Weakened Ottoman Power and the Albanian Rebellions of 1909-1912

A Review of The Failure of Ottomanism: The Albanian Rebellions of 1909-1912, by James N. Tallon

This dissertation deals with the Albanian Rebellions of 1909-1912. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the authority of the Ottoman Empire had been openly questioned by internal and external factors. As Tallon asserts, on the one hand, emerging ethno-nationalism challenges Ottoman authority, and on the other hand, the European powers intervened in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire for the benefit of the Christian subjects. Under these circumstances, the Ottoman state tried to adapt a number of reforms and ideologies to maintain its unity and sovereignty as well as to minimize the increasing intervention of the European powers.

The dissertation is composed of four chapters. Through the combined use of Ottoman and British archival materials, this dissertation has attempted to make a contribution to the literature in various ways: First, it aims to provide a detailed interpretation of the Albanian Rebellions of 1909-1912 for the purpose of looking beyond the existing historical and scholarly narratives. In a way, Tallon “synthesizes” these events into a “coherent narrative”. Second, this dissertation tries to situate the Albanian rebellions within the broader narrative of the late Ottoman Empire. Third, it attempts to demonstrate that these rebellions offer an illustrative example of how borderland territories were incorporated into the fold of the Ottoman Empire by the Committee of Union and Progress (thereafter CUP) government. Furthermore, the author argues that this process of incorporation is certainly comparable to similar experiences of “Weakened Powers”.

Chapter 1 starts with the general overview of the “Eastern Question” and argues that it had various aspects and involved a series of political, religious and geographic questions regarding the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, this chapter discusses the subject of nationalism in the Balkans. According to Tallon, the standard argument focused on the issue of nationalism and used a nationalist framework as the explanatory model for the events and transformations that took place throughout the Ottoman Balkans in the nineteenth century. Rejecting this standard approach, the author suggests that the history of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans is to be examined not only from the perspective of nationalism. Indeed, he emphasizes that frequent wars and occupations, the increasing power of the Habsburgs and Romanovs over the Ottoman Balkans as well as the local powers, such as ayans, hayduks, klephts, and armatolos challenged and undermined the authority of the Ottoman Empire in this region.

In Chapter 2 Tallon attempts to explore the developments in Albania within the late nineteenth century Ottoman context by pointing out that the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 played a central role in the relationship between the Albanian provinces and the Ottoman Empire. He states that “this moment became a watershed for Ottoman-Albanian relations until 1912” (p. 57). This argument is supported by the reference to the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin, according to which “the Ottoman Empire was forced to cede territory within the Albanian Provinces to Montenegro and Greece” (p. 57). It is interesting to note that these conditions led to the formation of the League of Prizren, an organization consisting of mutual defense groups and nascent Albanian nationalist organizations, for the purpose of defending the territorial integrity of the Albanian provinces. More specifically, the League of Prizren took up arms in order to prevent the implementation of the articles of the Treaty of Berlin. Tallon further claims that this organization is supported by Abdülhamid II since the defining characteristics of the Hamidian regime were to maintain the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire and the sovereignty of the Sultan. The author, however, reminds that while the main consideration of Abdülhamid II was to survive in a world dominated by the European powers, the primary interest of the League was “Albania’s standing with non-Albanians” (p. 64). In addition, Tallon points out a very significant dimension of the Hamidian regime stating that during the reign of Abdülhamid II the Albanians were incorporated into the administrative, bureaucratic, and military apparatus of the Ottoman state but, at the same time, Albanian nationalism developed.

The third chapter, titled “Ottoman Reform, Peripheral Incorporation, and the CUP’s War for Centralization” argues that the transformations and changes that took place in the Ottoman Empire throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century had a great impact on the Albanian Rebellions of 1909-1912. The main point dealt with in this chapter is to analyze center-periphery relations as well as to discuss the incorporation of the periphery into the center. During this period, the Ottoman center carried out various reforms to meet the current political, social, and economic needs of the day. It is remarkable that these reforms were made to cope not only with the internal needs but also with radical external influences and changes, which mobilized a resistance against the Ottoman center. Within this framework, this chapter introduces a brief account of the centralization process throughout the nineteenth century, providing a detailed examination of reforms carried out by the CUP administration. It also aims to demonstrate how the periphery was perceived by the Ottoman authorities and what kind of measures were employed by the Ottoman government. According to author, the centralization process of the Tanzimat and the Hamidian regime is quite similar to that of the CUP. It is important to remember that during the early years of the CUP administration, the Ottoman Empire lost a significant portion of its territory, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, and Crete. In a way, Tallon notes, “to eliminate any further encroachment by foreign powers into the Empire, the CUP sought to undermine and/or co-opt potentates and organizations that might ‘invite’ foreign intervention” (p. 90). It seems clear that with this aim in mind, the CUP administration made certain attempts and implemented various mechanisms to standardize imperial structure and to incorporate the periphery into the fold of the Ottoman center. Here the only thing beyond doubt is that when Ottoman authorities tried to monopolize the power throughout the Empire as well as to challenge the local powers, the last ones reacted to the Ottoman imperial structure. In other words, the more the CUP administration tried to put under control the geographical extremes of the Empire, such as Kurdistan, Yemen, and the Albanian provinces, the more obvious it became that the local powers reacted violently to the centralization and incorporation process. One should not forget that, in addition to the centralization policies, the CUP authorities adopted “civilizing mission” so as to “modernize” its own periphery and to integrate the border areas into the imperial center. Furthermore, in this chapter the author emphasizes the unique position of the Albanian provinces. For him, these provinces had a unique position because the Ottoman ruling elites regarded the Albanians and the Albanian provinces as vital to Ottoman authority in the Balkans. Secondly, many Albanians held important positions in the Ottoman government and army. Finally, the Albanian provinces were significant not only because they had a strategic position but also because they were open to the interventions of the European powers. In the last part of this chapter, the author argues that rebellion was a very common phenomenon in the late Ottoman history and briefly mentions the rebellions and social unrests that took place in the Ottoman Empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for providing the historical contextualization of the Albanian Rebellions.

