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Ottoman empire
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     The first Balkan War
     The second Balkan War
     Assassination in Sarajevo
     Balkan alliances
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     Germany and the Balkans

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The first Balkan War:1912-1913

The Balkan upheavals of 1912 begin in Albania. A national uprising against the Turks is so successful that an Albanian army presses far enough east to occupy the Macedonian city of Skopje. This success stirs the Balkan states to action, for an independent Albania is not part of their plans. In October 1912 Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria go to war against Turkey.

The allies rapidly make inroads into Macedonia and Albania. In the east the Bulgarians push the Turks back to their defensive lines at Catalca, only sixty miles from Istanbul. In the west the Greeks move into southern Albania and the Serbians reach the Adriatic, capturing the port of Durrës on November 28.


On the same day at Vlorë, another port fifty miles to the south, the Albanians declare their independence and set up their first national government. But the issue is now taken into international hands.

Austria-Hungary, in particular, is determined not to have a strengthened Serbia on her southern border. A conference of ambassadors of the relevant powers (Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman empire) convenes in London in December to discuss the issue. It is agreed that the independence of Albania should be recognized, but there is much dispute as to the exact boundaries. Russian pressure on behalf of the Serbs results eventually in one glaring anomaly. The province of Kosovo, containing some 800,000 Albanian inhabitants, is severed from Albania and allotted to Serbia.


It is agreed also in London (in a second conference in May 1913) that the western border of European Turkey will run from Enos on the Aegean to Midye on the Black Sea. It is left to the three Balkan states to divide between themselves the whole of the rest of Turkish Europe up to the Albanian border - an area consisting of western Thrace and Macedonia.

Since Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece have made mutual agreements on this issue before the outbreak of war, this might be assumed to be easy. But this is the Balkans. Negotiations are immediately undertaken to alter the agreed terms until, in June 1913, the king of Bulgaria decides upon military intervention.


The second Balkan War: 1913

As in any war, troops are not exactly where expected when hostilities in the Balkans come to an end in April 1913. In particular many areas of Macedonia earmarked for Bulgaria are occupied by Greek and Serbian troops who show little inclination to relinquish them. This situation, and the hope of a quick victory to redress matters, prompts the Bulgarian king Ferdinand I to order his army to march into these disputed areas on 28 June 1913.

The result is disaster for Bulgaria. The invading army fails to achieve an immediate advantage against Serbs or Greeks in Macedonia. On July 11 the Rumanians invade Bulgaria from the north. On the next day the Turks march into the new Bulgarian territory in Thrace.


By July 18 the Bulgarians have agreed to a conference in Bucharest to settle the issue, though it is another two weeks before the Greeks, Serbs and Rumanians accept an armistice. The terms agreed at Bucharest are inevitably to Bulgaria's disadvantage. Romania is ceded valuable territory in the Dobruja, bordering the Black Sea. Turkey recovers part of Thrace. Greece and Serbia acquire the largest and richest parts of Macedonia. The only worthwhile Bulgarian accession is a short strip of the Aegean coast.

These events leave deep-seated enmities in the Balkans. But they are about to be submerged in a wider conflict - the First World War.


Assassination in Sarajevo: 1914

Hearing that the Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand is to visit the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, some young Serb nationalists lay plans to assassinate him. They have the support of the head of Serbia's military intelligence, who is also the leader of a secret terrorist group known as the Black Hand. He provides them with weapons and spirits them across the border from Serbia into Bosnia.

The day of the archduke's visit, June 28, demonstrates two things - the incompetence of the six conspirators, and the extraordinary incaution of the Austrian authorities. The visit is taking place against the advice of the Serbian foreign ministry, which has urged that Serb nationalism makes Sarajevo too dangerous.


On the day itself the Austrians prove positively foolhardy.The archduke and his wife are on their way to the town hall when a bomb is thrown at their car. They are unhurt but an officer, wounded by the blast, is taken to the local hospital. After the official visit, the archduke decides to visit the injured man in hospital. As he leaves the town hall, another bomb is thrown at him but fails to explode. In spite of this he and his wife continue through the streets in their car.

The chauffeur, uncertain where the hospital is, takes a wrong turning and reverses. By sheer chance the car stops beside one of the conspirators, a 19-year old Bosnian Serb student, Gavrilo Princip.


Princip draws a pistol and fires twice at the car. The two shots mortally wound the archduke and his wife. This disaster, depriving the aged Austrian emperor of his heir, is interpreted in Vienna as a conspiracy by the Serbian government. In fact Serbia's rulers are bitterly opposed to the activities of the Black Hand. And the Serbian prime minister, hearing of a possible plot at Sarajevo, has even sent a veiled warning to the Austrian authorities - too veiled and of no avail, as it turns out.

Over the next five weeks this bungled and accidental sequence of events becomes the flashpoint for Europe's most destructive war.


Balkan alliances: 1915-1916

During 1915, as the war first settles into stalemate on the western front, the European theatre with the greatest volatility is the Balkans - where there is much unfinished business in the aftermath of the two recent Balkan Wars (1912-13). The immediate concern of the various countries is local – how best to preserve recent territorial gains or recover recent losses.

At the outbreak of war, in 1914, all but one of the nations in this turbulent region keep their options open with declarations of neutrality. The exception is Serbia, at the heart of the conflict from the very start and surprisingly resilient during the rest of 1914 in keeping the armies of Austria-Hungary at bay.


Serbia and Bulgaria become a high priority for both sides. For the Central Powers, if Serbia can be occupied and Bulgaria brought into their alliance, a crucial railway link can be made between Vienna and the Turkish capital at Istanbul. For the Allies there is strategic value in preventing this happening, and an important element of prestige in being seen to protect Serbia.

