Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 10: The Great Powers and the “Eastern Question”

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Lecture 10: The Great Powers and the “Eastern Question”


Two things happened during the nineteenth century to disturb the internal affairs of the Balkans. The first was the introduction of novel social and economic forces (see Lecture 9). The second was the increasing intervention of outside political forces. As the century advanced these developments merged, as international diplomacy and international commerce became linked in the thinking of Europe’s Great Powers.

In the 1800s this process was only beginning. Concerns about raw materials and world markets were only spreading slowly from England to the rest of Europe. International diplomacy still operated on the basis of simpler calculations. Wars were still fought about drawing borders and putting kings on thrones, without sophisticated consideration of economic elements or the impact of social change. Diplomacy was conducted from the top down, by social elites with little interest in social change or popular unrest.

If we look at the history of international relations in the Balkans in the nineteenth century, it is hard to set aside our foreknowledge that the train of events will lead to World War I. Ultimately, diplomacy of the old style failed in 1914 when new forces such as nationalism and militarism escaped its control. In Balkan diplomatic history it is easy to find situations in which old-style diplomacy encountered new forces and did a poor job dealing with them. Especially after 1878, rivalries grew: Austria vs. Russia, Austria vs. Serbia, Serbia vs. Bulgaria, until the crisis of 1914.

On the other hand, there were many crises and wars before 1878 that merely led to limited conflicts. It is inaccurate and misleading to analyse them only as rehearsals for World War I. The central issue in Balkan diplomacy at this time was the Eastern Question.

The Eastern Question, to 1878

“The Eastern Question” revolved around one issue: what should happen to the Balkans if and when the Ottoman Empire disappeared as the fundamental political fact in the Southeastern Europe? The Great Powers approached each crisis with the hope of emerging with the maximum advantage. Sometimes this led one or another to support revolutionary change. More often, state interests led them to support the status quo.

The diplomacy of the Eastern Question went forward in disregard, and often ignorance, of the wishes of the Balkan peoples. Because of its traditions and structures, old-style diplomacy was poorly equipped to deal with popular movements like nationalism. The diplomacy of the Eastern Question began in the Early Modern Period, before modern nationalism or representative governments. Diplomats from the Great Powers did not take into account the wishes of their own citizens, so why listen to Balkan peasants?

Treaties: Karlowitz and Kuchuk Kainarji

The issues that created the Eastern Question emerged when the Ottoman high tide in Central Europe began to recede. The failed Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 was the last important Turkish threat to a European Power. Under the Treaty of Karlowitz of 1699, the Habsburgs (who were allied with Poland, Russia and Venice) took control of Hungary (including Croatia), and Russia got part of the Ukraine. Thereafter, the Ottomans were on the defensive.

However, 1699 is a little remote for our purposes. The modern group of Great Powers had not yet formed at that time (Poland and Venice were still major forces). Diplomatic practices had not yet assumed their modern form, involving permanent embassies and specialized ministries. Nor were economic interests involved in the same way that they came to be after the Industrial Revolution. It is really in 1774 that the elements of the modern Eastern Question come into play. In that year, after Russia defeated Turkey again the two powers signed the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji. That treaty altered the Balkan scene in three important ways:

  • Russia gained access to the Black Sea coast, so that for the first time Russia physically impinged on the Turkish heartland, including the Balkans.
  • Russian merchant ships got the right to enter the Black Sea, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, Russian merchants got the right to trade in the Ottoman Empire, and Russia got the right to appoint consular agents inside Turkey.
  • Russia became protector of the Orthodox Christians of Turkey, with special rights in Wallachia and Moldavia.

These clauses set in train a competition among the Great Powers for influence in Turkey because no power was willing to permit Russia (or any other) to dominate the vast Ottoman holdings.

