Historiography of the Origins of the Crimean War

     Historians have debated the origins of the Crimean War (1853-1856) for nearly 150 years.  As Brison D. Gooch has stated: “Examination of the circumstances which created the Crimean War has proven to be one of modern historiography’s thorniest problems.” (1)  The origins of the conflict are complex and confusing.  Different interpretations of the events leading to the war are attributed to the expanding availability of primary sources from the Western Powers as well as later research in Austrian, Turkish, and Russian archives.  Many historians have concentrated on assigning responsibility for the conflict to certain states or individuals.  This paper focuses on the major contributions to the study of the origins of the conflict from Kinglake in the 1860s to Goldfrank in the 1990s.

     In the first major study of the Crimean War, the British writer Alexander William Kinglake describes the outbreak of the conflict in the first volume of his massive study published in 1863. (2)  He attributes the war to Louis Napoleon’s foreign policy after 1850.  He traces French internal troubles and argues that Louis Napoleon employed an aggressive foreign policy in the eastern Mediterranean to shift the attention of the French away from domestic issues to foreign affairs.  Thus, Louis Napoleon instigated a quarrel with Russia over the Holy Places in the Ottoman Empire, and later drew Britain into the conflict with Russia to protect French interests. (3)  Kinglake finds no fault with British or Turkish policy, but stresses Russia’s ambition to maintain influence over the Ottoman Empire as a major factor. (4)  Kinglake, however, fails to note any sources to support his thesis.  And, as later historians have noted, the author’s anti-French position was probably driven by his personal defeat at the hands of Louis Napoleon in an attempt to gain the favors of a Miss Howard. (5)

     The Russian government responded to attacks on Nicholas I’s policy with the publication of a defense of Russian actions in 1874. (6)  In his study, Baron Alexandre Jomini, a member of the Russian Foreign Office, presents the views of Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov, the Russian Foreign Minister (1856-1882), concerning the events leading to the Crimean War.  The author argues that French foreign policy was responsible for the initial crisis over the Holy Places, and the combination of French, British, and Turkish actions forced Russia into an unwanted conflict.  Nicholas I sought only to maintain the status quo in the Ottoman Empire as well as defend Russian interests concerning the Orthodox Christians. (7)  The study is one-sided, and, like Kinglake, the author fails to use footnotes or refer to documentation to prove his points.

     In another one-side view, the British writer Stanley Lane-Poole defends the actions of Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe in a biography published in 1888. (8)  In this case, Lane-Poole employs the use of Stratford’s memoirs, diplomatic dispatches, and private papers.  He notes Stratford’s long-time diplomatic role in Constantinople, his desire for close Anglo-Turkish relations, and support of Turkish Tanzimat reformers.  The author devotes much attention to Stratford’s sixth mission to Constantinople beginning in 1853.  He stresses the British minister’s attempts to resolve the Holy Places dispute between France, Russia, and Turkey; his advice to the Porte for moderation in dealing with Prince Menshikov’s demands, as well as his encouragement for the Turks to accept the unmodified Vienna Note. (9)  Even once the British Cabinet ordered the British fleet to Constantinople at the onset of the Ninth Russo-Turkish War, Stratford delayed the actual movement of the fleet to the forward operation location in an attempt to avoid war with Russia. (10)  Thus, Lane-Poole attempts to show that Stratford acted as a moderating force in the events leading up to the Crimean War.  Although an uncritical biography, the study is important for its use of Stratford’s papers which were later lost. (11)  Nevertheless, the use of diplomatic correspondence is highly selective and leaves one to ponder what was not included in this biography.

     In his study on Napoleon III, Frederick A. Simpson of Cambridge University defends French foreign policy in the early 1850s. (12)  Employing British and French archival sources, the author professes that Kinglake and other English writers had presented grossly distorted views of Napoleon’s policy for political reasons.  These writers wanted to alienate England from France by persuading the British public that Napoleon had duped England into the Crimean War. (13)  Instead, Simpson shows that Napoleon sought an English alliance and cooperation on the Eastern Question once the issue of the Holy Places had been settled in favor of the French in 1852.  The French Emperor looked to maintain peace in the eastern Mediterranean.  However, the intrigue of Stratford, who Simpson claims sought revenge against Nicholas I for refusing him as British minister to St Petersburg in 1832, inspired the Turks to refuse the Vienna Note and declare war against Russia. (14)  The author also blames Stratford for manipulating the diplomatic situation to involve both the British and French fleets in the war.  In addition to Stratford, the author firmly blames Nicholas I and the Russian rejection of Napoleon’s ultimatum designed to maintain peace for the outbreak of the Crimean War. (15)  Nonetheless, the documentation to support his thesis of Stratford’s responsibility and the view that France was dragged into the war by Britain is less than convincing.

