The Eastern Question

The present condition of Turkey within the last hundred years stripped of some of her fairest possessions, and the seat of her Empire in the possession of the great powers, and dependent upon the great powers for her very existence is a conspicuous example of the mutability of human affairs. It seems to be the inevitable course of history that from the highest point of elevation Empires, sometimes with rapid strides and again with steps lingering and slow, shall touch the lowest point of depression. Greece and Rome fell. So did Chaldaea, Assyria, Carthage, and Persia. The close of the Nineteenth Century finds Turkey the most conspicuous example of a great power, once the terror of the world, now in its presence tottering to its fall. Her feebleness is abject and she is kept alive only by the jealousy of her neighbors. First by the influence of England and France, who fought a costly war to preserve her European dominions for her, and later by Germany and Russia. Yet five centuries ago the Otto-man Empire’s conquering hosts shook the earth with their martial tread. Not content with Asia, they essayed to conquer Europe, and Southern Europe fell into their hands, The Turks made themselves masters of a lordly heritage in Europe more than three times the extent of France, with a delicious climate and a soil of wondrous fertility, and with a vast seaboard. But the system of organized robbery, known in Europe by the name of Turkish Government, changed all this and converted into a wilderness one of the fairest regions of the world. Though each century since the Middle Ages has seen a decrease in the extent of the Ottoman Empire, yet the persecution of Christians, in accordance with the doctrines of the Koran, has continued ever since, and these persecutions have been declared an affair of no concern to anyone but the Sultan by the great powers in turn, and the Sultan has been free to butcher as many Christians as he chooses.

This state of affairs has been due to the effort to maintain what is known as the balance of power in Europe. The doctrine of the diplomats has been that it is better that a weak power should occupy the Mediterranean coasts than that they should fall into the hands of some great power, to whom they would be of great strategetical importance. The power which has seemed most dangerous in this respect is Russia, whose unparalleled rise to importance has been watched with jealous eyes by the Western Nations. Russia has for ages looked with eyes of desire upon Constantinople and the Turkish seaboard. A prophecy of extreme antiquity foretells the ultimate accomplishment of her purposes. When or by whom it was first uttered no man knows, but eight centuries ago it might be read upon an equestrian statue, then very old, which had been brought to Constantinople from Antioch. It was believed for centuries before the invasion of the Turks; and the Turks themselves soon learned to look for-ward to its fulfillment. In Russia a powerful national and religious sentiment regards the possession of Constantinople, the ancient seat of the head of the Eastern Church, as a manifest destiny and urges forward every measure which tends to accomplish it. The Emperor Alexander claimed that he himself did not wish Russia to possess Constantinople, but it was inevitable; as well, he said, try to arrest a stream in its descent from the mountains. Russia has omitted no opportunity of aggravating the disorders of the Turkish Empire and thus hastening its over-throw. During a greater part of the Eighteenth Century she contrived to involve the Turks in perpetual quarrel and waged against them frequent and destructive wars. And she would long ago, by open violence, have fulfilled the ancient prediction had not the jealousies of the other European powers peremptorily forbidden this aggrandizement. In this policy the English Government has been the leader, under Conservative ministries. England has labored, often by diplomacy and sometimes by arms, to uphold the most unjustifiable despotism which modern Europe ever endured. Yet in spite of these efforts to pre-serve the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, it has dwindled in extent during the Nineteenth Century. The Sultan’s dominions have been successively curtailed. The cruel warfare of extermination waged against the Greeks in their contest for independence forced a reluctant English ministry to depart from its traditional policy and by the aid of Russia, France, and England, the independence of Greece was secured (1827).

It was after this war, and as early as 1844, that the Emperor Nicholas I, proposed to divide with Britain and France the inheritance of the “Sick Man,” as he called Turkey. Nicholas, whether from policy or from a sense of kingly honor, which at times powerfully influenced him, did not avail himself of the prostration of the continental powers in 1848 to attack Turkey. He detested revolution, as a crime against the divinely ordered subjection of Nations to their rulers and probably would have felt himself degraded had he, in the spirit of his predecessor, Catharine, turned the calamities of his brother monarchs to his separate advantage. It accorded better with his proud nature, possibly also with his schemes of far-reaching policy, for Russia to enter the field as the protector of the Hapsburgs against the rebel Hungarians than for his armies to snatch from the Porte what he believed the lapse of time would give to Russia, at no far distant date.

