Committee of Union and Progress

The last decade of the 19th century in the Ottoman Empire was marked by the emergence of a group of young intellectuals. They were mostly students and young army officers, closely following the enlightenment movement in Europe and thinking about how to adopt the liberal and constitutional ideas to prevent the partitioning of the Empire and to relieve the nation from the oppression of Abdülhamid. They were the next generation, following the footsteps of the Young Ottomans, yet they were also as disorganised and disunited as their predecessors had been. Following the suspension of the constitution in 1877, there had been two attempts, both armed, to overthrow Abdülhamid and replace him with Mehmet Murad V. One of them was organised by the former Young Ottoman, Ali Suavi, the other by the freemasons who were supporting Murad. Both attempts had failed, but they showed how seriously the Hamidian absolutism had begun to be challenged.

The first organised opposition movement was formed in 1889, by five students of the Military Medical School, namely İbrahim Temo, Abdullah Cevdet, Mehmed Reşit, İshak Sukuti and Şerafettin Mağmumi. The objective of this secret organisation, the Ottoman Union Association (İttihad-ı Osmani Cemiyeti) was to restore the constitution and the parliament. In the following years, as the organisation began to expand, it alerted the Sultan’s attention. Some members of the organisation were arrested by the agents of the Sultan and some of them saved themselves by escaping to Europe, most of them finding refuge in Paris.

Ahmed Rıza Bey (Muallim Nuri collection)

In Paris, these young intellectuals met Ottoman patriots, who were seriously criticising Sultan Abdülhamid through the pamphlets and magazines they were publishing. The group in Paris was led by Ahmed Rıza Bey, who with the other refugees had formed a small organisation called the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti). They merged with the compatriots coming from Istanbul and began to be known as Jeunes-Turcs, or Young Turks (Jön Türkler). Over the next years, their activity would develop from an intellectual movement to a pragmatic political endeavour.

In late 1890s, the Young Turks gained strength in Europe, whereas the opposition within the Ottoman Empire had to suffer from the oppression of the Sultan. Those who were arrested by Abdülhamid’s police were sent to exile to Europe. This was actually an advantage for the Young Turks, because those members of the opposition who were sent to exile were coming to Europe where they joined the Young Turk movement. It was also beneficial for the opposition in the sense that it caused competition within the group and prevented the concentration of power in one individual. Not all of the Young Turks were willing to follow Ahmed Rıza. This was because Ahmed Rıza had become a devout positivist and he was going too far in his rejection of the religion, which was unacceptable for most of the Young Turks.

Mizancı Murat Bey (İsa Akbaş collection)

The first challenge to Ahmed Rıza’s leadership emerged in 1896 when Mizancı Murat, a former professor and the publisher of the Mizan newspaper, arrived in Paris. He was a liberal, but in contrast with Ahmed Rıza, he was valuing the caliphate and the Islamic identity of the Empire more than anything else, an approach widely accepted by the Young Turks in Europe. He was elected the chairman of the CUP, replacing Ahmed Rıza, and the next year he moved the headquarters of the organisation to Geneva.

This was a time when Abdülhamid was enjoying a recovery of his reputation and influence. The worst phase of the problems with Armenians was over for him and the war against Greece had ended in a victory. After solving these problems, he focused on the opposition. All of the prominent Young Turks in Istanbul were rounded up, brought to the court and sentenced to exile in Tripoli. At the same time, the Sultan succeeded in persuading Mizancı Murat and other leaders of the CUP to return to Turkey in order to “assist the Sultan with the reforms.” Abdülhamid could achieve this by offering them attractive administrative or diplomatic posts.

Although the CUP worked very hard to show this agreement with the Sultan as a “ceasefire”, people knew how Abdülhamid persuaded them. As a result, they lost their prestige among the Young Turks and Ahmed Rıza Bey gained power again. However, the movement had received a serious blow and the period between 1897-1899 was its nadir.

