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 18th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
May 21, 1912: Germany Ramps Up and Albanians Take Up Arms
Even after the failure of the Haldane Mission and dire warnings from Winston Churchill, there was a slim chance that Germany still might choose the path of moderation and suspend the European arms race, if the Reichstag voted against the military spending bills proposed by Kaiser Wilhelm II and the naval novelle added by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. On May 21, 1912, those hopes were dashed when the Reichstag voted to pass both increased military spending bills by a large majority.
The bills represented an unmistakable increase in the tempo of the arms race. Tirpitz’s naval novelle called for three additional dreadnoughts to be built over the next five years, adding one ship per year in 1912, 1914, and 1916. On land, under the original five-year law passed by the Reichstag in March 1911, the German army was supposed to gradually increase in strength to around 515,000 by 1915-1916; under the terms of the Army Bill passed on May 21, 1912, this was increased to 544,211, beginning in October of that year. Including non-commissioned officers and one-year volunteers, the German army’s peacetime strength would increase from 626,489 in 1911 to 655,714 in 1912.
By contrast, the peacetime strength of the French army in 1912 was 519,000, and France was already conscripting a larger proportion of its young men every year due to its smaller population (40 million in 1912, compared to Germany’s 64 million). To keep up, the French government would eventually have no choice but to extend the standard term of military service from two years to three years – a politically unpopular move at home, which would add more fuel to the European fire abroad (justifying, for example, yet another round of increases in Germany).
Even more ominous, it was already clear that in a full-scale war Germany, with its larger population, would be able to field a much larger army than France when reserves were included. Indeed in 1914 Germany, counting its first and second reserves, could field 3.85 million troops versus just 2.2 million for France. Of course, France counted on help from its ally Russia, which could field a total 5.4 million men including its first and second reserves; but given Russia’s vast distances and poor infrastructure, Germany might be able to crush France before the eastern giant could even get its troops to the front. And that’s exactly what the Germans planned to do.
Rebellion in Albania
Meanwhile the Balkan Peninsula was taking another step towards mayhem with a rebellion by Albanians against their Ottoman overlords. With the Ottoman Empire weakened by its war with Italy, on May 20, 1912, two local Albanian notables – Nexhip bey Draga and Hasan bey Prishtina – called a meeting of Albanian rebels in the town of Junik, Kosovo, to organize an uprising against the Turks. Together with other Albanian leaders including Bajram Curri, Riza bey Kryeziu, and Isa Boletin, Draga and Prishtina demanded the end of the “Ottomanization” policy implemented by the Young Turks in Constantinople, which involved forcing smaller ethnicities and nationalities in the empire to conform to Turkish political, social, and cultural dictates. While the immediate cause was an Albanian demand for independent schools, in effect, the Albanian rebels were demanding more autonomy for some 750,000 Albanians living within the Ottoman Empire – although radical elements were already advocating full independence.
In addition to confronting the Turkish government with yet another military challenge, the Albanian rebellion could only spur on the Balkan League, which was preparing a joint attack on the Ottoman Empire for the autumn of 1912. But that didn’t mean the Balkan League was sympathetic to the Albanians – quite the opposite. Aside from the fact that most Albanians were Muslim and their peoples were Christian, the governments of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece all hoped to wrest away big chunks of Ottoman territory in the Balkans, including areas inhabited by Albanians that could plausibly become part of an independent Albanian state. This was of particular concern to Serbia, which hoped to gain access to the Adriatic Sea at Durazzo (modern-day Durres) in the center of the Albanian region.
Alarmed that their somewhat-carefully-laid plans might be wrecked by Albanian independence, the conspirators of the Balkan League decided to accelerate their plans for a regional war against the Ottoman Empire in 1912. Unwittingly they were also moving Europe closer to a general conflagration a few years later.