The Balkans

A map of the Balkans in 1914, showing recent territorial changes and the extent of Ottoman rule

Continued instability and conflict in the Balkans was a significant cause of tension prior to World War I. A Serbian nationalist group there was involved in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which directly triggered the outbreak of war.

About the Balkans

The Balkans is a large peninsula in south-eastern European. It is sandwiched between four major seas: the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Aegean. This peninsula hosts a cluster of nations and provinces, including Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Bosnia.

At the turn of the century, the Balkan region was more sparsely populated and under-developed than western Europe. It had few natural resources so was not considered an economic prize. If the Balkans had value, it was geographical and geopolitical.

Located at the crossroads of three major empires (Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian) and with access to several important waterways, the Balkan region was strategically vital. For this reason, the area had for centuries been a gateway between East and West, an area of cultural and mercantile exchange and a melting pot of ethnicities and people.

The retracting Ottoman Empire

A depiction of European powers hovering over the small but dangerous Balkan states

For centuries, the Balkan peninsula was ruled by the powerful Ottoman Empire. By the late 1800s, however, the Ottoman Empire was retracting. This led to the emergence of nationalist and independence movements in the Balkans. During this period Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria all gained independence from Ottoman rule.

Western European powers developed a strong interest in the Balkan region, driven by concerns about what might happen once the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. Foreign commentators referred to this as the ‘Eastern question’.

Each of the European powers had their own ambitions and objectives with regard to the Balkans. Russia hoped to expand its territory by moving into the region. The Russian navy, with its ports on the Black Sea, coveted access and control of the Bosphorus, which provided shipping access to the Mediterranean.

Britain was opposed to Russian expansion so wanted the Ottoman Empire to remain intact for as long as possible, to serve as a buffer against the Russians. Germany hoped to acquire bankrupt Ottoman regions as vassal states or colonies.

The two Balkan Wars

In 1912, several Balkan nations, largely influenced by Russia, signed a series of military alliances. This led to the formation of the so-called Balkan League. The agenda of this league was to wage war on the Ottomans and drive them out of eastern Europe entirely.

The League declared war in October 1912. Despite the looseness of their alliance, the Balkan states emerged victorious after just eight months of fighting.

In June 1913, Bulgaria launched a surprise attack on its former Balkan League allies, in what was little more than an opportunistic grab for territory. The Bulgarians were defeated by the Greeks, Serbians and Romanians in barely a month.

Serbian growth

The Treaty of Bucharest (August 1913) penalised Bulgaria severely, leaving it frustrated and hostile towards its Balkan neighbours.

The Serbs, victorious in both Balkan Wars, were the main beneficiary of these conflicts. The Serbian nation almost doubled in size, due to the acquisition of Kosovo and parts of Macedonia and Albania.

The two Balkan wars forced the Great Powers to revisit their foreign policy in the region – especially Russia, which was now dependent on Serbia as a buffer against Austro-Hungarian aggression.

Serbian nationalism

Serbia’s territorial gains had two significant outcomes, both of which contributed to the outbreak of World War I. The first was a sharp increase in Serbian nationalism.

Several Serb nationalist groups formed in the early 1900s and flourished over the next decade. Their primary aim was to free Serbia from foreign control and influence, particularly from Vienna.

In 1908, the Austro-Hungarians formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. This roused nationalist movements in the region. Groups like the Narodna Odbrana (‘People’s Defence’), Crna Ruka (‘Black Hand’) and Mlada Bosna (‘Young Bosnia’) were all formed between 1908-1911 with the mission of driving out the Austro-Hungarians.

Anti-Austrian terrorism

These groups were encouraged by Russian agents, as well as individuals in the Serbian government, public service and military. Most of their activities involved political agitation or the production of anti-Austrian propaganda – but some volunteers trained for and plotted acts of terrorism.

Their most significant act, of course, was the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. This was carried out by a small group that included Gavrilo Princip, a teenaged member of Crna Ruka.

Another profound consequence of Serbian expansion was the threat it posed to Austria-Hungary. The Hapsburg empire had already surrendered significant territory to the Italians and the Russians in the 1870s. Developments in the Balkans in 1912-13 seemed to hint at even more losses.

Austria-Hungary responds

Austro-Hungarian generals began talking tough about Serbia. While the Dual Monarchy’s military strength and equipment lagged behind that of Germany, its generals believed they could easily vanquish the troublesome Serbs.

The ageing Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, was not keen on war and reluctant to place his cherished military at risk – but the assassination of his nephew and his heir, along with a ‘blank cheque’ offered by the German Kaiser, roused the old man to action.

Otto von Bismarck’s 1888 prediction about a future European war – that it would “start with some damn foolish thing in the Balkans” – was about to be proved correct.

A historian’s quote:
“The region’s rising nationalist tensions and dizzying ethnic diversity confounded all attempts to find lasting solutions to the seemingly endless conflicts… European diplomats understood that ethnic, economic and political connections between Balkan groups and several of the Great Powers meant that a conflict in this region could easily expand… Few Europeans expected [the assassination of Franz Ferdinand] to lead to a large war, although another Balkan war was a distinct possibility… Most Europeans expected diplomacy and cooler heads to prevail, as they had so often in the recent past.”
Michael S. Neiberg


1. The Balkans were a cluster of nations in eastern Europe, between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

2. Their location made the Balkans strategically important, so European powers were focused on events there.

3. The Balkans were also politically volatile, a hotbed of ethnic and nationalist tensions.

4. The Balkans were disrupted by two wars in 1912-13, as well as rising Serbian nationalist groups.

5. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Balkan city of Sarajevo provided the Austro-Hungarian government with a pretext for crushing Serbian nationalism, something it had long desired.

Title: “The Balkans”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 18, 2017
Date accessed: September 08, 2023
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