Chapter 20 Nation-States and Empires in Europe: 1814-1914

Section 3 Aging Empires in the East

While nationalism triumphed in Italy and Germany, accompanied by varying degrees of representative constitutionalism and democracy, in the east the aging empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Turks remained essentially conservative, authoritarian, multiethnic, multicultural, and multinational. Even there, however, demands for liberal reforms and independence were heard. Influenced by liberalism and forced to contain nationalist fires, imperial rulers by turns enacted harsh measures and initiated limited reforms aimed at modernizing and strengthening imperial rule. Meanwhile, international rivalries caused some European powers to support the survival of the Ottoman Empire while others sought to dismember it.

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The Empire of Austria-Hungary

“When France sneezes, all Europe catches cold,”[39] observed Austrian Prime Minister Metternich. The French “sneeze” was the uprising in 1848 that set off revolts in almost every other European nation, including Austria. In Vienna, demonstrators clashed with imperial soldiers and forced Metternich to resign. Emperor Ferdinand soon abdicated, and the throne went to his young nephew, Francis Joseph I.[40] The young emperor dominated Austrian affairs for the next 68 years. 

Restoring order.  Francis Joseph barely held the tattered remnants of his empire together in 1848. The Hungarian Magyars had rebelled against Austrian rule, and for a time it looked as though they would win their independence. However, Czar Nicholas I sent Russian troops to help Austria crush the revolt. The emperor then abolished the liberal reforms enacted in 1848. However, he could not stamp out nationalism in his multi-ethnic empire.

            In 1859 Austria lost the province of Lombardy to the rising new Italian state. Seven years later, in 1866, defeat in the Seven Weeks’ War with Prussia provided an opening for the Hungarian rebels, who once again rose in revolt. This time, instead of fighting the Hungarians, the cash-strapped emperor agreed to grant Hungary a constitution and share power in what became known as the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. All these losses only confirmed the emperor in his conviction that liberalism and modernizing trends in the empire were dangerous. Such conservative attitudes and policies retarded efforts to modernize and industrialize the empire—especially its eastern European provinces. 

Vienna's cultural life.  Although the empire had declined politically, its cultural life reached lofty heights. Cosmopolitan Vienna ruled as the empire’s cultural center. Artists, musicians, architects, scientists, philosophers, and writers contributed to Vienna's cultural and scientific flowering. With its many ethnic groups, Vienna offered a wealth of musical styles. Elegant, carefree Viennese waltzes by Johann Strauss became popular throughout Europe. Wealthy aristocratic and middle-class patrons supported the Vienna Opera, conducted by composer Gustav Mahler.

            Architects transformed the city by laying out a grand boulevard and building monumental buildings in many different historical styles. Some architects, including Adolf Loos, rebelled against the old styles and designed modern, functional public buildings, train stations, and houses for the prosperous middle class. Interior designers in the Wiener Werkstätte, or “Vienna Workshops,” reacted against mass-produced items and began designing finely crafted and functional furniture and jewelry. A similar rebellion occurred in art, where painter Gustav Klimt led a group of artists who adopted Modernist styles and themes. 

The Russian Empire

Like the Habsburgs, the Romanoff dynasty in Russia also found itself grappling with liberal demands in the 19th century. By 1800, the Russian Empire was the largest and most diverse nation in Europe. Since the late 1500s, Ivan the Terrible and his successors had expanded their territories west into the Balkans and south into the Caucasus. In these vast lands lived a great number of culturally distinct ethnic groups, including Poles, Ukrainians, Finns, Jews, and Estonians. The empire had also expanded east—across the Urals and eventually all the way to the Pacific coast. Russian fur traders had even established bases in North America—where they established settlements in Alaska and along the Pacific coast. Thus the czars also came to rule the varied peoples of Central Asia and Siberia—Uzbecks, Chechens, Tadjiks, and others.