The interests of the Great Powers

Besides Turkey, there were six Great Powers during the late nineteenth century: Russia, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Germany. These states followed rather consistent Balkan policies. Some of the Powers expressed an interest in the Balkan population, but in a crisis each followed its own national security and defense needs. When Great Powers made compromises, they did so out of a belief in the tactical value of stability because the outcomes and risks of war were too hard to predict. States also compromised to retain their position as members of the “Concert of Europe,” the legal concept under which these large states gave themselves the right to settle matters of war and peace. Policies crafted for such reasons often failed to address the real, local causes of the repeated Balkan crises which took up so much of Europe’s attention in these years.


Russia tended to be the most visible disturbing agent and was usually the agent of each new Turkish defeat. Russia began the Early Modern period as the most backward of the Great Powers but also was the state with the greatest potential to tap new resources and grow. In Eastern Europe and the Balkans, a succession of states have opposed Russian interests (or at least perceived Russian interests): the French under Napoleon, then the British Empire, then the Germans and their allies during the two world wars, and most recently the United States. Russia’s emergence onto the wider world stage coincides with the emergence of the Eastern Question as a conscious focus of international politics. Under the 1774 Kuchuk Kainarji Treaty, Russia gained access to the north shore of the Black Sea. More important, the same treaty gave Russia important rights to intercede on behalf of the Orthodox millet and to conduct commerce within the Ottoman Empire. Most of Russia’s subsequent policies expanded on these two concessions.

One aim of Russian policy was control of local client states. Russian policy toward the Orthodox Christians of the Balkans involved mixed elements of compassion and self-interest. Russians deplored the abuse of Balkan fellow Christians and Slavs (the Pan-Slav movement of the 1800s brought forward similar Russian interests, in a slightly different form). On the other hand, as we saw during Serbia’s revolution, St. Petersburg abandoned its Balkan proteges when higher policy required. After autonomous or independent Christian states appeared, Russian policy was complicated by the need to find reliable client states in the region. When a state like Serbia fell under Austrian influence, the Russians would switch their support to a regional rival, such as Bulgaria. Russia had fewer ties to non-Slavic states like Romania: absent Pan-Slav ties, Russian policy often came across as mere domination, especially when Russia annexed territory, such as Bessarabia which was seized in 1878 and in 1940.

A second aim of Russian Balkan policy was retention and expansion of rights of navigation from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. Russia wanted full rights not only for its merchant trade but also for warships to pass through the Straits, while resisting the rights of other states to send ships (especially warships) into the Black Sea. In general, Russia has had to accept compromises that allow free traffic for all merchant ships and no traffic for warships (except the largely harmless Turkish navies).

A third aim of Russian policy, arising from the first two, has been outright physical possession of Istanbul and the Dardanelles. Annexation of that region would guarantee passage of the Straits, and make Balkan client states unnecessary. However, that step implied complete partition of the Turkish Balkans and was never acceptable to the other Powers. This idea came up in talks with Napoleon in 1807, and was later revived during World War I. Limited partitions were a staple of Balkan discussions, especially with Austria, but never came to any concrete result. No other Power would concede such a great prize to the Russians. With the years of the Cold War behind us, and the spectacle of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seems doubtful that Russia could have absorbed half the Balkans successfully. At the time, however, the difficulty of ruling in the absence of local consent was never strongly considered.

Rather than go into the details of Russian policy in Serbia, Greece and the other Balkan states, here we can only point to themes. The greatest check to Russian expansion took place after the Crimean War. By the Treaty of Paris of 1856, Russia lost much that she had gained. All warships were barred from the Black Sea, and it was opened to merchant ships of all states: by these actions, Russian lost her special status. All the Great Powers and not just Russia became the guarantors of the Balkan Christian states like Serbia and Romania: again, Russia lost a former special right. Above all, losing the war cast Russia in the role of an outcast state. Russian policy after 1856 aimed at overturning the toughest clauses of the Paris Treaty, and restoring Russia’s status as a full member of the Concert.

