Muhtar Pasha, a military hero, was appointed Grand Vizier, but stability continued to elude the beleaguered Turkish government: in the wake of the military disasters of the First Balkan War, Muhtar Pasha was replaced by Kamil Pasha in October 1912, and Kamil Pasha himself was deposed at gunpoint in January 1913.

Kamil Pasha’s replacement as Grand Vizier was none other than Mahmut Shevket Pasha (Ottoman government at this time was something of a revolving door). But Shevket Pasha was no more able to stop the process of decay as Grand Vizier than he had been as Minister of War: following even more military setbacks, Shevket Pasha agreed to an unfavorable peace treaty, and was assassinated by radical military officers on June 11, 1913.

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July 9, 2012 - 7:40pm
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