            Under Peter the Great, one of the main objects of all this expansion had been the Russian desire to obtain warm water ports that would provide easy, year-round access to the world’s oceans—the highways of international commerce and trade. In addition, devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church, many Russians came to believe that they had a divine mission to extend Orthodox rule in the world. 

Repression under Nicholas I. The Russian czar ruled over the empire as a supreme autocrat. As with other parts of Europe, however, Russia too experienced the influence of revolutionary ideas during the Napoleonic era. Army officers who served outside of Russia while fighting the French were particularly influenced by liberal ideals. When Czar Alexander I died in 1825, some of these officers seized their opportunity. On a chill December day, thousands of soldiers gathered near the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and demanded an end to autocracy.

            With the sound of echoing gunshots, the new czar—Alexander’s 29-year-old brother, Nicholas I—appeared on horseback in the crowded square. Loyal officers advised Nicholas to crush the revolt. “You want me to shed the blood of my subjects on the first day of my reign?”[41] asked Nicholas incredulously. But he followed their advice, and loyal soldiers crushed the rebellion. Nicholas enacted repressive measures to avoid another revolt. He organized a secret police to spy on suspected revolutionary groups and imposed strict censorship.

            Nicholas continued the expansion of the empire. In the south he tried to gain territory at the expense of the Ottomans. In the east he encouraged settlement beyond the Ural Mountains and sent Russian military forces into Central Asia. Not only did they forcefully incorporate many Central Asian territories into the empire, they also stirred up trouble in the frontier regions of British India—which the Russians saw as a block to their plans to obtain access to the Indian Ocean. In the 1830s, Nicholas began a program of Russification designed to force the empire's diverse subjects to use the Russian language, accept the Orthodox religion, and adopt Russian customs.[42]

Reforms of Alexander II.  After Nicholas's death in 1855, his son Alexander II came to the throne. The British ambassador judged the new czar too weak “to deal with the mass of corruption which pervades every class in this country.”[43] But Nicholas surprised his critics. In 1861 he issued the Emancipation Law freeing the serfs. “It is better to abolish serfdom from above,” he argued, “than to wait until the serfs begin to liberate themselves from below.”[44] In 1864, Alexander also reorganized local government. He allowed rural districts to elect zemstvos, local councils to oversee poor relief, education, and public health.[45]

            Instead of solving social tensions in Russia, however, emancipation fuelled them in some ways. For example, the government provided land to village communes, which distributed it to peasants according to their needs.[46] However, the peasants had to pay for the land, often at inflated prices, and there was not nearly enough to go around. One British observer remarked: 

“The Emancipation Law did not confer on the peasants as much land as they require, and consequently the peasant who has merely his legal portion has neither enough of work nor enough of revenue.”[47] 

Radicals and government reaction. Despite these reforms, the late 1860s witnessed a surge of radical movements opposed to the czar. Many intellectuals of the middle and upper classes became nihilists—they believed that traditional social and economic institutions had to be utterly destroyed in order to build a new Russia. Other revolutionaries, called Populists, wanted to rebuild society along the lines of communal peasant villages. Both nihilists and Populists sometimes resorted to terrorism. In 1881, for example, a Populist assassinated Alexander II.[48]

            Alexander’s assassination convinced his son and successor, Alexander III, that reforms of any kind were a mistake.[49] He and his successor Nicholas II pursued a policy of harsh repression. They intensified Russification and persecuted non-Russians[50] in the empire. They strengthened the secret police.[51] Political opponents were often executed or sent into exile in Siberia. They also persecuted Jews with pogroms (poh-gruhmz), officially organized massacres designed to frighten all Jews out of Russia.[52] 

The Revolution of 1905. By the early 1900s, Russia was in turmoil. Peasant uprisings erupted in rural areas, and students demonstrated in the cities.[53] In 1905, Japan defeated Russia in a war over territory in east Asia. The outcome of the Russo-Japanese War convinced many people that the government was much too corrupt, inefficient, and irresponsible. In January 1905 a huge group of unarmed workers converged upon St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace to present a petition for reforms to the czar. Imperial troops fired on the crowd, however, killing more than 100 people.[54] This massacre, called Bloody Sunday, triggered the Revolution of 1905. Throughout the summer, there were strikes, peasant uprisings, and military revolts.[55]

            To stem the revolutionary tide, Czar Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto, which created a constitutional monarchy. Within two years, however, Nicholas began to chip away at the rights he had granted. He took the vote away from all but wealthy landowners.[56] He also reimposed press censorship, held sham trials for accused terrorists,[57] and set up police surveillance of suspected revolutionaries.[58] With renewed repression, discontent in Russia continued to grow.

