The Great Game
A New Phase of World Politics: The Underlying Cause of the War between Italy and Turkey
William T. Ellis
“A Great Game” dominates the war between Italy and Turkey. Cast against the black background of international struggles in recent times it looms large in its perspective, in its significance, in its results. The details—the play, the players, the settings, the complications,—are presented in bold relief in this article by William T. Ellis, the prominent American wñter and authoñty on Eastern questions. We need not agree with his version of the game,—indeed, we may object to his references to Britain,— but his article nevertheless constitutes the most important pronouncement of the month on the existing situation and is well worthy a careful reading by all students of world politics.
THERE are conversational compensations for life in the Orient. Talk does not grow stale when there are always the latest phases of “the great game” of international politics to gossip about. Men do not discuss baseball performances in the cafes of Constantinople; but the latest story of how Von Bieberstein, the German Ambassador, bulldozed Haaki Pasha, the Grand Vizier, and sent the latter whining among his friends for sympathy, is far more piquant. The older residents among the ladies of the diplomatic corps, whose visiting list extends “beyond the curtain,” have their own well-spiced tales to tell of “the great game” as it is played behind the latticed windows of the harem. It is not only in London and Berlin and Washington and Paris that wives and daughters of diplomats boost the business of their men-folk. In this mysterious, women’s world of Turkey
there are curious complications, as when a Young Turk, with a Paris veneer, has taken as second or third wife a European woman. One wonders which of these heavy-veiled figures on the Galata Bridge, clad in hideous ezars, is an English woman or a. French woman or a Jewess.
Night and day, year in and year out, with all kinds of chess-men, and with an infinite variety of by-plays, “the great game” is played in Constantinople. The fortunes of the players vary and there are occasional—very occasional—open
rumpuses; but the players and stakes remain the same. Nobody can read the newspaper telegrams from Tripoli and Constantinople intelligently, who has not some understanding ' of the real game that is being carried on; and in which an occasional war is only a move.
The bespectacled professor of ancient history is best qualified to trace the be-
ginning of this game; for there is no other frontier on the face of the globe over which there has been so much fighting as over that strip of water which divides Europe from Asia, called, in its four separate parts, the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmora, the Dardanelles, and the Ægean Sea. Centuries before men began to date their calendars “A. D.,” the city on the Bosphorous was a prize1 for which nations struggled. All the oldworld dominions—Greek, Macedonian, Persian, Roman—fought here; and for hundreds of years Byzantium was the capital of the Roman and Christian world. The Crusaders and the Saracens did a choice lot of fighting over this battle-ground; and it was here that the doughty warrior, Paul of Tarsus, broke into Europe, as first invader in the greatest of conquests. Along this narrow line of beautiful blue water the East menacingly confronts the West. Turkey’s capital, as a sort of Mr.-Facing-Both-Ways, bestrides the water; for Scutari, in Asia, is essentially a part of Greater Constantinople. That simple geographical fact really pictures Turkey’s present condition: it is rent by the struggle of the East with the West, Asia with Europe, in its own body.
“The great game” of to-day, rather than of any hoary and romantic yesterday, holds the interest of the modern man. Player Number One, even though he sits patiently in the background in seeming stolidity, is big-boned, brawny, hairy, thirsty Russia. Russia wants water, both here and in the Far East. His whole being cries from parched depths for the taste of the salt waters of the Mediterranean and the China Sea. At present his ships may not pass through the Dardanelles: the jealous
powers have said so. But Russia is the most patient nation on earth ; his “manifest destiny” is to sit in the ancient seat of dominion on the Bosphorous. Calmly, amid all the turbulence of international politics, he awaits the prize that is assuredly his ; but while he waits he plots1 and mines and prepares for ultimate success. A past-master of secret spying, wholesale bribery, and oriental intrigue, is the nation which calls its ruler the “Little Father” on earth, second only to the Great Father in heaven. If one is curi-
ous and careful, one may learn which of the Turkish statesmen are in Russian pay.
