It is difficult to comprehend how such a small area of the world, of Europe, could cause such tensions, and even, it could be argued, be responsible for the outbreak of World War One. Ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the collection of different races and religions which was collectively known as the Balkans began to rise up against their oppressive rulers due to increased tensions growing (aside from the usual between rulers and ruled) concerning ethnic rivalry. These risings got the attention of other major European countries, especially Russia and Austria – Hungary, who already had a history there.
Russia supported the emancipation of the Balkans, being made up of similar ethnic people and a Pan – Slavist Movement vowing to unite all Slavs, many of whom lived in the Balkans. Yet Austria- Hungary did not wish to encourage the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as she feared her own empire, made up of smaller countries like the Ottoman Empire, would be influenced by these uprisings and would start to pursue their own bid for freedom, perhaps resulting in the collapse of their empire as well.
This resulted in the eventual drifting apart of the two countries over the Balkans, which increased international tension to such an extent, that eventually the major European powers were forced into two opposing camps of three, centered around the tension between Russia and Austria – Hungary: the Triple Alliance, consisting of Germany, Austria – Hungary and Italy and the Triple Entente, consisting of Great Britain, France and Russia. All appeared to be settled in the Balkans up until 1908, but tensions between the opposing alliances mounted to a crescendo.
Yet, surprisingly it was not the Balkans who were the catalyst in this saga – the tension building up between Great Britain and Germany since 1897 was steadily growing, widening the gap between alliances and making the possibility of reconciliation less likely. The ascendancy of Kaiser Wilhelm to the German throne resulted in a dramatic change of direction for German foreign policy: he decided to pursue a policy of gaining an Empire (Weltpolitik) and a navy (Flottenpolitik) to rival that of Great Britain’s.
Being the possessor of the largest empire and navy in history, Great Britain saw this as a direct threat to their position as number one world power and caused tension between the two countries. The introduction of the German Navy Laws of 1897 was the catalyst of a long chain of events, setting in concrete perhaps the cementation of the two major alliances. The naval race began. Both countries competed to see who could build the largest army – Germany with the motive of overtaking Britain and forcing them into an alliance, and Britain with the aim of keeping their lead according to their two power standard.
Great Britain’s advantage increased with the introduction of the Dreadnought rendering all other German and British ships obsolete. And Britain managed to maintain the lead the whole way through nearly a decade and a half of ship building, all that resulted from this German endeavor was the decline in relations between the countries, and Great Britain moving closer towards France as a formal ally.
The Balkans were far from done in causing international catastrophe, the 1908 Bosnian crisis risked pan – European warfare due to poor diplomacy on the part of the new aggressive Foreign Minister of Austria – Count Alexis Von Aehrenthal who was interested in pursuing an aggressive foreign policy against Russia by going against their pact to support each other’s bid to take over a country – Russia agreed to back Austria – Hungary’s bid for Bosnia while Austria – Hungary agreed to back Russia in Istanbul.
But Austria – Hungary, when concern was expressed by France and Great Britain, decide to make the most of this hesitation, going behind Russia’s back and taking over Bosnia, then refusing to support her claims in Istanbul. Russia felt double-crossed and humiliated, and was extremely volatile due to the introduction of a new Foreign Minister who had similar motives to Austria – Hungary’s. The hatred between the two countries intensified and Russia was keen to seek revenge.
The situation worsened when Germany agreed to give Austria their full support, making Austria – Hungary very confident in pursuing her Balkan Policy, knowing Germany was there to back her up. Fortunately the situation diffused after Germany entered the equation, but not by diplomatic means; Russia and Serbia (who were now making closer ties to each other due to the arrival of a new king and their desire to break Bosnia free from Austria’s control as they wanted to unite all Serbs, many of whom resided in Bosnia. ) backed down, feeling intimidated by the German’s Blank Cheque ultimatum, not ready for the prospect of war.
So, by this point Russian and Serbian relations would be at an all time low with Austria – Hungary. Austria -Hungary may have been happy with the turn of events, but Russia, Serbia, France and Great Britain were certainly not; again tensions rose between the alliances as Great Britain were at loggerheads with Germany over their naval race and Austria Hungary over their disapproval of their Balkan policy, France also disapproved of this. Russia’s relations with Austria – Hungary and Germany declined after the Bosnian crisis showed Germany favouring Austria over her, and the opposing views over the Balkans caused increased tension as well.
This cemented the alliances further and increasing the possibility of war. Dissatisfaction with Bosnia’s situation increased, and plots to free the Bosnian Serbs emerged. Added to this Serbia began to build up relations with Russia, giving Russia the possibility of a warm water port and the confidence to take on Austria – Hungary, ultimately increasing the tension as this caused an upsurge in Balkan Nationalism, especially in Serbia, sponsored by Russia, threatening the stability of the Austro – Hungarian empire and relations with Serbia.