The Ottoman Empire

Like the empires of Austria-Hungary and Russia, the Ottoman Empire ruled over a vast multi-ethnic territory. Macedonians, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Romanians populated the Ottoman's European territory. The ruling Turks clustered in Asia Minor, while Armenians, Syrians, Arabs, Jews, and Egyptians filled the rest of the empire. In decline since the late 1600s, however, the empire could barely control the fires of nationalism fanned by events in Europe. In addition, the rising power of Western civilization with its increasingly powerful technology created a crisis for many Muslims. Responses to this crisis contributed to a breakdown of the empire’s unity. 

Traditionalist reaction to the West. Many devout Muslims came to believe that Islamic weakness was due to the failure of Islamic rulers to follow the true path of the Prophet Muhammad. In the mid-1700s, for example, the Muslim reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab preached a rejection of modern innovations and a return to the simpler days of Muhammad. With the help of Muhammad ibn Sa’ud, chief of a small Bedouin tribe in east central Arabia, the Wahhabis spread their message through conquest. In the early 1800s, the new Wahhabi state, ruled from the Sa’udi capital at Riyadh, covered most of Arabia and part of Syria. Eventually, the Ottoman governor of Egypt defeated the Sa’udi armies and suppressed the Wahhabi movement, but not before its ideas had influenced others in the empire. 

Mahmud II’s reforms. While the Wahhabis preached reform along traditional lines, many Ottoman leaders came to believe that only modernizing reforms along Western lines could save the empire. Until the early 1800s, conservative elements in Ottoman society, such as the ulama and the increasingly corrupt Janissary Corps, managed to prevent such modern reforms. In 1808, however, Sultan Mahmud II ascended the throne determined to modernize. He began with the army, raising new forces organized along European lines. When the Janissaries opposed him, in 1826 he used his new forces to destroy them, killing some 6,000.

            Mahmud also modernized the empire’s archaic government. He divided government administration into specialized ministries and departments and filled them with trained bureaucrats. To reduce the power of the ulama, he took away their power to collect their own revenues. He started a government newspaper to publicize his reforms and to inform his subjects about events in other parts of the world. 

The era of Tanzimat. Mahumud’s reforms continued under his son Abdulmecid, who ascended the throne in 1839.[59]&[60] “We deem it right,” the new sultan’s foreign minister Mustafa Resid announced, “to seek by new institutions to give to the Provinces composing the Ottoman Empire the benefit of a good Administration.”[61]  Abdulmecid's reforms included equal legal status for Muslims and non-Muslims, a more efficient tax system, and a fair system of military service. This long era of reforms, known as Tanzimat-i Hayriye, or “Auspicious Restructuring” became known simply as the Tanzimat.[62]

            Along with political reforms came growing industrialization. Steamships, telegraph, and railroads—including the first leg of the famed Orient Express—improved communications. Western influence also brought new interest in education and professional training. Attendance at secular public schools increased for both boys and girls,[63] and teacher-training schools were built. Growing use of the printing press also helped spread liberal ideas from Europe.

            Although designed to strengthen the empire against European influences, in fact the Tanzimat reforms, many of which relied on Western technicians and experts, gave Europeans even more influence. European intervention also increased due to reforms in the religious millet system as European powers claimed the right to “protect” various millets—for example, Britain supported protestant Christians in the empire, France protected Catholics, and Russia looked after Greek Orthodox interests.