     Supporting the view that Britain shared in the responsibility for the outbreak of war is the interesting study by the British writer Kingsley Martin. (16)  He examines Viscount Palmerston’s, the British Home Secretary (1852-1855), anti-Russian position in the Near East as well as the manipulation of public opinion through the press.  The monograph is based on a study of  contemporary British newspapers, journals, and pamphlets.  The author believes that Lord Aberdeen, the British Prime Minister (1852 -1855), did not support the Russian war desired by Stratford and the Turks.  But, Martin shows how Palmerston and the press steered the public’s existing Russophobia to a public demand for war after the Russians destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope.  The press stressed the disaster as a national humiliation for British policy. (17)  Martin argues that this manipulation of public opinion was vital to Britain’s entry into the war.

     In his monograph, Vernon John Puryear of the University of California at Berkeley examines Anglo-Russian diplomatic and economic relations from 1844 to 1856. (18)  He especially focuses on the imperial rivalry of Britain and Russia in the Near East and the failure of the secret Anglo-Russian agreement of 1844.  The study is based on unpublished and published British and French primary sources as well as British, French, German, and Russian secondary works.  The author begins by pointing out that Lord Aberdeen and Russian Foreign Minister Count Nesselrode concluded a secret verbal agreement concerning Anglo-Russian cooperation over the preservation of the Ottoman Empire, including, if necessary, the possibility of a partition of the Turkish Empire, in 1844. (19)  However, Puryear argues that this agreement was doomed to failure because of the imperial economic rivalry between Britain and Russia in the eastern Mediterranean during the 1840s and 1850s. (20)

     Puryear describes the collapse of the Anglo-Russian agreement during the crisis that led to the Crimean War.  In 1853, Nicholas I, believing that he had the support of Britain, sent Prince Menshikov to Constantinople to browbeat the Turks into accepting Russian demands concerning Orthodox Christians and the Holy Places.  However, the British quickly began to fear Russian intentions in the Near East based on the Menshikov mission and the talks between the British Ambassador to St Petersburg, Sir George Hamilton Seymour, and the Tsar in early 1853.  At this point, so argues Puryear, the strongly anti-Russian Stratford acted without the authorization of the British Cabinet and encouraged the Porte to oppose Russian demands. (21)  The author blames Stratford for a series of events that led to the Russo-Turkish War, Britain’s violation of the Straits Convention of 1841, and finally, the Crimean War. (22)  He, like Simpson, believes that Stratford sought revenge against the Tsar for his rejection in 1832. (23)

     Gavin B. Henderson of the University of Glasgow scrutinizes the talks between Nicholas I and Seymour in 1853 in his brief article originally published in 1933. (24)  The author uses published Russian documents concerning the discussions to provide an interpretation of the Tsar’s intensions.  He believes that Nicholas I, like the British government, supported the preservation of the Ottoman Empire.  Nonetheless, the Tsar feared the imminent collapse of Turkey after the Montenegrin revolt in 1852.  Nicholas I therefore sought an Anglo-Russian agreement on the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to prevent a European war over the Eastern Question.  In the Seymour talks, the Tsar failed to gain an Anglo-Russian partition agreement in the event of the collapse of the Turkish Empire, but he believed that he acquired an agreement with Britain to maintain the status quo in Turkey.  The Tsar, nevertheless, mistakenly thought that Britain accepted the idea that the status quo included Russian domination over Turkey.  This misunderstanding contributed to the Russian decision to occupy the Danubian Principalities of Moravia and Wallachia, which destroyed the diplomatic confidence between Britain and Russia. (25)  Henderson stresses the thesis that Nicholas I was not a plotter of war, but a blunderer, especially since he sought a peaceful settlement of the Eastern Question. (26)