Conservatism versus Liberalism

Prince Sabahattin (Didar-ı Hürriyet, S. Kutlu)

The tide was turned for the Young Turks in December 1899, when an influential general (and brother-in-law of Abdülhamid), Mahmut Celalettin Pasha came to Paris and joined the opposition, together with his sons Sabahattin and Lütfullah. For three years, Mahmut Celalettin Pasha was a guiding figure for the Young Turks and the role he played among the Young Turks was similar to that of Mustafa Fazıl Pasha among the Young Ottomans. After his death, his son Sabahattin, also known as Prince Sabahattin, began to pose a challenge against the authority of Ahmed Rıza. Sabahattin was a pure liberal, who believed that in order to revive the Empire it was necessary to minimize the state and empower the free enterprise, whereas Ahmed Rıza was a conservative nationalist. Soon the movement was divided in two and this divergence became apparent during the inaugural Congress of Ottoman Liberals held in Paris in 1902.

Sabahattin’s faction maintained strong links with Armenian, Albanian and Macedonian opposition groups following the Paris Congress and believed that both violence and outside help would be welcome as long as they would serve the purpose of getting rid of Abdülhamid. On the other hand, for the coalition of Ahmed Rıza, any method that would jeopardise the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire was out of question. They favored the term “Turk” rather than “Ottoman” to describe the subjects of the Sultan and they declared all attempts to find a common purpose with non-Turkish opposition groups to be fanciful. In contrast with Prince Sabahattin’s group, Ahmed Rıza’s faction was more nationalist and supportive of centralisation.

The split became official when Prince Sabahattin founded the Ottoman Association of Independence (Osmanlı Hürriyetperveran Cemiyeti) and later, in 1906, the League of Private Initiative and Decentralisation (Teşebbüs-i Şahsi ve Adem-i Merkeziyet Cemiyeti).

It was a period when Ottoman nationalism and constitutionalism were gaining momentum due to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the consecutive revolution in Russia. These events had marked the first time in history when an Asian nation had beaten a European imperial power, whose sovereign was eventually forced to accept the existence of a parliament and constitution. It was a source of inspiration for the Ottoman opposition, which had further gained strength with the arrival of two influential Young Turks, namely Bahaettin Şakir and Doctor Nazım in Paris. Whereas Ahmed Rıza was a theoretician, these new faces would provide the CUP with organisational power.

The first organised opposition within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire emerged in September 1906 when a group of young bureaucrats and army officers, most of whom had joined the CUP before 1896, formed the Ottoman Freedom Society (Osmanlı Hürriyet Cemiyeti) in Salonica. This group was led by Mehmet Talat Bey, a postal officer, who had been exiled from Edirne to Salonica on the grounds of being a CUP member. This new association organised itself very efficiently in Macedonia and in addition to Mehmet Talat Bey, one of the geniuses behind this success was a young officer from the Third Army, Major Enver Bey.

The group in Salonica contacted the émigrés in Paris in 1907. It was Ahmed Rıza’s faction rather than Prince Sabahattin’s, which they found closer to themselves. The Ottoman Freedom Society merged with Ahmed Rıza’s group under the title of the CUP and the center of Ottoman opposition shifted from Paris to Salonica.

Talat Bey and a group of Unionists in front of the CUP headquarters in Salonica

In the meantime, the CUP was rapidly taking shape and becoming a truly revolutionary organisation. In the space of just over a year, it established a network branches in 75 Balkan towns, Istanbul and, albeit less successfully, in Anatolia. Through successful propaganda, they were recruiting individuals –especially army officers- who were ready to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Assassinations were encouraged if the person in question was deemed dangerous for the Committee.

The emblem of the Committee of Union and Progress

The CUP had also its rituals, new members were introduced blindfold, with one hand on the holy book of the candidate’s religion, and the other on a revolver or an Ottoman flag: "On top rested the constitution in the form of a book under a shining sun. Pennants reading ‘pen’ and ‘weapon’ hung from spears flanking the right and left sides respectively. From beneath each spear jutted a canon. Unlike the canon of the Ottoman imperial coat of arms, this pair of cannons was being fired, symbolising ideological dynamism. In the centre stood a large upturned crescent reading ‘fraternity, freedom, equality’. The word ‘justice’ hung above the middle of the crescent. Below the crescent snaked a ribbon emblazoned ‘Ottoman Committee of Progress and Union', while at the bottom of the coat of arms, below the ribbon, two clasped hands symbolised mutual understanding among the Ottoman peoples." (Şükrü Hanioğlu describes the organisation's emblem)

