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November 2012: Disraeli and the Eastern Question

Reviewed by: Jonathan Parry, University of Cambridge

Milosˇ Kovic´. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 364 pp. £63 (hardback).

For most of the nineteenth century British governments upheld the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Thus they defended, and sometimes took responsibility for, the continuation of Turkish rule over Christians in Belgrade and Bulgaria, and Arabs and Christians in Baghdad and Bethlehem. This was despite a stream of reports home from British consuls that Turkish rule was deeply unpopular, alien, sometimes savage, and more likely to impoverish than promote local economies.

They did so, of course, for reasons of global strategy. The issue was less whether the Turks should rule than whether any other ruler would serve European interests better, and the answer was almost invariably no. Britain embraced the policy of propping up the sultan and the status quo between 1833 and 1841, but despite some ambitious talk of Turkish modernisation and the development of commercial ties, those who put their faith in Ottoman regeneration were not central to this project. The hard reality was that if the Ottoman Empire was not maintained, the region was likely to fall into unwelcome hands. The main worry was Russian expansion southward and eastward towards Constantinople, the Gulf and India, perhaps helped by a compliant Persia. But the ambitions of Mehemet Ali in Egypt were also alarming: he might create a Moslem state covering Asia Minor and Mesopotamia, and even if this did not fall under French or Russian influence, it would be a destabilising factor in itself. The five-Power settlement of the Eastern Question in 1841 seemed to check both threats and to maintain Ottoman rule, but there was a constant fear that this was a sticking plaster solution and that economic, social and religious forces would undermine it.

In the event the Empire lasted, with modifications, until the First World War, and a crucial role in supporting it was played by Disraeli as prime minister in 1877–1878. By this time Gladstone and many other Britons had grown ashamed of defending Turkish rule over Christians; Gladstone particularly felt a personal responsibility for Ottoman misgovernment as a member of the cabinet that had gone to war to uphold Turkey against Russia in 1854. Gladstone’s part in the Eastern crisis of the 1870s has been much discussed by historians. As Milosˇ Kovic´ suggests in his new book, Disraeli’s has been considered less, a situation that he rectifies.

The most original part of the book is the discussion of Disraeli’s attitude to the East before he became prime minister. We already knew that the East loomed large in the young Disraeli’s imagination, but Kovic´ offers the most convincing and subtle explanation why. In the late 1820s Disraeli was swayed by Wellington’s High Toryism to defend the European status quo, in opposition to fashionable nationalist ideas. Then his active mind interpreted the Reform crisis as a potentially and excitingly revolutionary situation, and in his literary writings of 1831–1835 he celebrated some historical revolts against Ottoman imperial dominance, particularly Jewish ones – for the main novelty of this period was Disraeli’s discovery of a Jewish identity. By the early 1840s he had synthesised these positions into a stable viewpoint about the East. He continued to sympathise with the Jewish cause but in no other respect did he now advocate an assault on Ottoman integrity. This was partly because, like so many others, he had become alarmed by the Russian threat, to which he added a specific hostility to Balkan nationalism on religious, cultural and strategic grounds. Indeed Kovic´’s greatest achievement is to show Disraeli’s consistent suspicion of Balkan independence, connecting it with his distaste for English philhellenism, which he thought barbaric and likely to make Englishmen gullible about Russian expansion.

Kovic´ shows that despite this strategic and cultural dislike of Russia and Balkanism, Disraeli was no fan of the Turk and that his youthful criticisms of Ottoman rule persisted sotto voce throughout his life. He felt that the Arabs – with whom several of his novels expressed some spiritual affinity – were better suited to govern the Middle East. Thus we should not be surprised that in the Eastern crisis Disraeli was flexible about reframing Ottoman integrity as long as this did not lead to the independence of most Balkan states, which would prompt future instability. Instead he wanted defined responsibilities in the region for the Great Powers. Britain, for its part, took Cyprus.

The bulk of the book is on the diplomacy of the crisis itself. Despite the lack of previous work on Disraeli specifically, this is well-covered territory and Kovic´ has less of originality to add, though much interesting detail. He follows the consensus view that Disraeli’s over-riding priority was to re-assert Britain’s place in the councils of the Great Powers and to play a strategic role in the area. However, this is a valuable account precisely because of the attractive and convincing way in which questions of strategy and national interest are interwoven with Disraeli’s more abstract concerns and thoughts. It helps to show that even those nineteenth-century Britons who are generally identified with the support of the Turks in fact had a complex and nuanced set of feelings about the Ottoman Empire, appreciating the difficulties of governing such a diverse collection of racial and religious groups. The Turks were to be left in charge only until some better solution emerged – though what that might be remained frustratingly elusive.

 

 

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