Almost the First World War

Almost the First World War

World War I nearly started in 1909 over Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Worried about a changing circumstance in Europe after the Young Turk Revolution and increasingly bothered by the rhetoric from Serbia, Austria-Hungary felt it had to act in order to preserve the integrity of its borders and its empire.  On 6 October 1908, they announced the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and set off the Bosnian Crisis.  

A notice of the annexation is posted on the wall of the deli that would be the scene Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914.

The province was technically a part of the Ottoman Empire, although administered and occupied by Austria-Hungary. But the government of the Emperor decided to cut out the middleman and just absorb the land that had become the focus of the Pan-Slav movement’s most strident arguments.  

The decision didn’t happen in a vacuum.  The official status of BiH had been created by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, a treaty enacted for the sole purpose of preventing Russia from running amok in the Southern European Balkans.  Serbia, Russia’s most devoted Balkan ally and Pan-Slav enthusiast, had been promised BiH by Russia in 1877 and did not give up those aspirations lightly.  The years from 1878 to 1908 featured Serbian discontent quite prominently.

Nor was Austria-Hungary’s decision to annex BiH made suddenly.  As early as the 1881 League of Three Emperors, provisions were made secretly stating that Austria-Hungary had the right to “annex Bosnia and Herzegovina at whatever moment she shall deem opportune,” as long as Austria-Hungary met with the approval of other Great Powers.  The problem was that that other Great Powers, most of all Russia, weren’t exactly keen on Austro-Hungarian expansion.  

That was when Alexander Izvolsky, a the Russian Foreign Minister, came up with a plan.  

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Alexander Izvolsky

Russia had always had an issue with warm water ports, an issue that would be solved quite neatly if Russia was allowed to bring ships through the Turkish Straits.  By treaty, no warships were allowed movement through that pass, and Russia was not interested in opening it up to everyone.  Russia wanted the Turkish Straits for exclusive Russian warship use.  

What if, Izvolsky postulated, Russia could offer Austria-Hungary a quid pro quo?  Russia would support Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina as long as Austria would look the other way when the Turkish Straits became Russia’s personal express lane for warships.  

With the acquiescence of Tsar Nicholas II, Izvolsky reached out to the Foreign Minister of Austria-Hungary, Alois von Aehrenthal on 2 July 1908.  Aehrenthal answered on 14 July, and a date was set for them to come to an agreement in person.  

Austrian Foreign Minister Alois von Aehrenthal

That date, 16 September, the two men met at Buchlau Castle.  

Both men were experienced and accomplished statesmen.  Izvolsky had been Russia’s ambassador in several countries, although his most momentous assignment was as ambassador to Japan in 1902.  In an attempt to de-escalate tensions between Japan and Russia, Izvolsky brought the Prime Minister of Japan to St Petersburg.  The Tsar was furious, and Izvolsky was sent to Denmark.  The  resulting 1904 war with Japan proved to be a disaster for Russia.  

Aehrenthal was a career diplomat as well.  He served as the ambassador to Romania and helped negotiate the 1903 Murzsteg Agreement.  Aehrenthal was not overtly hostile to Russia, and his voice was one of those counseling remaining open to Russia during the Russo-Japanese War.

When the two met to discuss the fate of the Balkans, the meeting lasted approximately six hours.  It was agreed that Austria-Hungary could annex BiH, and that they would then withdraw from the Sandžak of Novi Pazar as a sop to Russia’s Serbian allies (who had no idea that Russia was negotiating away the coveted BiH).  Austria-Hungary would do no more than shrug at Russian warships violating the Treaty of Berlin.  

The situation seemed settled.  

The only problem was that Austria-Hungary and Russia had totally miscalculated the uproar that would occur when the two powers acted. 

Russia was informed of the impending annexation on 30 September, and when it took place on 6 October the outcry was immediate.  Not only the Great Powers reacted, but Serbia itself began to amass troops along the border with BiH.  

Germany sided with Austria.  Russia was expected to side with Serbia, but was showing hesitation due to the already existing secret negotiations and a desire to avoid war with Austria-Hungary.  However, the outcry was so big that Russia never got a chance for their fait accompli in the Turkish Straits.  Rather than face the heat for his negotiations, Izvolsky began to heatedly deny that he had agreed to anything of the sort. Austria-Hungary was acting on its own as Europe’s bully.

Russia began to join in with Serbia’s belligerence, and it was then that Austria-Hungary played its trump card:  they threatened to release the records of the secret agreement at Buchlau. The entire world was about to see that Russia had thrown its most loyal ally in the Pan-Slav movement aside in its own interests.  

Russia backed down.

The dirty Jew has deceived me.  He lied to me, he bamboozled me, that frightful Jew!” Izolsky said, using the rumor of Aehrenthal’s Jewish heritage to present the man negatively.  

In the end, the Great Powers allowed the annexation and rewrote sections of the treaty to accommodate the changes already made.  Italy, allied to Austria-Hungary, had tried to gain its own concessions during the melee but had been roundly ignored.  The residual feelings of resentment resulted in a very different alliance when war actually did come in 1914.

On 31 March 1909 Russia forced Serbia’s hand.  A statement of acceptance from the Balkan nation was submitted to the Great Powers by on Serbia’s behalf by their Pan-Slav patron, Russia. 

Serbia recognizes that she has not been injured in her right by the fait accompli created in Bosnia and Herzegovina and that consequently she will conform to such decision as the powers shall take in regard to Article 25 of the Treaty of Berlin.  Submitting to the advice of the Great Powers, Serbia undertakes already now to abandon the attitude of protest and opposition which she has maintained in regards to the annexation since last autumn and undertakes further to change the course of her present policy toward Austria Hungary to live henceforward with the latter on a footing of good-neighborliness.  Conformable to these declarations, and confident of the pacific intensions of Austria-Hungary, Serbia will reduce her army to the position of spring 1908 as regards to its organization, its distribution, and its effectives.  She will disarm and disband her volunteers and bands and will prevent the formation of new units of irregulars on its territories. 

The tumbling dominoes of war were propped up for the time being, but feelings still ran high.  And now Russia, if she were to keep her position as the leader of the Pan-Slav world, owed Serbia concessions.  The bill would come due at the end of July 1914.

To add another layer onto the twisted road to the first world war, Archduke Franz Ferdinand spoke vehemently against the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and for the precise reasons that brought Europe to the brink of war in 1908.  The Archduke did not see the need to unnecessarily provoke the Orthodox citizens of the Balkans. 

To read more about the history of World War I, please click here.


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