Young Turk Revolution

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The City of Salonika, where the Young Turk Revolution began.

The Young Turk Revolution of July 1908 reversed the suspension of the Ottoman parliament by Sultan the Abdul Hamid II, who abdicated, marking the return to Constitutional government. The Young Turk movement brought together various intellectuals and dissidents, many living in exile and officers in the army, especially those based at the headquarters of the Third Army Corps in Salonika. Although inspired by the spirit of nationalism that was sweeping through Europe which had already had cost the Empire most of its Balkan provinces, the movement promoted a vision of a democratic multi-national state. Some support for the movement came from Bulgarians, Arabs, Jews, Armenians and Greeks. Various Young Turk organizations combined in 1906 forming the Committee on Union and Progress (CUP), which would govern the Empire from 1908 until 1918.

The Revolution restored the parliament, which had been suspended by the Sultan in 1878. However, the process of replacing existing institutions with constitutional institutions proved much more difficult than expected and before long power was invested in a new elite, led by the Grand Vizier. The movement wanted to modernize and democratize on the one hand while on the other it wanted to preserve what was left of the empire. The promised decentralization was abandoned when the leaders realized that this compromised security. In fact, the periphery of the Empire continued to splinter under pressure from local revolutions. Indifference from former allies such as the British which, as did France had ambitions in the region, the Young Turks were compelled to embrace Germany as an ally in the hope that this would preserve the empire. Instead, this alliance led to the Ottoman defeat in World War I and to the end of their own power after the war. However, they laid some of the ground on which the new nation-state of Turkey would be built under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, himself a Young Turk. The potential democratization project represented by the Young Turk Revolution had at the time no parallel among other imperial powers, such as the British and French, whose leaders were nowhere near contemplating granting self-determination to their African and Asian possessions.


The Young Turk movement began among exiled Ottomans in places such as Paris and Geneva. It was influenced by the French Revolution and in turn influenced the Constitution of 1876. That Constitution had been suspended by the autocratic Sultan, Abdul Hamid II in 1878. The movement, however, continued to gather momentum. The Young Turks wanted a democratic solution to the Empire's problems, which included the need for economic reform, tax reform and halting any further disintegration. From 1881, Ottoman finances were handled by the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, appointed by European creditors. Almost all Balkan provinces were now independent states. Although nationalistic, the Young Turk movement opted for a multi-ethnic understanding of the Ottoman space. By granting greater autonomy to different ethnic groups it hoped to preserve the Empire. The movement was "fighting for the modernization and strengthening of the Empire, under Western constitutional principles, and these included the equality of all races."[1] On the one hand, Europe's emerging constitutional monarchies provided the model they wanted to imitate; on the other hand, they wanted to end European influence and interference in Ottoman affairs. Support for the movement came from diverse groups, including some of the different ethnic and religious communities.[2] In 1906, the various Diaspora-based organization united with the Salonika-based Ottoman Society for Liberty to form the "Committee of Union and Progress" (CUP), effectively a political party. This new organization was dominated by the officers of the Third Army. Fearing the army, the Sultan was starving it of funds.[1] In an effort to "throttle the conspiracy" the Sultan deployed thousands of secret agents but it continued to thrive. Although some members wanted to abolish the sultanate, most wanted to impose constitutional limitations on the sultan's power. From the outset, members believed that a revolution would be necessary to end the sultan's authoritarian rule.

Congress of the Ottoman opposition

Two congresses of opposition to the Ottoman regime were held, one in 1902 and the other in 1907. The second occurred in Paris, France. The leadership included Ahmed Riza, Sabahheddin Bey, Khachatur Maloumian. The goal was to unite all parties, including Young Turks, to advance the revolution. The "Second congress of the Ottoman opposition" took place in Paris, France in 1907. Opposition leaders including Ahmed Riza (liberal), Prince Sabaheddin, and Khachatur Maloumian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation were in attendance. During the meeting, an alliance between the two parties was officially declared. The ARF decided to cooperate with the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), hoping that if the Young Turks came to power, autonomy would be granted to the Armenians.

The Revolution


It was, in the end, continued discontent in the 3rd Army Corps that sparked the revolt. Major Ahmed Niyazi, fearing discovery of his political ideas by an investigatory committee sent from the capital as part of the intensive campaign to crush the movement, headed for the capital on July 3, 1908 with 200 followers demanding restoration of the Constitution. The sultan's attempt to suppress this uprising failed, due to the popularity of the movement among the troops, who refused to fight and among general population and the rebellion spread rapidly. The CUP issued its revolutionary proclamation on July 6.[3] On July 24, Abdül Hamid announced restoration of the constitution. People took to the streets rejoicing, expressing the ideals of the revolution with placards reading "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Justice" in "red and white," the colors of the Ottoman flag, "aping the tricolor cockades in Paris in 1789."[4] Greek bishops were embraced by Muslims as Turks embraced Armenians and even attended their memorial services for those massacred in the bloody attacks of 1896, for which Abdül Hamid became known as the "red Sultan."

