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 57th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
Before the First Balkan War between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire was even over, another conflict was brewing—this time between the members of the Balkan League. Although Serbia and Bulgaria were still cooperating against the Turks, tensions were rising between the allies over the distribution of spoils in former Turkish territory. Meanwhile, Romania was also demanding Bulgarian territory, foreshadowing the formation of a new coalition against Bulgaria in the Second Balkan War, June through August 1913.
On the surface, relations between Serbia and Bulgaria were fine. At Bulgaria’s request, Serbian troops were helping lay siege to Adrianople, one of three big cities in the Balkans still in Turkish hands (the other holdouts were Scutari, under siege by the Montenegrins and Serbians, and Janina, under siege by the Greeks); Serbian heavy artillery would play a key role in the fall of Adrianople in March 1913.
Beneath the surface, however, the Bulgarian and Serbian governments were already facing off over the division of conquered Turkish territory in Macedonia. Before the war, a secret treaty parceled out most of Macedonia between the two sides—but left a large “undecided” zone in the middle. In their treaty, the allies agreed to submit any dispute over this territory to arbitration by Russia, the traditional patron of the Slavic kingdoms.
As it turned out, during the First Balkan War Bulgaria committed most of its troops to Thrace, leaving Serbia to do most of the work in Macedonia, where the Serbs conquered both the “undecided” zone and territory that was assigned to Bulgaria. And because the Great Powers were denying Serbia access to the sea (by creating an independent Albania) the Serbs were determined to compensate for the loss by holding on to their conquests in Macedonia, despite their agreements with Bulgaria.
On February 22, 1913, Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić sent a diplomatic note to the Bulgarian government, formally requesting to revise the terms of the treaty to give Serbia a bigger share of Macedonia. The Serbians argued that Bulgaria had failed to provide the promised number of troops to their combined operations in Macedonia, while Serbia was providing more assistance than promised to the Bulgarians at Adrianople. In fact this wasn’t the first time the Serbs asked to revise the treaty: a previous note made the same request on January 13, 1913. Both notes were politely ignored by the Bulgarians, and Serbian patience was wearing thin.
Needless to say, the Bulgarians weren’t about to give up their claims in Macedonia, for a number of reasons. For one thing, the Serbians had signed the treaty, and the Bulgarians were counting on Russian support in mediation. Moreover Bulgarian claims were based on historical precedents from the medieval period, when the Bulgarians ruled an empire covering most of the Balkan Peninsula (of course, the medieval Serbian Empire covered much of the same territory, and the Serbs were equally committed to regaining their lost glory). More recently, Bulgarian claims were also aligned with the Bulgarian exarchate—the ecclesiastical territory of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which split from the Greek Patriarchate in 1872.
European balance-of-power politics in the early 20th century resembled children dividing up a cake: If one state expanded its territory, it was standard procedure for other states to demand “compensation,” in the form of territorial annexations for themselves. Thus Bulgarian success in the First Balkan War also attracted the envious gaze of Romania, the largest Balkan state, which had claims to Dobruja, a chunk of territory straddling Romania and Bulgaria between the Danube and the Black Sea. In return for recognizing Bulgaria’s conquest of Thrace, Romania demanded Silistra, the northernmost part of Bulgarian Dobruja, implicitly threatening war if Bulgaria refused.
On February 24, 1913, the Bulgarians agreed to submit their dispute with Romania to mediation by the Great Powers at the Conference of London, on the assumption that the Russians would protect the interests of their Slavic cousins in Bulgaria against the non-Slavic Romanians. However Bulgaria’s trust in Russia turned out to be entirely misplaced, as ineffectual Russian diplomats ended up siding with their enemies in both mediations. The Bulgarians were understandably embittered by these betrayals, which left Serbia as Russia’s only real ally in the Balkans—and that, in turn, meant that Russia had to back up Serbia in future disputes no matter what, or risk losing all its influence in the region. In 1914 this would have unforeseen, and incalculable, consequences.