Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Have you ever played Jenga? You and your friends or family take turns removing bricks from a tower of bricks, slowly building the tower higher while also making it increasingly unstable. Sooner or later, someone takes out that fateful brick which brings the whole thing crashing to the ground. Your shaky tower of bricks is perhaps the best metaphor for the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Controlling large amounts of territory in southeast Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and even in Central Asia, the enormous Ottoman Empire had more than its fair share of problems by 1800. As the rest of this lesson will explain, the events of the 19th century only exacerbated these significant problems.
Prior to the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had experienced a series of military defeats and subsequent territorial losses. Wars against Russia, Austria, and other European states caused the Ottoman Empire to lose significant portions of its European territory in the Balkans, as well as several important ports on the Black Sea to Russia. Prior to these defeats, the Black Sea had essentially been an Ottoman lake, with all coastal territory controlled by the empire.
As a result of these losses in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, various Ottoman sultans attempted modernizing reforms to enhance the empire's ability to compete with its European rivals, but each time conservative elements within the empire, often from within the Janissary army, ended these efforts. These failures were followed by further defeat in the later 18th century to Russia, Austria, and others, and by the time fighting concluded, the Ottoman Empire had lost all of its European territory north of the Danube River, as well as the Crimean peninsula and most of its territory on the north shore of the Black Sea to Russia.
The problems for the Ottoman Empire - by now being called by many commentators 'the Sick Man of Europe' - were not only military defeat and territorial loss. The numerous wars the Ottoman Empire had fought in the 18th century had left its economy hopelessly depleted and its bureaucracy too stilted and entrenched to adequately meet the problems.
In prior Ottoman administrations, positions and promotions within both the bureaucracy and the army had been based on merit, but by the 19th century, this system had given way to one that made appointments hereditary, which had a largely detrimental effect on governmental efficacy. To make matters worse, the Ottoman Empire suffered under a succession of weak and ineffectual monarchs who were ill-equipped to rule and surrounded by advisors who, by and large, served their own interests rather than those of the state.
These bureaucratic problems were compounded by a severe economic crisis in the Ottoman Empire. Not only had the wars cost the empire dearly, but a severe agricultural crisis in the late 18th and early 19th centuries further hurt the empire's wallet. The Ottoman Empire had experienced these crises before, but in previous generations the Ottoman economy had been supplemented by the income that came with prior Ottoman territorial conquests. With the empire now losing territory, this was no longer a possibility.
Though these problems were significant, this did not stop Ottoman rulers from trying to implement positive reform. For example, in 1827 Sultan Mahmud II eliminated the troublesome and conservative Janissary army, replacing it with an entirely new army under his direct command. Administratively, the bureaucracy was made more efficient and various departments and offices were created for the specialized management of sectors of the Ottoman Empire, such as trade or agriculture. New educational standards were also introduced, which promoted higher education for the elite and a wider reach of primary education for the population at large. Further reforms were attempted in the 1830s by Mahmud's successor, called the Tanzimat Reforms, but many of these largely failed.
Even Mahmud's helpful reforms appeared to be a case of 'too-little-too-late' as the Ottoman Empire was coming apart at the seams. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Ottoman Empire lost control of Egypt to France and later Great Britain, and the Greeks fought a successful war for independence in the 1820s.
The most dangerous threat to Ottoman territory came from the expansionary Russian Empire. Russia had ambitions in the Balkans and in central Asia, most of which was territory controlled by the Ottomans. In fact, in 1853, Russia instigated a war against the Ottoman Empire based on trumped up charges of Ottoman persecution towards members of the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church. When the Ottoman Empire ignored the requests for special concessions to church members, Russia invaded and occupied the Ottoman Balkan provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia in October 1853.
The Ottoman Empire and the international community were outraged by the Russian aggression. The Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia. Great Britain and France followed suit in March 1854. The Ottoman Empire and its allies were technically victorious in the ensuing Crimean War, pushing Russia out of Ottoman territory by the time the war ended in 1856. However, the war caused heavy casualties on all sides and the enormous expenditure of conducting a massive, international war crippled the already ailing Ottoman economy.
The empire received little reprieve from fighting. In the 1870s, the growth of nationalism in the Balkans led to several independence movements in the empire's Balkan territory. Bosnia-Herzegovina successfully declared independence in 1875 and was soon under Austrian control. Yet another war with Russia followed from 1877-1878, where the Ottoman Empire lost large portions of its Balkan territory, with those states either becoming independent or part of Russia's or Austria's burgeoning empires. In the wake of these fresh defeats, the Ottoman government remained in disarray. A forward-thinking constitution was instituted in 1876, only to be suspended in 1878. At 1900, further reform seemed absolutely necessary if the Ottoman Empire was to survive as a state.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War I, it is tempting to view the Ottoman collapse as the precursor to its early 20th-century failure. Though the Ottomans' 18th and 19th-century struggles did not cause its 20th-century collapse, they did create the conditions that made such a collapse possible.
Multiple military defeats not only forced the Ottoman Empire almost entirely out of Europe but also made the empire appear vulnerable to its European rivals. What's more, the continuous territorial losses to Russia, Austria, and others in Europe and North Africa deprived the empire of important sources of income. Coupled with the agricultural loss the Ottoman Empire experienced in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire faced a significant economic crisis throughout the period. Bureaucratic and military reform in the century, like that attempted by Sultan Mahmud II, could only go so far to alleviate these deep problems.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons