World War I Centennial: Balkan Secrets

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 eighth installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 13, 1912: Balkan Secrets

Tensions were mounting in Western Europe in the first months of 1912, as French and British leaders reacted with alarm to German plans for an arms buildup. But unbeknownst to them, the next step towards war was being taken a thousand miles away, in the Balkans, where a secret pact was in the works, with the goal of despoiling a once-grand, now decaying empire.

Long past its medieval glory days, the Muslim Ottoman Empire was still intensely hated by the small Christian nation-states of the Balkans, all of which had suffered under oppressive Ottoman rule at one point or another. Greece won its independence in a heroic struggle (abetted by Romantic idealists like Lord Byron) in 1832; after decades of resistance and rebellion, Serbia gained total independence in 1868; the little kingdom of Montenegro followed in 1878; and following a long period of declining Ottoman influence, Bulgaria formally broke away in 1908.

But independence was just the first step: without missing a beat, Bulgaria began plotting a war to seize possession of more Ottoman territory in alliance with the other Balkan kingdoms. Beginning in the second half of 1911, the Bulgarians were inspired to redouble their efforts by Italian victories against the Turks in North Africa, which showed how weak the Ottoman Empire had become.

A Secret Alliance

On March 13, 1912, Bulgaria signed a secret treaty with Serbia – the first in a series of diplomatic agreements that eventually brought together Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro in a secret alliance against the Ottoman Empire, called the Balkan League. Although the defensive portions of the treaty were supposedly directed against Austria, in a secret addition to the treaty the two kingdoms agreed to split the Ottoman province of Macedonia between them, with Bulgaria getting most of the southern portion and Serbia getting an outlet to the Adriatic Sea at the Albanian port of Durres (formerly Durazzo). Bulgaria also had its eye on Ottoman territory along the Aegean Sea, in what is now northern Greece.

In successive months the other Balkan states would be brought on board for a joint attack on the Ottoman Empire, at a date to be decided. Of course, all this was occurring in the context of moves and machinations by Europe’s Great Powers, including Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, all of which were concerned, directly or indirectly, with the strategic landscape in the Balkan Peninsula.

Russia’s main concern was gaining unrestricted naval access to the Turkish Straits at the Bosporus and Dardanelles, where the Ottoman Turks were able to bottle up the Russian Black Sea fleet, blocking it from the Mediterranean; the Russians also felt protective of their Slavic cousins in Serbia. For their part, Germany and Austria-Hungary feared Serbia as a Russian pawn on their southern flank – especially dangerous because Serbs in the Kingdom of Serbia supported the aspirations of their fellow Serbs living in Bosnia, then a province of Austria-Hungary, threatening the territorial integrity of the empire.

While the Balkan plans remained secret for the time being, all this meant that when the First Balkan War did break out in October 1912, it would have diplomatic repercussions far beyond the Balkan Peninsula. Macedonia might seem like a small, isolated place, but Germany and Austria-Hungary were alarmed by the idea of Serbia gaining access to the sea, fearing a Serbian port could easily be converted into a Russian naval base. Likewise, a Bulgarian threat to the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, could also make it easier for the Russian Black Sea navy to enter the Mediterranean. And Serbia’s growing power threatened to disrupt German ambitions to unite Eastern Europe under German economic hegemony.

Just in case the situation wasn’t volatile enough, the Balkan League itself was far from being a stable alliance. Victorious allies could just as easily become enemies, turning on each other over the spoils of war. On March 13, 1912, the fuse on the Balkan powder keg was lit.

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