Yet despite France and Great Britain’s best attempts to maintain peace and stability, the two alliances hardened seemingly making their different alliances concrete. But Britain and France did not have much time to meddle in the problems of others; they had problems of their own, outside of the Balkans. This shows although the Balkans were a major cause of tension in Europe, Wilhelm II was having a pretty good go of stirring up some of his own, by pursuing his Weltpolitik.
In 1911 he sailed to Morocco, accusing France of breaking their agreement at the Algeciras Conference, and attempting to take over Morocco. They were hoping that they would intimidate France and Great Britain would not come to their aid, and they could maybe take over the area themselves to expand their empire. But Great Britain made a daring move, as they feared that Germany were going to make the area a naval base (GB had one nearby) and felt threatened, so insisted that they would be part of the solution, even if it was war.
The relations between Germany and France declined as France felt threatened by them, and, if it was possible, relations between Great Britain and Germany declined, as Great Britain was now openly backing France against Germany. Again, tensions increased and now the alliances seemed set in stone; it seemed impossible that conflict would be avoided and inevitable that Great Britain would be involved, on the side of France. Unsurprisingly, all this tension in the Balkans did not just disappear.
Over the next two years it brewed and conflict actually within the Balkan countries seemed likely. Due to the mass emancipation, all the free countries now competed to become dominant, causing upset and tension along the way. This resulted in a boost of Balkan Nationalism – always, it seems a recipe for disaster – with the leading nations forming the Balkan league against Turkey and in 1913 waged war on her in the hope of taking over Macedonia and sharing it between them.
But again, tensions rose within and outside of the Balkans as surrounding Europe grew wise to their intentions. Within the Balkans, Bulgaria was not happy as she had dominated for so long and didn’t want to lose this position, so she left the Balkan League and rivalries grew. Luckily the system was put under control by the Treaty of London where Germany and Great Britain co-operated, for the last time, in order to maintain peace and balance of power in the area, though not entirely removing tension, as Bulgaria didn’t gain any land from the agreement.
Outside of the Balkans Serbia irritated Austria – Hungary again, having initiated the scheme, attempting to upset the power balance and threatening the stability of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -not a good move. Relations between the two declined further. This resulted in further tension between Austria – Hungary and Russia, as Russia automatically sided with Serbia, allowing her to influence events in the Balkans, by encouraging Nationalism and Pan Slavism and the recapture of Bosnia, ultimately worrying Austria- Hungary as the last thing she wanted was to lose part of her empire.
However, less than a year down the line, Bulgaria initiated another war within the Balkans against Serbia and Greece, dissatisfied by the results of the last war. Serbia won this war to become the dominant Balkan power. Therefore Serbian Nationalism was boosted, Russia was delighted with this turn of events but automatically Austria – Hungary wouldn’t be. But this time the other European powers did not attempt to resolve the crisis allowing Serbia to take over any land as she wanted.
Perhaps insinuating that the countries didn’t want to avoid war that things had gotten so bad that a fight was necessary, remember Austria – Hungary even promised to ‘crush’ Serbia, as relations had declined so much. From now on it seemed inevitable that events would escalate out of control and tensions were so high that war would come as a relief. Events in Sarajevo in 1914 provided that relief – the murder of Franz Ferdinand, Heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife, and although usually political assassinations don’t lead to war Austria – Hungary automatically assumed Serbia was to blame (any excuse to ‘crush’ them. They could have taken a more diplomatic course of action, but war seemed inevitable, especially when German agreed to support Austria – Hungary in any course of events they wished to pursue, thus allowing Austria – Hungary to be more assertive against Serbia, knowing they had German support. Serbian ties with Russia meant that they immediately mobilized their troops, followed by every member of each alliance declaring war on each other, resulting in full on European War. Germany and Austria – Hungary had intense dislike of Russia and France so would have found any excuse to defeat them again.
Also due to the aforementioned Anglo – German rivalry, Great Britain were only too happy to declare war on Germany. Referring back to my introduction, it is hard to see how such small countries can cause such conflict. Yet having looked through the events of those six years it is obvious that although the Balkans were involved in most of the events which caused decline of relations, often they were not the direct cause of this tension(In the Naval Race and Moroccan Crisis they were not involved at all. ) Perhaps the fact that they are so small is the exact reason why they caused such trauma.
They were under – estimated. It seems that as the Balkans hadn’t really been countries in their own right for such a long time, they were too forward in their pursuit for freedom when the opportunity came around. This caused a rapid change in power balance, almost too rapid, throwing the rest of Europe into uncertainty and fear, resulting in a turn of events which split Europe as they all tried to do what they thought was best for Europe, which tended to be very different things, depending on the country.