Young Turks is the name given to Ottoman dissidents who from the end of the 19th century through World War I sought to reform the Ottoman Empire; the Young Turks were strongly influenced by the earlier Young Ottoman movement of the 1870s. Turkish exiles in Paris were first known as Young Turks until various other dissident factions throughout the Ottoman Empire, Europe, and North Africa united under the banner of the Ittihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti, or Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) in 1907.
Although the groups were varied and widespread, they were all opposed to the autocratic rule of the sultan and sought to restore parliament and the constitution. Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842–1918) originally introduced the constitution and parliament in 1876, among other reforms initiated by his predecessors during the Tanzimat period, but suspended them in 1878 and moved toward a severely autocratic and repressive regime. In 1908 CUP-led troops marched to the capital city, Istanbul, and demanded the restoration of parliament and the constitution. The sultan acquiesced, and elections were held for the first time in 30 years. Exiled Young Turks, notably men from Salonica who primarily led the organization and formed the leadership base, returned as prominent members of the CUP. The CUP allowed Sultan Abdul Hamid to remain in control of politics while they acted as a watchdog over the government. This changed when a counterrevolution, staged by Islamists, conservatives, and those loyal to the sultan, occurred in 1909. The counterrevolutionaries drove the CUP out of Istanbul, but the CUP reorganized in Macedonia and recaptured Istanbul by force. After quelling the counterrevolution, the Young Turks deposed Sultan Abdul Hamid II and replaced him with his brother Murad V, officially changing the government to a constitutional and parliamentary regime. The Young Turks did not (nor did they wish to) abolish the sultanate but instead viewed their roles as guardians of the constitution and reformers of the empire and not as leaders of the country (until World War I). The sultan maintained his powers as caliph (leader of the Muslim world), along with the right to appoint a grand vizier and Sheik al-Islam.
International events strongly affected the policies of the Young Turks and the CUP. The Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire and the Great Powers of Europe took advantage of the weakened state of the empire caused by the revolution and the counterrevolution. Austria-Hungary, Greece, and Italy made significant claims on Ottoman territories, and the CUP-led government was unable to offer much resistance. Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria declared war on the Ottoman Empire, resulting in the loss of most of the European provinces, notably the city of Edirne. The loss of Edirne stunned the Ottomans (it was the former capital) and inadvertently brought about a coup d’état from within the CUP inner circle (known as the Bab-I Ali coup) in 1913. The loss of Edirne exposed the weakness of the CUP, prompting the leading faction to take control of the party. Three figures emerged at the forefront, Enver Pasha, Talat Pasha, and Cemal Pasha. After Enver (who controlled the military) led the successful recapture of Edirne (and became a hero), he was promoted to the position of minister of war. Talat Pasha, a former postman, became minister of the interior, and Cemal Pasha became the military governor of Istanbul. They were informally known as the leading triumvirate. After the coup the CUP took on a more dominant role in domestic and international government policies.
The start of World War I changed the role of the CUP. The Young Turks entered into an alliance with Germany and joined the conflict in 1914. The Germans used the empire as a buffer against Russia, while the Ottomans needed German protection from Russian encroachment. The fear of Russian (and later Greek) advancement led to terrible atrocities committed against the Armenian and Christian communities of Anatolia, inspired by the CUP and still controversial to this day. The German alliance proved disastrous for the CUP, whose leaders were forced to flee after signing the armistice in 1918.
Despite their failures, the Young Turks contributed significantly to reforms within the Ottoman Empire that directly inspired the independence movement and the formation of modern Turkey. The CUP was able to consolidate power, free the economy from the control of minority groups, abolish the centuries-old system of capitulations, and set the stage for economic independence. They initiated basic rights for women, which were expanded and enhanced in the later Republic of Turkey. The Young Turks sought a synthesis of Western and Eastern ideals, fanned the flames of nationalism, and introduced the idea of pan-Turkism, later expanded upon by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the founder of modern Turkey) and his supporters. The CUP laid the groundwork for a successful resistance movement. Due to this foresight the Turkish army and the Turkish people were able to fight off the occupying forces of the Great Powers and the Greeks, who after World War II attempted to annex the western coast of Turkey. They were soundly defeated in 1922. The presentday Republic of Turkey continued many of the reforms and the ideology propagated by the Young Turks and enhanced these ideals in the formation of a state with a democratic emphasis.
Further reading: Ahmad, F. The Young Turks: The Committee of Union and Progress: Turkish Politics 1908–1914. London: Oxford University Press, 1969; Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. London: Oxford University Press, 1961; Zürcher, Erik J. Turkey: A Modern History. London: I.B. Tauris, 1993.