Congress of Berlin Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The parties to the Congress of Berlin negotiated a compromise settlement balancing the interests of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Great Britain, and Russia. They thereby averted a major war over the Ottoman Empire’s Balkan possessions.

Summary of Event

The Congress of Berlin, held in the summer of 1878, marked the end of a serious crisis in the Middle East that had arisen in 1875 with the outbreak of rebellion in Bosnia and Herzegovina against Turkish rule. Increasingly throughout the nineteenth century, the various peoples of the Balkans had been asserting their national identities at the expense of a declining Ottoman Empire. The Greeks had achieved complete independence from the Turks in 1829, Serbia Serbia;autonomy of gained autonomous status in 1830, and the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia by 1859 were united in the kingdom of Romania. Romania;unification of Between 1866 and 1868, the people of Crete Crete , in their effort to join Greece, waged an unsuccessful revolt against the Turks. By 1875, the fever of national independence had spread to the westernmost Turkish provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose mixed Croatian-Serbian population raised the standard of rebellion against the rule of the sultan in July of that year. Congress of Berlin (1878) Congress of Berlin (1878) Germany;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Russia;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Austria;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Great Britain;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Disraeli, Benjamin [p]Disraeli, Benjamin;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Balkans;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] Balkans;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] Bosnia and Herzegovina [kw]Congress of Berlin (June 13-July 13, 1878) [kw]Berlin, Congress of (June 13-July 13, 1878) Congress of Berlin (1878) Congress of Berlin (1878) Germany;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Russia;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Austria;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Great Britain;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Disraeli, Benjamin [p]Disraeli, Benjamin;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Balkans;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] Balkans;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] Bosnia and Herzegovina [g]Germany;June 13-July 13, 1878: Congress of Berlin[5010] [g]Austria;June 13-July 13, 1878: Congress of Berlin[5010] [g]Great Britain;June 13-July 13, 1878: Congress of Berlin[5010] [g]Russia;June 13-July 13, 1878: Congress of Berlin[5010] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 13-July 13,1878: Congress of Berlin[5010] Gorchakov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich [p]Gorchakov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] Andrássy, Count Gyula Ignatyev, Nikolay Pavlovich

Conferees at the Congress of Berlin.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

It was not long before the revolt spread, embroiling several of the Balkan states and the great European powers in a protracted Middle Eastern crisis, which was not settled until 1878. Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, eager to preserve the Balkan status quo and with it the rapprochement they had worked out in entering the Three Emperors’ League in 1873, acted in concert in attempts to mediate the conflict between the Slavs of Bosnia and Herzegovina and their Turkish masters. The combined efforts of the three allies came to naught, and by mid-1876 the rebellion had spread to Bulgaria Bulgaria , Serbia Serbia , and Montenegro. The formal declaration of war by Serbia and Montenegro on the Ottoman Empire inspired the Russian Pan-Slavs, led by Nikolai Pavlovich Ignatyev, Ignatyev, Nikolay Pavlovich the Russian ambassador to Constantinople, to press Czar Alexander II Alexander II [p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];and Balkans[Balkans] to render military assistance to the Balkan Slavs.

The brutality with which the Ottoman authorities dealt with the Bulgarian revolt further undermined diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Balkan crisis. Turkish regular forces, which had been sent to restore order, destroyed about sixty villages and massacred between twelve and fifteen thousand people. Public outcries over these atrocities were particularly strong in Russia and Great Britain. The Bulgarian massacres strengthened the demands of the Pan-Slavs for the establishment of a Russian protectorate over the Balkan Christians. In Great Britain, popular outrage was fanned by former prime minister William Ewart Gladstone’s Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] pamphlet The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (1876). These sentiments made it difficult for the British government to mount effective opposition to a Russian war against the Ottoman Empire.