     In contrast to Puryear and Simpson, Harold Temperley of Cambridge University presents a strong defense of British policy and the actions of Stratford in his survey on the origins of the Crimean War. (27)  His study focuses on British policy towards the Ottoman Empire from 1806 to 1854.  Temperley employs British diplomatic and admiralty papers, as well as French, Austrian, and Dutch primary sources.  He stresses British support for the Tanzimat reform movement and the preservation of the Turkish Empire.  As such, London feared the collapse of the Ottoman Empire under the diplomatic and military pressure of Austria, Russia, and France in the early 1850s.  He notes that “so fragile was the Turkish Empire that even slight shocks loosened its structure and capacity for resistance.” (28)  British policy, centered on preserving the empire, aimed to avoid a war in the Near East that would result in the breakup of the Turkish Empire.  In the Menshikov crisis, Temperley argues that the Porte ignored Stratford’s advice and rejected Russia’s demands.  During the ensuing escalation towards war, including the Russian occupation of the Danubian Principalities, the movement of the British and French fleets to Besika Bay, and the Vienna Notes, Stratford continued to work for peace.  He pressed for the Porte’s acceptance of the Vienna Note and delayed the movement of the British fleet to Constantinople. (29)  In fact, the author shows that Stratford’s actions were in line with the instructions of the British Cabinet. (30)  The British Cabinet, pressed by public opinion, deployed the fleet into the Black Sea and sought war only after the Sinope disaster in November 1853. (31)  Thus, Temperley places much of the responsibility on London for British involvement in the Crimean War.  British policy in support of the Ottoman Empire had failed.

     Building on the work by Temperley and others, Matthew S. Anderson of the University of London published the best survey of the Eastern Question based on secondary works in 1966. (32)  In his chapter “Anglo-Russian Relations and the Crimean War, 1841-1856,” the author investigates the breakdown of Russian policy concerning the Near East that resulted in the Crimean War.  Anderson discusses the Anglo-Russian imperial rivalry, and the decline of Russia’s position in the Near East beginning in the mid-1840s.  He notes the steady increase in international tension during the revolutions of 1848, as well as the crises concerning Louis Napoleon’s intrigues in the Levant over the Holy Places in the early 1850s and Austria’s designs on Montenegro in 1852-53.  According to Anderson, Nicholas I perceived that the Ottoman Empire was about the collapse based upon the Porte’s submission to France and Austria.  The Tsar, seeking to maintain the status quo in the Near East and avoid a conflict, sought an Anglo-Russian agreement regarding spheres of influence in case the Ottoman Empire disintegrated.  He agrees that the suggestion of a partition of the Ottoman Empire was a Russian diplomatic mistake, since it only made British leaders suspicious of St Petersburg’s intentions.

     Disturbed at the decline of Russia’s position over the protectorship of the Holy Places, Nicholas I sought to restore Russian prestige in the Levant by forcing the Sultan to abandon the French position.  Basing his opinion on the results of the Austro-Turkish dispute over Montenegro, he believed that the Porte would submit to either diplomatic or military pressure (the Menshikov mission and occupation of the Danubian Principalities) and reaffirm Russia’s rights as the protector of the Holy Places. (33)  He miscalculated the Turkish response to such pressure.  Both Britain and France deployed their fleets off the shores of Turkey in support of the Porte’s opposition to Russian demands.  The Tsar’s diplomacy had taken Russia to the brink of war, despite no intentions of forcing a conflict.  Fearing such a war, the Great Powers agreed to the Vienna Note (August 1853), but the Porte refused to accept Great Power mediation, and declared war on Russia in October 1853.

     In spite of a Turkish offensive, Nicholas I kept his forces on the defensive, still hoping the Great Powers would influence the Porte to call off the war.  He had no desire to fight and conquer the Ottoman Empire.  However, the Russian fleet destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope in an action designed to prevent Turkish reinforcements from deploying to the Caucasus in November 1853.  Both Britain and France quickly responded by deploying their fleets into the Black Sea to protect Turkey against Russian aggression.  Anderson agrees with Kingsley Martin that public opinion pressured British leaders into forming an alliance with France and the Ottoman Empire, and declaring war on Russia in March 1854.  Britain fought to protect the Ottoman Empire from Russian domination.  Anderson believes that the diplomacy of Britain, France, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire were to blame for the resulting Crimean War, but he places much blame on British Russophobia and public pressure demanding war in support of the Turks.  He, however, stresses that “the Crimean War was . . . the outcome of a series of misjudgments, misunderstandings and blunders, of stupidity, pride and obstinacy rather than of ill will.  More than any great war of modern times, it took place by accident.” (34)

