The Balkans and the outbreak of war
Questions & answers with Dr. William Mulligan
What were the Balkan Wars?
The Balkan Wars were two separate wars, fought in rapid succession, in 1912 and 1913. In the First Balkan War, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro formed the Balkan League and fought against the Ottoman empire. Montenegro, the smallest of these states, declared war against the Ottoman empire on 8 October. Its allies followed suit and won a decisive, and unexpected victory, against the Ottoman forces. By the end of the year the Balkan states had won control of what had been the remnants of the Ottoman empire in Europe – in Macedonia, Thrace, and Salonika. Bulgarian forces almost reached the Ottoman capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul).
What about the Treaty of London?
In December 1912 the great powers convened an ambassadors’ conference in London in a belated attempt to control the geopolitical changes taking place in the Balkans. Throughout the nineteenth century the Eastern question – the place of the Ottoman empire in European politics – had been a major preoccupation for statesmen and diplomats and a site of tension between the great powers. Between December 1912 and May 1913 the great powers negotiated with each other, while also attempting to impose a settlement in the region. The treaty of London, concluded in May 1913, appeared to bring an end to the First Balkan War. Bulgaria expanded into Thrace, Greece took possession of the rich port city of Salonika, and Serbia controlled Macedonia. In addition the great powers agreed to establish an Albanian state, though its borders were not finalised. The Ottoman empire retained a tiny sliver of territory in Europe, as a barrier to Constantinople.
Why was there a Second Balkan War?
The Balkan states were dissatisfied with the outcome of the war. In particular Bulgarian politicians complained that their army had done the most fighting, but that Serbia had received the lion’s share of Macedonia, in violation of a treaty between the two states in February 1912. In June Bulgarian forces fell on the erstwhile allies. This declaration of war proved disastrous from the Bulgarian point of view, as it was defeated by a new coalition of Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, the Ottoman empire, and Romania. The Second Balkan War was ended by the treaty of Bucharest, concluded on 10 August 1913. The Ottoman empire won back the city of Edirne, about 40 kilometres from Constantinople, while Romania took Dobrudja, previously part of Bulgaria.
What happened after the Second Balkan War?
Neither the treaty of London nor the treaty of Bucharest settled territorial claims in the Balkans. Yet despite continued tensions in the region, peace was preserved until the outbreak of the First World War. Indeed of the belligerent states in the Balkan Wars, only Serbia participated in the First World War from the outset. Ultimately, though, the Balkan Wars are significant for four reasons – the geopolitical balance, diplomatic practice, the competing claims of empire and nation, and ethnic cleansing.
What was the significance of the Balkan Wars for geopolitics and the alliance system?
The outcome of the Balkan Wars had a significant impact on the great power geopolitics and the alliance system. In 1912 the great powers formed two alliance blocs – the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, and the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and Britain. As military planners calculated the distribution of their army corps and developed their war plans, they paid close attention to changes in the balance of power. The expansion of Serbia, which doubled in territorial and population size, had a major impact on Austro-Hungarian security policy. After 1913 military planners in Vienna planned to move a number of divisions from the Russian to the Serbian front in order to counter growing Serbian power. In turn this meant that Russian planners could shift some troops away from the Austro-Hungarian front to the north-eastern front against Germany. As German military planners devoted the bulk of their forces to the offensive against France in the west, their eastern flank now appeared dangerously exposed. In short the shifts in the Balkans had significant consequences for the military balance of power in Europe, ones that were largely unfavourable for the Triple Alliance. This increased the nervousness of figures like Helmuth von Moltke (the German Chief of the General Staff) and his Austrian counterpart, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff. Moreover it is important to remember that the Balkan wars marked the effective end, after half a millennium, of the Ottoman empire in Europe.
And the implications for diplomatic practice?
The wars also demonstrated some of the fundamental weaknesses of the great power diplomatic system on the eve of the First World War. For over four decades there had been peace between the great powers – the longest period of great power peace in Europe until the end of the Cold War. This peace resulted from many factors, including the willingness of the powers to compromise with each other and to manage political change in Europe, indeed around the world. The Second Balkan War, as already mentioned, was concluded by the treaty of Bucharest, a peace settlement brokered by a regional power, Romania, and devoid of great power input. This was just one of several examples of the failure of the great powers in 1912 and 1913 to manage change. The conference of London was a fraught affair, with Russian diplomats in particular unwilling to force its small ally, Serbia, to comply with some of the less appealing terms. Leopold von Berchtold, the Austrian Foreign Minister, lost faith in the great power concert system and began to issue ultimatums to Serbia and Montenegro from early 1913. The demands presented to Serbia following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 were, therefore, part of a series of ultimatums. The crucial point here is that the great powers failed to uphold the practices, norms, and conventions that had underpinned great power peace since the Franco-German war of 1870-1. In short these years witnessed the erosion of great power peace as small states demonstrated that they could, in a limited scope, determine their own political fate.
What did it say about the rise of nationalism?
This leads into the third significant issue of the Balkan wars, the assertion of the claims of nationalism as the focal point of political legitimacy. Throughout Europe there was widespread public support for the nation-building projects of the Balkan states. This was born out of sympathy for the claims of nationalism, viewed as a progressive political force, the basis for democracy in a homogenous political community. The success of the Balkan nation-states, however, had repercussions in Europe’s other multinational empires, particularly in Austria-Hungary and Britain. Here nationalist minorities, such as Czechs, Croats, and Irish, sought national autonomy, rather than independence. Nonetheless, leaders such as John Redmond, used the Balkan Wars to underline the legitimacy of their political aims. This was part of a wider debate that would last into the 1920s about the nature and basis of political order in Europe in the twentieth century and the competing claims of nation and empire.
Finally, what about ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Balkans?
The Balkan wars were accompanied by the first ethnic cleansing in twentieth century Europe. The victorious Balkan armies, supported by paramilitary units, murdered, raped, and expelled Muslims from the lands they conquered. They destroyed mosques and forced conversions. Territorial change was accompanied by violent demographic and cultural change. Around 400,000 Muslim refugees crowded into Constantinople, some of whom went on to join the Special Organization, a major instrument in the Armenian genocide of 1915. The nation-state, in this iteration, required violence to purge the territory of non-nationals. Although Irish nationalists (and unionists) shied away from the use of violence before 1914, the Balkan wars reinforced the relationship between violence and nation-building in the early twentieth century. In short the Balkan Wars raised some of the fundamental issues that shaped European politics in the decade between 1912 and 1922.
Dr William Mulligan is a lecturer in the School of History & Archives, UCD. His most recent book is The origins of the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 2010)