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The Turkish Question[23]

Frederick Engels

It is only of late that people in the West of Europe and in America have been enabled to form anything like a correct judgment of Turkish affairs. Up to the Greek insurrection[24] Turkey was, to all intents and purposes a terra incognita, and the common notions floating about among the public were based more upon the Arabian Nights' Entertainments than upon any historical facts. Official diplomatic functionaries having been on the spot, boasted a more accurate knowledge, but this, too, amounted to nothing, as none of these officials ever troubled himself to learn Turkish, South Slavonian, or modern Greek, and they were one and all dependent upon the interested accounts of Greek interpreters and Frank[a] merchants. Besides, intrigues of every sort were always on hand to occupy the time of these lounging diplomatists, among whom Joseph von Hammer, the German historian of Turkey[b], forms the only honorable exception. The business of these gentlemen was not with the people, the institutions, the social state of the country; it was exclusively with the Court, and especially with the Fanariote Greeks[25], wily mediators between two parties either of which was equally ignorant of the real condition, power and resources of the other. The traditional notions and opinions, founded upon such paltry information, formed for a long while, and strange to say, form to a great extent even now, the ground-work for all the action of Western diplomacy with regard to Turkey.

But while England, France, and for a long time even Austria, were groping in the dark for a defined Eastern policy, another power outwitted them all. Russia herself semi-Asiatic in her condition, manners, traditions and institutions, found men enough who could comprehend the real state and character of Turkey. Her religion was - the same as that of nine-tenths of the inhabitants of Turkey in Europe; her language almost identical with that of seven millions of Turkish subjects; and the well-known facility with which a Russian learns to converse in, if not fully to appropriate a foreign tongue, made it an easy matter for her agents, well paid for the task, to acquaint themselves completely with Turkish affairs. Thus at a very early period the Russian Government availed itself of its exceedingly favorable position in the South-east of Europe. Hundreds of Russian agents perambulated Turkey, pointing out to the Greek Christians, the Orthodox Emperor as the head, the natural protector, and the ultimate liberator of the oppressed Eastern Church, and to the South Slavonians especially, pointing out that same Emperor as the almighty Czar who was sooner or later to unite all the branches of the great Slavic race under one sceptre, and to make them the ruling race of Europe. The clergy of the Greek Church very soon formed themselves into a vast conspiracy for the spread of these ideas. The Servian insurrection of 1804[26], the Greek rising in 1821 were more or less directly urged on by Russian gold and Russian influence; and wherever among the Turkish pashas the standard of revolt was raised against the Central Government, Russian intrigues and Russian funds were never wanting; and when thus, internal Turkish questions had entirely perplexed the understanding of Western diplomatists who knew no more about the real subject than about the man in the moon, then war was declared, Russian armies marched toward the Balkan, and portion by portion the Ottoman Empire was dismembered.

It is true that during the last thirty years much has been done toward general enlightenment concerning the state of Turkey. German philologists and critics have made us acquainted with the history and literature, English residents and English trade have collected a great deal of information as to the social condition of the Empire. But the diplomatic wiseacres seem to scorn all this, and to cling as obstinately as possible to the traditions engendered by the study of Eastern fairy-tales, improved upon by the no less wonderful accounts given by the most corrupt set of Greek mercenaries that ever existed.

And what has been the natural result? That in all essential points Russia has steadily, one after another, gained her ends, thanks to the ignorance, dullness, and consequent inconsistency and cowardice of Western governments. From the battle of Navarino[27] to the present Eastern crisis, the action of the Western powers has either been annihilated by squabbles among them-selves, mostly arising from their common ignorance of Eastern matters, and from petty jealousies which must have been entirely incomprehensible to any Eastern understanding or that action has been in. the direct interest of Russia alone. And not only do the Greeks, both of Greece and Turkey, and the Slavonians, look to Russia as their natural protector; nay, even the Government at Constantinople, despairing, time after time, to make its actual wants and real position understood by these Western ambassadors, who pride themselves upon their own utter incompetency to judge by their own eyes of Turkish matters, the very Turkish Government has in every instance been obliged to throw itself upon the mercy of Russia, and to seek protection from that power which openly avows its firm intention to drive every Turk across the Bosphorus and plant the cross of St. Andrew upon the minarets of the Aya-Sofiyah.

