Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The First World War

Steve Muhlberger

Every part of the world was profoundly affected by the First World War.

It changed the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world.  Not all that apparent to a superficial glance.  Colonial empires actually grew.  But to the discerning eye, the writing must have been on the wall. Indicative of the changed situation are the way Britain began to loose control over its two most important colonies, Ireland and India..

All sorts of other indications that the balance of power had changed, and that old-style colonialism was going to be difficult to maintain.  New movements arose in colonial countries.  In many places the movements were tiny, with no links to the mass of the population, whose political mobilization was practically nil.  But in contrast to the pre-war situation, the new nationalist politicians and agitators of India, Egypt, Viet Nam, Syria and so forth were full of confidence in the rightness and ultimate success of their causes, while the imperial powers were uncertain about the future, and faced with a multitude of intractable challenges growing out of the massive blood-letting and capital-wasting of World War I.

WWI had been a nationalist war; and a colonialist/imperialist war:  Nationalist because governments were able to exploit national feeling to mobilize society for war on an unprecedented basis.   Colonial/imperial war, because the powers were colonial in nature and colonial in intent.

Colonial and imperial concerns had a lot to do with the beginning of the war; with the goals of the powers; and with the settlement.  The origins were in competition for the Balkans.  The war grew beyond that because Germany saw the opportunity to weaken its rivals, France and Russia.  But Germany was not alone in this.

Everyone saw the war as a short war, which would result in the winners being able to pick up “compensation” for its trouble in the colonial sphere.

One of the most obvious places for such “compensation” was in the Ottoman Empire.  The  focus was on the Arab provinces.  In the self-justifying world of the empire builders, the Arabs were the latest oppressed people to be brutalized by the savage Turk.  These people needed European intervention; in fact, they welcomed it.  Forward-thinking Arab leaders wanted their freedom—freedom, of course, under European protection.  It is one of the remarkable facts of World War I diplomacy that both British and French leaders were convinced that any time any Arab prince or nationalist circle talked of freedom, that they actually meant British or French protection.  Britain was sure that Arabs were positively wanted Britain to rule them; France was sure the Arabs wanted France.  In fact, neither was the case.

(You can see why the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire was forced into an alliance with Germany and Austria Hungary out of fear of the alliance of Britain, France, and Russia, all of which had designs on imperial territory.)

As the war went on and on, colonial compensation became more and more important to justify the effort being taken.   Britain in particular started looking for ways to bring the Ottoman Empire down.  These plans had an important effect on the post-war Middle East.

Britain plotted to erect an Arab confederation under the Hashimite dynasty.   Sherif Hussein, the ruler of Mecca, was to be pope-like caliph, under whose spiritual leadership Britain would run the show (subject to buying off France with a sphere of influence in Syria.)   Britain ended up the war with a commitment to an Arab kingdom in the Middle East.

At the same time, Britain committed itself to a Zionist settlement in Palestine.  This grew out of a British misinterpretation of the strength and nature of Zionism (to be explained in class).   Britain bought off this Zionist party (which was a party mostly in the imagination of the Brits) with a promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  This was in flat contradiction to the other promise, because from the Arab point of view, Palestine was an integral part of an Arab Syria.  (Palestine was a historical name for a place that had no current political or administrative identity.)

Such contradictory promises typical of the insincere and megalomaniac promises made by the competing imperial powers.   But as the war ground to a close, forces were building up that would make any kind of stable settlement very difficult to achieve.

First, the intervention of the USA.  President Woodrow Wilson would not bail out Britain and France to promote their imperial schemes.  The War must be a war to end war, and be settled on the basis of self-determination of peoples.  (An idea the allies had floated, too.)  This phrase was meant to apply primarily to Europe—Eastern Europe and the Balkans—and to the Ottoman Empire’s possessions.  The idea was not meant to be of unlimited application to Asian and African peoples, but it gave the leaders of many different movements a standard of justice to appeal to.

Second, the Bolshevik Revolution.  The first Russian Revolution resulted in a would-be democratic government that adopted a policy of staying in the war and maintaining the integrity of Russia’s boundaries.  This proved impossible, and the attempt at such an unpopular policy led to the overthrow of the republic’s government by revolutionary socialists, then called the Bolsheviks, later the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

To many people of this time, the Bolsheviks were a sign of hope, as representing ann international movement representing the workers (and peasants) against the forces of international capitalism and imperialism. At the start, Bolshevism looked like a possible antidote to the domination of the world by irresponsible, capitalist imperial powers who had drowned Europe in blood, after sucking a lot of that blood out of their colonial possessions.

Bolshevism or communism or revolutionary socialism was supposed to transcend nationalism, but it was not incompatible with colonial nationalism.  The great empires were “prisons of peoples.”  Revolutionary socialism, by breaking up these empires, would free these peoples to develop their potential freely.  In the immediate aftermath of the 1917 revolution, communist parties were formed anyplace in the colonial world capable of  supporting a modern revolutionary party.  Some had great futures before them:  The Vietnamese Communist Party.

Thus the victors found themselves with much less freedom to arrange things than they had expected.  Their behavior at Versailles—the imposition of war guilt and reparation on Germany—suggests that it took them a while to figure this out.  But events quickly got away from them.  There was trouble practically everywhere, and no money or military force with which to deal with it decisively.

We will look at two examples of trouble in the Islamic world.


Situation of Egypt before the war was as an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire under “temporary” British administration.  In November of 1914, when Britain and the empire declared war on each other, the British moved to correct the messy legal situation that resulted by promoting the khedive as an independent sultan, but under British protection.  This actually increased the power of the British in Egypt, and among other things they closed down the Legislative Assembly.

