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The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913
The start of World War I in 1914 was the result of tensions that had built up for many years in both western and eastern Europe. Some of those tensions played out in 1912 and 1913 in two wars in the Balkan Mountain region of southeastern Europe.
The first war in 1912 and 1913 resulted in Turkey being driven out of much of southeastern Europe by the combined efforts of Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro. The second war in 1913 saw these four countries fight over the land that was won from Turkey.
Meanwhile, two of the great powers of Europe (Russia and Austria-Hungary) worked in the background to exert influence over the conflicts in this region.
Both Russia and Turkey bordered the Black Sea. Turkey controlled access from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea, which connected to the Mediterranean Sea and the world economy. If Russia helped organize the Balkans to reduce Turkey's power in this area, Russia could feel more secure about the water route from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea. Russia also had an interest in taking over the Turkish port city of Constantinople
Austria-Hungary included many people of Slavic descent, which was also true of the Balkan area. Any aggressive move by the Balkan countries for expansion was a threat to Austria-Hungary, especially in the Bosnia-Herzegovina area that Austria-Hungary had annexed in 1908.
The Two Wars
For many centuries, the Ottoman Empire that was centered in Turkey had controlled much of southeastern Europe, but that control had slowly eroded away. In 1912, a group of countries organized as the Balkan League (Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia) saw the chance to take more land from the European part of Turkey.
The Europeans who were under the control of Turkey in 1912 were unhappy because of the oppression of Christians in their area by Muslims who were based in Turkey. An opportunity to lift the oppression arose after Turkey's war with Italy in northern Africa left the Turkish army depleted.
The Balkan League also was interested in gaining access to commercial water routes to the Mediterranean Sea through the Turkish provinces of Macedonia and Albania.
The first Balkan War began on October 8, 1912, when Montenegro declared war on Turkey. The Balkan countries quickly advanced against Turkish territory in Europe, threatening Turkey's two most important cities in this area—Adrianople and Constantinople.
After much fighting, an armistice between the Balkan League and Turkey was declared in December 1912. At a conference in London that included the warring parties, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, mediation efforts were led by Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary of Great Britain. Grey later played an active role in trying to prevent the outbreak of World War I in August 1914.
The mediation efforts failed, in part over Turkey's claim to Adrianople. The war soon resumed, and finally ended in May 1913, with the Balkan countries in control of Adrianople and the Macedonia area near Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece.
Also, the Balkan map now included the newly formed country of Albania, which Austria-Hungary formed to:
- Bar Serbia from the Adriatic Sea.
- Prevent the small country of Montenegro from expanding to include the city of Scutari.
In the 1914 book The War in Europe, Albert Bushnell Hart wrote that the debate over Scutari almost led to a wider European war:
It was clear that if Austria went into the Balkans, Russia would do the same. The event proved that either the Austrians were not ready to take the step, or had not the assurance of support of Germany which was necessary in such a crisis. War all but came over the question whether the Montenegrins should hold Scutari, which they had captured from the Turks with so much blood; but Montenegro and her allies gave way on that point.
However, conflict soon arose among the Balkan countries over the lands that were won from Turkey.
A major issue in the second war was Macedonia. After the first war, this area was occupied mostly by Greece and Serbia. Bulgaria tried to grab a share of Macedonia by attacking these two countries in June 1913.
Also, tensions flared up between Bulgaria and its northern neighbor Romania over the Dobruja territory on the Danube River and the Black Sea.
While the Balkan nations were fighting among themselves, Turkey retook Adrianople.
The second war ended in August 1913 with Serbia controlling northern Macedonia, Greece controlling southern Macedonia, and Romania controlling Dobruja.
Greece's new territory included the important Aegean Sea port city of Salonika. Serbia, which strongly wanted access to the Aegean, was given rail access to Salonika.
Results of the Balkan Wars included:
- A stronger sense of unity and ethno-lingual identity among the Balkan states, who wanted to form a Slavic region with the Slavic population of Austria-Hungary and Russia.
- Increased tensions between Austria-Hungary and Russia, both of whom wanted to include the Balkan region in their sphere of influence.
These results helped to grow the resentments, insecurities, and power struggles that less than a year later helped start World War I in that same region of Europe.
In the 1962 book Europe Since Napoleon, David Thomson wrote abut the state of the Balkan region after the Balkan Wars:
Serbia and Montenegro now regarded war against Austria-Hungary, to liberate the Serbs in Bosnia, as inevitable. Bulgaria nursed plans for revenge against her rapacious neighbors, and looked to Turkey and Austria-Hungary as possible allies. Russia, her interest in the Balkans renewed by the evident collapse of Turkey, tended now to side with Serbia and Rumania against Bulgaria. Each state, its appetite whetted by gains or its spirit embittered by losses, remained more warlike than ever.
On June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austria-Hungary Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia by a Serb, Gavrilo Princip. A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and World War I began.
- Hart, Albert Bushnell. The War in Europe. D. Appleton and Company, 1914.
- Morris, Charles. One Hundred Years of Conflict Between the Nations of Europe: The Causes and Issues of the Great War. L. T. Myers, 1914.
- Stevens, C. M. The True Story of The Great European War. The Hamming Publishing Co., 1914.
- Thomson, David. Europe Since Napoleon. Alfred A. Knopf, 1962