on August 3, 2001
This is one of my all-time favourite historical works, and I've read a lot of them. David Fromkin tells the story of how the colonial re-adjustments made by England and France during World War I in anticipation of the demise of the Ottoman Empire were ultimately responsible for the continuing mess that is the modern Middle East. It is a story that has been told many times, but seldom with such eloquence and rarely with such a sure eye for the telling detail. Mr. Fromkin has the gift of explication and the ability to really see the big picture. From the fateful voyage of the German warships Goeben and Breslau to the violent death of Enver Pasha in the wilds of Central Asia, and from the fictions of TE Lawrence to the cynical accomodations of Sykes and Picot, the reader is conducted expertly through an incredible but factual story whose ending has yet to be determined. As he shows in other books such as "In the Time of the Americans," Fromkin is a stern critic of the old colonial powers, and some readers may find his account of French and British politics and policies to be a little one-sided, but what really good book isn't? An amazing work of history - six stars!
on April 22, 2011
This is an absolutely first-rate history book: it covers the complexity without simplification, yet tells a riveting story with a huge cast of larger than life characters (Churchill, Ataturk, Lenin, Lawrence of Arabia, and many others). It is also superlatively written.
The book begins with the machinations leading up to the Great War. The Ottoman Empire - in decline for over 300 years, yet a useful "buffer" for the Western powers against the Russian Empire in the "Great Game" - is finally coming apart with the rise of the western-minded "young Turks." That means that it is finally collapsing and Britain and France must decide whether to continue to prop up its vast territorial holdings or to nakedly seek to carve up its territories for the benefit of their own empires. France coveted Syria and Lebanon, GB the rest. In the end, it is what they got.
Once the Great War began, however, the Turks allied themselves with the Germans, for which CHurchill was unjustly blamed (he confiscated two destroyers that Britain's shipyards had just manufactured for the Turks). This led directly to the catastrophically mismanaged invasion of the Dardanelles, in a bid to end the War by pushing a wedge into the Germanic coalition from the South, again Churchill's idea. (Amazingly, the collapse of Bulgaria was what finally ended WWI 4 years later, as the allies entered the gap). As the Turks rallied, the allies turned to making alliances with the Arabs and others under loose Turkish suzerainty.
The greatest accomplishment of the book is to dissect the mentality of British policymakers, which by today's standards was almost ghoulishly primitive. First, they had a 19C colonialist bias, which meant that they were by nature destined to rule the "brown" races, from India to Arabia, for their own good. WHile there was much strategic calculation, such as guarding the Suez canal for freighter traffic, it was principally to maintain the glory of the British Empire as conceived under Queen Victoria. Second, they utterly lacked basic knowledge of not just the Turks, but also the Arabs and Zionists. For example, beyond sensationalist and romantic travel literature, the only available source to understand the Turk was a history written in the 18C! Few of the aristocratic elite spoke any of the languages and most were openly racist and anti-semitic. Third, there were conspiracy theories that would appear absolutely lunatic today (to paraphrase Fromkin). Thus, there were top policy-makers who actually believed that Jews controlled not just the young Turks, but also the emerging Bolshievics and even the German Kaiser's inner circle!
This ignorance and arrogant disregard for other points of view would be laughable were they not responsible for the decisions that set up the system of shakey nation states we see today in the Middle East. To cultivate the non-existent Jewish cabal, the Brits came up with the Balfour Declaration, which recognized the validity of a zionist state. (Interestingly, like many fundamentalists today, this support gained indispensable credence because a state of Jews in Palestine was a Biblical prerequisite for Armageddon and the assumed ascension of Christians to paradise.) In addition, the Brits designated several families, including the Hashemites - Aristocrats chosen first by the Turks and educated in the Harem of the Sublime Port - as a way to gain control over all Arabs tribes as they believed they would obey the dictates of the highest religious authority. Once the Brits chose these people, they were stuck with them, which was how the new states eventually were established.
