In July 1875 an insurrection broke out in Herzegovina on Turkey’s ‘’North-West Frontier’, and spread to Bosnia. Within the following twelve months the Sultan Abdul Aziz defaulted on his debts, about 30% of which was in British hands. This led to consternation in the City. Disraeli wrote to Lady Bradford.
I really believe that the ‘Eastern Question’ that has haunted Europe for half a century, and which I thought the Crimean War had adjourned for another half will fall to my lot to encounter - dare I say to settle.
What was the ‘Eastern Question’? In 1875 Turkey was in possession of a vast, polyglot Empire covering most of the Middle East and stretching into Europe and including modern Bulgaria, Albania, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. The Sultanate was a cruel and corrupt regime, and it only survived because of the dissensions of the great powers. Militarily, Turkey no longer counted. The powers principally concerned were Russia, Britain, and Austria-Hungary. The main conflict lay between Russia and Britain. Austria was on the sidelines - she wanted the preservation of Turkey, but if Turkey collapsed, she wanted to seize a share of the spoils. Most of Turkey’s European subjects were Orthodox Christians, who looked to Russia for support. The Tsars were dubious about pan-Slav sentiment, but, however autocratic they were, they could not entirely ignore public opinion in Russia.
It was an article of faith of British diplomacy that Turkey had to be protected. There was deep mistrust of Russian intentions towards India. The fear was either that the Russians could march overland to India or obtain the same result indirectly by cutting off the British route to India.
Both these dangers were exaggerated. It is true that during the 1860s Russia conquered a number of oriental kingdoms in central Asia, but the distance to India remained vast, and the Russian government never contemplated the conquest of India. The building of the Suez Canal lessened the Russian threat; and Constantinople was a thousand miles from Suez. (Lord Salisbury, the Colonial Secretary, who was sceptical about the Russian threat, believed that the British were using maps on too small a scale.) Britain’s obsession with the Eastern Question sprang from reflex and habit rather than clear thought. It was also becoming embarrassing because of the abuses of Turkish rule.
Disraeli instinctively lacked sympathy with the struggle for the Balkan nations to be free. He saw the Bosnian demand for independence as similar to Ireland’s. As he wrote to Lady Bradford,
Fancy autonomy for Bosnia, with a mixed population. Autonomy for Ireland would be less absurd.He feared that if Britain were seen to support Bosnian independence, it would be difficult to deny it to Ireland. He had visited parts of the Turkish empire in 1830-1 and like many travellers in the region, he preferred the Turks to their Christian subjects.
In May 1876 Turkey once more came into the headlines with the murder of the French and German consuls at Salonika by pro-Muslim rioters. The Northern Courts (the conservative Dreikaiserbund, Berlin, St Petersburg and Vienna) protested to the Sultan in a document called the Berlin Memorandum. They asked Disraeli to sign, but he refused, though the Queen had misgivings about his refusal. She rightly believed that it might give the Sultan a false sense of security and allow him to continue with his misrule.
On 30 May Abdul Aziz was deposed and later found dead in suspicious circumstances. He was succeeded by his nephew, Murad V. For a while there was hope that he would introduce reforms and Disraeli felt justified in abstaining from the Berlin Memorandum. But at the end of June, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on Turkey, and this gave new impetus to the Bosnian revolt.
On 23 June, the liberal Daily News alleged that 25,000 men, women, and children had been slaughtered by Turkish irregular troops (in fact, there were nearer 12,000 - and when this figure was confirmed many thought this quite bad enough). Disraeli, who disliked the politics of the Daily News, was instinctively sceptical about the atrocity stories; he had taken the same line at the time of the Indian Mutiny. His own information came from the pro-Turkish ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Henry Elliott.
The country was in an uproar over the massacres. But when the question was raised in the House, Disraeli played down the massacre stories and even appeared to make a heartless joke about them. He was relieved when Parliament shut down in August, and hoped that the whole business would blow over. He continued to refer to ‘atrocities’ in inverted commas, even though news reaching the Foreign Office confirmed that they had taken place. In August a second revolution in Constantinople deposed Murad V and installed his half-brother, Abdul Hamid, whose accession was greeted with misplaced enthusiasm by Turcophiles.
But his hopes that the crisis would go away were dashed by the publication in September of Gladstone’s Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East. It was written in three days while in bed with lumbago. He completed it in the British Museum, which had been alerted of his arrival. The pamphlet caused a sensation. 40,000 copies were sold within a week, 200,000 by the end of September.
Let the Turks ... one and all, bag and baggage ... clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned.The situation was tailor-made for Gladstone. Hartington’s mistress, the duchess of Manchester unfairly told Disraeli,
That gentleman is only waiting to come to the fore with all his hypocritical retirement.But in fact, he had been under pressure to speak out. It was not political opportunism in the usual sense of the word. Gladstone responded slowly to the Bulgarian atrocities. He had believed that his retirement from the Liberal leadership would be permanent. The election defeat showed him he had lost the support of the ‘virtuous masses’. But now suddenly he saw that this agitation might regain it for him.
Three days after the publication of the pamphlet, Gladstone delivered the first of his speeches on the Eastern Question at Blackheath. It was a memorable occasion and from this time his public oratory became a major feature of British politics.
