Eastern Question

Citation metadata

Editors: John Merriman and Jay Winter
Date: 2006
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,547 words
Lexile Measure: 1330L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 703


In the last decades of the nineteenth century the Eastern Question was a popular term used to describe the impact of the power vacuum that would occur should the Ottoman Empire lose control of its Balkan provinces. This, in turn, would force inevitable confrontations between Austria-Hungary and Russia over Ottoman territory, and Russian and Great Britain over Russian access to the Mediterranean. After 1879, these disputes threatened to bring in the allies of the principals as well. The term entered the popular vocabulary in 1876 with the publication in Britain of William Gladstone's pamphlet titled The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East. Britain, in particular, was concerned about Russian aspirations to acquire the Turkish straits (the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles) should the Turkish hold on the Balkans dissolve. In effect, the Eastern Question constantly threatened to bring the Great Powers of Europe into conflict.

Beginning in the early 1700s the inability of the Ottoman Empire to control the ethnic minorities in the Balkans led to the independence of Hungary, Greece, Serbia, and Romania. In 1875 and 1876 uprisings in Turkish-held Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria resulted in a war between the Serbs and Turks, and precipitated the Eastern Crisis (1875–1878). Turkish atrocities and battlefield successes against the Christian Slavs led the Russians to consider direct intervention. In conferences in July 1876 (the Reichstadt Agreement) and January 1877 (the Treaty of Budapest), the Russians reached agreement with Austria-Hungary for a partial dismemberment of Ottoman Bosnia and Herzegovina. The agreements also gave Russia the green light to invade Ottoman Bulgaria, which it did that April.

The central dilemma at the heart of the Eastern Question was its effect on the relationships between the Great Powers of Europe. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877 to 1878 resulted in massive Russian victories in the Caucasus and in Bulgaria. But it was the catastrophic Treaty of San Stefano, imposed by Russia on the Turks in March 1878, that illuminated the reality of the Eastern Question itself. The treaty was unduly harsh and ruined the Ottoman strategic position in the Balkans. In particular, the Treaty of San Stefano created a Russian-dominated Greater Bulgaria (with access to the Aegean Sea) on the doorstep of the Turkish straits. This result was so destabilizing to British and Austrian interests that it almost led to war between them and the Russians. Such a war threatened to destroy German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's carefully constructed Dreikaiserbund (Three Emperors' League), which dated from 1873, by pitting Austria-Hungary against Russia and forcing Germany to choose between them. The looming crisis energized Bismarck to convene the Congress of Berlin in July 1878.


The Congress of Berlin was a fateful turning point in European diplomacy that led directly to the destabilization of the Concert of Europe and toPage 704  |  Top of Article the creation of a new alignment of great-power relationships. Bismarck, working to satisfy British and Austrian interests and prevent Russian hegemony, reversed the Treaty of San Stefano. Still-born Greater Bulgaria was dismembered, ending the Russian threat to the Turkish straits. Austria-Hungary was allowed to administer Bosnia-Herzegovina. Britain got Cyprus, and the Serbs gained some land as well. The Ottoman Empire survived. Russia was left with small territorial gains in Europe and the Caucasus but little else. It was a massive diplomatic humiliation for the tsar.

Above all, the Congress of Berlin ended the strong relationship between Germany and Russia and contributed to the introduction of Russian military improvements aimed at Germany. Moreover, the demonstrated weakness of the Turks served to inflame Balkan nationalism and encouraged the Austrians to become players in Balkan politics. In 1879 Bismarck moved to solidify the new alignment of power by engineering an alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary. Bismarck nevertheless still needed to resolve the unanswered Balkan questions as well as appease the Russians, and in June 1881 he orchestrated a second Three Emperors' League (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia). This convention and its separate protocol annex committed the three signatory nations to maintaining the status quo of the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey in Europe). Other clauses closed the Turkish straits to warships, settled the Eastern Rumelian question (thus paving the way for a medium-sized Bulgaria), and granted the Austrians the future right to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina. This convention restored friendly relations between the three empires and appeared to settle the Eastern Question. In fact, the Balkans remained a tinderbox of local nationalism and great-power rivalries.


In 1897 Austria-Hungary and Russia finally began cooperating (via the Goluchowski-Muraviev agreement) in order to defuse tensions involving ethnic minorities in the Balkans. Further cooperation ended the Macedonian crisis by establishing the Mürzsteg Program in 1903, which put a European-led gendarmerie in place to monitor the Ottomans. British concerns over the straits also diminished in August 1907 with the signing of a convention between Britain and Russia, which although concerning Asia became the third leg of the Triple Entente. The Young Turk revolution of July 1908 further satisfied Britain that the Balkans were tending toward stability.

