Austria Annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina

Austria’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina created an international crisis that laid the groundwork for the start of World War I.

Summary of Event

Since the sixteenth century, the Balkan peninsula had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks had pushed their holdings westward into Europe until 1683, when their advance was stopped at the gates of Vienna by an army composed largely of Poles under their king, Jan Sobieski. Since that time, the Turkish hold had been gradually reduced, chiefly by the Habsburg rulers, who had successfully reclaimed Hungary in the eighteenth century. Bosnia and Herzegovina, annexation
Austria;annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];causes
[kw]Austria Annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina (Oct. 7, 1908)
[kw]Annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria (Oct. 7, 1908)
[kw]Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria Annexes (Oct. 7, 1908)
[kw]Herzegovina, Austria Annexes Bosnia and (Oct. 7, 1908)
Bosnia and Herzegovina, annexation
Austria;annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina
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[g]Austria;Oct. 7, 1908: Austria Annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina[02200]
[g]Balkans;Oct. 7, 1908: Austria Annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina[02200]
[g]Bosnia and Herzegovina;Oct. 7, 1908: Austria Annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina[02200]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Oct. 7, 1908: Austria Annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina[02200]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 7, 1908: Austria Annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina[02200]
Aehrenthal, Alois Lexa von
Izvolsky, Aleksandr Petrovich
Alexander (king of Serbia)
Peter I

In the nineteenth century, the Turkish hold on the Slavic inhabitants of the Balkans continued to weaken. Serbia had achieved de facto independence in 1829 and de jure independence in 1878. Increasingly, Russia had become a sponsor of the Slavic ethnic groups in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia. Under the stimulus of the pan-Slavic movement in Russia, the Serbs in Serbia began to dream of a great Slavic country in the Balkans with Serbia as its center. In 1876 Russia had gone to war with Turkey, largely to assist the Slavic ethnic groups in the Balkans to free themselves from Turkish control.

The Russian victories in the war with Turkey, and the revelation of Russian plans for the reorganization of the Balkan peninsula under Russia’s aegis, alarmed the other powers. Under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of the German Empire, an international congress met in Berlin in 1878 to revise the terms of the settlement the victorious Russians had planned to impose on the defeated Turks. While that settlement recognized the end of Turkish rule over large parts of the Balkans, it was concerned with preventing the extension of Russian control, particularly over the western Balkans. To prevent the expansion of Serbia, the Congress of Berlin Congress of Berlin (1878) assigned the two principalities of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Austria to administer, although Turkish sovereignty was theoretically preserved.

The occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austrians was generally beneficial to the inhabitants of the principalities. The Austrians developed Bosnia’s infrastructure and provided administrators who replaced the rampant corruption of the older Turkish administration with relative honesty. In addition, the incorporation of the occupied principalities into the Austro-Hungarian economy provided increased economic opportunities for the Slavic inhabitants.

Nevertheless, the Slavic inhabitants of the Balkans, particularly the neighboring Serbs, resented Austria’s occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia’s army was no match for the Austro-Hungarian forces, and as long as the empire retained effective control of the two principalities, the radical Serbs would have difficulty realizing their dream of a greater Serbia. Tensions were muted during the early years of the occupation, as the rulers of Serbia followed a policy of cooperating with the Austrians in return for economic advantages, notably an export market in Austria for Serbia’s agricultural produce.

In 1903, however, the pro-Austrian king of Serbia, Alexander, was assassinated by radical elements and his place taken by Peter I, a member of the hostile, anti-Austrian Karageorgevic Dynasty. Under Peter I, Serbia veered away from the cooperative policy of his predecessor and actively promoted anti-Austrian propaganda directed at arousing the Slavic sensibilities of the inhabitants of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this new departure, the Serbs were encouraged by the pan-Slavic movement in Russia. Austria felt threatened by this propaganda effort, fearing the loss not only of the occupied territories but also of other Slavic lands within the empire, such as Croatia and Slovenia, which the Serbs hoped to incorporate into a greater Serbia or Yugoslavia.

Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal, who had been appointed foreign minister of Austria-Hungary in 1906, believed that annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Dual Monarchy would frustrate Serbian machinations. In Russia, Aleksandr Petrovich Izvolsky, the newly appointed minister of foreign affairs, sought to recoup Russian international standing following Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1905 through a dramatic stroke in the European theater. Acting secretly, with the knowledge of Czar Nicholas II but not that of the ministers of the government, he informed Aehrenthal that Russia would be willing to support the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary if in return the Dual Monarchy would sanction the opening of the Dardanelles to Russian warships. The straits had been closed to foreign warships since the Straits Convention of 1841. Aehrenthal reacted favorably to Izvolsky’s proposition, and the two statesmen awaited the right moment to seal their bargain.

