History, Religion and the Great War
In October 1912, the Balkan Alliance – Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece – declared war on the Ottoman Empire. At its conclusion in 1913, the Ottomans’ presence in Europe was reduced to a bridgehead in Thrace. To the victors, this was the capstone of their centuries-long struggle for freedom from Ottoman yoke. To the great European powers, however, it was a catastrophe that threatened their imperial plans.
The Great Game
For most of the 19th century, European powers jockeyed for control over the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Though it had been in constant retreat since the failed second siege of Vienna (1683), the Ottomans managed to carry on largely because any one power that managed to challenge them saw the others sabotage the effort. For example, Britain and France had long been rivals, but joined forces in 1853 to help the Turks fight off Russia. It all tied into the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia for control of central Asia; at no cost was Russia to be allowed a warm-water port, such as Constantinople (Istanbul).
Austria’s House of Habsburg had once ruled most of Europe; but the 19th century was not kind to them: Napoleon abolished their Holy Roman Empire, while the Italian and German unification wars ended their influence over northern Italy and southern German lands. In 1867, Vienna had to make a deal with the Magyars to retain its hold on Hungary. By 1878, its only avenue of expansion was southwest, into Ottoman-held lands.
This was troublesome for two reasons: German-speaking Austrians already lorded over millions of disaffected Slavs, and the Balkans was inhabited by more of them; furthermore, those Slavs were mostly Orthodox Christians, while the Habsburg Empire had always been staunchly Catholic.
Sultan’s Hammer, Pope’s Anvil
Since the Great Schism of 1054, the Balkans had been a battlefield between the Orthodox East – loyal to the Patriarch in Constantinople – and the Catholic West, loyal to the Bishop of Rome. The enmity carried over into the Crusades, as Catholic knights eventually sacked Constantinople (1204) when their efforts against the Muslims began to falter. The weakened Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks in the early 1300s (Constantinople fell in 1453), and the Orthodox kingdoms of the Balkans followed suit. Only then did the Turks come into contact with Catholic Europe.
Yet the centuries of Habsburg struggle against the Ottoman invaders did nothing to stop the crusading against the “schismatics” of Bosnia, Serbia, Wallachia, Transylvania… Though Austrians and Hungarians duly embraced the aid of Orthodox rebels every time the Ottoman hordes approached, they went right back to forcing them into Catholicism as soon as the war would end.
Less Than Kind Kin
Just as those who embraced Islam made for the cruelest oppressors of their remaining Christian kin (with a handful of very notable exceptions), so did the Catholics converted through Austro-Hungarian pressure turn to hatred against their Orthodox roots. In the 19th century in particular, once the Principality of Serbia successfully wrested a modicum of liberty from the Sultans, Vienna encouraged an anti-Serb, Catholic identity amongst its southern Slavs. After going through Illyrian and Yugoslav phases, this identity was eventually shaped by by Ante Starcevic, a vicious anti-Serb and anti-Semite, and labeled Croatian.
For two centuries, the Orthodox subjects of the Habsburgs were concentrated along the Military Frontier. The 1867 arrangement foisted them on Hungary. But in 1878, Austria occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ottoman provinces where a Muslim minority ruled a mostly Orthodox peasantry. A small Catholic community was soon reinforced by immigrants from all over the Empire, while special arrangements were made for the Muslims. The worst off were the Orthodox Serbs, who sought union with their free brethren in the east. After Austria annexed the occupied territories in 1908, the discontent turned to violence.
From Scutari to Sarajevo
One of the reasons Austria was able to get away with the annexation was that in 1905, Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in a war with Japan, losing its entire Navy in the process. The revolution that followed severely weakened the Tsar, temporarily abolishing his autocracy.
By 1912, however, Russia had regained some of its strength, and was backing the Balkans Alliance in its war on the Turks. The treaties that bound the Orthodox Christian allies together referred to the Tsar of Russia as the supreme arbiter of any disputes. So once the Allies unexpectedly crushed the Ottoman armies, Western powers panicked.
