“We have been authoritatively warned,” William Gladstone wrote in 1876 in the pamphlet Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, “that the condition of the Christians in Turkey is now eminently critical.” The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) was at war with Serbia. Within the declining multi-ethnic Ottoman state there had been terrible, violent massacres of Bulgarian Orthodox Christians by Turkish irregulars, prompted by this war; Gladstone, in opposition at the time, was fired up with outrage at government inaction. “We now know in detail that there have been perpetrated,” he wrote, “crimes and outrages so vast in scale as to exceed all modern example, and so unutterably vile as well as fierce in character, that it passes the power of heart to conceive, and of tongue and pen adequately to describe them. These are the Bulgarian horrors; and the question is, What can and should be done?”
The Ottoman Empire was a violent and brutal state on the edge of collapse, riven by narrow Islamic fanaticism and the nationalisms of the various non-Turkish peoples on all sides, its state authority shot and its Sultans by now worse than useless. Once it had been more than that. It was for hundreds of years the great threat at the edge of the map, the “Moslem” empire that claimed succession to Rome and had once threatened Christendom itself, that by the semi-unity it forced upon Europe suggested the ghost of the old universal Christian empire that had died with Rome.
By this late, sad stage in its existence, the Ottoman Empire was barely a shadow of its former power, and the western world, caught in the grip of the uncertain times of capitalism, nationalism, inter-Christian conflict and modernity, was struggling to cope without it – for centuries the Christian had been defined against the heathen, whether Indian, East Asian, Native American, or Muslim, and now the heathen had been tamed and still the world was shit and the white powers were now tearing each other apart instead.
The ‘Bulgarian Horrors’ resonated with the past, however, and combined with the geopolitical situation of the day to create a new framing device for outside threats. “The lustful Turk” remained a danger, not now to Christendom, since the white Christian nations were so developed and Turkey was so ramshackle and useless, surviving by sheer inertia – the danger now was not to us in Europe but to those poor bastards the Turk was sat on top of. In prior times empires were to be fought over and won or lost by force of arms and governments: now, however, empire became a question of morality, of good empires and bad. Gladstone calls the Turks “the one great anti-human specimen of humanity” – “wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the track behind them; and, as far as their dominion reached, civilisation disappeared from view. They represented government by force, as opposed to government by law.” Before now very few people asked questions about the legitimacy of the Ottoman Empire; it was there, and it would be there until it wasn’t. Gladstone and many of his contemporaries, the elites and influential people at the heart of the British Empire, weren’t saying that Britain should dismember the Turks, as cynical Tsarist politicians wanted, but that the Ottoman dynasty had no moral right to exist as a state force. Moralism and liberalism dovetailed neatly.
The question remained: “What can and should be done?” With the Turks, this question was simple; mostly the less-moralising powers picked it apart and eventually it became a sort of gruesome Turkish military dictatorship and through the stress of war collapsed on its own. But the Ottomans weren’t the only “anti-human specimen” identified by Anglo-Saxon righteousness. The next on the list, Austria-Hungary, would be the next logical step in formulating a concrete answer to Gladstone’s question. It wasn’t guilty of mass-murder or tyranny, however – what it was mostly guilty of was bureaucracy.
Austria-Hungary, the mess known as the Dual Monarchy, consisted of two halves, Austria and Hungary (hah) ruled over by the ancient and doddering Habsburg dynasty, whose messy history of marriage and conquest meant that their subjects consisted of eleven different nationalities at least, each with their own language. Unlike the Ottoman Empire it was a European, relatively developed state, industrialised and with the rule of law, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was home to some of Europe’s most exciting cultural moments, from Sigmund Freud to Gustav Klimt to Stefan Zweig to, uh, Adolf Hitler. There were – until the tragedy of World War One – no massacres and no pogroms. More tolerant than Russia or Imperial Germany, it allowed each nationality to basically live without state interference at least in the Austrian half, the Hungarian half being under Magyar chauvinist control. The venerable emperor Franz Josef spoke every one of the nation’s languages and favoured no one, keeping all in a state of equal discontent. It kind of worked – but as the twentieth century dawned and nationalism spread, cracks began to appear. The Hungarians had always been only loosely loyal to the Habsburgs, always testing the limits of the “compromise” system by jealously guarding their autonomy – the Czechs or Bohemians, as they were known, were mostly loyal. Until the language problems arose.
