‘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
- Under the crescent: the Ottoman Empire and Europe
- ‘The Sick Man of Europe’ – a major power in decline
- The ‘Balkanization’ of the Balkans – the nuisance of popular freedom struggles
- Bosnia and Austria’s aspirations in the Balkans
- The Congress of Berlin and the division of the Balkans
- The 1908 annexation crisis
- The 1912/13 Balkan crisis – prelude to world war