But war over Turkey was inevitable. It came and had a trivial pretext : ostensibly about the guardianship of the Holy Places in Jerusalem. The earliest Christian legends had been localized in various spots around Jerusalem. These had been, in the ages of faith, the goal of constant pilgrimages and in more recent times they had formed the object of treaties between Turkey and France. Greek monks, however, disputed with Latin monks, for the guardianship of the Holy Places and as the power of Russia grew the privileges of the Greek monks had increased. Practically their differences were no more than this: that the Latin monks should have a key to the great door of the church of Bethlehem and not be asked to content themselves with a key to the inferior door; that they should have a key to each of the doors giving entrance to the cave in which the Nativity was supposed to have taken place; that they should have the privilege of setting up in the same locality a silver star bearing the arms of France. In the hands of diplomats, bent on obtaining triumphs over one another, these disputes assumed dimensions that overshadowed the peace of Europe. Russia was not only deeply interested in protecting the Slavonic races under the Turkish rule who were of the same blood as herself but she wished to extend her power beyond the Dardanelles. A war was necessary to the Emperor of the French for the consolidation of his throne. The French and the Russian ministers at Constantinople alternately tormented the Sultan in the character of aggrieved sacristans until, at the beginning of 1852, the Porte compromised itself with both parties by adjudging to each rights which it professed also to secure to the other. A year more spent in prevarications, in excuses, and in men-aces ended with the triumph of the French, with the evasion of the promises made by the Sultan to the Czar, and with the discomfiture of the Greek Church in the person of the monks who officiated at the Holy Sepulchre and the Shrine of the Nativity.

Nicholas treated the conduct of the Porte as an out-rage upon himself. He insisted that the rights conceded to the Christian population of Turkey should be secured by treaty with himself. Such an arrangement was virtually a Russian protectorate over three-fourths of the Turkish people and would have ended the independence of Turkey. The Sultan, acting under the advice of the English Ambassador, steadfastly refused the Russian demands. France, Austria, and Prussia bestowed, upon the action of the Turkish Government, the support of their approval.

The passionate Czar, unable to effect his purposes by diplomacy, moved an army across the Pruth ( July 2, 1853) and possessed himself of the Danubian principalities. This invasion imparted to the question a graver aspect than it had heretofore presented, and diplomacy hastened to interpose its good offices. The four powers, at a conference at Vienna, framed a note embodying proposals which, as it was deemed, the estranged Governments might honorably accept. This note conveyed to the Czar assurances that the ancient privileges of the Greek Church in the Ottoman Empire would be held sacred, but it conferred upon him no new right to enforce the fulfillment of the pledge. The Czar was willing to accept this compromise, and the mediators recommended it as one which ought to be satisfactory to Turkey. It was deemed that the difficulty was at length overcome, but to the amazement of Europe, Turkey refused to be guided by the advice of her friends. She would not accept the Vienna note unless certain verbal alterations were adopted. These were insignificant; but Russia, having consented to the note in the original form, was too proud to have it changed at the caprice of a power which she despised. The mediators stood aside. The Turks, after vainly summoning the Czar to withdraw his armies from their territory, declared war (October 23, 1853) against him, with all the gravity and dignity of a power able to give effect to the hostile purposes which it announced. The final differences between Russia and Turkey are scarcely appreciable by the most searching examination. Europe was led into a bloody war because Turkey demanded, and Russia was too proud and too angry to con-cede certain immaterial variations in the phraseology of a settlement which was substantially agreeable to both.

