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But if society as a whole abandons all positive beliefs, it is powerless to resist the disintegrating effects of selfishness and private interest.

The idea of human rights, or humanitarianism, in the international political sphere has, over the last couple of centuries, occupied statesmen and citizens alike. From the Concert of Europe through the League of Nations to the United Nations Organisation, international behaviour between states and even within states has been the subject of many international charters that have attempted to afford the common people some measure of universal human dignity. These matters have received even more attention in the last century, with the occurrence of atrocities such as the Holocaust, Apartheid, and the Rwandan genocide. More recently, this question has been applied to the U.S. intervention in Iraq—was the American action merely a new tactic for acquiring control of vital oil resources, or was there any genuine desire to arrest and try Saddam Hussein?

Obviously, from the previous example, humanitarian actions do not exist in a vacuum. To a large extent, human welfare is regulated by international laws and norms of behaviour and one must carefully distinguish between different factors that define an event before coming to a conclusion about the nature of an action. To complicate matters, humanitarianism has unfortunately been maligned by leaders who have pursued a narrower goal of self-interest under the pretext of concern for human welfare. In this state, it appears to be a farce to some practitioners of policy, and the ambiguous nature of the term does not lend to easy distinctions between self-interested and humanitarian motives. Questions also arise on if a nation has the right to impose its own weltanschauung on other nations and its peoples. On the one hand, we must accept multiculturalism and not create a hierarchy of cultures, languages, religions, races, or civilisations. On the other hand, our open-mindedness cannot be misconstrued to mean toleration of the denial of basic human dignity to people in any culture. Furthermore, the question arises if humanitarian intervention should be seen as such by the international community to be justified. Also, should the people being acted upon see intervention as humanitarian too? And how should this be resolved, given the various factions within a state and region? 1 Most importantly, what form should a humanitarian intervention take? Military force is only one of many options available to a nation. Thus, humanitarianism remains a broad and therefore complex theme.

Here, I examine the Bulgarian Crisis of 1876-1878 and the reaction of the Great Powers, namely, England, France, Austria, the newly-formed German Second Reich, and Russia, to it. The incident makes for a fascinating case study precisely because of the intermingling of humanitarian overtones and cold realpolitik in positions the Great Powers adopted. Furthermore, news of Ottoman atrocities in the Balkans created an outcry in Europe, particularly in Great Britain. This made the Bulgarian Crisis one of the first events in which public opinion (however it was cultivated) restricted government policy. I explore the European intellectual tradition as regards to warfare, justice, and humanitarianism. My primary argument is that humanitarianism has been inextricably intertwined with self-interest. The Great Powers had many interests—political, military, financial, and strategic—in the stability of the Sublime Porte. Therefore, they engaged with the Ottomans carefully, not wishing to upset the balance of European power on one hand, or the stability of the Ottoman Empire on the other. However, to view the Bulgarian Crisis thus simplifies and suppresses other concerns Europe had. The religious and racial fraternity that Russians felt with Russian Orthodox Christians and Slavs within the Ottoman Empire and the sympathy for Catholics in the Porte expressed by France and Austria also influenced the European Powers’ decisions. For Tsar Alexander II, it was difficult to give up his Slavic and Orthodox brethren in opposition to his people’s wishes, while for Great Britain it was difficult to side with the Ottomans against the Russians as they had done in the Crimean War only twenty years earlier. Therefore, I argue that to view humanitarianism as a simple binary true–false relation is overly simplistic and erroneous. Humanitarian actions, be they in Bulgaria, Nazi-occupied Europe, or Iraq usually also have a component of profit for the intervening country. This does not negate the fact of humanitarianism as many officials would have it, but merely provide incentive for humanitarianism. To believe otherwise would be to conflate humanitarianism with altruism.

Deconstructing “Humanitarianism”: Historical, Philosophical, and Legal Perspectives

One method of determining the primary purpose of an intervention, Sean Murphy suggests, is to analyse the statements made by officials of the intervening state, states, or international organisation(s) as the case may be.2 Governments, however, are notorious for misleading the public and providing data that is contradictory to the events on the ground. However, studying action and rhetoric together remains the most acceptable way of inquiring into the nature of interventions. Murphy also states that “there is a juridical relationship between an intervening state and its nationals that is lacking with respect to the nationals of other states.”3 This means that any action that is taken to protect ones own citizens cannot be construed as humanitarian. Therefore, the primary motive of a humanitarian intervention should be to protect the nationals of another state.4 Again, as Murphy states, “the international law of human rights is viewed generally as a law dealing with the protection of persons against violations by their governments of their internationally guaranteed rights.5 Thus, “at bottom, human rights limit state power.”6 Furthermore, “intervention” implies that the local governing authority has not authorised interference in its internal affairs.

Although many of these ideas evolved into more concrete juridical language in the twentieth century, much of the moral and philosophical basis was already laid by the time of the Bulgarian crisis. The “obligation for a society first to seek the peaceful settlement of a dispute, thereby providing full opportunity for the avoidance of bloodshed, expresses a moral value whose lineage is traced to antiquity.”7 In the European intellectual tradition, human rights were given primacy over state rights: just as states have a right to self-preservation, individuals also have a right to self-preservation which supersedes that of the state. It is from this basic assumption of “equality between humans as moral persons” that Western democratic traditions were drawn.8 Wars between states in antiquity were no doubt barbarous, and the concept of humanitarian intervention did not seem to be a sufficient reason for war. However, the justification of the use of force was always sought, usually in divine cause. Furthermore, restrictions were put in place as to how and when force should or should not be used.

