Exit the Turk

By H. G. Dwight

[The Century Magazine, June 1915]

Of the various consequences of the struggle that is now shaking the world, few will contain possibilities more interesting for the cool outsider—and for certain of the participants none will be more serious—than the fate of the Turkish Empire. The operations at the Dardanelles have already brought again to the fore what has a little too sweepingly been known as the Eastern Question. And if it is not too cold-blooded to say so, those operations have given the watcher from afar the most vivid touch of the picturesque that has yet been seen among many terrible events. Constantinople has not the ordered magnificence of Paris or Vienna. Its intellectual and artistic, to say nothing of its industrial resources, scarcely equal those of Sofia and Bukharest; but no city in Europe compares with it for situation, and not even Rome can boast of having been for sixteen hundred years the seat of an empire, or for so many the capital of the world. No one for whom the story of nations is more than a stirring of dry bones, therefore, can remain indifferent when that ancient city comes near one of the most crucial moments in its long history. And any one can see how much depends for Europe and for Asia upon Admiral de Robeck's guns and their repercussion in the camps of the West.

The Turks of course owe it largely to the historic and strategic importance of the empire they stumbled into that they have attracted so much attention. Few legends of races contain more elements of the romantic than that of the nomad horsemen who broke out of the East toward the end of the medieval period, seized for their own the great city that had been the capital of the world, carried the standard of the prophet to the very heart of Europe, and threatened for a time the peace, if not the existence, of Christendom. Yet the amazing success of the Turks in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries was not altogether a matter of accident. It was also, as success in part must be, a matter of special fitness. The accident was the decay of the Byzantine Empire, which, like imperial Rome and imperial Stamboul, was a fabric of shreds and patches, pieced together out of a hundred diverse elements that a medieval Hellenism proved unable to assimilate or to weld. The special fitness of the Turks showed itself in their wild courage, in the undoubted genius of their early leaders, and in their superior organization. Strange as it is to recall to-day when their name is a symbol for disorder and reaction, the fact is that at the period of their conquests the Turks commanded the most efficient and most progressive army in the world. Such a body of soldiers as during the first century of its existence was the famous corps of the janizaries has rarely if ever been known. Separated as young boys from their families and never allowed to form families of their own, picked for their regiments only after a long and pitiless weeding out of the less strong and the less adept, subject to a discipline which at the time had no parallel and is hardly matched to-day, they grew up, they lived, and they died as soldiers. They were, if I am not mistaken, the first regularly uniformed, drilled, and paid army in Europe. Nor were the janizaries the one proof that their masters were open to new ideas. The siege of Constantinople in 1915 will perhaps be notable in history for its novel features—its aeroplanes, its submarines, its monstrous floating cannon. But the siege of 1453 marked no less memorably a new era in warfare. In that campaign those who are now the defenders, and the combatants equipped with fewer of the modern resources of war, were the innovators. Their use of cannon in battering their way into the city of the Caesars first proved the advantage of explosive artillery, and for a long time afterward they were in Europe the acknowledged masters of that novel arm.

It is accordingly small wonder that the Turks were able to batter their way westward to the very walls of Vienna. But the wonder is equally small that they have gradually crept back, leaving at every step a nation behind them, until to-day it is a question whether they will not be dislodged from Constantinople itself. The theory on which they founded their empire is unhappily not exploded yet, or the present war would never have broken out. It is a theory, however, that has steadily yielded ground to the modern sentiment of nationality—the theory that lands may be added to lands and peoples to peoples as long as a central authority exists strong enough to hold them together. While apparently workable for a certain type of intelligence, the theory always breaks down because no central authority has ever been found strong enough in the long run to resist the disrupting influences of a foreign language or divergent traditions or an alien faith. Rome herself existed merely to form modern Europe out of her own ruins. And Stamboul, while retarding the process for a moment in her Eastern sphere of influence, continued it none the less. For while the discipline of the janizaries relaxed, and other nations became more proficient in the art of war, the Turks did nothing to unify their empire of shreds and patches. It is doubtful whether they ever could have done anything short of exterminating or forcibly converting their Christian subjects. That they expressly left undone. They even sought every possible means to widen the breach between one element of population and another.

