Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

Editor-in-chief Trevor Harris

Book Review Editor Molly O'Brien Castro

(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
GRAAT: Pronounce [greit]
lison Bechdel issue - GRAAT Alison Bechdel issue - GRAAT Alison Bechdel issue - GRAAT Alison Bechdel issue - GRAAT Alison Bechdel issue - GRAAT Alison Bechdel issue - GRAAT Alison Bechdel issue - GRAAT Alison Bechdel issue - GRAAT Alison Bechdel issue -________________________________________


GRAAT: Getting to the bone
A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Miloš Kovic, Disraeli and the Eastern Question (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). UK £ 60 (hardback), 68,09 €, 339 pages, ISBN 978-0-19-957460-5—Stéphanie Prévost, Université François Rabelais, Tours.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), who, early in his political career, had acknowledged: ‘I love fame; I love public reputation; I love to live in the eyes of the country’, would surely have revelled in being the subject of yet another political biography. All the more so as in his thorough study entitled Disraeli and the Eastern Question, Miloš Kovic seeks to explain the views on the Eastern Question of the twice Premier, Anglican Conservative leader of Jewish ascent and novelist. The Eastern Question generally refers to historical developments between the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-74 and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that raised the question of what should become of the Ottoman Empire, then in decline. And it is precisely both an issue Disraeli had always held dear and which his biographers concur in considering as ‘the key to understanding his complex personality, his political ideas, and his foreign policy’ [ix]. Kovic convincingly posits that although Disraeli’s management of the 1875-1878 Eastern crisis has retained the attention of several biographers and of Robert W. Seton-Watson – who published Disraeli, Gladstone and the Eastern Question: A Study in Diplomacy and Party Politics in 1935 –, the impact of personal and political events in Disraeli’s life prior to his return to power in 1874 on his general vision of the Eastern Question has largely been overlooked and yet is primordial.

Kovic’s Disraeli and the Eastern Question is an adapted translation for Anglophone readers of the Serbian edition, published by CLIO in 2007, and originated as a PhD dissertation defended at the University of Belgrade in 2006, where the author now teaches history. The author’s choice of Disraeli is not simply fascination for probably one of the most cryptic, multi-faceted central Victorian political figures – something the front cover wonderfully illustrates. It also results from the desire to offer readers ‘a whole-sale reconstruction of Disraeli’s understanding of the Eastern Question’ [xi], which had not really been attempted since 1935. Kovic points out that, by contrast, the role of Disraeli’s arch-rival, Gladstone, in the Eastern crisis of the 1870s has already been examined in two landmark monographs: Richard T. Shannon’s Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation 1876 (1963) and Ann P. Saab’s Reluctant Icon: Gladstone, Bulgaria and the Working Classes, 1876-1878 (1991). More than an exclusively political biography, Kovic pleads for the combination of four major historical approaches – biography, intellectual history, British domestic political history and diplomatic history – in order to fully assess Disraeli’s career-long engagement with the Eastern Question. With Disraeli and the Eastern Question, Kovic is thus walking in the steps of these few historians (including Shannon and Saab) who had tried to relate the Eastern Question not only to British diplomatic history as Seton-Watson, M.S. Anderson or Richard Millman had tried to do, but to British national history.

Kovic’s work is divided into three parts of very unequal length, which are organised chronologically.
In Part 1, which is entitled ‘Disraeli, the Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire (1804-1874)’, ‘biography intersects with intellectual history’ [viii] in order to bring out the various circumstances which shaped Disraeli’s understanding of the Eastern Question before he had to handle the 1875-1878 Eastern crisis. There, Kovic particularly insists on the importance of his foreign and Jewish ancestry, of his father’s readings (especially Machiavelli) and of his quest for origins, which, taken together with his Romantic leanings and fascination for Lord Byron, coloured his vision of the East (especially the Holy Land) as made visible in his notes on his Grand Tour undertaken in 1830-1. To Kovic, these elements provided Disraeli with two contradictory ways of looking at the Eastern Question: Realpolitik and Romantic enthusiasm for nationalist movements, the latter in particular pervading several of the novels Disraeli published in the very first days of his political career: Contarini Fleming (1832); Alroy (1833); The Rise of Iskander (1833); Coningsby (1844) and Tancred (1847). Kovic suggests that the tension between both conceptions heightened in the late 1840s as Disraeli progressively moved away from the Tory radicalism of his early days (and away from the Young England movement) to be a full-fledged member of the Conservative party. The last chapter of this first part, devoted to Disraeli’s viewpoint on Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War in early 1854, paves the way for Parts 2 (‘Lord Beaconsfield and the Eastern Crisis [of] 1875-1878’) and 3 (‘Temptations in Later Life’). Indeed, Kovic rightly contends that Disraeli’s conviction that the war with Russia could have been avoided if decisive diplomacy had been used together with the threat of force would be prominent in his mind at the time of the 1875-1878 crisis. Kovic underlines that Disraeli holds this view all the dearer that it was also propounded by the Whig Palmerston, whom he admired and rivalled. The author goes further still by suggesting that Disraeli’s support of the Ottoman Empire was pragmatic rather than betraying systematic Turcophile sympathy: he cogently demonstrates that although the Conservative Premier was convinced that the ‘sick man of Europe’ (as the Ottoman Empire was known in those days) was on its last legs, he still felt that in the face of the Bosnian, Herzegovinian and Bulgarian uprisings against their suzerain (Sultan Abdul Aziz) in 1875-6, British interests in the East (especially the road to India, now via Suez) were better protected by supporting the decaying Ottoman regime rather than hastening its fall and whetting greedy Russia’s appetite for Constantinople, the Straits and potentially the Balkans.