Turkey and Russia began the war by themselves, and although at first the Turks succeeded in repulsing the Russians at every point of attack along the Danube, the war, if left to run its course, could have had but one outcome. After more fruitless diplomacy, Great Britain and France agreed to support Turkey by armed intervention. The war thus undertaken lasted two years. At first England and France stood alone in their support of Turkey, but early in 1855 Sardinia boldly joined the alliance and sent a contingent to the seat of war. The other powers remained neutral throughout the contest. The plan of operations was very simple. Russia could only be attacked in her extremities and England could only act on a sea base. The chief scenes of operation were the Black Sea and the Baltic. In the spring of 1854 a powerful British and French fleet appeared in the Gulf of Fin-land. But the Russian fleet kept safe behind the granite fortresses of Kronstadt and Sveaborg; which, owing to shallow water and difficult navigation, could not be attacked by the large vessels comprising the allied fleets. Beyond the blockade the only thing of importance effected was the destruction of the fortress of Bomarsund, and the capture of the island on which it was situated. The second Baltic campaign in 1855 was a repetition of the first. Sveaborg was bombarded, but, having no gunboats, the fleet could only blockade the Russian coast. The Russian fleet in the Black Sea took refuge in the fortified harbor of Sebastopol, sinking vessels across the entrance. On land the Turkish forces, under Omar Pasha, had maintained a heroic contest on the Danube against the Russians during the winter of 1853-54. The French and British troops sent to the aid of the Sultan were landed chiefly at Varna (April and May, 1855). The Turkish defense of Silistria rendered the advance of the allies in that direction unnecessary. After six weeks’ siege the Russians were obliged to retire. The allies having suffered great loss from the cholera at Varna, it was resolved to carry the war into the Crimea and (September 14) an army of 25,000 British, under Lord Raglan; 25,000 French, under Marshal St. Arnaud, and 8,000 Turks were landed on the west coast, thirty miles north of Sebastopol. They attacked and defeated a Russian army strongly posted on the steep heights above the river Alma (September 20th). Then, taking position near Balaklava, to the south of Sebastopol, they began the siege of that place. The Russians made repeated attempts to force the allies’ position, which led to the bloody battles of Balaklava (October 25th), and Inkermann (November 5th). Balaklava was mainly a cavalry action and did much more credit to the gallantry of the soldiers than to their commander’s generalship. It was memorable for the glorious “Charge of the Light Brigade,” who, in obedience to a bungled order, rode a mile and a half under a murderous fire. Faster and faster grew the pace until, with a cheer, they broke into the battery, sabered the gunners and burst through a column of infantry. Then they turned and cut their way back. But out of the six hundred not two hundred returned. “It is magnificent, but it is not war,” was the comment of St. Arnaud. At Inkermann 8,000 British sustained for several hours a hand-to-hand fight against 50,000 Russians until 6,000 French came to their aid and completed the rout of the enemy.

“I have two generals who will not fail me,” said the Czar, “General January and General February.” The allied armies suffered terribly during the following win-ter, not alone from the severity of the climate, but from the mismanagement and the shameful breakdown of the commissariat. The supplies of food, clothing, and other necessaries were often sent where they were not wanted. The men were often half-fed, they were clothed in rags utterly inadequate for their protection; for any benefits which their boots afforded they might almost as well have been barefooted. They slept on the wet ground, badly sheltered by tents. They toiled for many hours every day in the trenches ankle deep in mud. They had no fuel and often could not cook their food. They sickened and died by hundreds. The British army was dwindling swiftly away under the neglect and mismanagement of its own leaders. Several regiments became literally extinct. One had but seven men left for duty, another had thirty. When the sick were put on board transports to be conveyed to hospitals the mortality was shocking. In some ships one man in every four died in a voyage of seven days. In some of the hospitals recovery was a rare exception. At one time four-fifths of the poor fellows who underwent amputation died of gangrene. During the first seven months of the siege of Sebastopol the men perished by disease at a rate which would have exterminated the entire force in a little more than a year and a half. The total British loss in this war was 20,656, and of these only 2,598 were slain in battle. To Florence Nightingale, the daughter of an English clergyman, was due the establishment of proper nursing in the military hospitals; not merely then, but thereafter.