There have been a few cases in history of a people being crowded out or absorbed by one immensely superior in numbers and ability. There have also been cases, like that of the Normans in England, of a race of conquerors being swallowed up by the people they conquered. For the Turks neither of these conditions was possible. They never were an overwhelming horde. Much of their success was due to the variety of populations they encountered. They also ingeniously added to their own numbers the children of those whom they conquered, and they always knew how to turn to their own use the abilities of their captives. On the other hand, the only race in the empire capable of absorbing them were the Arabs, with whom they never really came into contact. The races with whom they did come into contact were too small, too diverse, and separated from them by too great a gulf of religion for the Turks to be Hellenized or Bulgarified, or whatever the case might be. Standing as they did with one foot in Europe and one in Asia, guided by two principles only, one more pernicious than the other, of dividing to rule and of ruling to plunder, they watched their empire fall to pieces without being able to prevent it. The Young Turks have lately been accused of destroying what is left of the empire. It is true that they have been guilty of many follies and injustices. It seems to the present writer, however, that those follies, and even those injustices, were largely an awakening, a belated and insufficient sense of nationality in the Young Turks themselves. The Young Turks, like the old ones, had their chance, and they lost it. But the conquest of Mohammed II, who assured his subjects their freedom of language and religion and who set impassable barriers between the new lord of the land and the old, contained the seeds of dismemberment. The Young Turks only accelerated an inevitable result. Nor is the process likely to end until Syria, Mesopotamia, and Arabia have followed the way of the European and African provinces; perhaps even. Kurdistan and Armenia, if such a region can be discovered to exist. The case is one that suggests embarrassing questions with regard to other empires of shreds and patches, of which more than one happens to be engaged in the war of the world. Our present affair, however, is with the Turk and his drama, which can hardly be less bitter to him because it is inevitable. Yet the principle of nationality has been so often invoked during the course of the greater drama of which the Turkish tragedy is only an act, and when not invoked in so many words, it looms so incessantly in the background, that it perforce comes forward again as we ponder over eventual settlements and redrawings of the map.

It is still too early to prophesy what will be the final fate of the Turk. One thing, at all events, seems certain: he does definitely make his exit from the central arena of European politics. He started a long time ago, when John Sobieski drove him back from the gates of Vienna in 1683, to lose Budapest in 1686, to sign in 1699 the disastrous Peace of Carlowitz, when he first deigned to accept the mediation of Christian powers. And in the light of actual events it is interesting to recall that England was one of the mediators. During the subsequent two hundred years his history has been little more than one of cessions and interventions, until at London and Bukharest in 1913 he gave up all but the last foothold of his European empire. But even that foothold he virtually surrendered in November last, when he chose to throw in his lot with the Teutonic powers. We cannot here review the series of events, extending over twenty-five years, from the first visit to Constantinople of Emperor William II to the flight last summer into the Dardanelles of the Goeben and the Breslau, which brought the Turk to that decision. The essential point is that he made it, and thereby renounced his old importance as a factor in the European balance of power. While, in the phrase of the late Mahmud Shevket Pasha, he had a million bayonets to throw into the scale, he kept his independence and he was worth courting. That was why, and only why, Constantinople remained one of the most important diplomatic posts in Europe. Having disposed of his million bayonets, however, having shown his hand, he became merely an incident in the world-wide conflict of those who are greater than he. And upon the issue of that conflict hangs his own destiny.

There are, as far as it is humanly possible to foresee, two imaginable futures in store for him. Should the battle of the world turn in favor of his German protectors, he will recover something like the status quo ante bellum. His Asiatic provinces will remain his; Egypt will return, however unwillingly, into the empire; he will enlarge his northern borders at the expense of Russia and possibly his western ones at the expense of Bulgaria and Greece, But it is hard to believe that such a settlement could be permanent or that it would leave him more than a shadow of freedom. At the moment these words are written, Turkey is a Prussian province. Is it likely that she will cease to be a Prussian province at the successful close of a war that is openly waged for an outlet to the East and a place in the sun? It is conceivable, of course, that Teuton ambitions might find their ample fulfilment in Russian and Serbian territories and in the colonies of England and France. Too much German effort, however, and too much German gold have been invested in Turkey for any German to feel quite disinterested in that country. And Turkey would always have to be guarded against the prowling Englishman or Frenchman or Russian, which would mean a Turkey on the lines of Egypt and India.