The works of Ancient Greek philosophers such as Zeno, Plato, and Aristotle are also replete with opinions on when there exists a sufficient cause for the use of force, and how international relations should be conducted. For example, in his Politics, Aristotle notes,

There will of course be different rules laid down in different places; if there are neighbouring peoples, it will be part of the legislative function to decide what sort of attitude is to be adopted to this sort and that sort, and how to employ towards each other the proper rules for dealing with each.9

Although this statement is rather ambiguous and does not directly refer to humanitarianism, it directs that an international framework of diplomacy be used to deal with problems that arise rather than the immediate use of force. However, in his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle clarifies his position on what is just:

Our enquiry is of political justice, which is found only among those whose mutual relations are controlled by law. The ruler is the guarantor of justice, and it is when he is dissatisfied with honour and dignity as his reward, but takes more than he merits that he becomes a despot…political justice is either natural or legal. The natural is that which is the same everywhere, independent of people’s opinions, while laws can differ greatly…there are three kinds of injury. One that happens contrary to reasonable expectation is a misadventure. That which might be expected but is done without malice is a mistake. Those who commit these have done wrong, but may not be unjust or wicked. Only the wrong done on purpose is unjust and wicked. Mistakes committed in ignorance and from ignorance are pardonable; but those committed in ignorance but through some unnatural passion are inexcusable.10

Again, although the idea of humanitarian intervention does not crop up in a direct fashion, Aristotle’s sense of just and unjust action is easily surmisable, and it can be posited that it is acceptable to act to remedy an unjust deed. Thus, Aristotle’s commentaries discussed the nature of jus ad bellum (just war), the precursor to the modern term “humanitarian intervention.”

Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas built on this tradition by defining the reasons for which a ruler may and should go to war from a religious and Christian perspective. However, with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, secular winds blew through Europe, creating the fertile ground for the birth of the nation-state. Although theories of supreme state power such as those of Niccolo Machiavelli’s Prince and Jean Bodin’s The Six Bookes of a Commonweale persisted, Hugo Grotius and Emmerich de Vattel were exceedingly influential and laid the foundations of modern international law.11 In On the Law of War and Peace, Grotius argued that the use of force was justified when there existed a just cause such as defence against injury, recovery of what is legally due, and the infliction of punishment on a wrongdoing state for excessive crimes.12 Grotius argued that it was admissible for sovereign rulers to punish other sovereign rulers for violations not only of the laws of nature and nations, but also to their own subjects.

Surely, there were others such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill who opposed intervention as it could be a cover forother ambitious designs, but the gradual move towards positivist thinking did not give their views as much influence in European politics.13 Specific invocation of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention by one state ora group of states against another arose mostly in the latter half of the 19th century. However, the first example of when the doctrine of humanitarian intervention was used to justify military force occurred in 1829, when Great Britain, France, and Russia militarily enforced the 1827 Treaty of London in order to prevent massive bloodshed in Ottoman Greece. France intervened militarily in Syria again in 1860 to prevent a massacre of Ottoman Christians by the local authority, the Ottoman Empire. “The French intervention is considered a valid precedent for legalizing humanitarian intervention even by those opposed to it.”14 However, the same debate continues to this day regarding the justification for and the nature of a humanitarian intervention—on one side lie the realists who scoff at the idea of humanitarianism, while on the other lie those who believe that an international community can be forged through appeals to universal values such as human dignity. Collective intervention in the form of the United Nations nowadays, or the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century, was believed to work to mitigate the absolute pursuit of self-interest by intervening nations. In this matter, the Concert of Europe was one of the first international bodies capable of conducting humanitarian interventions, and it is for this reason that the crisis in the Balkans in the late 1870s should be of particular interest to scholars of diplomacy and international law.

The Concert of Europe as an International Actor

The Concert of Europe should not be thought of as a United Nations of the nineteenth century, but more as a Security Council. The members were self-appointed, and unsurprisingly, were those with the greatest military wherewithal. The Concert met periodically to discuss common concernsand maintain a balance of power between its members. In its position as anarbiter of disputes, it is not impossible that some considered the Concert ofEurope as an organisation to promote humanitarian values like peace and development.15 In the case of the Ottoman Empire, the Concert of Europe exerted pressure on multiple occasions for change. As a result, the Ottoman Public Debt Administration was set up when it was felt that the Ottomans could not repay what they had borrowed at the end of the Crimean War. Further, European ambassadors to the Sultan’s Court were able to make the Ottoman ruler acceptsweeping social reforms, the Tanzimat. Of particular interest to the Europeans in this set of reforms was the end of economic religious persecution: The exactions of the Muslim landowners and tax-farmers, which sparked off the rebellion in 1876, were indeed extreme:

The Christian kmets were expected to pay rent of aquarter of their produce and an animal from their flock annually; to workwithout payment on their landlord’s land; and, on occasion, to provide free food and accommodation for their landlord and his servants. At the same time theywere expected to pay heavy tithes and excise duties on grain, tobacco, vegetables, fruit, and hay and other taxes on land, houses, animals, and beehives, whilst every Christian male was required to pay thirty piastres a year as a poll-tax for exemption from military service. Moreover, the tenant could not find effective protection against the extortion of the landlord and tax-farmers in the courts.16

Murphy indicates that it has been argued that Europe’s desire to protect the Christians living under Ottoman rule is not purely a humanitarian exercise, and that the Ottomans were not seen as a part of Europe.17 Although this argument is certainly true, it must also be considered that the Ottoman Empire was brought into the European framework in 1856 when it was invited to participate in the negotiations at Paris that were aimed at setting up a new world order. Furthermore, public opinion, as in the case of Great Britain during the Bulgarian Crisis, began to matter more and have influence on government decisions. This was an enormous change from earlier when the activities of governments were beyond the pale of the common citizenry. Furthermore, the Treaty of Berlin, signed in 1878, despite its realpolitik implications, also included several clauses that protected the rights of minorities within the Ottoman Empire. Thus, we see that humanitarian intervention was coupled with self-interest on the part of all powers.

