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The Crimean War and the end of the Holy Alliance

It was his search for equality with Great Britain and Russia that led Napoleon III to
take up the Near Eastern question. He had made a false start in Europe early in
1852 by appearing to threaten the independence of Belgium shortly after the coup
d’état which made him Emperor. This had united the four powers against him.

By turn- ing away from Europe to the Near East Napoleon III sought to isolate and
challenge Russia whom he regarded as the main obstacle to the recovery of France.

He did not think in terms of war; he expected merely a conflict of prestige. In

Europe the other four powers combined against France, in the Near East Prussia had
no interests and neither Great Britain nor Austria had any interest in strengthening

He chose to challenge Russia for two reasons: first, Nicholas I was extremely hostile
towards France and the new imperial regime. After Napoleon’s assumption of the
imperial title Nicholas refused to address him as brother which was cus- tomary
practice between sovereigns.

Secondly, Napoleon III accurately assumed that the anti-French emphasis of the
Russians was an attempt to provide the revived Holy Alliance with a unity of
purpose which it would otherwise have lacked.

Moreover, the issue on which Napoleon III fixed his attention, the guardi- anship of
the Holy Places, was likely to divide Austria, a Catholic power, from Russia, the
leading Orthodox state.

At the beginning of 1852 the French government demanded that the Ottoman
government hand over

the keys to the Holy Places in and around Jerusalem to the Catholic monks, thus
denying the Orthodox monks the protecting role they had exercised for some years.

This demand was followed by a series of overt threats; by the end of the year the
Turkish government conceded.
The Russian Emperor saw behind the conflict of prestige over the guardianship of
the Holy Places a struggle between ‘order’ and ‘revolu- tion’. His aim was to
strengthen the forces of order by a serious blow to French prestige.

He would humiliate France in the Near East by demon- strating that Turkey feared
Russia more than she feared France and that she must concede more to Russia than
she had to France.

In February 1853 Nicholas sent Prince Menshikov on a special mission to Turkey,

first to demand the dismissal of the minister who had bowed to French pressure
over the Holy Places, and secondly to secure the recognition of Russia’s right to
protect the Christian subjects of Turkey, a right allegedly based on the Treaty of
Kutchuk Kainardji of 1774.

The Turks resisted Menshikov’s demands, and in May 1853 he left Turkey after the
complete failure of his mission. In July the Russians occupied the two Turkish
provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia and declared that they would withdraw only
when the Turks conceded the demands which Menshikov had been instructed to

Both the British and the Austrians were alarmed by Russia’s action, the Austrians
because the occupation of the principalities not only gave the Russians control of
the lower Danube, the most vital trade route of the Habsburg empire, but exposed
the entire eastern and south-eastern frontier of the Monarchy to Russian military

The British could see no other explanation for Russia’s occupa- tion of the
principalities than a determination to pursue a forward policy in the Near East.

At the outset of the crisis both powers wanted a settlement which would enable the
Russians to withdraw without damage to their prestige and by which Turkey could
concede something to Russia without affect- ing her independence.

From the autumn of 1853 onwards there was a war fever in Great Britain and
neither the British nor the French government could ignore the fact that public
opinion – in Great Britain at least – wanted a decisive setback for Russia and the
humiliation of the Russian despot. This could only be achieved by war, and in March
1854, after their ultimatum demanding Russian evacuation of the principalities was
rejected in St Petersburg, war was duly was declared by Great Britain and France.

Meanwhile, Nicholas tried to secure his position in Europe before the hostilities
began, sending Prince Orlov on a special mission to Vienna and Berlin in January
1854 to ask the two German powers for their armed neutrality.

The failure of the Orlov mission was a turning point not only in the Near Eastern
crisis but also in the history of Europe: it con- firmed the collapse of the Holy
Alliance which for three decades had been the great bulwark of order in eastern and
central Europe.

The unity of the three conservative monarchies under Russian leadership had held
France in check and given the Vienna treaty structure its security and strength.
When Orlov returned to St Petersburg empty-handed one of the essential props of
the Vienna system had disappeared.

It was the British and the Russians who sacrificed most by their refusal to
compromise in 1854. The Crimean War brought to a close the era of Anglo-Russian
domination in Europe. Great Britain, by fighting with France in the Near East, and
Russia, by fighting against her, both conceded equality to her as a Mediterranean

During and immediately after the war the French asserted a dominance in Europe
which was made possible by the collapse of the Holy Alliance and then by the defeat
of Russia.

Both the British and the Russians wanted a Near Eastern war which would not affect
adversely the European treaty structure. They both fought for limited and localized

The French, by contrast, fought for essentially European ends: to confirm the
destruc- tion of the Holy Alliance, and to deal a decisive blow to Russia’s power and
prestige in central Europe, in other words to create the conditions which would
make revision of the 1815 settlement possible.
The outbreak of the Crimean War altered fundamentally the pattern of great-power
relations. In the west France was no longer forced into a subordinate relationship
with England.

