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 86th installment in the series.
September 20-24, 1913: Albanians Rebel, Serbs March Into Albania
After the Balkan Wars, Europe’s Great Powers ordered Serbia to withdraw its troops from the new, independent nation of Albania, and the Slavic kingdom complied—sort of. While Serbian troops evacuated the coast, they lingered in the mountainous interior on the pretext of hunting down bandits, of which the Balkans had no shortage. By early September 1913, Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister Count Berchtold, who feared the growth of Serbian power, was losing patience with the obstreperous Serbs. But before he could act, the Albanians took matters into their own hands, triggering a brutal Serbian response.
On September 20, 1913, the Albanians rebelled against the Serbian troops occupying the country’s north and east, and in typical fashion for the Balkans (where borders rarely correspond to ethnic boundaries), the rebellion soon spread to ethnic Albanians living in the neighboring Serbian province of Kosovo, as Isa Boletini (above) led Albanian irregulars across the frontier. On both sides of the border the Albanians were angry about being denied access to their traditional markets in Dibra (Debar) and Jakova (Dakovica) by the Serbs, and were also upset about Serbian atrocities and general failure to establish a functioning government.
The Serbs reacted by sending 20,000 troops into Albania from September 20 to 24, with advance forces approaching Elbasan in the middle of the country. Even more alarming, the Serbs seemed intent on reversing the decision of the Great Powers at the Conference of London by destroying Albania as an independent nation.
Indeed, on September 24 the Serbian newspaper Samuprava, which often acted as a mouthpiece for the government in Belgrade, hinted: “Let the Great Powers consider whether it would not be appropriate in the light of these occurrences to undertake a serious revision of the mistaken decisions of the London Ambassadors’ Conference, all the more as today even the creators of autonomous Albania must allow that this idea was out of place…”
Needless to say this suggestion was dead on arrival in Vienna, where Count Berchtold did not in fact allow that the idea of an independent Albania was out of place, and certainly wasn’t about to let the Serbs suddenly overturn all his hard work in creating the new nation. In fact, Berchtold was coming around to the point of view of the hawks in Vienna, led by Conrad von Hötzendorf, that war with the upstart Balkan kingdom was simply inevitable.
Knowing how long it would take the other Great Powers to reach a consensus (which would likely be unsatisfactory to Austria-Hungary anyway), Berchtold was also increasingly willing to go it alone—another ominous development foreshadowing the coming Great War. On September 27, 1913, he warned Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany that Vienna was going to confront Serbia, and on September 29 he consulted with Conrad about the possibility of occupying a portion of Serbian territory as a bargaining chip to force the Serbs to withdraw from Albania.
Ironically, now it was Berchtold who wanted swift action, with an ultimatum to be followed immediately by mobilization against Serbia—in other words, war. However Conrad pointed out that mobilization would require three weeks, giving the other Great Powers plenty of time to meddle and frustrate Austria-Hungary’s plans with unwanted negotiation. The Austrian foreign minister and chief-of-staff would face the same conundrum in July 1914; their failure to resolve it unleashed catastrophe.