One of the larger issues that involve humanitarianism is the geographic scope of the action. For instance, it can be argued that while Great Britain was involved in securing basic privileges for Christians in the Sublime Porte, it was also involved in causing crippling famines in her Indian possession that killed anywhere between twelve and thirty million people over the course of fifteen years.18 More importantly, this was after the treaty regarding the laws and customs of warfare was signed in Brussels in 1874, bringing in the colonies into the jus publicum europaeum. How is it, critics of humanitarianism argue, that a nation can be so concerned about human welfare in one part of the globe but commit monstrous acts in another? Taking another example, a European one this time, it can also be argued that European treatment of its Jewish subjects was inhuman, particularly in Eastern Europe. This view is borne out by the multiple pogroms in the East, as well as the occurrence of the Dreyfus Affair in France in 1894. Helmut Smith’s A Butcher’s Tale clearly delineates the ancient history of anti-Jewish sentiment in the German lands as well. This reasoning, that a nation cannot have humanitarian interests in one arena because its actions in another do not bear out its goodwill towards humanity, is also false. First of all, wrongdoing in one matter does not immediately implicate the wrongdoer in all other matters. Secondly, as distasteful as it may be today, the intellectual environment of the day supported international norms of hierarchy among races and beliefs—whites over blacks, Europeans over non-Europeans, Christians over non-Christians. Wrote one British official deputed to the Sultan’s court, “In short, I consider it quite impossible that Turkey can takeher place as a member of the community of European nations, while, in practice, she retains the laws of the Koran, in regard to religious and civil polity, which are as subversive of morality and justice as opposed to all progress in the enlightening and humanizing of the species.”19 Therefore, to view the events of the late nineteenth century in terms of twenty-first century morality would decontextualise the events beyond academic comprehension. Therefore, we must also keep in mind also the climate in which these actions were performed.

It is perhaps necessary at this point to remind the reader that while the term “humanitarian intervention” is a product of legal writings of the last one hundred and fifty years, the idea of resorting to war to protect individuals from injustice is older.20 Secondly, it is useful to dispel the misperception that humanitarian intervention occurred in a haphazard way before the age of the League of Nations and the United Nations. On the contrary, there were doctrines in place that dictated the methods of waging war, intervening in a crisis, or self defence to which states paid heed. Thirdly, it is commonly considered that the principle of state sovereignty ruled supreme in the pre-twentieth century Hobbesian world. However, as Grotius and Vattel have extensively written, the internal conduct of a sovereign was often a matter of concern to other sovereigns.

The Bulgarian Crisis of 1876-1878

It is evident from the political documents produced by the British and other European powers that the Ottoman Empire remained for them sub-European. Despite the Ottoman acceptance of the Tanzimat reforms that the Europeans forced upon it, European officials were suspicious of their Ottoman counterparts. Wrote one official, “The official Turk at Constantinople, both he who has visited Europe, as well as he who may have acquired some notion of the ideas of Europeans from others, know well how to adapt their conversation to gain the goodwill of, or, I should rather say, to deceive-any distinguished foreigner who may chance to visit upon them.”21 In another report, the same official opined, “The Sultan is a despot in the most extensive sense of the word….Mahometanism, an emanation of the Eastern mind, is naturally adapted to a people of [fanatical passions].”22 Another official wrote back to London, “The modernized Turk…is essentially a wily barbarian, as false as cruel…his Mahometanism being but the Shiboleth of a party.”23 William Gladstone, who led the agitation against the Turks in 1876, underlined in Lectures on the History of the Turks in its Relation to Christianity by J.H. Newman, “the Turks are simply in the way. They are in the way of the civilisation of the nineteenth century.”24 Such sentiments ran strong not only in Great Britain, but also in Europe. Thiswas the era of social Darwinism and scientific racism, and with the starting of religious millenarian movements, the socio-cultural climate was strongly biased against Orientals.

It is possible, therefore, that there existed genuine concern for Christians living in the “barbarian” lands. On a socio-cultural level, a humanitarian need persisted that did not manifest itself as openly at a diplomatic level. The study of solely diplomatic communiqués would perhaps reveal more realpolitik considerations and downplay humanitarianism, and therefore we must be careful with what each type of source can and cannot tell us. As Ranajit Guha warns us,

commitment to a particular kind of knowledge predetermines the kinds of generalizations one can make about the present world, the kinds of knowledge one can have of it, and hence the kinds of projects one can legitimately conceive for changing that present or for maintaining it in its present formindefinitely.25

A scholar interested in motives and intent of political action must, consequently, look beyond diplomatic documents to cultural climes. However, let us first look at the political response of the Great Powers to the Bulgarian Crisis.

What is immediately clear is the importance of the Sublime Porte to the balance of European power—with an emaciated Ottoman Empire, Russian military potential in Europe would grow exponentially. Furthermore, Russia would have easy access to the Mediterranean Sea. This would threaten all European nations, which explains the support of the British and French to the Sultan during the Crimean War. As Lord Stratford de Redcliffe explained to the Earl of Clarendon in 1856, the French also wanted “strong material barrier against Russia” in the Balkans.26 Another danger, were the Ottoman Empire to collapse, would be the ensuing European struggle for spheres of influence. Europe would once again descend to continuous warfare and instability, something the Concert of Europe was created to avoid. As one Foreign Office memo stated, “Whatever difference of opinion may prevail as to the practicability of restoring the Turkish Empire to a state of independent vigour, it would be difficult to find any statesman, or indeed anythinking individual, who does not see in its continued weakness the danger of agrand European struggle for its partition.”27 Henry Churchill said as early as 1858, “That the Porte is, under its present system, ruining the country, is a fact beyond doubt.”28 Another telegram from the same year stated, “The first condition on which any government can exist is that its authority be respected. To Turkey the rule is even more applicable than to civilized and European states.”29 In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, most of Emperor Francis Joseph’s civilian ministers, particularly Count Julius Andrassy understood the importance of a stable Ottoman Empire. Other than being a thorn in Russia’s underbelly, “she kep[t] the status quo of the small states and hinder[ed] their aspirations” toAustria’s advantage.30 Although there was some pressure from Austrian military circles to take Bosnia and Herzegovina at the first suitable opportunity, there was great unwillingness among the Germanic officials to take more Slavs into the Empire. It was particularly opposed by many of the Hungarian leaders as well. And just before the start of the Bulgarian Crisis, the Moscow Gazette reported:

