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

Then came disaster. Plevna did fall to the Russians and in
desperation the Sultan sought a loose armistice, signed at Adrianople
on January 31, 1878. In great alarm, Disraeli dispatched a fleet of
six ironclads to Constantinople, which arrived on February 15. A war
credit was voted by Parliament and an expeditionary force organized;
reserves were mobilized on March 27. Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg,
the Czar temporized over whether to seize Constantinople; the local
commander, his brother the Grand Duke Nicholas, also hesitated before
the British mobilization. A month elapsed while the Czar changed
commanders and, at this point, the Austrians, who also thought Russia
had gone too far, declared their opposition to the seizure of the
Ottoman capital. The Russians then imposed in March 1878 the Treaty
of San Stefano on the Ottomans, a punitive peace, but one that saved
Constantinople from Russian assault.

Organizing a Coalition

Disraeli's threat of war saved Constantinople. He had overcome both
severe cabinet dissent and Gladstone's campaign, but the political
atmosphere was poisoned and Derby was gone. Still, Disraeli had
gotten the focus right: the apparent Russian intention to seize the
Straits appeared an intolerable bid to alter the international
balance of power, threatening vital British interests.

Buoyed by a united Britain, Disraeli then organized international
opposition to the Treaty of San Stefano which, despite the
Austrian-Russian agreement of March 1877, would have created a large
Bulgaria athwart the Balkans, touching the Aegean to the south and
Albania to the west. Other provisions extended Russian control in
Asia Minor. Austria, among others, felt betrayed by San Stefano.
Disraeli's diplomacy was therefore able to rally a broad coalition
against such a drastic change to the Ottoman frontiers, which had
been set by the Treaty of Paris in 1856. The Russians recognized that
they needed international consent to impose the terms of the treaty;
they hoped to get it at the Congress of Berlin, capital of their
ally, the German Empire.

The Congress was a coming-out party for the young Reich, and
Bismarck, chairman of the Congress, was determined to make it work.
The German Chancellor had established Germany's bona fides with his
famous expression of disinterest, saying on December 5, 1876, that
"no German interest worth the bones of a Pomeranian musketeer" was at
stake in the Balkans. This meant that Germany saw no reason to go to
war, but not that Germany lacked serious reason for diplomatic
intervention. Its two allies, Russia and Austria, might collide;
England and Russia might fight, putting Berlin on the spot. Nor was
Bismarck under any illusions about the motivations of the
participants. When the Russian Chancellor Gortchakoff wrote to him
that the crisis was "European", Bismarck noted: "I have always found
the word Europe on the lips of those statesmen who want something
from a foreign power which they would never venture to ask for in
their own name."

The preliminary to Berlin was the Anglo-Russian Convention negotiated
by Shuvalov with Disraeli and Salisbury. Allowed leeway by the
irresolute Czar, the Russian diplomat focused on two objectives:
Besserabia and the Black Sea towns of Batum and Kars. The British
held no brief for Besserabia and they had in mind a counter for the
extension of Russian influence: a base in the eastern Mediterranean.
On May 26, in utmost secrecy, Disraeli offered the Sultan a defensive
alliance with Britain; in return the Ottoman Empire ceded Cyprus. Not
knowing this, Shuvalov was pleasantly surprised when the British gave
way on Batum and Kars. Shuvalov then conceded that Bulgaria would be
not "greater" but split, the north to be autonomous, the south under
Turkish rule as modified by the Congress. The Austrians were then
brought into a "gentlemen's agreement" that would constrain north
Bulgaria against expansion. The question of Bosnia-Herzegovina was
left open, although Bismarck urged the Austrians to occupy it quickly
even before the powers met.

These arrangements allowed Bismarck to schedule the Congress knowing
that at least some business would be transacted. In this, the
statesmen of the 19th century offer a great lesson to those of the
21st: Summits raise hopes, and the dashing of those hopes superheats
an already overheated situation. World leaders should always bring
with them edible fruit, ripened ahead of time. (This lesson seems to
have been lost, forexample, on those who prepared the abortive Camp
David Summit in July 2000.)

