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The Young Turk Revolution and the 1908 Annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina

April 25, 2006

By Dejan Stjepanovic


The relation between the Young Turk Revolution and the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (1908) is particularly interesting in light of the postcolonial debate. Most intriguing is the fact that unlike the case of Bulgaria (an emerging nation-state) which declared independence from the Ottoman Empire the same month in which Bosnia-Herzegovina was annexed, Austria-Hungary was a state structure in a rather similar political situation to that of the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, there seems to be a lack of scholarly literature that both encompasses and relates these two historic events.The drive of the Young Turk movement to reform the Empire and restore the constitution was an attempt towards political modernization, intended as a way of preserving and consolidating of the Ottoman Empire. Not only was it an effort to strengthen the Empire but also to show, if not supremacy, than at least the fact that the Ottomans were equals to the other European Great Powers, politically and culturally. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), as the Young Turks were formally known, was just the continuation, though more energetic and with little less ideological baggage, of a long process of reforms that had started in 1839 with the Tanzimat movement under Sultan Abdul Mejid I.

At the same time, Austria-Hungary was experiencing similar problems, relating to the nationalism of its subject-peoples, and the relatively low status it then enjoyed compared to the other European empires. As one of the methods of asserting its strength and esteem it annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, which it had held under occupation since 1878.

So unlike the Young Turks’ policies, which aimed at the fortification of the state through inner reforms and constitutionalism, Austria-Hungary adopted a colonial policy towards Bosnia-Herzegovina. It tried to justify this attitude through the discourse pertinent to the idea of “the Eastern Question’ and “the Sick Man of Europe.’ And, it worked, but only for a while since it found itself facing another emerging strong force, that of ethnic nationalism.

The Young Turk Revolution

The Young Turks were a group of intellectuals of different ideological backgrounds who united against the authoritarian regime of Sultan Abdulhamid. They were “committed to the modernization and reform of their country’ [i]. The origins of the Young Turk movement can be found in 1889, when a group of students unsuccessfully conspired against the Sultan. This initial attempt at changing the Hamidian absolutist regime failed, and many of the prominent members were forced to flee the country.

It was thus in 1891 in Geneva that the exiled Ottomans formed the Committee of Union and Progress (the official name behind the Young Turk movement). However, on the territory of the Ottoman Empire the CUP established itself as a clandestine organization in Salonika in 1906. It was these Macedonian branches of the CUP that had had a decisive role in the revolution of July 1908, which started in fact in the Macedonian town of Resen near Lake Prespa.

The fact that the Macedonia-based Young Turks were ready to use force to speed up the modernization of the state can be explained by several factors such as the “example of Macedonian guerrilla organizations, the prospect of European-imposed and -implemented administrative arrangements, and a heightened sense of the vulnerability of the Ottoman state to secession and annexation in the Balkans.’ [ii]

The revolutionaries were well aware that Macedonia, which had endured turbulent, multi-sided revolt for almost a decade, could not stay within the Ottoman realm if the state did not undergo serious reforms that would enable it to resist the threats of the Balkan nation-states and colonial schemes of the Great Powers. Only an effective state based on the constitutional guarantees for the equality of all Ottoman citizens, the Young Turks believed, could stave off such perils.

Another idea that played a paramount influence on the Young Turks, perhaps the foundational one, is often referred to as “Westernism.’ From the first part of 19th century the imperative to imitate and adopt Western values and mores, a doctrine which became known as Westernism, was the “constant concern and ambition of all Turkish reforms and reformers’ [iii].

This idea involved the omnipresent praising and idealization of Western institutions, technology and general way of life. The Young Turks’ belief was that if the great achievements of Western civilization were adopted in the Ottoman Empire, the expected resulting adoption of capitalism would thus bring prosperity to the population.

However, the partial adoption of Western models throughout the 19th century often turned out to be superficial; the expense of modernization too was underestimated. The Ottoman elite, in many cases, opted for the symbolic presence of the modern state apparatus and institutions rather than for deeper structural reforms.

This can be best illustrated by the Ottoman presence at the world fairs and the particular instance where a modern Turkish soldier’s uniform, representing progress and an advanced and modernizing Ottoman state was juxtaposed to the “backward’ and “uncivilized’ one of the Janissary. Or, by the fact that among the priorities for certain underdeveloped regions was the construction of government and military buildings as a sort of facade for the vanishing glory of the state.

