The European Congresses and the Armenian Genocide


By Christopher J. Walker

Who were Prince Metternich and Viscount Castlereagh, and what part, if any, did they play in shaping the Armenian Genocide?

They were the two men — one an Austrian prince-diplomat, and the other an Anglo-Irish aristocrat — who grabbed Europe by the scruff of its neck as Napoleon was losing in 1814-15, and formed the system of big-power control of nations and movements of European nations, to try to ensure that everything would in future stay unalterably the same, and that no radical upstarts would disturb their vision of static orderliness. The system they created was known as the “Congress System” and it culminated in the Congress of Berlin (1878), which arguably fixed the fate of Armenians both for Sultan Abdul-Hamid’s murderous outbreaks of 1894-6 and for the desolating Genocide of 1915-16. Those two very reactionary gentlemen did all they could to make sure that power resided with a small elite, that matters of state would never be devolved to the people, and that popular voices would not be heard.

But there were problems. Castlereagh (pronounced ‘castle-ray’) committed suicide in 1822, and his English successor, George Canning, though also politically on the right, responded vigorously to the movement for the liberation of Greece from the grip of the Ottoman Turks, and permitted the British fleet under Admiral Codrington to destroy the Turkish navy at Navarino in 1827. This looked like letting power slip out of the empires and into the people. Metternich thought Canning had been converted to liberalism. And after Canning’s death, the Duke of Wellington (another Anglo-Irish landowner, quite out of sympathy with democracy) called the Navarino engagement an “untoward event.” According to Wellington, the Ottoman Empire should have been left exactly as it was. Greece should never have been set free, but left to the iron control of the Turkish Ottomans.

Even earlier, Britain had walked out of the Congress of Verona of 1822, called to justify the entry of French troops into Spain to quell a revolt. Although this might have seemed like the end of the Congress system, the notion that “big powers” could, with their high-handed decisions and secret agreements, order the future of Europe, persisted. Once the “big diplomats” had tasted the sweets and delicacies of control, they were reluctant to give them up.

In the aftermath of the Greek rebellion, relations grew so bad between Russia and Turkey that war broke out between 1828. The war affected the Balkans rather than the Caucasus, but we remember it for Russia’s first capture of Kars, under General Paskievich. At the conclusion of the war, when Russian troops were threatening to march on the Turkish capital, peace was concluded between Russia and Turkey at Adrianople (in September 1829). What is important for us is that no international “Congress” was set up to make any changes to that peace.

Ideological problems also beset the “concert of Europe.” Right at the outset, the northern powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria established a “holy alliance” based on a kind of mystical Christian fundamentalism. Castlereagh, a man who never understood the idea of religious notions entering politics, to his credit dismissed it as “a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.” But the Holy Alliance had purchase, and its forbidding, far-right posture was seen in action over the next 20 years, especially in Hungary when it dared to revolt.

A big challenge to the super-reactionary forces occurred in 1848, the “year of revolutions” in Europe. The aspirations of ordinary people simply could not be constrained by the creaky croaks of political leaders who wanted everything to stay the same. The people hated the absolute monarchies imposed throughout Europe by reactionary powers, and detested the solutions devised for them by distant bureaucratic empires. They wanted constituent assemblies and some form of representation, they yearned for localism, their local languages and traditions. A wave of popular revolt spread across Europe, against the iron control of the empires, the political sterility, and the Stasi-like surveillance of anything that could be construed as political activity. The revolutions of 1848 were uncoordinated (though inspired by the example of France), and often chaotic; they were largely simple expressions of local discontent, and the heavily armed empires had no difficulty in mobilizing their brutal well-trained troops to crush the popular uprisings.

A few years later the members of the alliance found themselves fighting among themselves — most memorably, Britain and France against Russia in the Crimea in 1853-6. But still the model of the Congress remained, to impose its political will if necessary. The war was concluded by the Congress of Paris, 1856, when Russian aspirations were knocked down by Britain and France, and Russia (for the second time) was forced to evacuate Kars. The Black Sea was neutralized, a position which held until 1870, when Russia decided to dispense with the regulation, and construct a Black Sea fleet. “Congress” remained too valuable a notion to dump, even when the “great powers” were fighting amongst themselves.

And then we had the Congress of Berlin, designed to do little more than curb Russia and increase the diplomatic purchase of Great Britain. Everyone who knows Armenian history of this period will know how Article 16 of the San Stefano treaty, concluded in early 1878 between Ottoman Turkey and Russia, was changed into article 61 of the Berlin Treaty, a change which meant that the administration of Western (Turkish) Armenia was left unreformed, that is, dependent on the non-existent good will of Turkey — whereas if it had been left as it was under the provisions of San Stefano, the reform might have succeeded, since it would have been dependent on the presence of Russian troops. But no significant changes or reforms occurred in Western Armenia, and the misery and discontent grew among the people, culminating in the paranoid outbreaks of killing of Armenians coordinated by the Sultan Abdul Hamid and the armed militia he had created, backed by the military.

If we look at the diplomatic structure of what actually happened, we see the malign influence of the Metternich-Castlereagh pattern. For the San Stefano treaty was perfectly all right on its own terms. It was a natural, local peace treaty, designed to bring to an end hostilities between two empires. But then the rightist, self-important pattern of 1815 heaved into sight. The two powers, Russia and Turkey, were seen as not be trusted to achieve peace between themselves. They were just naughty children, who needed daddy-diplomats to guide them. “We know best” was the tone of the Berlin Congress.

Did they know best? When we look at the hundreds of thousand of Armenians killed in Abdul Hamid’s murderous outbreaks it is hard to say so. These dead were the fruit of international diplomacy by “big powers,” scoffing at the pretensions of local needs, as they determined to impose their power and influence (and financial muscle) across the globe.

The Congress of Berlin was the last of the post 1815 congresses. But the spirit of murderous distrust had been sown among Turks as far as Armenians were concerned, and after 1896 the Turks had seen how they could absolutely and entirely get away with murder without any of their people being convicted in a court of law for mass-killings. So when new ideologies arose after the Young Turk revolution of 1908, seeking a unity of all Turks from Anatolia eastwards, the Turks realized that no one would impede their death-dealing actions towards Armenians. So the events of 1915 unrolled, which we have been commemorating in the centenary year.

Does all this matter now? In a way it does, since, in the new biography of Dr. Henry Kissinger, written by Harvard professor Dr. Niall Ferguson, praise is extended by both the subject and the biographer toward the ‘Congress System’ as an agent of peace. Was the Congress System an agent of peace, or the main diplomatic structure which brought about the Armenian Genocide?

(Christopher J. Walker is a British historian and author. He is the author of several volumes on Armenian history, including The Armenians, with David Marshall Lang, Armenia : The Survival of a Nation, and Armenia and Karabakh.)