The Eastern Question, or what was to become of the declining Ottoman Empire, was one of the major diplomatic issues of the 19th century. The major European powers, Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Russia, had differing and sometimes conflicting attitudes about what to do with the “Sick Man of Europe.”
Each European power had territorial ambitions over parts of the Ottoman holdings and sought to further their ambitions through a variety of diplomatic and military means. The Eastern Question had similarities with the diplomatic maneuverings known as the Great Game by Britain to prevent Russian expansion into Afghanistan and other Asian territories and may be divided into several different phases.
In phase one, 1702–1820, Russia and the Ottomans engaged in a number of wars over control of territories around the Black Sea. The long-term Russian strategy was to gain warm-water ports and entry into the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles. Generally, the British, and to a lesser extent the French, sought to thwart Russia expansion into the Mediterranean and supported the Ottomans diplomatically.
The Austro-Hungarians who wanted to expand into Ottoman territory in the Balkans and feared growing Russian strength also sought to halt growing Russian power. But in general, during the first phase of the Eastern Question, Russia won its wars against the Ottoman Empire and steadily extended its control around the Black Sea.
The Napoleonic conquest of Egypt and the brief French occupation in 1798 highlighted the importance of the region and the growing weakness of the Ottomans. Phase two of the Eastern Question was a period when nationalist sentiments arose within the Ottoman Empire.
This culminated in the Greek War of Independence, 1821–33, or phase three, when the Greeks, with the sympathy and support of France and Britain, rose up in armed rebellion against Ottoman domination.
The Greek War culminated in the independence of Greece under the Treaty of Adrianople and the Protocols of London in 1830. The European powers guaranteed Greek independence in 1832.
Although the British and French supported the Ottomans in their struggles against Russian encroachment in the Black Sea and the Balkans during the 19th century, both powers took territories away from the Ottomans in North Africa and along the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf.
Phase four of the Eastern Question culminated in the Crimean War, when the British and French, with small support from Piedmont-Sardinia, joined forces with the Ottomans against Russia. Although Russia gained some territory, the support of the European powers gave the “Sick Man of Europe” a new lease on life and forced a series of domestic reforms within the empire.
During the Congress of Berlin in phase five, the British agreed to defend the Ottoman Empire against Russian ambitions to partition it, but at the same time assented to the French takeover of Tunisia in North Africa.
France had already taken the former Ottoman territory of Algeria in 1830. Britain gained the important island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, while Austria-Hungary expanded into the Balkans.
As Germany emerged as a major European power, it, too, entered into the diplomatic maneuverings involving the Ottoman Empire. Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Istanbul in 1889 and again in 1898 and announced his support for the aging empire.
As a result, ties between the German and Ottoman military increased, and Germany began to invest in the Ottoman Empire. The Berlin to Baghdad railway was the cornerstone of German financial interests. The growing German influence within Ottoman territories raised British opposition.
The British were particularly opposed to the possibility that the Berlin to Baghdad Railway might extend the German presence into the Persian Gulf and eastern Asia where it would compete with the British.
The Germans managed to gain a concession for the railway in 1903 and hoped that it would link up with rail lines in the eastern Mediterranean. Parts of the railway were constructed through Anatolia, but the railway was never completed to Baghdad.
The Ottoman government was not a passive participant in the Eastern Question but took an active role in playing off the conflicting diplomatic policies of the European powers to prevent the dissolution of its empire.
The territorial and economic rivalries of the European nations enabled the Ottoman Empire to prolong its existence while at the same time it continued to lose territories in the Balkans, North Africa, Egypt, the Sudan, and the Arabian Peninsula to the imperial European powers.