Eastern Question

views updated May 29 2018


A concept coined in the initial stage of the Greek War of Independence (18211829) to describe the territorial effect of the political decline of the Ottoman Empire on great-power diplomacy in Europe.

In the seventeenth century the Ottoman Empire, at its greatest extent, sprawled across southeast Europe (Hungary included), southwest Asia, and northern Africa (Morocco excluded). The weakening of the sultan's power began in the last decade of the reign of Sultan Süleyman (15201566). Europe, however, remained paralyzed by religious wars until the Peace of Westphalia (1648), and the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman imperial government) did not admit its growing frailty vis-à-vis Europe until the end of the seventeenth century. Only then did it negotiate treaties and other international acts, chiefly with the great powers of Europe. In the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), for the first time, the sultan ceded large tracts in Christian Europein this instance to Austria and Polandwhich were never recovered.

For a century longer, Ottoman military might was still respected on the Continent. Tsar Peter I (16821725), the first European monarch to send troops into Ottoman Asia, occupied the Sea of Azov and its Crimean rim in 1696, only to lose the short-lived conquest along with a claim to power over the Black Sea after a disastrous defeat (1711) at the Prut River (later in Romania). The Ottoman recapture of the Crimea's Tatar khanates was ratified in 1713, in the Treaty of Edirne (Adrianople). That delayed for six decadesuntil Catherine II (17621796), after a six-year war with TurkeyRussia's taking the first solid step toward establishing itself as a Black Sea power through the treaty of Kuçuk Kaynarca (1774), which detached the khanates from the sultan's realm by declaring them independent. Russia did not annex them until nine years later. Finally in 1792, after four more years of war, the Sublime Porte, in the treaty of peace at Jassy, the capital of the Ottoman province of Moldavia (later part of Romania), at last acknowledged this segment of the Black Sea coast as Russian. The victories set in motion Ottoman territorial attrition in southwest Asia; it spread to North Africa in 1830, when France began its conquest of Algeria.

Europe's expansion into the Ottoman Empire at times appeared to consist of predators rushing as far and as fast as they could, paying no heed to the risks of collision. Such a judgment, however, belies the realities. Contenders for the same or overlapping districts were sensitive to one another's interests. Avoidance of conflict became the name of the game as early as the Congress of Vienna (18141815). At the end of the Congress the convenersAustria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russiastyled themselves the Concert of Europe to act as a permanent executive for settling all their disputes by conference or consensual diplomacy.

In 1818, at Aachen, the four powers admitted France to their ranks and promptly instructed the restored Bourbon monarchy to join Britain, as the Concert's sole maritime powers, in suppressing the institutionalized piracy in the western Mediterranean, carried out by the sultan's autonomous ocaklar (garrisons) or provinces of Tripoli (Libya), Tunis, and Algiers. A dozen years elapsed before the Barbary garrisons of the Ottoman Maghrib were finally put out of the piracy business.

Only once between 1815 and 1914 did the great powers resort to war over a dispute arising from the Eastern Question. In that case Britain, France, and Russia were the Concert's belligerents in the Crimean War (18541856); Austria served as mediator, and Prussia stayed aloof. The entry of the Kingdom of Sardinia, alongside Britain and France, as allies of the Sublime Porte against Russia served, in effect, as its application for membership in the Concert. Having led the Risorgimento for the political unification of the city-states in the Italian peninsula after 1848, Sardinia provided the monarchs following the emergence in 1861 of the kingdom of Italy, which was promptly made a member of the Concert.

The great-power contest for ownership or denial of the sultan's strategic realm reflects the pace and the modes of Europe's expansion into Asia and Africa. The Ottoman Empire spanned the heart of the eastern hemisphere by joining its three continents. The desire to control the Turkish Straits, which separate Asia and Europe while linking the Black and Mediterranean Seas, became a fixed, if also thwarted, aim of Russia after 1774. The Black Sea remained closed to Russia's naval power while the tsardom was exposed to possible attack by hostile maritime powers, as occurred in the Crimean War.

