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.