The prodigious strength of the fortifications of Sebastopol, together with the skill of its defense, protracted the siege for nearly a year and rendered it one of the greatest in history. The Czar Nicholas died (March, 1855), but Alexander II, his son and successor, kept up the enormous drain on the population and resources of Russia. Trenches of the allies drew closer and closer to the Russian redoubts, till the foes were within speaking distance. September 8, 1855, after three days’ continuous cannonading, the French stormed and carried the Malakoff, the key of Sebastopol. That night the Russians evacuated the city, leaving it in blazing ruins. Except for the surrender of Kars in Caucasia to the Russians, the war ended with the fall of Sebastopol. A treaty of peace was signed at Paris March, 1856, by which Russia lost all she had attempted to gain, but the article prohibiting Russia from building arsenals or having warships on the Black Sea was abrogated in 1871.

As a result of the war the powers persuaded the Sultan to proclaim equal rights to all his citizens. But he was either powerless or unwilling to enforce it, and massacres of Christians went on as before. In 1860 thousands of them were killed in Lebanon and Damascus. In the following year Abdul-Medjid died and his brother Abdul-Aziz succeeded. Then the people of Moldavia and Wallachia united into one State of Roumania, and in 1866 chose Prince Charles of Hohenzollern as hereditary Prince, while the Porte was powerless through weakness and corruption to interfere. A Cretan rebellion was sup-pressed in 1868, but Servia already autonomous in her own territory demanded the removal of the Turkish garrison from her fortresses, and the concession had to be made. The Sultan was now also obliged to confer the title of Khedive on his vassal in Egypt, who had become a powerful monarch, and gradual concessions soon made the latter an independent ruler. When the Franco-German War of 1870 commenced, Russia seized the opportunity of repudiating the Black Sea clauses of the Treaty of Paris. Meanwhile Turkey was drifting into ruin through the mismanagement which prevailed. An insurrection commenced in Herzegovina in 1875 and smouldered for some time, exciting the feelings of all the Slavonic peoples in Southeast Europe. It soon spread to Bulgaria and was repressed with much cruelty. In 1876 Abdul-Aziz was deposed and his nephew, Amurath V, succeeded, to be replaced in three months by Abdul-Hamid II. Toward the end of June reports reached Western Europe of the suppression of an insurrection in Bulgaria with measures of atrocious violence. Servia and Montenegro declared war. The vague reports from Bulgaria took more definite form, and the correspondents of German and English news-papers, making their way to the district south of the Balkans, found in villages still strewn with skeletons and human remains, the terrible evidences of what had passed. Deeds worse than murder were committed by these barbarians in Turkish pay. Gladstone left his retirement to denounce these horrors; but Disraeli, then prime minister of England, declared that Turkey must be preserved at all hazards, and that if the Czar gave aid to the Christians he would be in danger of war with Great Britain, as at the time of the Crimean War. The powers tried to prevent Russia’s interference and the Government itself was afraid to undertake it. But the pressure of public opinion in Russia was too strong. Even in despotic Russia public opinion can make itself felt. The massacre of thousands of Greek Christians, merely because they were Greek Christians, aroused those of the same faith in Russia. Forced by his people to make war, the Czar sent Russian armies across the Danube (June, 1877), and in spite of the hard defense of Plevna by the Turks, they were soon almost within sight of the towers of St. Sophia.

Gourko, in command of an army that had gathered to the southwest of Plevna, made his way through the mountains above Etropol in the last days of December, and driving the Turks from Sophia, pressed on to Philippopolis and Adrianople. Farther east two columns crossed the Balkans by by-paths right and left of the Shipka Pass, and then, converging on Shipka itself, fell on the rear of the Turkish army, which still blocked the southern outlet. Simultaneously a third corps marched down the pass from the north and assailed the Turks in front. After a fierce struggle the entire Turkish army, 35,000 strong, laid down its arms. There now remained only one considerable force between the invaders and Constantinople. This body, which was commanded by Souleiman, held the road which runs along the valley of the Maritza at a point somewhat east of the east of Philippopolis. Against it Gourko advanced from the west, while the victors of Shipka, descending due south through Kesanlik, barred the line of retreat toward Adrianople. The last encounter of the war took place January 17, 1878. Souleiman’s army, routed and demoralized, succeeded in making its escape to the AEgean coast. Pursuit was unnecessary, for the war was now practically over. On January 20 the Russians made their entry in Adrianople. In the next few days their advance guard touched the Sea of Marmora at Rodosto.