In eastern and central Europe the Russians had for three decades raised the spectre
of French aggression on the Rhine and in Italy in order to persuade Austria and
Prussia to follow their lead. This device worked only as long as the Russians made
the maintenance of peace and order in Europe a higher priority in their foreign
policy than the pursuit of their own interests in the Near East. The Crimean War
reversed the order of priorities.

The Russian obsession with their Near Eastern position changed their attitude
towards France. From the early 1820s to the mid-1850s the Russians were
determined to oppose French revision in Europe; after 1856 they saw it as a force to
be exploited in the pursuit of their own revision in the Near East.

By destroying the pattern of great-power relationships on which the Vienna treaty

structure rested the Crimean War made ter- ritorial revision in Europe possible.

The major consequence of the Near Eastern settlement of 1856 was to change the
priorities of Russian foreign policy. The Russians were deeply humiliated by the
exclusion of their naval forces from the Black Sea.

They regarded it as an affront to their status as a great power. After the Peace of
Paris the principal objective of their foreign policy was to rid themselves of this

Under Nicholas I Russia had been the guardian of the status quo in Europe; French
revisionism in the west and the eastward spread of revolutionary ideas had been
identified as the great dangers to the stability of the existing order.

After 1856 the maintenance of order in Europe was relegated to second place. This
was a profound change which significantly altered Russia’s relations with the other
powers. French desire for the revision of 1815 in the west was now a force to be
exploited to achieve Russian revision of the treaty of 1856

The Eastern crisis of 1875–78

The summer of 1875 saw a revival of the Eastern Question, with rebel- lions in the
Ottoman Empire leading within two years to a war between Russia and Turkey and
eventually to a confrontation between the great powers. This crisis was rather
different from the last great Eastern crisis, in the 1850s, which had focused on the
resistance of the western powers and Austria to Russia’s attempt to assert her
domination over the govern- ment at Constantinople – essentially an attempt to
revive in an extreme form the ‘protectorate’ policy of the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi.

On that occasion, the threat to the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire from
the aspirations of its subject peoples had played a relatively insig- nificant part. The
crisis of the 1870s, by contrast, resembled the crisis of the 1820s: it was sparked off
by a nationalist revolt within the Empire and Russia assumed the role, not of
protector and patron of the Sultan, but of liberator of the Balkan Christians.

Certainly, in Bosnia and the Herzegovina external factors seem to have played a role
in fanning the smouldering grievances of the indigenous peasantry into flame in the
summer of 1875.

As in previous eastern crises, the British were generally inclined to uphold the
integrity and independence of Turkey against Russian encroach- ments. By the mid-
1870s this attitude was reinforced by new considera- tions: a Russian advance
towards the Mediterranean was now doubly unwelcome to the British, given the
growing importance of the Suez Canal, completed in 1869, as an additional (if for
Great Britain still not the main) route to India; and in 1875 British interest was
further heightened by the Disraeli government’s purchase of the khedive’s shares in
the Canal Company.

The behaviour of the Turks, their failure to reform, and above all, reports of their
brutality – Disraeli’s attempt to dismiss them as ‘coffee house babble’ was
unconvincing in the face of Gladstone’s ‘Bulgarian horrors’

campaign – made it much more difficult than in the 1850s for the British
government to back Turkish integrity through thick and thin – as the Turks were to
discover to their cost at the Congress of Berlin.

Bismarck, who was only too happy – and this was typical of his attitude towards the
Three Emperors’ League – to allow Russia and Austria-Hungary to take the Eastern
Question in hand. He had no desire to see Germany directly involved in issues that
were not worth the bones of a Pomeranian musketeer; and that might only involve
her in a choice that would alienate one of her partners should they prove unable to

Everything was changed at the end of the year when Plevna fell and the Russians
advanced to within striking distance of the Ottoman capital. By the preliminary
peace of Adrianople (31 January 1878), drawn up by Ignatiev, the Russian
ambassador at Constantinople, the Turks were com- pelled to agree to grant
independence and cessions of territory to Serbia, Montenegro and Romania (while
the last was to cede southern Bessarabia to Russia).

The most striking feature of the peace terms was, however, the the creation of a
large Bulgarian state, to be occupied by Russian forces for two years. Clearly, this
Russian satellite – which with its Aegean coastal strip would cut the Ottoman Empire
in Europe into two – would both dominate the Balkan peninsula and constitute a
direct military threat to Constantinople.

Bosnia and the Herzegovina, now completely cut off from Constantinople, were to
govern themselves as an autonomous state.

the preliminary peace terms were enshrined in the definitive Russo-Turkish Treaty of
San Stefano of 3 March

As far as the great powers were concerned, the Treaty of Berlin (13 July 1878) was
at least a tolerable arrangement. The Big Bulgaria of San Stefano was divided into
three parts: the principality of Bulgaria under Ottoman suzerainty, from which
Russian troops were to be evacuated within nine months; the autonomous Ottoman
province of Eastern Rumelia – designed to give Turkey a defensible frontier in the
Balkan mountains – under a Christian governor-general and an Ottoman military
occupation; and the Macedonian provinces of Big Bulgaria which were returned to
direct Ottoman rule

The independence of Serbia, Montenegro and Romania was confirmed, the two Slav
states receiving rather smaller additions of territory than had been envisaged at San
Stefano; and the exact delimitation of their new frontiers and those of Greece was
left for future negotiation.
Bosnia and the Herzegovina remained formally part of the Sultan’s dominions but
were entrusted to an Austro-Hungarian milit- ary occupation and administration
without limit of time.