New senses of identity. European  interventions and the sultans’ secular reforms worried many Muslims in the empire. While some like the Wahhabis continued to call for a return to the simpler days of the Prophet, others pursued a compromise path. Philosophers and teachers like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and his pupil Muhammad Abduh, for example, called for reforming Islam itself along more modern lines. In particular, they proposed “re-opening the gates of ijtihad [interpretation]”—in other words, allowing human reason to interpret Islamic law in ways compatible with modern science and technology. Al-Afghani also called for Muslims to unite against the challenge of the West—a movement known as Pan-Islamism.[64]

            Still others in the empire, influenced by European nationalism, called for modernization on an ethnic or cultural basis. In Syria and Lebanon, for example, many Christian Arab intellectuals began to advocate pan-Arabism—the unity of all peoples sharing a common Arab cultural heritage. Reform-minded Ottoman officials, influenced by European liberalism and committed to Tanzimat, advocated a sense of unity and identity based on common citizenship in the empire—a movement called Ottomanism. They hoped to revitalize the empire through further liberal reforms—especially the creation of a constitutional monarchy. 

Reform, reaction, and revolution. Perhaps the most influential of these liberal reformers was the grand vizir Midhat Pasha. In 1876 Midhat Pasha unveiled the capstone of the Tanzimat era when he persuaded Sultan Abdulhamid II to institute a consitution. Based on the French and Belgian constitutions, the Ottoman constitution of 1876 created a two-house legislature, guaranteed civil rights for all religious groups, and assured freedom of the press. However, Abdulhamid had accepted the constitution only to prevent the European powers from intervening directly in the empire’s affairs. In 1878, he dismissed Midhat Pasha, revoked the constitution, and began deliberately to supress liberalism in the empire.

            As repression grew in the empire, so too did secret societies devoted to overthrowing Abdulhamid. The most successful was the Committe of Union and Progress, whose members were also called the Young Turks. Mainly well-educated, Westernized army officers and intellectuals, the Young Turks devoted themselves to restoring the constitution. In 1908, soldiers sympathetic to their cause revolted. Confronted by revolution, Abdulhamid quickly gave in to demands to restore the constitution but secretly plotted to regain his absolute power. Finally, in 1909, the Young Turks deposed Abdulhamid and placed his brother Muhammad V on the throne. They also made the Cabinet responsible to the parliament and the sultan became little more than a figurehead.

            Although they initially pursued an Ottomanist policy, as pan-Arab and Pan-Islamic forces continued to challenge imperial unity the new leaders increasingly relied on traditional Turkish power to hold the empire together. Eventually they adopted the creed of Pan-Turkism, which called for the unity of Turkish-speaking peoples, to gather support for their rule. Pan-Turkism, however, only fuelled demands for independence among non-Turks within the empire.

The Eastern Question

Despite the Tanzimat reforms, the Ottoman Empire could not fully defend itself against internal independence movements or European invaders. In the early 1800s, for example, though it remained in the empire in name, Egypt became practically independent under a new dynasty founded by an Albanian adventurer named Muhammad Ali. In 1827, the Greeks achieved full independence, after European intervention against the Ottoman fleet at the naval battle of Navarino.[65] In the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-1829, Russia also forced the Ottomans to accept self-rule for Serbia, Russian access to the Danube River, and Russian control of territory in the Caucasus.[66]

            Europeans called the Ottoman Empire “the Sick Man of Europe” because they were sure it would soon collapse from such pressures. If it did, who would inherit the Sick Man’s estate? This problem became known as the Eastern Question, and Russia, France, Austria, and Great Britain competed to answer it. At the heart of the controversy was Russia’s long-standing desire to control Istanbul and the Straits that would at last give it access to the Mediterranean. Ranged against this imperial ambition were France, Britain, and the Ottomans, all of whom feared Russian expansion for their own reasons.

