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Austria's Eastern Question, 1700-1790
By Karl A. Roider Jr.
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1982 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Art of Diplomacy
On 7 December 1699 the Ottoman ambassador Ibrahim Pasha and the Austrian ambassador Count Wolfgang Öttingen, each accompanied by a substantial military escort, approached the Austro-Turkish border somewhere between the Turkish fortress of Belgrade and the Austrian fortress of Petrovaradin (Peterwardein). At the place of meeting stood three stakes, the center one marking the border itself, the other two ten paces on either side, one in Habsburg and one in Ottoman land. Some weeks before, each embassy had left its capital on the same day; each had journeyed to this spot where it was now to cross into the land of its former enemy.
On this day the Austrian commander of Petrovaradin, Guido Starhemberg, mounted on a handsome steed and bedecked in a gorgeous uniform bordered in gold, advanced toward the stake on the Austrian side. He was followed by 200 richly accoutred cavalrymen and two companies of infantry. Toward the stake on the Ottoman side proceeded the Turkish commander of Belgrade, as splendidly dressed as Starhemberg and leading an armed force of equal size and magnificence. Before each commander rode trumpeters and drummers and marched servants, lackeys, and pages dressed in costly liveries and leading richly mantled ponies. When both retinues were about sixty paces from the posts on their respective sides, the impressive escorts stopped. Both commanders and eight or ten fellow officers walked their horses at the same gait toward the center post. When the two had reached a spot three paces from the center post, they halted their mounts and began to converse. Because the wind was roaring so loudly in the trees, the translators had some difficulty making themselves heard; thus the Ottoman commander ordered one of his servants to bring two chairs covered with silver brocade for the generals to sit on. Each officer then dismounted — being extremely careful that his foot did not touch the ground before that of his counterpart — and seated himself, again making certain that he sat at the same instant as his fellow. For an hour the two conversed and, to make the time pass more quickly and more cordially, Starhemberg ordered pastries and bottles of wine brought to him on silver serving dishes. To the Turk he offered the pastries but not, of course, the wine, since he knew that the man was forbidden by Moslem law to consume alcohol.
As the generals talked, the two ambassadors advanced with their retinues, moving increasingly slowly, looking one another directly in the eye, and making certain that neither approached more quickly or more slowly than the other. At the two outer poles the ambassadors dismounted, each again making certain that his foot did not touch the ground before that of the other. Each general then took the hand of his sovereign's ambassador and, as the Turkish and Austrian bands played different tunes concurrently, led him to the middle post and presented him to his opposite number. The two ambassadors then greeted one another, offered their hands, and exchanged a few friendly words. At that moment the soldiers on both sides let out a simultaneous cheer and fired their weapons in a deafening salvo, drowning for an instant the cacophony created by the two bands. Such a ceremony must have convinced each ambassador that he was entering a civilization decidedly different from his own.
An exchange of ambassadors between Vienna and Constantinople was a rare occurrence. They were dispatched only for special duties such as negotiating final drafts of peace treaties (Öttingen's assignment in 1699), delivering important messages, or sending congratulations to sovereigns upon their accession. They journeyed to the foreign capitals, stayed long enough to perform their assigned function and to engage in some social pleasantries, and then returned home. The daily, monthly, and yearly business of the Austrian state at the Sublime Porte was performed by the permanent envoys, who were by no means so exalted as, but a good deal more important than, the ambassadors. In the early eighteenth century, they held the rather low rank of "resident," a title that had its origin in the early seventeenth century. When the first permanent envoy was assigned to Constantinople in 1612, he enjoyed the rank of "internuntius," a title just below that of ambassador. His successor, however, was simply called resident because he had "resided" with the internuntius until the latter had left for home. Resident continued to be the most common title through the remainder of the seventeenth and during the first half of the eighteenth century, after which it gave way more and more to internuntius again.