Immediately after the fall of Plevna the Porte had applied to the European powers for their mediation. Disasters in Asia had already warned it not to delay submission too long; for in the middle of October Mukhtar Pasha had been driven from his positions, and a month later Kars had been taken by storm. The Russians had subsequently penetrated into Armenia and had captured the outworks of Erzeroum. Each day that now passed brought the Ottoman Empire nearer to destruction. Servia declared war; the Montenegrins made themselves masters of the coast towns and of border territory north and south; Greece seemed likely to enter into the struggle. Baffled in an attempt to gain the common mediation of the powers, the Sultan for a second time appealed to the Queen of England personally for her good offices in bringing the conflict to a close. In reply to a telegram from London, the Czar declared himself willing to treat for peace as soon as direct communications should be addressed to his representatives by the Porte. On the 14th of January commissioners were sent to the head-quarters of the Grand Duke Nicholas at Kesanlik to treat for an armistice and for preliminaries of peace. The Russians, now in the full tide of victory, were in no hurry to agree with their adversary. Nicholas bade the Turkish envoys accompany him to Adrianople, and it was not until the 31st of January that the armistice was granted and the preliminaries of peace signed.

The bases of the peace which were made the conditions of the armistice granted at Adrianople formed with little alteration the substance of the treaty signed by Russia and Turkey at San Stefano, a village on the Sea of Marmara, on the 3d of March. By this treaty the Porte recognized the independence of Servia, Montenegro, and Roumania, and made considerable concessions of territory to the two former States. Bulgaria was constituted an autonomous tributary Principality, with a Christian Government and a national militia. Its frontier, which was made so extensive as to include the greater part of European Turkey, was defined as beginning near Midia on the Black Sea, not sixty miles from the Bosphorus; passing thence westward just to the north of Adrianople; descending to the AEgean Sea, and following the coast as far as the Thracian Chersonese; then passing inland westward, so as barely to exclude Salonika; running on to the border of Albania within fifty miles of the Adriatic, and from this point following the Albanian border up to the new Servian frontier. The Prince of Bulgaria was to be freely elected by the population, and confirmed by the Porte, with the assent of the powers; a system of administration was to be drawn up by an assembly of Bulgarian notables; and the introduction of the new system into Bulgaria with superintendence of its working was to be entrusted for two years to a Russian Commissioner. Until the native militia was organized, Russian troops, not exceeding 50,000 in number, were to occupy the country; this occupation, however, was to be limited to a term approximating to two years. In Bosnia and Herzegovina the proposals laid before the Porte at the first sitting of the Conference of 1876 were to be immediately introduced, subject to such modifications as might be agreed on later by Turkey, Russia, and Austria. The Porte undertook to apply scrupulously in Crete the Organic Law, which had been drawn up in 1868, taking into account the previously expressed wishes of the native population. An analogous law, adapted to local requirements, was, after being communicated to the Czar, to be introduced into Epirus, Thessaly, and other parts of Turkey in Europe, for which a special constitution was not provided by the treaty. Commissions, in which the native population was to be largely represented, were in each province to be entrusted with the task of elaborating the details of the new organization. In Armenia the Sultan undertook to carry into effect with-out further delay the improvements and reforms demanded by local requirements, and to guarantee the security of the Armenians from Kurds and Circassians. As an indemnity for the losses and expenses of the war the Porte admitted itself to be indebted to Russia in the sum of 1,400,000,000 roubles; but in accordance with the wishes of the Sultan, and in consideration of the financial embarrassments of Turkey, the Czar consented to accept in substitution for the greater part of this sum the cession of Dobrudscha in Europe and of the districts of Ardahan, Kars, Batoum, Bayazid in Asia. As to the balance of 300,000,000 roubles left due to Russia, the mode of payment or guarantee was to be settled by an under-standing between the two Governments. Dobrudscha was to be given by the Czar to Roumania in exchange for Bessarabia, which this State was to transfer to Russia. The complete evacuation of Turkey in Europe was to take place within three months, that of Turkey in Asia within six months from the conclusion of peace.