Similarly, on occupying Egypt in 1798, Napoléon declared, in the name of France, his intention to construct and own a manmade waterway from the Mediterranean's landlocked southeast corner to the Red Sea. By cutting across Asia and Africa, such a canal would reduce the distance (and the time) of uninterrupted travel from western Europe, notably from Britain and France, to India by two-thirds, and by lesser amounts to all points along the African and Asian shores of the Indian Ocean.

Given the challenge of two rivals, the cautious shaping by Britain, as the world's foremost maritime and naval power, of its own strategy to deny Russia and France a naval presence on the Mediterranean's eastern littorals was remarkable.

As the decades passed, Saint Petersburg's aspiration became an obsession. In preparation for the expected takeover of the Turkish Straits, Russia continued swallowing Ottoman property that circled the Black Sea in both Europe and Asia, in the latter from the Crimea through the Caucasus; the last bit was the adjacent corner of Anatolia in 1878. To support the quest for the Turkish Straits even before the Crimean War, Russia established precedents to assert its right to protect the sultan's Orthodox subjects in Anatolia and Syria (including Lebanon and Palestine). In 1856, the Islahat Fermani (Reform Edict) of Sultan Abdülmecit I (18391861), reinforced by Article 9 of the Treaty of Paris ending the Crimean War, briefly interrupted, but did not end, the Russian practice.

Meanwhile, over Britain's resolute opposition, French investors in the late 1850s launched the Suez Canal Company, which in 1869 completed the waterway. Backed by the government of France, these entrepreneurs also preempted Britain's moves to take control of the company's policy-framing executive before and after Britain's occupation of Ottoman Egypt in 1882. By 1914 Algeria and Tunisia were part of France's empire, although the Sublime Porte withheld formal recognition of the protectorate in Tunisia. Of the surviving Ottoman provinces in Asia, France's interest centered on Lebanon and Syria from 1860 on. After a lapse of about a century, France in the 1840s had revived earlier treaty rights to custody of papal institutions and their members, covering affiliated eastern Uniate churches as well as Roman Catholicism. Finally, the financial community of France bankrolled railway, harbor, and other concessions in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine and became the dominant shareholder in the Ottoman Imperial Bank, the Ottoman Empire's official agent.

But above all, the overseers of Britain's empire saw the shrinking Islamic state as both a continuing barrier and an unfolding passage to India. In both functions, the Ottoman Empire had grown into a major asset for Britain. Little wonder that, under Britain's persistent lead, the Concert of Europe in 1840 began nearly four decades as guarantor of the integrity of Ottoman Asia and Africa. The chosen formula was that of a self-denying protocol, first used in the Concert's convention of 1840 for "the Pacification of the Levant," which stated that "in the execution of the engagements resulting to the Contracting Powers from the . . . Convention, those Powers will seek no augmentation of territory, no exclusive influence, no commercial advantage for their subjects, which those of every other nation may not equally obtain." Even France, which had upheld Egypt in the crisis, rejoined the Concert in 1841.

Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, the strategy's author, saw in Egypt's threats to the Osmanli dynasty's survival (18311833, 1839) a threat to the British Empire. With the appearance of the steamship in the 1820s, Britain belatedly discovered what the East India Company had begun learning under sail more than half a century earlier: that through the sultan's realm there ran developing routes of communication and transportation between the métropole and the empire in India. In the regional contest of the 1830s, Russia backed the sultan, and France, the viceroy. The main problem, in Palmerston's diagnosis, was to keep Russia and France apart, for if they joined forces, Britain would suffer along with the Osmanli dynasty. Palmerston preferred a weak Ottoman Empire to a powerful Egypt. He thus responded favorably in 1839 and 1840 to the tsar's proposal for joint military intervention, with the cooperation of the Sublime Porte, to contain an ominous threat to the survival of the Ottoman Empire posed by Muhammad Ali, the viceroy of Egypt, backed by France. Austria and Prussia adhered to this plan of action.

