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 67th installment in the series.
In 1912 and 1913, the victories of the Balkan League precipitated a series of diplomatic crises which threatened to escalate into a general continental war. In the first crisis, from November 1912 to March 1913, Serbia’s conquest of Durazzo (Durrës) provoked a standoff between Serbia’s patron Russia and their shared enemy Austria-Hungary, whose foreign minister, Count Berchtold, was determined the city should belong to the new independent nation of Albania. Berchtold called on mediation by all Europe’s Great Powers at the multilateral Conference of London, but the crisis was actually resolved by the bilateral Hohenlohe Mission, when Russia and Austria-Hungary reached an agreement that the Serbians would withdraw in return for compensation in the interior.
In the second crisis, from April to May 1913, Montenegro’s conquest of Scutari (Shkodër) led to another clash between Austria-Hungary and Russia. At first glance, the Scutari crisis seemed less dire than the Durazzo crisis, because reason dictated the tiny kingdom would never defy all the Great Powers, who had also awarded Scutari to Albania at Austria-Hungary’s behest. And yet that is precisely what Montenegro’s King Nikola seemed prepared to do, issuing defiant statements telling the Great Powers to butt out of Balkan affairs.
Despite the obvious irrationality of this stance (Montenegro couldn’t take on one Great Power, let alone all of them), Nikola’s defiance could easily have turned the Great Powers against each other, resulting in disaster. Indeed, the demands of prestige left very little room for negotiation or maneuver: While the Russians were privately urging Nikola to back down, on April 2, at the Conference of London, they warned their colleagues that Austria-Hungary must not act unilaterally. If Austria-Hungary attacked Montenegro, there was a good chance that Serbia would be drawn in, and the Russian government might be forced to act by pan-Slav ideologues. The British ambassador to St. Petersburg, Sir George Buchanan, warned London that “Isolated action by Austria seems now inevitable and, as the possibility of such action has ever since the beginning of the crisis constituted the chief menace to European peace, the political outlook is blacker than at any other period of the crisis.” In 1914, this same dynamic—in which Russia and Austria-Hungary faced off over the fate of a smaller Slavic state—would result in disaster.
But in May 1913, common sense prevailed, by however small a margin. After Austria-Hungary mobilized troops along the border with Montenegro on April 29, on May 2 the Austro-Hungarian joint council of ministers agreed on military action and Count Berchtold prepared to issue an ultimatum to Montenegro. As Austria-Hungary wielded the stick, the Conference of London offered King Nikola a carrot in the form of a generous loan, to the tune of £1,200,000, backed by British and French banks. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, on May 3 the troublesome monarch finally caved, sending a telegram to British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey stating “I place the fate of the city of Scutari in the hands of the Powers.” The next day he informed his own royal council, and on May 5, Montenegrin troops began withdrawing from the city, clearing the way for an occupation force drawn from the multinational fleet blockading Montenegro.
While most of Europe’s leaders were heaving a sigh of relief, key figures in the Austro-Hungarian government viewed the peaceful outcome as a missed chance for the Dual Monarchy to settle accounts with the southern Slavs. The leader of the Austro-Hungarian war party, chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf—who had advocated annexation of Montenegro at the May 2 cabinet meeting—complained bitterly to a friend as the prospect of war slipped away yet again: “Now it is all up … pity me.”
To make matters worse, on May 3, the Austrian governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Oskar Potiorek, declared a state of emergency in the province as a precaution in case war broke out. The decree dissolved the local parliament, suspended civil courts, and closed Slavic cultural associations, which Potiorek accused (with some justification) of fomenting rebellion. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, some of the plotters would cite these draconian measures as one the grievances motivating their crime.
As tensions eased in the western Balkans, they were rising again in the east, where the members of the Balkan League fell to squabbling over the spoils of the First Balkan War. Deprived of their Albanian conquests by the Great Powers at the Conference of London, in early 1913 the Serbians repeatedly asked the Bulgarians for a bigger share of Macedonia, but their requests were ignored, even as Serbian troops helped Bulgaria capture Adrianople. Meanwhile Romania demanded the territory of Silistra, in northern Bulgaria, in return for recognizing Bulgarian conquests to the south—where conflict was also brewing between Bulgaria and Greece.
Although full-scale hostilities were still a month away, on May 1, 1913, Greek and Bulgarian troops skirmished near the port city of Kavala, which was claimed by both sides but assigned to Bulgaria by the Conference of London. On May 5, the Serbians and Greeks agreed on a secret treaty dividing up Bulgarian territory in Macedonia, to be followed by a military alliance against Bulgaria on May 14. And on May 8 the Great Powers, who were arbitrating the dispute between Romania and Bulgaria, assigned Silistra to Romania, reflecting Russia’s desire to expand its influence in the Balkans by winning favor with Romania. Russia justified the decision by promising to compensate Bulgaria with territory to the south—but here Greece stood in the way. Unsurprisingly, Bulgaria resisted the judgment, leading to a dispute with Romania (as well as a falling out with Russia, which the Bulgarians accused of betrayal). In June 1913 all these conflicts would erupt in the Second Balkan War.