Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Under the crescent: the Ottoman Empire and Europe

In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had difficulty in maintaining its status as a major power. The need to modernize the huge empire became increasingly pressing, as the backwardness in many areas compared with the European powers revealed itself.

The Sultan’s empire in the mid-nineteenth century was still a major power, at least in terms of its geographical territory, which extended over swathes of south-eastern Europe, the southern Black See region, the eastern Mediterranean, parts of North Africa and the Arab world. The Ottoman Empire was around five times larger than the Habsburg Monarchy but with around the same number of people. The two empires were comparable in other ways as well. Like Franz Joseph, the Sultan ruled over a multinational empire in which the 11.5 million ethnic Turks formed the core population but only one third of the total, of whom just 55 per cent were Muslims.

In the mid-nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire experienced a period of reform, known as the Tanzimât era, which culminated in the adoption of a constitution in 1876. These ‘top down’ reforms had been introduced at the instigation of the elite. It was soon evident, however, that the social framework for the industrialization and embourgeoisement of society was inadequate. Palace revolutions, civil war conditions and the constant switching between reform and reaction weakened the effectiveness of the measures.

The power vacuum in the centre gave rise to unrest and rebellion at the edges of the empire, particularly in the Balkans and Arab world. Local potentates challenged the authority of the Sultan, who reacted with force but without being able to exert real control over the situation, so that anarchy soon reigned.

At the same time the ‘Orient question’ became a matter of international concern. The major European powers called for betterment of the situation of the Christian peoples in the Balkans. The struggle for freedom by the Greeks, culminating in their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830, incited a great response in Europe. There was a lively interest at the time in Antiquity, and in the enthusiasm for Hellenic culture the victory of the ‘European spirit’ over ‘Oriental despotism’ was celebrated as a major achievement.

Shaken by internal unrest, the Ottoman Empire had to accept concessions. For the first time, the 1876 constitution placed non-Muslim subjects on the same footing as Muslims, one of the main demands to have been pressed by the European powers.

Translation: Nick Somers


Buchmann, Bertrand Michael: Österreich und das Osmanische Reich. Eine bilaterale Geschichte, Wien 1999

Hösch, Edgar: Geschichte der Balkanländer. Von der Frühzeit bis zur Gegenwart, München 1999

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    Power blocks

    At the start of the war France, Britain and Russia formed the Triple Entente, extending the existing Entente Cordiale between Britain and France. The aim was to curb the ambitions of the German Empire under Wilhelm II to become a major power. Italy joined the war in 1915 on the side of the Entente. On the other side were the Central Powers consisting of the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. In 1917 the USA entered the war on the side of the Entente, marking a decisive turning point that was to lead to the military collapse of the Central Powers.