Balkan Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Balkan Wars revealed the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s weakening state, the growth of Serbian power, and the infirmity of Russian policy—all of which contributed to the unsettled conditions leading to World War I.

Summary of Event

The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 accelerated the already rapid disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, a process that had been going on since Austria had annexed the Turkish provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Russia desired to forestall any further Austrian advance in the Balkans, especially against Serbia, and to shore up the faltering Turks until Russia itself could become strong enough to move against them. From 1909 to 1913, Russia worked for the establishment of a Balkan League, which was based on separate agreements: one with Bulgaria and the other with Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro (which was supplemented by a Montenegrin-Serbian accord). The league finally came into existence in 1912, but the powers that composed it were in no mood to act as mere caretakers on Russia’s behalf. On the contrary, Austria’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Italy’s annexation of Tripoli in 1912 encouraged the members of the Balkan League to drive the Turks out of Europe altogether and to divide the territorial spoils among league members. Balkan Wars (1912-1913) [kw]Balkan Wars (Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913) [kw]Wars, Balkan (Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913) Balkan Wars (1912-1913) [g]Austria;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [g]Balkans;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [g]Bosnia and Herzegovina;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [g]Bulgaria;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [g]Greece;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [g]Macedonia;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [g]Montenegro;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [g]Ottoman Empire;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [g]Serbia;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [g]Turkey;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 18, 1912-Aug. 10, 1913: Balkan Wars[03200] Berchtold, Leopold von Ferdinand I Grey, Sir Edward Sazonov, Sergey Dmitriyevich

The Ottoman Empire had demonstrated its inability to rule its subject nations adequately and to institute reforms. Quarrels among the Great Powers and their failure to ensure that the Turks carried out the needed reforms led the Balkan states to conclude that it was time to proceed with their own solution to the Balkan problems. In the meantime, Russia’s policy toward the Balkans was weakened by the czarist government’s continued inability to control its own agents. Some Russian diplomats in the Balkans openly encouraged the Slavic states to drive the Turks out of Europe.

Montenegrin fighters rest at Malissori during the Balkan Wars of 1910-1912.

(Library of Congress)

None of the Great Powers, particularly Austria and Russia, desired war. Major world leaders realized that dividing the Continent into two armed camps might precipitate a conflict that would spread beyond the Balkans. Accordingly, on October 8, 1912, Leopold von Berchtold, the foreign minister of Austria-Hungary, and Sergey Dmitriyevich Sazonov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, issued a joint declaration on behalf of the European powers to the Balkan states, warning them not to make war on the Turks and stipulating that if they did so and won (which von Berchtold and Sazonov considered highly unlikely), they would not be permitted to annex any territory. Unfortunately, the warning came too late; on the same day that the declaration was issued, Montenegro, confident of support from other members of the Balkan League, boldly declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

War began in earnest on October 18, when Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece entered the conflict. Six weeks later, on December 3, the shattered Turkish forces sued for an armistice. Meanwhile, Serbia’s occupation of a stretch of the Adriatic Coast of northern Albania had precipitated a grave international crisis. Austria and Italy were unalterably opposed to the entrenchment of Serbia on the Adriatic coastline, where Serbia and Russia could challenge Habsburg and Italian naval supremacy. With some reluctance, Germany agreed to support Austria if Austria were attacked while defending its interests. Fearful that Austria might once again move against Serbian interests, as had happened in 1908, and desirous of maintaining the friendship of the surprisingly potent Balkan League (a relationship that could prevent an Austro-Serbian conflict), Sazonov made a pretense of supporting Serbian claims. He realized, however, that Russia was not yet prepared for a major war, and staged a diplomatic retreat and worked for localizing the conflict at the London Peace Conference, which opened on December 16, 1912, under the chairmanship of Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary.