The other alternative opens the more interesting questions and possibilities. They are more interesting because they are more novel, and because they promise changes in a purely artificial status quo. Of these questions the first, naturally, relates to the future of Constantinople. If the Allies succeed in capturing that city and holding it against its present defenders, what will they do with it? The same reasoning that applies to their enemies applies to them. They will assuredly not have spent men and millions to finance the Turk, to undertake all manner of industrial enterprises in his country, and then to break his power, for nothing. If he loses, after having thrown down the gauntlet to them, he must pay the piper. Which piper, however, will he pay?

Of the three pipers, the one that has the strongest theoretic claim is Russia. The eyes of Russia, for sentimental and practical reasons that we all know, have long been on Constantinople. Holy Russia regards herself, with a certain amount of reason, as the true heiress of Byzantium. Moreover, a free and central outlet to the sea is a necessity for the largest country in the world, which produces much of the world's wheat and petroleum. To her, as to her small neighbor Rumania, and in a lesser degree to Bulgaria and the other riverain states of the Danube, it is intolerable that the Turk should enjoy the right of banging the door of the Black Sea whenever he happens to feel so inclined. How intolerable that right is may well be the real reason of the present operations against Constantinople. And it is perfectly legitimate that Russia should wish to secure herself against any such possibility in the future. But to oust the Turk in order to install herself as doorkeeper of the Black Sea would hardly be the ideal solution of the problem. And to annex Constantinople and tie it to the Caucasus by a strip of Asia Minor, as Russia would necessarily have to do in order to secure her possession of that disputed city, would be too strange a reading of the principle of nationalities which she invoked in favor of Servia and Poland at the outset of the war. For Constantinople and Asia Minor, whatever else they may or may not be, are not Russian or even Slavic. Nor, judging from the analogies of Poland and Finland, can we expect that Russia would be any more successful in making them so than Turkey has been in assimilating her own alien provinces. Any attempt to solve the problem in that way would deserve the most energetic objection on the part of the rest of the world.

The only outsider who has a legitimate claim to Constantinople is Greece. Modern Greece is a truer descendant of Byzantium than Holy Russia. Constantinople and its neighborhood, furthermore, contain a large Greek population second only to the Turks in number, far superior to the Turks in all the commercial and intellectual activities of modern life, and by no means unaware of their older rights in the capital of which they were robbed five hundred years ago. They are somewhat less inclined, I fear, to recognize the validity of other rights in the heritage of the Byzantine Empire. At all events, Bulgaria solidly bars the road to Athens now, and the only other road, via the Aegean islands and the hinterland of Smyrna, is rather too long and too broken for the Greeks to travel without danger, even should they have earned the gratitude of the Allies. In the circumstances the fairest solution would be to make Constantinople a free city, giving back St. Sophia and the other stolen churches to the Greeks, if anything be left of St. Sophia by the time the cannon has ceased to speak, and adding enough adjacent territory to assure the freedom of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. It is a question, however, whether such a solution is possible—whether Europe is yet far enough on the road to international justice even to pose it. The nearest approach to it, therefore, would be to let the Turk stay where he is, but to take away from him his old right of control over the straits. If their forts were dismantled and the Turk were otherwise deprived of the power to interfere with their free passage by any nation in the world, Russia would have all she could legitimately ask for in that quarter.