France returned to the fold in 1841, as part of the settlement of the regional crisis. It reduced Muhammad Ali from quasi independence to Ottoman vassalage, but only upon his being recognized as the founder of a hereditary provincial dynasty with full domestic autonomy (though subject to Ottoman control of Egypt's foreign policy). "[A]ll the Treaties concluded and to be concluded between my Sublime Porte and the friendly Powers," read the Sultan's ferman, "shall be completely executed in the Province of Egypt likewise." This clause immediately imposed on Egypt the Porte's obligations to Britain, France, and the Netherlands to change the basis of Ottoman foreign commerce from protection to free trade. That deprived Muhammad Ali of the assured revenues from his commercial and industrial monopolies and put an early end to his integrated program of economic and military modernization. Those steps reduced the innovative, self-made, ambitious governor to manageable size. Later they enabled Palmerston, as foreign minister and prime minister, to delay for a dozen years execution of Egypt's grant of a ninety-nine year concession to a national of France to build and operate the Suez Canal.

In 1840 and 1841 the Concert had thus created a subsidiary system expressly to defuse crises in Europe arising from the rivalry over the Middle East (and North Africa) portions of the sultan's realm. For nearly forty years the great powers, with the Sublime Porte taking part and Britain playing the balancer in alternating alliances with Russia against France or the reverse, met five timesin London (18401841, 1871), Paris (1856, 18601861), and Berlin (1878)and framed obligatory guidelines on policies toward the Ottoman Empire. Military occupation without time limit, commonly unilateral, was denied legitimacy; formal protectorates were legitimated by the powers, not by the Sublime Porte (in the end by the Turkish Republic); direct annexation was invariably solemnized by formal agreement with Constantinople. All three practices rested on general usage under (Western) international law.

Other styles of Europe's imperialism were particular to the Eastern Question. In the economic sphere the practices derived from the capitulations (nonreciprocal commercial treaties that the Porte had concluded with Europe's governments from the fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries), assured Western residents unilateral extraterritorial privileges. They and their enterprisesbanks, railroads, harbors, the Suez Canalwere immune from sultanic and provincial laws and taxes, and subject only to those of home governments. To such built-in dominance by Europe over key developmental aspects of the Ottoman economy was added guardianship of selected religious communities, with Russia and France the leading practitioners. The prevalence in the same districts of resident missionaries and their many charitable, medical, and educational, as well as religious, institutions attested to this.

Strategy apart, Britain's most valuable interest was commerce. As the sole industrializing nation from the last third of the eighteenth century through the Napoleonic wars, Britain speedily moved into first place in the foreign trade of the Ottoman Empire. By 1850, the Porte had become Britain's third-best customer. Britain clung to its commercial lead up to the outbreak of World War I. Financial investment by British nationals lagged far behind. The quest for oil in Ottoman Arab Asia quickened only when the AngloPersian Oil Company discovered commercial quantities in Persia in 1908, too late for the find to become practicable before the outbreak of war six years later. Still, the oil potential of the vilayet (province) of Mosul riveted the attention, during World War I and afterward, of Britain's companies and their bureaucratic supporters on the Sublime Porte's promise of a concession, in June 1914, to the Turkish Petroleum Company, a non-operating international consortium of British, Dutch, and German interests registered in London.

Meanwhile, Italy, upon its unification in 1861, promptly entered the fray. After losing a bid for Tunisia in Berlin in 1878, Italy finally occupied Libya and the Dodecanese Islands in a lackluster war with the Ottoman Empire (19111912). One of Italy's primary aims in entering the war in 1915 was to legalize the titles to both and, if possible, enlarge its imperial holdings.

Upon replacing Continent-centered Prussia in 1871, unified Germany was the final entrant into the competition. Otto von Bismarck moved into the role vacated by Benjamin Disraeli. Germany centered its regional activity after 1882 on serving as military and naval adviser and supplier to Sultan Abdülhamit II (18761909). And from 1903, German entrepreneurs, with their government's encouragement and protection, sponsored the building of the Baghdad Railroad to link Europe, across Anatolia through the vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, to the head of the Persian Gulf, with Ottoman assurances of privileged investment rights along the way.