Reconvening of the Parliament

Elections were held and parliament was re-opened by the Sultan on December 17th. Although it has spearheaded the revolution, the CUP only won 60 of the 275 seats. However, they were the largest party. The first issue they faced was the general breakdown in law and order, the need to restore stability. This included inter-ethnic conflict. The new leaders faced a stark choice; deal harshly with unrest from the center and restore order or proceed with decentralization, which might endanger security and the unity of what remained of the Empire. The reality was that while the movement had preached the "gospel of harmony" even within parliament the different ethnic groups were squabbling and demanding privileged. By March 31, 1909 a counter-coup took place, aiming to re-instate the authority of the Sultan. A few days later, the Army regained power on behalf of the Young Turks. Abdül Hamid was forced to abdicate 27 April 1909 and replaced by Mehmed V, who died on the eve of the Ottoman defeat in 1918. He was succeeded by the last sultan, Mehmed VI, who was deposed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1922 when the Sultanate was abolished.

Turkification and the German Alliance

Before long, alliances of the Young Turks and expatriate organizations of various ethnic groups, such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, began to fracture, and even the Young Turks struggled to find consensus even among themselves. Power was in effect exercised by the Grand Vizier and elite party members. According to Fromkin, real power was wielded by the CUP's Central Committee "of about forty members" and especially "its politburo of about twelve members."[5] The so-called "coup of 1913" gave prominence to a triumvirate of three ministers, the minister of the interior, Mehmed Talat Pasha, the minister of war, İsmail Enver, and the naval minister, Ahmed Djemal, effectively ending democracy and reinstating the very type of centralized, authoritarian rule that the Young Turk Revolution had set out to abolish.

Instead of enthusiastically supporting the policy of racial harmony, different groups saw the revolution as a sign of the Empire's weakness, and agitated for independence.[6] Foreign powers also took advantage of the situation; in 1908, Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia and Hercegovina "nominally still Turkish," the "Balkan League" annexed almost all of "the territory the Ottoman Empire still had in Europe" and Italy took Lybia, Rhodes and several islands.[7]

Two consequences followed. First, the Young Turks decided that the best policy was to encourage the development of Turkish identity across the Empire to create solidarity across the various ethnic groups. This is referred to as Turkification, a reversal of the original multi-ethnic vision. They passed measures that fixed the number of Armenians and representatives of other groups who could sit in parliament and rigged election to "ensure that most of the deputies belonged to the CUP."[8] Turkish was proclaimed the language of both education and of the administration, which alienated almost all non-Turks, not least of all Arabs. Use of Turkish in the judicial system "led to discontent, inconvenienced judicial officers and litigants and threatened the administration of justice."[9] Various national movements as well as a pan-Arab national movement were already popular in parts of the Empire. During World War I, the Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca and his sons led an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, aiding the British in the Middle Eastern theater. The CUP was soon associated with "Turkish despotism" just as the sultan had been, and regional leaders warned of the dangers of Turkification which was also represented as anti-Islamic due to the "personal impiety of CUP members."[10]

Second, the CUP became convinced that while they wanted to end European influence, without a strong European ally "their domains were in mortal danger."[11] Britain already controlled Cyprus and Egypt and had a string of capitulations, as did France. These were mini-colonies, where foreign law not Ottoman law prevailed. Britain, formerly an ally, had washed its hands of the Ottomans. Russia was considered but retained ambitions of its own in the region. France was approached but rebuffed any alliance. In fact, Britain and France had more or less picked out which provinces they intended to acquire, which they did after World War I. This left Germany, a nation which had been cordial since the era of Otto von Bismarck. In August, 1914 the Ottoman Empire signed a mutual defense treaty with Germany. This led the Empire into World War I as one of the Axis Powers, resulting in a humiliating defeat. Subsequently, the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 stripped the rest of the Empire away. Under Atatürk, who had distinguished himself by winning the Battle of Galippoli thus salvaging some Turkish pride, led an independence movement against the CUP government, asserting that the Turkish people should not be blamed for aligning the Empire with Germany and that the government, not the people, should accept blame for excesses during the war. Following a war in which he defeated allied forces again, the nation-state of Turkey was recognized by the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923.