In spite of diplomatic tradition, these constant and successful encroachments of Russia have at last roused in the Western Cabinets in Europe a very dim and distant apprehension of the approaching danger. This apprehension has resulted in the great diplomatic nostrum, that the maintenance of the status quo in Turkey is a necessary condition of the peace of the world. The magniloquent incapacity of certain modern statesmen could not have confessed its ignorance and helplessness more plainly than in this axiom which, from having always remained a dead letter, has, (luring the short period of twenty years, been hallowed by tradition, and become as hoary and indisputable as King John's Magna Charta[28]. Maintain the status quo! Why, it was precisely to maintain the status quo that Russia stirred up Servia to revolt, made Greece independent, appropriated to herself the protectorate of Moldavia and Wallachia, and retained part of Armenia! England and France never stirred an inch when all this was done, and the only time they did move was to protect, in 1849, not Turkey, but the Hungarian refugees[29]. In the eyes of European diplomacy, and even of the European press, the whole Eastern question resolves itself into this dilemma, either the Russians at Constantinople, or the maintenance of the status quo anything beside this alternative never enters their thoughts.

Look at the London press for illustration. We find The Times advocating the dismemberment of Turkey, and proclaiming the unfitness of the Turkish race to govern any longer in that beautiful corner of Europe. Skilful as usual, The Times boldly attacks the old diplomatic tradition of the status quo, and declares its continuance impossible. The whole of the talent at the disposal of that paper is exerted to show this impossibility under different aspects, and to enlist British sympathies for a new crusade against the remnant of the Saracens. The merit of such an unscrupulous attack upon a time-hallowed and unmeaning phrase which, two months ago, was as yet sacred to The Times, is undeniable. But whoever knows that paper, knows also that this unwonted boldness is applied directly in the interest of Russia and Austria. The correct premises put forth in its columns as to the utter impossibility of maintaining Turkey in its present state, serve no other purpose than to prepare the British public and the world for the moment when the principal paragraph of the will of Peter the Great[30], the conquest of the Bosphorus, will have become an accomplished fact.

The opposite opinion is represented by The Daily News, the organ of the Liberals. The Times at least seizes a new and correct feature of the question, in order afterwards to pervert it to an interested purpose. In the columns of the Liberal journal, on the other hand, reigns the plainest sense, but merely a sort of household sense. Indeed, it does not see farther than the very threshold of its own house. It clearly perceives that a dismemberment of Turkey under present circumstances must bring the Russians to Constantinople, and that this would be a great misfortune for England; that it would threaten the peace of the world, ruin the Black Sea trade, and necessitate new armaments in the British stations and fleets of the Mediterranean. And in consequence, The Daily News exerts itself to arouse the indignation and fear of the British public. Is not the partition of Turkey a crime equal to the partition of Poland"? Have not the Christians more religious liberty in Turkey than in Austria and Russia? Is not the Turkish Government a mild, paternal government, which allows the different nations and creeds and local corporations to regulate their own affairs? Is not Turkey a paradise compared to Austria and Russia? Is not life and property safe there? And is not British trade with Turkey larger than that with Austria and Russia put together, and does it not increase every year? And then goes on in dithyrambic strain, so far as The Daily News can be dithyrambic, an apotheosis of Turkey, the Turks and everything Turkish, which must appear quite incomprehensible to most of its readers.

