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Bedross Der Matossian, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire

Yaşar Tolga Cora
p. 118-123
Référence(s) :

Bedross Der Matossian, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014, xii-249 p.

Texte intégral

1The recent revolutions that have taken place in the Middle East – the so-called Arab Spring –raised great hopes of democratization. However, soon after, expectations of a better life sank into chaos and even civil war, as in the ongoing conflict in Syria, claiming the lives of tens of thousands and fueling the emigration of millions to neighboring countries. Why do revolutions fail, and how do they betray expectations of freedom, equality, and justice, resulting in waves of mass violence along ethnic and religious lines? In his monograph Shattered Dreams of Revolution, Bedross Der Matossian, an Assistant Professor of Modern Middle East History at the University of Nebraska/Lincoln, sets out to provide satisfactory answers to these and other, broader questions by examining the aftermath of the 1908 revolution in the Ottoman Empire.

  • 1 Nader Sohrabi, Revolution and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran, New York: Cambridge (...)

2Der Matossian’s book examines inherent tensions and ambiguities in the revolution during its first year, considering the ways that three non-dominant groups – Armenians, Arabs, and Jews –experienced them across the empire’s vast geographical expanse. Der Matossian leaves out experiences of other non-dominant groups of the empire due to “linguistic restraints and scope of the study” and characterises “to provide a single solution to the major historical issues of the period overly ambitious” (p. 5). The author explores the stages by which great hopes for the future were gradually replaced by psychological anxiety, political and social struggles, and finally ethnic and religious violence. The main tension of the revolution, the difficulty (if not impossibility) of reaching consensus among all the different interest groups and political viewpoints of those who had participated in the uprising, soon revealed itself. The author follows, what, Nader Sohrabi has characterized as “multivocality spelled ambiguity” in his comparative analysis of constitutional revolutions in the Ottoman Empire and Iran in the early twentieth century. According to Sohrabi, the “multivocality spelled ambiguity” in the revolutions enabled different interest groups to build consensus in the prerevolutionary days whereas “it invited clash over the fixing of its meaning in a rush before it was defined by rivals” after the revolutions.1 In the case of the 1908 Revolution, according to Der Matossian the high ideals of “constitutionalism” and civic citizenship promoted under the label of “Ottomanism” that had mobilized the masses were quickly lost after the revolution subsided. By concentrating on Armenian, Arab, and Jewish ethnic groups’ participation in the revolution and their changing psychological and political attitudes, which shifted from hope to despair in the post-revolutionary period, Der Matossian delves into the revolution’s complexities and ambiguities. He examines the struggle between revolutionaries and the supporters of the ancien régime of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the tensions between the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and other revolutionary groups, and the contradictions between the revolution’s declared goals and what it became – in short, its shattered dreams

3The book is divided into six chapters, each examining a particular moment in the history of post-revolutionary politics. After outlining the political and social developments within the Arab, Armenian, and Jewish populations of the Ottoman Empire, Der Matossian begins exploring the post-revolutionary world. The first chapter considers post-revolutionary festivities in the provinces, focusing on how these celebrations encapsulated three historic figures, Patriarch Madteos II Izmirlian, Fuad Pasha “the Hero of Elena” and Prince Sabahaddin, who had all been banished under the ancien régime for different reasons, along with the space they occupied and the symbolism and language they used in efforts to “unit[e] all ethnic groups under one identity: Ottomanism” (p. 48). The visual materials provided in the chapter are invaluable tools for helping readers to understand the revolutionary atmosphere.

4The following chapter delves into the political discourse during the revolutionary days. Der Matossian focuses on how the newspapers produced by the three minorities under scrutiny both discussed and publicized their ideas about the concerns behind the 1908 revolution: freedom, equality and fraternity, the ancien régime, the future of ethnic groups in the empire, and the new political system. The third chapter examines the impact of the “historical period” on these non-dominant groups, as well as how the shifting power within them revealed “deep-rooted antagonisms” in the post-revolutionary period. The author effectively demonstrates the main divisions between these ethnic groups along political and strategic lines.

5Moving on to his treatment of parliamentary elections and parliamentary debates, Der Matossian scrutinizes the “complex ethnic policies and lobbying efforts among and between different ethnic groups” (p. 98) by focusing on individual and partisan platforms in Istanbul and the provinces. The platforms and the campaign debates both reflected the expectations the populace held following the revolution and foreshadowed the division in the parliament that was eventually elected.

6The focus then shifts in the next chapter to certain issues debated in the parliament and to the participation of deputies representing the three non-dominant ethnic groups in discussing the issues of specific interest and concern to them. In contrast to many Arab deputies, some of whom lacked fluency in Ottoman Turkish and therefore largely sat out the debates, Armenian deputies of various political groups collaborated to form a bloc on issues vital to the empire’s eastern provinces – especially matters concerning public order and the right to public assembly. When they thought it important and necessary, these delegates overcame their political, ideological, or personal differences and disagreements. Der Matossian makes an important contribution to the scholarship by highlighting both the differences within these communities and their shared interests across political lines.