     In his study on the Crimean War, Paul W. Schroeder of the University of Illinois focuses on the diplomacy of Britain and Austria. (35)  Basing his view on research in British, Austrian, and French archives, the author argues that the conflict resulted from the failure of the Great Powers to cooperate in the crisis leading up to the outbreak of war in the Near East.  He stresses that the British Cabinet’s hostility towards both Russia and Austria made a peaceful resolution of the crisis impossible.  Schroeder blames the British policy of confrontation towards Russia with the aim of destroying Russian influence in the Near East as a major contributor to the collapse of the Concert of Europe. (36)  Moreover, London’s hostility to Austria doomed each of Vienna’s attempts to mediate the crisis.  The cabinet was suspicious of Austrian intentions and believed that Vienna would side with Russia as the game unfolded. (37)  The lack of Anglo-Austrian cooperation and the cabinet’s tactics of confrontation against Russia were inspired by Britain’s desire to control the destiny of the Ottoman Empire.  Schroeder lays much of the blame for the war on Palmerston.

     In contrast to Britain’s policy of confrontation, Schroeder describes Austrian attempts to employ traditional diplomacy to avert a war.  Count von Buol-Schauenstein, the Austrian Foreign Minister, continuously sought a European solution to the Eastern Question.  His main effort involved the Vienna Note compromise.  But, Viennese diplomacy failed to obtain the acceptance of the Sultan.  The author blames Britain’s minimal support of the Vienna Note for the failure of Austrian diplomacy.  London sought to protect the Turks, and viewed the Austrian proposal as a “cunning Austro-Russian trick” in a plot designed to partition the Ottoman Empire. (38)  Buol continued his efforts to mediate the crisis despite the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War.  However, the Austrian Foreign Minister failed to gain Britain’s trust, as well as dampen Palmerston’s quest to cripple Russia both militarily and territorially. (39)  Schroeder emphasizes that Britain’s policy of confrontation led to the Crimean War and the destruction of the European concert.  The study, however, lacks a discussion of Russian diplomatic and military actions which contributed to the outbreak of the war.

     In The Origins of the Crimean Alliance, Ann Pottinger Saab of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro fills a long standing gap in the historiography of the origins of the Crimean War. (40)  The author examines the events leading up to the outbreak of war employing research in Turkish as well as British, French, and Austrian archives.  In specific, she scrutinizes the actions of the Turkish government in the conflict with Russia.  The author argues that the Porte, under the influence of the war party, refused to negotiate an acceptable diplomatic compromise designed to avert conflict, believing war the only acceptable course of action against Russia.

     She begins by describing the Turkish reaction to the Menshikov mission.  The Porte refused to accept Russian demands, viewing them as extensive and humiliating.  Instead, the Turks began their cumbersome process of military mobilization for war.  The Russian occupation of the Danubian Principalities benefitted the Turkish war party’s call for conflict in an effort to maintain the disintegrating Ottoman Empire.  The increasing strength of the war party resulted in the Porte’s rejection of the Vienna Note.  Saab stresses Stratford’s innocence in the Sultan’s declination of the note. (41)  She argues that the note had no chance of acceptance by the Porte because of its Austrian sponsorship as well as “irreconcilable differences” between Turkey and Russia.  The Sultan and his advisors believed the note to be part of an Austro-Russian plot against the Ottoman Empire.  They knew that Austrian forces were already massing on the Serbian and Montenegrin borders. (42)

     Any prospect of a peaceful resolution to the crisis was lost in the Turkish call for a holy war.  The influence of the war party and the masses forced the Sultan and his few remaining advisors from the reform party to agree to a declaration of war against Russia in September 1853.  Saab once again notes that this decision was made contrary to the advice of Stratford. (43)  She points out that the Sultan based his decision on an overrated estimate of Turkish forces and the belief that “it was more honorable to die in battle than standing still.” (44)

     In the initial stage of the Russo-Turkish War, the Sultan’s forces defeated Russian troops on two fronts.  The victory at Olteniţa led to exaggerated Turkish expectations and raised the Sultan’s terms for peace.  In fact, the Porte sought to challenge Russian for control of the Black Sea.  Nicolas I, however, looked to deliver the knockout blow, and so destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope.  Even so, the Turks refused to give in to Russian terms, still believing in a possible victory.  Thus, Britain and France were forced to deploy their fleets into the Black Sea to deter Russian forces from attacking Turkish lands and forcing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Saab stresses that this action began the inevitable drift towards the alliance between Britain, France, and Turkey and the beginning of the Crimean War.

