The personality of the ruler is rather contradictory. The vast majority of European historians negatively characterize his reign, as well as his personality, comparing Abdulhamid with tyrants and despots of that time. If we look at the Turkish historiography, the attitude towards the personality and legacy of Abdulhamid is still very controversial, some historians idealize his personality praising him to the skies, the other part, strongly diminishes his role in the history, accusing him of despotism and usurpation of power.
One thing is for sure, Abdulhamid, who managed to rule fairly unstable state, at the twilight of its existence for 33 years, was far from an ordinary Oriental, narrow-minded despot, many of whom can be found throughout the Arab Middle East.
Prince Abdulhamid was born in 1842, his father, Abdulmecid, was the 31st Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who died at the age of 38. He is remembered for the beginning of the "Tanzimat" era in the Ottoman Empire. Abdulhamid’s mother Tirimuzhgan Qadin Efendi, was originally from the North Caucasus and died when Prince Abdulhamid was 10 years old. His mother's death left a deep trace in the mind of young Abdulhamid. He wore her love all his life. He left some gold cutlery of his mother, as it was described by contemporaries, the cutlery had always been on his desk, and he had always carried them with him until his death.
After his mother's death, Abdulhamid grew up an orphan in the care of a childless wife of Sultan Abdulmecid. The throne was a dream, because he had an older brother, immediately after the death of his father, his father's brother, Sultan Abdulaziz, ascended on the throne. Abdulhamid’s stepbrother Prince Murad became the successor.
However, a series of events, in particular the overthrow and murder of Sultan Abdulaziz (1876), short-term (93 days) reign of Prince Murad, who was removed from power because of mental insanity, has jeopardized the authority of the Ottoman dynasty and those who achieved great heights under the rule of the Ottomans. Thus the authors of the previous palace coup and the ascension on the throne of Prince Murad, led by Mithat Pasha were forced to draw their attention to the humble Prince Abdulhamid.
Abdulhamid ascended on the throne in the summer of 1876 in a very difficult, I would even say critical period for the Empire and dynasty. Economic and political turmoil, local wars in the Balkans, moreover, the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78 put in danger the very existence of the Ottoman Empire. Maybe then the Ottoman Empire could finally break up, and would be divided into parts between European states and Russia. However, the victory of Russia, whose troops reached the walls of Istanbul, dissatisfied France, Britain and Austria-Hungary, they took a number of steps to level the Russian victories. The Europeans also satisfied their appetites at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. As a consequence, Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina, Britain took over Cyprus and France invaded Tunisia (which was then under a formal sovereignty of the Sublime Porte).
Taking advantage of external defeats of Mithat Pasha and his associates, Abdulhamid removes them from the government, dissolves the parliament and concentrates all power in his hands. During his reign, he created powerful intelligence apparatus and police force. Abdulhamid’s intelligence, was active in all major European capitals, and the police apparatus was striking fear in the critics of the regime in the country. Abdulhamid remembered how his uncle Sultan Abdulmecid was overthrown. Therefore, special attention was paid to the secret police and intelligence.
Today, the style of Abdulhamid’s ruling would be called the "dictatorship", but unlike the classic Eastern dictators, Abdulhamid often preferred to buy out his enemies, or to expel. Abdulhamid was also remembered as he approved extremely few executions, during his tenure.
Through their established network of agents, the sultan could in time receive the necessary information about the status of enemies and feuds between them. Brilliant ability to analyze and perfect knowledge of the real geopolitical situation in the world, helped him maneuver around the powers taking advantage of their divisions and exorbitant appetites.
At the same time, Abdulhamid knew that it wouldn’t be possible to maneuver and procrastinate those or other processes constantly. For this reason, he strengthened the army and carried out administrative reforms. During the reign of Abdulhamid, a large number of military and civilian higher educational institutions on the Western model was created and modernized. New railway lines were built (which might be used to deliver troops and ammunition in case of war).
Abdulhamid was well aware that sooner or later the world powers would want to reshape the world, including the lands of his empire. He could not build alliances with France, Britain and Russia, as these countries had openly expressed their claims on "the Ottoman legacy" and were often the sponsors and organizers of the unrest and uprisings in the Ottoman Empire. Based on this, Abdulhamid decided to ally with the growing German Empire. Germany, unlike other European powers was not a colonial empire and intendting to occupy the Ottoman territories. Sultan decided to give preference to German capital in the Empire. For Germany with its growing ambitions, it was also a very profitable alliance, since it built an alliance with very favorably located ally and got a large market for its products.
Anticipating the coming troubles, Abdulhamid made modernization and re-equipment of the Ottoman artillery forces stationed in the Dardanelles, naturally, the process of modernization also continued after him. The outbreak of World War I and the attempts of allies to conquer the straits, showed the timeliness and relevance of the Sultan’s decisions.
