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The Pig War Of 1908

Updated on September 27, 2019
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The First World War was one of the greatest conflicts in the history of mankind. The bloodshed that resulted from the combination of modern technology and old school military thinking was unprecedented for its time. Due to its extreme nature, much scholarship has been devoted to the study of its origins, essentially how modern nation states enjoying prosperity and the stirrings of affluence lurched towards bloody conflict with one another, costing millions of lives.

The threads of this conflict are vast, composed of economic, social and religious rivalries, woven through the haphazard tapestry of early 20th century Europe. The most common explanation is that the war was sparked by the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but that is only the culmination of a long geo-political process. While it is true that the flash-point for the great conflagration we call the First World War was the assassination in the Balkans, it was the machinations of the European nations that created the environment necessary for such an event.

Key to these political shifts was a little known commercial dispute between the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the Kingdom of Serbia. It was centered around the export of Serbian pigs to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and was a peaceful, if forceful, attempt by the Austro-Hungarians to bring a recalcitrant client state to heel. Instead of bringing the Kingdom of Serbia back into the Austro-Hungarian political fold, it had the opposite effect, driving the Serbs into the hands of the Russian Empire and setting the stage for the violent conflict that was to forever change Europe six years later.

The Principality Of Serbia

The Principality Of Serbia
The Principality Of Serbia

Great Power Games In The Balkans

As the pivotal land border between Asia and Europe, the Balkans have long occupied the minds of imperial powers competing for influence on the world stage. For centuries the region was the site of bloody battles between the Ottoman Empire and its European enemies, a cycle of violence that ebbed and flowed as the Ottoman Empire first pressed the gates of Europe in Vienna and then slowly declined until the early 19th century, when the Balkan peoples rose up and challenged the Sultans authority.

The first successful uprising in the Ottoman controlled Balkans was done by the Serbs, who carved out their own small principality from 1804 to 1815. While they were nominally under the Ottoman Sultans control, they took advantage of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire to push for concessions regarding their independence. In this they found the backing of other great powers, like the Russian and Austrian Empires. By 1867 the Ottomans had agreed to pull the last of their troops from the Principality, and with Russian support the Serbs and their Montenegrin allies launched an attack on the waning Ottoman Empire in 1876.

This challenge to the powers of the Ottomans proved an overreach, and it was not long before the modernized Ottoman army pushed the Serbs back, forcing the hand of the Russian Empire, which decided to join the war and aid their client state in 1877. By 1878 the war was decisively ended in favor of the Russians, who achieved major concessions from the Ottoman Empire. Among those were an enlargement and recognition of the full independence of the Kingdom of Serbia, as well as the nominal independence of a Bulgarian state that was under the protection of the Russian Empire. In compensation, and even though it did not participate in the conflict, the Austro-Hungarian Empire won the right to occupy the Ottoman province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which would nominally still be a province of the Sultan, but was in reality an Austro-Hungarian colony.

The Kingdom of Serbia now turned to its northern neighbor, Austria-Hungary, which recognized the Serbian ruler Prince Milan as King Milan I in 1882. In exchange the Kingdom of Serbia began to hew closely to the Austro-Hungarian diplomatic line, and in effect became a quasi-satellite of its new protector. This protection came in handy in 1885 when the Kingdom of Serbia launched a disastrous attack against newly unified Bulgaria, and was only saved from utter defeat by the muscular intervention of the Austro-Hungarians. This event further solidified the Great Power divide in the Balkans, with the Russian Empire backing Bulgaria as its client state and Austro-Hungary backing Serbia. The two minor nations in turn had clashing aspirations to rule the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, chiefly its Macedonian provinces.

This geo-political status quo held until 1903, when a group of Serbian army officers overthrew the son of King Milan I and installed a King from the rival Karadjordjevic dynasty. This complicated matters as the new ruling class of the Kingdom of Serbia attempted to wriggle out from under the thumb of the Austro-Hungarians.

The Russo-Turkish War Of 1877

The Russo-Turkish War Of 1877
The Russo-Turkish War Of 1877

The Pig War

The new government of the Kingdom of Serbia realized that their country was utterly dependent on the much larger Austro-Hungarian monarchy to their north. They sent most of their exports that way, and in turn bought most of their imports from their northern neighbor, which critically also included weapons and equipment for their army. In 1904 the Serbs began to gradually shift the situation, and started to purchase arms from France in order to diversify their sources and reduce their dependency on the Austro-Hungarians.

With the blessings of the Russian Empire, they also formed a customs union with semi-independent Bulgaria in 1905, just twenty years after their last conflict. This was achieved through the actions of the pro-Russian King Peter I, whose sons studied in St.Petersburg at the invitation of the Russian Tsar.

Seeing their client state attempting to quietly distance themselves from their control, the Austro-Hungarians hit back at the Serbs, banning the import of Serbian pork. This commodity by far formed the largest category of export goods and was the bedrock of the primarily agricultural Serbian economy. Livestock rearing, and especially pig-keeping had a long tradition in the Serbian Kingdom, as the oak forests of the land provided not only great forage for the pigs, but also insured the meat was of a high quality. This tactic was deliberately designed to bring the Serbs to heel, but it ended up backfiring on the Austro-Hungarians. The Kingdom of Serbia began to contract French capital to help build packing plants for international shipment, and also sought and received Russian economic assistance. Furthermore, the Austro-Hungarian refusal to give the Serbs shipping access to the Adriatic through their newly acquired colony of Bosnia and Herzegovina forced the Kingdom of Serbia to seek outlets to the south, further distancing themselves from their former protector. Thus the blockade failed in its primary goal, which was to bring the recalcitrant Kingdom of Serbia back to the fold, and only served to raise tensions in the Balkans.

King Peter I Of Serbia

King Peter I Of Serbia
King Peter I Of Serbia

Long-Term Effects

By 1908 it was clear to see that the Kingdom of Serbia would not be cowed through economic means. After dipping in 1906 as a result of the blockade, trade subsequently recovered in 1907 and even grew in 1908, as new outlets became available. The political fallout became complete when Austria-Hungary formally annexed the province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a land that was inhabited by Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, and was the primary target for the enlargement of the Kingdom of Serbia.

Following the blockade and annexation, it appeared likely that the Kingdom of Serbia, backed by the Russian Empire, would go to war with the Austro-Hungarians. War was averted only due to an ultimatum sent by the German Empire, which supported the Austro-Hungarians. The Russian Empire backed down, and the Kingdom of Serbia was given a few square kilometers on the border as compensation for accepting the annexation.

This event poisoned relations for good between the Russians and Serbs on one hand and the Germans and Austro-Hungarians on the other. Humiliated by its drastic back-down, the Russian Empire accelerated its re-armament program and vowed to support and fight on behalf of the Kingdom of Serbia, which had now completely shifted from Austro-Hungarian to Russian protection. The Serbs for their part turned their expansionist aims to the south, at the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The Austro-Hungarians themselves were now firmly locked into an alliance with the Germans, and came to the conclusion that war was the only way to humble Serbia and stop its irredentist aims towards its South-Slav populated provinces. Thus the stage was set for a showdown in 1914, when the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian noble in Sarajevo, the capital of the province of Bosnia and Herzegovina launched the calamity now known as the First World War.


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