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The Young Turks Period, 1908-1918: A Review

The Young Turks Period, 1908-1918: A Review

Stanford J. Shaw, Ezel Kural Shaw (2005), “4: Young Turk Period, 1908-1918”, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. 2: Reform, Revolution and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1808-1975, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 273-334.

Reviewed by:  Mohammad Fazril Bin Mohd Saleh, International Islamic University Malaysia


This era, almost more than any other, has attracted scholars of modern Ottoman history, and it has been studied in such detail that it is difficult to believe that it was too short.”[1]   
       -Stanford J. Shaw, Ezal Kural Shaw

The Young Turks, as been defined by the author, consisting of different groups of liberals under different names, protested against the reign of Sultan Abdulhamit II, the 34th sultan of the Ottoman Empire. They emerged inside and outside the empire and gradually formed a loose coalition which commonly known as the Young Turks. It was the results of their actions that a ‘new, modern, westernized ruling bureaucracy replaced the old Ruling Class, extended its power throughout the empire, and created a highly complex system of government that ruled with an autocracy unmatched in traditional times.’ Besides, in this chapter, Stanford J. Shaw, Professor of History in University of California, along with his wife, Ezel Kural Shaw, associate researcher of the same university, tried to illustrate chronologically the situations happened at that time in the Ottoman Empire which led to major changes in the world political climate, especially in the Muslim world. Yet, their analysis is analytically great with vivid details and deep explanations.

From the period of the Young Turks revolution in July 1908 until the counterrevolution of 13th April 1909 which led to the deposition of Sultan Abdulhamit II in 27th April 1909; to the reign of Committee of Union and Progressive (CUP) until the darkest days of wars including World War I; to the armistice of Mondros Oct 1918 which signified Ottoman’s total surrender until the occupation of the heartland of the empire, Istanbul, formally by the Allied force led by British Admiral Caltrope: all of these events have been covered by the authors with chronological order, illuminated description of the characters, and inter-related between motives and actions that lead to particular incident to be happened. As a conclusion, in this particular chapter, the authors covered the entire major events happened prelude to Young Turks Revolution 1908 until the Allied occupation 1918 in a chronological, analytical, and understandable manner.

            Stanford J. Shaw (1930-2006) was an American historian, Professor of Turkish and Judeo-Turkish History at the University of California in Los Angeles.[2] He was born in Minnesota, on 5th May 1930 and died on 16th December 2006 at the age of 76. He received his B.A. at Stanford University in 1951, majoring in British History with a minor in Near Eastern history. He then accomplished his M.A in 1955 studied Middle Eastern history at Princeton University. Afterward, he went to study under Bernard Lewis and Paul Wittek at the SOAS University of London and also at Oxford University.[3] He also had opportunity to study with Shafiq Ghorbal and Adolph Grohmann (University of Cairo), Shaikh Sayyid (Al-Azhar University), Professors Omer Lutfi Barkan, Halil Sahillioglu, and Zeki Velidi Togan (Unversity of Istanbul), also doing research in the Ottoman archives of Egypt at the Citadel in Cairo and Ottoman archive of Istanbul for his Princeton Ph.D which he received its degree in 1958 with dissertation concerning Ottoman rule in Egypt.[4] Shaw’s final post was at Bilkent University as professor of Ottoman and Turkish history from 1999 to 2006. According to a historian, Shelomo Alfassa, “the awards and recognition Professor Shaw received worldwide are too numerous to mention and range from honorary degrees from Harvard University to honorary membership in multiple organizations.”[5] Among his major works on Turkey are “Between Old and New: The Ottoman Empire under Sultan Selim III. 1789-1807” (1971), “History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, 2 volumes published by Cambridge University Press (1976–1977) written and a five volume “From Empire to Republic: The Turkish War of National Liberation 1918-1923: a documentary Study” (2000).[6]


