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Saturday, June 21, 2003


This month, History Today has two articles of interest, perhaps, to the LI reader. Philip Mansel, who has written a nice history of Constantinople, abridges that history into 11 pages. Its fascinating and oddly pertinent info -- anybody who has an even cursory knowledge of the history of Istanbul knows that it is nonsense, on the part of the EU, to deny Turkey its place in the organization. Here are two grafs about the last years of Ottoman Istanbul:

"By then the Muslim proportion of the population of Constantinople, hitherto stable at around 60 per cent, had fallen to around 44 per cent. In 1900 the population of the city reached a million. While other international cities such as Vienna and Prague were becoming avowedly German or Czech, the balance of forces between the Palace, the Sublime Porte, the embassies, the mosques, the Patriarchates, the barracks, the bazaars and the port kept Constantinople a truly international city. Economically as well as diplomatically, it became part of the system of Europe. European banks were built in Galata, and took control of the government debt, the tobacco industry and much else. From the sultan down, the Ottoman elite wore clothes modelled on, and often made in, western Europe. Europeans even threatened some of the most sacred Ottoman buildings in the city. Panels of magnificent Iznik tiles were removed from imperial mosques, and sold to western museums such as the Louvre and the Victoria and Albert Museum, while the last powerful sultan, Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1909), was still on the throne.

In its last years as Ottoman capital, Constantinople, more than ever, became a world city. As the seat of the Muslim caliphate and capital of the last independent Muslim state to resist the advance of European imperialism, it captured the hearts and pockets of Muslims from Bosnia to Sumatra. However, in November 1914 the decision of the Minister of War Enver Pasha to take the empire into the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary led to defeat and foreign occupation. After the war, in 1919-24, the Khilafat movement, supported by Indian Muslims, Gandhi and some Hindus, developed as a mass nationalist protest, sometimes violent, against the occupation of Constantinople, the 'seat of the caliphate', by British, French and Italian troops."

There's also a nice appreciation of Marshal Zhukov, Stalin's commander, that quotes the unstinting laudations of Eisenhower -- in fact, Eisenhower seems to have considered Zhukov the great general of WWII. Zhukov has been more in the news, lately, due to Beevor's book about the battle of Berlin. We haven't read the book, but the portrayal of the drunken, raping Russians has been with us since John Toland's popular history of the end of the war. Beevor fronts rape as it hasn't been fronted in military history, which is good. But that the Soviet army bears the onus of atrocity is, to us, a little suspicious. The millions under Zhukov's command had witnessed what the Nazis did in their advance into Russia, and they were maddened by it all -- and by it coming within thirty years of the last German advance into Russia, in 1918, which seems, frustratingly, to be thrust into the deep dark background by most historians of these matters. There's a nice review of Beevor's book by Norman Stone in the Atlantic that is more skeptical about Beevor's theses and picture than most. To read about the Soviet-German encounter, between 41 and 45, is to encounter, ironically, just the kind of opera Hitler dreamed of -- the End of the World theater. An opinionated survey of the Soviet war effort on line reveals, among other things, that Stalin's appointment book shows that the old story of Stalin having a nervous breakdown in the first days of the war is untrue. It also attributes to Zhukov the idea of holding Moscow against the Germans, surely a key turning point in the war.

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