The sick man of Europe

September 17 2013

[The] picture of the Turk as “the Sick Man” has had a curious history. It substituted itself in the imagination of the West for the older picture, in which the Westerner was the sinner and the Turk was the Scourge of God, divinely commissioned to chastise him, sometime between the raising of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 and the establishment of the Russians on the shores of the Black Sea through the Peace Treaty of 1774. The phrase in which the new concept of the Turk finally found its classical expression was coined by the Czar Nicholas I in 1853, during a conversation with the British Ambassador in St. Petersburg. “We have on our hands a sick man – a very sick man. … He may suddenly die upon our hands. …”  From that day to this, the imminent decease of the supposed invalid has perpetually been awaited by his neighbours – by some of them with pleasurable expectancy, by others with anxiety, but by all with a dogmatic faith which seems capable of surviving any number of disillusionments. It was awaited in 1876 and in 1912 and, most confidently of all, in 1914; and now, when the Turk has given incontrovertible evidence of outward health and vigour by imposing the peace-settlement of Lausanne upon the victorious Allied Powers, his imminent dissolution through some hidden internal disease is prophesied with all the old assurance. We are told that the ravages of siphylis [sic] will extinguish the population of Turkey in three generations, or that the Turk cannot mend his own boots or work his own locomotives and will therefore perish through sheer economic incapacity now that alien minorities have been driven out. This persistence of the “Sick Man” theory indicates how powerfully the Western attitude towards Turkey is governed by a priori notions and how little it is based upon objective facts; for, as it has turned out, “the man recovered from the bite, the dog it was that died.” [Goldsmith.] At the time of writing, seventy-three years after Czar Nicholas I pronounced his celebrated verdict, the Czardom has vanished not only from St. Petersburg but from the face of Russia, whereas the Turkish “Sick Man” has taken up his bed and walked from Constantinople to Angora, where, to all appearance, he is benefiting by the change of air.

The words “of Europe”, which are used in the paragraph preceding this, ceased to have much meaning after the autumn of 1912. In the 1970s, the UK was called “the sick man of Europe” because of industrial strife and poor economic performance compared to other Common Market countries, culminating in the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79. Nowadays, the phrase is applied to Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece.

Bernard Partridge

Bernard Partridge, Punch, April 7 1915; boor and sycophant

With Kenneth P Kirkwood, Turkey, in The Modern World series edited by HAL Fisher, Benn, 1926; it is unclear which passages are by which author, but this reads like Toynbee

2 Responses to “The sick man of Europe”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Partridge, born 1861, joined Punch in 1891 and drew for it until the year he died, 1945.

    “At Punch his ideas were often supplied to him, and he was a reliable artist who reputedly never got uniforms wrong. However, he always felt his work was rushed to meet deadlines. Partridge also drew advertisements for Lever Brothers, Selfridges and others. Some of his political cartoons were issued as postcards by Wrench, and during the First World War he designed postcards for Blue Cross Quarantine Kennels, for soldiers bringing home their pet dogs. A fine draughtsman in the tradition of Tenniel, he was also influenced by Du Maurier and the book illustrator Hugh Thomson.

    “Partridge disliked using more than two figures in any cartoon, and tended to draw grandiose, statuesque figures in classical poses. He mostly worked in pen and ink on Smith’s Board covered in ‘O.W.’ paper – usually 10 ( 13 in.. He also exhibited oil paintings, watercolours and pastels, and was elected to the New English Art Club in 1893 and the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours in 1896. A member of the Chelsea Arts Club and the Athenaeum Club, he was knighted in 1925. Bernard Partridge died in London on 9 August 1945.” 

    It is not surprising to read that his ideas were often supplied to him. He was not an incisive satirist, or even one of Punch’s most interesting artists, but was nevertheless part of the background of English life. He was, as far as I know, Punch’s only political cartoonist. One could do an entire blog on his work.

    Old Victorians who went on working through the Second World War: George Clausen (died 1944), Bernard Partridge, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells. Tbc when I think of them.

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