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To What Extent Was The Crimean War A Series Of Accidents? and Misunderstandings?

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     To What Extent Was The Crimean War A Series Of Accidents                                 and Misunderstandings?                                        

       M.S Anderson acknowledged that the Crimean War “Was the outcome of a series of misjudgements, misunderstandings and blunders of stupidity, pride and obstinacy rather than of ill will”[1]. This interpretation alone can cover the origins of the Crimean War; however it challenges further arguments such that the war occurred due to certain groups and individuals essentially aiming to attain their own objectives. On the other hand, Andrew Lambert put forward “that the very term ‘Crimean War’ has no historical reality. The war did not begin or end in the Crimea”[2]. This view totally undermines many historians’ views as Lambert recognized the Crimea to be a campaign alongside a host of others in a battle against Russia. Nevertheless we are left with the possibilities of whether the war was an accident or whether it was deliberately intended, raising the possibility that a certain country or more may be responsible.

     The Ottoman Empire itself, by the mid-19th century, was in a terrible state. With many different nationalities and such a vast empire to control, an effective government was needed. The Ottoman Empire however, was finding it hard to survive, and the Sultans, although enabling some reforms to take place in modernizing certain regions, were finding it tough to control the already weakened empire. This resulted in a wave of interest of the Great Powers who all seemed to be keen in taking advantage of it, and out of these, Russia, would be seen as the most probable in directly getting involved in the fate of the Ottoman Empire. Its late 18th century territorial gains and in particular the 1774 Treaty of Kutchuk-Kainardji, provided Russia with warm-water ports and access through the Straits allowing admission into the Mediterranean. This treaty was of great importance to Russia, as most of its ports were ice-bound for much of the year, yet it sparked the involvement of Britain within the Ottoman Empire, who before this event, had little to suggest that they would take any part in it. Nonetheless, Britain felt economically threatened with its position in India and the damage that might inflict, from this treaty, on its growing trade and investments in Turkey. Interests of the great powers were consequently developing, especially as countries were beginning to see the opportunities Russia had with regards to Turkey. Firstly, at the expense of Turkey it would be able to gain further territory, secondly it involved Russia’s fellow Slavs in the Balkans, whereby supporting their efforts would throw off Turkish rule. The last option however seemed the most preferable for the Russians, which involved preserving a weak Ottoman Empire. As a result, one country whose interest grew was Austria, who certainly did not share Russia’s efforts to support fellow Slavs, for fear it may affect Austria’s own population of Slavs. Furthermore, the Austrians sought to maintain the Ottoman Empire, as they regarded it as a useful defence against Russian expansion. To play down the perception of Russia being seen as a threatening force, the Tsar in 1844 “protested to Prince Albert that ‘He did not want an inch of Turkish territory’. Palmerston thought this a ‘great humbug… one is denying the teaching of history if one believes that Russia is not thinking of extending to the south’”.[3] It is quite clear that certain individuals were suspicious of Russia, yet can that be said for the whole of Britain whose opinion can be examined as rather diverse of either anti-Russian or anti-Turkish feeling? This was probably due to Lord Aberdeen’s coalition government that was sharply divided between the anti-Turkish Aberdeen and the anti-Russian Palmerston. Therefore it is fair to argue that British policy towards Turkey and Russia was subsequently liable to alter. Alan Farmer differed on this however, as he analysed British public opinion to regard Russia “As a dangerous reactionary force whose supposed expansionist designs had to be resisted at all costs”. Farmer blamed this national feeling on the press “Which gave full expression to the violent Russophobia that characterised public opinion after 1848-9”[4]. This view can subsequently suggest why Aberdeen’s government later left the anti- Turkish policy in favour of an anti-Russian one.