Austria led the charge, threatening war on Serbia unless its forces evacuated Scutari and allowed the establishment of an independent Albanian state. Italy also supported the creation of Albania, as part of its imperial dreams for the Mediterranean. British and Italian gunboats sailed to Scutari to force the issue – which is interesting, because London was technically allied with Russia at the time.
Unwilling to risk war with Austria, Serbia and Montenegro withdrew – but kept territory originally promised to Bulgaria as compensation. While the peace talks in London were still ongoing, Austria persuaded Bulgaria to turn on the other allies, resulting in the Second Balkan War of 1913.
Emerging victorious, Serbia set to consolidate its gains and recover from the year-long conflict. Austria responded by turning up the pressure: organizing a military exercise in Bosnia, near the Serbian border. Heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, reviewed the troops and then visited Sarajevo, on the very day the Serbs commemorated their 1389 battle with the Turks. One of the assassins out to kill him failed; the third-string backup got lucky. The rest is history.
Four years later, in Versailles, the bloodied and bitter Britain and France imposed an official history blaming Germany for what was then called the “Great War.” Austria-Hungary, which actually used the Sarajevo incident as the long-sought pretext to invade Serbia, was not mentioned; it had dissolved by then.
This official history was projection; by blaming Germany, Britain and France were covering up their own belligerence. But in seeking to redress the obvious injustice, subsequent historians engaged in more projection. Unwilling to actually blame the victors, they shifted to a safer target: Russia – and by proxy, Serbia. Paris and London’s alliance with St. Petersburg was one of convenience, and even that was gone by 1918, when Bolshevik revolutionaries massacred the royal family, created the Soviet Union, and signed a separate peace with the Kaiser.
The typical revisionist narrative, only strengthened by the Cold War, thus chooses to blame Russia for Europe’s suicide: if only the Tsar had not come to the aid of “terrorist” Serbia, Austria would have crushed the tiny country within weeks, and Europe could have stayed in the Belle Epoque forever.
Except that is all bovine excrement. It basically amounts to blaming the archetypical “Other” – the Orthodox Russians and Serbs, specifically – for the actions of (Catholic and Protestant) Europe.
Scores to Settle
Berlin did not have to give Vienna a blank check, but it did. London did not have to get involved in the war over Belgium – as Niall Ferguson compellingly argued – but it did. France did not have to fight, but it chose to in order to avenge 1871. Austria-Hungary had many other options, but it chose a war of annihilation out of mistaken belief it would be short and victorious.
It can certainly be argued that Serbia represented a “mortal danger” to the Habsburg monarchy, but not because of its territorial ambitions, but because it represented an idea: that Slavs could have a free country of their own, rather than be ruled from of Vienna or Budapest. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia emerged as the result of that idea. Both were later singled out for vengeance by Hitler, an Austrian-born German.
Note that it was Wilhelmine Germany that unleashed the Bolsheviks on the world, by sending Lenin to Russia in hopes he’d foment enough unrest to knock it out of the war. Fear of Communism is what influenced President Hindenburg to make a coalition with the Nazis and appoint Hitler Chancellor in 1933. When Hitler’s charred corpse was found outside his bunker in May 1945, it was a fitting end to the chain of events that began with a sealed train from Zurich in 1917.
Princip’s Haunting Shade
Also fitting is that the assassin who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand was named Gavrilo Princip (principle). Imprisoned in Terezin – the same stockade the Nazis would later use to torture the Jewish inmates of their “Paradise Ghetto” – Princip had scratched into the walls of his cell the following verse: “Our shades shall walk in Vienna, wandering the courts and haunting the lords.”
Nearly a hundred years since his act of defiance was used by Austria as a pretext for pan-European carnage, Princip’s shade still haunts the West. Washington, Berlin and Brussels are still treating Russia as the “Other,” while trying to do to Serbia what Austria-Hungary failed in 1914: break it so that nothing of her heretical desire for liberty remains. So their imperial dreams can be safe.
It won’t work. Never has and never will. But those who would not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.