Britain, France, and Russia each sought to benefit from the slow crumbling of the Ottoman empire. After seizing Algeria in the 1830s, France cast its attention on other Ottoman-ruled lands. Russia schemed to gain control of the Turkish straits—the Bosporus (BAHS puh rus) and the Dardanelles. Control of these straits would give the Russians access to the Mediterranean Sea.
Britain tried to thwart Russia's ambitions, which it saw as a threat to its own power in the Mediterranean and beyond to India. During the Crimean War in the 1850s, Britain and France joined forces to help the Ottoman empire resist Russian expansion. By the late 1880s, however, France and Britain had extended their own influence over Ottoman lands. Finally, in 1898, the newly united German empire hoped to increase its influence in the region by building a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway.
Since the late 1700s, several Ottoman rulers had seen the need for reform and looked to the West for ideas. They reorganized the bureaucracy and system of tax collection. They built railroads, improved education, and hired Europeans to train a modern military. Young men were sent to the West to study science and technology. Many returned with Western political ideas about democracy and equality.
The reforms also brought improved medical care and revitalized farming. These improvements, however, were a mixed blessing. Better health care resulted in a population explosion. The growing population increased competition for the best land, which led to unrest.
The adoption of Western ideas about government increased tension. Many officials objected to changes that were inspired by a foreign culture. For their part, repressive sultans, rulers of the Ottoman Turkish empire, rejected reform and tried to rebuild the autocratic power enjoyed by earlier rulers.
In the 1890s, a group of liberals formed a movement called the Young Turks. They insisted that reform was the only way to save the Ottoman empire. In 1908, the Young Turks overthrew the sultan. Before they could achieve their planned reforms, however, the Ottoman empire was plunged into the world war that erupted in 1914.
By the late 1800s, Turkish nationalism had grown stronger. In the 1890s, it took an ugly, intolerant course.
The European powers hoped to carve up the crumbling Ottoman empire for themselves. How do you know which figure in the cartoon represents the Ottoman empire?
Traditionally, the Ottomans allowed its diverse religious and ethnic groups to live in their own communities and practice their own religions. By the 1890s, however, nationalism was igniting new tensions between Ottoman rulers and minority peoples. Spurred by Turkish nationalism, Ottoman rulers feared a further breakup of the empire. These tensions led to increasing persecution and eventually a brutal genocide of the Armenians, a Christian people concentrated in the eastern mountains of the empire. Genocide is a deliberate and systematic killing of people who belong to a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group.
The Muslim Turks accused Christian Armenians of supporting Russian plans against the Ottoman empire. Using this as a pretext, they installed repressive policies against the Armenians in the 1890s. When Armenians protested, the sultan had tens of thousands of them slaughtered. Survivors fled, many of them to the United States. Still, over the next 25 years, another million or more Armenians were killed by the Turks or died from disease and starvation. The Armenian genocide would reach new heights during World War I.
How were efforts to Westernize problematic for the Ottoman empire?