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 30th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
August 12-14, 1912: Albanians Capture Skopje, Massacre at Kochana
August was a bad month for the Ottoman Empire, as the Albanian rebellion reached its climax and ethnic tensions between Bulgarians and Turks exploded, literally, with a terrorist bomb attack on the marketplace of a small town named Kochana, which the Turks punished by massacring around 140 Bulgarians. Bulgaria, in turn, threatened war. Meanwhile Russia was intensely interested in events in the Ottoman Empire, fanning the grievances of local ethnic groups in order to persuade the other Great Powers (Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) to collectively force a policy of “decentralization” on the Ottoman administration. This, in turn, would open the door to Russian intervention and possibly even annexations of Turkish territory.
March on Skopje
The Albanian rebellion, which began in May 1912, had a couple of things going for it. Local troops deserted the Turkish army and joined the rebels, while many Turkish troops, already demoralized by the defeat in Libya, refused to fire on fellow Muslims. They had support from sympathizers in Europe, who armed and funded the rebels via Montenegro, and they had a vague assurance of support from the British consul in Skopje. To cap it all off, the Ottoman government was in a state of collapse. Defeated by the Italians in Libya, threatened by Russia after the straits incident, and with the Balkan League (Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece) lining up to grab Turkish territory, the beleaguered and overwhelmed administration in Constantinople simply couldn’t handle the Albanian rebellion.
With solid popular and foreign support, the Albanian rebellion proceeded swiftly. Led by Nexhip bey Draga and Hasan bey Prishtina, the Albanian rebels liberated the towns of Novi Pazar and Pristina by the end of July. Meanwhile the resignation of the Minister of War, Mahmud Shevket Pasha, on July 9, triggered the fall of the Ottoman government, leaving the empire headless and paralyzed until July 22, when Gazi Ahmed Muhtar Pasha, a military hero, formed a new cabinet. One of his first goals was ending the strife in Albania.
Turkish military operations in Albanian were effectively halted on July 24, and on August 9, sensing they were close to victory, the rebels issued a new set of demands to the Ottoman government, including self-rule as an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire, new schools and infrastructure, use of Albanian in schools, amnesty for all rebels, and – most controversial – courts martial for Turkish officers accused of atrocities. While the Ottomans chewed these over, on August 12-14 a rebel force numbering 15,000-30,000 assembled to seize Skopje (Turkish, Üsküb), capital of the Turkish province (vilayet) of Kosovo.
The rebellion was effectively over, with the Albanians in possession of most of Kosovo and the Adriatic coast south of Montenegro. Of course, this put them on a collision course with their Christian Slavic neighbors in Serbia and Montenegro, who wanted that territory for themselves.
Massacre at Kochana
The Albanian rebellion was just part of the wider ferment gripping the entire region, including tensions between Ottoman Christian subjects and their Muslim rulers. In the first half of August rumors of terrible events began filtering out of Ottoman Macedonia, followed by brief, sketchy news reports telling European readers of a terrorist attack and bloody Turkish reprisals in a small town named Kochana.
A typical Balkan market town, Kochana, located in Macedonia about 75 miles east of Skopje, was a microcosm of tangled Balkan ethnic relations and antagonisms. With a mixed population of Turks, Bulgarians, Albanians, and Serbs, some residents of Kochana wanted to join neighboring nations (indeed, considered it an integral part of their national homelands), some wanted an independent Macedonia, and some remained loyal to the Ottoman Empire.
Some of the pro-independence Macedonians were willing to use violence to pursue their goals. On August 1, a bomb exploded in the marketplace at Kochana, killing Muslim townsfolk and precipitating a bloody revenge spree by Turkish troops, who massacred about 140 Bulgarian civilians. The killing had unmistakable sectarian and ethnic significance, pitting Muslims against Christians, Turks against Slavs.
The repercussions were immediate and widespread. In Bulgaria, prime minister Ivan Gueshov met with Tsar Ferdinand about the incident, while the Macedonian Liberation Movement, claiming to represent “all parties and classes,” demanded that the Bulgarian government declare war on Turkey, and newspapers stirred public opinion against the Turks (never a difficult task).
Bulgaria now had a humanitarian pretext for military intervention and annexation of Turkish territory in Macedonia. If the timing of the massacre seems a little too convenient for Bulgaria, that’s because it was: the bomb was supposedly planted by a Bulgarian guerrilla group, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, as a deliberate provocation. Essentially IMRO was hoping to provoke Turkish atrocities to escalate the situation – a classic terrorist tactic.
Indeed, the massacre at Kochana also inflamed European public opinion, which grew predictably indignant over Muslim mistreatment of Christians. European public opinion thus conveniently aligned with the aspirations of the European Great Powers, who were scheming to carve up the Ottoman Empire on a much grander scale (if they could only agree who would get what).
On August 13, while Italy and Turkey sat down to discuss peace terms, Austrian foreign minister Count Berchtold proposed that the Great Powers come together to force the Ottoman government to implement reforms granting ethnic minorities, including the Slavs, more autonomy – maybe even self-rule within the Ottoman Empire. While the representatives of the Great Powers denied that these reforms were a preamble to military intervention and division of the Ottoman Empire, that’s the message it sent to the members of the Balkan League, who interpreted the diplomatic pressure as a green light for their attack on the Ottoman Empire. Along with the success of the Albanian rebellion, the prospect of Great Power intervention forced the Balkan League to hurry its plans, since effective reforms by the Turks would remove the main justification for its aggression.