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The Balkan Crisis: 1913 and 1993


At the outset of the present century there emerged in the United States, England, and other parts of northern Europe a vigorous movement for strengthening and consolidating world peace, primarily by the developing of new legal codes of international behavior. The movement was given a significant fillip when Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1899 issued a call for an international conference on disarmament. This curious initiative, largely the product of the immature dilettantism of the Tsar himself and elaborated by the characteristic confusions of the Russian governmental establishment of the time, was not a serious one. But it was at once seized upon with enthusiasm by adherents of the peace movements and had consequences the Tsar himself had not anticipated. Of those, the most important were the two Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, resulting in a modernization and renewed codification of international law and in a significant elaboration, in particular, of the laws of war.

Beyond that there was, especially in the United States, a marked surge of interest in and enthusiasm for the negotiation and adoption of treaties of arbitration and conciliation. And these governmental efforts were supported by a number of private institutional initiatives, of which one of the most lasting and notable was the founding, in 1910, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That institution was only one of the several creative initiatives of Andrew Carnegie on behalf of world peace, another being the erection of the great “Peace Palace” at the Hague.

It is both sad and ironic to reflect that these so far-seeing and commendable efforts on behalf of international peace were proceeding simultaneously with the intensive pursuit by the great European powers of what were, whether so intended or otherwise, preparations for the First World War. As recently as 1894 the French and the Russian general staffs had linked the fates of their countries in a secret treaty of alliance, so worded as almost to ensure that there could be no further minor complication in European affairs that would not lead to wider hostilities among the great powers. It was in 1898 that there had been inaugurated, for the first time in earnest, the unnecessary and dreadfully misguided effort of Kaiser Wilhelm Il’s Germany to compete with Great Britain in the development of naval power. And throughout all of it the great powers were busy with other military preparations that, however defensively conceived, simply diminished whatever small possibility of avoiding a general conflagration might still have existed.

In the face of all the preparations, the strivings and enthusiasms of the peace movement of those first years of this century might appear, in retrospect, unrealistic, naive, and pathetic. But they were, in addition to being—as we see today—profoundly prophetic and well justified in the concerns they reflected, deeply, almost desperately, believed in by those who experienced them. And they were not wholly without justification. Nearly a hundred years had then elapsed since the last great all-European military conflagration, that of the Napoleonic wars. An entire generation had intervened since the last great bilateral intra-European conflict, the Franco-Prussian War. Was there not then, people could ask themselves, a possibility that the great European powers could now be brought, with sufficient outside encouragement and pressure, to perceive the folly of war among highly industrialized powers in the modern age and then to retire at the brink?

It was in the entertainment of such hopes, fears, and aspirations that the protagonists of the American and European peace movements were struggling along as Europe entered the second decade of the present century.

A hundred years before that time the entire Balkan Peninsula, from the Aegean Sea and the Turkish straits to the borders of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, had been, with minor exceptions, embraced by the Turkish empire. But in the course of the nineteenth century the Turks had been compelled to withdraw southward and eastward, to a point where all that remained of their European dominions were the southernmost parts of the peninsula, primarily Thrace and Macedonia. By the beginning of the twentieth century a number of new states—notably Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania—had sprung up in the area thus liberated from Turkish control. Those states were, without exception, monarchically governed; and the monarchs were, as a rule, somewhat more moderate and thoughtful than their subjects. But their dynasties were not well established. Their powers were usually disputed by inexperienced and unruly parliamentary bodies. Borders were in many instances vague and lacking in firm acceptance. The entire peninsula was, in short, devoid of international stability.

