Disraeli's Secret

Disraeli's Secret

Mini Teaser: Benjamin Disraeli was an exotic character even in his own time, but his career shows the secret that guaranteed him success and fame: He knew what he wanted.

by Author(s): Harvey Sicherman

I really believe the 'Eastern Question' that has haunted Europe for a
century and which I thought the Crimean War had adjourned for half
another will fall my lot to encounter--dare I say to settle.

Barely three weeks after this letter, Disraeli arranged the secret
purchase of Egyptian Khedive Ismail's shares in the Suez Canal. This
sensational surprise was fully exploited by the Prime Minister, who
added delicious if fanciful details. Britain now had a defensible
interest in a vital waterway but, contrary to the views of Gladstone
and others, this was not a prelude to the abandonment of
Constantinople. Disraeli meant to defeat the Dreikaiserbund in
Europe; Suez had been a lucky circumstance.

His prestige soaring, Disraeli soon took Britain into a defense of
the Ottoman Empire even as the Sultan conducted a bloody suppression
of the spreading Balkan revolts. Matters began badly when in June
1876 news reached London of Turkish massacres in Bulgaria. Uninformed
by a bungling Foreign Office, the old orator had dismissed the
reports as "coffee house babble"; he doubted stories of Turkish
torture because they "generally terminate their connection with
culprits in a more expeditious manner." Disraeli was therefore quite
unprepared for Gladstone's famous pamphlet, "The Bulgarian Horror and
the Question of the East", issued on September 6.

Gladstone clearly embodied British moral indignation; some 200,000
copies of this striking essay were sold by month's end. "Let the
Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible way", he
concluded, "namely by carrying off themselves." Britain was now
fiercely divided into "Bulgarians" versus "Turks." Partisanship was
laced with anti-semitism and personal insult. Gladstone himself
believed Disraeli a "crypto Jew" with a "race antipathy" toward the
Eastern Christians. Disraeli, for his part, privately called his
opponent an "unprincipled maniac . . . never a gentleman!" He
regarded the famous pamphlet as "ill-written. Indeed in that respect,
of all the Bulgarian horrors, perhaps the greatest."

Disraeli feared the worst. Gladstone's agitation might facilitate a
Russian war to seize Constantinople in the guise of rescuing the
Ottoman Empire's Christ-ian population while Britain applauded,
blinded by a moral rage against the Turks. The Crimean War had come
about in part because the Russians did not believe Britain would
fight for the Ottomans. Disraeli was determined not to repeat the
earlier blunder.

Czar Alexander II, his Chancellor Prince Gortchakoff and his
Ambassador Count Shuvalov all hastened to assure the British
government that Russia had no such warlike intentions. But
pan-Slavism influenced the Russian Court,and Russian actions often
differed markedly from their proclaimed intent. (In 1873, for
example, the Russians had annexed Khiva in Central Asia despite
promises not to do so. A massacre of the Turcomans at least equal to
the Bulgarian atrocity had followed.) For Disraeli, then, the Balkan
uprisings meant not freedom for the oppressed but a contained
rebellion likely to deliver the region to the Czar, with British
interests the main casualty of a Turkish defeat. This would not do.

Meanwhile, to everyone's surprise, the Turks had beaten the Serbs
badly after that nominally Ottoman but Christian province declared
war on the Ottomans with open Russian sympathy (including a general
to run the campaign). Sensing that the Czar would not allow Serbia's
defeat, and momentarily deprived by the "humanitarians" of public
support for aiding the Ottomans, Disraeli instructed Derby to arrange
a Serb-Ottoman armistice. The Czar, however, demanded a full Turkish
withdrawal. In Constantinople, Sultan Abdul Hamid accepted Derby's
proposal for a conference of the six powers (Britain, France,
Austria, Germany, Russia and the Ottomans) to decide the future. But
even before the conference convened, in December 1877, the Russians
were mobilizing. Disraeli prodded the War Office to prepare a defense
of Constantinople while warning in a speech, "She [England] enters
into a campaign which she will not terminate till right is done."

Disraeli's conception of what was "right" differed not only from
Gladstone's but also from that of many Tories. Propping up the "Sick
Man" at the cost of Christian lives looked immoral. Doing so in an
exaggerated belief that it would protect India from the Czar seemed a
strategic error to many. Leading Conservatives, including Lord
Salisbury, Secretary of State for India and Disraeli's hand-picked
representative to the Conference, discounted any Russian drive
overland either toward the Suez Canal or through the Persian Gulf.
Disraeli had discovered, too, that the very religious Salisbury
favored the Christian cause in the Balkans.

