10 Reasons Crimean War 19th Century's Most Important

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The Crimean War, fought between Russia on the one hand and an alliance of France, the United Kingdom, the Ottoman Empire, and Piedmont-Sardinia (a wealthy kingdom in what is now Italy) on the other, can help explain the world in 2018 better than just about any other war of the past two centuries. Here are 10 reasons why:

10. The alliance between anti-democratic regimes in Austria-Hungary and Russia was severed forever, when the Austro-Hungarians opted to stay neutral in the conflict. The war started when the Ottomans declared war on Russia after the latter decided to make land grab for some Ottoman territory. The dual monarchy’s decision to sit out the war instead of coming to Russia’s assistance (the two had been allies as part of an autocratic reaction to the democratic 1848 revolutions) destroyed the two empires’ relationship. The severance was viewed as a major diplomatic victory for the French, who not only beat Russia in a war but isolated their once-powerful neighbor on the diplomatic front. While Russia lost the war, Austria-Hungary lost the most. The dual monarchy’s neutrality weakened its influence, and paved the way for not only Italian and German unification but also strengthened Russian efforts at pan-Slavism in Austro-Hungarian Balkan territories.

9. Piedmont-Sardinia and the road to Italian unification. The Kingdom of Sardinia was the wealthiest and most influential kingdom on the Italian peninsula. Its leaders had been trying for some time to unify the peninsula into a single state, but Austria-Hungary’s influence was too powerful. Piedmont-Sardinia’s decision to join the war effort on the side of the anti-Russian coalition strengthened its global position, and by 1861 Sardinia had managed to build one nation-state, Italy, out of many smaller polities. (Daniel Ziblatt’s book Structuring the State  has much more information on Piedmont’s nation-building efforts).

8. The rise and fall of a global media establishment. The Crimean War was a global affair, and transportation costs were such that foreign media correspondents could easily visit Crimea and send their reports back home. The “war correspondent” was born in Crimea, and the influence of the media on war efforts was forever changed.

7. Russian serfdom was weakened and abolished in 1861, just five years after the end of the Crimean War. Serfdom was viewed in Russia and abroad as a major sin, due to the fact that other European polities had long ago abolished serfdom. The conservative factions in Russia who still favored serfdom also favored aggressive territorial expansion, and Russia’s loss in the Crimean War also weakened these pro-serfdom factions. The Crimean War not only led to the abolishment of serfdom in the Russian Empire, but also emboldened more radical voices; ones that were calling for revolution.

6. The Crimean War was an aberration of the “Long Peace” which lasted from 1815-1914. The Congress of Vienna, hosted by conservative Austrian statesman Klaus von Metternich, was held after the Napoleonic Wars and was designed to maintain a balance of power between Europe’s major players. It worked fairly well until World War I began, but the Crimean War, along with the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, were violent hiccups in this system. The French, Dutch, and British were best able to take advantage of the long peace, and their respective overseas empires were expanded and their efforts at colonialism doubled in the name of “civilization.”

5. Russia’s alienation from Europe, culturally. Russia had long been the odd man out in European affairs. Was Russia European? Asiatic? Russian? For most Russians, the Crimean War answered this question, as Christian Europe sided with Muslim Turks against it in a war Russia lost decisively. Russian efforts at integrating culturally with Europe began under Peter the Great in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely ended officially, though, of course, informally ideas still spread throughout the empire.

4. About 750,000 died, mostly from disease. The number of dead should tell you all you need to know about the significance of the Crimean War. To put this number in context, during the bloodiest war in American history, the U.S. Civil War (incidentally fought just a few years after the Crimean War), 620,000 people perished. Warfare itself during the Crimean War was not the main cause of death, though. British and French strategists were content to pin Russia down and slaughter her poorly-trained serf-troops with long-range bombardments, which led to outbreaks of nasty diseases like cholera, typhus, dysentery, and typhoid.

3. The Ottomans still did poorly, despite being on the winning side of the war. There are a number of theories as to why this is. The Ottomans had technology that was on par with the other European powers, but not the manufacturing base nor an inclusive private property rights regime, which limited the spread of technological knowledge. In addition, Ottoman soldiers were poorly trained and mutiny-prone, which suggests that, like the Russians and their serfs, Ottoman soldiers did not really want to die for a regime they had no stake in. At the time of the war, the Ottomans were undergoing a series of cultural and economic reforms meant to build an Ottoman identity out of the disparate groups that composed the far-flung empire, so that the problems that plagued the empire during the Crimean War could be addressed. Unfortunately, the reforms were too little, too late.

2. The Great Game in Central Asia was a major cause of Britain’s entrance into the war. The British and Russians were vying for power and influence in Central Asia when the Russians made a land grab for Ottoman territory in Europe. British diplomats believed that Russia was aiming for India, and that the Ottoman Empire was a useful bulwark against Russian expansion into Asia. In a way, the Ottoman Empire was a proxy of the British Empire, so Russian incursion into Ottoman lands in Europe was viewed by London as an affront to its Indian territories in Asia. This paranoid thinking was wrong in hindsight, but the British, by pinning the Russians down in Europe, stumbled upon an ingenious way to assert their authority over Central Asia.

1. France was driven into the war by its Catholic interests, which might seem strange given that the Napoleonic Wars were secular crusades. By the time of the Crimean War, though, France was in the thralls of a second empire, run by Napoleon III (nephew of the original Napoleon), who built his empire with a coalition that involved the Catholic Church. The Catholics were competing with the Russian Orthodox Church in the Holy Lands, which were under the authority of the Ottomans, and Napoleon III, who took power in France in an 1851 coup, was all too happy to shore up support in his domestic coalition. The ongoing Ottoman reforms mentioned above began to favor the Catholics over the Russians after the Crimean War ended.

Further thoughts

Want to know more about America’s role in the Crimean War? You’re in luck because RealClearHistory’s blog, the Historiat, has what you need. Check it out! 

The Crimean War took place during a very pacifistic time in Europe, and the war was largely condemned by elites, but it also played a role in whipping up nationalist fervor amongst the masses. Studying the Crimean War can help us understand the decline of multi-ethnic empires in Europe, how nationalism and religion shape diplomacy, and why countries go to war for seemingly unconnected reasons.

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