The war caused a lot of dissatisfaction in Egypt, as elsewhere, because the British drew deeply on Egyptian resources.  Two days after the armistice was declared in Europe, some Egyptian politicians led by Said Zaghlul Pasha visited the High Commissioner and told him that they would be going to the peace conference to demand autonomy for Egypt.  The British government refused to accept this wafd or “delegation.”  When Zaghlul was arrested for trying to lead it anyway, a revolt broke out in Egypt.

The man assigned to put down the revolt, Lord Allenby (the conqueror of Jerusalem) saw immediately that the only way to recover the British position was to make concessions to the nationalists (now organized as the Wafd Party).  Eventually, Britain had to come to terms with Zaghlul and his party, and in 1922 (the year of the treaty with the Irish rebels), Britain agreed to recognize Egypt as a constitutional monarchy.

It was to a certain extent independence in name only:  Britain reserved to itself the power to supervise imperial communications, defense, and the protection of foreign interests and minority rights.  Since a British army remained in Egypt, Egypt did not have even as much real independence as it had had before 1880.  But it was progress.  The weakness of Britain after the war and a revival of Egyptian nationalism with mass support had loosened the imperial grip.

Ottoman Empire

Perhaps an even more important reverse for the imperial powers was seen in the settlement of the Ottoman Empire.  The empire had put up a much better fight than anyone had anticipated, but by 1918 it was in serious trouble.  The Young Turk government fell and was replaced by another one willing to negotiate with the allies for peace.

The allies visualized a massive redrawing of boundaries at Ottoman expense.  The Arab provinces were divided between Britain and France.  Part of Anatolia was to be given to an independent Armenian state. The Greeks were allocated an area around Izmir (Smyrna).  Italy was given a sphere of influence on the southern coast of Anatolia.  The sultan’s government was allowed to keep Constantinople and part of Thrace (European Turkey), but government finances and the straits were to be under international control.

Among the Turks of Anatolia, this seemed intolerable.  A special sore point was Armenia (history of fighting and massacres), another one was Greek occupation of the west coast.  There were many Greeks and Armenians in Anatolia, and if they were to have national self-determination, then the national homeland of the Turks would be very much diminished.  Nationalist thinking, already encouraged by the Young Turks,  was naturally stimulated by this situation.

In 1919, active resistance broke out.  It found its leader in the general Mustafa Kemal, who had been active in the Young Turk movement before the war and who had led the successful defense of the Gallipoli peninsula during it.  He was soon elected leader of an “Association for the Defense of  the Rights of Anatolia and Rumelia” which resisted the plans of the sultan’s government to accommodate the allied powers (which it should be noted had occupied Constantinople and had him under their guns).  When the sultan’s government saw the extent of support for Kemal, it tried to give his movement recognition,  but the allies refused to let the nationalists establish themselves in Constantinople.  The nationalists set up their parliament in the interior in April of 1920.

Soon after, the allies forced the sultan’s government to sign a humiliating treaty acknowledging their gains.

Now it was up to the allies to enforce this treaty against a nationalist Turkish movement that was gaining in strength and support among the Turkish population of the core Ottoman provinces.  Britain, France, and Italy were all interested in the result, but they left the enforcement to the Greeks, who had the most to gain.  (Greater Greece.)  After some initial successes, the Greeks were beaten, and the allies had to decide what to do.  Lloyd George wanted to fight the Turks to save the treaty, and sent a force to the straits.  (They landed at Chanak, thus the name of the “Chanak incident”)  He also requested the British Dominions to send re-enforcements.  For a moment, in September and October of 1922, it looked like a new imperial war would break out.  But two of the dominions, Canada and South Africa, refused to help, while France and Italy, which had other troubles, also declined to fight, and Lloyd George had to back down.

The result that Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist government took control of all the territory left to the empire by the armistice of 1918.  These boundaries included almost all the territory inhabited by ethnic Turks.   Within them, Mustafa Kemal proceeded to build, not a renewed Ottoman Empire, but a Turkish republic.  His first act, after coming to an agreement with the allies in 1922, was to abolish the sultanate.  It was not long affterwards that he abolished the caliphate too (1924) and began to transform Turkey into a secular republic.  This secularization of Turkey is one of the most interesting and important episodes of modern Islamic history.  However, that can wait until later.  The victory of the nationalist forces under Kemal is equally important for another reason.

After utter defeat, after the imposition of the victor’s terms, and their occupation of Ottoman territory, there followed resistance to the colonial powers--successful resistance.  Resistance based not so much on the symbols of Islam (they were not absent entirely) and not at all on the old institutions of the Ottoman empire; rather the resistance was based on nationalism, on the gut feeling of Turks that national self-determination was not just for the minorities so often championed by the European powers, but for them, too.  In the aftermath of the war to end all war, they were not to be cheated of their homeland and their right to rule themselves.  In the face of this feeling, and as a result of their own terrible losses  in the war (20%!), the allies, the chief colonial powers of the pre-war era, had to back down.  Eventually, they would be forced to give up all the symbols of domination:  the capitualtion and foreign control of the Turkish public debt.

Both in Egypt and in the new republic of Turkey, then, we are seeing the colonial tide going out.  If the boundaries of the British and French empires seem to be more extensive on a map in, say, 1922 than they were in 1914, to a certain extent this is illusory.   Islamic leaders, leaders with real if perhaps temporary public support, have learned enough of the language and techniques of European politics to fight back as nationalists, and, thanks to the changed global situation, win some of the battles.

In later lectures about the post-war period, we will see an era when Europe more and more has to come to terms with nationalism in areas it once dominated so easily.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.