…in view of the widespread feeling of animosity entertained by the Moslems against the Christians, and the growing proportions which the insurrection is assuming, the Eastern question remains suppressed only owing to the disinclination of Europe to deal with it…The Turkish Empire is not a sick man but a dead one…but the interests of Europe require that the rotten fabric of the Ottoman Empire should not be allowed to fall to pieces at once. The dangers of such an event would be equally great to all, and this is fully recognised by the Great Powers.31

It can therefore be concluded that the dangers of an Ottoman collapse were evident to everyone, and all Powers wished to maintain the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, however they may have wished to define or curtail the power of the Ottoman Empire politically, geographically, or socially.32 Great Power diplomacy with the Ottoman Empire, consequently, cannot be fully understood without its humanitarian component—although the Treaty of Berlin gives certain concrete gains to the Great Powers, one of the motivating factors is also the protection of Christians in the Balkan region.33

When the nationalist uprising broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1876, the Dreikaiserbund was the first to attempt mediation. The response was crafted almost entirely by Andrassy, who suggested that there be a two-month armistice followed by negotiations between the Porte and its rebellious subjects. The reforms that would result from the negotiations would be implemented under the supervision of the consuls of all the Powers inthe region. In secret articles, the Austrians and the Russians agreed that they would, in the event of an Ottoman collapse, take Bosnia and southern Bessarabia respectively. Furthermore, the Andrassy Note also contained an implied threat from Prince Gorkachov of Russia that the Powers would taken any action they deemed necessary for the maintenance of stability if the negotiations did not produce a settlement. Great Britain was not satisfied with this response of the Dreikaiserbund, and Benjamin Disraeli, then Prime Minister, complained that Great Britain was asked to be complicit in a threat to Turkey, whether they agreed with it or not.34 The British attitude led the Porte to assume that Great Britain would act with them in the eventuality of any conflict with the other Powers, and the Sultan became more inflexible with the Austrian proposal. To complicate matters further, the Herzegovinians also rejected the proposal, arguing that the Ottomans had promised to institute reforms several times earlier but had never fulfilled them. By April 1876, Bulgaria joined the insurrection against the Ottomans. Bulgarian rebels killed a large number of Turks, to which the Ottomans responded with the utter destruction of about seventy villages and the massacreof 12,000-15,000 people in the Bulgarian province.

The massacre of Christian (albeit Eastern Orthodox) Bulgarians by the Muslim Turkish army caused shock waves through Europe. In Russia, the massacres evoked waves of sympathy among the people fortheir fellow Slavs. In Great Britain, William Gladstone, of the recently ousted Liberal Party, published a pamphlet, The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, which sold over 200,000 copies in the first month alone and attacked not just the Turks for their actions, but also the Conservative government of Disraeli whose Turcophile policies had emboldened the Ottomans with their passivity. Gladstone urged the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe:

Let the Turks,” he wrote, “now carry away their abuses inthe only possible manner, namely by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs, and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and their Yuzbashis, and their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned.35

As for Lord Derby, the Conservative Foreign Secretary, he was reduced to observing that “any renewal of such outrages would prove more disastrous to the Porte than the loss of a battle,” and that any sympathy previously felt in Britain for Turkey had now been “completely destroyed by the lamentable occurrences in Bulgaria.”36

In an age when the influence of religion on politics was great, Gladstone was a profoundly religious man.37 Great Britain’s special position in Europe, Gladstone passionately argued,“derived from the husbanding of its ‘moral strength’ and by employing it in the interests of freedom, peace, and justice…Britain did not need to embark on a ‘continental’ policy of self-seeking, pride, prestige, and direct competition with other powers.”38 Furthermore, he insisted that the object of British foreign policy should be to “develop and mature the action of a common, or public, or European opinion.”39 The agitation in condemnation of the Turkish massacres was “one of the great semi-religious, semi-political” movements “which aimed in nineteenth-century Britain at bringing the force of organised moral indignation to bear on the conduct of public affairs.”40 As Richard Shannon writes, this agitation was by far the “greatest and most illuminating revelation of the moral susceptibility of the High Victorian public conscience.”41

It is difficult to declare assertively what caused the agitation. By no means were the Turkish actions unusual, or even unusually atrocious or extensive. Turkish massacres of Christians numbered approximately 50,000 in Greece (1822), 10,000 Nestorians and Armenians in Kurdistan (1850), and 12,000 Maronites and Syrians in Lebanon and Damascus(1860). However, the killing of 15,000 Christians in Bulgaria was the first such measure that caught the attraction of the British public. It may have been instigated in part by those who stood to lose most when the Sublime Porte partially repudiated its debt in 1875. It may also be possible that the silence of those who would normally support Turkey, caused by their financial losses, tipped the scales towards a critical mass for mobilisation. Nor is it unlikely that in an age of scientific racism, the insult offered to Christianity by brown Muslims was intolerable. As one Anglican clergyman declared, it was the “most nauseous of all abominations, Mohammedanism.”42 The firmly entrenched idea that Christianity implied “progress” while Islam represented degeneration and decay may have also influenced the birth of the agitation. An 1860 telegram of Lord Dalling to the Queen Consul in the Ottoman Empire insisted that they press the Sultan for extra-juridical privileges for Christians within the Islamic Empire, obtain permission for the British to establish secular schools in opposition to the Islamic madrassas, push for the appointment of a Christian Vice Governor, and strongly protest the conversion of Christians to Islam in the Porte.43 It is clear from further diplomatic documents of this time that the ideas of race and religion, and thereby morality as dictated by these systems of beliefs and thoughts, weighed heavily on the minds of British officials.