The key to this strange enthusiasm for the Turks is to be found in the works of David Urquhart[c], Esq., M.P. This gentleman, of Scotch birth, with medieval and patriarchal recollections of home, and with a modern British civilized education, after having fought three years in Greece against the Turks, passed into their country and was the first thus to enamour himself of them. The romantic Highlander found himself at home again in the mountain ravines of the Pindus and Balkan, and his works on Turkey, although full of valuable information, may be summed up in the following three paradoxes, which are laid down almost literally thus: If Mr. Urquhart were not a British subject, he would decidedly prefer being a Turk; if he were not a Presbyterian Calvinist, he would not belong to any other religion than Islamism; and thirdly, Britain and Turkey are the only two countries in the world which en joy self-government and civil and religious liberty. This same Urquhart has since become the great Eastern authority for all English Liberals who object to Palmerston, and it is he who supplies The Daily News with the materials for these panegyrics upon Turkey.

The only argument which deserves a moment's notice, upon this side of the question is this: "It is said that Turkey is decaying; but where is the decay? Is not civilization rapidly spreading in Turkey and trade extending? Where you see nothing but decay, our statistics prove nothing but progress." Now it would be a great fallacy to put down the increasing Black Sea trade to the credit of Turkey alone, and yet this is done here, exactly as if the industrial and commercial capabilities of Holland, the high road to the greater part of Germany, were to be measured by her gross exports and imports, nine-tenths of which represent a mere transit. And yet, what every statistician would immediately, in the case of Holland, treat as a clumsy concoction, the whole of the liberal press of England, including the learned Economist, tries, in the case of Turkey, to impose upon public credulity. And then, who are the traders in Turkey? Certainly not the Turks. Their way of promoting trade, when they were yet in their original nomadic state, consisted in robbing caravans, and now that they are a little more civilized it consists in all sorts of arbitrary and oppressive exactions. The Greeks, the Armenians, the Slavonians and the Franks established in the large seaports, carry on the whole of the trade, and certainly they 'have no reason to thank Turkish Beys and Pashas for being able to do so. Remove all the Turks out of Europe, and trade will have no reason to suffer. And as to progress in general civilization, who are they that carry out that progress in all parts of European Turkey? Not the Turks, for they are few and far between, and can hardly be said to be settled anywhere except in Constantinople and two or three small country districts. It is the Greek and Slavonic middle class in all the towns and trading posts who are the real support of whatever civilization is effectually imported into the country. That part of the population are constantly rising in wealth and influence, and the Turks are more and more driven into the background. Were it not for their monopoly of civil and military power, they would soon disappear. But that monopoly has become impossible for the future, and their power is turned into impotence, except for obstructions in the way of progress. The fact is, they must be got rid of. To say that they cannot be got rid of except by putting Russians and Austrians in their place, means as much as to say, that the present political constitution of Europe will last forever. Who will make such an assertion?

Written at the end of March 1853
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 3746, April 19, 1853, as a leader;
reprinted in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 606, April 23, 1853


[a] Franks is the name commonly used in the Middle East for West-Europeans.—Ed.

[b] Jos. Hammer, Geschichte des Osmanischen Reiches.—Ed.

[c] This evidently refers to David Urquhart's books published in the 1830s: Turkey and Its Resources and The Spirit of the East.—Ed.

[23] This article was published in The Eastern Question which gave Marx as its author (see Note 17 ↓).

[17] This article was published in the collection: Karl Marx, The Eastern Question, London, 1897. The collection gave Marx as the author of the article. However, it was later discovered that this article, as well as "The Turkish Question" and "What Is to Become of Turkey in Europe?", were written by Engels. This is confirmed by Engels' letter to Marx of March 11, 1853, in which he agreed, in response to Marx's request, to write a series of articles on the subject, and also by his letter to Marx of May 1, 1854, in which he referred to these articles in connection with future plans for writing on the Eastern question for the press (see present edition, Vol. 39).