Britain's occupation of Egypt in 1882 helped draw Russia and France together, binding them twelve years later in a formal alliance. In all this time and for a decade longer, France kept urging Britain to fix a date for leaving Egypt, while Britain refused to ratify the 1888 Suez Canal Convention until France accepted, for the duration of the occupation, Britain's exercise of the supervisory powers of the projected international commission. Finally the two quarrelers signed an entente cordiale in 1904 that rested on a trade: Britain's responsibility for the canal's security by occupation in return for France's creating a protectorate in Morocco. Before the year's end, the Concert ratified the amended convention that implied approval of Britain's military presence in Egypt. Finally, Britain and Russia reduced irritants in their relations in the Ottoman Empire by reaching an accord on Iran, Afghanistan, and Tibet in 1907.

The three bilateral instruments underlay the formation of the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) on the outbreak of war in 1914 against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria). For the first time, the Sublime Porte, which entered World War I in November 1914 as an ally of the Central Powers, placed itself simultaneously at war with the three countries that had territorial scores to settle with the sultanBritain in Egypt (and Sudan), France in Tunisia, and Russia at the Turkish Straits. The secret accords of the Entente powers (the Constantinople Agreement of 1915 and the SykesPicot Agreement of 1916) proposed assigning the Turkish Straits and eastern Anatolia to Russia, parceling the Fertile Crescent (later Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan) under variable terms among the three allies, and declaring the Arabian Peninsula a British sphere of influence.

In April 1915, Italy associated itself with the Entente for the express aim of legitimizing its occupation of Libya and the Dodecanese Islands. Two years later, after the overthrow of the tsarist regime, Italy concluded a separate agreement (treaty of Saint-Jean de Maurienne) with Britain and France, to become a party to the Entente plans for sharing in the Ottoman spoils; to the SykesPicot arrangement were added zones for Italy's administration and influence in southern and western Anatolia. But the instrument never won the requisite assent from the Bolshevik regime, which seized power in the fall of 1917. After the war the unratified draft did not deter Italy from tryingbut failingto anchor itself in Anatolia.

Meanwhile, the secret correspondence of Sir Henry McMahon (Britain's high commissioner for Egypt) with Sharif Husayn ibn Ali of Mecca (the Ottoman governor of the province of Hijaz) served as the basis for mounting an Arab rebellion against the sultan. Clearly, Britain perceived McMahon's exchanges with Husayn, which were started and finished (July 1915March 1916) before the SykesPicot negotiations (December 1915April 1916), as a solidifying step in the Arabian Peninsula. They agreed on mutual military commitments but left unsettled their political differences that gave rise to bitter AngloArab quarrels. The later conflicting AngloFrenchArab claims in the Fertile Crescent were compounded by the Balfour Declaration: Britain's secret understanding with the Zionists and public declaration of sympathy for the formation in Palestine of a Jewish national home. This was the price that Britain's government had to pay for finally acquiring an exclusive mandatory presence in Palestine in defense of the Suez Canal.

The Eastern Question thus was not resolved until the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the empire's formal dissolution in 1922, and the peace treaty of Lausannethe only such settlement negotiated but not imposed after that warthat the Entente and associated powers signed with the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and ratified a year later. Even then, Turkey's nationalist regime at Ankara contested the proposed transfer of two territorial slivers, losing one (the vilayet of Mosul to Iraq) in 1926 but winning the other (the return to Turkey by France, as mandatory of Syria, of the sanjak [provincial district] of Alexandretta) in 1939. In between, at Turkey's insistence, in the Montreux Convention of 1936, the naval signatories of the Treaty of Lausanne restored to the Republic of Turkey full sovereignty over the Turkish Straits by dissolving the International Straits Commission.

See also AbdÜlhamit II; AbdÜlmecit I; Balfour Declaration (1917); Capitulations; Crimean War; Fertile Crescent; Greek War of Independence; Husayn ibn Ali; HusaynMcMahon Correspondence (19151916); Lausanne, Treaty of (1923); McMahon, Henry; Montreux Convention (1936); Muhammad Ali; Palmerston, Lord Henry John Temple; Paris, Treaty of (1857); Sublime Porte; SykesPicot Agreement (1916).