In May 1876, a ‘Berlin Memorandum’ was issued to the Turks, in essence a more strongly worded version of the Andrassy Note. Again, Disraeli rejected the proposition, and ordered a fleet to Besika Bay, which the Ottomans welcomed and construed to mean British willingness to embark on another Crimean War. As a result, in June, the Memorandum was ignominiously withdrawn. Meanwhile, in Great Britain, the press published daily accounts of the atrocities in Bulgaria. The British Foreign Office and Disraeli tried to downplay the stories, partly informed by officials assigned to the Sultan’s court, but were unable to do so as more and more evidence came to light until the facts were incontrovertible. As Mr. Lumley reported to the Earl of Derby on August 26, there was “great exaggeration of Turkish brutality by those who wished to play European powers against the Porte.”44 This was perhaps partly due to Disraeli’s own cultural affinity for the Ottoman Turks. Wrote Disraeli in a letter to a friend, “the habits of this calm and luxurious people entirely agree with my own preconceived notions of propriety and enjoyment.”45 Or perhaps, the nature of the crisis was not properly understood, as has been suggested by Sofia Sarova—Balkan nationalism, when taken into account at all, was “continued to be deprecated as a subversive force fomented by Russian intrigue.”46 There were pressures from other parts of the British Empire as well. The Viceroy of India wrote to the Marquis of Salisbury, “Important meetings have been held by Mahommedans at Bombay and Peshawur expressive of sympathy with Turkey. Bombay Mahommedans have drawn up a petition to the Queen thanking the English Government for previous feeling, and requesting Her Majesty not to desert cause of Sultan. Similar meetings are about to be held in Calcutta.”47 Not the least, the Ottomans themselves did what they could to retain Great Britain’s support. Lord Lyons reported to the Earl of Derby,

Sadig Pasha…said to me that, if pushed to the extremities by the Powers, [the Ottoman Empire’s] best course would be to beg the rest to retire and leave her alone with Russia. Some of the conditions which Russia might impose, as, for instance, the opening of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus to her ships of war, might be unpalatable to the Powers; but, as far as the Turks themselves were concerned, Sadig Pasha was confident that they would be able to make with Russia such terms as would enable them to live comfortably and peaceably.48

The government’s recalcitrance on the issue fuelled public sympathies even more.49 Although Gladstone is given the credit for the agitation in conventional historiography, Shannon argues that the “pivotal theme of the agitation is…the means whereby rising public excitement was converted from struggling inarticulateness into a sustained campaign of ‘atrocity meetings.’”50 Although Gladstone sympathised with the plight of the Christians under Turkish rule, he remained aloof until he was convinced of the moral passions that had provoked the crowd. It was not the atrocities of the Bulgarian horrors that excited him, but the mass organisation of the crowd against the Turks.51 The extent of anti-Turkish sentiment in Great Britain was so strong that Sir H. Elliot wrote to the Earl of Derby in September 1876, “…Great Britain would certainly not join in a war against Turkey, but that public feeling in England is such that Her Majesty’s Government could not go to war with any other Power in her defence.”52 Public opinion thus set up an alternative parliament of its own, indirectly controlling foreign policy with the strength of its moral outrage.

The uniqueness of this event, as I have mentioned earlier, is that this is perhaps the first time that public opinion influenced government policy so strongly. Although the British Government was willing to play a realist, Machiavellian game as usual, humanitarian concerns among its people forced Great Britain to reconsider to amend its policies. Humanitarianism can thus be brought into state politics for reasons other than relations with other states. A realist conception of humanitarianism does not allow for the public voice to be heard in government, or pretends that it does not exist. The situation in England and even Russia, although perhaps to a lesser degree, demonstrates non-traditional reasons for humanitarian policies on behalf of governments. Of course, Great Britain did not immediately give up all strategic interests in the Ottoman Empire at the first sign of public unrest. However, what in all probability might have been strong support to the Ottomans against Russia was averted by public agitation expressing humanitarian concerns. Therefore, it is difficult to dismiss British political manoeuvring during the Bulgarian Crisis as purely realpolitik.

