Mehmed VI

From New World Encyclopedia
Sultan Mehmed VI.

Mehmed VI, original name in Turkish Latin alphabet Mehmed Vahdettin (January 14, 1861 – May 16, 1926) was the 36th and last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, reigning from 1918–1922. The brother of Mehmed V who died four months before the end of World War I, he succeeded to the throne as the eldest male member of the House of Osman after the 1916 suicide of the heir to the throne. He was girded with the Sword of Osman on July 4, 1918, as the thirty-sixth padishah. He was deposed on November 1, 1922 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the nation-state of Turkey, becoming the last ruler of a dynasty that had lasted for 641 years, the oldest in the world. Through no fault of his own, Mehmed VI found himself enthroned as Sultan as his empire faced defeat in World War I and the almost certain dismemberment of the empire over which he ruled. Facing this stark reality, his main concern was to salvage what he could including his own survival. In spring 1916 his predecessor had contacted the Allies with an offer of surrender. Subsequently, as the Allies began to stipulate the terms of any peace-treaty, Mehmed agreed to almost all conditions, alienating many who saw the treaty as too punitive.

In the process, Mehmed suspended parliament and asserted personal rule. This outraged the burgeoning nationalist movement, led by Atatürk, which argued that the Sultan and the government not the Turkish people were responsible for entering the war, so the people should not be punished. Leading a revolt against the Sultan and the occupying allies, as well as against Greece to determine the Turkish-Greek border, the nationalists won a much more favorable re-negotiation of the peace-terms, established a secular nation-state, reconciled themselves to the loss of empire and sent Mehmed into exile. If Mehmed had sided with the new sentiment that was sweeping through his domain and if he had honored the theoretically democratic constitution, he may have secured a different future for the House of Osman. Unfortunately, like many previous Sultans, he was aloof, isolated and out-of-touch with the people he ruled. If he and his predecessors had decided to treat all their subject equally, a thriving multi-cultural, multi-national state might have shown the world how disparate people can live together in harmony, mutually enrichment and peace. Instead, the empire disintegrated in numerous states, many of which are mono-cultural.

Historical context

From the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire began to decline. A once efficient administrative system had grown cumbersome and unworkable. Unpopular taxes were imposed to finance the extravagant life-style of the Sultans while repayment on loans from European banks to pay for the Crimean War almost bankrupted the empire, causing default. From 1881, the European powers took over financial oversight, running the Ottoman Public Debit Administration. They also demanded capitulations, which were colonial enclaves where their law, not Ottoman law, prevailed. They were busy carving out spheres of influence for themselves, which they hoped one day to transform into full-blown colonial territories. Abdul Hamid II presided over the empire at a time when nationalism swept through its Balkan territories. After a failed revolt in Bulgaria, the Russians intervened to assist their fellow Slavs and defeated the Ottomans in February, 1878. The terms of the subsequent peace treaty, however, were unacceptable to the other great powers, who persuaded Russia to re-negotiate these at the Congress of Berlin. Some territory was returned to the Ottomans but the Congress recognized the independence of Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Montenegro while Austria-Hungary was allowed to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina. Britain, which shortly also occupied Egypt took Cyprus.

Some intellectuals in the Empire believed that constitutional monarchy and an end to privileging Turks and Muslims over other ethnic and religious communities was the best strategy to prevent the further disintegration of the empire. Known as Young Ottomans, or Young Turks, they briefly succeeded in establishing a representative, parliamentary system from 1876 to 1878. Surprisingly, the European powers did not support this and when Abdul Hamid dissolved this in 1878, they did not express any condemnation. From 1878 until the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, the Sultan exercised absolute power. In 1908, the Committee on Unity and Progress (CUP) with strong support from the army, rebelled. The sultan was compelled to reinstate parliament. An election was held and the CUP emerged as the longest single party. Although it lacked an overall majority, it formed the government. Following a second-coup which aimed to restore Abdul Hamid's power, he was forced to abdicate when the CUP successfully ousted the counter revolutionaries. His replacement was Mehmed V. The CUP began aiming to rule as a democratic, Western style government while at the same time ending European interference and intervention in Ottoman affairs. They promised to end all racist policies and to treat all subjects equally. Initially, they had widespread, multi-racial support. This soon changed. Others saw the revolution as indicative of the Empire's decline and demanded autonomy of not independence. In an effort to preserve the empire, the CUP implemented a Turkification program. The logic was that if everyone was Turkish regardless of their religion, all would be happy to remain within the Empire. Ethnic groups would no longer demand independence based on their claim to be a distinct linguistic-ethnic group entitled to become a separate nation-state.