     Addressing responsibility for the conflict, Saab blames Nicholas I for the Russian occupation of the Danubian Principalities which forced the Turks to fight the Russo-Turkish War.  Nevertheless, she notes the Turkish enthusiasm for a war against Russia to not only save face, but also to maintain the Ottoman Empire.  The shared Anglo-French desire to maintain the Turkish Empire and their influence in the Near East led to their eventual military involvement in the conflict.  The author stresses the underlying belief at the Porte as well as its role in Turkish decision-making that Britain and France would support Turkey in a war with Russia.

     Using Russian archival sources, John Shelton Curtiss of Duke University examines the role of Russia in the origins and conduct of the Crimean War in his massive study. (45)  He stresses that Nicholas I risked war in facing the challenge to Russian prestige and influence in the Levant during 1852-1854.  Even so, Curtiss argues that the Tsar strongly desired to avoid war with the Porte and the Western Powers.  He professes that the Western Powers and Turkey were more responsible than Russia for the outbreak of the war as well as the prolongation of the conflict.

     The author begins by relating the dispute over the Holy Places and the Menshikov mission to Constantinople.  After the Porte had conceded to the demands of France over the Holy Places, Nicholas I sought to reverse this decision through diplomatic and military means to restore the status quo in the Ottoman Empire that had been favorable to Russia.  Russian prestige, influence, strategic interests, and vital economic concerns were at stake.  In the ensuring Constantinople talks, the French, Russians, and Turks averted a war and agreed to a compromise solution in May 1853.  Nonetheless, the Turks, under the influence of Stratford, failed to fulfill their end of the bargain with a written guarantee of Russian rights in the Ottoman Empire. (46)  With British support, the Porte was willing to risk a confrontation with Russia.  The Tsar, on the other hand, believed that the military pressure of a Russian occupation of the Danubian Principalities would browbeat the Porte into submission.  Nicholas I believed he had French, British, and Austrian support against the Turks, especially since the Vienna Note accepted his demands.

     Curtiss emphasizes that the Tsar strongly believed in the need for Russia to maintain influence over the Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire.  This determination rested on his belief in suppressing revolutionary forces in the Balkans.  The author writes that Nicholas I:

felt it essential to keep strong control over the Christians of Turkey lest they, by revolting against the Sultan, should unleash the revolutionary whirlwind over Eastern Europe.  The Tsar had set his face against change and wanted to use his influence over the Christians of Turkey to keep them from rebellion.  He wished, certainly, to obtain a more bearable existence for them, but chiefly in order, as he repeatedly said, to remove the incentive for rebellion against the Ottoman rulers. (47)

With such a viewpoint the Tsar refused to evacuate the Danubian Principalities until the Turks fulfilled their part of the Holy Places agreement.

     Although seeking to avoid war, the Tsar was confronted with a Turkish declaration of war in October 1853.  Nicholas I reacted by attempting to limit the war between Russia and Turkey.  He ordered Russian forces to remain on the defensive against Turkish advances.  But, the Russian attempt to prevent the Turks from reinforcing the Caucasus resulted in the victory of Sinope and the rapid escalation towards war with Britain and France.

     Curtiss notes the change in British and French policies towards Russia, basing their support for Turkey and hostility towards Russia on their fear of Russian military power, especially after Sinope.  He points out that the Tsar ignored the Anglo-French ultimatum to evacuate the Danubian Principalities in February 1854 because Russian prestige was at stake.  The author stresses Nicholas I’s desire for a compromise peace while Britain, France, and Turkey called for war.  In fact, Curtiss argues that “while all three of the Powers [Britain, France, and Russia] , along with Turkey, were responsible for the coming of the Crimean War, the primary blame for it rests first of all with Britain and also with France, and to a lesser degree with Russia.” (48)

