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 August, 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 118th installment in the series.
May 23, 1914: “The Balkans for the Balkan Peoples”
The European alliance system was a major cause of the First World War, but even in the last months of peace it was still far from certain that the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Britain would hang together in the face of the looming cataclysm, prompting politicians in all three countries to cast doubt on the commitment of their foreign allies.
On May 23, 1914, a right-wing Russian aristocrat named Nikolai Yevgenyevich Markov (above, right) questioned the trustworthiness of France and Britain in a speech to the Duma, predicting that the democratic Western powers would leave the Tsarist Empire in the lurch in a showdown with Germany and Austria-Hungary, embroiling Russia in war only to let her bear the brunt of the fighting.
Markov, an anti-Semitic monarchist who advocated closer relations with authoritarian Germany, pointed out that British interests conflicted with Russian goals in Persia and the Turkish straits, and warned of an impending cataclysm: “Are we not becoming involved in an inevitable war … for no other reason than that we are associated with France and England against Germany and Austria? Is there no practical way out? ... Are the conflicts between Russia and Germany really unavoidable? What is there to divide us and Germany?”
Of course Markov was perfectly aware of the issue dividing Russia from Germany: the threat posed to Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary by Slavic nationalism in the Balkans, backed by “Pan-Slav” ideologues in Russia. On this subject Markov (a reactionary leery of Pan-Slavism’s liberal, international bent) criticized Russia’s support for Serbia as “Don Quixotian,” adding, “It is time for us to abandon this policy, even though it be called Slavophilism.” Instead of antagonizing Austria-Hungary, he concluded, Russia should focus on reaching an agreement with Germany, “since this is the only way of averting a most terrible war, the consequences of which no one can predict.”
Markov’s speech required a response from Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov (above, left), who had to reassure Russia’s foreign allies that he had no intention of heeding Markov’s policy suggestions. First of all Sazonov reminded the Duma that France and Britain had backed up Russia during the crises resulting from the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, helping produce a peaceful outcome, reiterating that “Russia continues to rest on her steadfast alliance with France and on her friendship with England.” As far as recent tensions with Germany, Sazonov blamed nationalist rabble-rousers on both sides, particularly in the press, adding that both governments should try to restrain their newspapers from stirring up trouble.
Finally the foreign minister turned to Markov’s critique of Russian policies in the Balkans. Previously the Russian government had come under fierce attacks from the “Pan-Slavs” for selling out their Slavic cousins in Serbia during the First Balkan War, and Sazonov couldn’t afford to be seen as weak or vacillating on Balkan issues; as a wily politician, he also realized he could take the heat off the government by directing the Pan-Slavs’ anger against Markov.
Thus Sazonov concluded his speech by affirming the principle, “The Balkans for the Balkan peoples!” This stirring slogan, dating back to at least the nineteenth century, originally summed up the ideal of self-determination that fueled the nationalist revolutions against Ottoman rule in the Balkans. But what, exactly, did the slogan mean now that Serbia and Bulgaria had achieved independence and liberated their kinsmen suffering under Ottoman rule?
At the very least Sazonov was warning Austria-Hungary not disturb the current balance of power in the Balkans, an area of vital interest for Russia. As Sazonov explained in his memoirs (drawing on the Social Darwinist racial views then in vogue):
“The Balkan Peninsula for the Balkan peoples” was the formula which comprised the aspirations and aims of Russian policy; it precluded the possibility of the political predominance, and still more of the sovereignty in the Balkans, of a foreign power hostile to Balkan Slavdom and to Russia. The Bosnia-Herzegovina crisis [when Austria annexed the provinces in 1908] revealed with unmistakable clearness the aims of Austro-German policy in the Balkans and laid the foundations for an inevitable conflict between Germanism and Slavism.
However, taking a darker view, the Russian foreign minister’s speech of May 23, 1914, could be interpreted as coded encouragement for “Pan-Serb” or “Yugoslav” (South Slav) nationalists in Serbia to push ahead with their efforts to liberate their Slavic brothers in Austria-Hungary, triggering the final dissolution of the Dual Monarchy.
In this case, as in many others, prewar diplomatic history is ambiguous. On a number of occasions Sazonov tried to restrain Serbia—but in February 1913 he privately told the Serbian ambassador that Serbia and Russia would together “lance the Austro-Hungarian abscess.” Ultimately the political gray area where Sazonov and his master Tsar Nicholas II tried to maneuver – between pro-German reactionaries on one side, and pan-Slav ideologues on the other—still left plenty of room for disaster.