Toward the end of the Congress of Berlin (June 13-July 13, 1878)
Bismarck paid Disraeli a supreme accolade: "Der alte Jude, das ist
der Mann" (the old Jew is the man!). Bismarck, who had expected to
run it, realized that in fact Disraeli had done so. This testified to
a simple yet surpassing quality that so few statesmen possess: a
well-defined objective persistently pursued. Disraeli knew what he
wanted; it was only a matter of which tactic to choose; and here the
political novelist's imagination chose the final stroke. As Lord
Redesdale, one of his appointees to the Foreign Office wrote, "He was
a master of the stage effect!"

Matters did not go so well at first, however. On June 14 a needy
foreign office clerk leaked the Anglo-Russian Convention to the
British press. This threatened to make the Congress a farce and so
Lord Salisbury simply lied about it to assuage the honor of the
participants. In late June, another press leak--this time in
Germany--revealed the Cyprus deal. This too was denied while,
secretly, British diplomats hastened to secure the missing
proclamation by the Sultan that would legally cinch the transaction
(it took until July 7). But Cyprus excited Bismarck's admiration and
respect. "This is progress!" he exclaimed, which prompted Disraeli to
write the Queen: "Evidently his idea of progress was to seize

In truth, Disraeli and Bismarck had plenty in common: Byron worship;
dislike of cant and cliché; a sharp eye for human foibles; love of
witty cynicism. Neither Disraeli nor Bismarck had any use for Balkan
nationalism and when the Greek delegation secured a half-hour at the
Congress to argue for a larger Greece, it was observed that both
statesman "slept the sleep of the just." They were both supreme
realists in politics and, while preferring aristocratic domination,
knew a nobly defective brain when they saw one. Naturally, then, they
both detested Gladstone. They soon impressed each other and Disraeli
wrote the Queen about Bismarck's "piquant" conversations, which
included many astonishing utterances, including the German's
complaint about the Kaiser's conduct! Bismarck in a later
conversation also expressed his appreciation of another Disraeli
trait: "It was easy to transact business with him; in a quarter of an
hour you knew exactly how you stood with him." Precise objectives and
concise transactions, rare enough then, are qualities well worthy of
imitation today.

There was a final note of drama in Berlin when the Russians sounded
to Disraeli as if they were retreating from the arrangement on
Bulgaria. Disraeli let it be known that he had ordered a special
train, the better to hasten back to England to prepare for war should
the Congress fail. In this he called the Czar's bluff, and with it
Bismarck's bluff; Germany could no longer pose as honest broker but
had to decide whether it was for or against a Russian effort to seize
the Straits of Constantinople. Germany was against, and this
re-inforced the Czar's hesitations, already evident to his
representatives. (The Russian archives indicate that he had decided
to compromise even before the train episode, but Disraeli did not
know this and, in any event, the story is too good to dismiss.) As
for the final piece of the puzzle, Bosnia-Herzegovina was to remain
under Ottoman sovereignty but with Austrian administration, thereby
giving Andrassy what he wanted: a strategic piece in the Balkans but
without incorporating a Slavic population that would upset the
Hungarians in the Dual Monarchy.

Because Disraeli knew what he wanted, he turned the Congress into a
triumph despite infirmities that would have disabled most men.
Salisbury himself (and his nephew, Arthur James Balfour, who assisted
his uncle at Berlin) noted that the chief was too deaf and too
ignorant of French to follow much of the proceedings. Lord Odo
Russell had evidently talked Disraeli out of addressing the Congress
in French on the opening day by pointing out that he would thereby
deprive the audience of the "greatest living master of English
oratory." Dizzy smiled his sphinx smile; Russell was never sure
whether he took the compliment or the hint. In the event he spoke
English, which offended the Russians.

Peace with Honor

After signing the Treaty of Berlin on July 13, Disraeli returned in
triumph to England. He proclaimed "peace with honour" from his office
at Downing Street, a phrase that still echoed sixty years later when
Chamberlain brought neither peace nor honor from Munich. But then
there was Gladstone thundering against yet another deal with the
"unspeakable Turk." Disraeli delivered a glorious counter-stroke,
calling Gladstone "a sophistical rhetorician inebriated with the
exuberance of his own verbosity." In the peals of laughter attending
that phrase, Gladstone's pieties had no chance.

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