During the summer of 1915 both sides promise Bulgaria the return of territory in Macedonia lost in the Bucharest treaty of 1913. It is a more convincing promise from the Central powers, since much of the land went to Serbia. Moreover the king of Bulgaria is strongly pro-German. In September Bulgaria takes the plunge by declaring war on Serbia.


This act places the focus firmly on Greece. A friendly Greece is essential to the Allies, since an expedition north from the Greek coast is the only practical way of bringing assistance to land-locked Serbia. Moreover Greece can reasonably be expected to enter the fray. After the First Balkan War, in 1913, she signed a treaty with Serbia in which each promised to help the other if attacked by Bulgaria.

However opinion in Greece is deeply divided. The king and his senior commanders are pro-German, while the prime minister sympathizes with the Allies. The result is that Greece fails to side with Serbia, but Allied troops nevertheless land at Salonika for a push inland (claiming to have been invited to do so by the prime minister).


French and British divisions are rushed from Gallipoli to land at Salonika on October 5 (the Greek king dismisses his insubordinate prime minister on the same day). But the expedition proves a fiasco. Advancing up the Vardar river, the Allies finds the Bulgarians ahead of them in Serbia. An Austrian and Bulgarian attack from both flanks is finally subduing this small country, with Belgrade falling to the Austrians on October 9. The Serb army, abandoning an unequal struggle, escapes through the mountains into Albania.

The Allied forces, having failed in their mission, withdraw in December back to Salonika. At this same moment the British and French are also pulling ignominiously out of Gallipoli.


It would make tactical sense to abandon both these unsuccessful ventures, but it is decided that there are strategic reasons for staying in Salonika. One is prestige in this important part of Europe. The other is the hope that Romania, still neutral, may soon join in on the Allied side. As a result further French and British divisions are sent in 1916 to Salonika. They are joined by the escaped Serbian army and by Italian contingents.

The Germans decide not to disturb this quiet encampment, which at times ties up nearly 500,000 Allied troops - until at last they go into action in 1918.


Romania does eventually join the Allies, in August 1916, on being promised much of Hungary after the defeat of the Austrian empire. Romania's decision pays off after the war, but in the short term it brings disaster. Early in December the capital city, Bucharest, falls to an Austro-Hungarian army. The king and his ministers flee to exile in the neighbouring Russian province of Moldavia.

Meanwhile the split in Greece between the factions of the king and his dismissed prime minister become more extreme. In September 1916 the prime minister moves from Athens to Salonika to set up an independent Greek government under Allied protection. This government, in November, declares war on Bulgaria. The rival Balkan alliances are at last complete.


Sections are as yet missing at this point.


Sections Missing

Sections are as yet missing at this point


Germany and the Balkans: 1939-1941

In the late 1930s the countries of the Balkans still harbour many resentments from the past, casting acquistive glances at patches of their neighbours' territories. The Balkan Entente of 1934 reveals that they also share a wish to coexist in harmony. But from 1938, after the Anschluss, the growing power and aggression of their German neighbour is a factor overriding all others in the region.

Most of the Balkan countries are ruled at this time as right-wing dictatorships inclined to anti-Semitism, so there is considerable sympathy for Hitler's politics. Nevertheless the main concern in each nation is to preserve recent and hard-won independence. But by the outbreak of World War II this already seems impossible to achieve.


By the autumn of 1939 Czechoslovakia has already been overrun by Hitler. Poland is even now being divided between Germany and the USSR. Moreover there is an unexpected unanimity between the USSR, Germany and Italy. These three nations surround the Balkan countries and Hungary - now isolated by the German occupation of Czechoslovakia to the north.

Late in 1940 the familiar Balkan chaos returns to the area, as the nations desperately try to adjust to new pressures. A few months later, by May 1941, the entire region is under German occupation.


The jostling for position begins in October 1940 when Italian troops cross the Albanian border to invade Greece - a neutral country, but one which has a guarantee of protection from Britain (granted in April 1939 when Italy seized Albania).

Mussolini hopes for a swift success in Greece, but his plans go drastically wrong. The Greeks not only drive back the invaders. They advance into Albania and soon occupy about a quarter of its territory. The initial Greek peril triggers a response from Britain, in fulfilment of the guarantee. And the subsequent Greek success makes Hitler realize that he will have to intervene to rescue his Italian ally.


Hitler can only reach Greece through Yugoslavia, which in early 1941 is still trying to preserve a degree of independence. But further north he has secured his position by a mixture of alliances and force.

The first German alliance is with Hungary which in February 1939 has signed Hitler's Anti-Comintern Pact, though with considerable subsequent misgivings. In 1940 German forces, allied with local Fascists, bring Romania to heel (Hitler needs the rich Romanian oilfields). Outlying sections of Romanian territory are assigned to Hungary and Bulgaria. In March 1941 an enthusiastic Bulgaria signs the Anti-Commintern Pact. So by the spring of 1941 the regions north of Yugoslavia are all under German control.


On 6 April 1941 German troops invade Yugoslavia from Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. Within a few days the country is overrun, after the government and king make their escape. Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria divide up the conquered territory between them. The German army then presses on into Greece, where a small British force has arrived during the previous month. The country is occupied almost as rapidly as Yugoslavia. The British are driven from the mainland by the end of April, and from Crete a month later.

The Balkans immediately become the scene of courageous and persistent resistance from partisans, in Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. But the region remains in German hands until 1944.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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