The long history of humanitarianism, and the women who invented it

Glenda Sluga examines the origins of humanitarianism through the life and politics of Baltic German noblewoman Princess Dorothea von Lieven.

Princess Dorothea von Lieven (1811), by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Countess Dorothea von Lieven (1811)” (1825), by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When historians of international politics remember the Baltic-born Russian countess-cum‑princess Dorothea Lieven (1785-1857) it is usually because of her romantic relationship with the Austrian Foreign Minister Clemens Metternich. This relationship, encapsulated in The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820-1826 (1938), began in 1818 at one of the European congresses that gradually determined the nature of the so-called ‘Restoration’ order that followed the defeat of Napoleon by a Russian-led Coalition. In the latter nineteenth century and 1920s, enthusiasts of British history occasionally recalled Lieven too because of the epistolary traces of her hold over English political life.

As it turns out, Princess Dorothea von Lieven can as much be counted a key figure in the genealogy of modern liberal internationalism, at least the principle of international intervention for humanitarian purposes. Lieven’s own political interventions across the first half of the nineteenth century—in her self-styled mode of diplomat—presents us with an individual case study of how the imperative of ‘humanity’ was invoked not only in the better-known cause of anti-slavery, but also in defense of persecuted Christian minorities, often on Christian moral grounds.

Living in London as the wife of Prince Khristofor Andreyevich Lieven, Russia’s ambassador to Britain, Lieven’s education in international politics had its origins around 1814, when the Coalition—which included Britain, Prussia, Austria and other smaller sovereignties – followed its victory with the first of its peacemaking congresses, and its most famous, the Congress of Vienna. We know more about the diplomatic ambitions of Lieven than other women in this period in part because she was not shy of inserting herself in history. Her memoirs date her ‘diplomatic apprenticeship’ to the visit to London of Russia’s Grand-Duchess Catherine – Tsar Alexander I’s opinionated sister en route to the Congress of Vienna. From this time on, Lieven’s home, as she liked to describe it, was ‘the centre of diplomacy and of the elite of society’. There she welcomed Whigs and Tories and built up a reputation that reached the Russian court. But it was the peacemaking negotiations between the Coalition partners that gradually drew Lieven deep into the questions of international politics that were also reshaping modern diplomatic practices and its concerns.

"Redoubt at the Congress of Vienna (1815)" (c. 1820), by Johann Nepomuk Hoechle. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Redoubt at the Congress of Vienna (1815)” (c. 1820), by Johann Nepomuk Hoechle. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The French writer François-René Chauteaubriand, who was himself an occasional diplomat and Lieven’s ideological kindred spirit, thought her ‘nulle et vaine’. Chateaubriand may have had in mind the post-Napoleonic peacemaking congress of Europe’s statesmen gathered in Verona, which both he and Lieven attended in 1822 – Chateaubriand as a French ambassador, Lieven as an ‘ambassadrice’, the name given to ambassador’s wives at the time. Lieven claimed that over two months, the Verona congress gathered nightly at her place (there were few other options), usually until two in the morning. It was really in the period after Verona that Lieven’s agency became increasingly vital to the specifically ‘humanitarian’ ends of the value system that had begun to be normalised at Vienna.  Since 1814, these ends had included the internationalilsation of the slave trade question that had already come to the fore in England, and which the British government, on public urging, now made a condition of a new European order. For Lieven, however, humanitarianism was much more specifically about the fate of Orthodox Christian Greeks in the Ottoman empire.

Princess Dorothea von Lieven (c. 1814), artist unknown. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Princess Dorothea von Lieven (c. 1814), artist unknown. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Greek question (also known as the Eastern Question) had come within the remit of the peacemakers as early as the Congress of Vienna, although it had not been pursued by the Coalition. Even though Russia had a long history of interest in claiming sovereignty in the terrain where some of the Greeks were rebelling against the Ottomans on the grounds of religious oppression, under the Tsar Alexander I, there was a preference for maintaining a European alliance over any intervention that might trouble the waters of the Coalition alliance. When eventually Russia changed tack and opted to defend the Greeks, and brought Britain on side, it was Lieven’s doing. Lieven argued that intervention was a humanitarian Christian act.

The Cambridge historian Harold Temperley has backed Lieven’s own claims of having turned Tsar Alexander I from a disinclination to drawing his alliance partners into the question of Russian interests in Porte territories, to a policy of defending the Christians on the other side of the Russian empire’s borders, in territory over which Russian leaders had long had economic designs. As Lieven wrote, ‘I said to him “Put your foot down. Sire, and you will make the whole world tremble,” for that was precisely what the emperor did not think that he could dare to do.’ Having turned the Tsar, Lieven went on to convince George Canning – the British Foreign Secretary with an anti-interventionist reputation – to intervene on Russia’s side: ‘establishing in the East an order of things conformable to the interests of Europe and to the laws of religion and humanity.’ In this account of the power of individual agency, Lieven’s intervention led Canning to shift from refusing Russian requests even to hold a conference on the question, to accepting an alliance with Russia against the Ottoman empire in defence of Greek independence and the lives of Christians. Lieven was also instrumental in obtaining the agreement of Canning’s envoy – Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington – to the Protocol of St. Petersburg, signed on April 4, 1826, which consolidated the revolution in Anglo-Russian diplomatic relations and European diplomacy.

Princess von Lieven memorial column (c. 2010), Pavlovsk, Russia. Photograph by Alexander V. Solomin. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Princess von Lieven memorial column (c. 2010), Pavlovsk, Russia. Photograph by Alexander V. Solomin. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Lieven may have had little to do with the abolition chapter of the story of humanitarianism, but she has a critical place in the history of liberal internationalism through her advocacy of the defense of the Greeks. At a time when ‘nationality’ was still in its infancy as an idea, Lieven’s actions became an exceptional and exemplary case of an elite women promoting diverse national and religious patriotisms, for divergent reasons, on a transnational European scale.  In her case, she was the supporter of an Orthodox conservative-derived religious humanitarianism.  The anti-liberal Lieven used her networks, her correspondence, and her salon to great effect in this period, ensuring transnational European intervention in Ottoman lands.

In this context, we should not be surprised to find that in the mid-1850s, in the midst of the Crimean War that pitted Russia against the Ottomans (and drawing in Britain and France) over a similar question of the defence of Orthodox Christians, the French Empress Eugenie (another woman who tried to involve herself in the political affairs of her husband) remarked that Lieven and her ‘embassy of women’ were responsible for fomenting one of the most appalling conflicts of the nineteenth century.

Whether or not history sides with the Empress Eugenie, what we can say is that Lieven’s politics involved her in the nineteenth-century internationalisation of the cause of Greek independence, as the humanitarian defence by a Christian Europe of Christians in the Ottoman empire. Lieven’s agency had fashioned in critical and intentionally conservative ways the international and intersecting politics of nation-making, humanitarianism and religion.


SlugaGlenda Sluga is Professor of International History and ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellow at The University of Sydney. Her research interests include the cultural history of international relations, internationalism, the history of European nationalisms, sovereignty, identity, immigration and gender history. In 2013, she was awarded a five-year Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship for Inventing the International – The Origins of Globalisation. For more about Dorothea Lieven, see her volume (co-edited with Corolyn James) entitled Women, Diplomacy and International Politics Since 1500 (Routledge, 2016).

Follow Glenda on Twitter @GlendaSluga.

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