The Second Constitutional Period

In June 1908, Tsar Nicholas met King Edward VII in the Baltic town of Reval (current-day Tallinn). Facing the German threat, Russia and Britain were getting closer to each other and trying to solve their mutual problems, one of which was related to Macedonia. They decided to increase their influence on this strategic territory. When the news of the Reval meeting arrived in Salonica, together with rumours that Russia and Britain had agreed on the partition of the Ottoman Empire, the CUP decided that it was time for action. This decision was also influenced by the fact that the CUP had realised that the Sultan’s agents were just about to discover their underground activities and therefore they had to act without losing time.

Postcard depicting Niyazi Bey and Enver Bey together with Sultan Abdülhamid (Didar-ı Hürriyet, S. Kutlu)

Finally, in July 1908 the trigger was pulled. A group of Unionist officers led by Resneli Niyazi Bey and Enver Bey organised their troops, took to the mountains, and demanded the restoration of the constitutional rule. It was an outright rebellion and Sultan Abdülhamid first tried to suppress it, only to see that the officers and troops were refusing to fight their comrades. To make the situation worse for the Sultan, the inspector he sent to the region, Şemsi Pasha, was murdered by a CUP assassin on July 7. There was no way out for the Sultan but to accept the CUP’s demands. On the night of July 23, 1908, the constitution - known as the Kanun-u Esasi- was restored, thirty years after Abdülhamid had annulled it.

The proclamation of the constitutional rule was celebrated with great enthusiasm all over the Empire. It was Enver Bey, who emerged as one of the “heroes of liberty” and delivered a speech to the cheering people in Salonica: "Citizens! I am grateful for your affection towards my person. I did not do enough to deserve it. I was only lucky that this duty, which every Ottoman would love to undertake, was given to me. If I could do my job properly this would be the best reward for me. Thanks God, we have restored the constitution. We obtained our liberty. However, we should not think that out task is over. The tougher part begins now. In order to further this first step we had taken on the path to progress, we should work harder and be more careful. From now on, all the citizens, Muslim or non-Muslim, work hand in hand and make our fatherland rise. Long live the nation, long live the fatherland!"

"Long live the Constitution!"

The revolution of 1908 was the outcome of the actions of Unionist army officers. Through public meetings the CUP made it sure that the people are aware of the fact that it was themselves, not the Sultan, who was the architect of the restoration of the constitutional rule. There was great joy among the people, all subjects of the Empire, regardless of their ethnicity in religion. Anticipating a better life and a brighter future, they began to celebrate their new liberties, such as freedom of thought and speech. An interesting event of this period was that, encouraged by the constitution workers went to strike demanding higher wages and a new law was passed outlawing labor unions in public sector making it difficult to organize strikes. Although they were the champions of liberty, the CUP had supported the government in this issue. The Committee had clearly taken the capitalists’ side in suppressing whatever little liberty the organised workers had.

The revolution of 1908 was also a turning point for the Ottoman opposition, marking the consolidation of the power of the Unionists. Other than Bahaettin Şakir and Doctor Nazım, who were in close contact with Salonica group all the time, none of the opposition members in Europe managed to maintain their influence.

Leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress, 1908 (Ömer Koç collection)

Although the CUP had achieved a great success in 1908, they did not use it to carry themselves to the government or to abdicate the Sultan. The most important reason of this attitude is that the Unionist, most of whom were young officers in late twenties and early thirties, lacked the self-confidence required for such a move. Additionally, Abdülhamid was still enjoying great prestige among the people, so it would not be wise to touch him. Instead, the CUP preferred to leave the politics to the existing government led by Grand Vizier Sait Pasha and act as the guardians of the constitutional rule they had restored by interfering in the government affairs whenever they deemed it necessary. In other words, what resulted from the revolution of 1908 was actually a compromise between the Unionists and the Sultan and his government. This approach was to cause instability in the coming years, since CUP was exerting pressure on the administration without officially assuming responsibility.