This fits Makdisi’s discussion of Ottoman Orientalism as a “defining facet of Ottoman modernity’ [iv] in which the Ottomans would adopt Westerners’ idea of the backwardness of the East and the superiority of the West and then, sometimes, apply it in reference to their “backward’ Arabic subjects.

It is worth noting that most of the Young Turks came from the army corps. They were “the products of modern secular military or civilian professional schools.’[v] The fact that most members of the CUP came from petty bourgeois families or were officers in the army helps explain why they were so vociferous in expressing both liberal and national ideas.

The army was also one of the segments of Ottoman society that was modernizing the fastest (with the aid of German instructors and new weapons), fitting a general trend observable throughout the Balkans at the time. The preceding Sultans saw the need for the army to modernize according to the Western model, on both practical and symbolic levels (the latter best illustrated by the adoption of Western-style uniforms). It was perhaps the first time that opposition to the Ottoman regime and reform-minded activists came from the middle-class rather than from the religious elite, the ulema.

A combination of the ideological movement (presented by the external CUP) and a more militant fraction within the Empire created a force by which Abdulhamid could be forced to compromise. The primary interest of the revolutionaries was the adoption of legal reforms and centralized institutions reminiscent of the ones in the Western countries; as a first step towards this goal, they demanded the reinstating the Ottoman reform constitution of 1876, which had been abolished by Abdulhamid.

Calling for the restoration of the 1876 constitution and pledging to force new values on an aged regime, the CUP-controlled Third Army Corps prepared for the long march from Macedonia to Istanbul. The heads of the revolutionaries were two army officers, Niyazi Bey and Enver Bey. Their movement found overwhelming support among the European armies, which in turn asked that their demands be taken seriously by the sultan.

The ultimatum put forward to Abdulhamid said that if he failed to obey the demands for restitution of the Constitution, the European armies would depose him. The Great Powers had just spent five largely fruitless years in pushing the sultan to stop persecution of Christians in Macedonia, with little success, through the Murzsteg reform program. Since the European powers didn’t have to be directly involved in the Young Turks revolt, it provided a better and safer opportunity to call for change from a distance.

The sultan, naturally, tried to find a way out of the increasingly dire situation. He attempted to use force, while relying on Albanian support for his cause. Yet he soon realized that the CUP’s power was too strong and that he had to concede his defeat. Abdulhamid capitulated on 23rd of July 1908, and agreed to recall the Parliament and restitute the Constitution. It was a total victory for the Young Turks, who took control of the Ottoman government in a relatively bloodless coup d’etat. The first step of the new government was the proclamation of constitutional rule, a move that found broad support among the population of the empire, irrespective of their ethnicity.

This was the beginning of the so-called liberal phase of the second constitutional era- which was, however, to be of very short duration. In September 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria declared its independence and Greece annexed Crete.

The now empowered Young Turks saw these as acts of aggression by the European powers and as a collective betrayal of the peoples of the Ottoman Empire. In this dizzying atmosphere of annexation and secession, the more centralist, authoritarian and nationalistic elements among the Young Turks came to the fore. Although the Western powers were initially sympathetic to the dismantling of the Hamidian autocracy, they nevertheless continued with their expansionist policies against the Ottoman Empire.

Interestingly enough, the CUP government managed to channel the public disapproval of the loss of the aforementioned Balkan provinces by claiming that they were the outcome of Abdulhamid’s wrongheaded policies. However, the rapid succession of crippling events also called into question the legitimacy of the CUP’s fledgling government, which had based its argument for self-empowerment largely on the promise that it would be able to stop any further dismemberment of the Empire.

The Annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina

At the Congress of Berlin (1878), which revised the Treaty of San Stefano that ended the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78, Austria-Hungary was given the right to occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Great Powers, especially Britain and Austria-Hungary, were not satisfied with the treaty of San Stefano, as they thought it had given too much influence to the Russian Empire in the Balkans through its creation of a Greater Bulgaria. Thus the intention of the Treaty of Berlin was, apart from the recognition of the nation-states of Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, to redistribute spheres of influence in the Balkans. It was all part of the broader “Eastern Question.’

The European Great Powers considered that the Ottoman Empire would definitely collapse as they considered it to be autocratic, backward and anachronistic. The rhetoric relating to the idea of the “Sick Man of Europe’ became influential and was used as the justification for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.