Great Britain

During the period 1815 to 1878 (and in fact up to 1907, when Russia and England allied against Germany) Great Britain was Russia’s most consistent rival for Balkan influence. British interests led to intermittent support for Ottoman rule. Britain intervened against the Turks in the Greek revolution in the 1820s because of Philhellenism and to block Russian influence, but went to war against Russia in 1853 on Turkey’s behalf, again to block Russian power. British Balkan interests derived from interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Given Britain’s position as the most industrialized European state in the early 1800s, economic interest played a large role, as distinct from simple geo-political interest. Britain needed to secure the shipping lanes to India. Those trade routes passed through areas like Suez that were nominally Turkish. The Turks themselves were too weak to act as a threat, so British policy opposed France, then Russia and eventually Germany, when those states seemed most likely to get too much influence over a weak Turkey.

Britain also had humanitarian interests in the Balkans: with the most developed system of representative government in Europe and the most influential popular press, London cabinets were under pressure when Ottoman misrule led to uprisings, atrocities and repression. Britain’s strategic and humanitarian interests in the Ottoman parts of the Balkans tended to be in conflict. In 1876, William Gladstone (a past and future Prime Minister) wrote a pamphlet called “The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East” condemning the massacres that the Turks carried out while suppressing the latest Balkan revolt. After that year, no British cabinet could provide unlimited support for the sultan. In 1853, Britain had gone to war rather than see Russian influence grow in the Balkans, but when the Russians invaded and defeated Turkey in 1877-78, Britain stood by. British leaders instead adopted a new policy to protect the sea lanes to India. In 1878 Britain took control of the island of Cyprus, and in 1883 occupied Egypt and the Suez Canal. With those outposts under control, Britain’s need to intervene on the Balkan mainland waned, although Britain did keep an eye on Greece and Russia’s privileges at the Straits.

Britain also had important trading interests within the Ottoman Empire itself and later in the successor states. Short term profits, political or economic, had to be balanced against long term interests. Investors in railroads and state bonds preferred to take as much profit as they could, as soon as they could; this tendency often pulled resources out of Turkey that might have contributed to stability and long term profit. In general, British capitalists tried to take as much profit out of Turkey as possible, without fatally weakening the country and killing the golden goose.


France, like Britain, had both political and economic Balkan interests. During the Napoleonic wars, France was a major threat to Ottoman rule. Napoleon himself invaded Egypt in 1798. After defeat in 1815, France lost military and political clout: restoring French influence in the Concert of Europe became a goal for its own sake (as it had been for Russia after 1856) and this inclined French policy toward cooperation with other states.

French economic interests tended to outweigh political interests during the 1800s. France had commercial rights in Turkey dating back to the Capitulation Treaties of the 1600s. Marseilles, France’s busiest port, relied heavily on trade with the Ottoman-ruled Eastern Mediterranean.

In the 1820s, France joined Britain and Russia to intervene on behalf of the Greek insurgents, partly to protect commercial interests, partly out of Philhellenic sympathy for the Greeks, partly to prevent a Russo-British condominium in the area, and partly to regain a role on the world stage after the defeat of 1815. By treaty, France was also the protector of Catholics in Turkey: French intervention in the quarrels between Orthodox and Catholic monks in Jerusalem was one excuse for the Crimean War.

Under Napoleon III, France also followed a policy of support for nationalists and this meant support for rebels against the Ottomans. There was a special feeling of affinity in the case of Romania. Many Romanian leaders had a French education and cultural ties. The Romance roots of their language made Romania seem like an outpost of Latin culture in a sea of Slavs.

French investors also played a role in Balkan policy. During the crisis and war of 1875-78, the Turkish state went bankrupt. French bondholders were the biggest potential losers in case of a default so the French state pursued conservative fiscal policies in Turkey. When the Ottoman Public Debt Administration was created to monitor Turkish state finances, French directors played a major role: their policy begrudged every Turkish pound diverted away from debt repayment. Like British investors, French investors forced their government to balance competing interests. The OPDA directors followed a fine line, permitting Turkey enough financial resources to survive while squeezing out the maximum return on Turkish bonds (although money for reforms was treated more favorably than money for the military budget). All in all, France pursued a moderate course because the French had so many interests, sometimes conflicting with each other.


