Belligerence in the Balkans

Bulgarian troops assault the Ottoman lines at Kirklareli (European Turkey) during the First Balkan War 1912-1913.
Bulgarian troops assault the Ottoman lines at Kirklareli (European Turkey) during the First Balkan War 1912-1913.

The scramble for Africa had caused many international clashes between Europe’s great powers and the scramble for China had triggered a war between Russia and Japan, but the scramble for the decrepit, ailing Turkish Ottoman empire could not be contained locally and peacefully. The First World War that began in 1914 was in fact the Third Balkan War that got out of hand.

As the European remnant of the Ottoman empire gradually decayed, its subject peoples periodically rose in rebellion to fight for their freedom and independence. One by one new states were created in the Balkans – Greece, Roumania, Serbia, Bulgaria – all at the expense of Turkey and with the support of the interested great power neighbours, Russia and Austria, who looked on them as potential clients.

Greece owed its existence largely to Britain; Russia promoted the aspirations of fellow Orthodox Slavs, the Serbs and Bulgarians; and Austria championed captive Catholic Croats. British leaders were torn between two contradictory responses: their sympathy with Christian freedom fighters and disgust with Turkish barbarity on the one hand and their fear of a Russian break-out into warm waters of the Mediterranean on the other.

However, since 1890 and the fall of Bismarck (who said he would not sacrifice the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier in the Balkans), Germany had begun to occupy a vacuum left there by gradual British withdrawal. Twice Kaiser William II visited Turkey on friendship missions and German bankers and business men became increasingly involved in building a new railway across Turkish Asian territory. In particular, they favoured an ambitious project that would link Constantinople with Baghdad and eventually Basra on the Persian Gulf. This raised yet another issue of Anglo-German rivalry and mutual mistrust. Now that the Royal Navy was preparing to convert its new warships from coal to oil, in London there were fears that the Germans might grab Mesopotamia’s (Iraq’s) oil fields for themselves.

More alarmingly, especially to the Russians whose trade through the Straits was vital to their economy, was a German military mission to Constantinople, which caused a diplomatic crisis in December 1913. Tsar Nicholas was afraid that the Germans intended to take over the Bosphorus/Dardanelles passage and shut his navy permanently in the Black Sea.

The final episode in this extended narrative of Ottoman decline and disintegration started in October 1911 when the Italians suddenly invaded and eventually conquered with difficulty Turkey’s only remaining North African colony, Libya. Ominously, whereas previous outside assaults on the Ottomans, usually by the Russians, had brought France or Great Britain or both to the aid of “Johnny Turk”, this time Italy was allowed a free hand. What was left of the empire was “up for grabs” since its condition was now seen as terminal. The traditional guardian of “the sick man of Europe”, once Great Britain, was now Germany, Italy’s ally.

Yet even before the Turks had been forced to sign away both Libya and the Dodecanese Aegean islands to Italy, more wolves had caught the smell of easy meat. Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece had formed a military pact, the Balkan League, to drive the Ottoman empire right out of Europe for ever.

Though the Turks were decisively defeated on all fronts, Serbia and Bulgaria fell out over some of the spoils: both coveted Macedonia. Also, Bulgaria’s huge territorial gains excited the envy of their neighbours and in the summer of 1913 Roumania, Greece, Serbia and Turkey joined forces to tear pieces out of its newly acquired lands. Bulgaria lost everything won in the First Balkan War; Serbia was doubled in size; Greece got Salonika; and the Turks held on to Adrianpole, their last toehold in Europe.

But the voracious, landlocked Serbs were still not satisfied: they demanded access to the Adriatic sea which the Austrians would not allow. Finally, after a prolonged deadlock, Serbia gave way to the superior, stubborn strength of the Austrians. The coast of the Adriatic between Austrian Dalmatia and Greece was given to Albania, a new, independent sovereign state.

However, Serbian resentment against Austria intensified and now centred on the disputed provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Here, in 1875, a rising against Turkish rule had been ruthlessly suppressed and three years later a great power congress at Berlin presided over by Bismarck had placed both provinces under the military authority of Vienna.

Though less than half their population were Serbian, most of them peasants, a quarter Turkish Muslim and another quarter Croat, Serb nationalists were passionately convinced that Bosnia and Herzegovina were historically and morally part of a greater Serbian state. So that after the Austrians suddenly and unilaterally annexed them in 1908 there could be no reconciliation between Vienna and Belgrade.

Austria’s seizure of Bosnia-Herzegovina was a crucial turning-point in European power politics. When Serbia and Russia protested vigorously Germany took Austria’s side and they were compelled to back down. Humiliated recently by the Japanese in the Far East and conceding to Britain limits to their expansion in the Middle East, the Russians revived their traditional ambitions in the Balkans. From now on St Petersburg gave unqualified support to their Slav “brothers”, particularly the Serbs. In doing so, there was a conspicuous increase in the size of Russia’s armed forces, both land and sea, which during the years from 1910 to 1914 set off a European arms race.

So by 1914 the guns were loaded, the lines were drawn and suspicion, fear and intolerance were poisoning relations between the greater and smaller European states. Not much more would be needed for someone to pull a trigger and blow peace away: leaders and governments had run out of safety catches.