The years before 1914 saw frequent crises in the Balkans which threatened to escalate, and a general European war was only narrowly avoided on several occasions. It was with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire that the status quo in the Balkans changed fundamentally.
Smaller Balkan states achieved independence, but some of their people remained under Ottoman rule. These smaller Balkan states (Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia) were keen to expand their area of influence into former Turkish lands. This posed a direct threat to Austria-Hungary which saw itself particularly threatened by Serbia with its explicit aim of uniting all Serbs in one country.
The multi-national Austro-Hungarian empire counted many Serbs among its people, and was not going to give them, or the territory they occupied, up easily. Austria-Hungary, which bordered on many of these Balkan states, had as much interest in preventing the area from being taken over by Serbs as Russia had in supporting Serbian ambitions in the region, leading to tensions between the two Great Powers.
Serbia received moral support from Russia, who considered itself the guardian of the pan-Slav movement. There were disputes over access to the sea, over control of the Straits of Constantinople, providing vital access to the Black Sea, and simply over territorial possessions in the region.
The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria in 1908 was a particularly sore point, leading to enmity in Serbia and Russia. For Austria-Hungary, the matter was made worse by the fact that the Dual Monarchy united many disparate nationalities in one empire, some of which wanted to establish their independence.
In many ways the Balkans, then as now, were an area of conflict for which no easy solutions could be found, as nationalist aspirations and the desire for territorial expansion resulted in repeated conflict. The Bosnian Annexation Crisis was one such serious dispute.
In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed this former Ottoman province. The international crisis which followed threatened to bring war to Europe as early as 1908/09, although on this occasion a peaceful solution was found. A triumph for Austria-Hungary, it was humiliating for Russia, and made further enemies in Serbia.
The Balkan Wars
Following the humiliation of 1909, Russia had encouraged the creation of a coalition of Balkan states, and in 1912 Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia formed the Balkan League. On 8 October 1912, the First Balkan War began when the League declared war on the Ottoman Empire.
The latter was quickly defeated and driven out of most of the Balkans. The war ended with the Treaty of London. But in the aftermath of the war, the victors soon fell out over the spoils. Bulgaria attacked Greece and Serbia on 16 June 1913.
This Second Balkan War ended in Bulgaria’s defeat (and also brought in Romania and the Ottoman Empire), and was settled at the Treaty of Bucharest. Bulgaria lost most of the territory it had gained in the First Balkan War, and the Ottoman Empire was able to regain some of its losses.
It is estimated that around 120,000 men lost their lives on the battlefields of the Balkan Wars, another 100,000 succumbed to their injuries.
As a result of the wars, Serbia doubled her territory, and now posed an even greater threat to Austria-Hungary, both externally, and by encouraging the sizeable Serbian minority within the Dual Monarchy to demand its independence.
This is essential background for understanding Austria’s reaction to the Serbian-supported assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June 1914.
Given the long-standing Balkan instability, and Serbia’s many provocations, the fact that Serbia was seemingly behind the murder was a threat to the Empire’s international reputation that Vienna’s statesmen felt they could not ignore.
With the moral right seemingly on their side, the assassination seemed to provide an opportunity to dispose of the Serbian threat once and for all by fighting a localised war against Serbia.
Not surprisingly, some historians have considered the war that followed to have been a third Balkan War. Due to the European Alliance system, however, containing this Balkan War proved impossible, and Franz Ferdinand’s assassination triggered instead the First World War.