What was that Eastern Question?

Turkey was known by the unfriendly sobriquet of ‘The Sick Man of Europe’ during most of the 19th century; the Eastern Question is a collective term for the problems in south-eastern Europe accelerated and exacerbated by the weakness of the Ottoman Turkish Empire; certainly also by animosities of its successors. We shall divide these contentious problems into three principal groups, which tended to overlap, mainly in the 1860s and 70s.

Group A: neighbouring large empires try to benefit themselves at the expense of Turkey:

Russia encroached on the Ottoman Empire through the wars of Catherine the Great (1768 – 74; 1787 – 92), in which she secured the Crimea, and obtained rights in the Danubian Principalities, plus recognition rights for the Orthodox Church in Constantinople (now Istanbul), by treaty in 1774. Russia had fought an indecisive war with Turkey (1806-12) and intervening (or rather interfering) on behalf of Greece in 1828, advancing across the Balkan mountains and imposing the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829. A general desire across Europe to anticipate and if possible avoid the disintegration of the Empire led directly to the Crimean War (q.v.). It must be remembered by students that war in the Crimea meant direct military confrontation between the two great Victorian powers, Britain and Russia, and it might, had it been treated more seriously, have led to a European war. The choice by both sides of commanders who should have been contentedly smoking a pipe by grazing sheep in some meadow, reflecting on past glories ensured only a minor conflagration, though far too many common soldiers died miles from home.

 One of the British commanders had constantly to be reminded that he was fighting the Russians, not the French – as he thought. This might have been because he had fought at Waterloo in 1815.

   Russia increased pressure on Turkey in the 1870s and pushed on to reach the suburbs of Constantinople by 1878, though this action was stopped by the (abortive) Treaty of San Stéfano. Nothing stopped (or stops) Russian expansionism however, and the tendency was revived under Izvolski in the period 1807-10, winning both British and French recognition in the Constantinople Agreements of 1915 – thought these were of course made invalid by the Bolshevik Revolution (q.v.). Austria meanwhile was not uninterested in acquisition of the western Balkans, and achieved success by the occuopation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878. She annexed the provinces in 1908, ensuring that Austria, not Turkey would be troubled hereafter by national hostility. International diplomacy was then, as it now, shaky when it came to possibly negative future results of what seemed to be a good idea at the time. In this case, hatred of the Austrians in Bosnia-Herzogina (q.v.) helped greatly to cause the First World War.

Group B: Attempts to prevent disintegration of the Ottoman Empire:

Both Austria (Metternich’s work) and Russia tried to preserve the Empire, for reasons of their own, but the principal rôle of protector was usually reserved for Britain, at least until 1897. Britain tried to prevent Russia getting hold of the important naval base at Oczacov even as early as 1792. Except during the Greek War of Independence, Britain opposed Russia throughout the nineteenth century; she helped Turkey militarily in the Crimean War and applied diplomatic pressure in 1878, seeking to prevent Russian domination of the Straits by the Convention of 1841 closing the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus to foreign warships in time of peace. Meanwhile, Britain tried to persuade the Turks to reform their own repressive governmental methods. Turkey did not like this, and during the visit of the Kaiser (Wilhelm II) to Constantinople in 1898, she began seeking aid and from Germany more than Britain. Germany was delighted and provided important railway and commercial concessions, while she got military instructors in return and actually became Germany’s ally in 1914. See Laurence of Arabia and other articles (q.v.) in General-History.com

Group C: The rise of independent national states:

In what are called the Middle Ages the Turks had conquered all the then nations in the Balkans. But they became a constant headache for the Ottoman Empire, as they have been a headache ever since. The first of these nationalities subjected to foreign rule were the Serbs who revolted in 1804 and then again in 1815 (the year of Waterloo).

Greece then aroused international sympathy in the War of Independence (1821-30) a war in which incidentally the English poet Lord Byron died (of illness), gaining posthumous Greek ascendance to their gallery of Heroes. Rumania received aid from the French after the Crimean War, until their independence was gained in 1878. Three year earlier in 1875 the Bulgarians rose in revolt, eventually securing recognition as an autonomous united principality in 1886. Formal independence followed in October, 1908. The great mass of the Balkan peoples combined against Turkey in the Balkan War of 1812, resulting in a notable enlargement of Serbia and Greece, and the creation of an independent Albania (q.v.). But, and there is always a ‘but’ a bitter rivalry arose between Serbia and Bulgaria, and they fought each other in the Great War.

  The last (or so the politicians thought) phase of the by now traditional Eastern Question came about because Mustapha Kemal (Turkish leader) tried to save at least the nucleus of a Turkish national state after the great defeat in 1918. Perhaps the Eastern Question was finally solved in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, but many historians doubt it.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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