Gladstone’s intervention brought out all Disraeli’s obstinacy. He described the pamphlet as
vindictive and ill-written ... of all the Bulgarian horrors perhaps the greatest.In a speech to his constituents at Aylesbury (before he went to the Lords), he spoke of ‘designing politicians’ who exploited the noble sentiments of the British people for sinister ends. When the Conservatives later held the seat, it was regarded as a vindication of his policies.
The nation divides
Gladstone’s decision to lead the atrocity campaign injected a bitterness into British politics unequalled since the Corn Law debates. The country was divided into ‘Turks’ and ‘Russians’. Disraeli denounced his opponents as ‘priests and professors’.
The priests: The strength of the ‘atrocitarians’ was relatively weak in Scotland, and hardly existed in Ireland. It lay in the north of England (where there were great demonstrations to greet Gladstone), the south-west, and Wales. It coincided with the geographical distribution of nonconformity. Protestant nonconformists like the charismatic preachers C. H. Spurgeon and R. W. Dale were atrocitarian. On the other hand, Irish silence can be explained by the cool attitude of the Vatican to the Orthodox Church.
The Church of England with the exception of the High Church (Canon Liddon of St Paul’s) was in general anti-atrocitarian. Evangelicals, who comprised the majority of the inferior clergy, were strongly pro-Disraeli.
The professors: The intelligentsia were divided. Most historians (Stubbs, Green, Freemen) were atrocitarian. The agitation was supported by Ruskin, Browning, Trollope, Darwin, Spencer as well as by Liberals like Henry Fawcett.
But many of the younger generation were more imperialist and did not support the agitation: Alfred Milner, Herbert Asquith. The controversy marks a watershed in intellectual attitudes - the change from mid-Victorian to late-Victorian Liberalism.
Thomas Carlyle’s support of the agitation is surprising, but he respected Russia as a strong power. On the other hand, Matthew Arnold saw the agitation as smacking too much of the ‘hebraic philistinism’ of Nonconformity.
Many working-class radicals sided with Gladstone: George Holyoake, Henry Broadhurst. But there was another strand of working-class opinion - robust, patriotic popular Toryism. There was always a suspicion that the atrocitarians were middle class.
The press, with the exception of the Daily News, was behind the government. The Telegraph, owned by the Jewish family of Levy-Lawson, was pro-Turk.
The Queen was emphatically anti-atrocitarian, and her known views influenced London society. She had not previously been pro-Turk, but Gladstone’s conduct had outraged her. Her pathological animus against Gladstone dates from this time. She described his behaviour (to her daughter) as ‘reprehensible and mischievous’ and called him ‘that mischief-maker and firebrand’. Disraeli wrote to Derby about
that unprincipled maniac Gladstone - extraordinary mixture of envy, vindictiveness, hypocrisy, and superstition.Few political issues have raised such venomous feelings. The Church Times described Disraeli as the ‘Jew Premier’. The feelings were intensified when on 21 October Alexander II delivered an ultimatum to Turkey in which Russia threatened to act if Turkey did not introduce reforms. On 9 November at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, Disraeli made a speech on the Eastern Question, declaring his support for ‘the territorial integrity of Turkey’. Though he went out of his way to be polite to Russia, he ended describing Britain’s resources for a righteous war as ‘inexhaustible’. This led the historian Edward Freeman to refer in print to ‘the Jew in his drunken insolence’. Gladstone said: ‘The provocation offered by Disraeli is almost incredible’.
The Russo-Turkish War
In May 1877 Russia and Turkey went to war and for the first three months Russia won easy victories. Salisbury advised moderation. Derby, the Foreign Secretary, told the Russian ambassador, Shuvalov, a strong opponent of pan-Slavism, of cabinet disagreements. But the Queen’s language was so extreme that it was embarrassing and Disraeli had to remind her that the Cabinet was committed to neutrality. On 9 December Plevna fell after a long siege. In January 1878 Russian troops reached Adrianople. Public opinion shifted from criticism of Turkey to ‘an excited Russophobia’. The Queen wrote,
Oh, if the Queen were a man, she would like to go and give those horrid Russians whose word one cannot trust such a beating.Gladstone was hooted in the street and a musical hall song coined the word ‘jingoism’.
The Treaty of San Stefano
In the early months of 1878 and Anglo-Russian war seemed likely to break out at any moment. In February preparations were made for an expeditionary force which might have prevented Russia from seizing the Dardanelles. But when in March Russia imposed the strongly Pan-Slavist Treaty of San Stefano (a village outside Istanbul) on the Turks, extending Russia’s Asian territory and creating ‘big Bulgaria’ it was a step too far for both Britain and Austria.
The Congress of Berlin
In early March a decision was made in principle to hold a congress in Berlin (13 June - 13 July), with Bismarck, the German Chancellor, acting as honest broker. This was the most imposing gathering of diplomats Europe had seen since the Congress of Vienna. At the age of 73, Disraeli made the journey, together with his new Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury.
Disraeli got his way over Bulgaria in all essentials, and Britain also acquired the right to occupy and administer the previously Turkish island of Cyprus in order to protect her route to India. He returned from Berlin claiming that he had brought
peace with honour.The Congress gave Austria-Hungary the right to administer Bosnia-Herzegovina in a form which denied Serb aspirations. Other provisions included the protection of the Armenians and other religious minorities.
The occupation of Cyprus was condemned by Gladstone. This led Disraeli to say that
a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and to glorify himself.