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Path to War - Russo-Turkish War 1877-1878

The Russo-Turkish war arose out of the unsatisfactory conditions in the Balkan peninsula. The problem presented by these conditions was by no means a new one. The Eastern Question, as the problem was called, had perplexed European statesmen ever since the first intrusion of the Turks into Europe. Briefly stated, the Eastern Question consists of the issue raised by attempts to readjust relations between Mohammedan Turks and their Christian subjects and their neighboring states. It will be remembered that the warlike Turks, after capturing Constantinople in 1453, extended their power up to the very walls of Vienna. Repulsed there by the Austrians aided by the Poles under Sobieski in the memorable battle of Vienna (Sept. 12, 1683), the Turks were in the following decades gradually forced back, yielding up fertile Hungary, Transylvania, the Crimea, and retiring behind the Dniester River, the Carpathians, and the Transylvanian Alps. Behind these boundaries they held the entire southeastern point of Europe, not to speak of enormous territories in Asia Minor, for more than a hundred years.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, signs of disintegration of the empire became evident. From the beginning of the Turkish occupation differences of race and differences of religion had created the bitterest animosity between the conquerors and their subject people. Roumanians and Greeks were Caucasian, Serbs and Bulgars were Slav, and all four peoples were Christian. The ignorant and fanatical Turks had made no effort to adjust their government to these perplexing racial and religious differences, but had persisted in maintaining their attitude of a superior race toward inferior races. The Christians were to the Turks but low-born people, fit only to bear burdens and to pay taxes. Before Moslem judges in Moslem courts, the Christian subjects of the Sultan had no hope for justice; under Moslem police they had to submit to continual extortion; under Moslem tax-gatherers, who had bought their position and whose profits depended on the amounts they could screw out of the people, Christians could expect no mercy or fair distribution of the burden. The government was a continual tragedy of purposeless cruelty and oppression.

The natural result of such continued misrule on the part of a sovereign power would have been formidable rebellion on the part of the subjects, but the distinctions in race and national aspirations among the various Christian peoples prevented them from uniting to throw off the Turkish yoke. Roumanian hated Bulgar, Bulgar hated Serb, Serb hated Greek, and Greek hated Albanian, each with as intense hatred as he bore toward the Turk. Unity of action was impossible under these conditions. It was not until a general weakening of the Turkish power at the beginning of the nineteenth century that individual peoples dared to revolt. With the first prospect of success, one Christian people after another fought for its freedom.

The hardy mountaineers of Montenegro had never been fully subjugated; they again rebelled with success. Between 1804 and 1817 Serbia fought, in the end winning practical autonomy. In 1829 Greece, after a long and barbarous conflict, received foreign aid and gained complete independence. In the same year Russia defeated Turkey and forced her to yield rights of self-government to the important provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia (Rumania). In 1861, shortly after the Crimean war (1854-1856), these two provinces united into the principality of Rumania and emerged with only nominal allegiance to the Sultan. From this time forward the only large and important body of Christians remaining under the hated Turkish dominion in Europe was the Bulgar. It was inevitable that the Bulgars, seeing the happier condition of their fellow Christians in neighboring regions who had successfully revolted against the Turk, should make the great effort.

European attention was focused upon the Eastern Question in 1875 and 1876. In 1875 the peasantry in Herzegovina, harassed by the extortions of the tax-gatherers in the year following a particularly bad harvest, revolted. During the following months the revolt spread through the larger and more populous neighboring province of Bosnia and deeply excited the Bulgars. Early in 1876 an insignificant uprising at Tartar Bazardjik in the Maritza valley resulted in the death of a few Turkish officials. The revenge taken by the Turks was terrible. Since the Bulgarian region was near the Turkish capital it bore the brunt of the punishment. The Sultan poured some 15,000 regular troops and hordes of irregulars known as Bashi-Bazouks into the Maritza valley. The atrocities committed by these troops, especially by the Bashi-Bazouks, made foreign intervention inevitable. Of the eighty villages in the fertile valley they wiped out sixty-five, murdering, burning, and pillaging with a free hand.

The scenes in Batak became famous. The correspondent of the London Times sent to his paper so graphic an account of the Turkish procedure in that town that a Parliamentary commission was dispatched to the spot to ascertain the truth. The report of the commission confirmed the correspondent's account. The commander of the Bashi-Bazouks had given his word of honor that if the people at Batak would yield, not a hair of their heads would be harmed; but when they did yield, they were butchered like sheep.

In Russia the suspicions of Great Britain were fully appreciated, but public feeling had been deeply touched by the misfortunes of the Slav Christians under the Turkish yoke. The daring of Serbia and Montenegro in declaring war against so formidable a foe as Turkey called forth from all Russia the greatest admiration; their successive defeats by the Turkish forces aroused a fiery sympathy. When in October of 1876 all of lower Serbia was in Turkish hands and the road was open to Belgrade, the Czar was forced to act.

Russia did not go to war with Turkey for the sake of humanity, on account of the so-called atrocities committed by Turks on Bulgarian Christians, otherwise she would never have allowed the far more atrocious doings of the Bulgarians against the unfortunate Turks after the war (regarding which, by the by, even the so-called philanthropists and atrocity-mongers in the United Kingdom never uttered a word or raised a finger beyond shrugging their shoulders and saying that all these doings were much to be deplored). No; far from it. Russia went to war with Turkey to obtain Batoum and the Kilia branch of the mouth of the Danube. These objects she succeeded in obtaining. By the latter feat she obtained a position by which she threatened Austria and all Eastern Europe strategically in the event of a war. In regard to the former achievement, in both the will of Peter the Great and the dream of the Empress Catherine, Russia's destiny was to be the possessor of Constantinople and India. In Peter the Great's will, already referred to, it is said, 'Docks and ports must be established in the Black Sea; the downfall of Persia must be assured ; the way to India forced.'

It had been a cardinal principle of British colonial policy to check all Russian expansion, especially Russian expansion toward Constantinople. Great Britain with the allies had fought the Crimean war in 1854-1856 in pursuance of this policy. Now that Great Britain controlled the Suez canal, it was even more essential than before that no strong power with opposing interests should be allowed to establish itself at the Bosphorus, in easy striking distance of the British direct line of communication with her richest colony. After an analysis of the situation as cynical and cold-blooded as any ascribed to Bismarck, Disraeli could look dispassionately on the sacrifice of the Bulgarian Christians without advocating any attack on the assassins. In his mind, the imperial interests of Great Britain, which demanded that Great Britain should support Turkey against Russia, outweighed the sufferings of the Christians in Turkey.

On July 8, 1876, Emperor Francis Joseph and Czar Alexander II met at Reichstadt, and the former promised to remain neutral in a war between Russia and Turkey, provided he should be allowed to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina. On November 2, 1876, Lord Loftus, British ambassador to Russia, reported to his Government that the Czar had spoken to him of the provisional occupation of Bosnia by Austria and of Bulgaria by Russia, with a naval demonstration by the British at Constantinople, and of the erection of Serbia and Roumania into independent kingdoms. Beaconsfield went so far as to order the fleet at this critical stage in negotiations to Besika Bay near the entrance to the Dardanelles. There is reason to believe that Disraeli personally favored war against Russia, but was outvoted in his cabinet. At the preliminary meetings of the Conference of Constantinople. December 11-22, 1876, arrangements were proposed for peace and reform in the Turkish Empire, including new autonomous organizations for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria. Serbia and Montenegro were to be enlarged. These plans were elaborated and proposed at the regular meetings of the conference and rejected by the Turkish representatives January 20, 1877, as tending to destroy Turkish sovereignty in those areas.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:27 ZULU