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 47th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
December 3, 1912: Balkan Armistice, Britain Warns Germany
Seeing his armies exhausted following their defeat at Chataldzha, Bulgaria’s Tsar Ferdinand (pictured) finally listened to the pleas of the Bulgarian civilian government and the advice of Bulgaria’s patron Russia, and consented to an armistice between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire. The armistice agreed on December 3, 1912, was a temporary ceasefire between the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro; with Greek forces still laying siege to the ancient city of Janina (Greek: Ioannina) in Epirus, the Greek commander-in-chief, crown prince Constantine, wanted to continue fighting.
This partial ceasefire was at least a step in the right direction as the situation in the Balkans threatened to escalate. Austria-Hungary was apparently willing to fight to prevent Serbia from gaining access to the sea through its newly conquered Albanian territory: On November 21, 1912, Franz Josef mobilized six Austro-Hungarian army corps at the request of foreign minister Count Berchtold, and a week later, on November 28, 1912, Ismail Qemali declared Albanian independence in Vlorë with support from Austria-Hungary. But the situation was far from settled: The Greek navy was bombarding Vlorë, the Serbs were still occupying most of Albania, and Berchtold still had to get the other Great Powers to agree to the creation of a new Albanian state in the west Balkans. In the back of everyone’s mind was the distinct chance that the Ottoman Empire might simply fall apart, precipitating a disorderly and violent scramble by the Great Powers to secure their shares of Turkish territory in Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East.
The armistice between (most of) the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire cleared the way for an international peace conference. First suggested by the French premier Raymond Poincaré in mid-October and finally convened December 17, 1912, the Conference of London (actually two parallel conferences) gathered diplomatic representatives from the European Great Powers, the Ottoman Empire, and the Balkan League in the grey, rainy British capital to settle the situation in the Balkans and keep the peace in Europe.
In the weeks leading up to the Conference, the foreign secretaries and ambassadors of the Great Powers met individually to exchange views, agree on priorities, and establish plans of action, while their bosses engaged in some public grandstanding to win domestic political points. The overall effect was to consolidate the two alliance groups, with Britain, France, and Russia on one side and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other (and Italy nominally supporting Germany and Austria-Hungary as Triple Alliance partners, but actually on the sidelines).
No one wanted to appear weak or vacillating in front of their allies, or at home. On November 17, 1912, the French premier Raymond Poincare assured the Russian ambassador that France would back up Russia, and on November 23, 1912, Tsar Nicholas II told his Council of Ministers that he had decided to mobilize three Russian army districts, although the ministers later convinced him to reverse the order.
Meanwhile, on November 22, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II privately promised Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, that Germany would back up Austria-Hungary in a war. Publicly, on November 28, 1912, German foreign secretary Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter told the Bundesrat (upper house of Parliament) that Germany was prepared to go to war in support of its ally Austria-Hungary, and on December 2, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg repeated the message to the Reichstag (the lower house). These veiled public threats drew an immediate public response. On December 4, Raymond Poincaré reassured the French Chamber of Deputies that he would protect France’s position in the Ottoman Empire, including commercial interests in the Balkans and Syria, while Paul Cambon, the French ambassador to London, privately warned that “Germanism,” represented by Austria-Hungary, had designs on the Mediterranean through the Balkans, threatening British interests. On November 22 and 23, 1912, Grey and Cambon exchanged letters finalizing the Anglo-French Naval Convention of July 1912.
The Balance of Power
In addition to the safety of their Mediterranean Suez route, the British were motivated by their longstanding concern to maintain the balance of power in Europe, which historically required preventing any Continental state from becoming all-powerful. In one of the most important private exchanges of this period, on December 3, 1912, the British chancellor (previously war secretary) Richard Haldane responded to Bethmann Hollweg’s veiled threat in front of the Reichstag by visiting the German ambassador to London, Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, and warning him that, if Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and a general European war resulted, Britain would probably side with France against Germany. According to Lichnowsky, Haldane explained that “the theory of the balance of power was an axiom of British foreign policy and had led to the entente with France and Russia.” In short, Britain would probably honor its commitments to France, however vague.
Lichnowsky could hardly be surprised by Haldane’s warning: An Anglophile like his predecessor Metternich, he was sympathetic to the British viewpoint and frequently repeated Metternich’s warning that German naval construction was alienating British public opinion to his superiors in Berlin—Bethmann Hollweg, Kiderlen-Wächter and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The British chancellor’s warning of December 3 was especially noteworthy because of Haldane’s own “Germanophile” tendencies (he was a devotee of German philosophy) and supposed sympathy for Germany. And this was not just the view of a single minister: On December 6, 1912, King George V himself warned Kaiser Wilhelm II’s brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, that Britain would “very certainly under certain circumstances” take the side of France and Russia in the event of war.
Unsurprisingly, these warnings were angrily disregarded by Wilhelm II and the rest of the German government. Fulminating that Haldane’s warning was a “moral declaration of war,” on December 8, 1912 the Kaiser convened what came to be known as the “Imperial War Council” to consider the possibility of a European war with his top military advisors.
Characteristically, while planning for war, the Germans also tried to persuade themselves that the British were bluffing. In 1913, the new foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, wrote to Lichnowsky, telling him to “be more optimistic in your judgment of our British friends. I think you see things too black when you give expression that in the event of war England will be found on France’s side whatever happens.” In less than two years, the same basic combination of German belligerence and wishful thinking would lead Europe over the edge and into the abyss.
See all entries here.