The work of this conference was retarded by the complex Albanian question and the reopening of hostilities between members of the Balkan League and the Turks on January 30, 1913. Early in 1913, Austria and Italy were able to gain tentative international acceptance for the creation of an enlarged Albania, which would safely exclude Serbia from having an outlet into the Adriatic. Meanwhile, the Turks were again defeated, and the Treaty of London of May 30, 1913, London, Treaty of (1913) brought the First Balkan War to a close. However, the peace settlement imposed on disgruntled Serbs, their allies, and the Turks was widely considered unsatisfactory, and none of the Balkan states was satisfied with the terms dictated to them in London. Because Serbia had been denied an outlet to the Adriatic, it now demanded compensation by insisting that Bulgaria cede a larger slice of Macedonian territory than had been assigned by the Treaty of London. Bulgaria indignantly refused and also rejected Greek claims to the Thessaloníki area of Macedonia and Romania’s claims to the Dobruja, an area adjacent to the mouth of the Danube River.

Surrounded by hostile powers, Ferdinand I, who had been independent king of Bulgaria since 1908, decided to oust the Serbs and the Greeks from Macedonia. Bulgaria attacked on June 29, 1913, and Serbia and Greece declared war on Bulgaria in response. They were soon joined by Montenegro and Romania, and eventually by the Ottoman Empire, their former enemy. Bulgaria was badly mauled. The country concluded peace talks in Bucharest on August 10 with the Balkan states and gave to those who demanded them the territories to which it had aspired. In a separate peace with Turkey signed at Constantinople on September 29, Bulgaria ceded to Turkey the greater part of Thrace, which it had gained in the First Balkan War, including the important city of Adrianople.

The Balkan Wars were over, but the peace of southeastern Europe was in ruins and that of the remainder of the Continent was in serious jeopardy. All the Balkan states increased their territories, but none was completely satisfied. The Treaty of Bucharest of August 10, 1913, Bucharest, Treaty of (1913) which terminated the Second Balkan War, served to whet Romania’s appetite for more territory, and specifically for Austrian Transylvania, with its large Romanian population. So it was that Romania joined Serbia in coveting the crownlands of Austria-Hungary. Romanian sympathy for the Serbs, together with closer ties with the West, constituted a serious blow to the Triple Alliance during and after 1913.

Significance xlink:href="Balkans_map.tif"

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The Second Balkan War proved to be a defeat for Austria. Serbia, Austria’s archenemy in the Balkans, emerged from the second contest considerably strengthened at the expense of Bulgaria. Romania, however, mistrusted Austria-Hungary because it had given diplomatic support to Bulgaria during the recent war and because the Hungarians had oppressed the Romanian population of Transylvania.

Apart from the immediate contributions the Balkan Wars made to the outbreak of World War I only a year after the Treaty of Bucharest, they also indicated the intransigence of the nationalist impulses at work in the region and the ethnic volatility of minority politics throughout the region. After establishing Yugoslavia as a country after World War I, the European powers imposed minority treaties on the country, and though dictator Tito was able to impose a period of relative calm after World War II, underlying ethnic fissures erupted in the years following Tito’s death. In the 1990’s, a series of civil wars produced the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the midst of massive human rights violations and ethnic cleansing. The local people and international supervisory bodies continued to cope with the results of these wars into the early years of the twenty-first century. Balkan Wars (1912-1913)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bridge, F. R. From Sadowa to Sarajevo: The Foreign Policy of Austria-Hungary, 1866-1914. 1972. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2001. Covers the Balkan Wars within the context of Austro-Hungarian foreign policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jelavich, Barbara. Russia’s Balkan Entanglements, 1806-1914. 1991. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Contains a detailed account of Russia’s designs on the Balkans and the czarist government’s botched efforts in the region. Includes maps, illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaplan, Robert D. Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Chapter 3 gives brief but deft descriptions of the Balkan Wars, especially from the perspective of the Turks, the Bulgarians, and other central European states.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">May, Arthur J. The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1867-1914. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. May’s work provides a useful historical context for understanding Austria’s role in the Balkan conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sked, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire, 1815-1918. New York: Dorset Press, 1991. See chapter 6, “The Road to Disaster,” for a treatment of the Balkan Wars in the context of relationships among the Great Powers.

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