Mazower describes the City of Salonika, where the Young Turks dreamed of creating a multi-national state, as for over five centuries one of the most tolerant and diverse communities in Europe. Clashes did take place from time to time but for much of its history Salonika showed how different religions, cultures and ethnic groups could thrive and inter-act peacefully, with each lending to and borrowing from the other. By the end of World War I, this community was destroyed, along with the Ottoman Empire of which it had been a part.[12]

The Young Turk Revolution in almost all respects failed to deliver what it promised. It promised democracy and decentralization but delivered authoritarianism and centralization. It promised racial-harmony and equality and participation in the state by all ethnic groups, but ended up attempting to impose a single identity on everyone. As ethno-linguistic nationalism swept through Europe, this became the basis for the emergence of many new states, including those that broke free in the Balkans from Ottoman rule. World War I saw two multi-ethnic empires disintegrate: the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian; both fractured into a series of independent, homogeneous nation-states. Skeptics argue that only mono-cultural states can thrive, that wherever a linguistic-ethnic group forms a majority, it ought to become a state. The failure, however, of the Ottoman experiment was not entirely the fault of the Ottomans or of the CUP. The CUP wanted to preserve the empire but faced both regional nationalism and the predatory ambitions of other powers. The ethno-linguistic homogeneous nation-state was gaining popularity at the same time as the multi-cultural empire was under external threat. The Young Turks might have coped with the former threat by granting the autonomy they had promised, ensuring a just distribution of wealth, employment and opportunity. It was in the face the external threat from jealous powers that, in desperation, the Young Turks turned to centralization and what became known as Turkification.

If multi-cultural societies are doomed to disintegrate, this bodes ill for the future of an increasingly inter-connected and inter-dependent world. Among others, Samuel P. Huntington argues against the vitality or desirability of multi-cultural societies, arguing that "a country of many civilizations, which is to say, a country not belonging to any civilization and lacking a cultural core" cannot thrive.[13] Only human cooperation can build a more just and peaceful world; a world where the cultural and religious Other are only tolerated when they live somewhere else, or accept discrimination unless they assimilate fully to the dominant group, will remain a divided, conflict-prone world. The conditions in which the Young Turks attempted their experiment were unfavorable. However, as migration and global trends produce more and more places like Salonika, ways need to be found to enable multi-cultural and multi-religious communities not merely to survive but to flourish and thrive.

Significant results of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution were:

  • The gradual creation of a new governing elite.
  • Opening a path for consolidation over the Ottoman civil and military administration, especially after the Coup of 1913.
  • The Committee of Union and Progress became the new power center in Ottoman politics.
  • The Armenian Revolutionary Federation replaced the pre-1908 Armenian elite, which had been composed of merchants, artisans, and clerics who had seen their future in obtaining more privileges within the boundaries of the state's version of Ottomanism.
  • The Muslim Albanian elite, who had greatly benefited from the Hamidian regime in return for their loyalty to the sultan, was also replaced by an intellectual-nationalist elite. With members such as Bajram Curri, Nexhib Draga, and Myfit Libohova, the revolution aimed at uniting Albanians of three different faiths and called for reforms for the benefit of all Albanians.
  • In some communities, such as the Jewish, reformist groups emulating the Young Turks ousted the conservative ruling elite and replaced them with a new reformist one.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Misha Glenny. 2000. The Balkans: nationalism, war, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999. (New York, NY: Viking. ISBN 9780670853380), 214.
  2. Glenny, 2000, 212.
  3. The Young Turks: Proclamation for the Ottoman Empire, 1908. Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University. Retrieved December 21, 2008.
  4. Glenny, 2000, 216.
  5. David Fromkin. 1989. A peace to end all peace: creating the modern Middle East, 1914-1922. (New York, NY: H. Holt. ISBN 9780805008579), 44.
  6. Glenny, 2000, 218.
  7. Fromkin, 45.
  8. Arthur Goldschmidt and Lawrence Davidson. 2006. A concise history of the Middle East. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press. ISBN 9780813342757), 208.
  9. Hasan Kayalı. 1997. Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1918. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520204447), 92.
  10. Kayalı, 95-96.
  11. Fromkin, 45.
  12. Mark Mazower. 2005. Salonica, city of ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 1430-1950. (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 9780375412981)
  13. Samuel P. Huntington. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of world order. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780684811642), 306.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fromkin, David. 1989. A peace to end all peace: creating the modern Middle East, 1914-1922. New York, NY: H. Holt. ISBN 9780805008579.
  • Glenny, Misha. 2000. The Balkans: nationalism, war, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999. New York, NY: Viking. ISBN 9780670853380.
  • Goldschmidt, Arthur, and Lawrence Davidson. 2006. A concise history of the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. ISBN 9780813342757.
  • Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780684811642.
  • Kayalı, Hasan. 1997. Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1918. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520204447.
  • Mazower, Mark. 2005. Salonica, city of ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 1430-1950. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 9780375412981.


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