Not having enough opportunities to stop the incitement and subversion of the Western powers in its territory, Abdulhamid contrasted the Western expansion with the policy of pan-Islamism. Using his title of Chaliph, Abdulhamid was sending missions and help to Muslims in different parts of the world from Western China to Eastern Africa and Southeastern Asia. Most of the policy of "pan-Islamism" pursued by Abdulhamid troubled UK in colonies, where millions of Muslims lived. Pan-Islamism was Abdulhamid’s response to intervention of the Western powers in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire. Of course, the Sultan didn’t have so much money and power as France or Britain had, but he still caused certain problems for his enemies.
That was the reason why he was hated in Europe, both in governmental circles and often in intellectual circles. Perhaps, the European political establishment wouldn’t hate him so much, if he was a spineless ruler, pandering to European powers.
In order to understand the relations between the Ottoman Empire and the European powers, I will give you one small example.
In 1901, the French government, demanded the Ottoman Empire to pay the debt to two French bankers. As it turned out, the loans were given to the supporters of Prince Murad, and in fact, had been used to overthrow Sultan Abdulaziz. As Murad had been ruling for just 93 days, and then was succeeded by Abdulhamid, of course, the debt wasn’t paid and came to light many years later. Negotiations regarding the payment of the debt between Abdulhamid and the French ambassador were unsuccessful (the Sultan wanted to delay the payment), and the French ambassador left Istanbul in protest.
Less than a month after the departure of the ambassador, in November 1901, the French navy occupied the island of Lesbos, and gained control over the customs office located on the island. The French side claimed that the island would remain under their control until they pay the debt, besides the French demanded to provide additional preferences for French schools and other French institutions in the Ottoman Empire. The French quit the island only after the payment of debts and fulfilling their requirements for obtaining additional preferences.
It is worth noting that, considering the plight of the treasury, Abdulhamid borrowed money from his consort Fatma-Pesend Hanim to repay a part of the debt. In such circumstances, the Sultan tried to extend the life of the state and, if possible, to maintain its integrity.
Although the Sultan paid particular attention to the Army and education of officers. However, over time, a wide dissatisfied layer was formed among the officers of the Ottoman army. They were mostly young, educated, ambitious officers who were dissatisfied with the autocratic rule and policies of Sultan Abdulhamid. The officers actively started showing their interest in politics, and contacting with the Turkish revolutionary communities. Over time, it formed the backbone of the organization "İttihat and Terakki" (Unity and Progress). In 1908, the Young Turks moved into action. As a result of mass disobedience of officers, the army de facto did not subordinate to the Sultan. Abdulhamid was forced to make concessions, in particular with regard to the reinstatement of the constitution and operation of the Meclis (Parliament). During a part of 1908, there was a diarchy in the country. The end came in April 1909, when forces loyal to the Sultan tried to organize a counter-revolutionary coup and restore the power of the Sultan. Although at first they were successful, but the leaders of the Young Turks were able to mobilize the military units deployed in the European part of the Empire and redeploy them to Istanbul, the counter-revolutionary rebellion was quickly suppressed, the sultan was locked in his residence in the palace of Yildiz. After a few days at an emergency session of the Ottoman Parliament, it was decided to depose Abdulhamid, once the former Sultan was decided to be sent into exile to Thessaloniki. Abdulhamid was succeeded by his brother Mehmed V who became the 35th Ottoman Sultan and 114th Islamic Caliph.
Abdulhamid had lived in Thessaloniki until 1912, and then after the fall of the city was brought to Istanbul and settled in the palace of Beylerbeyi, where he died on February 10, 1918. It is noteworthy that it was the palace where Abdulhamid's mother died in 1853.
Many experts and historians, among whom there are also critics of Abdulhamid, agree that his rule and the measures taken by him extended the life of the Ottoman Empire by 30-40 years.
Large sections of the Ottoman intellectuals, subjected the Sultan to sharp criticism and were in opposition to him, among them, you can specify a highly renowned man of his time as a poet and the future author of the words of the Turkish national anthem Mehmet Akif Ersoy. He devoted a series defaming poems to Sultan Abdulhamid.
However, among the intellectuals who once opposed the monarch there were those who later changed their minds. For example, a well-known critic of Abdulhamid, a historian and writer Ahmet Rasim, after the death of Abdulhamid wrote the following words: "If not you, but your dead body becomes our Sultan, it is acceptable, even if your coffin ascends on the Ottoman throne, it will be better than now."
The life and work of Abdulhamid, with his successes and failures, with his mistakes and inadequacies, is the theme of a book, and maybe books. It is difficult to fit into a single article all the legacy that Abdulhamid left in 33 years of his highly controversial rule. I just tried to make a little analysis of his operations and touched upon the main aspects.
Ali Hajizade, political scientist, head of the project of "TheGreatMiddleEast"