      The situation in 1840-50 proved to be a period of fluctuating relationships between the main powers. Britain and Russia for example, were understood to be “On reasonably good terms”[5] and in 1844 both agreed to participate together in the ‘Near East’ to maintain peace, where not so long ago, Britain was highly intimidated by Russia’s motives. Their relationships with France on the other hand, showed a different story, as both countries observed France with great awareness and suspicion; especially with the Presidency of Louis Napoleon in 1848 where, for obvious reasons, the name ‘Napoleon’ associated itself with glory, and Louis Napoleon did not seem to hide his intention of achieving this in his foreign affairs. This new threat of Bonapartism was taken very seriously by the British and Russians and so the likelihood of a possible French attack on either country was not to be fooled around with. Consequently Britain increased its military spending and looked to cooperate with the Eastern powers all the more. However, it seemed that Britain and Russia over estimated the danger France held, for Napoleon III “Was much more interested in international prestige and international standing than he was in territorial expansion....and he genuinely wished to avoid war if possible”[6]. One can counter this observation however, in that to gain this international prestige the threat of war would have to be an option, additionally by wanting to preserve the ‘glory’ that was expected of him, war was very much a mean of obtaining it. A rise in international tension was therefore heightening, yet if suspicions were only played down, an increase in military spending would have more than likely been reduced. This therefore allows us to make a judgement that suggests that due to the overestimated suspicions of the three main powers, they were more than confident to go to war if need be. The situation before 1850 thus reveal the long term issues that led up to the Crimean War, and allows us to conclude that interests from Russia on the Ottoman Empire were highly noticed from the great powers of Europe. Countries of whom this affected obviously intervened, yet although France was concerning Russia and Britain in its determination for glory; it was unclear if France had any intentions or interests within the Ottoman Empire before 1850. Russia can be seen as the aggressor at this stage, therefore blame may be placed on to them which undermines that the Crimean War was an accident. However, the incidents after 1850 may prove otherwise, with France intervening on a much wider scale, the blame, if any, could well be shifted.

    The Crimean War was Napoleon III’s first major international dispute, and his inexperience showed, for, “Throughout the affair, he was reacting to events rather than initiating them himself”[7]; this strategy of playing it safe with the hope of gaining prestige therefore backfired on him. Although France showed a certain interest with the Ottoman Empire, the holy places dispute was the catalyst for France becoming directly involved. Additionally, this dispute has been examined as “The immediate cause of the Crimean War”[8] by certain historians such as Gerhard Rempel, who would agree that The Crimean War was not an accident. Other historians agree with this, yet go further by saying Louis Napoleon was the cause of the Holy Places dispute, whereby “In 1850, the recently elected President of France, demanded a reassertion and enforcements of rights previously granted by the Ottomans to Latin Christians in the Capitulations of 1740, he sparked off a conflict that was to lead eventually to a war with Russia”[9]. We are therefore left with the possibility of an individual left responsible for The Crimean War. However is it fair to put the blame on a man who detests the prospect of war, and attempts to find diplomatic solutions above anything else? By studying the dispute, French Catholic monks in 1740 had been given the right to take care of the Holy Places in Palestine, nevertheless Greek Orthodox monks, with Russian support, began taking control over them in the early nineteenth century. In retaliation the French demanded Turkey to accept France as the protector of Catholics within the Turkish Empire and to reinstate the full rights of the Catholic monks. This was likely to win approval for Napoleon III in France, who had no wish to provoke war with Russia, but simply wanted to gain prestige. Contrary to Napoleon’s aims however he did not seem to take into account how matters could be resolved without there being an unacceptable loss by anyone. In the end it was virtually impossible for France or Russia to compromise without appearing to be defeated. The Sultan finally accepted the French proposals in 1852 much to the outrage of the Tsar, who consequently wanted to win his own prestige back by attempting to make the Sultan alter his decision. The Holy Places dispute can therefore be perceived to have sparked the tensions and the rise of two sides, yet to argue it was the cause for the Crimean war can be disputed. As John Sweetman puts forward “The Holy Places were the occasion, not the cause, of The Crimean War. Underlying tensions of long-standing origin were fundamentally responsible”. Suggesting it was the situations and relations countries had with one another before the war, that were the main causes.