In the context of the ruined political collision between the Young Turks and the Sultan, as they rejected the basic premise of reformation made by Abdulhamit II that true modernization could only be imposed by an elite class from the top. For the Young Turks, physical reforms, even though successful in certain extent, ‘were liable to failure and collapse unless they were accompanied by fundamental political and social reforms. Thus, socio-political reformation was a crucial need for the empire at that particular time, indeed it was inevitable. Reconstruction of administration and political approach, restoration of society, and brilliant ruthless strategy have been made by the leaders of Young Turks during their reign between the ranges of period from the year 1908 to1918.
The Young Turk Revolution of 1908 came from the group of the 3rd Army of Macedonia. Many young officers of the corps garrisoned at Salonika, forming the Ottoman Liberty Society in 1906. This secret revolutionary group merged with the CUP in Paris the following year, bringing to the Young Turk ideologists the command of the 3rd Army force that were responsible for advocating the rebels. The rebellion rapidly spread throughout the empire. Unable to rely on government troops, Abdulhamit announced on July 23 the restoration of the 1876 constitution and recalled parliament. The imperial decree has been done in 1st and 3rd August 1908, amending article 113 of the 1876 Constitution which force the Sultan to give up most of his power. The Grand Vezir Kamil Pasha started the reorganization of administration, with full cooperation of the Sultan. The Constitutional Monarchy era of Abdulhamit was indicated by the restoration of Parliament in 17th December 1908, after the general election which witnessed the CUP as the majority in the parliament. They won 287 of 288 deputy seats in election.

The new regime seemed to be unsuccessful as ‘the Parliament simply helped focus attention on the divisions and rivalries that had been momentarily extinguished’. The members of parliament divided into three major fractions: whether to follow CUP or the sultan or to develop an independent policy. The conservative movement who were not happy with the new order started to protest, led by Grand Vezir Kamil Pasha. Meanwhile the modernists responded to it by securing the Assembly vote of no confidence against Kamil Pasha, leading him to resign in favour of CUP man, Huseyin Hilmi who replaced him. The conservatives and Islamicists eventually protested against the replacement of Kamil Pasha. The Society of Islamic Unity, formed by Hafiz Dervis Vehdati led the protest. They intended to replace constitution with syariat and used Islam to rescued and modernize the empire. On 3rd April 1909, the campaign against secularism echoed in Aya Sofya Mosque during the celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Led by the Society of Islamic Unity, student of religion, joined by the 1st army of Istanbul and supported by the Liberal Union Group marched to the Parliament building and surrounding it during the night of 12/13 April 1909. The minister of war refused to order the army to disperse the rebels. Grand Vizier Huseyin Hilmi presented his entire’s cabinet resignation to the Sultan and it was accepted as well as all demands of the rebels were also being accepted by the Sultan. Sultan restored his influence by appointing his own men as minister. Ahmet tevfik Pasha was appointed the new Grand Vezir.

Then, CUP eventually restoring order. Under the leadership of the 3rd army commander, Mahmut Sevket Pasa assisted by his chief of staff, Mustafa Kemal tried to rally its supporters around the empire. Operation Army was organized and launched. On 24th April, the Operation Army occupied the capital. Mahmut Sevket declared martial law and offending those found responsible for the counterrevolution of 13th April 1909. The reign of autocratic control of army began, in the name of constitution and democracy. On 27 April, parliament met again as the National Public assembly and deposition of Sultan Abdulhamit was made on the ground of complicity of the counterrevolution and the deaths that resulted. Unlike before that most of the members of CUP in the empire were armies, CUP started to emerge as a civilian political party and propagated its mass-appeal programs. Many new law and regulation promulgated especially in administration and socio-economical aspects. Several articles in the Constitution also been amended. The emergence of several new political parties provides the CUP with opposition.