In the 1878 treaty, Austria was given the right to occupy and administer the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The conditions of the occupation were outlined in Article 25 of the Treaty of Berlin. According to this article, Austria-Hungary was to administer the province. Furthermore, in the secret agreement between Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire it was agreed that, “the Austro-Hungarian representatives declare, in the name of IMS and R. Apostolic government that the rights of sovereignty of IMS the Sultan over the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina will not be undermined… that the occupation will be considered provisionary” [vi].

Irrespective of the fact that Austria-Hungary was only given the right to administer the province by the then-30 year-old treaty, the government of the Dual Monarchy in September 1908 took action; its stated justification was that the Young Turk Revolution had forced Austria-Hungary to redefine its position in Bosnia-Herzegovina- and so annex the provinces.

Austria-Hungary argued that it could not leave the status of the provinces unsettled in the light of the events taking place in Istanbul- allegedly, out of “concern’ for the welfare of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many argue that Austria-Hungary had long been set on annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina and merely used the revolution in the Ottoman Empire as a convenient pretext. Austria-Hungary wanted to assert its dominant position in the Balkans, especially against the Russian influences and Serbian nationalism. It wanted to use the annexation as proof of its ongoing vitality vis-a-vis the other European Empires and nation-states.

According to Sked [vii] it was a case of imperialism, though not imperialism in its classical form. He illustrates this by the facts that the inhabitants of the provinces could not acquire the citizenship rights enjoyed by other Austro-Hungarian subjects, by the large scale military presence, limited economic and social progress and the large bureaucracy and tax bills. He concludes by saying that “Austrian rule… may not have been totally unenlightened by the standards of the time, but it amounted to imperialism none the less’ [viii].

On the other hand, Robert A. Kann [ix] sees no grounds for colonialism or pseudo-colonialism in the annexation, arguing that the Dual Monarchy received no financial gains from the province. However, there were also colonies of, for example, the British Empire which did not make direct profit.

Thus, I would support Sked’s position and further stress it by the rhetoric of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor’s proclamation of the annexation [x]. The proclamation did not only embed colonial rhetoric but also the one relating to the backwardness of the Ottoman Empire, using discourse such as:

“bring remedies to the ills from which your country was harshly subject to for years… You, yourselves must find advantageous that order and security have replaced violence and oppression… that moralizing influence of better education has been carried out and that under the protection of orderly administration each can benefit from the fruits of their labor… The new regime constitutes a guarantee that civilization and that well being will be solidly established in your country” [xi] .

The idea that Austria-Hungary had to undertake a civilizing mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina is the quintessential example of the prevailing stereotype of the time: the colonial, modernizing Western power which is juxtaposed against the oppressive, non-egalitarian and backward Orient.

The reaction of the Ottoman diplomacy to the annexation was negative. The Porte protested, pointing out in vain that the Treaty of Berlin had been violated. Although some of the other Great Powers complained, their appeal fell on deaf ears. The only action the new government of the Ottoman Empire could undertake was the boycott of Austro-Hungarian goods. But this did have some effect and finally, the Ottoman Empire accepted the offer of £2,200,000 as a compensation for the lost property in the provinces. Soon after, the Great Powers consented to the suppression of Article 25 of the Treaty of Berlin, thus recognizing Austro-Hungarian sovereignty over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There is an interesting fact regarding the relations of the Dual Monarchy versus the Young Turk revolution. Austria-Hungary saw Abdulhamid’s authoritarian regime as a justification for intervention. But as the Young Turks were about to proclaim a constitution in the Ottoman Empire, it annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina instantaneously, without any prior warnings. The reason behind this is that were the Ottoman Empire to indeed adopt the old constitution, it could easily accommodate all its ethnic groups as representatives in the executive power and would thus have a much stronger moral claim to the preservation of the Empire.