As the crisis continued and expanded, the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires came perilously close to war themselves. Count Andrassy observed to Sir A. Buchanan that “though it is impossible for Austria-Hungary to comply with some pretensions of the Slav populations within her own borders, the Government cannot treat with indifference their sympathies with the Slavs in Turkey.”53 Austria-Hungary did not wish the expansion of the Russian sphere of influence, particularly if a large Bulgaria sought to break away from the Ottoman Empire, and conversely, the Russians wished to milk this opportunity in the name of pan-Slavism for any gains in the Balkans that would further secure their position vis-à-vis not only the Ottomans but also the Austrians. Serbia’s entry into the war against the Ottomans raised hopes in Russia and Austria of an Ottoman defeat, but this was not to be—Serbia was soundly beaten, and anti-Turkish, pan-Slav sentiment festered in Russia even more. The Russian translation of Gladstone’s Bulgarian Horrors further fuelled Russian sentiment. Despite the different aims of the Russian Court, the Russian people felt the same humanitarian concern for their fellow Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule. The failure of the Constantinople Conference in 1876-77 due to the intransigence of the Ottoman delegates worsened the situation: the Ottomans believed that Salisbury’s warning at the conference that Great Britain would not leave Turkey to her fate implied another alliance similar to that of the one during the Crimean War in 1856.54 As the situation deteriorated, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire in April 1877 and won crushing victories, forcing the Porte to come to the negotiating table.55 It has been argued that the Russian invasion of Anatolia was what effectively ended the agitation in Great Britain. Although this has been debated, the timing was certainly coincidental. It can perhaps be argued at this juncture that concerns about human welfare usually come second to one’s own national security interests. This, however, remains a limited explanation. British interest in the welfare of the Christians in the Ottoman Empire cannot be pegged as a realpolitik goal. Unlike Russia, France, or Prussia, Great Britain was neither Orthodox nor Catholic. There was no particular affinity among Britons and the Christians in the Balkans for whose welfare and rights the Crown would need to negotiate with the Porte. Furthermore, the extra-juridical status of Christians may have catalysed the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, something the British did not wish to see. However, in the Treaty of Berlin, one of the clauses clearly forces the Sultan to guarantee the rights of his Christian subjects. Therefore, although Great Britain pursued its national interests, when possible, it also attempted to enforce humanitarian law.

The Treaty of San Stefano, imposed by the victorious Russians on their defeated foes, the Ottomans, was very harsh. The preliminary terms of the armistice were for the most part dictated by the Russian High command which had taken control of the negotiations: a large Bulgarian state was to be established, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro were to be given their independence and additional territory, and Bosnia and Herzegovina were to have autonomy. The Ottoman Empire was also to cede parts of Armenia and Dobruja to the Russians. Furthermore, the Ottomans were obliged to pay a war indemnity and give Russia guarantees as regards to its use of the Dardanelles. Alarmed by this sudden turn of events in the Balkans, Great Britain and Austria made strong protestations to the Tsar’s court.56 Even while the negotiations were going on between the Russians and the Ottomans, “the Russians were left in no doubt regarding the attitude of the Austrians and the British. Derby instructed the British Ambassador to St. Petersburg, Lord Loftus, to appear before Gorchakov and remind him of the framework of the Treaties of Paris (1856) that maintained the European balance of power.”57 Furthermore, Emperor Francis Joseph wrote a private letter to the Tsar voicing Austria’s sternest objections to San Stefano. The Concert of Europe was brought into the dispute, and in 1878, the Great Powers met in Berlin to revise the Treaty of San Stefano. Andrassy restated the Austrian position that they “desired the maintenance of the integrity of the Turkish Empire, with such administrative reforms in the European Provinces as would remove the grievances of which the Christian population have hitherto had to complain…could not permit, with a view to the interests of Austria-Hungary, that Bosnia should be united with Servia, or the Herzegovina to Montenegro.”58 The Treaty of Berlin can be considered a great success for Great Britain and Austria. They were able to check the expansion of Russian power in the Balkans, and the creation of a larger Slavic state that would inevitably be a Russian satellite was also prevented. To please the Russians, the Asian annexations of Ottoman territory under the Treaty of San Stefano remained for the most part unaltered. Meanwhile, in a separate treaty, Great Britain forced the Ottomans to cede Cyprus to them.


As news of the atrocities in Bulgaria reachedEngland and caused a moral agitation, Gladstone remarked that “it was far from unlikely that the people of England would have the ability to obtain their demands.”59 However, as it turned out, Goldwin Smith, a Radical historian of Gladstone’s era, “No ‘philanthropic or religious’ movement could have shaken seriously a government so strong as the Conservative government of 1876.”60 The agitation, however, did force some diversion of British Eastern policy, until it was destroyed by the Russian invasion of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent Russian massacres of the Muslims. It also became the source for Gladstone’s attacks on the government in his 1880 Midlothan campaign for the Prime Minister’s chair. It has been argued that Gladstone was not the initiator of the agitations, nor was he the leader, that he was merely the most senior member in rank of the agitation. It is not my purpose here to debate that issue. Instead, I highlight Gladstone’s claim during the agitation that “realpolitik should give way to a moral crusade and that the higher interests of humanity should prevail over the ‘permanent and important interests of England.’”61 In a lesser known pamphlet of his, Lessons in Massacre, published in March 1877, Gladstone attacked British policy in the name of “human nature, the conscience of mankind, and the civilisation of the nineteenth century” that allowed the Ottomans to escape without being punished for their actions in the Balkans.62 Even upon hearing the news of the Russian invasion of Anatolia, Gladstone’s greatest hope was that “Russia would yield gracefully on such issues in a forum of the European concert of powers.”63

Also compelling evidence of humanitarian concerns is the mention of “morality” and “right” in the communiqués to and from London. For example, Lord Odo Russell telegrammed to Lord Derby in the early days of the crisis that the Great Powers had a “moral right” to watch over the accomplishments of previous promises made by the Porte, and that these new problems in the Balkans are a result of not following up on that obligation.64 Furthermore, European powers had entered into various negotiations and treaties with the Ottoman Empire since the fourteenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they had broached the topic of the rights and welfare of Christians in the Sublime Porte. Each time, the Sultan had promised reforms, but not much was actually implemented. European powers, however, pursued this end consistently, and by the late nineteenth century, demanded guarantees that reforms will be carried out. What is telling about this is that it might have been easier for Europe to use this issue as a bargaining chip, but instead, they remained committed to the rights of Ottoman Christians. René Albrecht Carrié comments that “while defending Ottoman integrity Britain was also upholding the balance of power.”65 Although this is true in a narrower sense, British actions must be put in context—British strategic interests were coupled with the welfare of Ottoman Christians. Similarly in Russia, as Barbara Jelavich points out, “when Russian influence was paramount at the Porte, the Russian government stood for the maintenance of the empire.”66