No post in the Habsburg foreign service required a person with more skill and endurance than did the one in Constantinople, and none was less desirable. Besides the low rank, it posed language difficulties, cultural obstacles, and physical strains unlike those anywhere else. The post demanded a familiarity with the Ottoman language, that mixture of Persian and Turkish written in Arabic characters that was completely foreign to civilized society in the West. Throughout the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century the Habsburg monarchs, like other European rulers, had relied for their negotiations at the Porte primarily on translators either supplied by the Turks or hired in Constantinople. Because such people often proved untrustworthy, the Austrians began to train and employ Sprachknaben, boys who accompanied envoys to the Ottoman capital to learn not only the language but Ottoman customs as well. The exact origin of this practice is difficult to determine — the first Sprachknabe being perhaps Peter von Wollzogen, who accompanied the minister Joachim von Sinzendorf in 1578 — but in 1640 Resident Johann Rudolf Schmid received funds to hire a couple of Croatian youths, to teach them Ottoman, and to retain them as translators. For the next 100 years, one of the functions of the residents was to oversee the training of the Sprachknaben and to assign them to various duties as translators. While their primary task was to serve in Constantinople, they also were employed at border towns, sent to the Barbary States when agreements with them were negotiated, used in Vienna when Turkish delegations arrived, and assigned to translate various works from Ottoman into Western languages.
In the eighteenth century, graduates of the school for Sprachknaben often became residents themselves, for, besides their skill in languages, no one in the Austrian service knew better than they the ins and outs of Ottoman affairs. The first envoy in the eighteenth century, Michael von Talman, began his career as a Sprachknabe, as did his son Leopold (period as envoy, 1729-1737), and the able Heinrich Christoph Penkler (1740-1755). In the eighteenth century the residents took translators with them to meetings with Ottoman officials only as a formality.
The school for Sprachknaben existed until 1753, when the training of boys for duty as translators was transferred to the newly established Oriental Academy in Vienna. The academy was conceived by the famous Wenzel Anton Kaunitz, chancellor to Maria Theresa and Joseph II and master of Austrian foreign policy from 1753 to 1790. Kaunitz recommended the establishment of the academy because the school for Sprachknaben had become too expensive to maintain. Besides the cost, he advised the empress, the school was not producing particularly competent graduates. "All of Pera had for a long time gossiped that the k. k. Sprachknaben were the most costly in numbers and in the ten, twelve, or sixteen years of schooling; however, in their ability, practice, learning, and general improvement they found little to praise." On Kaunitz's recommendation, the Oriental Academy was established in Vienna and admitted its first students in 1753. From then on the academy enjoyed an illustrious history, counting among its few but select graduates Franz Amadeus Thugut, envoy to the Porte from 1769 to 1776 and principal adviser of the Habsburgs in foreign affairs from 1793 to 1801, and Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, probably the most renowned scholar of Ottoman history and literature.
Aside from the obstacle of learning a difficult foreign language, the Austrian envoys at the Porte had to perform their functions in an alien cultural atmosphere as well. Unlike European courts, including Russia, where ambassadors had the opportunity to speak to foreign sovereigns regularly and often informally, in Constantinople the resident usually held audiences with the sultan but twice, to be introduced by the man he was replacing and a second time to introduce the man replacing him. In the early eighteenth century the resident had to wear a Turkish robe over his clothes when appearing before the sultan to spare him the sight of Christian attire, but this practice ended in 1719 when an Austrian ambassador appeared in European garb before the Ottoman sovereign. The resident rarely saw the chief minister, the grand vizier, either; but he discussed matters often with the Ottoman foreign minister, the reis effendi, and even more frequently with the chief translator of the Porte, called by the Austrians the pfortendollmetsch and generally a Greek from the famous Phanar district in Constantinople. Dealing with the pfortendollmetsch was often a delicate business, because many enjoyed considerable influence and were often anti-Austrian.
Whereas an Austrian ambassador to a European court could always be assured of negotiating with men of similar education, social origin, and culture as himself, a resident often encountered Turkish officials with attributes unlike those in the West. Leopold von Talman reported on one occasion of the appointment of a grand vizier, "'who can neither read nor write, which in this land is of little or no consequence because there have been many grand viziers who could do neither.'" On another occasion in early 1772 Thugut had to cut short an all-night session with a reis effendi when the Turk, "one of the great lovers of opium," took a huge dose and passed out.
Another obstacle faced by the Austrian envoys was the frequent turnover in Ottoman officials, who could lose their posts and sometimes their heads for any number of reasons including policies that failed, intrigue in the harem, personality clashes, displeasure among the religious authorities, whims of the sultans, or disapproval voiced by crowds in the streets. While proceeding to Constantinople in 1740, an Austrian embassy heard that the current grand vizier had lost his post, an event that required a new letter of introduction with the proper greeting so that the new appointee would receive the Habsburg delegates. A member of the entourage remarked that the news caused little serious concern since "one knew that at this time grand viziers changed more often than the coiffures of the women at Versailles."
