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 46th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
November 28, 1912: Albania Declares Independence
In the autumn of 1912, the Balkan League’s conquest of the Ottoman Empire’s European territories triggered an international crisis which threatened to provoke a general European war. The crisis resulted from Serbia’s desire to obtain access to the Adriatic Sea at Durazzo, and Austria-Hungary’s determination to prevent Serbia from gaining it. This put Austria-Hungary on a collision course with Serbia’s patron and protector, Russia, and thereby threatened to involve Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany and Russia’s ally France as well—outlining the dynamic that would lead to catastrophe in 1914. The situation reached its boiling point on November 21, 1912, when Austria-Hungary mobilized six army corps near Russia and Serbia, in a move clearly threatening war.
But Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold, had a plan to stop Serbia from gaining access to the sea while still avoiding a much bigger war: He would support independence for Albania, where Serbia had staked its claim to the sea. Greece and Montenegro would also lose chunks of Albanian territory that they had claimed; in Montenegro’s case, this included the important city of Scutari, where the Turkish garrison was still under siege by Serbian and Montenegrin forces.
This was a plausible strategy because the Albanians had already rebelled against the Turks earlier in the year, winning promises of greater autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. Now, threatened with even worse oppression by their Orthodox Christian neighbors, the mostly Muslim Albanians were ready to make the leap to full independence.
Balkan War Atrocities
Indeed, during the First Balkan War, the Serbs earned the lasting hatred of the Albanians with widespread atrocities (which the Serbs viewed as payback for earlier Turkish and Albanian atrocities against Serbs). According to an article published by the New York Times on December 31, 1912, “Thousands of men, women, and children [were] massacred” during the Serbs’ march to the sea, as part of a “deliberate policy to exterminate Moslems.” Thus, “Between Kumanova and Uskub [Skopje] some 3,000 persons were done to death. Near Pristina [Prishtina] 5,000, exclusively Arnauts [Albanians], fell beneath the hands of the Serbs, not in honorable fight, but by unjustifiable murder.” Some of the Serbian tactics foreshadowed other terrible events to come, including massacres of Jews by German Einsatzgruppen in the Second World War: “Near Kratovo Gen. Stefanovitch placed hundreds of prisoners in two rows and had them shot down with machine guns. Gen. Zivkovitch had 930 Albanian and Turkish notables killed near Sienitza because they opposed his progress.” Serbian atrocities were confirmed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In November 1912, Ismail Qemali, a former Ottoman administrator who was the father of Albanian nationalism, returned from exile with assistance from Austria-Hungary, and quickly convened an Albanian national assembly at Vlorë. Although they didn’t control much Albanian territory besides the town of Vlorë itself, on November 28, 1912, the delegates declared Albanian independence from the Ottoman Empire, and on December 4, they formed a national government with representatives from all over Albania, who chose Qemali as president of the provisional government.
Of course, the Serbs and their allies continued to occupy most of Albania, and had no intention of giving up their hard-won access to the sea; in fact, on November 28 the Serbs captured Durazzo, and the Greek navy began a blockade of Vlorë on December 3. Meanwhile six Austro-Hungarian armies were still mobilized near Serbia and Russia, keeping the whole continent on edge. If Russia and Austria-Hungary went to war, the other Great Powers would almost certainly be sucked in. Also on November 28, 1912, German foreign secretary Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter assured the Bundesrat (the imperial council representing the princes of the German states, in effect the upper house of Parliament) that Germany was prepared to go to war in support of its ally Austria-Hungary. On December 2, 1912, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg repeated the message to the Reichstag (the lower house).
Now the peace of Europe depended on a couple of questions: would the other European Great Powers support Austria-Hungary by recognizing Albanian independence? And could Serbia be persuaded to withdraw from the area peacefully? In December 1912, diplomats from all the Great Powers—France, Britain, Russia, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary—hurried to the Conference of London to discuss these key issues.
See all installments of the World War I Centennial series here.