As the War came to an end, GB and France - now distrustful of eachothers' imperial ambitions to the point that they almost went to war! - were unable to devote attention and resources to nation building, though this did not stop them from setting up what were supposed to become modern states in places that knew neither secular politics nor any sense of national purpose. They just installed people they hoped they could trust (read "control"), which explains who became leaders of what petty kingdoms at that time. Many, though not all of them are still there and almost completely lack political legitimacy over vast territories that were governed by independent tribes under a loose Turkish confederation. It is no wonder that these artificial constructs are so unstable, mixing peoples with modern weaponry and infrastructure who for centuries were isolated and divided by religion, ethnicity, and power politics. The new leaders and their subjects had little idea how to wield the tools of the modern state, while nascent nationalisms were undermining the western empires.
This is the story of the greatest watershed of the 20C: sowing the seeds of the end of western domination as the impulse grew in colonial peoples to govern themselves. Not only did Turkey reinvent itself, but the Soviet Union was born, and the western powers (with the exception of the US) had squandered their human and financial resources catastrophically. Amazingly, what was going on in the Middle East at that time was seen as a backwater sideshow: virtually no one recognized the magnitude of change that was unleashed.
If there is any failing of the book, it is its less diligent effort to penetrate the minds of the Arabs and Turks. The author brilliantly delineates the moribund reasoning from within the 19C western empires, but does not explain what the powerful indigenous peoples were thinking and feeling.
on February 3, 2002
Of course I know the importance of the Middle East in our present times, but I had little idea that the era of its formation was also a critical time for the formation of the ENTIRE modern world. The same events which created the Modern Middle East also caused both World Wars, and hints at the eternal conflict in Bosnia and Yugoslavia as well. And yet, the world of 1914 is so utterly different from our modern times. The start of this book finds the Ottaman Empire "ruling" over Central Asia, Britian in control of 1/3rd of the globe, and European countries still on an Imperial drive to conquer the world as fast as they can. The US was hardly a superpower during these times, and Civil and Womens' Rights are just a glimmer in History's Eye.
The premere draw for this book is the author's use of de-classified materials, which can finally tell us what really happened in the region, and how European powers formed it. Beware, though, as this book is VERY dense with detail; so dense that I often take an hour to read a 5-6 page chapter. It has some flavors of a novel, but the book is certainly not an "easy read." If you soak in all the knowledge, names, locations, and dates of this volume, you will become a relative expert on the Middle East!
And yet, don't expect a complete understanding of the Modern Arab nations and the Islamic groups which reside in them. The Middle Eastern nations of the book's time period, 1914-1922, are about as different from their current condition and conflicts as the Civil War United States is from our modern country. The major wars between Israel and the Arab nations, or the importance of oil in the region, would not come into play for at least another 25 years, and you would need to read yet another book to understand the history of places like Saudi Arabia or Israel. Separate still is the roots of religious conflict in the Middle East and Southeastern Europe, which dates back thousands of years. Still, this book points to the true origins of the region as we know it today, and is critical for understanding modern Israel and its conflict with its neighbors. A recommended read for anyone with the patience to sift through it.
on April 8, 2003
This book is a fascinating journey into roots of the current problems in the middle east. "A Peace to End All Peace" reads like a fiction novel and is very concise. Fromkin helps to explain in detail the great maneuvering and the politics that resulted in the downfall of the last great Islamic empire, and the breaking up of its territories, the effects of which can be seen to this day: The israeli-palestinian conflict, and the rise of the now corrupt house of saud which led to 9/11 to name a few. Get this book if you wish to get a better understanding of why people are blowing themselves up in the middle east, and also some of the intrigues and conflicts in one of the greatest wars in the history of this planet.
on January 27, 2011
Fromkin delivers what he promises; how after the fall of the Ottoman Empire during the Great War, the modern Middle East was basically drawn in the map. He explains how the Englishmen were ignorant in Middle Eastern affairs and how the religious fervor in both continents shaped many of the events recounted in the book. The story has a very clear arch. The formation of the Middle East is a counterpoint to the destruction of the Old European Order after the First World War.
Where the book fails is in its internal dynamic. For some people this book lacks details, for others it has too much. I was annoyed by both, some parts of the book don't have detail at all, others are overwhelming. This makes the reading a bit uneven from chapter to chapter, with a consequential loss of insight. Fromkin claims that Chruchill is the central and structural character that shapes the book. I found that to be a failed enterprise.