At one time Austria had been the main threat to Ottoman rule, but after 1699 there were few actual territorial transfers to the Habsburgs. Russia replaced Austria as the real threat to Ottoman survival. However, Austria retained a major interest in the Ottoman Empire. The Balkans were adjacent to Hungary: Vienna had no desire to see a weak Ottoman neighbor replaced by a potentially strong Russia, or by pliant Russian clients in Serbia or Bulgaria.

Plans to diminish or partition Ottoman Turkey revolved around the independence of ethnic minorities: because Austria too was an empire of nationalities, any precedent set in Turkey was a potential threat to Habsburg power. For that reason, although Austrian (and later Austro-Hungarian) Balkan interests resembled those of Russia, Habsburg diplomats came to very different conclusions about plans to partition or annex Balkan territory. Austria especially saw the Western Balkans as an economic resource and a potential market. Control of the coast was the key to allowing Austria’s foreign trade to pass through the Adriatic Sea, and the empire could ill afford to let that region fall under the control of a hostile Great Power or a growing Balkan nation.

Partition of Turkey and annexation of the Western Balkans was not taken seriously as an option by Austria, however, no matter how often it was suggested by Russian or German diplomats. The ruling German Austrians (with their Hungarian partners after 1867) had no ethnic or religious ties to the Slavs of the region. Austria’s economic wealth was concentrated in advanced regions like northern Italy and Bohemia. Until the war with Bismarck’s Prussia in 1866, Vienna hoped to advance through economic and political leadership in some kind of German federation. There was little advantage in annexing backward, Slavic Balkan provinces.

After the defeat of 1866 made it clear that Germany, not Austria, would be the leader of Central Europe, southeastern Europe remained as Vienna’s only available arena for the exercise of power. At the same time, the 1867 Ausgleich with the Magyars made the annexation of Slavic areas less attractive. The Magyars made up barely 50% of the population in Hungary and had no desire to end up as a minority by annexing more Slavic or Romanian lands. The Austrian Germans were already experiencing complaints from the Slavic Czechs. Neither of the two ruling ethnic groups wanted to annex any Balkan districts. For strategic reasons, Austria-Hungary occupied and administered Bosnia-Hercegovina after 1878, but thirty years passed before the province was legally annexed.

The Habsburg dynasty, rulers of a multi-national empire, also wished to avoid setting an unfortunate precedent by dismantling another multi-national empire, Turkey. Because Austria was too weak to absorb the Balkans, she preferred to sustain a weak Ottoman Empire. This accounts for Vienna’s anti-Russian position during the Crimean War, and her alliance with Germany later. In fact, Austria proved to be too weak to prevent the creation of successor states, even though the existence of Serbia and Romania raised serious questions about the future of Habsburg-ruled Serbian and Romanian minorities.

Given the existence of Serbia and Romania, Vienna tried to smother questions of irredentism by controlling the two new states through political alliances and economic treaties. Romania feared Russian occupation, and so governments in Bucharest generally accepted alliances with Austria. Serbia had fewer enemies, and so less incentive to bend to Austrian wishes. The Obrenovic dynasty often accepted Austrian backing in order to hold off its domestic political rivals; the Karageorgevic dynasty therefore became the rallying point for anti-Austrian forces. After 1878, and especially after 1903, Serbia and Austria found themselves on a collision course that ended in the war of 1914.


Until 1859, there was no unified Italy. After successful wars against Austria in 1859 and 1866, the Kingdom of Piedmont united the peninsula and sought a position as a new Great Power. While Italy became a member of the Concert of Europe, the kingdom lagged behind the other Powers in terms of economic and military might. What influence Italy could exercise came at the expense of the nearby Ottoman Empire, which was even weaker.