Looming larger — apparently—than Russia amid the minarets upon the lovely Constantinople horizon is Germany, the Marooned Nation. Restless William shrewdly saw that Turkey offered him the likeliest open door for German expansion and for territorial emancipation. So he played courtier to his “good friend, Abdul Hamid,” and to the Prophet Mohammed (they still preserve at Damascus the faded remains of the wreath he laid upon Saladin’s tomb, the day he made the speech which betrayed Europe and Christendom), and in return had his vanitv enormously ministered to. His visit to Jerusalem is probably the most notable incident in the history of the Holy City since the Crusades. Moreover, he carried away the Bagdad Railway concession in his carpet-bag. By this he expects to acquire the cotton and grain fields of Mesopotamia, which he so sorely needs in his business, and also to land at the front door of India, in case he should ever have occasion to pay a call, social or otherwise, upon his dear English cousins.
True, the advent of the Turkish constitution saw Germany thrown crop and heels out of his snug place at Turkey’s capital, while that comfortable old suitor, Great Britain, which had been biting his finger-nails on the doorstep, was welcomed smiling once more into the parlor. Great was the rejoicing in London when Abdul Hamid’s “down and out” performance carried his trusted friend William along. The glee changed to grief wThen, within a year—so quickly does the appearance of chessboard change in “the great game”—Great Britain was once more on the doorstep, and fickle Germany was snuggling close to Young Turkey on the divan in the dimly-lighted parlor. Virtuous old Britain professed, to be shocked and horrified; he occupied himself with talking scandal about young Germany, when he should have been busy trying to supplant him. Few chapters in modern diplomatic history are more surprising than the sudden downfall and restoration of Germany in Turkish favor. With reason does the Kaiser give Ambassador von Bieberstein,
“the ablest diplomat in Europe,” constant access to the imperial ear, regardless of foreign-office red tape. During the hey-day of the Young Turk party’s power, this astute old player of the game has been the dominant personality in Turkey.
The Britons have comforted them selves with prophecy—how often have I heard them at it in the cosmopolitan cafes of Constantinople!—the burden of their melancholy lay being that some day Turkey would learn who is her real friend. That is the British way. They believe in their divine right to the earth and the high places thereof. They are annoyed and rather bewildered when they see Germany cutting in ahead of them, especially in the commerce of the Orient ; any Englishman “east of Suez” can give a dozen good reasons why Germany is an incompetent upstart ; but however satisfactory and soothing to the English soul this line of philosophy may be, it drives no German merchantmen from the sea, and no German drummers from the land. The supineness of the British in the face of the German inroads into their ancient preserves is amazing to an American, who, as certain of their own poets has said,
Turns a keen, untroubled face
Home to the instant need of things.
In this case, however, the proverbial luck of the British has been with them. The steady decline of their historic prestige in the Near East was suddenly arrested by Italy’s declaration of war. For more than a generation Turkey has been the pampered enfant terrible of international politics, violating the conventions and proprieties with impunity ; feeling safe amid the jealousies' of the players of “the great game.” Every important nation has a bill of grievance to settle with Turkey. America’s claim, for instance, includes the death of two nativeborn American citizens, Rogers and Maurer, slain in the Adana massacre, under the constitution. Nobody has been punished for this crime, because, forsooth, it happened in Turkey. Italy made a pretext of a cluster of these grievances, and startled the world by her claims upon Tripoli, accompanied by an ultimatum. Turkey tried to temporize.
Pressed, she turned to Germany with a “Now earn your wages. Get me out of this scrape, and call off your ally.”
And Germany could not! With the taste of Morocco dirt still on his tongue, the Kaiser had to take another unpalatable mouthful in Constantinople. His boasted power, upon which the Turks had banked so heavily, and for the sake of which they had borne so much humiliation, proved unequal to the demand. He coula not help his friend the Sultan. Italy would have none of his mediation ; for reasons that will hereinafter appear.