Anderson, M. S. The Eastern Question, 17741923: A Study in International Relations. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's, 1966.

Hurewitz, J. C. The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record, 2d edition. 2 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 19751979.

Marriott, J. A. R. The Eastern Question: An Historical Study in European Diplomacy, 4th edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940.

j. c. hurewitz

Eastern Question

views updated May 18 2018


the congress of berlin
the bosnian crisis
the balkan wars
the first world war

In the last decades of the nineteenth century the Eastern Question was a popular term used to describe the impact of the power vacuum that would occur should the Ottoman Empire lose control of its Balkan provinces. This, in turn, would force inevitable confrontations between Austria-Hungary and Russia over Ottoman territory, and Russian and Great Britain over Russian access to the Mediterranean. After 1879, these disputes threatened to bring in the allies of the principals as well. The term entered the popular vocabulary in 1876 with the publication in Britain of William Gladstone's pamphlet titled The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East. Britain, in particular, was concerned about Russian aspirations to acquire the Turkish straits (the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles) should the Turkish hold on the Balkans dissolve. In effect, the Eastern Question constantly threatened to bring the Great Powers of Europe into conflict.

Beginning in the early 1700s the inability of the Ottoman Empire to control the ethnic minorities in the Balkans led to the independence of Hungary, Greece, Serbia, and Romania. In 1875 and 1876 uprisings in Turkish-held Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria resulted in a war between the Serbs and Turks, and precipitated the Eastern Crisis (1875–1878). Turkish atrocities and battlefield successes against the Christian Slavs led the Russians to consider direct intervention. In conferences in July 1876 (the Reichstadt Agreement) and January 1877 (the Treaty of Budapest), the Russians reached agreement with Austria-Hungary for a partial dismemberment of Ottoman Bosnia and Herzegovina. The agreements also gave Russia the green light to invade Ottoman Bulgaria, which it did that April.

The central dilemma at the heart of the Eastern Question was its effect on the relationships between the Great Powers of Europe. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877 to 1878 resulted in massive Russian victories in the Caucasus and in Bulgaria. But it was the catastrophic Treaty of San Stefano, imposed by Russia on the Turks in March 1878, that illuminated the reality of the Eastern Question itself. The treaty was unduly harsh and ruined the Ottoman strategic position in the Balkans. In particular, the Treaty of San Stefano created a Russian-dominated Greater Bulgaria (with access to the Aegean Sea) on the doorstep of the Turkish straits. This result was so destabilizing to British and Austrian interests that it almost led to war between them and the Russians. Such a war threatened to destroy German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's carefully constructed Dreikaiserbund (Three Emperors' League), which dated from 1873, by pitting Austria-Hungary against Russia and forcing Germany to choose between them. The looming crisis energized Bismarck to convene the Congress of Berlin in July 1878.

the congress of berlin

The Congress of Berlin was a fateful turning point in European diplomacy that led directly to the destabilization of the Concert of Europe and to the creation of a new alignment of great-power relationships. Bismarck, working to satisfy British and Austrian interests and prevent Russian hegemony, reversed the Treaty of San Stefano. Still-born Greater Bulgaria was dismembered, ending the Russian threat to the Turkish straits. Austria-Hungary was allowed to administer Bosnia-Herzegovina. Britain got Cyprus, and the Serbs gained some land as well. The Ottoman Empire survived. Russia was left with small territorial gains in Europe and the Caucasus but little else. It was a massive diplomatic humiliation for the tsar.

