The concept of humanitarian intervention and international practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth century is the subject of Against Massacre: Humanitarian Interventions in the Ottoman Empire 1815-1914 by Davide Rodogno. This book addresses the European roots of humanitarian intervention and rejects the mainstream argument that humanitarian intervention is a practice of international relations that emerged after the end of the Cold War. Rodogno’s emphasis, rather, is on the fact that the roots of humanitarian intervention can be traced back to the nineteenth century. He defines humanitarian intervention as a “coercive diplomatic and/or a group of states inside the territory of a target state” (p. 2). The book comprises ten chapters and concentrates mainly on the political and legal aspects of the European involvement into the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire.
In this book’s Introduction, Rodogno argues that “nineteenth-century humanitarian interventions were not necessarily products of increasing democracy, a free press, and the increasing importance of the principle of self-determination” (p. 17). Instead, Rodogno seeks to demonstrate the connection between the “Eastern Question” and the history of the humanitarian intervention by arguing that the “Eastern Question” played a central role in the coercive interventions of the European powers on behalf of Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. In the first chapter, Rodogno deals with the international context of nineteenth-century humanitarian interventions. In the second chapter, based on nineteenth-century British and French writings, articles, and pamphlets, he focuses on the European perceptions concerning the Ottomans as well as explores the reasons for the exclusion of the Ottoman Empire from the so-called “Family of Nations.” Chapter 3 investigates the military intervention of the European states in Ottoman Greece from 1821 to 1833. The European intervention into the local conflicts between the Druzes and Maronites in the 1860s is the subject matter of chapter 4. In the fifth and ninth chapters, he analyses interferences and interventions of the European powers into the internal affairs of the island of Crete. Chapter 7 focuses on the British and American government’s interventions beyond Europe. Chapter 10 discusses the European states’ intervention in the provinces of Ottoman Macedonia between 1903 and 1908. The author also looks at the nonintervention of the European powers during the Eastern Crisis of 1875-1878 and the “Armenian Question” in the 1890s in the sixth and eighth chapters.
It is useful to take into consideration the place of the Ottoman Empire within the international system and the grounds on which the European powers legitimized their interventions in the state affairs of the Ottoman Empire. Trying to explain, however, the origins of humanitarian intervention by reference to the “Eastern Question” seems to be a problematic approach. Because the European states evaluated the local conflicts in the Ottoman Empire as being part of the “Eastern Question” and created an atmosphere in which the Ottoman government was quite insufficient and for that reason the “solution” of the “Eastern Question” depended upon their actions and interventions. However, the cases examined in this book demonstrated that foreign diplomatic and military interferences and interventions directly violated the Empire’s sovereign rights and were quite far from putting an end to the local conflicts, rather they complicated the matters more.
Rodogno further claims that the legitimization of European interventions on behalf of the Christians living in the Ottoman Empire is quite similar to that of European imperialism. For the European policy-makers, the Ottoman government was “corrupt” and an “insufficient state machinery” (p. 37), the troubles in the Ottoman Empire were the result of inadequacies of the government and their fellow Christians were its “victims.” In addition, the Europeans accused the Ottoman system of being a “backward,” “oriental administration” and articulated their views through an Orientalist discourse. The representatives of the European states constantly referred to the “uncivilized Turks” (p. 42) and many leading statesmen, such as Gladstone, regarded humanitarian intervention “was an intermediate step toward the liberation of the Balkan peninsula from the Ottoman yoke” (p. 169).
Similarly, John Stuart Mill’s famous article entitled “A Few Words on Non-Intervention” made a distinction between “civilized” and “barbarous nations” in order to justify the intervention of the “civilized states” into the internal affairs of “barbarous nations” (p. 50). It seems clear that the dichotomy of civilized/uncivilized, superior/inferior was continuously employed by the Europeans as the legitimization of their interventions in the state affairs of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, European governments claimed that it is the “civilizing mission” of their representatives to ameliorate the conditions and to establish order and peace within the Ottoman Empire and to spread the European standard of civilization beyond Europe. Here Rodogno very convincingly reminds readers that while the European powers were discussing to take collective actions against the Ottoman Empire, they ignored the violations of law and religious freedom in their own colonies (p. 12). In addition, the author points out that the relationship between the European public opinion and policies of the European governments was mutually supportive.
The book concludes with reference to the similarities and differences between nine-teenth-century and contemporary interventions. Despite the fact that the book examines foreign interventions within the Ottoman territories in the nineteenth century, the absence of any Ottoman archival material, as acknowledged by the author, reveals a problem that the main arguments and conclusions of the book are somewhat influenced by the sources the author tries to question. To mention just a minor flaw in the end notes, while the author is explaining where Halepa is on the island of Crete, he states that “Halepa was the quarter of Canea—today’s Iraklion—where the bulk of the European community lived” (p. 328). Nevertheless, it is important to note that Canea is not today’s Iraklion (Candia).
Through a closer examination of the issue of humanitarian intervention in the nineteenth century, this book has made a valuable contribution to the political history of humanitarian intervention. The author convinces the readers that despite the political and socio-economic changes in the world, humanitarian intervention has not been legitimized through references to universal values and principles.