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Developments in the Balkans Leading to the Outbreak of World War I

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The Balkans is a strategically important region of South Eastern Europe. It has been a source of conflict for hundreds of years because of its’ critical geopolitical significance. Not only it serves as a gateway between Europe and the Near East but is also a melting pot of different cultures; a place where East meets the West. In the period preceding the First World War, this region was undergoing dramatic changes that eventually went on to impact not just the rest of Europe but the entire world. These developments manifested in the form of the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Nationalism in the region. The political landscape was further transformed through Austria’s attempts to secure its imperial integrity and Russia’s evolving ideology of Pan-Slavism and territorial expansion. These developing trends threatened the sustainability of the centuries-old ‘Balance of Power’ in Europe and caused extreme tension and stress in the Balkan region. War seemed inevitable and only a ‘spark’ was required to set off the fuse.1 The dreaded stimulus was soon provided through the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie at Sarajevo in June 1914. The casus belli that the assassination presented Austria was too good to be missed. The prospects of an all-out war also aligned with Germans desire for establishing their military supremacy in the region. Hence they became actively engaged in the ensuing July Crisis and staunchly supported Austria. The Kaiser offered a ‘blank cheque’ to its ally.2 Unbeknown to many, the stage was set for the catastrophic World War 1.
Background
The Ottoman Empire had progressively conquered the Balkans starting in the fourteenth century leading up to the height of its expansion in the seventeenth.3 They were opposed by various forces in Europe such as the Byzantine Empire, Hungary and Poland. Though unlike the Ottoman Empire, these states gradually disintegrated and were replaced by other foes such as the Austrian Habsburg Empire and the Russian Romanov Empire. However, the Ottomans were exhausted by perpetual warfare and were unable to modernise because of internal disputes between theocratic forces and reformers. This led to the gradual decline of the Empire which expedited after the disastrous Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774.4 The Ottomans were eventually labelled as being the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ by the Tsar Nicholas I of Russia in the 1850s.5 The downfall of the Ottoman’s raised the prospect of the ‘Eastern Question.’6
Yet despite their shortcomings, the Ottomans managed to linger and survive due to French and British attempts at maintaining the ‘Balance of Power.’ Previous wars in Europe, such as the Thirty Years War or the Napoleonic Wars, had shown that no one state should be allowed to try and control the continent. It was imperative to maintain a balance that must always be strictly reinforced. Thus it was unacceptable for the French and British to allow a shift of power balance in Europe that had been maintained since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The demise or disintegration of the Ottoman Empire would mean the strengthening of their neighbour states, such as Austria and Russia, who would ultimately capitalise upon Ottoman shortcomings and annex their former lands. To foil such eventualities, the Ottomans were aided in conflicts, such as the Crimean War in the 1850s against Russia, by both the British and the French.
Role of Serbia, Russia and Austria
The diminishing Ottoman influence and the rise of Nationalism in the Balkans allowed for cracks to develop domestically within the Empire that external powers like Britain and France could not prevent. The Balkans comprised of different ethnic races of multifarious faiths that had been continually suppressed by the Sultans. These culturally diverse factions wished to be free of the imperial yoke and instead self-determinate by establishing their own rule. The idea of Nationalism had its roots in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which established the principles of sovereignty.7 Subsequent events such as the 1848 Revolutions in Europe and the later the birth of the German and Italian nations in the 1870s, augmented and reinvigorated the Nationalistic sentiment. Several movements for liberation sprang up in the Balkans in the nineteenth century that sensed the weakening of the Ottomans and challenged the rule of the Sultan, demanding more autonomy.8 Initially countries under the imperial yoke were uncertain of full independence and more in favour of an autonomous status. These initiatives led to the creation of an autonomous Serbia in 1817 and the independent state of Greece in 1821.9
The various movements for independence were often diplomatically backed by the Russian Empire. A large majority of the Balkan population were ethnically Slavic peoples, the most prominent of whom were Serbs. The Serbs envisioned a Yugoslavia; a country that would include all the south Slavic people of the Balkans.10 However, Russia believed itself to be the defender and representative of all Slavs. The Russian ideology of Pan-Slavism called for a greater state in which all Slavs would live together.11 As Russia envisioned the populations of the Balkans under its rule; it was placed in direct confrontation with the Ottomans and Austrians. During the Great Eastern Crisis of 1875-78, The Ottomans were faced with renewed revolts and uprisings in Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro coupled with a war against Russia which they eventually lost in 1878.12 At the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878, Russia forced the Ottoman Empire to recognise the independence of Serbia, Romania and Montenegro as well as the autonomy of newly created Bulgaria.13 These developments alarmed the Great Powers of Europe who convened the Congress of Berlin in 1878, endeavouring to settle the territorial disputes in the Balkans. Ironically, the Congress went on to create more problems in the region and actually set the foundation for the First World War. The arbitrator of the Congress, the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, took a pro-Austrian stance.14 The Austrian Empire, much like the Balkans, was also composed of diverse ethnic races. Like the Ottomans, it was an Empire of national minorities. The provinces of Croatia and Bohemia were predominantly Slavic, while the cities of Trieste and Fiume were majority Italian. Revolutions in Hungary for equality had meant that the Empire was now a dual-monarchy referred to as Austria-Hungary.15 The Habsburg leadership feared a free and independent Balkans and dreaded the influence of Nationalism on its own subjects. The outcomes of Ottoman losses in the Balkans caused extreme concern in Austria regarding its imperial and territorial integrity. A biased Bismarck ensured that Russia and Serbia ceded Bosnia, previously under Ottoman administration and comprising of a Slavic majority, to Austria. This move was aimed to ease the Habsburgs’ concerns and keep the Slavs in check.16 However Austria remained sceptical and feared the repercussions of this action. The Congress of Berlin thus left all the nations of the Balkans dissatisfied, most of all Russia.
