Young Turks Stage a Coup in the Ottoman Empire Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After more than five hundred years of rule under despotic sultans, a group called the Young Turks declared the Ottoman Empire to be a constitutionally limited multinational monarchy.

Summary of Event

Although autocratic rule had for centuries been a mark of sultanic government in the Ottoman Empire, the last quarter of the nineteenth century probably stood out as the most despotic period of modern times. Experiences earlier in the century—first Napoleon I’s occupation of Sultan Selim III’s Egyptian province (1798-1802), then loss of Greece following local insurrection and European intervention (in the 1820’s), and nearly complete separation of several Eastern Mediterranean provinces (Egypt and Greater Syria) in the 1830’s—had forced a number of important changes during the period known as the Tanzimat (Reorganization), Tanzimat from 1839 to 1876. Many imperial reforms involving new legal codes, tax laws, and some moves toward local administration by councils were announced as aiming at better government for Ottoman subjects of all nationalities. Young Turks;coup Committee of Union and Progress Ottoman Empire;Young Turks [kw]Young Turks Stage a Coup in the Ottoman Empire (July 24, 1908) [kw]Turks Stage a Coup in the Ottoman Empire, Young (July 24, 1908) [kw]Coup in the Ottoman Empire, Young Turks Stage a (July 24, 1908) [kw]Ottoman Empire, Young Turks Stage a Coup in the (July 24, 1908) Young Turks;coup Committee of Union and Progress Ottoman Empire;Young Turks [g]Ottoman Empire;July 24, 1908: Young Turks Stage a Coup in the Ottoman Empire[02170] [g]Turkey;July 24, 1908: Young Turks Stage a Coup in the Ottoman Empire[02170] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 24, 1908: Young Turks Stage a Coup in the Ottoman Empire[02170] R{imacr}za, Ahmed Enver Pa{scedil}a Gökalp, Ziya Abdülhamid II Midhat Pa{scedil}a

The fact that the Ottoman sultanate ruled peoples of different nationalities and religious backgrounds complicated Tanzimat aims considerably. The main ethnic nationalities were Turks and Arabs, but there were also Kurds, Balkan Slavs, and Armenians. The first two of these minority groupings were Muslim, and the last two were Christian. In addition, the so-called Arab provinces contained populations that, while ethnically more or less homogeneous, were divided into distinct religious communities, or millets. This was the case in Egypt, with a significant Coptic Christian minority, and especially Syria, with different Christian religious minorities (Maronites, Greek Orthodox, and Catholics). In addition, Jews existed as a separate millet in almost every province.

Internal multinationalism and multisectarianism definitely complicated Ottoman reform efforts during the Tanzimat, but foreign interventionism was also a factor. A number of foreign-imposed treaties or conventions, not only political and military but also commercial in nature, caused defenders of the legitimate sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire to despair. Among these “agreements” were the London Convention of 1841, London Convention (1841) which regained Ottoman rule in Egypt and Syria but laid down limiting restrictions in a number of areas; the Treaty of Paris, Paris, Treaty of (1856) which ended the Crimean War in 1856 but initiated a new series of indirect control factors (especially in the form of foreign loans); and the international Congress of Berlin in 1878, Congress of Berlin (1878) which would become very important for the group that would become the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

The Congress of Berlin came at a very critical time, just after the closing of the Tanzimat period in 1876. Ostensibly the reason for ending the Tanzimat had been the adoption of a formal Ottoman constitution. This was done at the bidding of a group of liberal reform thinkers called the Young Ottomans, Young Ottomans led by a former provincial governor, Midhat Paşa. At that time, the newly installed sultan, Abdülhamid II, rose to the Ottoman throne only after promising to respect the Young Ottoman constitution. Empirewide elections were to be held for the first all-Ottoman parliament, which would have the responsibility of representing all subgroups, whether ethnic or sectarian, on the basis of a single “national” electoral law. One could argue that the very short-lived experiment barely scratched the surface in terms of representational democracy. What seems to have occurred was an elitist-oriented process of selection of representatives to serve in the Istanbul parliament; individual prestige and influence, more than actual dedication to representing the political aspirations of a wider constituency, characterized the parliamentary qualifications of various provincial leaders at this time.

