1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eastern Question, The
EASTERN QUESTION, THE, the expression used in diplomacy from about the time of the congress of Verona (1822) to comprehend the international problems involved in the decay of the Turkish empire and its supposed impending dissolution. The essential questions that are involved are so old that historians commonly speak of the “Eastern Question” in reference to events that happened long before the actual phrase was coined. But, wherever used, it is always the Turkish Question, the generic term in which subsidiary issues, e.g. the Greek, Armenian or Macedonian questions, are embraced. That a phrase of so wide and loose a nature should have been stereotyped in so narrow a sense is simply the outcome of the conditions under which it was invented. To the European diplomatists of the first half of the 19th century the Ottoman empire was still the only East with which they were collectively brought into contact. The rivalry of Great Britain and Russia in Persia had not yet raised the question of the Middle East; still less any ambitions of Germany in the Euphrates valley. The immense and incalculable problems involved in the rise of Japan, the awakening of China, and their relations to the European powers and to America—known as the Far Eastern Question—are comparatively but affairs of yesterday.
The Eastern Question, though its roots are set far back in history—in the ancient contest between the political and intellectual ideals of Greece and Asia, and in the perennial rivalry of the powers for the control of the great trade routes to the East—dates in its modern sense from the treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji in 1774, which marked the definitive establishment of Russia as a Black Sea power and formed the basis of her special claims to interfere in the affairs of the Ottoman empire. The compact between Napoleon and the emperor Alexander I. at Tilsit (1807) marked a new phase, which culminated in 1812 in the treaty of Bucharest, in which Russia definitely appeared as the protector of the Christian nationalities subject to the Ottoman sultan.
The attitude of the various powers in the Eastern Question was now defined. Russia, apart from her desire to protect the Orthodox nationalities subject to the Ottoman power, aimed at owning or controlling the straits by which alone she could find an outlet to the Mediterranean and the ocean beyond. Austria, once the champion of Europe against the Turk, saw in the Russian advance on the Danube a greater peril than any to be feared from the moribund Ottoman power, and made the maintenance of the integrity of Turkey a prime object of her policy. She was thus brought into line with Great Britain, whose traditional friendship with Turkey was strengthened by the rise of a new power whose rapid advance threatened the stability of British rule in India. But though Austria, Great Britain and presently France, were all equally interested in maintaining the Ottoman empire, the failure of the congress of Vienna in 1815 to take action in the matter of a guarantee of Turkey, and the exclusion of the Sultan from the Holy Alliance, seemed to endorse the claim of Russia to regard the Eastern Question as “her domestic concern” in which “Europe” had no right to interfere. The revolt of the Greeks (1821) put this claim to the test; by the treaty of Adrianople (1829) Russia stipulated for their autonomy as part of the price of peace, but the powers assembled in conference at London refused to recognize this settlement, and the establishment of Greece as an independent kingdom (1832) was really aimed at the pretensions and the influence of Russia. These reached their high-water mark in the treaty of Unkiar Skelessi (July 8th, 1832). It was no longer a question of the partition of Turkey or of a Russian conquest of Constantinople, but of the deliberate degradation by Russia of the Ottoman empire into a weak state wholly dependent upon herself. The ten years’ crisis (1831-1841) evoked by the revolt of Mehemet Ali, pasha of Egypt, thus resolved itself into a diplomatic struggle between Russia and the other powers to maintain or to recover influence at Constantinople. The Russian experiment of maintaining the integrity of Turkey while practically treating her as a vassal state, ended with the compromise of 1841; and the emperor Nicholas I. reverted to the older idea of expelling the Turks from Europe. The Eastern Question, however, slumbered until, in 1851, the matter of the Holy Places was raised by Napoleon III., involving the whole question of the influence in Ottoman affairs of France under the capitulations of 1740 and of Russia under the treaty of 1774. The Crimean War followed and in 1856 the treaty of Paris, by which the powers hoped to stem the tide of Russian advance and establish the integrity of a reformed Ottoman state. Turkey was now for the first time solemnly admitted to the European concert. The next critical phase was opened in 1871, when Russia took advantage of the collapse of France to denounce the Black Sea clauses of the treaty of 1856. The renewal of an aggressive policy thus announced to the world soon produced a new crisis in the Eastern Question, which had meanwhile become complicated by the growth of Pan-Slav ideals in eastern Europe. In 1875 a rising in Herzegovina gave evidence of a state of feeling in the Balkan peninsula which called for the intervention of Europe, if a disastrous war were to be prevented. But this intervention, embodied in the “Andrassy Note” (December 1875) and the Berlin memorandum (May 1876), met with the stubborn opposition of Turkey, where the “young Turks” were beginning to oppose a Pan-Islamic to the Pan-Slav ideal. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 followed, concluded by the treaty of San Stefano, the terms of which were modified in Turkey’s favour by the congress of Berlin (1878), which marks the beginning of the later phase of the Eastern Question. Between Russia and Turkey it interposed, in effect, a barrier of independent (Rumania, Servia) and quasi-independent (Bulgaria) states, erected with the counsel and consent of collective Europe. It thus, while ostensibly weakening, actually tended to strengthen the Ottoman power of resistance.