However, the new regime failed to recover the worse relations among the races in the empire, yet it continued to grow worse. The revolt of Armenian, Greek and Albanian were among the major scene of terrorism occurred inside the empire. In late 1911, the Tripolitanian War happened between Ottoman and Italy as Italy starting the war in September 1911 and declared annexation of Ottoman Tripoli and Bengazi on 4th November 1911. The disastrous war with Italy split CUP members. Grand Vezir Ibrahim Hakki Pasha resigned and the Liberal Union Party won the parliamentary by-election and conquered the Ottoman administration until the coup led by Enver Bey in his famous ‘Raid on the Sublime Porte’ during the First Balkan War. The coup done to avoid government from gave away the sacred city of Edirne to get peace as in the period of two month during the war; Ottoman lost almost all of its territory in Europe. Eventually CUP managed to recapture Edirne and they re-enter the office of Ottoman. Even, during the very crucial time of the sadistic warfare between 1913 until 1918, modernization still becomes the main agenda. Thanks to intellectuals such as Ziya Gokalp and Dr. Abdullah Cevdet who have laid the philosophical body for the notion of reformation which finally able to become a kind of force. For instance, Ziya Gokalp intensively constructing the philosophical outlook of Turkish Nationalism, promoting the idea of freedom and liberty, and promulgating the notion of secularism in the area of education and administration.

            The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers to form the Triple Alliance with the signing of the August 1914 Turco-German Alliance. Turkey formally entered World War I on 28 October 1914 with the bombing of Russian Black Sea ports. The Allied Powers, declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 4th November. Two major factors led to Ottoman involvement on the side of the Central Powers: German pressure and the opportunism of Turkish minister of war Enver Pasha. In Northern front, Ottoman Armenia was against the Ottoman force by supporting Russia. Thus, in May 1915, Armenian population within Anatolia and North Syria were evacuated in order to get them away from sabotaging Ottoman campaign against the Allied. Nevertheless, Armenians felt that the deaths were the result of Ottoman’s planned policy of genocide against the Armenian. Among the most successive of Ottoman warfare campaign was the victory of Gallipoli War. Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Hijaz (Arab revolt 1916) were among the places which witnessed the involvement of the Ottoman. In Iraq, they managed to form a very able troop known as Yilderim Army and gave huge impact to their domination of warfare. In September 1918, Enver’s army gained victory in the competition in Caucasus. However, British started to attack Istanbul and conquered it. Armistice of Mondros was signed in 27th October 1918, signifying total surrender of the Ottoman Empire. Turks remained divided with groups quarrel among them. However, each of them trying their best to ensure that the empire will gain its independent soon and save the Turks from their oppressors.


            As I started reading this chapter, I found it is hard to understand it without knowing the background or prelude to the reign of the Young Turks. Therefore, I decided to read chapter three in order to ensure that I gain vivid picture on what happened before and during the period 1908-1918 with accordance to the author’s view and approach of constructing the historical facts. From the beginning, the authors try to design the importance of the ‘Young Turks Revolution 1908’ as the dividing line between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Turkey which forming a new political climate of the empire. Unlike certain modern-Turkish sources which strongly emphasize on Mustafa Kemal Pasha as the key for the reformation, the authors illustrate the importance of several significant figures in Young Turks era; Sait Halim Pasha, Talat Pasha, and Enver Pasha whose involvement much more significant rather than Mustafa Kemal Pasha.[7]

The authors describe the Young Turks era as the period which polarized extensively the paradoxical dichotomy ideas between groups which appeared throughout the empire during 19th century: Ottomanism vs. nationalism; liberalism vs. conservatism, Islamism vs. Turkism; democracy vs. autocracy; centralization vs. decentralization.  As been stated in the early lines of the chapter, authors intended to explain deeply their studies on this particular chapter as the period (1908-1918), almost more than any other, manages to attract scholars of modern Ottoman history to conduct detail studies on it.[8] Furthermore, the authors objectively illustrate and interpret the situation happened during the period using relatively simple language. There are also interconnected relation between actions and human motives which driving the man’s conduct and action. For instance, while Enver Pasha without consulting the cabinet and the members of parliament for the empire’s decision to ally with German as well as Central Power and directly involved in World War 1, he justifying the alliance by citing Germany's early victories in the War. Being on the winning side would provide the opportunity to forge a swift victory over neighbouring enemies and avoid the imminent disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.[9] It shows that there was motive beneath every action taken by someone and the reader will follow the chronological flow in their reading without stop a while in order to wonder why that particular event happened so and so.