The CUP also began to rig elections and to restrict the number of non-Turkish representatives. In addition, real power was exercised by the Central Committee and by a triumvirate of three ministers. Having set out to end the Sultans absolute power, the CUP started to rule as a political elite; the government was democratic in little but name. Aware that the European powers were beginning to contemplate the total dismantling of the Empire, the CUP believed that the only way to prevent this was to align themselves with a European ally. Although the British had supported them against Russia in the Crimean War, Britain now considered the Ottomans corrupt and their Empire beyond rescue. France was not interested in an alliance, either but Germany was. In fact, ever since the 1878 Congress at Berlin, the Ottomans had enjoyed a cordial relationship with Germany. On the eve of World War, the two empires entered a formal alliance. Mehmed V had no real power but it was the penultimate Sultan who issued the declaration of war against the Allies in November, 1914 calling on all Muslims (since he was also caliph) to support him.[1] This was one of the few political acts that Mehmed V ever did. As defeat loomed, however, he again took the initiative sending an envoy, a British prisoner of war, to the Allies, to sue for peace. He wanted a peace treaty but initially only an armistice was offered.

Mehmed VI's role in peace negotiations

Before any armistice or peace deal could be reached, Mehmed V died and it was Mehmed VI who took over. The Armistice became effective on October 31, 1918.[2] He was much more proactive than his predecessor, dismissing the CUP government, dissolved parliament, appointed his own brother-in-law as Vizier and, as Fromkin says, "ruled by decree".[3] His chief concern was to keep his throne, so "his policy was to seek favor with the allies." The Allies, though, were not in favor of conciliation and imposed hard terms. The British, French and Italians were to occupy the territories they had chosen for themselves, which would become League of Nations mandates. On August 10, 1920, Mehmed's representatives signed the Treaty of Sèvres, which recognized the mandates, removed Ottoman control over Anatolia and İzmir, severely reduced the extent of Turkey, and recognized Hejaz (later Saudi Arabia) as an independent state.

map showing territories ceded Greece by the 1920 Treaty returned to Turkey by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923.

Turkish nationalists, however, were angered by the Sultan's acceptance of the settlement. A new government, the Turkish Grand National Assembly, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had been formed on April 23, 1920, in Ankara. The government of Mehmed VI was denounced and a temporary constitution was drafted. Not only were the nationalists successful in taking control of Istanbul, technically under Allied occupation but they won several victories against the Greeks who were disputing territorial borders and also against the French. Tired of war, the Allies agreed to re-negotiate the Treaty of Sèvres, which the nationalist government refused to ratify. This was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne. Some conditions remained but others, including European oversight of Turkish finances and some of the restrictions on charging shipping through the Turkish Straits, were dropped. Some territory ceded to Greece by the earlier treaty were also returned. The nation-state of Turkey was given legal recognition, the first officially secular Muslim majority country.

HMS Malaya carried the last Ottoman Sultan into exile.

The nationalists were inclined to sever all links with the old regime, including the Sultanate. Recent Sultans had rarely left the palace complex, lived a life-style that distanced them from the people and had overseen the disintegration of the empire. Mehmed VI's own conduct and preoccupation dynastic survival did not win him any friends. The sultanate had to go, to be replaced by a Presidential system. It was abolished on November 1, 1922, and Mehmed left Istanbul, aboard the British warship Malaya on November 17.[4] The last Sultan sailed away into exile. Believing that his life was in danger if he remained in Constantinople, he requested and received refuge in the British Embassy. In the end, says Palmer, he was unable to make a dignified departure from the city, one worthy "worthy of the heir to six centuries of sovereignty."[5] He literally sneaked out of the palace and into the Embassy.