Thus, it should be evident that humanitarianism is almost always coupled with self-interest. Admittedly, that makes it difficult to clarify the motives of a state, but it is naïve to expect the two to be separate. This assertion is not contradictory as it may sound at first—the South Asian Crisis of 1971, when Pakistani troops were massacring Pakistani civilians in the east of the country (today Bangladesh), the Indian intervention was seen by the international community (except the United States and the People’s Republic of China) as largely humanitarian. It can also be argued, however, that it was in India’s interests to split Pakistan into two different regions, ameliorating a strategic weakness of the Indian military. Nonetheless, the action was largely seen as humanitarian, including by many legal scholars.67 As Ravi Mahalingam writes,

state legitimacy cannot be assumed…but is conditioned on the sovereign’s ability to provide collectively for the purposesand aspirations of individuals…states…must form an effective social contract with the myriad of social interests, then defend and protect it. The ‘moral standing’ of any State depends on how well it accomplishes this.68

As Mahalingam further points out, “the principle of humanitarian intervention posits that human beings, not states, should be the true subjects of international law; state supremacy in international law can only be justified to the extent that States represent their populations.”69

Legal scholars today have a few guidelines, the absolute prerequisites, by which they assuage if an intervention is humanitarian or an invasion. One criterion states that “an intervening state may intervene only when the abuse is extreme. The more widespread the abuse, the easier it is to document and confirm its existence. The lives or well-being of a large number of people must be threatened before a state can justifiably use unilateral military force.”70 A second criterion concerns caveats that assure the legitimacy of an intervention. These caveats include a preference for “multilateralism, a minimum use of force commensurate with preventing abuses, a relative disinterestedness of the intervener in the affairs of the target state, and an exhaustion of peaceful measures to prevent the abuses.”71 It is abundantly evident that both these criteria were met by the Concert of Europe, particularly Great Britain. Thousands of Christians were killed, followed by an even larger number of Muslims in the Bulgarian Crisis. Great Britain used no military force in the conflict, and attempted to find multilateral solutions through the Concert of Europe, but sometimes through individual diplomacy. There remains the question of disinterestedness. However, with increasing globalisation over the last two hundred years, it is unrealistic to expect that the affairs of one nation does not interest another at all, especially within the confines of one region. Thus, if humanitarianism is understoodas a purely altruistic action, it is unlikely that there is any such example. Yet if humanitarianism is understood in more reasonable terms, such as those stated above, British involvement in the Bulgarian Crisis can be said to have a strong element of humanitarian interest in it.

1: Sean D. Murphy, Humanitarian Intervention: The UN in an Evolving World Order (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 9.

2: Ibid., 15.

3: Ibid., 16.

4: This proposition, obviously, rests heavily on the national model of international relations, i.e., the nation as the supreme arbiter at the international level, and therefore inherent in this proposition is any shortcoming of the national model.

5: Murphy, 17.

6; Burns Weston, Human Rights, in Human Rights in the World Community: Issues and Action, 17 (R. Claude & B. Weston eds., 2nd edition, 1992)

7: Murphy, 27.

8: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 19.

9: Aristotle, The Politics, translated by T. Sinclair (London: Penguin, 1992), 397-398.

10: Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, translated by Sarah Brodie and Chrisptopher Rowe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 165-171.

11: Murphy, 43.

12: Ibid.

13: Other intellectual traditions were realism, pacifism, absolutism, militarism, and the older idea of religious just wars.

14: Benjamin, Barry. “Unilateral Humanitarian Intervention: Legalizing the Use of Force to Prevent Human Rights AtrocitiesFordham International Law Journal, 1992/1993.

15: William Gladstone argued, “by far of all the elements in this question—namely, the principle of the common concert of Europe…the real question…is not whether the supremacy of the Porte can be established in its ancient form…but whether its political supremacy in some improved form can be—as I hope it maybe—still maintained…What is this concert to be for? I say, without the least hesitation, it must be for measures conceived in the spirit andadvancing in the direction of self-government.” See H.C.G. Matthew, The Gladstone Diaries, Vol. IX (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 144.

16: Alec Macfie, The Eastern Question, 1774-1923 (London: Longman, 1996), 34.

17: Murphy, 51.

18: Mike Davisexplains how British agricultural policies in India, particularly after 1857, destroyed existing local safeguards against famine. Even worse, India exported wheat to Great Britain until the very end, leaving no emergency supplies for indigenous people. Furthermore, the refusal of the British to allow any aid to enter India (even free grain offered by the United States) marks a dark chapter in the history of imperialism. Total famine deaths during the Raj numbered around 59 million in 40 famines over 177 years; the previous 770 years had only 18 famines by comparison. See Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001).

19: British Documentson Foreign Affairs (henceforth BDFA), Part I, Series B, Volume 1, Document 9.

20: The beginning of the modern understanding of humanitarian law begins with the Declaration of 1856 that committed nations to respecting international maritime law. Closely following this treaty were other accords that dealt with the treatment of wounded personnel in battle, permissible projectiles in warfare, and other such laws and customs of war. See International Committee of the Red Cross. 2000. Treaties & Documents [online]. Available from http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/; internet; accessed March 25, 2012.

21 BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 1, Document 9: Memo on Turkish Reform, by J. Brant, June30, 1856.

22: Ibid.

23: BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 1, Document 10.

24: Matthew, 156.

25: Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997), 6.

26: BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 1, Document 8.

27: BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 1, Document 11.

28: BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 1. Document 12.

29: Ibid., Document 23.

30: Mihailo D.Stojanović, The Great Powers and the Balkans, 1875-1878 (Cambridge:The University Press, 1939), 30-31.