Although Russia had won the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the Congress and Treaty of Berlin left it feeling embittered. Russian attempts at gaining an outlet to the Adriatic Sea through Serbia and the Aegean Sea through Bulgaria had been foiled by the Great Powers, who revised and changed the borders of the Balkans. Furthermore, Russia had the Ottomans and the iconic city of Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, at their mercy but its conquest could not be fulfilled.17 The city was not only of immense strategic value as a gateway to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea but also had a major religious significance. The Ottomans had taken Constantinople, then the Capital of the Orthodox faith in 1453, and ended the reign of the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire. Influenced by the ‘Megali Idea’, the Russians wanted to recapture the city for Christianity. It could ascend them to the role of ‘Third Rome’ as the rightful successor of the Roman and Byzantine Empires.18 Accordingly, for Russia, Constantinople was a natural inheritance.19 This ambition though, was curtailed by British, French and German warnings that any such action would be intolerable.20
Turbulence in the Balkans again resurfaced through Bulgarian Independence in October 1908. This was followed by Austrian annexation of Bosnia a day later, a territory that it had been administrating for thirty years after the Congress of Berlin.21 These actions alarmed Russia and Serbia but their protests were silenced by German political manoeuvrings.22 Also Russia had lost much prestige and influence because of its defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905.23 Austria had therefore seized the opportunity and pounced. The Slavic Nationalists, after having overthrown the tyrannical rule of the Ottomans, were now besieged by the Austrians. The relations between Austria and Serbia thus slowly began to deteriorate. This development coaxed Serbia into strengthening its ties with the fellow Balkan states of Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro. The enhanced ties enabled the creation of an alliance called the Balkan League in 1912.24 The Habsburg monarchy was convinced that the Serbs needed to be dealt with an iron fist and could not be allowed to remain independent.
The animosity was further fuelled after the Balkan League attained more power in the aftermath of the First Balkan War in 1912. The League was victorious against the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. This also led to the creation of a new independent state in the Balkans; Albania.25 The alliance though could not last as Bulgaria felt robbed of its’ promised gains in the war and turned on its’ former allies, igniting the Second Balkan War in 1913. The Ottomans and Romania seized their chance by joining the remnants of the Balkan League against a severely outnumbered Bulgaria. Not surprisingly, Bulgaria was defeated. In the following years, Bulgaria embraced revanchism in a bid to achieve its own national interests.26 However, the preceding events pushed Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria closer together and ensured that they became allies against Serbia and Romania in the Balkans, leading up to the First World War.
The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 marked the pinnacle of emerging tensions in the Balkans.27 The slaying was carried out by young Serbian Nationalists who were terminally ill with tuberculosis.28 Gavrilo Princip, the assassin, fired two shots into the open top car carrying the royals when it accidently took a wrong turn and began to reverse in front of him.29 The nationalists had affiliations with terror groups such as ‘Young Bosnia’ and ‘The Black Hand.’ Several influential members within the Serbian military were members of the Black Hand.30 These facts provided impetus to Austria-Hungary blaming Serbia for the murder of the heir to their throne and laying foundation for the subsequent July Crisis.
