The balkan powder keg

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Balkan is a Turkish word meaning ‘mountain’ and the Balkans are the poor, mountainous parts of Eastern Europe, south of the Danube and Sava rivers. Although the land was poor and wild, the great powers were all interested in getting control of it. Their rivalry there was so fierce that the Balkans were like a powder keg, ready to explode if a single spark fell in it. This is exactly what happened during the hot summer of 1914.


Turkey ruled most of the Balkans at the start of this century. Turkey had once been a great empire, The Ottoman Empire, but was now weak; people called it ‘the sick man of Europe’. As the ‘sick man’ weakened, it began to lost control of the Balkan peoples who had often rebelled against Turkish rule.

The powerful countries surrounding the Balkans – Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy and even Germany – were all interested in what was going on there. They realized that they could take advantage of Turkey’s weakness to grab land and increase their influence in the area.

The Russians had been hoping for many years to get ports on the Mediterranean Sea. This would make trade easier and, in time of war, her warships could not be ‘bottled up’ in the Black Sea. So Russia was looking for an opportunity to take land away from Turkey.

Austria-Hungary also wanted ports on the Mediterranean. But the Austrians had another and more important reason for wanting the Balkans: Austria-Hungary was ‘patchwork empire’ of many nationalities (one of these was the Slav people). The Slavs wanted to break away from Austrian rule and form their own nation. Just a cross the border a nation of Slavs already existed – Serbia. The Serbians often stirred up trouble in Austria-Hungary by encouraging their fellow Slavs to rebel against their Austrian rulers. The Austrians, therefore, wanted to get control of Serbia and any other troublesome Slav areas before such a rebellion could start.

Germany had a different interest in the Balkans. Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to build a railway from Berlin to Baghdad in Persia where there were rich oilfields. The route of the 4000-kilometer railway would have to go through the center of the Balkans.

Italy hoped to gain a strip of land on the other side of the Adriatic Sea so that she had control of the Adriatic for trade.

So, four powerful countries were keeping a careful watch on the Balkans, waiting for a chance to take land and gain influence there. The chance they were waiting for came suddenly in 1908!

The Bosnian crisis of 1908, and the Balkan wars were but a prelude to the Sarajevo crisis of 1914. They all had to do with the rivalries of Austria, Russia, the Balkan states and Turkey.

The Slavic population was discontented. They felt that they were governed by a people who disliked them, disregarded their interests, and discriminated against their language, culture and religion. The result was that many of the Slavs wanted to get out and form their own independent nation-state.

This desire for political independence and the union with the Slav brothers outside the monarchy was known as the Pan-Slav movement. The most active center of the movement was Serbia. The first movement in the enlargement of Serbia was the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. By taking this area it would double in population and at the same time gain an access to the sea. Serbia had the backing of Russia, who would be sure to support them in their effort to free themselves from Turkish and Austrian domination. Thus, backing the scheme, was Russia, and Russia was allied with France and Great Britain. From the Austrian perspective, Serbia was only a pawn in the hands of the Triple Entente. The Austro-Hungarian government believed that the movement for a greater Serbia had to be suppressed at all costs.

In 1907, the Austro-Hungarian government determined to block the scheme of Serbia at the first opportunity. The opportunity came with the Young Turks Revolution, in 1908. This caused chaos everywhere in Turkey. The ruler of Bulgaria crowned himself King and declared his country independent (half of it was owned by Turkey). The people on the island of Crete broke away from Turkish rule and united with Greece. But it was Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary who took most advantage of this chaos in the Balkans. In order to prevent Bosnia-Herzegovina from being either re-annexed to Turkey or annexed to Serbia, it was formally annexed to Austria-Hungary. Franz Joseph had taken over a people who hated him and at the same time had made an enemy of King Peter of Serbia.

The annexation of 1908 created a diplomatic crisis. Serbians immediately called for mobilization and a war with Austria. Russia supported Serbia and the lines were clearly drawn. The German Emperor was upset with Austria-Hungary because he believed that the annexation threatened the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway project. Chancellor von Bulow said tat Germany must support Austria-Hungary without reserve. “When it comes to the question of bending or breaking,” he said, “Russia will climb down from her high horse and will also call her vassal Serbia to order.”

His prophecy proved correct. France and Britain protested against the annexation but neither were willing to back Russia and create a conflict over Serbian interests. They made this clear to Russia, and Russia warned Serbia that it also must yield. “Do not begin a war now,” the Russian minister said, “for that would be suicide. Conceal your intentions and prepare yourselves. Your days of joy will come.”

Thus, the crisis passed, but Serbia and Russia began to prepare for the “day of joy.” After 1908, Russia tried to unite the Balkans into a league that it could use either against Turkey or Austria-Hungary. This was difficult for Bulgaria and Serbia were enemies of long-standing. But they had one thing in common – hatred of Turkey. In 1912, Russia induced Bulgaria to sign a secret treaty with Serbia. Shortly afterwards the two states signed a military agreement with Greece. These arrangements were known as the Balkan League of 1912.

The Balkan states were now eager for a war with Turkey, especially so since Italy had become involved in a war with Turkey over Tripoli. Although the Balkan League had agreed not to go to war with Turkey without the consent of Russia, they were not to be constrained. Montenegro declared war on its own and invited the Balkan League to join it in a war against “the infidel Turk”. In spite of protests by Russia and other nations, they quickly defeated the Turkish army and occupied the greater part of European Turkey.

This first Balkan war created another European crisis. Again the danger point was the hostility of Serbia and Austria. Serbia’s chief aim was to acquire Albania. This would give her an outlet to the sea that had been deprived to her when Austria-Hungary acquired Bosnia-Herzegovina. Austria was just as determined to prevent Serbia from gaining Albania as it had been in preventing it from getting Bosnia. War seemed possible. In London, the great powers met and Austria insisted that Serbia not get Albania. Once more Russia yielded. Albania was made an independent kingdom. To preserve the peace, the interests of Serbia were once again sacrificed.

Prevented from gaining Albania, Serbia asked for a larger share of Macedonia than had been agreed to in the treaty with Bulgaria. Bulgaria refused and attacked the Greek and Serbian forces in Macedonia. This was the SECOND BALKAN WAR, 1913. The Second Balkan War was a disaster for Ferdinand. Both Turkey and Romania joined in the fighting so that he found himself under attack from four sides. As a result, the Bulgarian army lost 50,000 men as well as some of the land they had gained just a year before.

The country which came out best in the two Balkan Wars was Serbia. King Peter had doubled the size of his country and his people had become more proud and aggressive. Unhappily, this made the Balkan problem even worse. The Serbs living in Bosnia and Herzegovina became restless and wanted more than ever before to belong to Serbia. The Austrians became even more worried that these people would rebel, while Ferdinand of Bulgaria grew to hate Serbia and was set on getting revenge. Bulgaria was defeated and forced to accept the Treaty of Bucharest.

Another crisis had passed but the Balkans were now seething with hatred, resentment and unrest. Serbia and Russia were determined to gain their objectives. At the Bucharest Conference the Serbian minister, Pashitch, said to the Russian minister: “The first game (against Turkey) s won; we must now prepare for the second, against Austria.” Within less than a year the final and fatal crisis occurred.

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