World War I Centennial: The Balkans Spin Out of Control


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 33rd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

August 23-26, 1912: The Balkans Spin Out of Control

By the end of August 1912 the situation in the Ottoman Empire was catastrophic, as ethnic conflict in the Balkans spiraled out of control, giving the Balkan League – a loose alliance of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece – the pretext it needed for invading and grabbing the empire’s remaining European territories.

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As always in the Balkans, things were complicated. Religious and sectarian divides were layered on top of ethnic animosities dating back to the great population movements of the medieval period.

While it would be impossible to catalogue all the divisions, a few examples give some idea of the Balkans’ incredible – and frequently violent – diversity.

First of all, there was the longstanding tension between Slavs (including Bulgarians, Serbs and Montenegrins) and Turks, stemming from the history of Turkish rule and religious animosity between Muslim Turks and Christian Slavs. In the western Balkans, the Albanians were descended from native tribes who converted to Islam and intermarried (to some extent) with their Turkish rulers in the medieval period. Some Albanian tribes served as local enforcers for Turkish rule, and the Albanians were often reviled as “Turks” by their Slavic neighbors (meanwhile a minority of Albanians were Catholics, pitting them not only against the Muslim Turks, but Orthodox Christian Slavs as well).

The Balkans’ Slavic populations also had complicated lineages. The inhabitants of Montenegro (the “Black Mountain,” named for its dominant geographic feature) were basically Serbs, although they maintained a distinct identity following the conquest of Serbia by the Ottomans in the 14th century. To the east, Slavs in the Ottoman provinces of Macedonia and Thrace were often called “Bulgarians” because they spoke Bulgarian – but they also identified themselves as “Greeks” because they shared the Eastern Orthodox faith, and some just called themselves “Christians” to distinguish themselves from the Muslim Turks.

Submerged within the mixed population of Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks there was also a gradually emerging ethnic identity, the Macedonians – a Slavic, Christian people living in the central Balkan highlands, who distinguished themselves from ethnically similar peoples living in the coastal lowlands around them. For a little added confusion, Greeks living in the Ottoman Balkan territories and Asia Minor called themselves “Romanoi,” or “Romans,” in reference to their Byzantine heritage; the Romanians, despite interbreeding with Slavs, considered themselves Latinate because of their language; and Bosnians, Pomaks, and Gorani are all Slavic groups who converted to Islam, which often set them against their (otherwise very similar) Christian neighbors.

In 1912 this simmering cauldron of ethnic and religious animosities boiled over yet again. In May the Albanians rebelled against the Turks, provoking their Slavic neighbors to rise up as well. In early August the Albanian rebels seized Skopje, the capital of Turkish Kosovo, while the Turks massacred Bulgarians at Kochana, Macedonia, and on August 14, 1912, allegedly committed atrocities against Montenegrins in the town of Berane (now in eastern Montenegro, then Ottoman territory). Unsurprisingly these massacres of Christians by Turkish Muslims inflamed public opinion in the neighboring Slavic kingdoms. Bulgarian newspapers called on the Bulgarian government to declare war on the Ottoman Empire to protect their countrymen, and Montenegro moved troops to the Turkish frontier, where they soon clashed with local Albanian tribesmen and Turkish troops.

On August 13, Austrian foreign minister Count Berchtold proposed that Europe’s Great Powers force the Ottoman government to implement reforms granting ethnic minorities, including the Slavs, more autonomy – maybe even self-rule within the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the month the Turks, seeing the Slavic Christians and European powers lining up against them, were ready to make terms with the Albanian rebels, who at least didn’t want to separate from the empire (yet). The rebels had some significant demands, as recorded by Aubrey Herbert, a British diplomat who braved the Balkan chaos and left behind valuable eyewitness reports: along with schools and officials who spoke Albanian, the Albanians wanted “guns for all” – an all-too-Balkan request. Swallowing their pride, on August 23, 1912 the Turks offered amnesty to Albanian rebels, suggesting that most of these demands would probably be met.

But the wider situation had already slipped beyond the control of the Ottoman government. On August 23, 1912, a Serbian Christian and local Ottoman government official was murdered in Sjenica by an angry crowd of Muslim Albanians, inflamed by reports that Albanians were being attacked by Montenegrin troops at the town of Mojkovac, in what is now northern Montenegro, as well as Berane (in response to alleged Turkish atrocities earlier in the month). Before long, the Balkan rumor mill – and Serbian-Montenegrin propaganda – had inflated the murder at Sjenica into the “massacre” of a “thousand” Serbs by Turkish soldiers. On August 26, Herbert reported skirmishes along the frontier between Montenegro and the Ottoman Empire, followed by a rash of murders, targeting various ethnicities, in the city of Pe? in northwest Kosovo.

Between Turkish atrocities at Berane, the “massacre” at Sjenica, and growing anarchy within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, Serbia and Montenegro now had all the pretexts they needed to declare war on the hated Turks; the First Balkan War was a little over a month away.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.