Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Istanbul once Constantinople

Now as that song goes Istanbul was once Constantinople, but although many suppose this happened just when Constantinople was taken by the Ottoman Empire, but no, it was only after the Ottoman Empire fell did Istanbul become Constantinople. Why?

Nobody knows but the Turks.

Actually it was probably just a matter of nationalism. Afterall if one force was driving the end of the Ottoman Empire it was an explosion of conflicting nationalist impulses. If there was an inherent difference between the revolutions which doomed the German Empire and Russian Empire and the revolutions that doomed the Chinese Empire and the Ottoman Empire is that G and R rev.s were driven by socialists, while C and O rev.s were primarily nationalist driven. One could say that as a matter of development. But that's far, far too simplistic.

First of all, the socialists in the G and R rev.s were often somewhat nationalistic, even if they hid it. Part of the appeal of socialism is its promise of making your nation the forefront of development and that was very much in the mind of those revolutionaries. Also, there was a far left presence in the Chinese and Ottoman revolutions, especially in the Chinese case. But a good counter-example to the claim that the differences were due to development or perhaps due to geography was the example of the Austro-Hungarian revolutions, which while sometimes Communist (notably in Hungry) were often first and foremost nationalist.

The key point the Chinese, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires shared was their multi-national composition, and unlike the Russian Empire, their diversity was to the point where the ruling ethnicity was far from the majority. This was particularly acute in the case of the Chinese who were ruled by a thin layer of Manchus. This made it easy to direct the revolutionary impulse into a nationalist one, because the struggle to modernize which often drove much of the dissatisfaction in these governments could be portrayed as a struggle between an oppressed nation and a foreign ruler. It is notable that in the Russian rev., the Tsarina was often emphasized as German for a similar effect.

But the difference between the Chinese rev. and all the others is that the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German and Russian empires all collapsed in World War I. Three of the four, minus the Germans, struggled deeply and largely unsuccessfully with modernization. The Germans on the other hand were successful. Yet all had to deal with restive minorities, although the Germans less than most. The fates of the revolutions were different though. Turkey's revolution led to a moderately authoritarian but stable modernizing government, Russia's revolution broke off sections into independent states but most become the USSR, the Austro-Hungarian revolution shattered the empire into small states, each with an unstable mix of nationalism and socialism. And the Germans...

The Germans were left with an unstable democracy which under better circumstances might have stabilized (after all, France had a chronically unstable democracy since 1870, but it remained democratic), but instead spiraled into the hell which was Nazism.

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