On the other hand, the book is a very interesting reading, it demystifies a lot, and the insights at the beginning, and specially at the end are really worthwhile. The thesis is that, if Europe needed 1000 years to shape itself after the fall of the Roman Empire, how many year does the Middle East need?
This book is of critical importance to any student of Middle East history. Fromkin recounts a great deal that he might have left out of a less complete survey. Its inclusion is but one thing that makes this work priceless.
What emerges, before one is even halfway through, is a sweeping portrait of the many tragedies that seeded conflicts still plaguing the Middle East today.
One major culprit can only be described as legendary British stumbling throughout World War I. At the core of Britain's Middle Eastern advisers was a group of bigoted, bumbling idiots, who could not see past the end of their noses. Sir Mark Sykes, for example, described many groups whose destiny he influenced with disgusting pejorative. Town Arabs, he described as "cowardly," "insolent yet dispicable [sic]" and "vicious as far as their feeble bodies will admit." Bedouin Arabs he called "rapacious, greedy...animals."
Sykes was also obsessed with fear of Jews, Fromkin writes, "whose web of dangerous international intrigue he discerned in many an obscure corner." Not the least of these was the sadly mistaken view that the Young Turks party were governed by Jews, when in fact none were privy to their inner circle. This pathetic distortion of reality was informed by oriental affairs interpreter Gerald FitzMaurice, and shared by Gilbert Clayton, an adviser to Lord Kitchener. Like too many other British misconceptions about the Middle East, it was never investigated or much less corrected.
Disasters resulting from the "Cairo group's" ill-informed advice abounded. Take the bungled attack on Gallipoli--caused horrific 500,000 combined casualties, which could have been sharply reduced, if not eliminated, had the allies acted swiftly. Another was the reliance on the "diplomacy" of an Arab imposter, Lt. Muhammed Sharif al-Faruqi, who pretended to represent the Emir Hussein, Sharif of Mecca, but whom neither Hussein nor his son Feisel had ever met, much less entrusted with diplomatic powers.
But there is plenty of blame to go around. Fromkin also plumbs the weakenesses of the Ottoman lords themselves, as well as those of duplicitous Arab leaders. Emir Hussein's actual emisaries neglected to inform the British that he did not know al-Faruqi--perhaps because he advanced an agenda which suited Hussein in many respects. But it caused problems. Worse, Arabs often negotiated in bad faith, knowing that they could deliver on few if any of the promises they made in pursuit of their goals.
David Fromkin's intense scholarship is informed with the grace of a classic novel. Had there ever been any doubt, he proves that fact is stranger than fiction--and often a great deal more tragic.
--- Alyssa A. Lappen
on November 19, 2001
Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace is a challenging read, but the reader is rewarded with a much clearer understanding of the causes of so many of the regions problems. In a nutshell the inept, myopic and largly ignorant bureaucracy of the Entente Powers (Britian and France specifically) laid the foundation for the issues the Middle East now struggles with.
From the Sykes and Balfour proposals in Palestine, to the support given the Saud family in Arabia, to the creation of "Trans-Jordan", "Iraq" and "Kuwait" (all of which were artifically created entitites desigend to suit the needs of the European powers) we see the rivalries and tensions that persist to the present day emerge, as voices of reason (T.E. Lawrence, for example) are drowned out by bureaucrats. While Fromkin argues that European involvement in the Middle East had been ongoing for nearly a century by 1918, the bulk of the book is concerned with events between 1917 - 1922. The result was a hodge-podge mosaic of European "mandates" (ie. colonies) and locally run fiefdoms (such as Arabia). Little wonder the area is known for its political instability.
A Peace to End all Peace is balanced in its approach to the subject and its treatment of key figures (both European, Jew, and Arab). The only criticism I have is its emphasis on politics at the expense of social and economic factors. It seems to me that one of the major flaws in the creation of the modern Middle East was a lack of understanding of local society and economics - a fact that persists to this day, and an obstacle to the establishment of effective communication between West and East. Nonetheless, I recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in a deeper examination of the Middle East.
on February 15, 2004
A Peace to End All Peace - The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York: Henry Holt and Co. 1989) by David Fromkin is the story of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat at the end of World War I, and the birth of the countries we now know as Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. Fromkin, a history professor at Boston University, focuses on the formative years of 1914 to 1922, when even an alliance between Arab nationalism and Zionism seemed possible.
