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For God and Nation 10 juillet 2011

Posted by Acturca in Books / Livres, History / Histoire, Russia / Russie, Turkey / Turquie.
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The New York Times (USA) July 10, 2011, p. BR19
Sunday Book Review

Gary J. Bass *

The Crimean War. A History. By Orlando Figes. Illustrated. 576 pages. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, $35; Allen Lane, £30 ( as « Crimea: The Last Crusade »).

The Crimean War was the first major war to be covered by professional foreign correspondents, who reported on the disastrous blundering of commanders and the horrors of medical treatment at the battlefront. Today, we remember fragmentary stories: the charge of the Light Brigade, symbolizing the blundering; Florence Nightingale, for the medical treatment. But the real war has faded away, eclipsed by the two vastly worse world wars that were to come.

Still, the Crimean War – in which three-quarters of a million soldiers and untold multitudes of civilians perished – shattered almost four decades of European peace. It inflamed Russia’s rivalry with the Ottoman Empire over the Balkans, providing the tinder for World War I. And by thwarting Russian’s ambitions in Europe, it made possible the fatal rise of Germany.

In « The Crimean War: A History, » Orlando Figes restores the conflict – which predated the American Civil War by eight years – as « a major turning point » in European and Middle Eastern history. He argues forcefully that it was « the earliest example of a truly modern war – fought with new industrial technologies, modern rifles, steamships and railways, novel forms of logistics and communication like the telegraph, important innovations in military medicine and war reporters and photographers directly on the scene. » The ferocious yearlong siege of Sevastopol « was a precursor of the industrialized trench warfare » of World War I.

The war itself was initiated when religious squabbles over holy places in the Ottoman towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem prompted Russia to march troops into present-day Romania, threatening the partition of Ottoman lands. In response, the Ottoman Empire declared war, and Britain and France rallied to its defense. The devastating combat around the Black Sea proved unbearable for Russia: two-thirds of the soldiers killed in the war were Russian. After losing Sevastopol, Russia accepted a humiliating peace.

Mr. Figes, a renowned professor of history at the University of London, might be thought the loneliest of creatures, the Crimean War buff. But his history is a huge success. His harrowing recounting of Sevastopol presents an inferno of military absurdities and gruesome deaths, with people hit by rocks, gored with lances, hacked by swords, decapitated by shells and disemboweled. Mr. Figes artfully uses painstaking archival work – disturbing dust in London, Paris, Istanbul, Moscow and St. Petersburg – to expose the secret machinations of statesmen, but he never overlooks the awful human costs, like the nonchalant willingness of aristocratic Russian officers to sacrifice their peasant soldiers. And the book traces the roots of many modern crises: Britain, trying to create buffer zones against Russia, occupies Afghanistan and considers seizing Baghdad, where a British diplomat blithely proclaims that Sunnis and Shiites « could always be played off against each other. »

This is history with an argument. Mr. Figes maintains that the conflict was essentially a religious war, and he is frustrated that most writers have neglected that theme: « If the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the rise of militant Islam have taught us anything, it is surely that religion plays a vital role in fueling wars. » Mr. Figes writes of Russians and Turks clashing over « religious battlegrounds, the fault line between Orthodoxy and Islam, » and explains that « every nation, none more so than Russia, went to war in the belief that God was on its side. » The title of the British edition of the book is « Crimea: The Last Crusade. »

Mr. Figes presents czarist Russia as a deeply religious state, on a « divine mission » to recapture Constantinople and deliver millions of Orthodox Christians from Ottoman rule. More than anyone, he blames the war on Czar Nicholas I: a militaristic reactionary, a pioneer in the use of secret police and censorship, who Mr. Figes also suggests was mentally ill. In the decisive hours of 1854, as Britain and France threatened war against him, Nicholas failed to make « any calculation » about his military strength or give « any careful thought » to British and French military superiority; he chose war in a « purely emotional reaction. »

As Mr. Figes himself emphasizes, ideologues, whether Islamist or Christianist, who seek historical evidence of a permanent war between Islam and Christianity will have to look elsewhere. Britain and France fought for the Ottoman Empire. And Western and Eastern Christians despised each other, sometimes more than they loathed Muslims. Nicholas, declaring himself the champion of Slavs throughout the Balkans, hoped that Britain would not dare « continue to ally with the Turks and fight with them against Christians. » He was dead wrong. If Britain was on a crusade, it was against Russia, not the Ottoman Empire. Britain spent most of the 19th century trying to thwart Russian expansion, with some Britons dreading Russia as the only land power that might be able to threaten India Mr. Figes depicts Britain as obsessed with the Russian menace to civilization – an obsession, he adds, that partly shaped Cold War attitudes about the Soviet threat.

To resist Russia, Mr. Figes observes, Britain had spent decades trying to revitalize the Ottoman Empire. Many Britons developed a soft spot for the Ottoman Empire, hoping that it could successfully reform itself under British tutelage. Some Anglicans admired Islam, and some influential Britons praised Ottoman religious toleration. These pro-Turkish Britons held « a romantic sympathy for Islam as a basically benign and progressive force, » which was « preferable to the deeply superstitious and only ‘semi-Christian’ Orthodoxy of the Russians. »

The war was also a clash between political systems: British liberalism against Russian absolutism. The freedom-minded British (as well as many French people, despite Napoleon III’s stifling rule) were horrified by Russia’s despotism, and by its bloody suppression of revolutionaries in Poland and Hungary. When the Crimean War came, Mr. Figes writes, the British public saw it as a defense of « British principles » like « liberty, civilization and free trade. »

Mr. Figes, like other scholars, chillingly shows how British freedoms and open institutions helped drive the country into catastrophe: « This was a war – the first war in history – to be brought about by the pressure of the press and by public opinion. » Lord Palmerston, a wartime prime minister whom Mr. Figes calls « the first really modern politician, » had stoked the xenophobic indignation of the British people, while the rabble-rousing press smeared those who questioned the wisdom of the war. Palmerston once said he wanted Britain to be « the champion of justice and right » while « not becoming the Quixote of the world. » In this, as in much else, the Crimean War remains alarmingly relevant.

* Gary J. Bass is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton and the author, most recently, of “Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention.”

Excerpt: ‘The Crimean War

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