An Ottoman Imperial Nation?

A review of Une nation impériale. Construire une communauté politique ottomane moderne au lendemain de la révolution de 1908 by Anastasia Ileana Moroni.

Eclipsed in global history by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and erased from memory as a result of the dramatic events of 1912-1923 and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turk revolution of 1908 is certainly a forgotten revolution, a research topic neglected by international historiography. Notwithstanding, we have to admit that the upsetting of the Ottoman political order in 1908 expanded immensely the horizon of expectations of political elites in the Balkans and the Middle East, but also in the Caucasus and Central Asia. One of the central elements of this period was the elaboration of the idea of national sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire; in other words, this meant the redefinition of the source of political sovereignty, i.e. the transfer of legitimation of political power from the dynasty to the nation. But what could this nation be in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire which had experienced a long and tumultuous history of differential government (diverse arrangements, p. 15) of different ethno-religious communities? This is the question that Anastasia-Ileana Moroni sets to answer in her dissertation.

Moroni utilizes various primary sources: the Minutes of the Assembly of Deputies and the General Assembly of the Ottoman Empire; the archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ottoman newspapers published in Ottoman Turkish but also in French. She has also consulted a wide array of secondary sources (in English, French, Greek and Turkish) on this period.

The dissertation is composed of three parts: A revolution in the name of the nation: the 1908 break in its historical continuity (pp. 55-181); The nation claims its sovereignty: the Parliament creates a new principle of legitimation (pp. 185-306) and An imperial nation: national sovereignty consolidated and placed within the imperial continuity (pp. 307-432). Counting also the introduction (pp. 13-51) and the conclusion (pp. 433-456), we are faced with a History dissertation “à la française, distinct from those of the Anglo-saxon academia by their attention to detail, to the smallest pieces of information, to bibliographical references that are not the least sacrificed in the name of a dry writing and a short text.

Moroni stresses in her introduction that her study focuses on the process of the creation of a modern political community (p. 14), that of the Ottoman nation, placing it within its temporality (p. 14) but also taking into account its specificities. In the aim of placing this process in its long as well as in its short (“événementiel, p. 34) timeframe, the introduction includes an enlightening and critical discussion of historiography on the transformation of political structures and political imaginary in the Ottoman Empire from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century; it shows beyond any doubt that the actual nature of change is transformed during the long nineteenth century. In short, this is a brilliant introduction that is necessary before going into the complicated issue that constitutes the object of the dissertation: understanding the 1908 revolution in its historicity, offering in-depth insights on the tension between standardizing (and, therefore, egalitarianist) tendencies, on the one hand, and communitarian (and, therefore, particularist) tendencies, as well as on the characteristics of political struggle within the Ottoman constitutional regime (p. 27).

The first part of the dissertation, titled A revolution in the name of the nation: the 1908 break in its historical continuity (pp. 55-181), is based mainly on the archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and puts the 1908 revolution into perspective. After certain necessary historiographical remarks on the Young Turk revolution as an event, Moroni starts to develop the backbone of her demonstration: the discursive construction of imperial political community as an Ottoman nation (p. 102-112), an operation of discursive self-legitimation on the part of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), self-appointed spokesperson of this nation. These pages constitute the great contribution of the dissertation to studies on the history of the Young Turk revolution. To be followed by a description of the concrete political transformation of the post-revolutionary period: the institutional framework of the new regime; the confrontation between the sultan and the CUP; the CUP’s mobilization of society; the elections of 1908.

The second part, titled The nation claims its sovereignty: the Parliament creates a new principle of legitimation (pp. 185-306), studies in detail the Minutes of the Assembly of Deputies and the General Assembly of the Ottoman Empire. This is, firstly (in chapter 3: The Parliament as a spokesperson of the nation and of its ‘general interests’, pp. 185-243), an approach that stresses the role of the Parliament as an institution in the political life of the Empire in 1908-1909, the revolutionary year that comes to an end with the constitutional revision of the summer of 1909. In other words, continuing on the line set in the previous chapter, this chapter examines the discursive construction of the regime by the Parliament. As stressed by Moroni, this is an approach rarely preferred by historiography on this period, which usually puts the stress on extra-legal struggles and this makes for the originality of this chapter. The following chapter (chapter 4, Defining and defending the ‘general interests’ of the nation: the limits of the consensus, pp. 245-306) focuses on the different versions of Ottomanism, i.e. the different ways of defining the Ottoman nation. It analyzes discussions on how to incorporate the different ethno-religious communities into the Ottoman nation, a political community that its representatives in the imperial Parliament are in the process of imagining.

The third part, titled An imperial nation: national sovereignty consolidated and placed within the imperial continuity (pp. 307-432), starts with a study of the incident of April 13, 1909 (let us note here that Moroni criticizes the use of the term counter-revolution to describe this episode, p. 326, note 53), as a founding event of the regime, and of the Parliament’s reaction to this bloody insurrection. This episode leads to a gradual re-founding of the constitutional regime: this will mean a consolidation of the regime, a consolidation which, paradoxically, will take place under the Martial Law proclaimed when the insurrection was oppressed. In other words, it is when it is solemnly affirmed that the Ottoman Empire is in extraordinary conditions (p. 346), that the true revolutionary period commences. The transfer of sovereignty to the nation is then sanctioned (p. 346), most importantly through the constitutional revision of the summer of 1909, a process meticulously studied and finely analyzed in the dissertation (pp. 371-401). In her demonstration, Moroni stresses that this transfer of sovereignty was achieved by placing the constitutional regime in the Islamic and imperial historical continuity. The rest of the third part focuses on legislation that defines the limits of rights and liberties (pp. 401-432); this is essential for understanding the oscillation of the new constitutional regime between liberty and order.

The conclusion (pp. 433-456) is an enlightening discussion of historical constraints that weighed on the process of discursive construction of the Ottoman imperial nation, a nation without a people (p. 436).

In conclusion, suffice is to say that Moroni’s dissertation is not only a remarkable contribution to Ottoman studies in general and to the 1908 revolution in particular, but also a stimulating study on citizenship adapted to a multi-ethnic empire (p. 31). It thus offers important insights on the genesis of citizenship in the contemporary era, as well as on the process of the discursive construction of political communities, commonly called nations.

Özgür Türesay
Political Science Department
Galatasaray University, Istanbul

Primary sources:

Minutes of the Assembly of Deputies and of the General Assembly of the Ottoman Empire (Meclis-i Mebusan Zabıt Ceridesi; Meclis-i Umumi Zabıt Ceridesi)
Archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (AMAE)
Ottoman- and French-language Ottoman newspapers

Dissertation information:

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. 2013. 514 pp. Supervisor: Maurice Aymard.

Image: Postcard commemorating a demonstration of the Greek community of Izmir rejoicing at the restoration of the Constitution.

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