The main objective of the last chapter is to illustrate how internal and external dynamics challenged the traditional structure of the Albanian provinces as well as to show the reaction of the Albanians to the process of incorporation. This chapter is devoted to the Albanian Rebellions of 1909-1912 by focusing on the determining factors that led the Albanians to rebel against the CUP administration. Here, Tallon pays due attention to CUP’s centralizing measures and policies such as tax collection, censuses, and conscription, and argues that these policies dramatically altered the existing local structure in the Albanian provinces, especially in İşkodra and Kosova. Furthermore, he points out that these two provinces lacked infrastructure and educational institutions, which caused deep resentment among their inhabitants. In this respect, the author underlines one of the most important arguments of his dissertation stating that “these concerns were far more pressing for the populations in the Albanian Provinces than an abstract nationalist sentiment, although a notion of nationalism was developing” (p. 129). In this chapter, the Albanian Rebellions are divided into three phases. The Albanian Rebellion of 1909 broke out shortly after the restoration of the Constitution in 1908. Certain individuals in Kosovo, who became loyal to the Sultan during the reign of Abdülhamid II, appeared to be opposed to the CUP administration. For instance, Isa Boletini, who had been one of the most favorite Albanians of Abdülhamid II, did not accept the CUP and its new policies, i.e., compulsory military service, regular tax collection, and censuses. Isa Boletini attacked Mitrovica and then a counter-action was taken by Cavid Paşa. By the summer of 1909, a rebellion broke out in Firzovik, which was south of Mitrovica. At the same time, other Albanian provinces expressed their discontent against the CUP administration. Following the examination of the Albanian Rebellion of 1909, Tallon analyzes the rebellion of 1910. According to him, this rebellion began as a tax rebellion in the Kosova vilayet and Isa Boletini and other rebels engaged in rebellious activity against the Ottoman forces in the spring of 1910. Accordingly, the Ottoman Empire decided to send more than 15,000 troops to the region. However, the rebellion spread quickly across the other regions and the rebels occupied some strategic points, including Kachanik Pass and Crnelova Pass. As the Ottoman troops controlled the region, the rebels fled across the border into Montenegro. At the end of this rebellion, the CUP administration decided to provide modern infrastructure but at the same time, decided to close Albanian schools and banned newspapers. For Tallon, the Albanian Rebellion of 1911 was significant for the following respects: First, during this revolt a new national Albanian flag was unfurled. In addition, Ottoman forces concentrated not only on the Albanian rebellion but also on a war with Italy. Finally, during the course of this rebellion Muslim and Christian rebels worked together. It needs to be highlighted that while the Ottoman government made great attempts to put an end to the rebellion and to carry out the reforms, the Albanian provinces voiced their own demands, such as the recognition of an Albanian nationality, the establishment of Albanian language schools, decentralization of the provincial administration, and the appointment of Albanian speaking valis and officials. In the last part of this chapter, the author examines the Albanian Rebellion of 1912 arguing that the most important phenomenon regarding this rebellion “was the division within the Ottoman forces in the Albanian provinces” (p. 192). Moreover, desertion increased and decimated Ottoman ranks in the region. Rebels had captured the most important cities in the Kosova vilayet and then had captured Üsküb. By mid-August 1912 an agreement was reached with the rebels.

Through a clear, empirically grounded analysis of the Albanian experiences in the late Ottoman history, this dissertation not only contributes to Ottoman studies in general and Balkan studies in particular but also provides a comparative perspective to the study of  the “Weakened Powers”. As Tallon eloquently states, the Albanian Rebellions “were characterized as a struggle between rising state power in the center and stubborn provincial resistance to a perceived encroachment on local rights” (p. 195). To be more specific, when analyzed from a historical perspective, these rebellions cannot be understood by overemphasizing the notion of nationalism and describing the events from the standpoint of a clear-cut nationalist conflict.

Pınar Şenışık
Division of Humanities and Social Sciences
Doğuş University

Primary Sources
Prime Ministry Archive (Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi-BOA), Istanbul, Turkey
Foreign Office, British Public Records Office, Great Britain

Dissertation Information
The University of Chicago 2012. 232 pp. Main advisor: Holly Shissler

Image: Skopje (Albanian: Shkup) after being captured by Albanian revolutionaries in August, 1912 after defeating the Ottoman forces holding the city. Wikimedia Commons.

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