7The book’s final chapter examines the counter-revolution – particularly, the ways that various structurally and politically dissatisfied elements within the revolutionaries’ ranks acted together to overthrow the CUP. Der Matossian focuses on the repercussions of the counter-revolution in the provinces and on the stance of non-dominant groups of the time, concluding with the fall of Abdulhamid II.

8Shattered Dreams of Revolution is a book with significant strengths. To begin with, Der Matossian takes full advantage of his extraordinary linguistic abilities. He widely uses sources ranging from primary sources published in the Second Constitutional Era to secondary sources produced by contemporary scholarship in Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Ladino, and both Ottoman and contemporary Turkish, and this gives enormous depth to his analyses of the period. Based on the newspapers, periodicals, reports, political party programs and parliamentary minutes as well as other primary sources such as archives of the Central Zionist Bureau, the author traces the course of revolution in various regions from Jerusalem and Damascus to Salonica, from Izmir to the eastern provinces and Istanbul, and this scope provides his study with great geographical depth.

9Employing this wide range of primary sources in various languages and covering a vast area serves another, no less important purpose. Der Matossian introduces the reader to factions and to various – usually conflicting – opinions about politics and the revolution’s direction within the non-dominant ethnic groups. His careful investigation of the internal politics of the Arab, Armenian, and Jewish communities of the time challenges narratives that depict these groups as monolithic entities and underestimate their active participation in post-revolutionary politics. Through examination of newspapers, and memoirs Der Matossian analyzes conflicts between Armenian revolutionary parties which aimed to control the intra-communal public space after the revolution as well as the struggles to create a consensus-building platform over political parties within the Armenian community. Likewise, Der Matossian’s examination of the “micro-revolution” within the Jewish millet which challenged the established administration, and the increasing conflict between Zionists and non-Zionists in the empire after the revolution are other important contributions to the scholarship by the book. The author’s merging of macro historical developments throughout the empire with micro developments, such as increasing rivalry among Turkish notables of Adana on the eve of the counter-revolution, is especially noteworthy.

10Every book, even one as remarkable as Shattered Dreams of Revolution, has minor flaws. For instance, a different transliteration system for Ottoman Turkish would have been preferable such as vilayat-ı selase instead of vilayat-i thulth (p. 126) and Vatanın Uğruna İttihad instead of Vatanın-Ağorına İttihad (unity for the sake of fatherland; p. 44). But these and similar errors are minor and do not diminish the value of the work or its contribution to scholarship. Moreover, Der Matossian’s focus on the Armenians outweighs his examination of Jews, and even more of Arabs in the era. However, this imbalance does not reduce the merits of Der Matossian’s comparative perspective for understanding the revolution from the perspectives of the diverse ethnic groups.

11Conceptually, this book might leave readers with several questions concerning violence as the author discusses it in the context of the 1909 counter-revolution. For instance, how did incidents of violence after the 1908 revolution differ from the ethnic violence of the past, such as the Hamidian massacres that took place in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1890s? Did violence – specifically, ethnically motivated violence – become a form of popular politics after the revolution of 1908? In other words, were the politics of the revolution instrumental in facilitating public participation in ethnic violence, eventually leading to public participation in the Armenian genocide? Since Jews’ and Arabs’ dreams about the revolution were not “shattered,” at least to the same degree or in the same way that Armenians’ dreams were overturned by the genocide, what made the Armenian case unique during the revolutionary period? Der Matossian’s forthcoming monograph on the Adana massacres will no doubt give answers to these and similar questions raised by Shattered Dreams.

12Bedross Der Matossian’s Shattered Dreams of Revolution is not a study of the revolution itself. By its geographic scope, and its focus on the agency of three non-dominant ethnic groups the book is a major contribution to the field. It will also be of interest to scholars outside the field who want to form an idea about the historical roots of problems and ambiguities inherent in ongoing revolutions and in post-revolutionary violence in the region to this day. Der Matossian’s work leads readers to consider not only how revolutionary dreams of better and peaceful lives were ultimately shattered but also that those dreams once represented real possibilities.

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Note de fin

1 Nader Sohrabi, Revolution and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 26.

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Référence papier

Yaşar Tolga Cora, « Bedross Der Matossian, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire », Études arméniennes contemporaines, 7 | 2016, 118-123.

Référence électronique

Yaşar Tolga Cora, « Bedross Der Matossian, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire », Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 7 | 2016, mis en ligne le 30 mai 2017, consulté le 24 janvier 2018. URL :

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Yaşar Tolga Cora

University of Ann Arbor

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