Sick Man of Europe: The Decline of the Ottoman Empire

"The sick man of Europe" was a term used for the Ottoman Empire during the last two hundred years of its existence, from the 18th to the 20th Century.

Oct 1, 2021By Igor Radulovic, MA History Education, BA Art History
massacre chios delacroix congress berlin von werner
The massacre at Chios, by Eugene Delacroix, 1824; with The Congress of Berlin, by Anton von Werner, 1881

 

The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic state, which at the height of its power in the 16th and 17th centuries controlled most of Southeastern Europe, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, parts of North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. From a border emirate in the 13th Century, the Ottoman Empire grew to become a powerful Islamic state, after its conquest of Arab lands.

 

After the campaigns of Suleiman the Magnificent, from Central Europe to the Indian Ocean, it became the largest Mediterranean and European power. But, as with every empire, it started to decline over time, becoming known as the original sick man of Europe.

 

Crisis in the Ottoman Empire

expansion the ottoman empire
Map showing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1700, via Britannica.com

 

At the end of the 18th century, the crisis of the Ottoman Empire manifested itself through a crisis of its military system. The Ottoman army, (its organization and equipment) still lagged significantly behind the armies of the major European powers. In addition, the arbitrariness of local lords had severe economic and social consequences. The country was gradually engulfed in chaos, and state finances became thinner. It was clear to the smartest and most sober heads of the Empire that comprehensive and thorough reforms were needed.

 

However, any attempt at reform would jeopardize a multitude of vested interests and could potentially damage many acquired rights and privileges. The idea of ​​reform immediately provoked fierce resistance from numerous forces in society.

 

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The deepest roots of the crisis in the Ottoman Empire lay in the gradual decline of its very foundations. The empire was based on the feudal system, a system upon which the military and economic strength of the state relied. Under the influence of both internal factors, and the slow but persistent penetration of economic influences from Europe, this system began to be disrupted as early as the end of the 16th century.

 

The Eastern Question

sultan selim III the ottoman empire
Sultan Selim III, by Konstantin Kapidagli, ca.1807, via the V&A Museum

 

The division of the “sick man of Europe” seemed imminent. But there were a couple of great forces that wanted their part of the cookie. That is why the Eastern Question (as the division of the Ottoman Empire is typically called) marked 19th-century politics. Russia had the most interest in the Eastern Question. During the peace treaty of 1774, it gained the right to protect Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France, on the other hand, advocated the survival of the Empire because of their economic interests in the Mediterranean.

 

The Ottomans, weakened by military defeats and Christian revolts, embarked on a series of major reforms in the early 19th century. The endorsee of these reform ideas was Sultan Selim III, who came to the throne in the year the French Revolution began. From the beginning, his greatest efforts were directed towards the recovery of state finances and the reform of the army. His main goal was to reorganize the army according to Western models —which is why it was necessary for him to liquidate the iconic janissary order, as well as the cavalry, to introduce permanent military service. Together with this, a new organization of administration and finance was necessary.

 

Further Reforms

janissary the ottoman empire
A Janissary “Of War” with a lion, by Jacopo Ligozzi, 1577-1580, via the MET Museum

 

But the sick man of Europe couldn’t heal so easily. The new Sultan Mahmud II succeeded in resolving the question of the Janissaries by defeating them with an army and abolishing them altogether in 1826. Mahmud II also introduced a series of progressive measures in the Ottoman Empire, regarding state, military, and administrative organization. He was remembered in Ottoman history as a great reformer in all spheres of life. He was a great modernizer and set a personal example by wearing European suits and attending concerts, operas, and ballets at foreign embassies. The French language in Istanbul became a sign of culture.  But all this offended many orthodox Muslims, and religious institutions were left out of the reforms.

 

No matter how progressive the new reforms were, there was always something that held the Ottoman Empire back. Even capable rulers, such as Mahmud II couldn’t prevent what was about to happen. The sick man of Europe was dying from a disease that would not be cured.

 

Revolutions in the Balkans

the massacre at chios eugene delacroix
The massacre at Chios, by Eugene Delacroix, 1824, via joyofmuseums.com

 

For centuries, the Balkan nations preserved their ethnic and spiritual identity and individuality, living under Ottoman rule. The social and religious barriers that existed between the feudal Muslim lords and the Christian commonality prevented their rapprochement and political integration. That is why the people of the Balkans became involved in resolving the so-called Eastern Question in the 19th century. The first revolution broke out in Serbia, followed by revolutions in Greece, Romania, and other countries that lasted until 1878.

 

The Eastern Question again became the center of European politics, when a large uprising of peasants in Herzegovina, broke out in 1875. The uprising soon spread to the whole of Bosnia. Serbia and Montenegro set out to help Bosnia in the fight against the Ottomans, and as a result, the war grew into a first-class European issue — the Eastern Crisis. In this war, Serbia and Montenegro regained several important cities and increased their territory. Russia, as the victor in the war in March 1878, imposed the San Stefano Peace Treaty on the Ottomans. Its provisions provided for the creation of a large Bulgarian state through which Russia would further control the Balkans.