A prominent feature of working in Constantinople was the prevalence of bribes and tips — the baksheesh for which the Ottoman Empire was so famous and whose legacy still exists in that part of the world. Bribery was common in all the courts of Europe as a means of securing favors and information, but it seemed especially rife in the Ottoman capital. Officials at all levels expected gifts or payments at every opportunity, and a resident was frequently at a disadvantage if he had nothing to offer or if what he offered was considered inadequate. Even when visiting an Ottoman official at the Porte or at his home, the resident had to distribute tips among the servants and lesser officials. During one period when negotiations required a large number of strenuous sessions, Thugut complained that his money was running short since every visit to the Ottoman foreign minister required him to distribute thirty piasters in tips and gratuities.
If dealing with Ottoman officialdom was demanding, so was living among the Ottoman subjects. The residents, their families, and staffs were, after all, Christians and as such viewed with suspicion by the Moslems. From the time an envoy entered the Ottoman Empire, he was accompanied by guards to protect him from depredations of bandits and of Moslems who resented Christians in their midst. Upon arriving in Constantinople, the envoys were assigned guards and servants, plus an official who provided food, firewood, and clothing and who maintained the envoy's offices, which were also his living quarters. In Austro-Ottoman relations the host governments paid for the maintenance of the other's representatives; the Austrians usually came out ahead financially since the Porte sent no permanent envoys to Vienna but only special embassies that stayed short periods of time.
The suburb of Pera, across the Golden Horn from the central part of Constantinople, was the location of the Austrian residence as well as many of the other European delegations, although it had not always been so. From 1700 to 1719 Austrian quarters were in the Christian district of Galata, and prior to that they were located in Stambul, the central district. In the summer the staff usually moved to villages outside of the city because of the prevalence of disease in Constantinople. In Pera social intercourse was usually confined to the personnel of the other European embassies. Although the Turks officially forbade European diplomats from speaking to one another except for a formal introduction when one envoy replaced another, even in the seventeenth century this restriction had lapsed, and by the early eighteenth century envoys were entertaining each other regularly.
The embassy personnel rarely ventured into the Moslem areas of Constantinople except on official business. That great observer of Ottoman life in the early eighteenth century, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, noted that foreigners avoided the Moslem streets because "Christian men are loath to hazard the adventures they sometimes meet with among the levents [sic] or seamen (worse monsters than our watermen) and the women must cover their faces to go there, which they have a perfect aversion to do." One envoy, Franz Anton Brognard, did experience an adventure in the Moslem districts which nearly cost him his life. In March 1769 he and some staff members went to a house in Stambul to observe the famous parade of the Holy Flag of the Prophet, which was part of the city's preparations for war with Russia. As they were observing the procession, a Moslem religious official recognized them in the windows and cried to the crowd that no Christian should look upon the Prophet's banner and live. The people attacked the house where Brognard and his staff were located; half of the Westerners fled back to Pera while the other half, including Brognard, found refuge in the house of an Armenian. Brognard and his companions spent the night there and, instead of returning to Pera, ventured back into the Moslem streets the following morning to see what was going on. They were recognized and assaulted again. This time, however, the mob was not content merely to attack the foreigners but broke into a number of Christian homes and shops, leaving 100 dead and many more injured. Brognard again fled to an Armenian residence and the following day was escorted to Pera under armed guard. Since the Porte was anxious to maintain good relations with Austria at the time, it apologized to him and gave him substantial presents to ease the impact of the disturbance.
The Porte did not always treat foreign representatives so courteously as it did Brognard. Traditionally at the outbreak of an Ottoman-Christian war, the Porte either imprisoned the envoys of hostile states in the forbidding Fortress of the Seven Towers or forced them to travel with the Turkish army while sending their staffs to the galleys as slaves. In the eighteenth century, however, the Turks treated the Habsburg diplomats far better. At the opening of two of the three Austro-Turkish wars, the Porte allowed them to return to Austria peacefully. Nonetheless, neither the representatives nor Vienna could be sure that the Turks would be so beneficent, and, just prior to the outbreak of the last Austro-Turkish war in 1788, the internuntius became almost hysterical over the prospect of being confined in the Fortress. His fears proved unwarranted, and shortly after delivering Austria's declaration of war, he was allowed to depart for home. The Russian representatives were not so lucky. At the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish wars, they were almost always conducted to the Fortress of the Seven Towers, and one of the Austrian residents' functions was to plead for their release.
Excerpted from Austria's Eastern Question, 1700-1790 by Karl A. Roider Jr.. Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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