Constantinople, however, is only the first of the problems that await the Allies in the event of their success. There remain interesting questions with regard to Asia Minor and the Arabic provinces of the south. The Arabs proper, with their cousins of Mesopotamia, would probably fall into the British sphere of influence, while Syria and Palestine would in that case become, we may conclude, a French protectorate. Yet I must confess that, taking a long view of history, I find it easier to conceive of a new Arab empire stretching from the Taurus Mountains and the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic than of the permanency of any such arrangement. And Asia Minor? Even in the heat of triumph would the Allies, after all they have said about Belgium, the Serbs, the Poles, and the rights in general of outnumbered nationalities, have the courage to carve up Asia Minor between them, perhaps admitting Italy and Greece to a share of the spoils? One is tempted to hope that they would not. For of them all, Greece, again, is the only one who has a shadow of right to any part of that troubled peninsula. And to claim the rights of vengeance or compensation would be only to repeat the fatal mistake of Turkey and Austria on the opposite shore of the Aegean.

The Turk, then, goes, if not from the banks of the Bosphorus, at least from the central domain of European politics. But that Sick Man of legend, having passed away, may turn out as lively a corpse as ever disconcerted a hungry heir. He was a sick man because, in the parlance of the vulgar, he bit off very much more than he could chew. It would indeed be a strong pair of jaws that could cope with such indigestible morsels as Hungary, the Serb states, and Greece, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Albania, Greater Arabia, Armenia, and Kurdistan. Although it is a little early to speak of the latter, I doubt not that their day is waiting. Having at last, for his soul's good, if not for the flattery of his pride, been forced to disgorge most of these tidbits one after the other, our Turk remains himself a mouthful too large and too sinewy to be swallowed by any one else. Germany may try it or Russia may try it, Italy or Greece may nibble at it; but it seems fairly safe to predict that none of them, in the long run, will make any more of the Turk than he has been able to make of his own conquered subjects. Nor does history offer us encouragement to believe that any race, except in rare and special circumstances, ever succeeded in really conquering and assimilating another. The whole origin of this war of the world, as we have already said, as no one can too often say, lies in that mistaken notion. To continue in it will be only to sow the seeds of future unrest.

There is, if you choose to look at it in that way, a tragic side to the case of our Turk. While by no means without parallel, the case is one of the most recent in recorded history. For he comes as near as any one can to being a man without a country. None of his neighbors or fellow-citizens regard him as other than a usurper among them, yet his own people have forgotten him. He cannot now go back to the plains from which he came; neither can he be annihilated or otherwise disposed of. He must continue to live, move, and have his being in whatever corner of the earth is least unfriendly to him. And Asia Minor is surely that corner. There at last, cured of his old sickness, freed from the intrigues of jealous neighbors, purged from the ridiculous pretension of trying to manage the affairs of half the East, he may have a chance to learn how to manage his own. He might even become anew a force to be reckoned with in the family of nations. I do not mean that, under our second hypothesis, there would be much danger of his ever venturing into Europe again or presuming to cut off his old enemy of the North from the sea. I mean that he is a person of a certain force of character, endowed with virtues of honesty, simplicity, sobriety, patience, courage, and endurance. If numbers and calculations are somewhat foreign to him, and a certain instinct to organize, who shall say that the world is the poorer for a savor of the contemplative temperament? He also has pride, our Turk. The Young Turks have proved, furthermore, that he is not without ambition and a sense of nationality. Nor is he likely to forget the estate from which he fell. It may be, of course, that the heart will be crushed out of him and that he will sink to the condition of the Persian. It seems to me more likely, however, that, given the chance, he might make something out of a homogeneous kingdom of Asia Minor.

The Eastern Question, as we have known it, would then be solved. But the real Eastern Question will remain, having merely changed its center of gravity from one side of the Aegean to the other, having merged itself into the general question of Asia. And that larger question is yet to cause Europe many a sleepless night, not to mention many a million of gold and many an invaluable life. Let Europe, therefore, look to it that she lay as many ghosts as possible in the peace conference that awaits her. The Turk, in the meantime, may live to raise his voice again in these matters. He and his Persian neighbor may form new and intimate ties. He and his Arab neighbors may find that they have more in common than when they pulled together as unequal yoke-fellows. Our descendants might even see very interesting developments of the propaganda of Panislamism. At any rate, who knows? Perhaps, having neatly written out the stage direction, "Exit the Turk," we shall have to turn the page and inscribe at the top of the next act, "Enter the Turk."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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