Above all, the Congress of Berlin ended the strong relationship between Germany and Russia and contributed to the introduction of Russian military improvements aimed at Germany. Moreover, the demonstrated weakness of the Turks served to inflame Balkan nationalism and encouraged the Austrians to become players in Balkan politics. In 1879 Bismarck moved to solidify the new alignment of power by engineering an alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary. Bismarck nevertheless still needed to resolve the unanswered Balkan questions as well as appease the Russians, and in June 1881 he orchestrated a second Three Emperors' League (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia). This convention and its separate protocol annex committed the three signatory nations to maintaining the status quo of the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey in Europe). Other clauses closed the Turkish straits to warships, settled the Eastern Rumelian question (thus paving the way for a medium-sized Bulgaria), and granted the Austrians the future right to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina. This convention restored friendly relations between the three empires and appeared to settle the Eastern Question. In fact, the Balkans remained a tinderbox of local nationalism and great-power rivalries.

the bosnian crisis

In 1897 Austria-Hungary and Russia finally began cooperating (via the Goluchowski-Muraviev agreement) in order to defuse tensions involving ethnic minorities in the Balkans. Further cooperation ended the Macedonian crisis by establishing the Mürzsteg Program in 1903, which put a European-led gendarmerie in place to monitor the Ottomans. British concerns over the straits also diminished in August 1907 with the signing of a convention between Britain and Russia, which although concerning Asia became the third leg of the Triple Entente. The Young Turk revolution of July 1908 further satisfied Britain that the Balkans were tending toward stability.

Relationships took a turn for the worse when an aggressive Austria-Hungary forged a secret oral agreement with Russia at Buchlau in October 1908. The agreement traded the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina for support of Russia's free use of the Dardanelles. Premature annexation by Austria soured the deal, and the angry tsar began to mobilize his army against the Austrians. This led to a war crisis in March 1909, in which Germany backed Austria-Hungary by giving a démarche to the Russians. Russia, still weak from its disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and unsupported by Britain and France, was forced to back down. The consequences of this crisis were significant. The Russians, humiliated once again, emerged with a determination to be ready the next time. The Austrians emerged with a sense of confidence that its German ally would unconditionally support its Balkan policies.

the balkan wars

In the Balkans, rebellions by ethnic minorities in Albania and Macedonia continued to plague the Ottoman Empire. Pan-Slavic support of Serbia and Bulgaria by Russia fed the fires of nationalism, and in 1912 Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria formed a Balkan Pact against the Turks. The Christian states attacked the Ottoman Balkan provinces in October 1912 and enjoyed astonishing success, taking Salonika (Thessaloníki) and driving the Turks to the gates of Istanbul. Faced with the de facto break up of Turkey in Europe, the Great Powers brokered an armistice and convened the London Conferences in December 1912. Hosted by Edward Grey, the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, the purpose of the conferences was to use the reality of the Ottoman defeat to manage a mutually agreeable solution to the Eastern Question. By this time, the Eastern Question had matured into a deeply complex problem involving Albanian independence, Serbian and Bulgarian access to the Mediterranean Sea, the sanjak (Turkish district) of Novi Pazar, the Romanian border, the straits question, the Aegean islands, and the protection of minority rights. Ultimately, negotiations collapsed as the warring parties renewed the fighting in February 1913. The First Balkan War ended in April 1913 with Bulgaria in possession of Adrianople (now Edirne) and the Aegean coast. Fighting resumed, however, when the Bulgarians attacked their erstwhile allies in an attempt to seize Macedonia. The Second Balkan War (June–August 1913) resulted in a devastating defeat for Bulgaria in which it lost almost all of its gains. One important outcome of this war was that Russia was forced to choose between supporting Serbia or Bulgaria. The tsar chose to support the Serbs, which ended Russia's strong relationship with Bulgaria and replaced it with strong ties to Serbia.

the first world war

It seemed that the Eastern Question was now resolved. Instead the effects of Buchlau and the 1909 crisis, and the outcome of the Balkan Wars, combined to ignite the Balkan powder keg once more. Serbian nationalists, encouraged by success and with Russian backing, began a terrorist campaign (under the infamous name, the Black Hand) in Austrian-held Bosnia-Herzegovina. On 28 June 1914 Serb nationalists assassinated the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The enraged Austrians again turned to Germany for support. Austria-Hungary sought and received the famous "blank check" from their German allies, which encouraged them to issue an ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July. The Serb refusal and mobilization two days later forced a partial Austrian mobilization. This fully alarmed the Russians, who were determined to avoid the humiliation of 1909. Although not wanting a war, the Russians desperately sought a way to support its Serb client state. Unfortunately, lacking a workable partial mobilization plan, the Russians declared full mobilization on 30 July 1914. The next day Germany declared war on Russia, setting in train the events leading to World War I.