Perhaps, among the most controversial part in this chapter is about the Armenian Genocide. Shaw, along with his previous teacher of Harvard, Prof. Dr. Bernard Lewis were among the historians who oppose and deny the idea of Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman empire in 1915. Shaw put the controversial claim that the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire had revolted in 1915 against the government and were thus removed from the war zone along the Russian border to avoid any sabotage from them against Ottoman warfare campaign. While majority of historians hold that the deportations was actually an act of systematic and planned genocide, Shaw claims that Ottoman authorities did their utmost to protect the deportees and call the Armenians "the victimizers rather than the victims, the privileged rather than the oppressed, and the fabricators of unfounded tales of massacre."[10] He claimed for no apology of his works and insisted with his writings. He argued: “For too long the Ottomans have been studied without the use of any of their sources, resulting in serious distortion and error. No history of France would be considered methodologically sound and balanced if it were written on the basis of English and Italian observations. At the same time, however, we have made use of a mass of relevant non-Ottoman materials, as is evident in the Bibliography.”[11]

Shaw, as described by UCLA’s G.E. von Grunebaum Centre for Near Eastern Studies, ‘the most prolific Ottoman historians in the United States’, seems to be relatively objective in his writing as he preferred to used the Ottoman sources for a history of the Ottoman Empire. According to The Guardian, he pioneered the use of Ottoman archives in Istanbul while writing numerous books and articles on Ottoman and Turkish History and society.[12] Nevertheless, he faced a lot of criticism, negative reviews, yet accusation of plagiarism with no strong basis. However, he was clearly quoted Richard G. Hovannisian in this chapter, in order to support his argument denying the notion of Armenian genocide. Unfortunately, Hovannisian claimed that Shaw has misinterpreted his work as he accepts Armenian genocide as a fact.[13] In fact, Hovannisian major works are about the topic of Armenian like The Armenian Holocaust, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Armenian Heritage Press (1980) and Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide. Detroit: Wayne State University Press (1998). Eventually, he accused Shaw of misquoting his own works and deliberately ignoring the massive body of evidence supporting the factuality of the genocide. [14]

In conclusion, despite of all the controversies that he faced, Shaw still insisted with his decision and refused to engage with any historical revisionism. Nevertheless, he was very good in describing an event and has proven that his works are among the authoritative in Ottoman modern history in particular.


Aykut Kansu (1997), The Revolution of 1908 in Turkey, Leiden: Brill.

Bernard Lewis (1968), The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 2nd Edition, Britain: Royal Institute of International Affair.

Fadhlullah Jamil (2000), Islam di Asia Barat Moden: Sejarah Penjajahan dan Pergolakan, KL: Thinker’s Library

Stanford J. Shaw, Ezel Kural Shaw (2005), History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. 2: Reform, Revolution and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1808-1975, New York: Cambridge University Press

[1] Stanford J. Shaw, Ezel Kural Shaw (2005), “4: Young Turk Period, 1908-1918”, History of The Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey: Vol. 2: Reform, Revolution and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1808-1975,  New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 273
[2] “Stanford J. Shaw”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_J._Shaw
[3] “Obituary: Professor Standford J. Shaw, A Personal Appreciation” by Shelomo Alfassa, http://alfassa.com/shaw.html
[4] “Profile of Prof. Stanford J. Shaw” in www.bilkent.edu.tr/~shaw/profile.html
[5]  “Obituary: Professor Standford J. Shaw, A Personal Appreciation” by Shelomo Alfassa, http://alfassa.com/shaw.html
[6] “Stanford J. Shaw”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_J._Shaw
[7] Aykut Kansu (1997), The Revolution of 1908 in Turkey, Leiden: Brill, p. 11
[8] Ibid.
[9] Stanford J. Shaw, Ezel Kural Shaw (2005), pp. 310
[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_J._Shaw#cite_note-Balakian-1
[11] Stanford J. Shaw, Ezel Kural Shaw (2005), p. x
[12] http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/data/author/stanford-j-shaw
[13] Stanford J. Shaw, Ezel Kural Shaw (2005), p. 367
[14] Look also http://www.umd.umich.edu/dept/armenian/papazian/remembrance.html

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