I was very excited about this class on World War I and the Middle East. This is where I start many of my public lectures, arguing that it is impossible to understand the region without taking into account the new state system installed at war’s end.
For the effects of WWI in the Middle East, I welcomed them (of course) with the trailer for Lawrence of Arabia. I used my review of Ottomans in the War to explain why the British were worried enough (besieged in Kut, pinned down at Gallipoli) to make promises to Sharif Husayn: if he were to lead an uprising against the Ottomans, he would become King of Arab lands. I asked them to think about the Sykes-Picot map from Tuesday, and read them the Balfour declaration. I asked them to think about Woodrow Wilson, who put all of these promises into a new context
After the Bolshevik revolution, when the “Arab revolt” forces learned of the wartime promises, the French and British issued a joint declaration explaining that “The aim of France and Great Britain in carrying on in the Near East the war let loose by Germany’s ambitions is the complete and final liberation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and the free choice of the native populations.”
So there were many and conflicting promises, along with Wilson’s commitment to self-government and the Great Powers’ insistence on liberation. How, I asked, could these promises be reconciled? I asked the students to figure it out together, and then post their group response using Poll Everywhere. Their answers ranged from imposing colonial governments on the region, to negotiated settlements, to ignoring European interests in favor of independence for the people. A colleague had told me about Wordle, a neat little program that could create a word cloud from free responses to Poll Everywhere. The preponderance of ideas is clear from the size of the words:
Mandates, of course, were the answer, and the students had read article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant and knew about the project. I wanted to re-introduce local agency, too long missing in discussions of peace treaties and Great Power interests, by talking about Syrian resistance to the French mandate and the 1920 uprising against the British in Iraq. Once again (and again and again), it was clear that local populations would not welcome foreign invasions. Unwilling to commit more treasure and lives to Iraq, the British created a façade of local governance, imposing an Arab king by botched plebiscite and assigning British “advisers” to all government agencies. To whom were the newly appointed rulers responsible, local populations or the Europeans who had appointed them?