       Tsar Nicholas at this stage, also appeared to misread the international situation. For he felt confident he had the support of Austria and Britain, however Austria conversely, being a Catholic nation, approved the outcome of the Holy Places dispute. Britain’s relations with Russia on the other hand, were rather divided at this stage. Although the anti-Turkish Lord Aberdeen became head of a coalition government in December 1852, he and certain others hoped to maintain good relation with Russia, yet people such as Palmerston completely distrusted Tsar Nicholas, believing he aimed to destroy the Ottoman Empire. Such suspicions of the Tsar intensified in 1853 with a move which considerably extended the scale and importance of the conflict; he claimed the right, supposedly granted in the treaty of Kutchuk Kainardji, to protect not only the Orthodox religion but also the Sultan’s twelve million Orthodox subjects. “Such a right, if conceded, would reduce Turkey to the status of a Russian protectorate.”[10]With this in the minds of other great powers, Russia has unknowingly intensified the situation substantially. Nonetheless in order to achieve these demands as well as retrieving the keys to the Holy Places, a special mission was despatched, led by Count Menshikov, to Constantinople. Menshikov’s manner however, with dealing with the Turks, was not of a negotiate type but more of an attempt to dictate to the Turkish government. This diplomatic pressure by the Russians on the Turks raised many queries in Britain, which Nicholas however, did not notice. More and more of the British government began to back the support of Turkey, and even Aberdeen was seen to be getting concerned, especially if Russia won control over Constantinople which would allow Russian warships to come and go as they pleased through the Straits. In the event of all this, the Sultan seems to appear an innocent victim of the controversy, however Keith Randell would have to contest: “it can be notified that Napoleon was manipulated by the Sultan who had seen a way of ridding Turkey of the Russian threat which can be said to have been hanging over them for 25 years”[11]. Turkey kept on rejecting the demands of Russia, with each demand becoming more modest, which finally infuriated the Tsar who broke off diplomatic relations with Turkey. Aberdeen, influenced greatly by Palmerston, Russell and the British press, sent a naval fleet to Turkey as a gesture of support. France followed suit, and by opposing Russia, Britain and France surprisingly found themselves as allies.

       The outbreak of war at this stage was a distinct possibility, and apparently unimpressed by the British-French action Nicholas chose to increase pressure on Turkey rather then back off to the pressure he himself was faced with from Britain and France, and save humiliation. Mistakenly again, he was confident in Prussian and Austrian support and therefore to make the Turks concede to the demands which Menshikov had made, Russian troops, sent by Nicholas, occupied the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Austria and Britain particularly, were alarmed at this move, firstly due to the control Russia had over the mouth of the Danube and secondly the fear that Russia had laid the foundations down in order to sought the complete domination of the Ottoman Empire. It was Austria however who attempted to defuse the crisis by organising a conference held in Vienna. Yet only Austrian, Prussian, British and French diplomats attended leaving the Sultan and the Tsar unrepresented. They aimed to satisfy the Tsar’s honour while safeguarding Turkey’s integrity and the decision reached was that the sultan should make a few concessions to the Tsar whilst in return Russia would leave the Principalities. The responsibility had seemed to have shifted entirely onto the Sultan as Nicholas, now aware that help from Austria and Prussia was unlikely, accepted the proposals. It can be argued therefore that the Sultan could have resolved the entire situation into a peaceful and sensible solution, yet it was not to be with the sultan insisting on a number of amendments to the note. Here, we can note again, that although the Turks may appear to be the ill-fated victims of great power politics, they were by no means innocent of hostile intentions as Alan Farmer would agree: “Western support in the mounting crisis presented them (the Turks) with a unique opportunity to take revenge on their traditional enemy Russia”[12]. A new country has consequently arisen in being perceived as a possible culprit for why The Crimean War occurred. For Turkey, it seemed the perfect time to rid them of a country who had persistently been causing problems for the Ottoman Empire. These amendments however, were of course rejected by the Tsar and attempts to find a diplomatic resolution to the dispute had suffered a major setback. As a result, the Tsar, knowing that war was a possible likelihood, pursued his on-going task of establishing allies. Meetings were consequently organised by the Tsar with the Prussian King Frederick William IV and the Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph in an effort to win support. The outcome however was not what Nicholas had hoped for with the countries only willing to remain neutral if war was to brake out. Additionally these meetings seemed to worsen matters on the whole, especially for the Tsar, as Britain and France knew of these meetings that took place but not on what was decided, and fearing the worse; that the three rulers had hatched a plot to divide the Turkish Empire, the British and French governments sent its fleets to Constantinople. This event can strongly heighten the tension and mistrust surrounding the countries into an outbreak of war and strengthens the fact the Crimean War was a result of a series of accidents.