To prepare for such an eventuality and at the same time prevent a conflict with Austria, the chancellor of the Russian Empire, Prince Aleksandr Mikhailovich Gorchakov Gorchakov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich [p]Gorchakov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] , met with the foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Count Gyula Andrássy Andrássy, Count Gyula , on July 8, 1876, in Reichstadt, Bohemia Bohemia . The two statesmen agreed that their governments should work together to regulate any territorial changes that might arise in case of a Turkish defeat at the hands of the southern Slavs.

Meanwhile, the war of 1876 in the Balkans had become, for the most part, a contest between Serbia Serbia and the Ottoman Empire, with the latter rapidly gaining the ascendancy. With the Turks about to seize the Serbian capital of Belgrade, Russia issued a forty-eight-hour ultimatum on October 31, 1876, demanding that the Turks stop their advance and grant the Serbs an armistice of at least six weeks. This they agreed to do. Despite the armistice, however, Alexander II Alexander II [p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];and Balkans[Balkans] remained torn between the demands of the Pan-Slavs to declare war on the Turks and his own desire for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Consequently, he ordered preliminary preparation for war while making plans to participate in a conference of the great powers at Constantinople that would seek to find a diplomatic solution to the Serbian-Ottoman conflict. This conference was held from December 12, 1876, to January 20, 1877, but it was a failure.

Russia continued to seek a guarantee of Austrian neutrality in the event of a Russo-Turkish war and, in the Budapest Convention of March, 1877 Budapest Convention (1877) , was successful. In return, Russia agreed to allow Austria to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina and also agreed to refrain from establishing a large Slavic state in the Balkans should Austria defeat the Turks. Such terms placed Russia in the position of fighting for Austrian aggrandizement in the western Balkans. Meanwhile, despite the fact that the Serbs had concluded their war with the Turks in a formal treaty on February 28, 1877, Russia continued to press the Sublime Porte (diplomatic shorthand for the Turkish government) to introduce reforms throughout its Balkan provinces. However, the sultan, emboldened by outpourings of Turkish nationalism and Great Britain’s policy of guaranteeing the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, emphatically refused. Therefore, on April 24, 1877, Russia declared war on Turkey.

Russia’s resounding victory over the Turks, sealed in the Treaty of San Stefano San Stefano, Treaty of (1878) on March 3, 1878, brought an immediate adverse reaction from Great Britain and Austria in the form of a demand that the government at St. Petersburg submit the peace settlement to an international congress of European states. The major reservation that Austria and Britain had regarding the Treaty of San Stefano was its provision for the creation of a greater Bulgaria Bulgaria with an outlet to the Aegean Sea. To Austria, this amounted to the establishment of Russian hegemony over the eastern Balkans, not to mention the violation of two Austro-Russian accords—those of Reichstadt and Budapest—forbidding the creation of an enlarged Slavic state. In the view of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli Disraeli, Benjamin [p]Disraeli, Benjamin;and Bulgaria[Bulgaria] of Great Britain, the creation of an enlarged, Russian-dominated Bulgaria posed a potential threat to British interests in the eastern Mediterranean, especially the Suez Canal. Public outrage generated by Gladstone’s Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] pamphlet over the atrocities in Bulgaria, which had earlier hampered Disraeli’s efforts to resist Russian expansionism in the Balkans, evaporated once Russia was seen as a serious threat to Britain’s imperial communications.

After some preliminary arrangements between Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, a general European congress was convened in Berlin from June 13 to July 13, 1878, with German chancellor Otto von Bismarck Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] serving as host and “honest broker.” Andrássy Andrássy, Count Gyula represented the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Gorchakov Gorchakov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich [p]Gorchakov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich;and Congress of Berlin[Congress of Berlin] represented Russia, and Disraeli represented Great Britain. The Congress of Berlin decided that the enlarged Bulgaria Bulgaria , whose boundaries had been drawn up in March as part of the Treaty of San Stefano, should be divided into three parts: Bulgaria proper, located north of the Balkan Mountains, which was to become an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire; Eastern Rumelia Eastern Rumelia Rumelia, Eastern , located south of the Balkan Mountains, which was somewhat more closely tied to the sultan; and Macedonia, which was to remain under direct Turkish rule. Bulgaria was thus reduced by two-thirds and completely cut off from the Aegean Sea. Other provisions gave Bessarabia to Russia and allowed Austria to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as to garrison the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, a strip of land lying between Serbia and Montenegro. Great Britain’s occupation of Cyprus had previously been arranged on June 4, 1878, before the congress formally opened.