The Crimean War. In 1854 a dispute in the Holy Land touched off another war. Russia objected when Roman Catholics, protected by France, were granted control of holy places in Palestine. When the Ottomans denied Orthodox Christians the same rights, the Russian czar invaded Ottoman territories in July 1853. Great Britain—worried that Russian expansion onto Ottoman lands would threaten its rich trade in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as the overland route to the British Indian empire—joined France in an alliance against Russia. Austria, once Russia's closest ally, feared Russian expansion into Ottoman territory on its borders and refused to side with the czar. Most of the fighting took place in the Russian Crimea, a peninsula on the north shores of the Black Sea.

            The Crimean War has been called “the most unnecessary war in history.” After two years of fighting, the war reached a stalemate. The fierce battles and epidemics of cholera had taken a heavy toll on soldiers on both sides. Conditions in the crowded and filthy field hospitals were almost worse than the battlefield. As nurse Florence Nightingale explained: 

“civilians can have little idea, from reading the newspapers, of the horror & misery in a military Hosp[ita]l of operating upon these dying exhausted men.…We now have 4 miles of beds—& not 18 inches apart.”[67] 

BIO Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy, in 1820. Her aristocratic British parents at first blocked her ambition to become a nurse, but at age 31, Nightingale overcame her family's protest and went to Germany to study nursing. After she returned to England, she was named superintendent of a London hospital. Her complete reorganization of the hospital won her much praise, and she was appointed head of a group of nurses sent to the Crimean front.

            On her arrival in the Crimea in 1854, Nightingale immediately took charge of cleaning the filthy wards to control the spread of disease. She used her own funds and donations to supply food, eating utensils, clothes, and bedding to the wounded soldiers. These supplies, and the care given by the nurses, helped improve morale. Also, Nightingale's frequent reports about the bad conditions led to reforms. By the end of her first year in the Crimea, the mortality rate had decreased from 42 percent to 22 percent.[68] After the war, Nightingale crusaded for—and won—reforms in the administration of British military hospitals and professional training programs for nurses. Before her death in 1910, she received the British Order of Merit for her crusading medical work. 

The Congress of Berlin.  The Crimean War only temporarily halted Russian ambitions. In 1877, Russia once again went to war with the Ottomans, this time on behalf of Balkan provinces that had rebelled against Ottoman rule. Though the Turks won the war’s early battles, they were ultimately defeated. The terms of the peace treaty granted independence to Romania, Montenegro, and Serbia, and created a large Bulgarian state under Russian control.

            With Russian troops almost at the gates of Constantinople, however, the other European powers became alarmed. Promising to be “an honest broker,”[69] Prussian chancellor Bismarck served as host of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to discuss the situation. In fact, the real purpose of the Congress was to overturn the gains Russia had made against the Ottomans.

            “All questions are publicly introduced and then privately settled,”[70] noted British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli of the secret agreements that dominated the negotiations. The British agreed that Russia should have part of Bulgaria—but a much smaller and less strategically important part than the Russians had initially taken. To counterbalance Russia in Bulgaria they also privately agreed to the Austrian occupation of Bosnia.

            To protect access to the newly built Suez Canal, now the shortest route to British India, Disraeli obtained control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. Although dismembered, for the time being the Ottoman Empire had been saved—primarily because of Britain’s desire to keep the empire as a buffer against Russian expansion that might threaten British control of India.

Section 3 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:




October Manifesto

Dual Monarchy



Young Turks

Congress of Berlin

LOCATE and explain the significance of the following:

St. Petersburg


Balkan Peninsula


1.      MAIN IDEA  What major reforms did the Russian czars implement?

2.      MAIN IDEA  How did the Ottoman sultans try to strengthen their empire?

3.      GEOGRAPHY  Which geographic region was the scene of major international conflicts from the 1820s on? Why were there so many wars fought there?

4.      WRITING TO PERSUADE  Imagine that you are a Hungarian nationalist. Write a short speech explaining why the Dual Monarchy is or is not good for Hungary.

5.      COMPARING  Write an essay comparing which empire—Russia, Austria-Hungary, or Ottoman—was the most successful in dealing with the challenges of liberalism and nationalism.