Bound for Malta, Mehmed VI later lived in the Italian Riviera. Shortly before his death, he performed the hajj.[6]

He died on May 16, 1926 in Sanremo, Italy, and was buried at the mosque of Sultan Selim I in Damascus. He was the "first Sultan since the fall of Constantinople who could not be buried in the city which his namesake had conquered."[7] On November 19, 1922 his first cousin and heir Abdülmecid Efendi was elected Caliph, becoming the new head of the dynasty as Abdul Mejid II. However, while recognized by many Sunni Muslims as titular and symbolic head of the world-wide ummah, or Muslim community, in practice the Caliphate had, of recent years, existed in name only. It was really another title of the sultan, and the upkeep of the Caliphate depended on the upkeep of the Sultan. This, of course, was a charge on the Ottoman state. It was quite incongruous for a secular state to continue to finance a religious office. Although it is usually state that the Caliphate was abolished in 1924 what actually happened was that the Turkish state withdrew finance. However, the result was the same. The last Ottoman caliph also went into exile, with hardly a penny to his name. Unlike his cousin, the last Sultan, the last caliph lived on for another 20 years, making him, in fact, the longest living head of the dynasty.[7]


Mehmed VI's brief reign ended six centuries of an imperial polity that, at its best, showed humanity how people of different nationality, religion and races could live together in peace, the Pax Ottomana. At times, to be a member of a religious minority in the Ottoman Empire meant enjoying greater freedom than any anywhere else on earth. Refugees from persecution from elsewhere in the world, including other parts of the Muslim world, found sanctuary in the Ottoman state. If the CUP vision of a multi-national state, where no one faced any discrimination because of religion or race had succeeded, the Ottoman space might have showed the whole world how to deal with diversity and difference. It may not have been too late for Mehmed VI to lead such a program, to offer himself as a unifying symbol to all his subjects. Sadly, there was little warmth between the Sultans and even their Turkish subjects; they were regarded as Ottomans, not as Turks. Mehmed VI's preoccupation with his own survival made him indifferent towards the concerns and needs of his people, who would have suffered much more hardship than he would have from the punitive terms of the treaty he endorsed. His willingness to suspend parliament, asserting personal rule even while the empire crumbled around him, shows that he was not committed to a consultative, shared and broadly participatory system of governance.

House of Osman
Born: January 14, 1861; Died: May 16, 1926
Regnal Titles

Preceded by:
Mehmed V
Sultan of the Ottoman Empire
Jul 3, 1918 – Nov 1, 1922
Monarchy abolished
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by:
Mehmed V
Caliph of Islam
Jul 3, 1918 – Nov 19, 1922
Succeeded by: Abdülmecid II
Titles in pretence

New Title
Republic declared
Sultan of the Ottoman Empire
(Nov 1, 1922 – Nov 19, 1922)
Succeeded by: Abdülmecid II


  1. David Fromkin. 1989. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. (New York, NY: H. Holt. ISBN 08050085781989), 109.
  2. Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw. 1976. History of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521212809), 328.
  3. Fromkin, 1989, 405.
  4. John Freely. 1999. Inside the Seraglio: private lives of the sultans in Istanbul. (London, UK: Viking. ISBN 9780670878390), 317.
  5. Alan Warwick Palmer. 1994. The decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire. (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble. ISBN 9781566198479), 259.
  6. Palmer, 1994, 260.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Palmer, 1994, 269.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Finkel, Caroline. 2006. Osman's dream: the story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. New York, NY: Basic Books. ISBN 9780465023967.
  • Freely, John. 1999. Inside the Seraglio: private lives of the sultans in Istanbul. London, UK: Viking. ISBN 9780670878390.
  • Fromkin, David, 1989. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East New York, NY: H. Holt. ISBN 0805008578.
  • Goodwin, Jason. 1999. Lords of the horizons: a history of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: H. Holt. ISBN 9780805040814.
  • Kinross, Patrick Balfour. 1977. The Ottoman centuries: the rise and fall of the Turkish empire. New York, NY: Morrow. ISBN 9780688030933.
  • Palmer, Alan Warwick. 1994. The decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble. ISBN 9781566198479.
  • Quataert, Donald. 2000. The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. New approaches to European history, 17. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521633284.
  • Shaw, Stanford J., and Ezel Kural Shaw. 1976. History of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521212809.


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