Italy regarded the Western Balkans, especially Albania, as her natural zone of influence, and Italian leaders watched for opportunities to take the area away from the Turks. Italy competed with Austria for influence there: this rivalry was sharpened by Italian dreams of taking the whole Dalmatian sea-coast away from Austria on the grounds that an Italian minority lived there. These Balkan ambitions made Italy a rival not only of Turkey but also of Serbia, Montenegro and Greece. Those states hoped to seize the same areas on the Adriatic that were the objects of Italian ambitions.

Generally, Italy followed a policy of opportunism. Italy was too weak to seize any of the Balkans up to 1878, but in 1911 and 1912 took the Dodecanese Islands and Tripoli (the present Libya) from the Ottomans.


Germany, like Italy, was a newcomer to Great Power status. The Kingdom of Prussia had been important, but it was only after the unification by Bismarck between 1862 and 1870 that Germany gained real power and real responsibilities.

Thanks to military and economic might, Germany had more influence than Italy but no direct interests in the Balkans. Bismarck remarked that the region was “not worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier.” For the new German Empire, the Balkans were mostly of interest as an economic outlet and as a complication in Germany’s long-running effort to dominate the continent by forging strong alliances against her rivals (first against France, later Britain and ultimately Russia). After defeating Austria in 1866, Bismarck was able to make Austria-Hungary the cornerstone of his alliance system because no unsettled issues remained between the two states. To retain Habsburg loyalty, however, Germany had to support Austrian needs in Balkan affairs.

After 1878, it became clear that Germany could no longer reconcile Russian and Austrian wishes in the Balkans. By 1890 Germany and Austria were strongly allied while tsarist Russia had been driven into an unlikely partnership with republican France. After this time, German Balkan policy was a mixture (not always smoothly blended) of support for Austria, and economic and military investment in Turkey, investment that soon made Germany a rival not only of Russia but also of Britain. The Great Power alignments of the period 1890-1914 established a European pattern which dominated two world wars.

Germany had no stake in the progress of any of the small successor states: for that reason Germany was free to support the sultan (and later the Young Turk regime) against them. German officers trained Turkish troops and German money built Turkish railways: in both cases Berlin expected an eventual payoff, whether political or economic.

The Ottomans

The Ottoman Empire was the weakest of the Great Powers. As an ally of  Britain and France when the 1856 Treaty of Paris ended the Crimean War, the Turks gained a legal status that was beyond their real powers. Ottoman Balkan policy was simple: to prevent the loss of additional territory in the Balkans. In many instances, the sultan had to be satisfied with nominal control: the lands of the disobedient ayans like Ali Pasha of Jannina or the purely legal vassalage of Serbia and Romania come to mind as examples.

The Ottoman regime mistrusted all the other Powers, in part because those states were made up of infidels and in part from practical experience. However, Russia was clearly Turkey’s greatest enemy because tsarist policies implied or required dismantling the empire. To ward off Russian threats, Turkey engaged in close cooperation with other states but was always wary of falling too much under the influence of any one Power. From the time of the Greek War of Independence up to the 1870s, Britain most often acted as Turkey’s guardian. After 1878, Germany largely replaced Britain as an economic and military sponsor. Turkish relations with the Balkan successor states were uniformly bad, because their interests and plans involved expansion at Turkish expense.

The diplomatic system

The diplomacy of the Eastern Question was managed from the top down, by actors who defied or ignored popular wishes and the implications of social change. As a result, Great Power diplomacy in the Balkans often failed because it did not take into account important forces operating from the bottom up. This was not merely because of personalities and class prejudice. The physical restraints on communication and the structures of the diplomatic establishment contributed to the shortcomings of the system. Who the diplomats were, and how they carried out their business, played a great role in Balkan politics.

Historians of World War I and 1914 have blamed the war on secret treaties, militarism, emotional nationalism and economic jealousy. The structure and technique of diplomacy played a major role in promoting these dangerous developments and insulating statesmen from healthier alternatives. The same factors were at work in Balkan diplomacy.

