The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.
With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 37th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
September 27, 1912: Austria-Hungary Punts the Balkan Issue
As September 1912 drew to an end, the Balkan Peninsula was hurtling towards war. Law and order had collapsed in the Ottoman Empire, where the Albanian rebellion triggered waves of ethnic violence pitting Christian Slavs against Muslim Albanians and Turks. This provided a pretext for intervention by the Balkan League, a conspiracy formed by the Ottoman Empire’s neighbors to carve up Turkish territory in Europe.
At this point, many observers expected the nearest European Great Power, Austria-Hungary, to intervene to keep the peace – militarily, if need be. Austria-Hungary had plenty of reasons to oppose the Balkan League’s plans to divide up the Ottoman Empire’s European territories. Most important, such a move would increase the size and power of Serbia, which served as a magnet for the nationalist aspirations of Austria-Hungary’s millions of Slavs. After liberating Slavic populations under Turkish rule, the next logical goal for the Serbs would be to unite with their kinsmen in Montenegro and free the Slavs of Austria-Hungary.
Austria-Hungary still had geography on its side, in the form of a narrow strip of Turkish territory separating Serbia from Montenegro, called the Sanjak of Novibazar. As long as the Sanjak remained under Turkish – or Austro-Hungarian – occupation, Serbia and Montenegro wouldn’t be able to join forces, so this was a top priority for Austro-Hungarian foreign policy. In fact, as recently as 1908 the other European Great Powers granted Austria-Hungary the right to station troops in the Sanjak (even though it was part of Turkish territory) in order to keep Serbia and Montenegro apart – but the previous Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Alois Graf Lexa von Aehrenthal, had foolishly given up that right as part of Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Now that war was looming in the Balkans, many officials in the Austro-Hungarian government argued the Austria-Hungary should send troops back into the Sanjak, or even go to war with Serbia and Montenegro if they tried to invade the Sanjak themselves.
But the new foreign minister in Vienna, the notoriously indecisive Count Leopold Berchtold, didn’t think Austria-Hungary should go to war over the Sanjak, or unilaterally violate Turkish sovereignty by sending in troops. Instead, on September 27, 1912, he told German diplomats that Austria-Hungary would avoid armed conflict in favor of diplomacy: with Germany’s help, he hoped to convince the other Great Powers to form a united front to discourage Serbia and Montenegro from invading the Sanjak, or at least prevent them from formally annexing the territory if they did invade.
The Status Quo
This actually wasn’t such a far-fetched idea: most of the Great Powers (occasionally including the Slavic states’ patron, Russia) had an interest in maintaining the status quo in the Balkans, and they often cooperated to enforce their decisions on smaller states. More importantly, most military experts believed that the much larger Ottoman Empire would prevail against the Balkan League in the impending war – so even if the Serbs and Montenegrins did occupy the Sanjak temporarily, it would be relatively easy to shoo them out as part of peace negotiations.
As it happened, events took a much different course than the experts predicted: beginning in October 1912 the Balkan League inflicted a stunning defeat on the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, and when it was over the Serbs and Montenegrins were entrenched in the Sanjak, which they would never give up without a fight. Although Austria-Hungary could probably beat them militarily, Berchtold had already promised the other Great Powers that Austria-Hungary wouldn’t go to war over this issue, effectively tying his own hands.
The result was a big increase in Serbian power, and a backlash in Vienna against Berchtold’s muddled attempts at moderation. Having suffered what they considered a major diplomatic defeat during the First Balkan War, the hawks in Vienna resolved not to let Serbia get away with anything else – even if it meant an even bigger war. In short, Berchtold’s attempt to avoid a regional war in the Balkans set the stage for a continental conflagration just a few years later.