31 BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 2, Document 276.

32 The weakening of the Ottoman Empire had been evident for some time. The Muslim armies werenever able to demonstrate their power after their defeat in the siege of Vienna in 1683. The defeats of 1768 and 1774 at the hands of Russia’s Catherine the Great and the Treaty of Kutchuk Kainardji brought home to the European rulers how vulnerable the Islamic empire was. Whatever internal or external factors contributed to the decay of Ottoman power, the Europeans had to shore up the Sultan on multiple occasions. For example, in 1839, Mehmet Ali of Egypt moved against the Ottoman Sultan, and the rebellion was put down with the assistance of the British military.

33: At a lecture given at the Congregational Church in Lee, Mr. Owen Davis said, “Unfortunately for the peace of mankind, it has happened that the Turk is placed in a position where it is impossible to ignore him, and almost equally impossible to endure him; while by his origin, habits, and religion, he is an Asiatic of Asiatics, he is by irony of fate established in a position where his presence is a ceaseless cause of misery…to millions of Christian people.” See Selim Deringil, The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876-1909 (London: I.B. Taurus, 1998), 2.

34: M.S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774-1923: A Study in International Relations (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1966), 183.

35: Macfie, 38.

36: Ibid.

37: Shannon, Richard. Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation, 1876 (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1963), xviii.

38: Ibid., 6.

39: Ibid., 8.

40: Ibid., xi.

41: Ibid., v.

42: Ibid., 33.

43: BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 2, Document 2.

44: Ibid., Document 442.

45: Benjamin Disraeli, Letters: 1815 – 1834 ed. J.A.W. Gunn, John Matthews, Donald Schurman, and M.G. Weibe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 174.

46: Shannon, 18. As a result of this lack of understanding, Balkan nationalism remained a joke for Great Britain’s ruling class. Shannon writes, “Well expressive of the spirit of British Eastern policy was the notoriety enjoyed by Lord Dalling as having recommended to the Turks the expediency of planting among the Bulgarians a horde of semi-barbaric, nomadic Circassians, fleeing from Russian rule, to provide a permanent source of intimidation.” Ibid. Also see, Sofia Krumka Sarova, “The Bulgarian Question in the Foreign Policy of Great Britain and Russia, 1856 – 1876Der Berliner Kongress von 1878: Die Politik der Grossmächte und die Probleme der Modernisierung in Südosteuropain der zweiten hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, Gmbh, 1982), 117, 122.

47: BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 3, Document 107.

48: Ibid., Document135. Needless to say, given Great Britain’s superior role in the power dynamic between the Ottoman Empire and itself, Lord Lyons “hinted to Sadig Pasha that by identifying themselves in this way with Russia, the Turks would destroy one of the principal reasons for which their presence in Europe was tolerated by the other Powers.”

49: Disraeli commented that although the numbers that had perished were great indeed, it was hardly any justification to change the policy of the British Empire, enshrined in the Treaty of Paris and the Tripartite Treaty of Guarantee.

50: Shannon, 49.

51: Ibid., 92.

52: BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 3, Document 55.

53: BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 2, Document 422.

54:Chamberlain, Muriel Evelyn. Pax Britannica?: British Foreign Policy, 1789-1914 (London: Longman, 1988), 139.

55: The Russians concluded the secret Reichstadt Agreement with the Austrians before declaring war on the Ottoman Empire. According to this agreement, Russia was to get southern Bessarabia, Batum, and other territories on its Asian border with the Ottoman Empire. In return, Austria would get Bosnia and Herzegovina. Anderson, 186.

56: Great Britain suspected Russian motives and aims in the Balkans. This suspicion extended to even Queen Victoria. According to British diplomatic correspondence, the British thought of the Russians as barbarians too. Particularly when news of Russian massacres of Turkish Muslims reached the European capitals, Europe was appalled. Of the 1.5 million Muslims in pre-war Bulgaria, less than 700,000 remained after the war. Over 216,000 were murdered or died of starvation or disease as they attempted to flee from the advancing Russian troops. See BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 3, Documents 70 – 129. Also see, Justin McCarthy, The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History until 1923 (London: Longman,1997), 341. Also see, Queen Victoria, Letters from Queen Victoria, from the Archives of the House of Brandenburg-Prussia; translated by Mrs. J. Pudney and Lord Sudley; edited by Hector Bolitho (New Haven: Yale University Press), 214 – 223.

57: Macfie, 42. Disraeli, in a move known to the Queen but not the Cabinet, had also informed Tsar Alexander II that the Cabinet was united in support of British military intervention if Russian forces kept sweeping towards Constantinople. See Ian Machin, Disraeli (London: Longman, 1995), 144.

58: BDFA, Part I, Series B, Volume 2, Document 419.

59: Shannon, 264.

60: Ibid.

61: Robert Blake, Disraeli (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1967), 605.

62: Richard Shannon, “Gladstone and British Balkan PolicyDer Berliner Kongress von 1878: Die Politik der Grossmächte und die Probleme der Modernisierung in Südosteuropa in der zweiten hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, Gmbh, 1982), 164.

63: Ibid., 165.

64: René Albrecht-Carrié, The Concert of Europe (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968), 261.

65: Ibid., 280.

66: Barbara Jelavich, A Century of Russian Foreign Policy, 1814-1914, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1964), 58.

67: Ravi Mahalingam, “The Compatibility of the Principle of Non-intervention with the Right of Humanitarian InterventionUCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs, Spring, 1996.

68: Ibid.

69: Ibid.

70: Benjamin, Barry. “UnilateralHumanitarian Intervention: Legalizing the Use of Force to Prevent Human Rights AtrocitiesFordham International Law Journal, 1992/1993.

71: Ibid.