Arming the Sultan: German Arms Trade and Personal Diplomacy in the Ottoman Empire before World War I

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By: Naci Yorulmaz

Publisher: I.B. Tauris

London, UK: I.B. Tauris, 2014. 349p. $72.00. £68.00. ISBN: 978-1780766331. Ebk: 1877 KB. ASIN: B00QHCH2IS.

Volume: 2 Issue: 12

December 2014

Review by:

Ramazan Hakkı Öztan,

University of Utah

Salt Lake City, UT

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78 not only brought about a financial catastrophe for the Ottomans due to losses of territory and tax base, topped with war indemnities and refugee inflow, but it also meant the end of Ottoman membership in the Concert of Europe. It was, therefore, right after the Treaty of Berlin (1878) when the Ottoman-German rapprochement began to crystallize. The maintenance of good relations with Germany was a cause Abdulhamid II (r.1876-1909) dearly championed, as the Sultan knew only too well the fatal implications of increased Ottoman isolation in the great age of imperialism. The existing literature has so far addressed certain aspects of this relationship, such as the famous Baghdad Railroad Project, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visits to the Ottoman Empire (in 1889 and 1898), and the ideological impact of Germany on the Ottoman officers. Yorulmaz contributes to this literature by examining Germany’s rise as the dominant arms supplier for the Ottoman Empire in the post-Berlin period.

Yorulmaz, an economic historian by training, pays particular attention to the significance of personal diplomacy in the German arms trade with the Orient, examining, not only the roles played by the Sultan and Kaiser, but also the agencies of high- and mid-level German and Ottoman bureaucrats. The first chapter provides a broad view of Germany’s entanglement with the Ottoman Empire and analyzes what Yorulmaz calls the period of a first wave of German expansion from the Ottoman request for the dispatch of German military advisers in 1880 to the Kaiser’s visit to the Ottoman Empire in 1898. Of particular interest here are the discussions on Bismarck’s personal involvement with German war industries — he even leased part of his estate to a powder factory! — and the ways Bismarck promoted the German arms trade abroad. One of those places that witnessed a significant level of economic penetration was the Ottoman Empire where German influence only gained pace after Wilhelm II’s coming to power in 1888 and his visit to the Ottoman capital a year later.

The second chapter, aptly titled ‘German Military Advisers: Businessmen in Uniform,’ is where Yorulmaz highlights the direct correlation between the dispatch of German advisers to the Ottoman Empire in 1882 and the corresponding increase in German arms sales to Constantinople. Here, the author first provides brief profiles of the German military advisers in Constantinople and the posts they had served over the years. One German military adviser who certainly stood out among his peers was Goltz Pasha (1843-1916) who would serve as an adviser to the Ottoman Sultan in multiple capacities from 1883 to 1895 — a career crowned by his later round of visits when he was asked to inspect the Ottoman armies in the Young Turk era. Here Yorulmaz provides a number of anecdotes whereby he establishes Goltz Pasha as an important middleman between the palace quarters in Constantinople and the arms firms and political figures back home.

Next, in what appears to be the most engaging chapter of the book, Yorulmaz zooms in on two important contracts the German firms secured: 1) the selection of Krupp guns in 1885-6 for the fortification of the Straits; and 2) the hefty contract awarded to the Mauser Company for the purchase of half a million rifles and 50,000 carbines (topped with 100 million cartridges). The former purchase was done after the suggestion of Goltz Pasha to fortify the Straits in a preventive measure against Russian aggression. The timing of both orders is telling, as they came right in the midst of the crisis over the Bulgarian annexation of East Rumelia (1885) which certainly heightened the security concerns of the Ottomans. The role played by Goltz Pasha in securing the latter contract seems more evident than his role in the first deal. In the end, it was Goltz Pasha who suggested that the German company establish the right contacts among the Ottoman higher-ups in order to ward off competitors in Constantinople. As Yorulmaz notes, “the Mauser rifle may not have been the best rifle but it was certainly the best-marketed” one (p.115).

Chapter four turns attention to the results of the Kaiser’s second visit to the Ottoman Empire in 1898. After a fascinating account of the visit which the author aptly situates within the larger German policy of Drang nach Osten (Drive to the East), Yorulmaz briefly examines few of the important results borne out of the trip: the concessions secured for the Baghdad Railway Project; the Port of Haydarpasa; the telegraph lines from Istanbul to Berlin; and finally the establishment of a German-Palestine Bank — all illustrating the extent of the penetration of German capital into the Ottoman economy. The chapter ends with a discussion of how Wilhelm II made a number of personal interventions that secured contracts for German arms firms at the expense of their European competitors — a useful thematic section that would have perhaps fitted better to the earlier parts of the study, as it disrupts chronological flow.

Problems of chapter design persist in the next chapter where Yorulmaz provides a portrayal of the Ottoman motivations in aligning with Germany in the aftermath of the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78. Here the author skillfully illustrates both Abdulhamid II’s personal influence in arms purchases and his unyielding preference for German-made weapons. Yorulmaz observes further that the Ottoman-German rapprochement came to cultivate a cadre of pro-German officers in the Ottoman military ranks who played into the Sultan’s personal preference for Germany through providing an endless supply of reports that praised the superiority of German weapons. While this chapter complements the book’s overall emphasis on the significance of personal diplomacy, it still reads more like a detailed introductory piece that recaps many of the points already made in the preceding chapters.

The last chapter examines the period of the Young Turk rule from 1908 until 1914, particularly looking at the fate of the German firms after the dethronement of Abdulhamid II in the Counterrevolution of 1909. Here Yorulmaz illustrates how technical superiority as well as competitive prices began to factor in the way in which the Young Turk leadership approached the issue of arms purchases. Yet, the promotion of such objective criteria that initially seem to have worked against the German interests only lasted briefly. The German firms slowly recovered their position, particularly by securing large orders from Constantinople in the months leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. The author ends his discussion by briefly discussing the naval procurements in the post-1908 period in an attempt by the Young Turks to re-invigorate the Ottoman navy long neglected by Abdulhamid II.

Yorulmaz’s study is a welcome addition to the literature. With an exemplary use of the Ottoman, German, British, and American records, the author makes a significant contribution to the field through an empirically rich analysis. Yet, the study’s conceptual frameworks leave much to be desired. The author puts forth ‘German style of war business’ and the role of ‘personal diplomacy’ to explain Germany’s domination of the Hamidian arms purchases, but I remain unconvinced to what extent these tactics were at all peculiar to the Germans. In the end, geo-political calculations (e.g. the growing Great Power rivalries and the increasing prestige of German arms following the 1870s) seem to weigh in more heavily in dictating the course of Ottoman purchases. On another note, “three successive waves of German expansion,” as suggested by the author, do not seem to yield a useful periodization in analytic terms. Finally, Yorulmaz’s work could have benefited from a more careful chapter design. As it stands, the monograph is composed of chronological and thematic chapters, with the end-result of overlapping emphasis and repetitive content.

These minor quibbles aside, Yorulmaz’s study is a comprehensive and insightful account of the German-Ottoman rapprochement in general and the German arms trade with the Orient in particular. Its particular value lies in its ability to detail how the German military advisers in Constantinople came to promote the interests of the German military-industrial complex. Moreover, the study is valuable in illustrating how hefty governmental contracts, such as arms purchases, emerged as an important component of the Ottoman diplomatic repertoire of ‘saving the State.’ A must-read for the specialists, Arming the Sultan… provides much-needed insight into the workings of the global arms trade in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

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