It was, of course, a time when the powerful forces of modern nationalism were achieving everywhere, but particularly in nations new to the experience of political independence, their greatest intensity. And nowhere did this have a more violent, intoxicating effect than on the politicians and military leaders of the newly founded Balkan countries. If, initially, the leading impulses for the expulsion of the Turks from European Russia had come from the neighboring great powers, Russia and Austria-Hungary, the political leaders of the newly established Balkan states were now beginning to take matters into their own hands. And it was hard for people who had recently achieved so much, and this so suddenly, to know where to stop. Dreams of new glories to flow from territorial expansion bemused many minds. The air was clouded by visions of a greater this or that: a “greater Serbia,” a “greater Bulgaria,” and so on. And while the remaining areas of Turkish control in the southern Balkans, Thrace and Macedonia, were by no means the only objectives of such aspirations, it was no more than natural that they should have been the principal ones. Turkey was regarded, in the common phrase of the time, as “the sick man of Europe.” If this “sick man” had now been expelled from most of the peninsula, was there any reason why he could not be similarly expelled from the remainder as well? For that, however, alliance and common action were required. “Let us unite to complete the expulsion of the Turks,” was the general feeling. “And then, when we are free,” as one Bulgarian revolutionary put it, “each shall have what belongs to him.”

Vague impulses of that nature, hastily linked together by a flimsy patchwork of secret and poorly thought-out military engagements, led the Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Montenegrins to launch conjointly, in the early autumn of 1912, a military action against the Turks. That was the first of the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. The Turks, as it happened, proved to be considerably weaker than had been generally supposed. Within a few weeks they had been driven to the gates of Constantinople, and the war was over.

But never, surely, did any coalition of powers launch a war on the basis of flimsier understandings among them about what it was they were fighting for than did the participants of this military action against the Turks. The relations among the supposed allies, and particularly the most prominent of them—Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks—had, even before this, been of the worst kind, ridden by rivalries, suspicions, and conflicting aims. The result was predictable. The defeat of the Turks ended with forces of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece occupying portions of the helpless Macedonia. Each had aspirations with relation to the territory that could be satisfied only at the expense of the others. It was not surprising, therefore, that in June 1913 war broke out among them. It was this that was known as the second Balkan war.

This second fracas centered upon the fighting between the Serbs and the Bulgarians, longstanding rivals for preeminence in that southern part of the Balkans. Hostilities were furious but brief, lasting only over the midsummer of 1913. The Bulgarians, already overextended by their action against the Turks, were decisively defeated. A species of peace treaty (like many such arrangements, in essence a provisorium) was signed in Bucharest on August 10, 1913.

The news that war had broken out in the Balkans, reaching the major Western countries in the early autumn of 1913, naturally came as a shock to the adherents of the European and American peace movements. The shock was modified, to be sure, by the fact that in Britain and America public opinion, and in particular the liberal opinion so prominently represented in the peace movements, had for years been strongly, sometimes fulsomely, sympathetic to the Balkan Slavs in their struggle for liberation from Turkey. Many well-meaning people in the West found it easy, in the light of this enthusiasm, to forget that the hostilities had been inaugurated in the first war by the Balkan Slavs themselves, in ways that constituted violations not only of international law but of existing contractual agreements of one sort or another.

In the case of the second war, the situation was different. The Turks (although they took advantage of the occasion to recover a small part of the territory they had lost) were no longer a principal party to the hostilities. Not only that, but reports were now coming in of the extreme savagery of the fighting that had marked the first war and of the many atrocities against war prisoners and innocent civilian populations that had accompanied it. It was becoming evident that by no means all of the atrocities had come from the Turkish side. Altogether, it was now being realized that the continuation of the Balkan hostilities constituted a serious challenge to the peace movements of the time.

By no institution in the West could that challenge have been more keenly felt than by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Only three years had elapsed since its founding. What was happening was plainly in flagrant conflict with its commitment. But what could be done? What action could it take? Disturbing as the situation was, the information coming in from the area of hostilities was still for the most part fragmentary, indirect, and unsatisfactory. Little of it was fully reliable. It was hard to know how to distinguish fact from fiction, reality from exaggeration, the known from the merely alleged. Before far-reaching decisions could be made, one had to gain a clearer picture of what was happening.

This was the background for the decision of the Carnegie Endowment, made immediately upon the outbreak of the second war, to set up a prestigious international commission and to charge it with the task of establishing the facts and giving to Western opinion a clear and reliable picture of what was going on in the affected region. Once this picture was available it would be easier, one felt, not just for the Endowment itself but for the many others as well who were committed to the cause of international peace to determine what might be done to set things to rights.

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