Q&A with Eugene Rogan

October 19, 2017
Eugene Rogan 2017
Eugene Rogan at CMES, September 21, 2017

Eugene Rogan is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History and Director of St. Antony’s Middle East Centre at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Arabs: A History, which has been translated into ten languages and was named one of the best books of 2009 by the Economist, the Financial Times, and the Atlantic Monthly. He completed his AM in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard in 1984 and his PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard in 1991. Rogan returned to the Center for Middle Eastern Studies on September 21, 2017, to talk about his most recent book, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920 (2015). CMES AM candidate Blaire Byg sat down with him to ask a few questions about his most recent book, his time at CMES, and his future projects.

Eugene Rogan 2017
Eugene Rogan at CMES, September 21, 2017
The New York Times review of your book The Fall of the Ottomans starts with the line, “In November 1914, the world’s only great Muslim empire was drawn into a life-or-death struggle against three historically Christian powers.” How much did religion actually factor into the alliance formations of World War I?

The Ottomans were drawn into the First World War out of national and territorial interests. They believed Russia to pose an existential threat and sought an alliance with any European power that might offer protection against Russian expansionism. Germany brought religion into the equation when they demanded, in return for a treaty of alliance, that the Ottomans declare not just war but a jihad against the Entente powers. The Ottomans were none too convinced of the wisdom of the appeal, but in return for a crucial treaty of alliance they were willing to bring religion into their war effort. While the call for jihad failed to rouse colonial Muslims to revolt in mass against Britain, France, and Russia, the threat of such an uprising played on the minds of British war planners right through the war. However, religion was not a major factor in the war itself.

Historians of the Ottoman Empire have written prolifically on the decline of the Ottoman Empire and its causes. While a new class of historians has begun to problematize this depiction of the long decline of the Empire, do you think the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was inevitable, and how much did World War I contribute to this?

The Ottoman Empire was deliberately killed by the Entente powers in the course of World War I. Britain conceded to French and Russian territorial demands at the outset of the war, which made partition of the Ottoman Empire inevitable upon defeat. That process reached its logical conclusion in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, in which the Ottoman Empire was reduced to Istanbul and the undesired rump of Anatolia – the Arab provinces were seized by Britain and France and Eastern Anatolia was carved into Armenian and Kurdish autonomous zones with Italy and Greece taking the Anatolian coastline. We can debate just how “sick” the Ottoman man was by 1914 but one thing is beyond doubt: the Ottoman Empire did not die of natural causes.

One of the most compelling and controversial chapters in the book is titled “Annihilation of the Armenians.” In addition to describing the massive population transfers of Armenians, you also include accounts of conversations that showed Ottoman officials ordering the mass murder of Armenians. What sources did you use to establish that mass murder of the Armenians have taken place? Have you received much pushback on your description of the Armenian annihilation?

The Armenian genocide was without doubt the hardest part of the book to write – both because of the inherent human tragedy and because of the intense political activism the genocide has provoked between Armenians and Turks today.  While official Turkish circles continue to reject the claim of genocide, some of the most important new research on the subject has been conducted by Turkish scholars drawing on Turkish archives. I relied heavily on their work in my own account. My goal was to try and draft a bridging narrative between Armenian and Turkish accounts – recognize the Ottoman policies to eradicate the Armenians as a genocide, but providing the context to understand why 1915 proved a genocidal moment. There is no attempt to exculpate the Ottoman authorities for the decisions and actions they took, but I seek to explain how the Armenians came to be perceived as a fifth column and how Russian measures compromised the standing of Ottoman Armenians.

You are releasing a new edition of your 2009 book, The Arabs, in a few months. Can you talk about the additional material that the new edition will contain? Why did you feel this was important to add?

The most recent edition of The Arabs ended with an optimistic postscript about the Arab Spring written at the end of 2011. There was nothing in the analysis to help readers come to grips with the counter-revolution and the collapse of order across the Arab world. The whole logic of The Arabs was based on the notion that to understand the Arab world today, you need to know some history. For that to work, the book must be in touch with contemporary realities. In 2017, that means making sense of the revolutionary moment of 2011, and of the conflicts that followed in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and the emergence of the Islamic State movement. I believe the new edition will help readers make better sense of the tragic state of the Arab world today.

How did your time at CMES influence your career path?

It was my CMES experience that made me want to pursue an academic career, and to become a historian. It sounds odd to say, but I came to Harvard with an economics degree, having never taken a history course. I didn’t like economics very much and, taking advantage of the interdisciplinary options the AM provided, I took a couple of history classes. Nothing has seemed as interesting to me since. Most of my classmates – Joshua Landis, Najwa al-Qattan, Jim Gelvin – were brilliant historians and further inspiration. It would be no exaggeration to say that I found myself as an academic at Harvard, and I’ll always be grateful to my classmates and teachers at CMES for bringing out the historian in me.

Do you know yet what your next project will be after the updated edition of The Arabs comes out?

The next book will focus on the reconstruction of Damascus after the terrible Christian massacres of 1860. I’m hoping it might offer some lessons for the massive challenge of rebuilding Syria after its current civil war.