How the Young Turks went from Carnegie Hall to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
On Sunday, September 6, 1908, at 7:30 pm a “Grand Mass Meeting” to celebrate the establishment of a new constitutional government in the Ottoman Empire took place in New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The occasion commemorated the Young Turk Revolution, which had succeeded just months before in pressuring Sultan Abdulhamid II to restore the Ottoman constitution of 1876, and with it the Ottoman Parliament, ushering in a new era of multi-party politics—a maneuver heralded as a triumph against absolutism.
The echoes of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution reverberated around the globe—from Istanbul to Cairo, Paris to New York.
Flyers announcing the festivities had been distributed among the different ethnic groups in Manhattan inviting them to attend. With the trilogy of the French Revolution—“Liberty! Fraternity! Equality!”—across the top, the flyer indicated that the event was organized by the Young Turks, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and the Hunchakist Party with “the participation of all the Ottoman Elements in New York, Turks, Syrians, Greeks, Hebrews, Albanians, etc.” The honorary presiders at the event were to be His Grace Archbishop Yeznig Abahouni, the Armenian Primate of the Eastern Diocese; the Honorable Dr. Tiryakyan Khan, once the personal physician of the Shah in Persia; and the Honorable Munji Bey, Ottoman Charge d’Affaires in Washington.
A 1908 New York Times article described the event: the stage in Carnegie Hall was festooned with Ottoman flags and small banners in Armenian and Ottoman Turkish “Hurrah for the Young Turks!” read one; “Hurrah for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation!” said another; and one in French trumpeted “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” A letter from President Theodore Roosevelt was read during the event, congratulating the Ottoman Charge d’Affaires and expressing his pleasure on the occasion of this commemoration.
Indeed, the echoes of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 reverberated around the globe. From Istanbul to Cairo, Paris to New York, the exiled/émigré communities of the Empire celebrated and hailed the new era in the Ottoman Empire. Constitutionalism and parliamentarism would now be the cure to the maladies that had befallen the empire, curbing the power of the monarchy and putting an end to its absolutist regime.
For Armenians in particular, the Revolution was seen as a promising beginning. Among the different ethnic groups, Armenians had suffered the most under the absolutist regime of Sultan Abdulhamid II, so they had a vested interest in the realization and the success of the Revolution. However, the hopes and expectations raised by the Revolution and new constitutional era soon proved to be illusory.
Despite its advertised virtues, constitutionalism failed to create a new understanding of Ottoman citizenship, to grant equal rights to all citizens and bring them under one legislative assembly, to finally resuscitate Ottomanism from the ashes of the Hamidian regime. The revolutionary and post-revolutionary efforts were imbued with ambiguities and contradictions, and the leaders both of the Revolution and of the Empire’s ethnic groups could not reach a compromise regarding the new political framework.
Despite its advertised virtues, constitutionalism failed to create a new understanding of Ottoman citizenship, to grant equal rights to all citizens and bring them under one legislative assembly.
The Young Turks’ ruling party, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), played a significant role in the failure of this new political era, for it was never wholeheartedly committed to constitutionalism. For them, constitutionalism was only a means to an end: to maintain the integrity of a centralized Ottoman Empire. In fact, they were determined to preserve the empire even if that meant violating the spirit of constitutionalism itself, as they later demonstrated in their coup d’etat of January 23, 1913.
The CUP did not shy away from pursuing authoritarian policies. When it was faced with a choice between maintaining political progressivism and preserving the empire, it gradually hijacked first the legal system and then the executive branch to protect its vital interests. In extreme cases, it resorted to the use of violence to clamp down on opposition groups, including the liberals, Arabs, Albanians, Greeks, and Armenians.
The Adana massacres of 1909, during which more than 20,000 Armenians were killed by reactionary forces amidst the counter-revolution, was a turning point. Armenians lost any remaining confidence in the 1908 Revolution and its architect, the CUP. Criticism of the Young Turks’ vision and version of Ottomanism did not remain confined to the Armenians, but extended to the Arabs, Albanians, Greeks, and Zionists.
The CUP responded to the rising tide of ethnic nationalism and agitation by strengthening its grip over the Empire, and on the eve of World War I—faced with both imaginary internal threats and real external threats—the CUP began implementing its most radical version of nationalism yet: the homogenization of Anatolia. Through demographic engineering, annihilation, extirpation, and assimilation of Armenians and other Christian groups, they transformed a multicultural society of Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians, and Greeks into the heartland of Turkish nationalism. In the final phase of the collapse of the Empire, the Armenian Genocide became the most successful and extreme manifestation of this homogenization process.
It is difficult to imagine that those celebrating the promise of the 1908 Revolution at Carnegie Hall would have imagined that only a few short years later their vision of a new era in the modern Middle East would ultimately end with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian Genocide, and the beginning of colonialism.
The hopes that swept the region in the wake of the Young Turk Revolution were resurrected a century later in the wake of the Arab Spring (2010-). Similar festivities celebrating the hope of revolution and the downfall of absolutist regimes took place in Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen. However, as euphoric feelings faded, once again the real litmus test of the new, supposedly “democratic” political orders began.
Monarchies in Jordan and Morocco held power peacefully by initiating reforms, cabinet changes, and greater freedom of speech. In Egypt, after the failure of a genuine democratic process, a new regime rose to power with authoritarian tendencies resembling the Mubarak regime. In the case of Syria, the revolution failed and a bloody civil war began, one that continues to claim the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians on a daily basis. The latest surge of violence in Yemen demonstrates how fragile the country has been since the Ottoman period.
Since the French Revolution of 1789 the real challenge for human societies has been the transition from ancien régimes to new orders through the medium of revolutions. In this regard, the Middle East is no different: understanding the past revolutions of the region is crucial to a thorough understanding of the current turmoil. Revolutions are unpredictable phenomenon that carry in them unexpected scenarios—from genocides and bloody civil wars, to the regrowth of authoritarian regimes, and only in rare cases, peaceful transition to democratic political systems. The hundreds of thousands of individuals who participate in these revolutions, without whom there are no revolutions, typically do not have control of the ultimate outcomes or the collateral damage. But they are the ones who pay the highest price in revolution: dying for the cause.
Stanford University Press blog
A blog series in commemoration of the centennial.
Stanford University Press blog
The nationalist fervor that led to the Armenian Genocide still haunts us today.
New Books Network
On Shattered Dreams of Revolution by Bedross Der Matossian.