I guess if I’m going to write about the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, I ought to at least mention the end of it, right? But the removal of Mehmed VI Vahideddin (d. 1926) as sultan is among history’s greatest anti-climaxes. The Ottomans had (obviously) lost World War I, which resulted in the dismantling of their empire under the terms of the 1918 armistice and the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. Sèvres not only put the empire’s Arab dominions under British and French control, but it also apportioned big chunks of the real Turkish heartland of the empire, Anatolia, out to various European states (France, Greece, Italy, Britain) either as ceded territory or in the form of “zones of control.”
The immediate resistance to the Anatolian part of Sèvres was led by what should be considered a brand-new Turkish national movement, not by the remnants of the old empire. The subsequent Turkish War of Independence, whose fighting ended in October 1922 (though the formal Treaty of Lausanne that ended the war came the following year), was fought by that national movement, led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who would later be called “father of the Turks” or Atatürk. It was fought in the name of creating a new, independent Turkish Republic, not in the name of restoring the Ottoman Empire. And as we’ll see, one of the new republican government’s first acts was to make sure there was no longer any empire to restore. Although there was still technically an “Ottoman Sultan” until November 1, 1922, he’d been effectively out of a job since the Armistice of Mudros took effect on October 30, 1918.
The man who got the dubious honor of being that last Ottoman Sultan never should have been Sultan to begin with, and he wound up having to take the job under the worst possible circumstances. When Mehmed V (who was Mehmed VI’s brother) came to power in 1909, the oldest Ottoman prince automatically became his heir apparent. That was his cousin, Yusuf Izzettin Efendi, who was the son of a former Sultan, Abdülaziz I (d. 1876). However, Yusuf committed suicide (or maybe possibly was murdered) in 1916, and so it fell to Mehmed VI to succeed his brother upon the latter’s death in July 1918. 1918, as you might imagine, was a pretty shitty year to become an Ottoman Sultan. The empire was steadily losing control of its Middle Eastern domains, the Bulgarians were defeated by the Allies in the Balkans in September, and the Germans let it be known (also in September, not coincidentally) that they were looking to cut a peace deal to end their part in the war. Mehmed VI had little left to do other than oversee a surrender, a process he must have known meant the end of his empire.
So I feel kind of bad for Mehmed VI. Even that picture of him above is kind of depressing. Imagine being the absolute (in theory) monarch of what had once been a vast empire covering parts of three continents, and you decide to dress up in military uniform and only give yourself that one sad-looking ribbon to wear. I mean, look at how Gaddafi did it:
or Idi Amin:
That’s how you pull that Martial Leader look off, right? Not with that sorry looking single ribbon stuff.
Anyway, when it came time to negotiate the Lausanne Treaty, to formally end the Turkish War of Independence, the Allies invited both Atatürk’s fledgling Turkish national government (the “Ankara government”) and the remnants of the imperial government (the “Istanbul government”) to the talks. We can thus see the move by Atatürk and his Turkish National Grand Assembly to abolish the Ottoman Sultanate on November 1, 1922, as an attempt to ensure that there would be absolutely no confusion about who really represented the Turks at the bargaining table. Did the assembly have the legal right to take this step? I think it’s debatable, in the abstract, but what was Mehmed VI going to do about it? He had no army, no real support inside or outside of the new Turkey, and certainly no chance of coming out ahead in a clash with Atatürk. So he fled–first to a British warship, then to Malta, and finally to a comfortable exile on the Italian Riviera, where he died in May 1926.
The Ottoman Sultan had for centuries (especially since the 16th century) claimed the title of Caliph, which came to mean something like “spiritual leader of all Sunni Muslims,” and as the empire had started to seriously falter in the 19th century, the sultans began to emphasize this claim more and more. The Allies decided that this function of the Ottoman dynasty was something that should be kept in place, even though the sultanate was no more. Presumably they thought doing away with the caliphate would arouse a lot of anger throughout the Muslim world, much of which was now the colonial property of the various Allied nations. So they arranged for the Turkish assembly to choose Mehmed’s cousin, Abdülmecid II (the “II” is kind of figurative, since Abdülmecid I had actually been sultan), to assume the title of caliph from Mehmed.
This pretense lasted until March 1924, when the Turkish assembly, in another move that they arguably didn’t have the legal right to make but that nobody was really interested in doing anything to prevent, voted to abolish the caliphate as well. Abdülmecid II wound up in his own comfortable exile, in Paris, where he died in August 1944. Today, the “House of Osman,” or the Osmanoğlu (“son of Osman”) family if you prefer, still exists and is “headed” by the 91 year old US citizen and army veteran Bayezid Osman, who is a great-grandson of Abdülmecid I (d. 1861). He’s noteworthy for being the first head of the Ottoman family to have been born in exile (in Paris). His predecessor, Ertuğrul Osman, died in 2009 and is considered by some to have been the “Last Ottoman,” since he was the last surviving Ottoman prince to have been born while there was still an Ottoman Empire.
He spent most of his life in exile in New York, but was allowed to return to Turkey in the 1990s and was given Turkish citizenship in 2004, and when he died he was living in Istanbul once more.