     Russia’s occupation of the Principalities created vast Turkish nationalist resentment, placing huge pressure on the Sultan to act. Consequently in late October, Turkey declared war on Russia making the country itself seem the aggressor, yet is that a fair assessment? For Russia can be argued to have antagonised Turkish troops into crossing the Danube and launching an attack. The Russian response however, saw them sink part of a Turkish fleet causing the death of 4,000 Turks, creating a storm of protest especially within Britain and France, generating pressure for both governments to intervene on a larger scale. Aberdeen however was still resilient of the prospect of war and Palmerston’s view on silencing the Russian arrogance once and for all was increasingly supported intensifying the pressure which Aberdeen was faced with. Napoleon first stepped up and responded, by ordering a French fleet into the Black Sea, the British soon followed suit, and both countries declared that their fleets’ job was to protect Turkish shipping. Efforts to avoid war soon became hopeless when the Tsar rejected a proposal for a six-power peace conference. Nicholas instead pursued his efforts in gaining the two German powers to offer their armed neutrality, he sent Prince Orlov on this mission to Vienna and Berlin, but both refused. The final stages before the war broke out saw Britain and France sending Nicholas an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from the principalities. With no surprise however, the ultimatum was ignored, and on 28th March 1854, Britain and France declared war on Russia.

      To conclude, the series of accidents and misunderstandings can only contribute slightly to the causes of The Crimean War. Indeed Britain and France’s misinterpretation of the meeting between the Holy Alliance members and the Tsar’s numerous blunders are crucial factors in the build up to war. However the causes of the war seem to not rest on an individual country or event but on a number of these categories. Each country, to a certain degree, played a part in causing the Crimean War to happen. For Russia could be examined as the main aggressor, however had Austria come out openly about where it stood with Russia, at an earlier date, the Tsar would have realised to tread more warily. France’s capability lay in raising the issue of the holy places and the view that Napoleon III was only aiming to raise France’s stature in Europe. With Britain, British public opinion seemed to work in pressurising the government to take a firm stance against Russia. Whilst lastly Turkey, the so-called victim of The Crimean War, where the Sultan can be argued to have sabotaged the best hope of a peaceful solution by rejecting the Vienna note, as taking vengeance on a country which has caused numerous problems for Turkey, was a better option.

Bibliography:

 A.L Macfie, The Eastern Question 1774-1923, Longman, 1996

 Alan Farmer, Nineteenth- Century European History 1815-1914, Hodder and Stoughton, 2001  

Keith Randell, France 1814-70 Monarchy Republic and Empire, Hodder and Stoughton, 1991

Eric Wilmot, The Great Powers 1814-1914, Nelson, 1992

http://mars.acnet.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/russia/lectures/19crimeanwar.html

(Gerhard Rempel)

Andrina Stiles and Alan Farmer, The Unification of Germany 1815-90, Hodder and Stoughton, 2001

John Sweetman, The Crimean War, Osprey                      

                                                                                      2,988 words


[1] M.S. Anderson, interpretation of the Crimean War, quoted in Alan Farmers, Nineteenth Century European History, p. 94

[2] Andrew Lambert, interpretation of the Crimean War, ibid, p. 94

[3] John Sweetman, The Crimean War, p. 17

[4] opcit Alan Farmer, p101

[5] John Sweetman, opcit, p18

[6] Keith Randell, France 1814-70 Monarchy Republic & Empire, p. 105

[7] Ibid p. 108

[8] Gerhard Rempel, http://mars.acnet.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/russia/lectures/19crimeanwar.html

[9] A.L. Macfie, The Eastern Question 1774-1923, p. 27

[10] opcit, Alan Farmer, p. 98

[11] opcit, Keith Randell, p108

[12] opcit,  Alan Farmer, p103

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