A New Albanian Crisis

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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 85th installment in the series.

September 16, 1913: A New Albanian Crisis

In 1912 and 1913, a series of crises centered on Albania repeatedly brought Europe to the edge of war. Beginning in October 1912, Serbia conquered most of Albania in the First Balkan War, provoking an armed standoff between Serbia’s patron Russia and their shared enemy Austria-Hungary, which feared the rise of Serbian power and refused to allow the Slavic kingdom access to the sea. Austria-Hungary and Russia eventually agreed on a compromise and Europe’s Great Powers, meeting at the Conference of London, created a new, independent Albanian state in order to resolve the crisis.

In the second crisis, in May 1913, Serbia’s tiny sidekick, Montenegro, refused to give up its claim to the city of Scutari, even after the Great Powers granted the city to Albania. Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold (top), threatened military action against Montenegro, once again raising the possibility of a much broader conflict if Russia backed up Montenegro and Serbia. This crisis was peacefully resolved by a generous loan (read: bribe) from Britain and France, which helped Montenegro’s King Nikola see reason and withdraw from Scutari.

But this didn’t mean the Albanian situation was settled—far from it. Unsurprisingly, Serbia and Montenegro viewed Europe’s Great Powers as meddling bullies who stood in the way of their national aspirations, with Austria-Hungary, oppressor of their Slavic kinsmen, in the lead. In short, the Slavic kingdoms weren’t going to give up their claims to Albanian territory so easily (as demonstrated by the secret pact agreed by Serbia and Greece in May 1913, dividing Albania into Serbian and Greek spheres of influence).

In fact, the Serbians never completely withdrew from Albania, keeping some regular and paramilitary forces stationed in the mountainous interior on the pretext of controlling cross-border raids by Albanian bandits (which were a real issue). In early September 1913, Count Berchtold asked the other Great Powers to deliver another ultimatum to Serbia demanding withdrawal of the troops—but this time Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov (sensitive to criticism from pan-Slav ideologues who accused him of selling out their Slavic brethren in Serbia) refused to go along.

The tension mounted on September 16, 1913, when Serbia’s acting Foreign Minister, Miroslav Spalajković, promised the Austrian charge d’affaires in Belgrade, Wilhelm Ritter von Storck, that the troops were being withdrawn from Albania. This was actually a bold-faced lie, as Serbian forces had only been ordered to withdraw as far as the River Drin, still well inside Albania territory. Storck (who had his own intelligence sources) knew it, and duly alerted Vienna to the deception.

Confronted with evidence of Serbian duplicity, and with any chance of concerted Great Powers diplomacy blocked by Russia, Austria-Hungary once again found itself with no option besides the threat of unilateral military action. Indeed, in some ways this was the most dangerous situation yet: By September 1913, the hawks in Vienna, led by chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, had converted Count Berchtold—who was increasingly frustrated with Serbian intransigence—to the cause of war against Serbia.

But there was still one key figure standing in the way: the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who correctly foresaw that an attack on Serbia would probably lead to war with Russia. According to the archduke the real enemy was Italy, a Great Power with its own claims on Austro-Hungarian territory, and Serbia was just a distraction. In the long run Franz Ferdinand hoped to solve the problem of Slavic nationalism by creating a third monarchy representing the Slavs—or even reforming the Dual Monarchy as a federal state with Serbia as a member. Of course the archduke’s plans for reform were bitterly opposed by the Hungarians, who stood to lose their decisive influence over imperial policy, as well as by the Serbs themselves, who jealously guarded their independence.

Still, Franz Ferdinand, who’d been appointed inspector general of the armed forces by Emperor Franz Josef in August 1913, pressed ahead with his plans to attend the coming year’s military maneuvers in Bosnia, the empire’s main Slavic trouble spot. Thus, on September 16, 1913, the archduke (widely disliked by the imperial household for his brusque manner) bluntly informed Conrad that he intended to lead the maneuvers. This was bound to annoy Conrad, who always supervised the maneuvers himself and viewed Franz Ferdinand as a dilettante. But that was probably the point: The archduke, annoyed by Conrad’s advocacy of war with Serbia, was using the maneuvers to pull rank and put the chief of staff in his place. This little piece of political maneuvering would have unexpected, and profoundly tragic, consequences. 

See the previous installment or all entries.