Until the 1830s, diplomacy was carried out by powerful individual ambassadors acting on behalf of their monarchs in virtual isolation. Prior to use of the telegraph, communication was slow and uncertain: in 1816 it took two weeks for a message to make the trip from Vienna to St. Petersburg (1200 miles, roughly the distance from Philadelphia to Minneapolis) and two more weeks for a reply. Because ambassadors could not expect rapid instructions, they enjoyed tremendous freedom: they reported what they wished, or acted on personal beliefs and interests, or did nothing. Russia’s ambassadors to Turkey were notorious up to the 1870s for their rashness and unpredictability: those of the Western Powers may have been more subtle, but could be equally independent.

Kings and states granted such latitude only to men who were likely to think as the ruling class thought, therefore most diplomats were drawn from the nobility. Diplomatic life was an extension of aristocratic life. At the 1815 Congress of Vienna, important business took place informally at banquets and balls. Family connections mattered. The new kings of Greece and Romania were minor members of the German royalty: this increased the stature of the Balkan states, and also placed them under the control of reliable figures. Social skills mattered more than professionalism: in the 1820s, British ambassador Stratford Canning sometimes wrote his reports in rhyme for his own amusement. Precise protocols and customs allowed representatives to express subtle nuances of official policy. Diplomats were expected to share a common language (French). Such men neither spoke for, nor understood, common people and their interests.

After 1830, central governments began to use technology to control their representatives abroad and gather better information. In 1830 Metternich set up a “pony express” that cut the travel time for messages to go from Vienna to Paris (roughly the distance from Philadelphia to Chicago, about 800 miles) to 60 hours. An 1838 semaphor telegraph could carry news from Berlin to St. Petersburg in about 25 hours. By the 1850s, the electric telegraph opened the door for instantaneous transmission of messages, but it still took decades to extend the necessary cables into remote capitals. By 1900, diplomats could exchange multiple secret telegrams in code with their home offices during a single day if a crisis required it.

These changes curtailed the independence of ambassadors, but social status and the cost of living abroad ensured that nobles still filled the ranks of Europe’s foreign services, even in the role of clerks. While modernizing, foreign ministries also adopted a culture of bureacracy, which placed a value on hierarchy and conformity. Foreign ministries tended to be isolated (physically and procedurally), aloof, arrogant, secretive and arbitrary. In an age of growing mass culture and politics, foreign services remained insulated from society. Architectural plans for the new French Foreign Ministry in 1844 required that it be built at a “distance from the public thoroughfare.” Safe from public scrutiny, diplomats worked short hours and made few concessions to efficiency. French ministerial departments competed at catering daily teas but resisted time-saving inventions like the typewriter (rejected until 1900), the telephone (1910), the light bulb (1911) and the automobile (1916). Diplomats saw little need to learn foreign languages (except French) or even to collect accurate maps.

Apologists for the “old diplomacy” point to its positive features: negotiations were calm, precision was prized, and dangerous surprises were kept to a minimum. However, these very strengths of the “old diplomacy” made it especially ill-suited for dealing with crises in the Balkans. Balkan diplomats had to deal with mass movements, secret activities, and revolutionary leaders who lacked official status or aristocratic values or both. Traditional assumptions and Western European solutions proved themselves irrelevant for the Balkans. The “advanced” Powers expected small states to obey orders, but the new Balkan governments often refused. Even if they agreed, the state apparatus was often too weak to overcome popular nationalism and secret conspirators.


Economic and social change, international rivalry and  unsolved problems combined to unsettle the Balkans. Neither local states nor Great Powers could control the situation. The result was a succession of Balkan crises, some of which had serious consequences for Europe as a whole.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism).  

This page created 21 November 1996; last modified 11 January 2023.

Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

Comment display has been disabled on this doc.

Comment display has been disabled on this doc.