The Parliament opens with the restoration of the constitution (Türk Edebiyatı, Nr.417)

The first conflict between the government and the CUP emerged when, instead of ratifying the Grand Vizier’s nominations for the Minister of War and Minister of Navy, the CUP insisted to appoint them directly. The conflict did not last long; Sait Pasha was forced to resign and he was replaced by Kıbrıslı Kamil Pasha.

The most important event in the post-revolutionary period was the elections, the first in thirty years. The CUP, which already had a strong organisation in European Turkey, extended its network to Asian and North African territories and gained the sympathy of all ethnic and religious groups although its membership base mainly consisted of Turks and Muslims. The CUP emerged victorious from the ballot and managed to gain an overwhelming majority in the Parliament. However, most of the deputies were local candidates who made their way to the Parliament through CUP lists, rather than CUP members themselves. It was the way the CUP ensured support in the provinces, however this structure would dramatically reduce the party discipline in the Parliament. The only opposition to the CUP in the elections, the Ottoman Liberal Party (Osmanlı Ahrar Fırkası), won just one seat.

Ottoman Parliament in session (Cenk Boyalı collection)

The power of the Palace was curbed but not completely eradicated and for the first time since 1878 the leading bureaucrats of the Sublime Porte emerged as independent political elements. In order to supervise the government, the CUP relied on its majority in the Parliament but remained in the background.

Despite the great success of the revolution and the victory in elections, CUP faced two kinds of opposition during 1908 and the first half of 1909. The first one was from the Ottoman Liberal Party, which was supported by the Grand Vizier Kamil Pasha. The CUP managed to depose Kamil Pasha and replace him with a sympathiser, Hüseyin Hilmi Pasha. This was followed by a fierce fight of words between the newspapers supporting CUP and the Liberal Party. On April 6, 1909, the chief editor of one of the opposition newspapers was murdered. His funeral turned into a mass protest against the CUP.

The Incident of 31 March

The second kind opposition faced by the CUP was the one coming from conservative religious circles, especially junior Islamic scholars and sect leaders. This group, led by the Nakşibendi leader and owner of the newspaper Volkan, Derviş Vahdeti, had organised itself around the Association of Mohammedan Union (İttihad-ı Muhammedi Cemiyeti), which was rejecting the materialist worldview of the CUP and demanding the restoration of Islamic law.

Rioters outside the Hagia Sophia (Cenk Boyalı collection)

Their protests turned into an armed rebellion that broke out in Istanbul on the night of April 12/13, 1909 (March 30/31, 1325 in lunar calendar). It was the Macedonian troops positioned at the Taşkışla Barracks who rebelled first and joined by radicals and religious school students, they marched to the Parliament. As the sun was going up, they were joined by even more religious scholars and soldiers. They government was in panic, not daring to send loyal troops to suppress the rebellion, they send the police chief to listen to the demands of the rebels, which were: i) Immediate dismissal of the Grand Vizier, Minister of War and Minister of Navy; ii) posting of some Unionist officers to remote regions; iii) removal of the Unionist Chairman of the Parliament; iv) removal of some Unionist deputies; v) restoration of the religious law; vi) amnesty for soldiers taking part in the rebellion.

Remaining helpless against the demands of the rebels, Grand Vizier Hüseyin Hilmi Pasha resigned and he was replaced by Tevfik Pasha. A new cabinet was formed, of which the Minister of War, Ethem Pasha, promised the rebels that all of their demands would be satisfied. Meanwhile, hostilities were continuing on the streets of Istanbul. At least twenty people died, most of them Unionist officers, including two deputies of the Parliament. The CUP had no option left but to leave the capital or to go underground. There were only a few deputies left in the Parliament, and they announced that they are accepting the rebels’ demands.

Street fighting in Istanbul during the 31 March Incident (Didar-ı Hürriyet, S. Kutlu)

Although the Unionists had to leave Istanbul, they were still strong in other parts of the Empire, especially in Macedonia. It did not take them long to win the people through a highly successful propaganda war and organize efforts to suppress the rebellion. A military expedition, called the Liberation Army (Hareket Ordusu), was launched on April 15, 1909, under the command of the Third Army commander, Mahmut Şevket Pasha. Originally located in Salonica, this army was composed of Mahmut Şevket’s regular troops, who were supported by the volunteers of Major Resneli Niyazi Bey, one of the heroes of the revolution in 1908.

