Outbreak of the war
End of the war

‘The Sick Man of Europe’ – a major power in decline

In view of its internal fragility, the Ottoman Empire, once a feared conqueror, was now the target of imperialist ambitions by the European colonial powers.

The Ottoman Empire was pressed from many sides. The British were consolidating their position in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, the French and later the Italians were establishing colonies in North Africa, and the Russians were expanding their sphere of influence in the Black Sea region and the Caucasus.

Russia regarded itself as the protector of the Christian orthodox Balkan peoples, and its utopian long-term aim was to capture Constantinople, the former capital of the Byzantine Empire. In geopolitical terms, control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits was of enormous strategic importance for Russia, as it offered it a passage to the Mediterranean. Russia wanted to establish its influence not only in the Norwegian Sea but also in the south of Europe.

The diverging interests of the European powers came to a head in 1853 with the outbreak of the Crimean War. An anti-Russian alliance was formed by the major western European powers to stem the rise of Russia. It was very much in Great Britain’s interests to preserve the Ottoman Empire, a weak and easily controlled regional power that posed no threat to its colonial aspirations – primarily communication with India through the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869. Within these manoeuvres the Sultan played the role of an object rather than an active subject. It was Tsar Nicholas I who coined the phrase ‘Sick Man of Europe’ in this context.

By contrast, the relationship of the Habsburg Monarchy to the Ottoman Empire was relatively smooth. The last Turkish wars had taken place under Joseph II, ending with the defeat of Austria, after the purportedly weak Turkish opponent had proved to be very able to defend itself. The relationship between the two empires changed afterwards, and their traditional enmity was transformed into a partnership. Trade agreement replaced wars of conquest, and in the nineteenth century the friendly Vienna-Istanbul axis had become even stronger.

Translation: Nick Somers


Buchmann, Bertrand Michael: Österreich und das Osmanische Reich. Eine bilaterale Geschichte, Wien 1999

Hösch, Edgar: Geschichte der Balkanländer. Von der Frühzeit bis zur Gegenwart, München 1999

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    Power blocks

    At the start of the war France, Britain and Russia formed the Triple Entente, extending the existing Entente Cordiale between Britain and France. The aim was to curb the ambitions of the German Empire under Wilhelm II to become a major power. Italy joined the war in 1915 on the side of the Entente. On the other side were the Central Powers consisting of the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. In 1917 the USA entered the war on the side of the Entente, marking a decisive turning point that was to lead to the military collapse of the Central Powers.