     In Why the Crimean War?, Norman Rich of Brown University agrees with the arguments of Curtiss. (49)  Basing his views on secondary sources, Rich asserts the thesis that the Crimean War was fought “primarily to halt the process of Russian expansion and eliminate the Russian threat to the security and interests of the states of Europe and the Ottoman Empire.” (50)  The Western Powers’ policy of containing Russia included “rolling back the frontiers of the Russian Empire and liberating the non-Russian nationalities of the empire’s frontier regions.” (51)  The containment policy developed from the Western Powers’ fear of Russian military power and influence in Eastern Europe and the Near East.  He insists that Britain and France were anxious to prevent a further increase in Russian power and influence in the Ottoman Empire.  In the Seymour conversations and Menshikov mission the British Cabinet perceived Nicholas I as attempting to expand Russian influence over the Ottoman Empire.  But, Rich agrees with other historians that the Tsar sought only to restore the status quo in the Near East as well as maintain the Turkish Empire as a buffer zone against the Western Powers. (52)

     Rich blames the British policy of containment for the Crimean War.  He especially points out the influence of Stratford over the Turks in their dealings with Menshikov and the Vienna Note. (53)  British support for the Turkish position resulted in the Porte standing up to Russian demands.  The Russian occupation of the Danubian Principalities and the victory of Sinope both increased British Russophobia and the call for containment of the Russian menace.

     In his study, David M. Goldfrank of Georgetown University calls the series of events leading to the Crimean War as “bizarre,” and firmly believes that the conflict could have been avoided “if the leadership of every major power in 1853 had acted rationally in its own imperialistic interests.” (54)  The work is based on extensive archival research in Russia, Britain, France, Austria, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, and The Netherlands.  The study is most important for its primary source research in numerous Russian archives under Glasnost.

     In contrast to the modern studies of Schroeder, Curtiss, and Rich, Goldfrank blames Nicholas I for the outbreak of the Crimean War. (55)  He stresses the Tsar’s mistakes in attempting to intimidate the Turks with the Menshikov mission, the insistence on a written Turkish guarantee of Russian rights over the Holy Places in the Ottoman Empire, and the threat of a Russian occupation of the Danubian Principalities as a means to pressure the Porte into providing the written guarantee.  Having threatened to occupy Moldavia and Wallachia, the Tsar was forced to proceed with the occupation when the Turks called his bluff “lest he appear the fool in the face of the Turks and the Ottoman Orthodox, Europe and also, so he thought, his subjects.” (56)  At this point, the Porte would not back down, and thus began war preparations.  Meanwhile, the Tsar looked for a compromise solution, but he would not risk the loss of prestige by evacuating the Danubian Principalities without a written guarantee over the Holy Places.  As the author describes the situation:

Most of Europe’s top statesmen and diplomats were fearful, anxious and frustrated.  They considered the Holy Places to have been a stupid pretext for an international crisis, but blames Nicholas for escalating it and the Turks for not ceding.  Both sides seemed incomprehensible, since Russia was becoming more and more isolated, but the Turks could not possibly win a war. (57)

Goldfrank insists that if the Tsar really wanted to avoid war, he would have accepted the modified Vienna Note, evacuated the Danubian Principalities, and waited for the collapse of the Anglo-French entente in Constantinople to regain influence in the Ottoman Empire. (58)

The author views the occupation of the Danubian Principalities as the key point in the escalation of the crisis towards both the Russo-Turkish War and Crimean War.  He notes Palmerston’s passion for a Russian war after the occupation as well as his key role in escalating the Russo-Turkish War into the Crimean War.  But, Goldfrank emphasizes the role of Stratford in attempting to avoid war in the Near East. (59)

     In conclusion, the historiography of the origins of the Crimean War remains a complex and confusing subject.  The conflict resulted from the Bonapartist challenge in the Near East, the Anglo-Russian “Great Game,” and the legacy of Russo-Turkish hostilities. (60)  The war was really two conflicts: the Ninth Russo-Turkish War, which the Western Powers escalated into the Crimean War.

     In their studies of the wars, historians have presented different interpretations based on personal bias in the early studies and archival research in the later works.  The increasing availability of unpublished and published primary sources have allowed historians to research and produce more knowledgeable and balanced studies on the Crimean War. (61)  Commenting on the historiography of the conflict, Enno E. Kraehe of the University of Virginia has written: “Not until more than a century after the fighting stopped did serious historians begin to wrest control of Crimean War historiography from poets, popular journalists, and scapegoat seekers.” (62)