Then came Britain’s vindication. The Turks turned to this historic and pre-eminent friend for succor. The Turkisffi cabinet cabled frantically to Great Britain to intercede for them; the people in mass meeting in ancient St. Sophia’s echoed the same appeal. For grim humor, the spectacle has scarcely an equal in modern history. Besought and entreated, the British, who no doubt approved of Italy’s move from the first, declined to pull Turco-German chestnuts out of the fire. “Ask Cousin William to • help you,” was the ironical implication of their attitude. Well did Britain know that if the situation were saved, the Germans would somehow manage to get the credit of it. And if the worst should come, Great Britain could probably meet it with Christian fortitude! For in that eventuality the Bagdad Railway concession would be nullified, and Britain wrould undoubtedly take over all of the Arabian Peninsula, which is logically hers, in the light of her Persian Gulf and Red Sea claims. The break-up of Turkey would settle the Egyptian question, make easy the British acquisition of southern Persia, and put all the holy places of Islam under the strong hand of the British power, where they would be no longer powder-magazines to worry the dreams of Christendom. Far-sighted moves are necessary in “the great game.” Small wonder that Germany became furious; and that the Berlin newspapers burst out in denunciations of Italy’s wicked and piratical land-grabbing—a morsel of rhetoric following so hard upon the heels of the Morocco episode that it gave joy to all who delight in hearing the pot rail at the kettle. “The great game” is not without its humors. But
the sardonic joke of the business lies deeper than all this. The Kaiser had openly coquetted with the Sultan upon the policy of substituting Turkey for Italy in the Triple Alliance. Turkey has a potentially great army: the one thing the Turk can do well is to fight. With a suspicious eye upon Neighbor Russia, the Kaiser figured it out that Turkey would be more useful to him than Italy, especially since the Abyssinian episode had so seriously discredited the latter. Then, of a sudden, with a poetic justice that is delicious, Italy turns around and humiliates the nation that was to take its place! The whole comic situation resembles nothing more nearly than a supposedly defunct spouse rising from his death-bed to thrash the expectant second husband of his wife.
Here “the great game” digresses in another direction, that takes no account of Turkey. Of course, it was more than a self-respecting desire to avenge affronts that led Italy to declare war against Turkey; and also more than a hunger for the territory of Tripoli. Italy needed to solidify her national sentiment at home, in the face of the growing socialism and clever clericalism. Even more did she need to show the world that she is still a first-class power. There has been a disposition of late years to leave her out of the international reckoning. Now, at one skillful jump, she is back in the game—and on better terms than ever with the Vatican, for she will look well to all the numerous Latin missions in the Turkish Empire, and especially in Palestine. These once were France’s special care ; and are yet, to a degree ; but France is out of favor with the Church, and steadily declining from her former place in the Levant, although French continues to be the “lingua franca” of merchandising, of polite society, and of diplomacy, in the Near East.
Let nobody think that this is lugging religion by the ears into “the great game.” Religion, even more than national or racial consciousness, is one of the principal players. In America politicians try to steer clear of religion; although even here a cherry cocktail mixed with Methodism has been known to cost a man the possible nomination for the Presidency. In the Levant, how-
ever, religion is politics. The ambitions
and policies of Germany, Russia, and Britain are less potent factors in the ultimate and inevitable dissolution of Turkey than the deep-seated resolution of some tens of millions of people to see the cross once more planted upon St. Sophia. Ask anybody in Greece or the Balkans or European Russia what “the great idea” is, and you will get for an answer, “The return of the cross to St. Sophia.” Backward and even benighted Ch-ristians these Eastern churchmen may be, but they hold a few fundamental ideas pretty fast; and are readier to fight for them than their occidental brethren.
Following the gleam of the cross that is to shine again upon the church of Constantinople, which is now a mosque, we find the noisy, gesticulating, instable Greeks. Study it in some quarters, and “the great gaine” appears to be merely a Turco-Greek affair. War between the two countries has been imminent for two or three years. Only the good offices of the Powers have prevented it. Greece knows that Turkey can eat her alive, yet she has not had the self-restraint to refrain from irritating her militant neighbor, especially over the island of Crete, which Turkey owns, but Greece claims. The population of this famous bit of land in the Mediterranean (for personal and searching criticism of Crete, consult the waitings of Paul of Tarsus) is chiefly Greek ; and it periodically flares out in irritating anti-Turkish incidents. It has caused the badly scared but still vociferous Greeks to be boycotted by all good Turks and Moslems; and this immense boycott has continued now for two years. Withal, Greece has furnished an excellent example of the “smart” and irresponsible bad boy, who deserves and fears a thrashing, but counts on the “big fellows” standing around to keep him from getting his deserts.