The Sanjak of Novibazar continued under Ottoman rule as a corridor separating

Serbia from Montenegro and the Adriatic, while Austria-Hungary acquired the right
to have garrisons there and military and commercial routes through it to secure her
commercial access to the western Balkans, Salonica and the Aegean.

Russia had less reason to be satisfied: after all her expenditure

of blood and money she emerged with little more influence in Bulgaria than any of
the other powers; but she had recovered southern Bessarabia and even managed to
retain some small gains in the region of Batum on the east coast of the Black Sea
(although an additional Russo-Turkish treaty forbade her to fortify this port).

The British emerged with the Cyprus Convention and, according to Disraeli, ‘peace
with honour’.

As far as the European states system was concerned, the Congress of Berlin showed
that it was still firmly under the control of the great powers.

Like the 1815 settlement, it was not entirely welcome to small powers and vocal
groups who found themselves excluded from the decision- making. During the
Congress itself, Bismarck had been brutally frank in reminding both the Turks and
the Balkan governments of the irrelevance of their aspirations.

True, the fundamental problems there hardly admitted of a compromise solution:

the racial and religious structure of the Balkans was so hopelessly confused that no
treaty could ever have been devised that would have met with general approval.

In the Balkans, only force could determine frontiers, as was to be shown in 1913,
1919 and on various occasions since 1945. Even so, it might well be argued that the
original Treaty of San Stefano, for all its deficiencies in terms of the norms of
behaviour in the European states system, and for all it had whetted the appetites
and sharpened the rivalries of the Balkan peoples, had reasonably well reflected
both ethnic realities and the wishes of many of the local populations – whose cries
of disappointment were to give the powers no peace for the next forty years.

The Treaty of Berlin, by

contrast, reducing the Big Bulgaria of San Stefano and handing Macedonia back to
the Turks, while at the same time – perhaps unwittingly – foster- ing the belief in
the new Balkan states that recourse to violence could still bring rewards of Ottoman
territory, created an exceedingly intractable Macedonian problem for the future.

As far as the great powers were concerned the 1878 settlement, like that of 1814–
15 was tolerable for all, but viewed with very varying degrees of satisfaction.

The ‘status quo’ powers, as in 1815, were Great Britain and the Habsburg Monarchy,
who had combined to check Russia’s inord- inate pretensions, had strengthened
their position as counter-balancing powers in the Near East, and who now posed as
the patrons, not only of Turkey but of the non-Bulgarian Balkan states.

However much some of the latter might regret certain decisions of the Congress –
for example, the exclusion of Serbia and Montenegro from the Sanjak – the
nightmare pro- spect of the Big Bulgaria of San Stefano had driven them all for the
time being into the Austrian camp.

The Austrians were determined to build on the advantages they had gained (such as
Serbia’s commitment to con- tribute to a railway link between Vienna and
Constantinople) and to co-operate with Great Britain in forcing Russia to respect the
Bulgarian provisions of the Treaty of Berlin.

In London, Disraeli and Salisbury were of similar mind, and worked hard to
persuade the Turks to see in Great Britain and Austria-Hungary with their new
territorial commitments in the area twin pillars – the Austrians in the Balkans, the
British in Asia Minor – upholding the Ottoman Empire against its eternal enemy,

An Anglo-Austrian gentlemen’s agreement of May 1879, committing the two powers

to take no steps in the Near East without consulting each other marked the closest
degree of co-operation between them since the days of Castlereagh.
All these schemes were to come to nothing. As far as Turkey was con- cerned, the
Sultan was by no means inclined to co-operate with his two self-styled protectors,
who had, after all, appropriated more Ottoman territory to themselves than even
Russia had.

In Asia Minor the Turks showed scant inclination to implement the reforms
envisaged by the Cyprus Convention; and in Bosnia they actively encouraged native
opposition to the Austro-Hungarian occupying force, which had to fight a regular
campaign against fierce Muslim resistance.

Indeed, it was the expense and scale of this operation that caused the constitutional
upheaval in Austria that brought Andrássy’s tenure of office to an end: criticisms
voiced in the

Austrian parliament by elements of the ruling German Liberal party led Franz Joseph
to appoint a conservative-clerical-aristocratic ministry under his childhood friend,
Count Eduard Taaffe, and it was the prospect of having to work with such
uncongenial colleagues that in August deter- mined the Liberal Andrássy, apparently
at the height of his career, to tender his resignation.