As the Liberation Army was approaching Istanbul, the Parliament attempted to prevent armed intervention by sending a delegation to Mahmut Şevket Pasha. Failing to persuade him, the delegation decided to stay with the army and called other deputies to join them. In the morning on April 24, 1909, the Liberation Army entered Istanbul without facing a substantial resistance, suppressed the rebellion and declared martial law. Two military tribunals were established and several rebels, including Derviş Vahdeti himself, were tried, sentenced to death and executed.

Soldiers of the Liberation Army (Nurhan & Korkut Erkan collection)

The 31 March Incident had shown that the political position of the CUP depended on its members from the army and its influence on military in general. A number of active offers were permitted to keep their seats in the Parliament although they had clearly violated the constitution. Opposition to the CUP, which re-emerged after 1910, was against the politicisation of the army and since it failed to ensure this, it organised an anti-Unionist movement within the army and threatened with armed rebellion. There was a similar situation with regard to the relations between the CUP and the Parliament. The opposition was accusing the CUP of irresponsibly using the government. Responding to these claims, the CUP decided to establish a political party, which would not replace the CUP but co-exist in the Parliament instead. The parliamentary group of this party never enjoyed the confidence of the Unionist leaders since it lacked a party discipline and the real power remained with the headquarters of the CUP.

Mahmut Şevket Pasha and the staff of the Liberation Army

New political parties emerged between 1909-11, some of which were founded by former opponents of the CUP and others were established by reactionary Unionist of either a more liberal or a more conservative line. The first group included the Mutedil Hürriyetperveran Fırkası and Islahat-ı Esasiye-i Osmaniye Fırkası, whereas the People’s Party (Ahali Fırkası) and the New Party (Hizb-i Cedid) were in the second group.

This period was also marked by the emergence of the first organised socialist movement within the Empire. There was a small but influential group of leftist intellectuals in Istanbul, criticising the ban on labor unions and rights to strike imposed by the Unionist. This group was led by Hüseyin Hilmi Bey, who in September 1910 established the Ottoman Socialist Party (Osmanlı Sosyalist Fırkası). However, this party remained a small established, without a seat in the Parliament and far from having influence on Ottoman politics.

The opposition against the CUP was growing and this tendency gained momentum with the outbreak of a major rebellion in Albania in 1910 and the murder of journalist Ahmed Samim. Fearing the repetition of the counter-revolutionary reaction of the previous year, the CUP had several members of the opposition arrested, accusing them of being involved in a conspiracy. This attempt did not stop the growth of the opposition and in 1911, the situation got so serious that CUP had no option left but reconciling with the opposition. Several hardcore Unionist, including Talat Bey himself, left the government and a new program, reflecting the demands of the opposition to a large extent, was announced. A new government formed was formed by Hakkı Pasha, however he would resign later during the same year, when Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire. He was replaced by Sait Pasha, who started his eighth term ad Grand Vizier.

In November 1911, all political parties and groups opposing the CUP united under the umbrella of the newly established Party of Freedom and Understanding (Hürriyet ve İtilaf Fırkası), which was composed of a group of conservatives and liberals who did not have a common point other than their hatred of the CUP. Only three weeks after its establishment, the party managed to win the by-elections in Istanbul, beating the CUP candidate.

CUP’s Influence Eroding

Since 1908, the CUP was relying on its influence on the Parliament for controlling the government, the Palace and the bureaucracy. But now, this influence was eroding and something had to be done. Using methods involving all sorts of violence and blackmailing, the CUP managed to win a majority in the Parliaments at the elections in 1912 and the Parliament became a loyal tool of the CUP, with only a handful of opposition deputies. From the opposition's point of view, the Parliament was not legitimate and the struggle had to continue outside. In May 1912, Colonel Sadık Bey and his comrades-in-arms demanded the resignation of the government and threatened with a coup by a group of officers called Halaskar Zabitan, if their demands are not fulfilled. Having lost his confidence in the Parliament, the Grand Vizier Sait Pasha resigned, and so did Mahmut Şevket Pasha, who was disgusted by the political struggles within the army.