 

The Congress of Berlin

congress of berlin the ottoman empire
The Congress of Berlin, by Anton von Werner, 1881, via German Historical Institute, Washington, DC

 

But the major powers were not satisfied with the decisions made in San Stefano. A new peace treaty was signed, this time in Berlin. The Congress of Berlin was held from June 13 to July 13, 1878, and representatives from Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, and Ottoman Empire participated. The decisions of the Berlin Congress ended the Great Eastern Crisis, a significant segment of the long-term solution to the Eastern Question.

 

Although the main issues, in the broadest terms, were resolved by the Congress, its course was interwoven with difficulties. Even though certain provisions were altered, the situation did not improve much for the Ottoman Empire. Most of its territories were lost and most of its influence vanished. The empire was slowly disappearing — and no one could prevent it.

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

sultan abdul hamid II
Portrait of Sultan Abdul Hamad II, via Britannica.com

 

The new sultan, Abdul Hamid II, protested against these decisions, but to no avail. Hamid became distrustful and flooded the country with spies. Death sentences were passed every day. The situation in the country forced young progressives to go abroad, where the Young Turk Committee was created. Abdul Hamid was faced with a series of questions that arose.

 

The Ottoman state was drowning in problems, one of the biggest being its debts to foreign creditors, which enabled the full interference of European powers in the economy of Turkey, which became a semi-colonial country. Abdul Hamid ruled despotically, and more and more cruelly and the resistance of the people led by the progressive youth grew stronger.

 

By 1891, a group of Turkish intellectuals and officers established the Committee for Union and Progress in Geneva, headed with the task of leading the struggle to overthrow the sultan and introduce democratic order to the country. The committee was approached by young officers mostly stationed in Macedonia, and representatives from oppressed nations, such as the Macedonians, Armenians, and Arabs, also showed up. The uprising known as the Young Turk Revolution led to the overthrow of the sultan.

 

New Wars, Old Problems

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The Treaty of Bucharest, via the American Historical Association

 

The Ottoman Empire became a constitutional monarchy. The newly appointed sultan had to take an oath before Parliament to respect the Constitution, to work in accordance with Sharia Law, and be loyal to the homeland and its people. All this, however, did not bring about the desired result, because the people living under Turkish rule did not want to be subjugated. Serbs, Bulgarians, Arabs, Armenians, and Albanians still did not accept the Ottoman state.

 

An uprising engulfed Albania, which became independent. The first Balkans War then brought new troubles to the empire, because the Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Montenegrin armies joined forces. The goals of these allies included dividing Macedonia, liberating Thrace, and attacking Edirne and Istanbul itself. The losses to the Turkish army were in the thousands. The Bulgarians conquered Edirne and massacred the Muslim population in Thrace. The country was engulfed in chaos and the sultan was completely powerless.

 

The Sick Man of Europe: It Can’t Get Any Worse

the ottoman empire territorial losses
The Ottoman Empire’s Territorial Losses, created by Stanford Jay Shaw and Malcolm Edward Yapp, via Britannica.com

 

World War I brought new hardships and threats. Defeat in the same showed one thing — the empire could no longer exist. At the end of The First World War, the “Sick man of Europe” was in the loser’s camp, and the victorious powers determined the fate of the Turks. The Ottoman Empire witnessed the occupation of Istanbul by the French and British armies. In addition, it was announced that the city and the entire strait zone would be taken away from the country and placed under international administration.

 

By peace treaty, most of the Ottoman Empire was plundered by France and Britain. For the Ottoman Empire, all this was very humiliating. In a word, the future was bleak. The forces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire, unwilling to come to terms with the complete defeat and destruction of their once great country, decided to oppose the new order, which surprised and discouraged both the victors and the defeated.

 

The Ottoman Empire: From Empire to Republic

mustafa ataturk sick man of europe
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, via Turkishlearning.org

 

In 1920, a civil war broke out, in which one faction supported the sultan, who was in turn supported by Great Britain. On the other side were nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. On April 23, 1920, the Grand National Assembly in Ankara elected Mustafa Kemal as president, and Ankara has since become the capital of the Turkish nation. Assisted by Bolshevik Russia in arms, Mustafa Kemal stopped the sultan’s army.

 

However, this new system of government could not function as long as there was a parallel government in Istanbul, led by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed VI. Both governments, in Ankara and Istanbul, claimed sovereignty over the country, with openly conflicting goals. Ataturk eliminated this problem on November 1, 1922, abolishing the Ottoman Empire, which had existed since 1299, and officially transferring power to the Grand National Assembly.

 

The Sick of Man of Europe was no more.



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By Igor RadulovicMA History Education, BA Art HistoryIgor is a historian and a history teacher from Podgorica, Montenegro. His main focus are contemporary history and controversial historical topics. He still likes researching different periods, spanning from ancient to modern history.