It was the reaction of the empire’s age-old enemy, czarist Russia, that caused the first Ottoman parliament, and with it the nascent principles of representative government in the Ottoman Empire, to founder. In 1877, Russia launched a military campaign against Abdülhamid, claiming that, whatever the value of the new representative basis for government in Istanbul, the Turks were mistreating their Bulgarian subjects (Slavic “cousins” to the Russians). Ostensibly to stop the Russians from benefiting from their aggression, the all-European Congress at Berlin intervened in 1878 to “correct” the terms reached by war. Soon after the Congress of Berlin’s benevolent “corrections,” which provided for an international administrative responsibility for a symbolically restored Bulgaria, Cyprus fell under British control and Bosnia and Herzegovina (later part of Yugoslavia) under Austrian. Several years later, Tunisia was occupied by France (1881) and Egypt by Britain (1882).

Such blatant foreign interventionism gave the sultan an excuse to suspend both the 1876 constitution and the parliament. In Abdülhamid’s mind, such conditions of menace against the Ottoman throne would never end. In fact, even when the Young Turk successors to the Young Ottomans succeeded in restoring the 1876 constitution, their presumed devotion to maintaining the integrity of the empire would be seriously hampered, between 1908 and 1914, by interventionist and exploitative pressures that were not at all dissimilar to those Abdülhamid used to rid himself of the first Ottoman constitution.

When the Committee of Union and Progress, or Young Turks, emerged in the early 1890’s, no one could predict the future impact of bitter realities originating either inside the empire or among its foreign neighbors. Originally formed by students of mixed national origins studying in Istanbul, the CUP gradually attracted a wide variety of supporters among groups disgruntled about the effects of the sultan’s absolutist rule. Ottoman writers in exile, notably Ahmed Rīza, published articles devoted to analysis of parliamentary government in Europe, the principle of a free press, respect for individual rights and property, and other potential reforms.

Political causes taken up by the CUP, however, came from other sources. One such source was the eminent essayist devoted to a reflourishing of “true” Islamic values in Ottoman society, Ziya Gökalp. Although Gökalp inspired CUP members with lofty idealism in the period before the 1908 coup, the strained circumstances that followed reestablishment of the 1876 constitution would eventually cause him to alter the universalist orientation of his writings in favor of a clearer Turkish ethnic (or pan-Turkish) bias. This latter feature in Gökalp’s profile was also reflected in the contribution of perhaps the most important wing of the Young Turk movement, composed of revolutionary cells in the Ottoman military. In fact, it was this link with the military that made it possible for the Young Turks to realize their theoretical aims through definitive action.

On July 24, 1908, disgruntled elements of the Ottoman army supporting the Young Turk movement carried out the coup that compelled Abdülhamid II to restore the constitution of 1876 and to prepare for empirewide elections to an Ottoman parliament. The moment this happened, various individuals and groups within the empire braced for the effects constitutional government might have on their respective interests. Unlike the brief constitutional experience of 1876-1877, the Young Turk constitution enjoyed several specific foci of support within the wider ranks of Ottoman society. At the same time, however, it faced some equally specific internal sources of opposition.

Significance

The Young Turk coup of 1908 was generally greeted as a blow for freedom of expression and democratic representation. Side effects, however, indicated troubles yet to come. Almost immediately after the coup, politically interested “foreign” groups took advantage of transitional confusion to declare obvious advantages for themselves at the expense of the new Istanbul regime. Austria-Hungary annexed the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina (under their protection since 1878), and Bulgaria (under international administrative supervision since 1878) declared itself independent from any further Ottoman control. Armenian separatists also hoped for an opportunity to declare their independence and boycott any Armenian participation in the all-Ottoman parliament.