The new Sultan (Le Petit Journal, May 9, 1909)

Following the departure of Sait Pasha, a “Grand Cabinet” consisting of elder statesmen was formed. For these statesmen, it was the political activities of army officers and the irresponsible policies of the CUP which had caused the political chaos in the Empire and therefore the first thing to do was to break the influence of Unionists and especially those members of the CUP who were also army officers. The Parliament was dissolved and several Unionists had either leave the country or go underground. It was a period of tough political struggles in the Empire and it was again the CUP’s turn to be on the losing side.

Boycotting Austrian made fez (La Domenica del Corriere, December 20, 1908)

It would not take much time until the domestic political struggles were overshadowed by larger problems outside. As the CUP was fighting its opposition at home, the Empire was sliding into a major conflict on the international scene. Young Turks had believed that the restoration of the constitution would bring prestige and support for the Empire among the liberal states of Europe. However, this was not to be the case. Immediately after the revolution of 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia; Bulgaria announced merger with East Rumelia and Crete joined Greece. The great powers were refusing to intervene on behalf of the Ottoman Empire and the only successful attempt of this period was the boycott against Austro-Hungarian goods sold in Ottoman Empire. It was the first practice of a new approach to politics in which the government mobilised the people for a common cause.

After these initial blows, the pressure on the Empire did not cease to exist. On one hand there were the exterior pressures stemming from the imperialist powers’ designs for partitioning the Ottoman territories and the expansionary policies of the newly established Balkan states. On the other hand, there were the interior pressures caused by the separatist movements among ethnic groups.

The Young Turk revolution in 1908 claimed to present all the ethnic groups of the Empire, offering liberty, equality and fraternity for everyone. However, this regime change did not stop the unrest among the different nationalities, which was a huge disappointment for the CUP. A series of rebellions broke out among Albanians in Macedonia. These rebellions were caused by certain policies of the government, such as those related to taxation and military recruitment, as well as CUP’s attempts of centralisation. A second major region of unrest was Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, where the rebellion was suppressed in 1911 at a great cost in human lives.

Enver, Mustafa Kemal, and a group of
Turkish officers in Tripoli (Popüler Tarih, August 2000)

All the great powers of Europe had their own imperial aims on Ottoman territories, however the most imminent threat of the time was coming from the Italians. Left behind in the race for colonial expansion, Italy had laid eyes on Northern Africa and for the last ten years Italy had been practicing a policy of peaceful penetration in Tripoli. After receiving the approval of Britain, France, Russia and ensuring the neutrality of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Italy decided to take action. On September 28, 1911, Italy sent a 24-hour-ultimatum to Istanbul, demanding the presence of Italian troops in Tripoli to protect the local Italian population and without waiting for the response of the Sublime Porte, declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

Disconnected from the mainland, the province was defenceless and the Italians rapidly invaded the coastal areas. Since the Mediterranean was dominated by the Italian Navy and Egypt was in British hands, the Ottoman General Staff could not send troops to Tripoli. Although there was hardly anything to do to resist the invasion, CUP demanded counter measures to be taken. This was not because the province was of any value for the Empire, but because its loss would mean a catastrophic loss of face vis-à-vis the Muslim populations of the Ottoman Empire.

There was a great reaction among the young Turkish officers against the Italian invasion. Several officers including Major Enver Bey and Mustafa Kemal Bey decided to go Tripoli as volunteers in order to organize the local resistance.

Although the efforts of Turkish officers produced results and the Italian advance was slowed down, on November 5, 1911, the Italian government announced the annexation of Tripoli. Facing a though resistance in the province, the Italians enlarged the theatre war, bombarded the Dardanelles in April 1912 and captured all of the Dodecanese Islands the next month. Peace talks between the Ottoman Empire and Italy began with fighting still going on, and since there was an extremely dangerous situation arising in the Balkans, the Sublime Porte was forced to accept Italy’s terms. A peace treaty was signed between Italy and the Ottoman Empire in Ouchy on October 18, 1912.