The German Objective
Within the Habsburg Empire, the matter of how to deal politically with the situation was debated extensively.31 The Emperor and his ministers deliberated over several plausible options. Austria could attack Serbia without warning in a surprise offensive. This though would be risky and the Emperor Franz Joseph had to be wary of external forces. Russia would surely come to the defense of the Serbs. Furthermore, Europe had become entangled in a series of military alliances called the ‘Entente Cordiale’ and the ‘Central Powers’. The Entente contained the United Kingdom, France and Russia while the Central Powers had Germany, Austria and Italy.32 Therefore, Austria needed firm German backing and support before launching an attack. German position on the matter was crucial and would decide the outcome of the Crisis. Besides the likelihood of a confrontation between Serbia and Austria escalating into an all-out European war was significantly high.
Initially German response was ambiguous and open ended. This though, on Austrian insistence, quickly changed into an incredibly positive and pro-Austrian stance.33 Several figures within the hierarchy such as the Chief of the Army Staff, Count Moltke, and the German Ambassador, von Tschirschky, called for a quick Austrian attack believing that ‘the Serbs must be defeated.’ They also considered it to be ‘pleasing if war were to come now.’34 The German military did not believe the Russians to be ready for a war and thought that any such action would be disastrous for them.35 This factor would ensure the status quo in the East, the war could be shifted into Austria’s favour and Germany could get the upper hand over the Entente. The Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany himself called for Austria to ‘settle accounts with Serbia.’36 An all-out European war had not been fought on the continent since the Napoleonic wars, a hundred years prior. From German military perspective, a general war was beneficial to establish its dominance and end the arms race that was brewing between itself and the United Kingdom. They were ready to fight a two-front war against France and Russia in accordance with the German war strategy, the Schlieffen plan, for its ally Austria.37 Applying the late Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s ‘Realpolitik’, now was a better than ever chance for Germany and its allies to gain unprecedented power. Accordingly, Germany firmly supported Austria knowing full well the consequences of doing so.38
Emboldened by the German patronage, the Austrians pursued the offensive. They seized the opportunity provided by the assassination of Sarajevo and issued Serbia with a harsh and lengthy list of demands on 23 July, 1914.39 The Austrian hierarchy ensured that the terms of the ultimatum were too tough for Serbia to accept. After the Austrian deadline expired, they quickly invaded Serbia on 28 July, 1914. Germany also promptly followed suit and joined Austria. Germany was convinced that Russia would not back down but maintained diplomatic etiquette and issued a formal warning to the Tsar Nicholas II not to mobilise.40 However, Russia ignored this warning and rapidly mobilised to enter the war on Serbia’s side. When France began mobilising to honour its alliance with Russia, Germany moved against France, thus violating the neutrality of Belgium and ensuring British entry into the war. Italy betrayed the Central Powers and joined the Entente as Germany used its diplomatic relationships with the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria to gain them as allies, while Romania and Greece joined the Entente later on in the war.41 The world had plunged into the ominous, prolonged World War One.
Conclusion
Tracing the footsteps of history, it becomes evident that, despite the best efforts of the Great Powers to preserve balance, the status quo in the Balkans could not be maintained for a prolonged period of time. The mesh of national minorities and differences in cultures led to animosities and divides that could not be bridged. The conflicting raison d’etat of different powers in the region kindled a widespread unrest. A general sense of dissatisfaction with the Balkan borders was rampant all around. Simmering under-the-surface tensions and evolving revolutionary ideas over the course of the centuries eventually erupted into an inevitable war. The role of some conservative imperial forces was pivotal who chose to embrace war in a bid for power and dominance while attempting to reform the region. Unfortunately their expansionist ideology perched the entire world onto the horns of a dilemma. The war that started in the Balkans rapidly expanded to engulf the entire world wreaking havoc and catastrophe of mammoth proportions from 1914 - 1918. Termed as the World War 1, it has forever been entrenched in the annals of the history as one of the most devastating wars of mankind.

Endnotes . Thomas G. Otte, July crisis: The world's descent into war, summer 1914. (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 23.
2. Strachan, Hew. The First World War. (New York: Viking, 2004). 139
3. L. Moore, and J. Kaluzny. "Regime Change And Debt Default: The Case Of Russia, Austro-Hungary, And The Ottoman Empire Following World War One." Explorations in Economic History (2012): 250.
4. Robin Okey, Taming Balkan Nationalism. (Oxford University Press, 2007). 161.
5. Mark Biondich, The balkans: Revolution, war, and political violence since 1878. (Oxford University Press. 2011), 26.
6. Strachan, Hew. The First World War. (New York: Viking, 2004). 52
7. Robin Okey, Taming Balkan Nationalism. (Oxford University Press, 2007). 192.
8. Marvin Fried. "Austro-Hungarian War Aims in the Balkans during World War I." Palgrave, 2014. 92.
9. Thomas G. Otte, July crisis: The world's descent into war, summer 1914. (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 46.
