Against Assimilation: Assessing Late Ottoman Violence through Conscription Debates, 1908-1912

Uğur Z. Peçe

The promulgation of constitution in July 1908 raised the hopes of  many  Ottomans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, that they would soon live under a regime  based  on equality between different nationalities. But the idea of equality, a notion ubiquitous to the post-1908 setting, carried conflicting meanings in the lexicons of Ottoman Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and others. Despite differing on the definition of fundamental political concepts, there was one thing that Ottomans from various ethno-religious backgrounds agreed upon: under the new regime, everyone was equal not only in rights but in duties as well. Such abstract consensus broke apart when it came to define what constituted these rights and duties. Drawing on parliamentary minutes, state documents, memoirs, and newspapers in Greek and Ottoman Turkish, my paper addresses the post- constitutional debates over equality by focusing on the question of military conscription. The universal conscription as an idea received enthusiastic support of the Ottoman non- Muslims whereas its implementation attracted strong objections, particularly by Greeks. While prominent members of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) presented the non-Muslim conscription as a policy that would unite all Ottoman nationalities, many Greeks regarded it as a device to forcibly assimilate them into an imperial ideology, defined strongly along the lines of CUP’s Turkish nationalism. My paper investigates Greeks’ complaints about discrimination, exploitation, oppression, and Turkification during a relatively peaceful, yet extremely tense, period in Ottoman history (1908-1912). I argue that the violence that enveloped the empire during the ten years following the Balkan Wars (1912-13) can be better understood through the examination of the conscription policy that drove one of the deepest wedges between the CUP and Ottoman Greeks following the Young Turk Revolution.