If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:
The removal of the last Ottoman sultan, Mehmed VI Vahideddin (d. 1926), is among history’s greatest anti-climaxes. The Ottomans had (obviously) lost World War I, which resulted in the dismantling of their empire under the terms of their 1918 armistice and the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. Sèvres not only put the empire's Arab dominions under British and French control, but it also apportioned big chunks of the real Turkish heartland of the empire, Anatolia, out to various European states (France, Greece, Italy, Britain) either as ceded territory or in the form of “zones of control.” In short, there was really no more sultanate for Mehmed to rule anyway.
The story doesn’t end there, of course, or the nation of Turkey wouldn’t exist in its present form. And indeed, the harsh terms of the Treaty of Sèvres spawned an almost immediate resistance in Anatolia, the imperial heartland. But that resistance was led by what should be considered a brand-new Turkish national movement, not by the remnants of the old empire. The subsequent Turkish War of Independence was fought by that national movement, led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who would later be called “father of the Turks” or Atatürk. It was fought in the name of creating a new, independent Turkish Republic, not in the name of restoring the Ottoman Empire. The republican victory in that war, which ended with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that preserved a unified Anatolia as a new Turkish nation, did nothing to make Mehmed relevant again.
Mehmed VI (Wikimedia Commons)
The man who got the dubious honor of being that last Ottoman Sultan never should have been Sultan to begin with, and he wound up having to take the job under the worst possible circumstances. When Mehmed V (who was Mehmed VI’s brother) came to power in 1909, the oldest Ottoman prince automatically became his heir apparent. That was his cousin, Yusuf Izzettin Efendi, who was the son of a former Sultan, Abdülaziz I (d. 1876). However, Yusuf committed suicide (or maybe was murdered) in 1916, and so it fell to Mehmed VI to succeed his brother upon the latter's death in July 1918.
The year 1918, as you might imagine, was a pretty lousy time to become an Ottoman Sultan. The empire was steadily losing control of its Middle Eastern domains, Bulgaria was defeated by the Allies in the Balkans in September, and the Germans let it be known (also in September, not coincidentally) that they were looking to surrender. Mehmed VI had little left to do other than oversee the Ottomans’ own surrender, a process he must have known meant the end of his empire.
So I feel bad for Mehmed VI. Even that picture of him above is kind of depressing. Imagine being the absolute (in theory) monarch of what had once been a vast empire covering parts of three continents, and you decide to dress up in military uniform and only give yourself that one sad-looking ribbon to wear. Maybe he was just trying to set expectations low.
Anyway, when it came time to negotiate the Lausanne treaty, the Allies invited both Atatürk’s fledgling Turkish national government (the “Ankara government”) and the remnants of the imperial government (the “Istanbul government”) to the talks. The decision by Atatürk and his Turkish National Grand Assembly to abolish the sultanate on November 1, 1922, should be seen as an attempt to ensure that there would be absolutely no confusion about who really represented the Turks at the bargaining table. Did the assembly have the legal right to take this step? I think it’s debatable, in the abstract. But in practical terms the legalities are irrelevant, because what was Mehmed VI going to do about it? He had no army, no real support inside or outside of the new Turkey, and certainly no chance of coming out ahead in a clash with Atatürk. So he fled—first to a British warship, then to Malta, and finally to (a comfortable) exile on the Italian Riviera, where he died in May 1926.
According to imperial propaganda, Ottoman Sultans had for centuries held a claim on the title of caliph, which came to mean something like “spiritual leader of all (Sunni) Muslims.” The degree to which any given sultan actually stressed this title varied somewhat, and this is still a matter of some debate among scholars today. But there’s no question that the Ottomans began to stress their pretensions to the caliphate in the 19th century, culminating with Sultan Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876-1909). He rejected the constitutionalism of the Young Ottomans, who sought to manufacture an imperial “nationality” called “Ottomanism” as a new basis for Ottoman unity. Dumping the Ottoman constitution in 1878, he instead looked to pan-Islamism as the main unifying feature of the empire, which naturally raised all sorts of complications with the empire’s non-Muslim communities, but those aren’t relevant to this story. What is relevant is that Abdul Hamid placed great emphasis on his status as “caliph” under this new ruling ideology.
The Young Turks (who were constitutionalists like the Young Ottomans but embraced Turkish nationalism rather than the more inclusive but much less coherent “Ottoman” nationalism) forced Abdul Hamid to reinstate the constitution in 1908 and then ousted him altogether the following year. But the idea of the “Ottoman caliphate” had started to catch on in the Sunni world, and when the Ottomans surrendered in 1918 and it became clear that their empire was about to be dissolved, a campaign emerged mostly in British India called the “Khilafat movement” that sought to pressure the Allies to maintain the Ottomans as caliphs. The Allies were amenable to this, no doubt seeing the advantage of having a pliant and politically helpless Ottoman caliph who could issue helpful edicts to his fellow Muslims from time to time (Britain had already done some of this in the 19th century, appealing occasionally for Ottoman spiritual help in quelling Muslim uprisings in India). So they arranged for the Turkish assembly to choose Mehmed's cousin, Abdülmecid (technically “Abdülmecid II” even though, unlike Abdülmecid I, he was never sultan), to assume the title of caliph.
This pretense lasted until March 1924, when the Turkish assembly voted to abolish the caliphate as well. I would argue they were on less firm legal ground in this case than they had been in abolishing the sultanate, but, again, what was anybody really going to do about it? Abdülmecid II wound up in his own comfortable exile, in Paris, where he died in August 1944. Today, the “House of Osman,” or the Osmanoğlu (“son of Osman”) family if you prefer, still exists and is “headed” by Dündar Ali Osman, who is a great-grandson of Abdul Hamid II. Dündar Ali was born in Damascus in 1930 and lived there until the Turkish government evacuated him from Syria in 2017. He’s now in Istanbul.
Ertuğrul Osman, the man sometimes called “the last Ottoman” because he was the last surviving Ottoman prince who had been born when the empire was still around, died in 2009. He spent most of his life in exile in New York, but was allowed to return to Turkey in the 1990s and received Turkish citizenship in 2004. When he died he was living in Istanbul once more.