Reinforcing Greece, but by no means loving her, are the turbulent Balkan States, including doughty Bulgaria. All of these, with Greece, give aid and comfort to the Albanian and Macedonian subjects of Turkey, who are in a chronic condition of revolt. In the dim background stands Russia, with her gospel of Pan-Slavism, which is growing to be as definite and as formidable a force as
Pan-Islamism. This Í9 her warrant for arming, officering, and even paying the troops of poor but brave little Montenegro; and for arming and officering the forces of Servia. Russia’s “Little Father” is the special guardian of the Greek Church. He subsidizes the huge Russian pilgrimages to the Holy Land (these also figure in “the great game”), and he supports churches and schools by the hundreds throughout the Turkish domain. As it is the religious idea that keeps the Russian peasantry loyal to the “Little Father,” so it is religious solidarity that binds Turkey’s smaller neighbors to Russia.
The world may as well accept, as the principal issue of “the great game” that centres about Constantinople, the fact that the war begun twelve hundred years ago by the dusky Arabian camel-driver is still on. This Turco-Italian scrape is only one little skirmish in it. Mohammed failed to make any progress’with his creed until he put the sword into the hands of his followers, and bade them smite. Swift and certain paradise was to be the reward of all who should fall in fighting the unbelievers. The surest wav to win the caresses of the houris of his sensuallvoonceived heaven was to slay all who did not accept the prophet. In that faith Islam made its first and greatest conQuests. That faith the faithful still hold. They keep their hand in by occasional massacres of Christians, and meantime dream of the possibilities of a “holy war” which shall once more make Islam master of the whole earth. The Pan-Islamic movement, which is a notable fact in the world to-day, is as truly a political manoeuvre as it is a religious propaganda.
All over the world the followers of the Prophet hail the Sultan of Turkey as Caliph, as Commander of the Faithful, as the shadow of God upon earth, and as the successor of Mohammed himself. This one fact alone accounts for the continuance of the Turkish Empire. The beholder is utterly blind to the meaning of “the great game” in the hither East unless he perceives this first factor. The wild and . warlike and ultra-orthodox Wahabis
of the Nejd are kept in alliance with the religiously lax and enervated Turks only by the Islamic tie; the fierce Kurds of the mountains of Asia Minor are brothers to the “Marsh Arabs” of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley only for the same reason; the Bedouins of the Hejaz make common cause with the mysterious Senussi, who have been accumulating great stores of arms in the hinterland of Tripoli, and latterly in the Sudan, simply by reason of their one creed. Egyptian, Persian, Indian, Sudanese, all follow the green flag of the Prophet.—which is in the Sultan’s keeping; and that not by virtue of his sultanate, but of his caliphate.
Not long since I was calling upon the handsome Turkish Minister of War, Shevket Pasha. Suddenly an imaum, who was also a hadji, sounded in the lobby of the war office the muezzin, or call to prayer. At once there was a scurrying of uniformed figures toward the room set apart for this purpose. The army is responsible to the imaum, or Moslem priest! The episode is illustrative of a great grim fact. A few days later I photographed a Turkish warship between the minarets of a mosque; I keep the picture as a symbol. “The great game” is more than a contending of nations for the control of the Bosphorous; it is a titanic struggle of the two most vital religgious creeds of earth for the possession of the city that was once ancient Byzantium ; and subsequently for the dominion of the world.
The end seems clearly written. The crescent may not disappear from the horizon; but at least it will not always remain, on sword and flag, as the emblem of an imperial government, holding sway over the most historic and most sacred portions of the globe. Turkey will some day pass into the possession of the other nations, and law, commerce, agriculture, and safe communication will follow the flags of modern civilization where an archaic, chaotic, grotesque religio-political empire has for centuries wielded a deadening sway. Humanity stands to win in the end of “the great game.”