Postwar settlements in 1919 and 1920 appeared to settle the Eastern Question concerning Turkey in Europe, while the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 appeared to settle the problems of Turkey in Asia. Unfortunately, these treaties favored the interests of the Great Powers and ignored the self-determination of ethnic minorities. As the twentieth century closed, renewed ethnic conflicts enveloped the former Ottoman provinces in the Balkans, Caucasia, and in the Middle East. It is now clear that the incomplete resolution of the Eastern Question continues to haunt the troubled successor states of the former Ottoman Empire and their European and Middle Eastern neighbors.

See alsoBulgaria; Ottoman Empire; Serbia.


Anderson, M. S. The Eastern Question, 1774–1923: A Study in International Relations. London, 1966.

Erickson, Edward J. Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912–1913. Westport, Conn., 2003.

Shaw, Stanford J., and Ezel Kural Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. 2: Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1808–1975. Cambridge, U.K., 1977.

Taylor, A. J. P. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918. Oxford, U.K., 1954.

Edward J. Erickson

Eastern Question

views updated May 29 2018

Eastern Question. This was the problem created by the slow collapse of the Ottoman (Turkish) empire, which seemed likely to leave a power vacuum in the Balkans and lead to a general European war. Turkey's weakness became apparent in a series of wars with Russia in the late 18th cent. In 1783 Russia obtained the Crimea. Greece gained her independence, in an agreement brokered by Britain, France, and Russia, after an armed struggle (1821–30). European opinion was divided by anxiety for the balance of power, if Turkey ceased to be a great power, and sympathy for the Christian subjects of a Muslim and decayed empire, reinforced in the case of Greece by memories of her classical glories. The British feared that, if the Turkish empire broke up, Russian power would be enhanced and would become an increasing threat to the British empire in India. Russia gained some territory by the treaty of Adrianople at the end of the Russo-Turkish war of 1828–9 but Russian policy was thereafter governed by the conviction that an intact Turkish empire provided a buffer state which would be preferable to a partition. The Crimean War of 1854–6, in which Britain, France, and Turkey fought Russia, was the result of miscalculations, arising from France and Russia's over-vigorous championing of the rights of Turkey's catholic and orthodox Christians respectively, and Britain's misplaced fears that Russia wished to partition the empire and seize Constantinople (Istanbul). Nationalist feelings in the Balkans grew and the problem flared up again in the 1870s. The Bosnians rose in 1875, followed by the Bulgarians in 1876. The Bulgarians were repressed with particular brutality (the ‘Bulgarian Horrors’). Russia declared war on Turkey but the other powers thought the peace treaty (treaty of San Stefano, 1877) too favourable to Russia and amended it at the Congress of Berlin (1878). European opinion wavered over the next 30 years between the comparative stability provided by the Ottoman empire and the volatility of the emerging Balkan states. The situation was complicated by the rival ambitions of the latter. Serbia and Bulgaria, for example, fought each other in 1885. It was also feared that the emergence of Slav states in the Balkans would destabilize the Austrian empire. It can plausibly be argued that the Eastern Question caused the First World War. Austria angered Serbia by annexing Bosnia in 1908. Russia helped to organize the Balkan League of Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece, which went to war with Turkey in 1912. Militarily they were successful but they then fought between themselves over the spoils. The situation was still unstable when the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in 1914. The Austrians blamed the Serbs. Russia, which had been unable to aid the Serbs in 1908, now backed them. Ultimatums, mobilizations, and war followed within weeks.

Muriel Evelyn Chamberlain

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Eastern Question