     The first studies attempting to employ archival research to interpret the outbreak of war were based on British primary sources, largely due to the availability of documents to British historians.  Lane-Poole explained the actions of Stratford, Simpson defended the policy of Napoleon III, Martin illuminated Palmerston’s use of the British press and his manipulation of public opinion into a war frenzy, Puryear blamed the war on the Anglo-Russian imperial rivalry, and Temperley defended Stratford’s actions based largely on British diplomatic and admiralty papers, memoirs, private correspondence, and newspapers.  Modern research had continued to employ these sources, but historians have also expanded their research into Austrian, French, Turkish, Russian, Belgian, Dutch, Italian, Swedish, and German archives.  The monograph by Schroeder presents the conflict between Austrian, British, and Russian diplomacy.  Using Turkish archival sources, Saab examines the role of the Porte in the events leading up to the outbreak of both wars.  Curtiss and, more importantly, Goldfrank employ Russian sources to explain the role of Nicholas I.  Rich claims to provide a balanced survey of the Crimean War based on secondary sources.  However, his interpretation includes the use of many dated views of British policy, especially those focused on the role of Stratford.  Goldfrank not only provides a study based on archival research in nine countries, but his study is arguably the best available, balanced survey of the origins of the Crimean War.

     Even so, the lack of a modern study on Napoleon III’s policy leading up to the conflict remains a serious gap in the historiography of the war. (63)  Many historians, including Goldfrank, have used research from the Archives de l’Armée and Archive du Ministère des affaires étrangères in Paris.  Nonetheless, there are too few documents available to explain Napoleon III’s policy during the early 1850s.  The gap results from Napoleon III’s personal habit of minimal letter writing, as well as the fact that few have survived over the years. (64)  Moreover, he frequently bypassed the Foreign Ministry and practiced his own personal secret diplomacy. (66)  As J.P.T. Bury has stated:

The Emperor liked to employ unofficial agents and bypass the regular channels of the Foreign Ministry; . . . he preferred methods that were clandestine, secret conciliabule and interviews at which he was the sole French negotiator.  Thus, in the realm of foreign policy still more than any other department of state, his ministers were often . . . “not counselors, but mere executors of designs of which they only see fragments.”  Foreign policy thus was his peculiar prerogative, the Emperor’s secret, just as it has been sometimes in the eighteenth century the “secret of the King.” (66)

     Modern historians have explained the outbreak of war as a series of bizarre events, misunderstandings, an accident, the result of poor decision-making, deliberate action on part of Britain, an attempt by the Western Powers to contain Russian expansionism, the failure of concert diplomacy, and the result of Russian aggression.  The established facts are that the conflict resulted from a struggle for influence over the Ottoman Empire between the Western Powers, Russia, and to a limited extent, Austria.  The Sultan’s decision in favor of France over the Holy Places stirred Nicholas I towards attempting to reestablish Russian influence over the Ottoman Empire.  The Tsar’s foreign policy and the Russian occupation of the Danubian Principalities triggered the Russo-Turkish War, and the decisions of the British Cabinet escalated the conflict into the Crimean War.  In addition to different interpretations, modern historians have continued the practice of assigning blame for the outbreak of war on certain states or individuals.  Some condemn the actions of Nicholas I, Palmerston, Stratford, Napoleon III, the British Cabinet, the Turkish war party, or a combination of these actors.  Other historians go to great lengths to defend Stratford, Nicholas I, or Austrian policy.  Nevertheless, the state of modern research includes well-researched studies by Schroeder, Saab, Curtiss, and Goldfrank which add to the dated, but useful work by Temperley.  These studies have expanded the historiography of the origins of the Crimean War beyond the biased and undocumented studies of Kinglake and Jomini.  Even so, the research and debate over the origins of the Crimean War show no sign of rest.