[24] The Greek insurrection was prepared by secret societies of Greek patriots (Hetaeria). It was sparked off in spring 1821 by a march of a detachment under Alexander Ypsilanti—a Greek officer in the Russian army and leader of a secret society in Odessa—to the Danubian Principalities across the Pruth in order thence to enter Greece. The campaign was a failure, but it marked the beginning of a mass movement in Greece which soon spread throughout the country. In January 1822 the National Assembly in Epidaurus proclaimed the independence of Greece and adopted a Constitution. Initially the powers of the Holy Alliance strongly opposed the insurrection. However, the great sympathy aroused everywhere for the Greek struggle against Turkish domination, and especially the opportunity of using this struggle to strengthen their influence in the south of the Balkans, caused Britain, Russia and France to recognise Greece as a belligerent and render her armed assistance. Russia's victory in the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29 was of major importance in helping Greece to acquire independence. Turkey was compelled to recognise Greece as an independent state. However, the European powers imposed a monarchical form of government on the Greek people.

[25] Fanariote Greeks—inhabitants of Fanar (a district in Constantinople), most of whom were descendants of aristocratic Byzantine families. Owing to their wealth and political connections they held important posts in the administration of the Ottoman Empire.

[26] The Serbian insurrection, which flared up in February 1804 against the arbitrary rule and brutal reprisals of the Turkish janissaries, developed into an armed struggle for the country's independence from Turkey. During the insurrection a national government was set up and Georgi Petrović (Karageorge), the leader of the insurgents, was proclaimed the hereditary supreme ruler of the Serbian people in 1808. The Serbian movement was greatly advanced by the successful operations of the Russian army in the Balkans during the Russo-Turkish war of 1806-12. According to the Bucharest peace treaty of 1812 Turkey was to give Serbia autonomy in domestic affairs. Taking advantage of Napoleon's invasion into Russia, however, the Turkish Sultan organised a punitive expedition to Serbia in 1813 and restored his rule there. As a result of a new insurrection by the Serbs in 1815 and also diplomatic assistance from Russia, Turkish rule was overthrown. After the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29, which ended with the signing of a peace treaty in Adrianople in 1829, Turkey recognised the autonomy, i.e., the virtual independence, of the Serbian Principality in a special order issued by the Sultan in 1830.

[27] The battle of Navarino took place on October 20, 1827. It was fought by the Turko-Egyptian fleet, on the one side, and the allied British, Ft-cm h and Russian fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Codrington, on the other. The latter was sent by the European powers to Greek waters for the purpose of armed mediation in the war between Turkey and the Greek insurgents. The battle ended in a crushing defeat for the Turko-Egyptian fleet.

[28] Magna Charta (Magna Carta Libertatum)—a charter signed by King John of England on June 15, 1215, under pressure from the rebellious barons, who were supported by the knights and burghers. It restricted the rights of the King, mainly in the interests of the big feudal magnates, and contained some concessions to the knights and burghers.

[29] In 1849 the Russian and Austrian governments demanded that Turkey should extradite Hungarian and Polish refugees who had taken part in the revolution in Hungary. The Turkish Government, which hoped to make use of the refugees in reorganising the army, refused to comply with this demand. The conflict became especially acute after the intervention of the Western powers, which decided to oppose Russia for fear of her growing influence in the Near East and in Central Europe. The British Government sent a squadron to the Dardanelles. Nicholas I was compelled to give way and be content with the Turkish Government's promise to expel the refugees from Turkey.

[30] The will of Peter the Great—a spurious document circulated by enemies of Russia. The idea of the existence of the "will" was advanced in the West as early as 1797. In 1812 Ch. L. Lesur described the contents of this pseudo-will in his book Des progrès de la puissance russe, depuis son origine jusqu'au commençement du XIX[e] siècle, and in 1836 it was reproduced as a document in T. F. Gaillardet's book Mémoires du Chevalier d'Eon. In Marx's and Engels' lifetime many people in Western Europe regarded this document as authentic.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.22-27), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
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