The period following the treaty of Berlin is coincident with the reign of Sultan Abd-ul-Hamid II. The international position of the Ottoman empire was strengthened by the able, if Machiavellian, statecraft of the sultan; while the danger of disruption from within was lessened by the more effective central control made possible by railways, telegraphs, and the other mechanical improvements borrowed from western civilization. With the spread of the Pan-Islamic movement, moreover, the undefined authority of the sultan as caliph of Islam received a fresh importance even in countries beyond the borders of the Ottoman empire, while in countries formerly, or nominally still, subject to it, it caused, and promised to cause, incalculable trouble.
The Eastern Question thus developed, in the latter years of the 19th century, from that of the problems raised by the impending break-up of a moribund empire, into the even more complex question of how to deal with an empire which showed vigorous evidence of life, but of a type of life which, though on all sides in close touch with modern European civilization, was incapable of being brought into harmony with it. The belief in the imminent collapse of the Ottoman dominion was weakened almost to extinction; so was the belief, which inspired the treaty of 1856, in the capacity of Turkey to reform and develop itself on European lines. But the Ottoman empire remained, the mistress of vast undeveloped wealth. The remaining phase of the Eastern Question, if we except the concerted efforts to impose good government on Macedonia in the interests of European peace, or the side issues in Egypt and Arabia, was the rivalry of the progressive nations for the right to exploit this wealth. In this rivalry Germany, whose interest in Turkey even so late as the congress of Berlin had been wholly subordinate, took a leading part, unhampered by the traditional policies or the humanitarian considerations by which the interests of the older powers were prejudiced. The motives of German intervention in the Eastern Question were ostensibly commercial; but the Bagdad railway concession, postulating for its ultimate success the control of the trade route by way of the Euphrates valley, involved political issues of the highest moment and opened up a new and perilous phase of the question of the Middle East.
This was the position when in 1908 an entirely new situation was created by the Turkish revolution. As the result of the patient and masterly organization of the “young Turks,” combined with the universal discontent with the rule of the sultan and the palace camarilla, the impossible seemed to be achieved, and the heterogeneous elements composing the Ottoman empire to be united in the desire to establish a unified state on the constitutional model of the West. The result on the international situation was profound. Great Britain hastened to re-knit the bonds of her ancient friendship with Turkey; the powers, without exception, professed their sympathy with the new régime. The establishment of a united Turkey on a constitutional and nationalist basis was, however, not slow in producing a fresh complication in the Eastern Question. Sooner or later the issue was sure to be raised of the status of those countries, still nominally part of the Ottoman empire, but in effect independent, like Bulgaria, or subject to another state, like Bosnia and Herzegovina. The cutting of the Gordian knot by Austria’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and by the proclamation of the independence of Bulgaria, and of Prince Ferdinand’s assumption of the old title of tsar (king), threatened to raise the Eastern Question once more in its acutest form. The international concert defined in the treaty of Berlin had been rudely shaken, if not destroyed; the denunciation by Austria, without consulting her co-signatories, of the clauses of the treaty affecting herself seemed to invalidate all the rest; and in the absence of the restraining force of a united concert of the great powers, free play seemed likely once more to be given to the rival ambitions of the Balkan nationalities, the situation being complicated by the necessity for the dominant party in the renovated Turkish state to maintain its prestige. During the anxious months that followed the Austrian coup, the efforts of diplomacy were directed to calming the excitement of Servians, Montenegrins and the Young Turks, and to considering a European conference in which the fait accompli should be regularized in accordance with the accepted canons of international law. The long delay in announcing the assembly of the conference proved the extreme difficulty of arriving at any satisfactory basis of settlement; and though the efforts of the powers succeeded in salving the wounded pride of the Turks, and restraining the impetuosity of the Serbs and Montenegrins, warlike preparations on the part of Austria continued during the winter of 1908-1909, being justified by the agitation in Servia, Montenegro and the annexed provinces. It was not till April 1909 (see Europe: ad fin.) that the crisis was ended, through the effectual backing given by Germany to Austria; and Russia, followed by England and France, gave way and assented to what had been done.
See Turkey: History, where cross-references to the articles on the various phases of the Eastern Question will be found, together with a bibliography. See also E. Driault, La Question d’orient depuis son origine (Paris, 1898), a comprehensive sketch of the whole subject, including the Middle and Far East.
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