Significance

The outcome of the Middle Eastern crisis of 1875-1878 in the Congress of Berlin had some far-reaching implications for the future of the Balkans, of Europe, and the world. Overall, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Great Britain were able temporarily to stabilize the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire in the face of another historic Russian attempt to seize or outflank the Straits of the Dardanelles. Within this general framework, a serious consequence of the congress was that Russia had been deeply humiliated. True, Russia had knowingly and willingly overstepped the bounds of the Reichstadt and Budapest agreements in creating an enlarged Bulgaria under Russian influence. However, it is significant that Russia measured its forced retreat from the eastern Balkans (which did not actually begin until 1879) against the accession of Austrian hegemony in the west.

Although Austria’s occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was likewise clearly in accord with the Budapest Convention, Austria nevertheless incurred the animosity of Russia, especially in Pan-Slav circles. At any rate, the Austro-Hungarian Empire became a leading power in southeastern Europe, where its interests would continue to clash with those of Russia. The Three Emperors’ League did not survive the events of 1878. For Great Britain, the dissolution of this continental coalition was an added triumph.

Finally, the settlement of 1878 left all the Balkan states bitter toward each other and toward their shared adversaries, the Turks. The Bulgarians Bulgaria were embittered by the partition of their country, the Serbs by Austria’s occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Greeks by their failure to obtain any territorial compensation whatsoever. The stage was thus set for more national wars and strife in the Balkans, culminating in the assassination of Francis Ferdinand, the archduke of Austria, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in June, 1914, which brought about World War I.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, M. S. The Eastern Question, 1774-1923: A Study in International Relations. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966. A comprehensive history of the problems and rivalries caused by the gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bridge, F. R. The Habsburg Monarchy Among the Great Powers, 1815-1918. New York: Berg, 1990. A history of Habsburg foreign policy during the century before World War I that emphasizes the Balkan ambitions of the monarchy and its leading statesmen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jelavich, Barbara. Russia’s Balkan Entanglements, 1806-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Examines the reasons for Russian involvement in five wars in the Balkan Peninsula and their impact on internal developments in Russia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jelavich, Charles, and Barbara Jelavich. The Establishment of the Balkan National States, 1804-1920. Vol. 8 in A History of East Central Europe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977. This work traces the history of the Balkan peoples’ struggles for independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langer, William L. European Alliances and Alignments, 1871-1890. 2d ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950. A classic diplomatic history that focuses on Bismarck’s efforts to prevent the emergence of an alliance system hostile to the newly created German Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Medlicott, W. N. The Congress of Berlin and After: A Diplomatic History of the Near East Settlement, 1878-1880. 2d ed. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1962. A scholarly study that shows how Balkan rivalries continued after the Congress of Berlin as the great powers tried to implement the Berlin settlement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moss, Walter G. A History of Russia. 2d ed. Vol. 2. London: Anthem Press, 2002. Describes Alexander’s reforms and his foreign policies in detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seton-Watson, R. W. Disraeli, Gladstone, and the Eastern Question: A Study in Diplomacy and Party Politics. 1935. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. Studies the conflict between the principles of national self-interest and internationalism in British foreign policy toward the Balkans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yasamee, F. A. K. Ottoman Diplomacy: Abdülhamid II and the Great Powers. Istanbul: Isis Press, 1996. Traces the delicate balance in Turkish relations with Germany, Russia, France and Britain from the 1878 Congress of Berlin to 1909.

Gladstone Becomes Prime Minister of Britain

Three Emperors’ League Is Formed

Bulgarian Revolt Against the Ottoman Empire

Third Russo-Turkish War

Franco-Russian Alliance

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