The Balkans & WW1

Key Facts

  • The Balkans referred to a cluster of nations in Eastern Europe. It lay between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
  • It is considered as one of the causes of the First World War as it was strategically placed and it would help European nations achieve invincibility.
  • This region was also politically unstable as there were different ethnicities and there was also rising nationalism in the region. Nationalism brought about tensions.
  • There was also rising Serbian nationalist groups.
  • These Serbian nationalist groups, in particular, the ‘Black Hand’ brought about the assassination of Archduke.

Franz Ferdinand in the Balkan city of Sarajevo provided the Austro-Hungarian government with an incentive for crushing Serbian nationalism, something that they had long wished for.

Located in a large peninsula which was sandwiched by four seas namely the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Adriatic and the Aegean, instability in the Balkans was a main cause of the First World War as it brought about tensions among European nations. The Balkans had a cluster of nations and provinces including Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Bosnia. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Balkan region was less populated and under-developed in comparison to Western Europe. It only had a few natural resources and, as a result, it was no economic powerhouse. Its strategic geographical location was the main reason most of the European nations coveted this landmass.

In addition to being sandwiched in between four seas, it was in between three major European empires. These were the Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires and with this in mind, access to the Balkans was key in accessing several important waterways. For centuries it had acted as a passageway between the East and West as cultural and mercantile exchange took place there. The Balkans nonetheless had its own problems owing to the different ethnicities there and increased nationalism.

In the late 19th century, the Balkans underwent significant change and disorder. Most of Eastern Europe and the Balkan states had been part of the Ottoman Empire at its peak. Things took a turn for the worse by the late 1800s when the Ottoman Empire began crumbling. Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria all gained independence from Ottoman rule during this period. Britain, France, Germany and Russia, the great West European powers, had developed a strong interest in the region and this was based on what would happen to them once the Ottoman Empire fell. This predicament has been referred to as the ‘Eastern Question’ by historians. Acting swiftly, these great powers developed their own foreign policies and objectives. Russians, through their navy, wanted to expand their territory by moving into the Balkans and other areas that were formerly under the Ottoman Empire. They wanted to capture and control the Bosphorus, which provided shipping access to the Mediterranean. This was met with British opposition. The British wanted the crumbling Ottoman Empire to remain intact for as long as possible to provide some sort of buffer against the Russians, who Britain feared would attack. Germany, on the other hand, had thoughts of acquiring the Ottoman regions that were rendered bankrupt and they would attempt to make them colonies.

A series of military alliances that formed a league known as the Balkan League were signed in 1912 involving several Balkan nations. These nations were incited by Russia. The main purpose of these alliances was to formally declare war on the Ottoman Empire and drive them out of Eastern Europe once and for all. The war began in October 1912. These signed alliances were somewhat shaky as each nation had their doubts. The Balkan states emerged victorious after eight months of intense fighting.

In June 1913, Bulgaria, in what was considered a betrayal, launched a surprise attack on its former Balkan League allies, determined to seize the opportunity to gain some valuable territory. It proved unsuccessful, as they were quickly defeated in under a month by a unified front containing the Greeks, Serbians and Romanians. Bulgaria was penalised severely in a treaty known as The Treaty of Bucharest, which was signed in August 1913, leaving Bulgaria isolated, frustrated and hostile towards its former allies.

The main beneficiaries of both Balkan wars were the Serbs as their nation had almost doubled in size with the acquisition of parts of Macedonia and Albania and Kosovo. The occurrence of these two Balkan wars forced the great powers to rethink and reinvent their foreign policies and objectives in the region, especially Russia, which had become dependent on Serbia as a buffer against an attack from the Austro-Hungarians.

This territorial gains had two implications on Serbia, which both contributed to the outbreak of World War I. The first and most obvious one was a staggering increase in Serbian nationalism. Serbs felt invincible after their recent triumphs. As a consequence, in the early 1900s, a number of Serb nationalist groups had formed and they flourished for the next decade. Their primary objective was to get rid of any foreign control and influence, particularly from Vienna. In 1908, Bosnia and Herzegovina were formally annexed by Austro-Hungary. Nationalist movements were formed in the region to oppose this move. They included groups like the Narodna Odbrana, meaning ‘People’s Defense’, Crna Ruka meaning ‘Black Hand’ and Mlada Bosna, ‘Young Bosnia.’ All these movements were formed between 1908 and 1911 and were determined to rid their people of Austro-Hungarian rule. Russian agents, as well as individuals in the Serbian government, public service and military encouraged these groups. A majority of their activities revolved around the production of anti-Austrian propaganda and political mishaps. Others plotted acts of terrorism carried out by trained mercenaries. For example, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, by Gavrilo Princip, a teenager who was part of Crna Ruka, the ‘Black Hand’.

The threatened stability of Austro-Hungary was another profound consequence of Serbian expansion. In the 1870s, the Hapsburg Empire had previously surrendered significant territory to the Italians and Russians. What had happened in the Balkans between 1912 and 1913 seemed to hint at even more losses. Austro-Hungarian generals took action and began plotting tough countermeasures. Though their military strength and equipment lagged behind those of Germany, they believed it could easily do away with the troublesome Serbs, Franz Josef, an old Austrian emperor, was not keen on war and was conservative as he did not want to place his cherished military at risk. This changed after the assassination of his nephew and heir and a prediction by Otto von Bismarck in 1888 on where a future European war would start (the Balkans) was coming true.