10. Strachan, Hew. The First World War. (New York: Viking, 2004). 33
11. Richard C. Hall, The balkan wars, 1912-1913: Prelude to the first world war. (Routledge, 2000), 18.
12. Mark Biondich, The balkans: Revolution, war, and political violence since 1878. (Oxford University Press. 2011), 96.
13. Richard C. Hall, The balkan wars, 1912-1913: Prelude to the first world war. (Routledge, 2000), 73.
14. Ibid.
15. Robin Okey, Taming Balkan Nationalism. (Oxford University Press, 2007). 114.
16. Strachan, Hew. The First World War. (New York: Viking, 2004). 68
17. Ibid.
18. Marvin Fried. "Austro-Hungarian War Aims in the Balkans during World War I." Palgrave, 2014. 188.
19. Richard C. Hall, The balkan wars, 1912-1913: Prelude to the first world war. (Routledge, 2000), 365.
20. Mark Biondich, The balkans: Revolution, war, and political violence since 1878. (Oxford University Press. 2011), 19.
21. Strachan, Hew. The First World War. (New York: Viking, 2004). 19.
22. Robin Okey. Taming Balkan Nationalism. (Oxford University Press, 2007). 81.
23. Mark Biondich, The balkans: Revolution, war, and political violence since 1878. (Oxford University Press. 2011), 77.
24. Ibid.
25. Thomas G. Otte, “July crisis: The world's descent into war, summer 1914.” (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 78.
26. Thomas G. Otte, “July crisis: The world's descent into war, summer 1914.” (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 83.
27. Marvin Fried. "Austro-Hungarian War Aims in the Balkans during World War I." Palgrave, 2014. 76
28. Richard C. Hall, The balkan wars, 1912-1913: Prelude to the first world war. (Routledge, 2000), 30.
29. Strachan, Hew. The First World War. (New York: Viking, 2004). 26.
30. Mark Biondich, The balkans: Revolution, war, and political violence since 1878. (Oxford University Press. 2011), 142.
31. Jack S. Levy, Thomas J. Christensen, and Marc Trachtenberg. “Mobilization and inadvertence in the july crisis.” International Security 16, no. 1 (1991): 189.
32. P. Hatton, “Britain and Germany in 1914, the July crisis and war aims.” Past & Present 36, no.1 (1967): 138.
33. Jack S. Levy, Thomas J. Christensen, and Marc Trachtenberg. “Mobilization and inadvertence in the july crisis.” International Security 16, no. 1 (1991): 197.
34. Ibid.
35. P. Hatton, “Britain and Germany in 1914, the July crisis and war aims.” Past & Present 36, no.1 (1967): 140.
36. Jack S. Levy, Thomas J. Christensen, and Marc Trachtenberg. “Mobilization and inadvertence in the july crisis.” International Security 16, no. 1 (1991): 192.
37. Marvin Fried. "Austro-Hungarian War Aims in the Balkans during World War I." Palgrave, 2014. 34
38. P. Hatton, “Britain and Germany in 1914, the July crisis and war aims.” Past & Present 36, no.1 (1967): 141.
39. Thomas G. Otte, July crisis: The world's descent into war, summer 1914. (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 37.
40. L. Moore, and J. Kaluzny. "Regime Change And Debt Default: The Case Of Russia, Austro-Hungary, And The Ottoman Empire Following World War One." Explorations in Economic History (2012): 240.
41. Jack S. Levy, Thomas J. Christensen, and Marc Trachtenberg. “Mobilization and inadvertence in the july crisis.” International Security 16, no. 1 (1991): 195.

Bibliography
Biondich, Mark. The Balkans: Revolution, war, and political violence since 1878Oxford University Press. 2011
Fried, Marvin. "Austro-Hungarian War Aims in the Balkans during World War I." Palgrave, 2014.
Hall, Richard C. The Balkan wars, 1912-1913: Prelude to the first world war. Routledge, 2002.
Hatton, P. Britain and Germany in 1914, the July crisis and war aims. Past & Present 36, no.1 (1967): 138-143.
Levy, Jack S., Thomas J. Christensen, and Marc Trachtenberg. 1991. Mobilization and inadvertence in the July crisis. International Security 16, no.1 (1991): 189-203.
Moore, L., and J. Kaluzny. "Regime Change And Debt Default: The Case Of Russia, Austro-Hungary, And The Ottoman Empire Following World War One." Explorations in Economic History (2012): 237-58.
Okey, Robin. Taming Balkan Nationalism. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Otte, Thomas G. July crisis: The world's descent into war, summer 1914. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Strachan, Hew. The First World War. New York: Viking, 2004.

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