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The Balkans: 1876-1914

Europe first becomes aware in 1876 of a new wave of unrest among the Christians of eastern Europe against their Muslim ruler, the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. Stories arrive of appalling atrocities carried out by the Turks against rebellious Bulgarians.

In the resulting international crisis other groups in the Balkans begin to press for their freedom. A congress in Berlin in 1878 decides that Bulgaria is to be autonomous within the Ottoman empire, while Serbia and Romania are to become fully independent and Bosnia-Hercegovina is to be administered from Vienna. Thus the Ottoman empire in Europe continues to shrink, in a process begun earlier in the century with the independence of Greece.


By the 1890s only Macedonia and Albania remain under direct Turkish control. In the next two decades there are several outbreaks of war as their recently independent neighbours attempt to absorb these remaining territories.

By 1913 Macedonia has been largely divided up in this manner, while the independence of Albania has won international acceptance. Bosnia-Hercegovina remains the last major anomaly in the Balkans. Still under the much resented rule of the Austrian empire, it seethes with nationalist agitation. It is a very local act of political terrorism here, at Sarajevo in 1914, which plunges Europe into the most destructive war in its long and violent history.


Five weeks to war: 1914

The flashpoint comes in Bosnia on 28 June 1914, when a Serbian nationalist assassinates the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. This is a highly dramatic event, though less unusual then than now (since the turn of the century assassins have claimed the lives of a president of the USA, a king of Portugal and a king of Greece). But it is certainly not due cause for a world war.

The mere five weeks between the shot fired in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip and the first declaration of war between the major powers demonstrates vividly the tangle in which Europe's statesmen have tied themselves.


The first reaction to the outrage at Sarajevo is from Vienna. To the Austrian emperor and his advisers the immediate requirement is to destroy the influence of Serbia, the mainstay of Slav resistance to Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. But the danger is that an invasion of Serbia may provoke Slav solidarity and thus war with Russia.

So an urgent question is sent on July 4 to Berlin. Will Germany come to the assistance of Austria-Hungary if Russia intervenes on behalf of Serbia? Within two days an answer comes back in the affirmative. The Austrian emperor should deal with Serbia as he thinks fit.


Germany nevertheless hopes that Russia will hold back, leaving the Serbian crisis as a local affair between Vienna and Belgrade. Subsequently the Kaiser even sends telegrams to the Tsar urging this course of action. But if Russia does intervene, there will be one advantage to Germany. The subsequent war can be presented to the world as the result of Russian aggression.

For three weeks there is a deceptive lull, partly owing to disagreements in Vienna and partly because Serbia makes conciliatory efforts to defuse the situation. Then suddenly, on July 28, Austria-Hungary declares war on its small neighbour. The following day, removing all chance of further diplomacy, an Austrian flotilla on the Danube bombards Belgrade.


In response Russia mobilizes her army, thus inevitably triggering the urgent launch by Germany of the Schlieffen Plan - for if Russia gains the advantage of amassing troops in the east, there will be no time for the preliminary defeat of France in the west. With her options thus seemingly reduced by strategic demands to only one, Germany impetuously declares war on Russia on August 1.

Two days later she also declares war on France. During the night of the same day, August 3, German armies cross the border into Belgium, to begin the flanking movement which is intended to bring them rapidly down into northern France and so once again (echoes of 1871) to Paris.


This action brings in the fifth of the European powers. Britain's Entente Cordiale does not commit her to come to the defence of France, and many in the German high command expect her not to do so. But the violation of the neutrality of Belgium introduces an element which the Germans have either overlooked or have considered insignificant. Britain was one of the powers guaranteeing (in 1831 and again in 1839), to protect Belgium as 'an independent and perpetually neutral state'.

Under this obligation Britain declares war on Germany on August 4. For the first time in 100 years all the major powers of Europe are at war. A mere five weeks and three days have passed since the unexpected event at Sarajevo.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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