The book can be divided into two parts: before WWI and after WWI. Before WWI, the Allied countries shared the lands of the Ottoman Empire. After WWI, the colonial powers of Britain, France, Russia and Greece came to remake the geography and politics of the Modern Middle East. There were deceptions and betrayals, as politicians tried to integrate the Middle East into their colonial empires. There were also politicians of the Middle East who were underestimated by the Great Powers, but in fact were quite adept at playing one Power off another.
The book begins with the Ottoman Empire ruling over Central Asia. Britain was in control of a third of the world, and the European countries were competing to colonize the rest. The recurring theme in this portion of the book is that the Allied powers, through a lack of understanding of the political dynamics and capabilities of the weak Ottoman Empire, made a series of mistakes that pushed the Turks into an alliance with the Central Powers. In 1914 British leaders mistakenly thought that Turkey was finished. The Allied powers began planning for the division of the Ottoman Empire. Soon after Czarist Russia requested Constantinople, the czarist system itself crumbled. The colonial powers carved up and divided the Ottoman Empire between themselves. The Arab domains of the old Ottoman Empire were partitioned between Britain and France, while England created Jordan out of desert wilderness.
The reader learns that the countries were created virtually by whim. Mark Sykes, representing the English, and Francois Georges Picot, representing the French, essentially drew arbitrary boundaries to form countries for their respective nations. Disparate people were flung together without regard to their different ethnic, social or religious differences, sowing the seeds of future conflicts. According to Fromkin, the colonial powers were playing the "Great Game," where nations and people were merely strategic pieces and the Ottoman Empire was the chessboard. The colonial powers set up puppet regimes, drawing boundaries and imposing rulers while ignoring the wishes of the people. The result was Arab hatred and distrust of the West that persists to this d\day.
Fromkin believes the West and the Middle East have misunderstood each other for most of the 20th century, for reasons that can be traced back to the initiatives of Lord Kitchener, War Minister, during the early years of WWI. Kitchener mistakenly believed that religion was everything in the Moslem world and that Mohammedanism was a centralized, authoritarian structure.
Kitchener and his colleagues believed that Islam could be bought, manipulated, or captured by buying, manipulating, or capturing its religious leadership. They were intrigued by the notion that whoever controlled the person of the Caliph-Mohammed's successor-controlled Islam. At that time, Britain ruled over half of the world's Moslems, and the thought of a revolt by all these Moslems was a recurring nightmare.
The book is told primarily from the British viewpoint, which is logical as England held and dealt most of the cards in the endless game of building and maintaining empires among the European powers of Britain, France, Italy and Greece. Always in the foreground was Britain's fear of losing its land link to India.
The principal characters in the book are Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Lord Kitchener of Khartoun, T.E. Lawrence, George Curzon and George Clemeceau. There are also assorted emirs and pashas. Of the three who get the most attention in the book (Churchill, George and Kitchener), Fromkin appears to consider Churchill the central character, but his reasons are not apparent. From the British perspective, it was actually Mark Sykes who was central to the events described in the first half of the book, and Lloyd George in those discussed in the second half. The book accurately describes colonial administrators who were inept and clueless about the countries and the people that were the subjects of their decisions.
The book is based primarily on secondary sources and memoirs published in English. Fromkin's forte is an eye for detail and irony, of which much is provided in colorful terms. We learn about T.E. Lawrence, a larger-than-life character dressed in flowing Arab robes who fought alongside the Arabs and whose voice of reason the bureaucrats back in England routinely ignored. We see the duplicity of the Arab leaders. The British placed its reliance on the "diplomacy" of one Lt. Muhammad Sharif al-Faruqi, who claimed to represent the Emir Hussein, Sharif of Mecca. The book emphasizes politics and politicians.