Simply put, the language of government in Austria was German. Many Czechs spoke, uh, Czech – but German was the ticket to a career in government, to business in Vienna or with neighbouring Germany, and to social sophistication. So the Austrian government attempted to enforce German as the language of education in Bohemian schools. The Czechs revolted, with violent fistfights in Parliament and burned Austrian flags in the street and children withdrawn from schools by angry nationalistic parents. So the Austrian government considered allowing Czech to be the language of education – Bohemian Germans protested and there were more fistfights and more shouting and more anger. So the government ended up doing nothing. This was the ‘oppression’ of the Austrian state: political dysfunction mixed with a similar inertia to that which was keeping the Ottomans going. The only real oppression was if the dynasty itself was questioned, and few bothered with that because as frustrating as Habsburg rule was, for a long time there was the sense that anything else would be worse.
And yet it was Austria-Hungary that was called the “prison of nations” during World War One: part of this was propaganda, of course, but part of it was legitimate western feeling – and it wasn’t the British, allies with Tsarist Russia, who were sounding the call this time. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points of 1918, the war aims of the United States and the Entente, including Point Ten: “The people of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.” This was a game-changer, the follow-up to Gladstone’s tentative concern for the “disappeared civilisations” of the Ottoman Empire. Wilson, with his notion of self-determination, answered the question that imperial hypocrite Gladstone couldn’t – that all empires were bad, and that they had to be actively removed, and all disappeared civilisations restored. So it was that the “nationalities”, having invented their ancient civilisations in the decades prior, took the final step and declared independence, reassured by Wilson’s implied promise of American and western protection, and the Habsburg Empire was destroyed. The Ottoman Empire too – it got its own point all to itself (“the other nationalities which are now under Ottoman rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development).
America remembers this – America doesn’t know it remembers Austria-Hungary and Turkey. But it does. This was the example that has been aspired to by well-meaning, morally righteous WASPs ever since, from hawkish neocons to human rights liberals, from the state department of the US to the NGOs spread out from its imperial centre all over the globe. Their targets have been varied, from the Soviet Union to Yugoslavia to China today, “prisons of nations” all – the logic has been that fundamentally these states are (as Gladstone says) illegitimate in their “anti-human” nature, and (from Wilson) that the subject peoples must be helped to win freedom in any and all ways possible. To borrow from Adolf Hitler, that great exaggerator, that accidental parody of western civilisation, describing the Soviet Union – “You only have to kick the door in and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down”. The kick could be military – it could be economic. It could be blue jeans or democracy movements or a quiet coup through the backdoor. But assuredly every state that remains “anti-human” only requires that specific type of kick. Regardless of means, the crusade – the great kicking down of all the doors- continues on.
Let’s go back to Gladstone for a second. “[The Turks] are not the mild Mahometans of India, nor the chivalrous Saladins of Syria, nor the cultured Moors of Spain”. By the time he wrote this all of these peoples were living under British or at least European rule. And why wasn’t Turkey? “Twenty years ago,” Gladstone writes, “France and England determined to try a great experiment in remodeling the administrative system of Turkey, with the hope of curing its intolerable vices…the insurrections of 1875 have disclosed the total failure [of this]”. He’s referring here to British and French attempts to prop up the Ottoman Empire as a counterpoint to Russia in the 1850s, and to tutor its rulers in western values.