Trouble in the Balkans

The newly independent states of the Balkans had one common goal, which was throwing the Ottomans out of the peninsula. However, for a long time, they failed to join their forces and take coordinated action against the Empire, because they could not agree on how the territories would be shared after the Ottomans were gone. This situation changed in 1911. In March that year, Serbia initiated an alliance with Bulgaria, which was supposed to be defensive in nature, but actually aiming to serve the greater cause of expulsing the Ottomans. A similar agreement was concluded between Greece and Bulgaria in May 1912, whereas Serbia and Montenegro formed an alliance in October. Meanwhile Italy’s invasion of Tripoli had exposed the political and military weakness of the Ottoman Empire, which further encouraged the Balkan states to take action.

A pro-war demonstration in Istanbul, 1912

On October 2, 1912, the allied Balkan states gave a joint ultimatum to the Ottoman Empire, demanding major reforms in Macedonia under foreign supervision. The Sublime Porte declared that it was ready to undertake all the reforms it had announced earlier, but was not going to give up it sovereignty over the territories in the Balkans. Montenegro declared war on October 8, 1912, followed by other Balkan states. None of the great powers of Europe wanted war, but they were in such a disagreement about the Balkan affairs that they failed to make any efforts to prevent it.

The original Ottoman war plan was basically about starting with a defensive approach by retreating to Albania in the west and to Rumelia in the east, in order to gain time for the troops positioned in the Asian provinces of the Empire to arrive to the Balkan front. However this plan had been prepared by the former Chief of Staff, Ahmed İzzet Paşa, who was by the time of the outbreak of the Balkan War on duty in Yemen. His successor, Nazım Paşa, did not adopt the plans and instead of preferred to engage the Serbs and the Bulgarians simultaneously. It was a fatal mistake, since the Ottoman army was outnumbered against the Balkan armies. Having lost the Battles of Kırkkilise and Lüleburgaz against Bulgarians and defeated by the Serbs in Kumanovo, the Ottoman army retreated all the way to the Çatalca line at the suburbs of Istanbul. A few fortified towns, namely Ioannina, Shkoder and Edirne were still resisting, and other than these, the Balkan armies were at the gates of the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Since the outlook of the war was desperate, the Sublime Porte accepted armistice on December 3, 1912. Ten days later, two diplomatic congresses convened in London, one among the belligerent nations, the other among the great powers of Europe, where it was agreed to leave Istanbul and the Straits to the Ottomans but to establish an independent Albania. Negotiations among the victors about the sharing of Ottoman territories got stuck, since they could not agree on the new borders in the Balkans.

Assassination of Nazım Pasha (Le Petit Journal, February 9, 1913)

Meanwhile in Istanbul, the CUP has been planning to overthrow the government, not because of the war, but mostly because of internal reasons. In November 1912, when a former opponent of the CUP, was appointed Grand Vizier, the government’s pressure on the Unionists mounted and since the very existence of the Committee was in jeopardy, its leaders, Enver and Talat, decided it was time to take action. The London Conference provided them with the opportunity to give the impression that they were acting on behalf of the Empire, which was on the verge of territorial dissolution, rather than to protect the interests of the Committee.

Raid on the Sublime Porte

On January 17, 1913, the great powers of Europe sent a package of demands to Istanbul, which included the surrender of Edirne to the Bulgarians. It was a very sensitive issue because Edirne, a former capital of the Ottoman Empire, had a Muslim-majority population and it was successfully resisting against the Bulgarian siege. When it became apparent that the government would comply with this demand and let Edirne go, a group of Unionist officers, led by Enver Bey, staged a coup. They raided the Sublime Porte, broke into the hall where the cabinet was having a meeting, shot the Minister of War Nazım Pasha and forced Kamil Pasha to resign. Immediately after this raid, a new cabinet was formed by Mahmut Şevket Pasha, who became both Grand Vizier and Minister of War.

The Balkan states regarded the coup in Istanbul as an opportunity to renew their offensive with the purpose of giving a final blow to the ailing Ottoman Empire. The CUP was insisting for a counter-offensive to be launched from the Çatalca line, however the army was too weak for this and the roads were closed because of the harsh winter conditions. Plans for an amphibious landing at Şarköy to encircle the Bulgarians failed and so did a simultaneous breakthrough operation in the Gallipoli peninsula. Although the Çatalca line managed to hold against the Bulgarian attacks, Edirne could not resist anymore and fell on March 26, 1913.