In Part 2, Kovic shows how at the time of the ‘Bulgarian atrocities’ (committed by Ottoman irregulars in 1876), this realist view was criticised by the British public and especially by his arch-rival, Liberal leader, William E. Gladstone, as being cynical, unchristian and potentially criminal. He also looks into the unease Disraeli’s view of the Eastern Question caused amongst his Cabinet, especially at the time of the Russo-Turkish War in 1877-8 when Lord Carnarvon and Lord Salisbury were on the verge of resigning and favouring the ‘policy of the crusade’ – i.e. encouraging Balkan nationalists supported by Russia to secede from the Ottoman Empire – over Disraeli’s ‘imperial policy of England’, which potentially required Britain’s entry into war alongside the Sultan [198]. In early 1878, thanks to the resignations of Lord Carnarvon and subsequently of Lord Derby (his Foreign Secretary) and the realignment of Lord Salisbury with Disraeli’s personal conviction that the maintenance of the balance of power in the East could, if need be, include war threats against Russia and circumstantial alliances with possibly the other two members of the Dreikaiserbund (Germany and Austria-Hungary), the Conservative Premier was able to impose himself and restore some sort of stability within his government, thereby brushing away the risk of a vote of no confidence by anti-war members of the Opposition, led by Gladstone. Kovic rightly points out that such a tour de force required quasi(?)-‘dictatorial powers’ [202] on the part of Disraeli. For instance, Disraeli did not refrain from tricking the Queen into believing she had leeway in making foreign policy decisions – he even let her in on the Eastern Question diplomatic confidential secrets, sometimes at the expense of Lord Derby –, in order to have her convince some of the more reluctant ministers to change their views (Lord Cairns and Lord Salisbury) or leave (Lord Carnarvon and Lord Derby). Part 2 concludes with the joint achievement of Disraeli and Salisbury (promoted Foreign Secretary after Derby stepped down from office) at the time of the Congress of Berlin in July 1878. Kovic intimates how their ‘peace with honour’ [247] met with mixed reactions back in Britain, especially the news of Britain’s occupation of Cyprus, which thrilled die-hard jingoists (mostly Conservatives) to the great dismay of those, like Gladstone, who vilified the expansion of the British Empire.

Part 3 is much shorter, being only 28 pages long (with the conclusion) whereas Parts 1 and 2 respectively totalled 80 and 208 pages. Part 3 covers the period after the signature of the Treaty of Berlin (in July 1878) to Disraeli’s death in 1881 and is devoted to the latter’s ‘temptations in later life’.

The task before Kovic was daunting from more perspectives than one. It has already been noted that the author’s main subject, Disraeli (often nicknamed ‘Dizzy’), is in itself a real challenge given the countless biographies that have already been published and the eccentricity of the figure which, in Dizzy’s own days, puzzled his contemporaries. Of course, the Eastern Question is a very complex one to relate, so much so that Gladstone even called a ‘hydra’ because of its many heads. At the international level, it involved European diplomacy, Ottoman history (including that of administrative reforms initiated during the Tanzimât era) and the burgeoning of sometimes competitive nationalist aspirations in the Ottoman Empire (especially in the Balkans, with Bosnia, Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Albania, Montenegro, Dalmatia and Greece). Kovic offers a very clear overview of the Eastern Question, enriched with the minutiae of British diplomatic dealings with the Great Powers. The author also wonderfully puts diplomatic intricacies into perspective with the way foreign politics was conducted in the Victorian era and with the tensions and debates in British Victorian political circles (including the issue of the political leadership of both the Conservative and the Liberal Parties and also the question of the nature of British foreign policy and imperialism). Undeniably, the whole study gains greatly from the presence of many, clear headings and subheadings, which enable readers to navigate the troubled waters of the Eastern Question without losing track of the first term of Kovic’s title, Disraeli. The strictly chronological pattern of the study inevitably generates a few – perhaps unavoidable - repetitions, but is a fairly logical choice for what remains a political and ‘intellectual biography’ [back cover] and advantageously serves to show how Disraeli adapted to circumstances, while still under the global influence of landmark moments of his young age. The synthetic conclusion brings it home that Disraeli’s early attitude to the East and the Eastern Question is ‘essential for understanding his complex persona and the most crucial period of his career’ [back cover].

One regret however would be that Part 3 does not explore in more detail the link between the Eastern Question, the Egyptian and Afghan ones and Disraeli’s fall from power after Gladstone’s scathing attacks against the Conservative Premier’s so-called mismanagement of Eastern crises (be they Balkan, Cypriot, Egyptian or Afghan) in his Midlothian campaigns of 1879-80. This is all the more frustrating that the first parts are powerfully argued and display a precise knowledge of a variety of primary sources (both published and unpublished) and secondary ones. Kovic rightly concedes that previous historians and biographers have barely mentioned at all Disraeli’s dealings with the Eastern Question after the signature of the Berlin Treaty, but this triggers the interest of readers all the more...

This is a minor point however as Disraeli and the Eastern Question makes thought-provoking reading for anyone deeply interested in this very complex issue and reminds its readers that Disraeli’s understanding of the Eastern Question has immense bearing on his conception of foreign and imperial policy as being first and foremost Realpolitik.

© 2011 Stéphanie Prévost & GRAAT










Senior sub-editor: Hélène Tison

Webmaster Georges-Claude Guilbert