Academic journal article History Review

Gladstone, Disraeli and the Bulgarian Horrors: Mark Rathbone Compares Gladstone's and Disraeli's Differing Approaches to a Crucial Foreign Policy Issue

Academic journal article History Review

Gladstone, Disraeli and the Bulgarian Horrors: Mark Rathbone Compares Gladstone's and Disraeli's Differing Approaches to a Crucial Foreign Policy Issue

Article excerpt

Early in May 1876, a revolt against Turkish rule began in Panagyurishte in Bulgaria. The Turks responded with vicious reprisals in which many Bulgarian men, women and children died. Estimates of the number of victims, reported in newspapers at the time, varied between 10,000 and 25,000. When news of these events arrived in London, the Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, reacted by casting doubt on the accuracy of the reports, contemptuously describing them as 'coffee-house babble'. When challenged in the Commons in July about the stories of Turkish atrocities, he cast doubt on their veracity, joking that the Turks 'seldom, I believe, resort to torture, but generally terminate their connexion with culprits in a more expeditious manner'. As the Eastern Question Association organised hundreds of meetings, condemning both the atrocities themselves and the government's refusal to condemn them, Disraeli remained unmoved. 'Our duty at this critical moment,' he said in August, 'is to maintain the Empire of England.'

In contrast, the Liberal Leader W.E. Gladstone's sense of moral indignation went into overdrive. Infuriated as much by Disraeli's failure to take the issue seriously as by the Turks' atrocities, the Grand Old Man emerged from the semi-retirement into which he had withdrawn after his election defeat in 1874 to launch a scathing attack on both the Turks and the Conservative government. His booklet on the matter, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, published by John Murray on 6 September 1876, was a classic piece of political invective.

After condemning the Turks' 'abominable and bestial lusts ... at which Hell itself might almost blush', Gladstone attacked Disraeli's shameless condoning of the atrocities. He went on to urge a fundamental change in British policy: far from propping up the Turkish Empire, Britain should seek to remove the Turks from European soil ('soil soaked and reeking with blood'). Mocking the exotic-sounding titles of Turkish officials, he continued, 'Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and their Yuzbachis, the Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned.'

Cynic versus Idealist?

Predictably enough, Disraeli did not respond to Gladstone's call for the removal of the Turks 'bag and baggage' from Bulgaria, but maintained Britain's traditional policy in the region--that of propping up Turkish rule in the Balkan provinces, in order to prevent Russian expansionism, which would upset the balance of power, a concept which had been the cornerstone of British foreign policy ever since 1815. Britain had already fought one war to protect Turkey from Russian attacks--the Crimean War of 1854-56. Disraeli came close to taking Britain to war against Russia a second time, when in January 1878 he ordered a squadron of ships to sail through the Dardanelles to Constantinople, an action condemned by Gladstone as 'an act of war, a breach of international law'. By then Disraeli had already secured a war credit of 6 million [pounds sterling] and in March he ordered the mobilisation of reserves. Even at the Congress of Berlin in June 1878, when negotiations to secure a settlement were temporarily stalled, Disraeli once again risked war by threatening to walk out. He actually ordered his private secretary to order a special train for the departure of the British delegation, a characteristic piece of theatre, designed no doubt to convince the Russians he was not bluffing.

In the event, conflict was avoided and a compromise peace treaty was agreed. The Russians had imposed the Treaty of San Stefano on Turkey in March 1878. This gave Bulgaria independence from Turkey and set its borders very generously, allowing the new nation access not only to the Black Sea but also to the Aegean. …

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