In 1914 the Ottoman Empire controlled 2.4 million sq km of territory, including all of modern-day Turkey and most of the Middle East. The empire was dominated by the Turks but also included Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Armenians and other ethnic minorities. Officially the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic Caliphate ruled by a Sultan, Mehmed V, although it also contained Christians, Jews and other religious minorities. For nearly all of the empire’s 600-year existence these non-Muslim subjects endured systematic discrimination and, at times, outright persecution.

In the decade before 1914 the empire experienced a series of political upheavals. The Sultan’s position was reduced to that of a figurehead and power was seized by the so-called ‘Young Turks’ – a group of well-educated Turkish military officers intent on revitalising the empire by introducing modernist reforms. These included ending official discrimination against non-Muslims, encouraging the education and emancipation of women, and increasing the jurisdiction of secular law courts at the expense of Islamic ones. But this process had barely begun to take effect before it broke down under the pressures of war, first in Libya and the Balkans (1911–13) and then against the Allies (1914–18). 

Despite the ambitious agenda of its leaders, in 1914 the Ottoman Empire – which at its height had surpassed its European rivals in wealth and power – now lagged behind all the great European powers in economic, technological and military capacity. Reform was also undermined by emerging Turkish nationalism. The Young Turks championed not only the idea of Turkish nationalism within the Ottoman Empire but also ‘pan-Turkic’ ideals – the ‘reunification’ of the ethnically or culturally related ‘Turkic′ populations of the Caucasus and Central Asia under Ottoman rule. This stance – and its explicit elevation of Turkish identity above all others – was at odds with the realities of a multinational empire and served only to inflame age-old ethnic and religious tensions between the various Ottoman subject peoples.

The pursuit of pan-Turkic aims all but guaranteed war with the Russian Empire, which now controlled most of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Far from shying away from this prospect, pan-Turkic proponents such as Enver Pasha, the Minister for War, actively sought out opportunities for the Ottoman Empire to engage in such a conflict on favourable terms. During the preceding three centuries the Ottoman and Russian empires had fought more than a dozen separate wars against each other, with the Ottomans ultimately losing a substantial amount of territory. Russia’s entry into the First World War on the side of the Allies helped to convince key Turkish leaders such as Enver Pasha to throw in their lot with the Central Powers.

How to cite this page: 'Background - Ottoman Empire', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/ottoman-empire/background, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Jul-2014