Both the Young Turks and the Austro-Hungarians were aware of that, but the time factor was on the Austro-Hungarian side. They annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina before the CUP had had a chance to consolidate its power. The fact that Austria-Hungary considered the constitutionalism of the Young Turks as a legitimizing force can be observed in the relation to the post-annexation political framework. “Under the impression of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 which seemed to open new perspectives of closer links with the emerging Ottoman constitutional monarchy, the Austrian regime felt obliged to work for a compromise where all the demands of Muslim community were satisfied.” [xii]


Contrary to their expectations, the Young Turks’ desperate attempt to reorganize and preserve the Empire intact by restoring the Constitution did not bear much fruit. Paradoxically, within a couple of months following the revolution which promised the end to the dissolution of the Empire, it lost its sovereignty over Bosnia-Herzegovina to another empire which was also in desperate need of reform. Both empires saw the greatest threat to their well-being as coming from the emerging nation-states, and both of them were competing for prestige on the international political scene. However, Austria-Hungary as a predominantly Christian, Central European empire enjoyed stronger backing by the other powers who considered the Ottoman Empire doomed anyway. Austria-Hungary was also more successful, at least for this short period of history, in applying its colonial policies. Of course, it did not last, but without the benefit of hindsight, the Austrians of that time might be forgiven for their optimism.

Most significantly, the fact that Austria-Hungary recognized the constitutional reforms aiming at the modernization of the Ottoman state as a legitimate force speaks for the view that the Young Turk Revolution was moving in the right direction for the preservation of the Empire. However, it came a bit too late.

Had the CUP’s revolution occurred earlier or if Abdulhamid had continued with the reformist policies of his predecessor rather than reverting to more traditional and Islamist policies, the course of history would have been somewhat different. This is not to say that the Ottoman Empire would have kept all of its Balkan possessions. Yet certainly the reforms would have been more far-reaching and inspired greater confidence, which in turn could have expedited rapprochement with the other Great Powers. As it was, however, change came too late, while the European powers’ appetite for colonial expansion remained insatiable.


Adanir, Fikret and Suraiya Faroqhi (eds.). The Ottomans and the Balkans: A Discussion of Historiography. Leiden / Boston/ Koln: Brill, 2002.

Anderson, M. S. The Eastern Question: 1774 – 1923. London: MacMillan, 1991.

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. London: Pimlico, 1997.

Deringil, Selim. “The West within and the West without: Identity and World View of the Late Ottoman Elite. An Attempt at Some Case Studies” (working paper)

Ergil, Dogu. “A Reassessment: The Young Turks, Their Politics and Anti-colonial Struggle,” in Balkan Studies, volume 16, no.2. Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1975.

Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Kayali, Hasan. Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Makdisi, Ussama. “Ottoman Orientalism” in American Historical Review, Vol. 107., No.3 June 2002.

McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire. London: Arnold

Sicker, Martin. The Islamic World in Decline: From the Treaty of Karlowitz to the Disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Westport: Praeger, 2001.

Sked, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire, 1815-1918. London & New York: Longman, 1992.

Trifunovska, Snezana (ed.). Yugoslavia through Documents: From its Creation to its Dissolution. Dordrecht / Boston / London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1994.

Turfan, M. Naim. Rise of the Young Turks. London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002.

[ii] Hasan Kayali, Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1918. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[iii] Dogu Ergil, “A Reassessment: The Young Turks, Their Politics and Anti-colonial Struggle” in Balkan Studies, volume 16, no.2. (Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1975) p.39

[iv] Ussama Makdisi, “Ottoman Orientalism” in American Historical Review. Vol107. No.3 June 2002

[v] Ergil, p.26

[vi]“Secret Agreement Between Austria and Turkey Relative to Bosnia and Herzegovina” (Berlin, 13 July 1878) signed by Andrassy, Karolyi and Haymerle in Snezana Trifunovska (ed.), Yugoslavia through Documents: From its Creation to its Dissolution. (Dordrecht / Boston / London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1994.) p. 96 [translated from the French by Alexandra Clemence]

[vii] Alan Sked, The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire, 1815-1918. (London & New York: Longman, 1992.)

[viii] Ibid. p. 246.

[ix] Robert A. Kann. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918 (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1974)

[x] “Proclamation of the Annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Emperor Franz Joseph” in Trifunovska, 1994.

[xi] Ibid, pp.108-109

[xii] Fikret Adanir, “The Formation of a “Muslim’ Nation” in Fikret Adanir & Suraiya Faroqhi (eds.), The Ottomans and the Balkans: A Discussion of Historiography, (Leiden / Boston / Koln: Brill, 2002.) p. 276.


*Dejan Stjepanovic is currently a project associate for the Vojvodina Secretariat for National Minorities; former Freedom House researcher and a graduate of Nationalism Studies (MA) at Central European University. He focuses on issues of nationalism, regionalism and democracy in Southeastern Europe.

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