Moreover, Disraeli was accused then (and by later historians) of
being totally blind to the new force of the age, namely nationalism.
In fact, Disraeli's writings and speeches evince an interest in two
nationalisms. The first was English (he hardly ever said British).
Exotic and foreign though he may have seemed to his contemporaries,
Disraeli had a good grasp of popular aspirations and beliefs,
although he preferred aristocratic rule. To us he therefore appears
simultaneously ahead of his times and behind them. The second
nationalism that interested him was the Jewish sort. Disraeli's
novels such as Tancred and Alroy offer a literary precursor to the
secular Zionism that had just begun to develop near the end of his
life. Disraeli was immensely proud of his origins and, in general,
helpful to the struggle of British Jewry for equal rights. His novels
advocate a return to Zion and the re-establishment of ancient
glories, the latter infused by his peculiar reading of the Bible and
convenient belief that Judaism and Christianity completed each other.
He had once told Constance de Rothschild, "All is race, not religion,
remember that." She observed, "he believed more in the compelling
power of a common ancestry than in that of a common faith."

It was not, then, that Disraeli missed the emergence of nationalisms
but that, beyond the English (and the Jewish), he opposed them. Like
every English politician, Disraeli knew the Irish problem. As for the
continent, although Disraeli was a worshipper of Byron, the advocate
of Greek independence, he was also part of a generation (which
included Otto von Bismarck) that soured on the nascent nationalisms
of the Balkans. He regarded these movements as sinister, their
ambitions insatiable, and their grievances certainly not worth a war.

Disraeli wanted to keep the Russians out of Turkey and he thought
this could best be done by mobilizing Britain for conflict while
pressing the Sultan to promise yet another set of reforms that would
allow the Powers to applaud and go home. But the Ottomans viewed
Disraeli's maneuverings as a British pledge to stand behind them;
besides, they had beaten the Serbs and were in no mood to take
unsolicited advice. The Constantinople Conference thus failed on
January 20, 1877, and a subsequent Anglo-Russian effort called the
London Protocol was also rejected by the Sultan. Disraeli's only
other hope of preventing war, an arrangement with Austria to deter
the Russians, also came to naught; St. Petersburg had gotten to
Vienna ahead of him, the two powers having reached a secret agreement
fixing spheres of interest by mid-March 1877. (Notably, the very able
Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Andrassy, had insisted that Russia
not set up a greater Bulgaria.)

Thus fortified, on April 24 Russia declared war against the Ottomans
on the basis of the London Protocol. Derby replied with a note
stressing British neutrality if the war did not jeopardize Britain's
vital interests, which included the Persian Gulf, Egypt, the Suez
Canal, Constantinople, and the Straits. Gladstone then overreached by
supporting Russia to the hilt and, with the switch of focus from
suffering Christians to the insufferable Russians, the humanitarian
faction in British politics quickly lost ground. Public passion now
switched dramatically into an anti-Russian fever that gave birth to a
new expression, "jingoism." (The music halls rang with the refrain
"we do not want to fight but, by Jingo if we do, we've got the ships,
we've got the men, we've got the money too.") Disraeli's policy had
outlasted popular indignation against the Turks.

Reassured of public support for protecting Turkey, Disraeli now faced
a sudden political and personal crisis. Lord Derby opposed his policy
to the point of conveying cabinet dissent to the Russian ambassador,
apparently hoping to reassure the Czar that England would not fight.
This was the final breach between the two old colleagues, ending a
thirty-year relationship. Salisbury was poised to succeed him.
Salisbury had been a forthright skeptic of defending the Sick Man
but, unlike Derby, he was an internationalist. Meanwhile, though
checked temporarily at Plevna in July, the Russians were on the verge
of capturing Constantinople by year's end. This turned Salisbury
around; he saw great danger to British interests, not so much in
India but in the Mediterranean. When Disraeli gained secret cabinet
agreement for military action to seize Cyprus or Alexandretta, Derby
resigned and Salisbury took his place.

Disraeli and Salisbury made a very odd couple. Salisbury was formal,
careful, cool and logical; he counted on skill, not luck. His family,
the House of Cecil, had been at the center of government, or
consulted by it, since the time of Elizabeth I. Disraeli, by
contrast, was theatrical and imaginative; he moved comfortably
between fact and fantasy, the way things were and the way he wished
them to be. Disraeli knew his skill but he also counted on his star.
Supremely self-confident, he considered himself superior to the
English lords. He had once rejected an anti-Jewish gibe in the House
of Commons by declaring that his ancestors had been offering
"sacrifices to the Most High when London was a marsh." (Accused of
being a sexual adventurer above his station on another occasion, he
joked: "Me! Whose ancestors may have had personal relations with the
Queen of Sheba!") As for Salisbury himself, Disraeli had already
seduced an entire aristocracy; the Marquis, who had often been
critical of Disraeli, was merely the last to succumb. Both shared a
sarcastic wit. Disraeli's enthusiastic visions combined with
Salisbury's cynical efficiency made them a formidable team.

Essay Types: Essay