Enver Paşa.

(Library of Congress)

Despite these events, the Young Turk regime moved quickly to restore parliamentary government in the Ottoman Empire. By the time parliamentary representatives were elected, however, signs of conservative resistance to the new government had emerged. A countercoup was attempted in 1909. Although this anti-Young Turk movement did not go very far, one might suppose that its supporters would have preferred to maintain the separate communal spheres, or millets, for Jews, Christians, and other non-Islamic religious groupings. Such convictions ran counter to the spirit of civic universalism that Young Turk supporters hoped to establish in Ottoman representative government.

Successful reversal of the coup attempt of 1909 depended on loyal military support, something that foreshadowed the movement toward stricter central control. By 1910, a number of prominent political leaders both from the capital and from the provinces had gained a forum for expressing views on the future of constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire. Paramount among the former were the so-called centralists, under the leadership of Ahmed Rīza, and their political opponents, the decentralists, who had been inspired by the contributions of Ottoman prince Sabaheddin to the Young Turk movement as early as 1900.

CUP leaders soon realized that diverse options for charting the future of the empire were causing splits within their own ranks. Emergence of the so-called Liberal Union Liberal Union (Ottoman Empire) within the movement threatened to prepare the way for a second party that could and did contest votes in the parliament. Pressures to control divergent political views mounted. These were given convenient justification when, in 1911, Italian forces invaded Tripoli, necessitating rapid moves toward a wartime budget and conscription. In the rush of events connected with the conflict, excuses could be made, especially by the centralist wing of the CUP, for the restriction of political activity. Soon, the Liberal Union found its members being silenced and the results of important elections altered at their expense. The CUP was finally forced out of office in July, 1912, when the army showed hostility to the government. The Liberal Union took over briefly.

In the interim between the 1912-1913 Balkan War Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and a second round later in 1913, the Young Turk leader and military chief Enver Paşa carried out what amounted to an executive coup in January, 1913. Many political opponents were removed, extraordinary powers were granted to the executive branch to prepare to defeat the Balkan enemies, and a campaign of pan-Turkism Pan-Turkism[Panturkism] was adopted to bolster Turkish (but not necessarily other imperial subject nationalities’) morale. It was this policy of pan-Turkism, combined with the strong-arm internal political and police tactics adopted by the 1913-1918 “triumvirate” leaders (Enver Paşa, Mehmed Talât Paşa, and Ahmed Cemal Paşa), that turned the last stage of the Young Turk regime into a veritable military dictatorship. Seen in this light, the Ottoman pact with the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany) in World War I—a fateful alliance that led to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in 1918—can be called a reflection of the eventual alignment of the military wing of the Young Turk movement with antidemocratic forces for whom constitutions were just so much paper. Young Turks;coup Committee of Union and Progress Ottoman Empire;Young Turks

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ahmad, Feroz. The Young Turks: The Committee of Union and Progress in Turkish Politics, 1908-1914. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1969. Brief but detailed study of the period of actual Young Turk government, not planned revolution. Scholarly and authoritative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hanioğlu, M. Şükrü. Preparation for a Revolution: The Young Turks, 1902-1908. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Study of the formative years of the Young Turk movement makes extensive use of archival materials. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Broad textbook covering the traditional government of the Ottoman Empire. Provides discussion of the Tanzimat period, the 1876 and 1908 constitutions, and the aftermath of the Young Turk period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mardin, Serif. The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought: A Study in the Modernization of Turkish Political Ideas. 1962. Reprint. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000. Primarily a study of intellectual trends and figures associated with the making of the 1876 constitution. Provides necessary background on the factors influencing the Young Turks by the 1890’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramsaur, Ernest E. The Young Turks: Prelude to the Revolution of 1908. 1957. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1970. The earliest detailed study of the Young Turks. Emphasizes the events and influences that occurred between the 1876 constitution and its restoration by the Young Turk coup in 1908.

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