Simply put, the question was about empire but it was also about something more fundamental: culture. The ‘mild Mahometans of India’ had acquiesced, after years of war and violence, to becoming like us – the Ottomans, by persisting in their play-acting of being a great power, were very much not. Doesn’t this remind you of, say, the “good Asians” of Japan and Korea and Taiwan, and the “bad Asians” of mainland China, who have just like the Turks refused to take part in America’s “great experiment”? The British, neurotic and Christian, justified their empire via civilising, and the white Americans, our more neurotic and more Christian children, don’t justify an empire but justify a whole planet, a project for a new American earth that’s civilised to every corner. Just as the worse and more extreme Britain’s imperial ambitions and crimes the shriller the moralistic rhetoric became, as the US’s own “great experiment” has expanded from thirteen colonies to fifty states, eight hundred military bases and millions upon millions of human lives lost to the perpetual war machine it’s also gotten high off of its own supply. A ‘good empire’ needs a ‘bad empire’ – a ‘good culture’ needs a ‘bad culture’. And the prison of nations needs prisoners.
This isn’t to say that, hey, none of those non-Anglo countries ever did anything wrong. Even Gladstone rightly despaired of people denying and downplaying the ‘Bulgarian horrors’ – and I don’t personally have truck with denying that the Soviets fucked up, or that Austria-Hungary became wildly oppressive and brutal during the war, or that China today is doing some Bad Shit in general. But it has to be recognised that, while Gladstone’s anger was real, he didn’t really know much of anything about Turkey or about who Turkey was killing, and that Wilson didn’t know much of anything about the nascent European nation-states he championed into existence, and that people waving “Free Tibet” banners in the nineties had no idea about what Tibet was except some nice mountain paradise where they were all lovely to each other.
Sometimes, almost by accident, Anglo-Saxon zealotry solves problems instead of making them: all empires, in some way, are prisons of nations, swallowing disappeared civilisations whole. However we can see today that the US government is Very Concerned about China’s ethnic minorities while its own state begins to crack and crumble under rising ethnic tension and injustice – we can see that Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, for example, might not always have been very nice but for many people were infinitely preferable to the ethnic war, attempted genocide and perpetual poverty of came next. In each case the Americans encouraged the prisoners of the overlords, told them the future would be better, and threatened and cajoled and spied and bribed and waged war in order to free them – and then left them to their subsequent misery. Treating all of these situations as the same “evil empire”, and using them to avoid discussion of the Anglo empire’s own sins, likely causes human suffering on an even greater scale than the initial cruelty of the current “evil empire” itself.
The British historian AJP Taylor in his great book The Habsburg Monarchy compared Austria-Hungary to a cast on a broken limb, that needed to be removed so the patient could be healed but would nevertheless cause problems when it was broken open. Taylor, in hindsight, might have been too optimistic. Or he might have been too English. He believed fundamentally in liberal democracy and the nation-state having the power, when people are left to their own devices, to create prosperity and a common good. He believed in the crusade that in his lifetime, at the end of the Cold War, it was thought naively might be over, as the world really did succumb to Anglo-Saxon values. The truth is that it can’t – it won’t.
Britain invented the ‘lustful Turk’ of evil oppression to hold itself together in a world where values had already begun to dissolve. America continues to invent new ones every so often, regardless of the real situation or the actual feelings and conditions of the people, both jailers and prisoners, involved. It’s forever shadowboxing with the Evil Empire, finding new unreal foes to battle. The years are catching up, however. America’s body is beginning to fail it. And with the desperation of the old man trying to become young again he throws himself into the imaginary fight with more and more crude force. The fight itself is the point. This lumbering hegemon keeps calling to the crowd about what the Others all did to deserve it. He knows what’s good and he knows what’s evil. Sometimes he swings and hits a real person and sometimes they happen to be a bad guy; sometimes he swings and kills millions with air raids and shock and awe invasions and geopolitical disasters. But he knows that deep down, despite his mistakes, he’s inherently good, or at least that the other guy is always worse. Former president Barack Obama said in 2016, in response to then-candidate Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”, that “America is already great” – that “the American dream is something no wall will ever contain.”
What an absolutely chilling idea.