Enver Bey asking Kamil Pasha to resign during
the raid on the Sublime Porte (Bulgarian postcard, Mehmed Nail Bey collection)

After the loss of Edirne, even the CUP accepted that there was no way out but to accept armistice. Ceasefire was declared on April 16 and with the consequent London Agreement, signed on June 10, all the territories to the west of the line between Enos at the Aegean coast and Midia on the Black Sea coast, including Edirne, were given away.

The Balkan states, however, were still in disagreement about how to share the exploits. Although it did not take part in the war, Romania claimed that Bulgaria’s gains had created an unfair advantage and therefore asked for compensation. Serbia and Greece were similarly unhappy about the sharing of the territories and formed an alliance against Bulgaria. Being aware of what was going on, Bulgaria decided to act pre-emptively and launched an offensive against the Serbs, which marked the outbreak of the Second Balkan War.

Bulgaria had alienated the other Balkan states and now found itself encircled by enemies. This was a good opportunity for the Ottoman Empire to regain lost ground. The problem was, that although the CUP was favoring immediate action, the government and the General Staff wanted to be more cautious. The hesitation of the Sublime Porte could not stop Enver. He and a group of junior officers took the initiative, attacked Edirne and captured the city. The “Hero of Freedom” of 1908 was now the “Liberator of Edirne”. Bulgaria had no other option but to ask for peace and armistice was signed in Istanbul on September 29, 1913.

Although the Ottoman Empire had managed to keep Edirne, most all of its European territories, including places such as Macedonia, Albania and Thrace, which have been the heart of the Empire for centuries, had been lost. Even Salonica, where the CUP was born, was now gone. The Balkan Wars had been a disaster in economic, social and demographic terms. As it was the case after the Turco-Russian wars of 1878, Istanbul was flooded with Muslim refugees. Severe epidemics of typhus killed thousands of people. Those refugees who survived diseases remained homeless for months until they could be settled.

After the coup in January 1913, the CUP began to dominate the internal political scene of the Ottoman Empire. During the first months, there has been no pressure on the liberal opposition, other than asking their leaders to stay out of politics.

CUP leaders including Enver, Talat, Cemal and the new Grand Vizier Sait Halim at a meeting in Istanbul (Cengiz Kahraman collection)

This mild attitude changed on June 11, 1913, when Mahmut Şevket Paşa was murdered by sympathisers of Freedom and Understanding Party. Several arrests have been made and those who have been accused of taken part in the conspiracy were sentenced to death. The CUP took this assassination as an opportunity to strengthen their hold on the government. Enver Bey was promoted twice in a short time and became not only general but also the Minister of War. Talat Bey became the Minister of Interior. The Guardian of Istanbul, Cemal Bey, who had taken part in the Raid on the Sublime Porte, was also made a Pasha. The new Grand Vizier was another leading Unionist, the Egyptian prince Sait Halim Pasha.

This new structure of power is often called a “triumvirate” of Enver, Talat and Cemal. Some authors such as Erik J. Zürcher do not agree and points to other concentrations of power within the CUP. Enver, Talat and Cemal had without doubt a great influence, but they did not have absolute power. Enver Paşa had opponents in the army, such as Cemal Paşa. Local party leaders, called inspectors, and Unionist governors had their own spheres of influence, they were strong an independent. The CUP was led by an internal group of around fifty people representing different factions. What made Talat so powerful was his ability to establish accord among the leaders of these factions.

After 1913, politics in the Ottoman Empire was dominated by the internal structures of the CUP rather than the government. It was the often case that the cabinet faced fait accompli‘s of the CUP. Elections for the Parliament were held in the winter of 1913-14 and although the opposition was not formally banned, it did not take part in the elections. The result was a parliament, rubber-stamping for the CUP.

It did not take more than one year after the disastrous Balkan War, when the CUP and the Ottoman Empire in general found themselves in a greater disaster.