Fromkin's manner of organization results in confusing historical sequencing. Character traits are traced individually throughout the time period, which results in jumps in the narrative and then repetition of information, as Fromkin often has to go backward in order to go forward with the story. For example, the book is very instructive on the turmoil in southern Russia. When the Ottoman Empire was defeated, the victorious Western powers permitted the Soviet Union to reassert control over parts of Central Asia -- a discussion that may be historically fitting, but is only tangentially relevant to the main story.
I recommend the book to anyone who has a serious desire to understand Iraq and its neighbors today. But those with only casual interest may find that it takes too much patience to get through.
on March 2, 2006
While I certainly enjoyed this book, I would suggest that it is mainly for readers with a firm understanding of WWI, European politics of the early 20th Century, and a general understanding of the Ottoman Empire as a whole. Mr. Fromkin does not proceed in a purely chronological fashion, and it can be difficult to place events in order mentally as you read unless you are already fairly familiar with how events of the period unfolded.
I found reading this book to be a lot like "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" in the sense that the majority of the writing is given over to the backroom machinations and high level diplomacy that drove events, rather than the events themselves.
Finally, I was frustrated that the summation was so brief. Fromkin goes into great detail regarding the events between 1914 and 1921, but then devotes only a short final chapter to the Middle and Near East as it appeared in 1922, even though it was this final arrangement that really led to most of the conflict and misunderstanding we see in the region today.
on February 24, 2003
This is a gripping account of Britain's misadventures in the Middle East from about 1908 to 1922, with a wonderful rogue's gallery of characters--ambitioius, treacherous, arrogant, and frequently clueless. Nearly every chapter chronicles furious backstabbing, squandered opportunities, catastrophic misjudgements. What the book does best is to reveal the rivalries within the British government over its objectives in the Middle East. During the Great Game period, the conflict had essentially been between Tories, who feared Russian encroachment on India, and Liberals, who, however much they despised the Czarist regime, still saw the Russians as champions of the oppressed Christian nations of the Balkans. Then in 1907 Russia abruptly became an ally--thanks to the more pressing threat posed by Germany. When World War I began, Britain had to rethink its relationship w/ its traditional (albeit odious) ally the Ottoman Empire, and then, once the Young Turks committed to Germany, with the subject peoples within the Turkish empire.
The basic conflict w/in His Majesty's Govt., as Fromkin tells it, was between the Arabists of Cairo, who hoped to create a pan-Arab state under Sharif Hussein, but run largely by and for Britain, and the Govt. of India, which wanted British control only of southern Mesopotamia (Iraq) and were wary of the grandiose schemes of the Egyptian administrators, proteges of Kitchner. These latter wanted to name Hussein the new Caliph, imagining the office to be similar to that of the Pope. But there was no separation of Church and State in the Isalmic world, and for Hussein, to be Caliph was to be Emperor. Commitments to the Zionists and to the French famously conflicted with each other and with deliberately vague promises that were made to the Arabs, and Fromkin sorts these out in some detail.
Among the things the book does well is to demystify the "Arab Revolt" during WW I, to exculpate Churchill for the Gallipoli fiasco, and to untangle the ambitions and animosties of all the parties negotiating the fate of the Middle East at Versailles and San Remo. (Passions were heated: the U.S. and Italy nearly went to war over Anatolia.) The moral: you generally wind up respecting your enemies but despising your allies. The duplicity of the Turks and Germans toward each other easily matched that of the ex-Allies.
This book is based primarily on secondary sources and published memoirs in English. Unfortunately, the references on WW I, Zionism, and some other peripheral subjects don't inspire a lot of confidence; but there are no egregious errors. Fromkin relies heavily on Kedourie and Gilbert in the first half of the book, which is all to the good. He seems to believe Churchill is the central character. It's actually Mark Sykes in the first half, naively trusting one and all and believing all commitments could be reconciled, and the wily Lloyd George in the second half--Little-Englander-turned-Imperialist, pro-Greek, pro-Zionist, and anti-French, and rapidly running out of time and money. Fromkin has a few idee fixes that are not supported by the evidence--i.e., that the British believed that the Young Turks were being run by Jews. But generally this is a fascinating survey and a great read. Some bitter ironies.