Why Fiction: History, Politics, and Real Human Costs
The gradual disintegration of the Ottoman Empire underlies much unrelenting war, revolution, and vast human suffering that occurred throughout the nineteenth century. The diplomatic issues, for Britain at least, associated with that process are generally referred to as “The Eastern Question.” I stumbled into it researching my next novel. “The Eastern Question” has the dry tone of an academic thesis or the blandness of political discourse. Tidy papers drawn up by politicians in the comfort of Parisian palaces or quiet Swiss cities when the powers negotiate treaties offer cold words and no compassion. For the human story, the real human cost, we’re better off relying on novelists.
First a brief outline of the political history: The Ottoman regime began with the fall of Constantinople and the defeat of the Byzantine Empire by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, and reached its peak one hundred years later under Suleiman the Magnificent. During that period the empire reached the gates of Vienna, absorbed what are now Hungary, Algeria, Iraq and all of the Balkans and held control of most of the Mediterranean. After Suleiman, the empire enjoyed stable if stagnant reign for almost five hundred years before it limped, weak, and disintegrating, into the nineteenth century.
At the end of the Napoleonic wars the Congress of Vienna set out to restore stability and sufficient equilibrium in all of Europe to avoid the kind of unceasing warfare that plagued it for a century before. The Ottoman Empire was not invited to Vienna. Revolution in Serbia, the Russo-Turkish war, and rumblings in Greece had already weakened the empire and would complicate the well-laid plans of the four major powers, Britain, Prussia, Russian and Austria.
In any power vacuum both internal and external factions begin to vie for power. In my novel Dangerous Weakness (set in 1818 and to be released in September), the hero tells the heroine that the weak Ottoman Empire didn’t concern Britain but expansionist Russia did. Russia in fact received territory after the Russo-Turkish War and was given more (parts of what is now both Moldova and Ukraine) by the Congress. It fostered revolution among various Ottoman vassals and territories. Revolutionary
movements and the push-pull of territorial ambitions between Russia and the Ottomans continued throughout the nineteenth century, with Western Powers sniffing around for their own advantage and often intervening as they did in the Crimean War.
By the twentieth century Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria had won independence from the Ottomans, but various members of those and other ethnic groups remained under Ottoman control. The
resulting Balkan Wars of 1912-1914 resulted not only in a military conflagration, but in large numbers of displaced people as Turkish refugees fled the Balkans for Turkey.
The internal factions among and between the Balkan countries and inside each of them are too complex for a short article. It is sufficient to say that such factions prolonged conflict, worked against stable solutions, and generated yet more suffering. The Balkan Wars have been called the prelude to World War I. While western histories focus on the trenches of France, the slaughter on both sides at Gallipoli was horrific. In the midst of that conflict, internal strife continued. The Ottomans expelled (or systematically murdered) the Armenian ethnic peoples. Peace in France in 1918 did not result in peace in the East.
At the Paris peace conference Damat Ferid Pasha, an Ottoman official, said, “Keep [the] Ottoman Empire as an umbrella over the Middle East. If you don’t, I say 100 years, you say 200 years: no peace in the Middle East.” They did not.
Turkey itself unraveled. Revolutions in Greece and Turkey continued. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 ostensibly ended a conflict involving Britain, France, Japan, Italy, Greece, and Turkey and set the borders of modern Turkey. So much for politics.
The lives of Christians, Jews, and Muslims; Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Slavs, and Kurds had been, in reality, intertwined in shared territory for generations. War, revolution, and factional strife fostered ethnic clashes, rape, looting, massacres and deportation. In the aftermath of these wars, the stories of Greek, Turkish, and Armenian atrocities abound. Whole populations died, others fled, some were forcibly removed. The city of Smyrna burned to the ground.
In practical terms, the provisions of “peace” at Lausanne in 1923 devastated families living in Greece and Turkey. 350,000 Muslims were forcibly expatriated from Greece to Turkey. 200,000 Christians (in addition to the hundreds of thousands that fled or died after Smyrna) were forcibly expatriated from Turkey to Greece. Armenian Christians were welcomed by neither and died in the millions.
Words, in the end, fail me. To tell one group’s story of that terrible period is to neglect the other, and their stories have been documented better elsewhere. I believe the human story belongs to the novelist, the storyteller, or bard, and not to the historian or the politician. Art and literature about the sufferings of the people abound in various languages.
I searched for examples of novels in English that cover this terrible period and the various horrors that took place. I found these. Thanks also to Kathryn Gauci for additional suggestions. Perhaps you can suggest more.
The Thread by Victoria Hislop
The Embroiderer by Kathryn Gauci
The Palace of Tears by Alev Lytle Croutier
The Rage of the Vulture by Barry Unsworth
Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis
The Stone Woman by Tariq Ali
Mother Land by Dmetri Kakmi
The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric
Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian
For historical background information see:
The Eastern Question: http://staff.lib.msu.edu/sowards/balkan/lect10.htm
The Asia Minor Catastrophe and the Burning of Smyrna: http://www.kathryngauci.com/blog/
World War I in the East and its aftermath: http://tinyurl.com/l64u665