Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.
By Palmira Brummett
Turkey is on the cusp of a period in its history that will be defined by expansion, through either direct control or greater regional influence. To a degree, this is already being witnessed on the ground by its invasion of Afrin in Syria and at sea by its recent blocking of a European drilling rig from approaching an area off the coast of Cyprus to explore for natural gas.
While much has changed since the Ottoman Empire began its rise in the middle in the 15th century, Turkey still inhabits the same territory. Its position as a bridge between East and West – with one foot in Asia and another in Europe, and interests spanning both maritime and terrestrial regions – means there will be inevitable similarities.
The period from 1453 to 1606, often referred to as the “Long Century,” is bookended by the Ottomans’ capture of Constantinople and the end of the “long” Ottoman-Habsburg war from 1593 to 1606. It was a time when the Ottoman Empire expanded from Anatolia and Rumelia to conquer vast new holdings in Europe.
Ottoman expansion has been seen through two lenses: First, that life in the Ottoman Empire was tantamount to living under the yoke of a cruel foreign overlord; second, that the Ottomans administered a golden age that oversaw the expansion of a tolerant, prosperous, multicultural empire.
Central to Palmira Brummett’s argument is that neither of these is sufficient in explaining Ottoman expansion. The territory that the Ottoman Empire came to control – similar in size to ancient Rome – was so vast that these sorts of broad categorizations overgeneralize to the point of inaccuracy. Brummett argues that territorial conquest, on its own, cannot explain the Ottoman Empire’s expansion. Expansion was not limited to conquest. Just as important were the ways in which the Ottoman Empire established effective administration in its newly conquered territories.
Depending on where the new acquisitions were located – as well as the multitude of ethnicities and religions, and the proximity of distinct foreign powers around the empire – local governance required that administrative bureaucracies develop highly varied structures. Some areas, for example, were far more closely controlled by Istanbul than others. The geographic and demographic diversity encompassed in the empire forced the Ottomans to employ flexible rather than one-size-fits-all models of administration.
Brummett offers an alternative framework for considering Ottoman expansion that is consistent with GPF’s own methodology: “Ottoman Europe can be viewed as consisting of a set of land and sea salients approached on the basis of their degree of accessibility. … To understand Ottoman expansion in Europe, one must thus consider this land and sea space not only in terms of its ethno-political zones but in terms of its geographic constraints.” With this basic framework laid out, Brummett goes on to consider the nature of Ottoman borderlands with an example focusing on Ottoman forts in its peripheral territories: “The trans-national zone of expansion was one that was crafted and occupied by an intriguing set of intermediaries whose operational fields, identities and allegiances were also trans-national. These intermediaries were of two major types: soldiers of fortune, merchants and entrepreneurs who moved from one region of opportunity to another, serving multiple masters in order to advance their own wealth and station.” In other words, even the concept of territorial control in the Ottoman Empire was both relative and variable, and depended heavily on how geography shaped the social identity of each particular space that it needed to govern.
Critically, Brummett emphasizes that the Ottoman Empire – while an eclectic mix of East and West – must nevertheless be viewed as a European state. Its expansion brought it into contact with the complex system of diplomacy that accompanied the rise of the nation-state in Europe, leading it into alliances with France, Poland and Lithuania and conflict with the Habsburgs, Russians and Venetians. The same need to develop strategic depth to protect its core – the Bosporus and Istanbul – will govern Turkey’s re-emergence, and this geopolitical similarity provides critical insight into what strategies Turkey will be compelled to employ as it once again expands.
Xander Snyder, analyst
With World War II increasingly becoming the subject of debate, I wanted to learn more about the way Germany structured its institutions before and during the war. In this book, Adrian Weale documents the evolution of the SS from a protection squad in 1925 to one of the most powerful Nazi organizations throughout World War II.
Besides playing a central role in the genocide of millions of Jews in Europe, the SS had key responsibilities in policing Nazi Germany. But instead of talking about the major events during the war or pointing out the cruelty of the SS, Weale looks at the foundations of the organization and analyzes how the SS was structured and how decisions were made. He documents the organization’s membership, which included not only military and police units and prison administrators, but also philosophers, businessmen and scientists.
Weale, a former officer in the British army, goes beyond the characterization of the SS as a “gang of psychopathic sadists.” He reveals the organization as an ideology-driven medium comprised of political fanatics and opportunists, but also, as it evolved into an army, it included ordinary middle-class Germans who turned their ideological fanaticism, using the elite status of the organization they were part of, into a terror machine.
The account also offers an analytical look into the German social environment after the end of World War I. Weale looks at the causes of the divisions within Germany to explain the ideological roots of Nazism. He also dedicates a chapter to Heinrich Himmler, and the political context in which he took over the SS in 1929. Weale sees the way Himmler established the SS as one of the reasons SS soldiers continued to murder even after it became clear that the war was lost.
In analyzing SS foreign operations as well as its intelligence capabilities, Weale discusses the success of the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of the SS, in recruiting from countries it occupied. He notes the tension between the need to win the war – and therefore recruit mediocre troops that were often barely able to understand German – and the need to keep the SS image of an elite outfit of carefully selected men of Germanic blood. This illustrates one of the predicaments that was politically important for Nazi Germany, explaining the role of the SS military in German politics, beyond the politics of war.
Reading this book made me think about the way nation-states define themselves through the structures that evolve over time and are influenced by socioeconomic problems affecting the lives of individual citizens. Weale also provides an understanding of government structures and how politics changes them, and the factors that can indicate future structural change.
Antonia Colibasanu, analyst