The Congress of Berlin, at which Disraeli himself and Lord Salisbury represented Great Britain, opened on the 13th of June. Though the compromise between England and Russia had been settled in general terms, the arrange ment of details opened such a series of difficulties that the Congress seemed more than once on the point of breaking up. It was mainly due to the perseverance and wisdom of Prince Bismarck, who transferred the discussion of the most crucial points from the Congress to private meetings of his guests, and who himself acted as conciliator when Gortschakoff folded up his maps or Lord Beaconsfield ordered a special train, that the work was at length achieved. The Treaty of Berlin, signed on the 13th of July, confined Bulgaria, as an autonomous Principality, to the country north of the Balkans, and diminished the authority which, pending the establishment of its definite system of government, would by the Treaty of San Stefano, have belonged to a Russian Commissioner. The poi- tion of Bulgaria south of the Balkans, but extending no farther west than the valley of the Maritza, and no farther south than Mount Rhodope, was formed into a Province of East Roumelia, to remain subject to the direct political and military authority of the Sultan, under conditions of administrative autonomy. The Sultan was declared to possess the right of erecting fortifications both on the coast and on the land frontier of this province, and of maintaining troops there. Alike in Bulgaria and in Eastern Roumelia, the period of occupation by Russian troops was ,limited to nine months. Bosnia and Herzegovina were handed over to Austria, to be occupied and administered by that power. The concessions of territory made to Servia and Montenegro in the Treaty of San Stefano were modified with the object of interposing a broader strip between these two States; Bayazid was omitted from the ceded districts in Asia, and the Czar declared it his intention to erect Batoum into a free port, essentially commercial. At the instance of France, the provisions relating to the Greek provinces of Turkey were superseded by a vote in favor of the cession of part of these provinces to the Hellenic Kingdom. The Sultan was recommended to cede Thessaly and part of Epirus to Greece, the powers reserving to themselves the right of offering their mediation to facilitate the negotiations. In other respects the provisions of the Treaty of San Stefano were confirmed without substantial change.

The Treaty of Berlin settled the Eastern Question no more than did the Crimean War. It has only postponed the inevitable dissolution of the Turkish Empire. The French invaded Tunis in 1881. Soon afterward it passed under the protection of France. In 1881 there was a revolution in Eastern Roumelia, which was united to Bulgaria. The Moslems have persisted in their traditional policy of oppression of the Christians resident in their territories, and have escaped the penalties of their crimes by the skillful diplomacy of Abdul-Hamid, who became Sultan in 1876. There have been constant troubles with the Arabians, and the Macedonians have striven for independence in an ineffectual fashion that has not diminished the constant massacres that are laying waste the country that gave birth to Alexander the Great, Aristotle, and Philip of Macedon. But the powers have used their influence to prevent insurrections, and refused to interfere at the time of the Armenian massacres (1894-96), which seem to have exceeded in their atrocity those that led to the Russo-Turkish War. Insurrections in Crete broke out in 1877, f885, 1887, and 1889, but finally became more serious in 1895 and 1896. The Greek Government was forced to war against its will, by the pressure of public opinion, to protect the Cretans. The powers forbade them to fight, and prevented a rising in the Balkans by diplomatic pressure. The Turks easily defeated the Greeks, who lost heavily during the brief war. Meanwhile the warships of Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy blockaded Crete and defeated the insurgents. When peace was restored between Greece and Turkey, the powers made Crete a tributary State, with Prince George of Greece as Governor (1898).

Diplomats believed that as autonomous States Roumania, Greece, Montenegro, Servia, and Bulgaria, the five States created by the wars of the Nineteenth Century, were in danger of becoming Russian dependencies in fact if not in name. No such fate has befallen them. They have shown signs of strong national life, and although their internal administration has been wholly quiet, Russian intrigues have failed. They have prospered since they were released from the Turkish yoke, and show no desire for union with Russia, although all are adherents of the Eastern Orthodox or Greek Church. But there has never been a time when they did not dream of bringing the same blessings of liberty to their fellow Christians who are being massacred, or condemned to worse fates, by their Ottoman masters. In this sense they have been disturbers of the tranquillity of the great powers, but pressure from the latter has been sufficient to preserve any serious breach of the peace, with the sole exception of the Cretan insurrection.