That moment came in the summer of 1908 with the outbreak of the Young Turk movement, Young Turks;coup which sought to modernize the corrupt and ineffective government of the Ottoman Empire. While the Turks were preoccupied with civil war, Aehrenthal and Izvolsky met in Buchlau in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) on September 15 and orally reiterated their earlier agreement to support Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the opening of the Dardanelles to Russian warships. Unfortunately, they drew up no written account of their decisions, nor did they set a date for the annexation. The result was that within three weeks a serious misunderstanding and a grave international crisis arose.

Izvolsky left the conference with the impression that nothing would be done immediately (or so he later claimed). He set out to visit the European capitals in order to obtain the consent of the other Great Powers to the change in the status quo affecting the Dardanelles. Meanwhile, Aehrenthal was preparing for the annexation. He informed Bulgaria that the time was ripe for it to proclaim its independence from the Ottoman Empire, which it did on October 5. Two days later, Aehrenthal announced to Europe that Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina.


The storm of protest aroused by the annexation brought Austria to the brink of war with the other European nations. Serbia and Montenegro (then still an independent principality but closely allied with Serbia) were outraged over the move, viewing it as a deliberate effort to frustrate their dream of establishing a great South Slav state, a Yugoslavia. The Young Turks resented Austria’s violation of Ottoman sovereignty.

In Russia, where pan-Slav sentiment was strong, Austria’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Izvolsky’s role in helping to make it possible were vociferously condemned. Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin, Stolypin, Pyotr Arkadyevich the Russian premier, ordered Izvolsky to oppose the annexation. He did so by denying any involvement and by calling on Great Britain and France to aid the Turks, but neither would do so. They were opposed in principle to the annexation as a violation of international agreements reached at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, but they recognized the fact that Austria had been in control of Bosnia and Herzegovina for some thirty years, so that consequently the status quo in the western Balkans would not really be changed much by the formal incorporation of these districts into the Dual Monarchy. Sir Edward Grey, Grey, Sir Edward the British foreign secretary, did reject Izvolsky’s plea for the opening of the Dardanelles to Russian warships.

The crisis lasted for almost six months. Serbia, with the reluctant support of Russia, drew near to war with Austria. The crisis was protracted by Izvolsky’s insistence that the dispute be submitted to an international conference. Aehrenthal refused, and Great Britain and France, anxious to avoid war, declined any firm support to Russia. Finally, Germany backed Austria and Izvolsky was forced to accept the annexation, and on March 31, 1909, an isolated Serbia did likewise. Austria had previously compensated the Turks with a financial indemnity on February 26, 1909.

Peace was thus restored to the Balkans, but it was a precarious one. Relations between Austria and Serbia steadily deteriorated until they culminated in the assassination of the Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, in July of 1914. The uneasy truce that Austria and Russia had maintained in the Balkans from 1878 to 1908 was now shattered beyond repair. In the long run, the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina raised more problems than it solved, complicating an already delicate situation in a region where ethnic divisions would continue to simmer and ignite into wider conflicts throughout the twentieth century. Bosnia and Herzegovina, annexation
Austria;annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];causes

Further Reading

  • Bartlett, C. J. The Global Conflict: The International Rivalry of the Great Powers, 1880-1990. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1994. Chapter 3 discusses the events leading up to World War I, including the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Includes maps, illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Bridge, F. R. From Sadowa to Sarajevo: The Foreign Policy of Austria-Hungary, 1866-1914. 1972. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2001. Covers the Bosnian annexation within the context of Austro-Hungarian foreign policy.
  • Jelavich, Barbara. History of the Balkans. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Volume 2 includes a brief but useful discussion of the administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria.
  • _______. Russia’s Balkan Entanglements, 1806-1914. 1991. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Contains a detailed account of the negotiations between Aehrenthal and Izvolsky. Includes maps, illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Schmitt, Bernadotte E. Annexation of Bosnia, 1908-09. 1937. Reprint. New York: Howard Fertig, 1970. Provides an account of the diplomatic maneuvers associated with the annexation based on diplomatic documents published after World War I.
  • Sugar, Peter F. The Industrialization of Bosnia-Hercegovina, 1878-1918. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963. Discusses the social and economic background to the Austrian administration of the two principalities.

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