  1.  Brison D. Gooch, “A Century of Historiography on the Origins of the Crimean War,” The American Historical Review 60 (October 1956), 33.
  2. Alexander William Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea: Its Origin and an Account of Its Progress Down to the Death of Lord Raglan, 8 vols. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1863-67).
  3. Ibid., 1:494-97.
  4. Ibid., 1:484-87.
  5. Gooch, 45; James F. McMillan, Napoleon III (London: Longman, 1991), 76.
  6. Alexandre Jomini, Diplomatic Study on the Crimean War (1852 to 1856), Russian Official Publication, 2 vols., English translation (London: W.H. Allen and Co., 1882).  The Russian Foreign Office prepared this study in 1863, and had it published in French in 1874.
  7. Ibid., 1:511-12.
  8. Stanley Lane-Poole, The Life of the Right Honourable Stratford Canning, Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe: From His Memoirs and Private and official Papers, 2 vols. (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1988).
  9. Ibid., 2:250-96.
  10.  Ibid., 2:307-8.
  11.  Norman Rich, Great Power Diplomacy, 1814-1914 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), 471.
  12.  Frederick A. Simpson, Louis Napoleon and the Recovery of France, 1848-1856 (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1923).
  13.  Ibid., 230.
  14.  Ibid., 230-37.
  15.  Ibid., 237-46.
  16.  Kingsley Martin, The Triumph of Lord Palmerston: A Study of Public Opinion in England before the Crimean War (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1924).
  17.  Ibid., 18.
  18.  Vernon John Puryear, England, Russia, and the Straits Question, 1844-1856, University of California Publications in History, vol. 20 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1931).
  19.  Ibid., 4, 64-65.
  20.  Ibid., 74.
  21.  Ibid., 285.
  22.  Ibid., 262-85.
  23.  Ibid., xiii.
  24.  Reprinted in Gavin B. Henderson, “The Seymour Conversations, 1853,” in Crimean War Diplomacy and Other Historical Essays (Glasgow: Jackson, Son and Co., 1947).
  25.  Ibid., 10.
  26.  Ibid., 11.
  27.  Harold Temperley, England and the Near East: The Crimea (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1936).
  28.  Ibid., viii.
  29.  Ibid., 346-52.
  30.  Ibid., 356-58.
  31.  Ibid., 381.
  32.  M.S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774-1923: A Study in International Relations (London: Macmillan, 1966).  The survey superseded J.A.R. Marriott, The Eastern Question: An Historical Study in European Diplomacy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1917).
  33.  Anderson, 120.
  34.  Ibid., 131-32.
  35.  Paul W. Schroeder. Austria, Great Britain, and the Crimean War: The Destruction of the European Concert (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972).
  36.  Ibid., 112-13, 183, 187.
  37.  Ibid., 137, 143.
  38.  Ibid., 75-76.
  39.  Ibid., 134.
  40.  Ann Pottinger Saab, The Origins of the Crimean Alliance (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1977).
  41.  Ibid., 66.
  42.  Ibid., 68-69.
  43.  Ibid., 82-90.
  44.  Ibid., 92.
  45.  John Shelton Curtiss, Russia’s Crimean War (Durham: Duke University Press, 1979).
  46.  Ibid., 139.
  47.  Ibid., 169.
  48.  Ibid., 236.
  49.  Norman Rich, “Why the Crimean War? A Cautionary Tale (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985).
  50.  Ibid., 4.
  51.  Ibid., xvii.
  52.  Ibid., 16, 58-59.
  53.  Ibid, 10, 45, 48, 50, 55, and 75.
  54.  David M. Goldfrank, The Origins of the Crimean War. London: Longman, 1994), 5.
  55.  Ibid., 271-72.
  56.  Ibid., 184.
  57.  Ibid., 190.
  58.  Ibid., 214.
  59.  Ibid., 271-75.
  60.  A valuable survey of the Great Game is David Gillard, The Struggle for Asia, 1828-1914 (London: Methuen, 1977).
  61.  An important addition to the study of the Crimean War is a series of collected official sources published as Akten zur Geschichte des KrimKriegs, edited by Winfried Baumgart, beginning in 1980.  This series covers/will cover Austria in three volumes, Prussia in two volumes, Britain in four volumes, France in three volumes, and Russia in an undetermined number of volumes.
  62.  Enno E. Kraehe, review of The Origins of the Crimean War, by David M. Goldfrank, in The Journal of Military History 59 (April 1995): 334.
  63.  The discussion of Napoleon III’s foreign policy in the early 1850s in the brief study, J.P.T. Bury, Napoleon III and the Second Empire (London: English Universities Press, 1964) is based on Simpson’s work and lacks footnotes.
  64.  David Wetzel, The Crimean War: A Diplomatic History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 226.  The only published fragments are in Napoléon III et le prince Napoléon: Correspondance inédite publiée, edited by Ernest d’Hauterive in 1925.
  65.  McMillan, 73.
  66.  Bury, 64.

Originally submitted to a Graduate Readings Seminar at the University of North Dakota (December 1996)

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota


About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
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1 Response to Historiography of the Origins of the Crimean War

  1. Mark Conrad says:

    Excellent essay. Thank you

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