Relationships took a turn for the worse when an aggressive Austria-Hungary forged a secret oral agreement with Russia at Buchlau in October 1908. The agreement traded the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina for support of Russia's free use of the Dardanelles. Premature annexation by Austria soured the deal, and the angry tsar began to mobilize his army against the Austrians. This led to a war crisis in March 1909, in which Germany backed Austria-Hungary by giving a démarche to the Russians. Russia, still weak from its disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and unsupported by Britain and France, was forced to back down. The consequences of this crisis were significant. The Russians, humiliated once again, emerged with a determination to be ready the next time. The Austrians emerged with a sense of confidence that its German ally would unconditionally support its Balkan policies.


In the Balkans, rebellions by ethnic minorities in Albania and Macedonia continued to plague the Ottoman Empire. Pan-Slavic support of Serbia and Bulgaria by Russia fed the fires of nationalism, and in 1912 Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria formed a Balkan Pact against the Turks. The Christian states attacked the Ottoman Balkan provinces in October 1912 and enjoyed astonishing success, taking Salonika (Thessaloníki) and driving the Turks to the gates of Istanbul. Faced with the de facto break up of Turkey in Europe, the Great Powers brokered an armistice and convened the London Conferences in December 1912. Hosted by Edward Grey, the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, the purpose of the conferences was to use the reality of the Ottoman defeat to manage a mutually agreeable solution to the Eastern Question. By this time, the Eastern Question had matured into a deeply complex problem involving AlbanianPage 705  |  Top of Article independence, Serbian and Bulgarian access to the Mediterranean Sea, the sanjak (Turkish district) of Novi Pazar, the Romanian border, the straits question, the Aegean islands, and the protection of minority rights. Ultimately, negotiations collapsed as the warring parties renewed the fighting in February 1913. The First Balkan War ended in April 1913 with Bulgaria in possession of Adrianople (now Edirne) and the Aegean coast. Fighting resumed, however, when the Bulgarians attacked their erstwhile allies in an attempt to seize Macedonia. The Second Balkan War (June–August 1913) resulted in a devastating defeat for Bulgaria in which it lost almost all of its gains. One important outcome of this war was that Russia was forced to choose between supporting Serbia or Bulgaria. The tsar chose to support the Serbs, which ended Russia's strong relationship with Bulgaria and replaced it with strong ties to Serbia.


It seemed that the Eastern Question was now resolved. Instead the effects of Buchlau and the 1909 crisis, and the outcome of the Balkan Wars, combined to ignite the Balkan powder keg once more. Serbian nationalists, encouraged by success and with Russian backing, began a terrorist campaign (under the infamous name, the Black Hand) in Austrian-held Bosnia-Herzegovina. On 28 June 1914 Serb nationalists assassinated the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The enraged Austrians again turned to Germany for support. Austria-Hungary sought and received the famous "blank check" from their German allies, which encouraged them to issue an ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July. The Serb refusal and mobilization two days later forced a partial Austrian mobilization. This fully alarmed the Russians, who were determined to avoid the humiliation of 1909. Although not wanting a war, the Russians desperately sought a way to support its Serb client state. Unfortunately, lacking a workable partial mobilization plan, the Russians declared full mobilization on 30 July 1914. The next day Germany declared war on Russia, setting in train the events leading to World War I.

Postwar settlements in 1919 and 1920 appeared to settle the Eastern Question concerning Turkey in Europe, while the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 appeared to settle the problems of Turkey in Asia. Unfortunately, these treaties favored the interests of the Great Powers and ignored the self-determination of ethnic minorities. As the twentieth century closed, renewed ethnic conflicts enveloped the former Ottoman provinces in the Balkans, Caucasia, and in the Middle East. It is now clear that the incomplete resolution of the Eastern Question continues to haunt the troubled successor states of the former Ottoman Empire and their European and Middle Eastern neighbors.


Anderson, M. S. The Eastern Question, 1774–1923: A Study in International Relations. London, 1966.

Erickson, Edward J. Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912–1913. Westport, Conn., 2003.

Shaw, Stanford J., and Ezel Kural Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. 2: Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1808–1975. Cambridge, U.K., 1977.

Taylor, A. J. P. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918. Oxford, U.K., 1954.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3446900266