YPRES - To understand the reasons for the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, it is necessary to have some knowledge and understanding of the diplomatic wrangling that took place many decades earlier throughout Europe and the Balkan region.
A major concern throughout in the post-Napoleonic era was the maintenance of a “Balance of Power” that has been mentioned a number of times in these articles. We have already looked at the causes of the Crimean War and the way that Britain and France united to stop Russia from expansion.
Although on the face of it Britain and France had been united against the common foe, in fact they were far from being friends. The legacy of the French defeats at Trafalgar and Waterloo caused the British to be constantly concerned that the French would try to seek revenge and for their part the French never hesitated to blame the British whenever there was a military setback.
The subsequent Treaty of Paris, signed on 30th March 1856, considerably reduced Russian influence in the region by making the Black Sea neutral, closing it to all war ships and prohibiting the presence of armaments on its shores.
In the short term the Treaty of Paris allowed a temporary stability to return to Europe, but in the longer term it ignored the growing nationalist sentiments in a number of the Ottoman subject nations. The Treaty provided no clear answer or guidance in solving what had come to be universally known as the “Eastern Question”.
Although the Treaty gave nominal independence to Moldavia and Wallachia, which in 1861 became the Kingdom of Romania, this remained very much an Ottoman puppet state, providing a very useful buffer against Russia.
In addition, the Treaty made Russia give up its claim to be the protector of the Sultan’s Christian subjects. This was designed to stop Russia from interfering in the Turkish Empire if it felt that Christians were being persecuted. However, in 1876 there was a Bulgarian uprising and this was savagely crushed by the Turks. Following these “Bulgarian Atrocities”, Russia acted the part of protector of the Slavs and Christians and invaded Turkey.
This obviously contravened the terms of the Treaty of Paris and Russia made use of its alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany through its membership of the League of Three Emperors that had been established in 1873.
Germany had little interest in the Balkans, but Austria-Hungary was promised Bosnia Herzegovina to ensure its victory benevolent neutrality.
Following the war and Russia’s decisive victory in 1878, the Treaty of San Stefano liberated almost all of the Ottoman European territories. Montenegro, Romania and Serbia were recognised as independent and all three were expanded. A large Principality of Bulgaria was created as an autonomous vassal of the Sultan.
This included Macedonia, giving it access to the Aegean Sea and expanding Russian influence over the entire Balkan region.
Britain was horrified. Not only by the growth of nationalism among the Balkan states, but with the Suez Canal now open, there was deep concern that a growing Russian influence in the region would interfere with the important route to India. Britain even went so far as to threaten Russia with war if it occupied Constantinople. France still harboured resentment over Russia’s role in the defeat of Napoleon and was trying to re-establish itself after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
France did not want to see any Russian interference in the Mediterranean that could possibly harm her interests in Palestine. Although Austria-Hungary had acquired Bosnia Herzegovina, it was unhappy that Russia had usurped its right to control the Balkans.
The recently united Germany simply wanted to keep the peace and prevent its allies from going to war with each other. As a result the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck called the Congress of Berlin to discuss the partition of the Ottoman Balkans among the European powers. He was also anxious to preserve the League of Three Emperors.
The Congress was attended by Britain, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the Ottoman Empire.
Bismarck’s prime concern was that nothing should upset Germany’s growing international status. Although the Balkan Question did not affect Germany directly, his view was that any conflict between the major European powers that threatened the status quo was against German interests.
He didn’t want to upset the League of Three Emperors by having to side with either Austria or Russia and in order to maintain peace in Europe he worked hard to convince the other European diplomats that dividing up the Balkans actually created greater stability.
The Congress created no real winners. For Russia it was a dismal failure. After years of inconclusive wars, with the Turks finally being defeated, it was Austria that got the expected territorial gains. The other powers were wary of granting fresh territory to a powerful and ambitious Russia, preferring to favour a powerful Austria-Hungary that posed no threat to anyone.
The new Bulgaria was considered to be too large and too multinational. Macedonia, the most important strategic section of the Balkans, was removed from it and Bulgaria remained under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Russia saw the lack of German support on the issue of Bulgaria’s full independence as a breach of loyalty and this brought about the end of the League of Three Emperors.
Romania, Serbia and Montenegro became independent principalities, but Bosnia Herzegovina was ultimately annexed by Austria.
This did not please the Serbs and was to prove to be a major problem in later years.
Italy was dissatisfied with the results of the Congress and the long-running problems with the border between Greece and Turkey was not resolved. So rather than bringing a long-term peaceful solution, the Congress of Berlin created festering conflicts that were to be a major contributory factor to the events leading to the Great War of 1914.