South-East Europe In The International Relations At The Turn Of The 20th Century (I)

At the beginning of the 20th century the Great European Powers,[i] divided into two totally antagonistic political-military alliances, were preparing themselves for the final settling of accounts among each other concerning the new division of political-economic spheres of influence and the redistributing the colonies around the world. Their different interests overlapped upon the territory of South-East Europe, much more look down at the other parts of the globe, for the reason of the exploitation of the regional natural wealth and to take advantage of the military-strategic importance of South-East Europe as the strategic hinterland of East Mediterranean and the most fitting bond between Central Europe and the Middle East.

The German driving towards Baghdad, the Austrian-Hungarian and the Italian towards Thessaloniki (Salonika), as well as the Russian towards Constantinople/Istanbul, were going through the Balkans or South-East Europe, while at the same time France and Great Britain intended to protect status quo in the region. For Berlin and Vienna, it was more than obvious that the road to the oil-fields of the Persian Gulf is running exactly across the Balkans.[ii]

A struggle for the domination over South-East Europe by both the Central Powers (Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary) and the Entente Cordiale (France, Russia, Great Britain) at the turn of the 20th century, especially in the years just before and during the Balkan Wars (1912−1913) appeared as diplomatic and economic introduction to the First World War (or the Great War, 1914−1918).[iii] Each member of these two military-political alliances had its own interests in various natures (geopolitical, economic, financial, military, confessional, etc.) in the region. A policy toward South-East Europe at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century by each member of the Great European Powers was directed and executed exactly according to these national (and Capitalistic) interests.[iv] Particularly the German Balkan policy turned out to be of the crucial importance for the future national liberation struggle of the Balkan people and states by having a direct impact to the solving of the Eastern Question in the years from 1912 to 1918.

The German “Drang nach Osten” policy and South-East Europe

The unified German Empire, proclaimed in Versailles in January 1871, contemplated to balance the division of world’s colonies, the markets and the sources of the world’s raw material.[v] Exceptionally the pan-Germanic movement, established in 1891, propagated the making of a powerful German global empire. In order to do it, a new distribution of the world’s colonies was of the first necessity to be done.[vi] The Balkans was one of the regions in the world, which had to be “redistributed” in the German favor.[vii] In the spirit of such a policy, the German Parliament (Reichstag) issued the law regarding the enlargement of the German navy in 1898 for the reason “to secure the maritime interests of Germany”. In the next year (1899), during the First International Conference in The Hague the German Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm II Hohenzollern (1888−1918) openly stated that “the sharpened sword is the best guarantee for the peace”.[viii]

German colonists near Kamianets-Podilskyi, Poland (Russian Partition) in the end of the 19th century

The pan-Germanic imperialism after the German unification in 1871 was primarily directed towards the East under the motto “Drang nach Osten”. One of the aims of this policy was to make the Ottoman Empire subservient in economic and political points of view in order to exploit reach natural potentials of this multicontinental country. However, in order to do this, the French and the British influence in South-East Europe, Asia Minor (Anatolia) and the Middle East had to be diminished while, at the same time, the Russian penetration into the Balkans and the Straits should be made as impossible as by supporting the political status quo in the region. In the German concept of “Drang nach Osten” foreign policy, the Suez Canal was to be under Berlin’s domination for the purpose that Great Britany would be cut off from its overseas colonies in Asia, Africa, and the region of Pacific Ocean. Around the year 1900, the German capital investment in the Ottoman Empire already pressed back the French and the British ones. It was 45% of the German capital out of total foreign capital investment in the Ottoman Empire just before the Balkan Wars started in 1912.[ix] The Ottoman trade was financed in the first place by the German Deutsche Orientbank.[x] The Ottoman army was provided with the war material and technique, especially by the artillery, from the German military factories (Krupp, Mauzer). The Ottoman army was restructured and modernized according to the German war strategy primarily due to the German military mission in the Ottoman Empire led by General von der Goltz.

The German financial-political expansion in the Ottoman Empire reached its peak when the German building companies got a concession to construct the Baghdad Railway (Konia-Baghdad-Basra) – the railway line which had an extremely significant economic and military-strategic importance for the Middle East. In this context, it is not so surprising that the German Middle East’s and Balkan policies were very close to each other. Namely, as between Germany and the Ottoman Asia Minor was located the Balkan Peninsula it was as plain as day clear to the German diplomats that South-East Europe might be under the German financial, economic, political, and even military domination and control. The creators and proponents of the “Drang nach Osten” policy saw the Balkan railways as the natural link between the railways in Mitteleuropa (Central Europe) under the Germanic rule and those in Anatolia and further in the Persian Gulf.[xi] Shortly, the railway network connecting Berlin and the Persian Gulf, running throughout South-East Europe (the Orient Express), should be financially dominated and controlled by the German banks. For that reason, the German foreign policy did not support any political changes in the Balkans and, therefore, the Ottoman Empire should avoid the destiny of further disintegration after the 1878 Berlin Congress.[xii] However, the Ottoman Empire would be surely dissipated by the creation and enlargement of the Christian Balkan states at the expense of the Ottoman Balkan territories.[xiii]

The projected German imperialism was directed towards the Middle East but via Austria-Hungary and the Balkans. Practically, in order to realize the policy of “Drang nach Osten”, Berlin might put under its own control the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and the rest of South-East Europe. Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, and Edirne were the main railway’s ties on the path to Istanbul, Baghdad, and Basra, while Pola (Pula), Trieste, Dubrovnik (Ragusa), and Kotor (Cattaro) should be transformed into the chief German basis for Berlin’s domination over both the Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It was exactly the Russian newspaper Новое время from April 29th, 1898, which warned the Russian diplomacy that as a result of the German political-military-economic penetration into the Ottoman Empire “Anatolia will become the German India”.[xiv]

The medium Imperial and Royal coat of arms of Austria-Hungary (as of 1915)

The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was imagined as the forerunner of the German interests in South-East Europe and, in this respect, the Viennese imperialistic policy at the Balkans was welcomed and supported by Berlin and the pan-Germanic politicians in Potsdam.[xv] The reason for the German political supervision of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was a strong Austro-Hungarian economic and financial dependence on the German capital and financial investments. Such Austro-Hungarian subjection to the German economic-financial control and, therefore, its inability to act politically as an independent state was seen from the fact that 50% of the Austro-Hungarian export was directed to the German market. Even before the Bosnian-Herzegovinian crisis in 1908−1909, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was financially depended on the German banks (the Dresdner Bank, the Deutsche Bank, the Darmschterer Bank, and the Diskontogezelschaft Bank). At the same time, the Balkan states were becoming gradually as well as more financially subjected to the control of the same German capital. For instance, the main German investor in Serbia was Berlin’s Trade Society (the Berliner Handelsgezelschaft), while Serbia’s export to Germany in 1910 reached 42%.[xvi] The similar situation, for instance, was with Bulgaria too. Her import from Germany and Austria-Hungary was 45%, while 32% of Bulgaria’s total export was directed toward Germany and the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.[xvii]

The principal aim of such German financial-economic Balkan policy was to transform the Ottoman Empire into “its own India” and for that reason Berlin became the chief protagonist of the Balkan status quo policy, helping to “the Bosporus’ sick man” to redeem. Subsequently, Berlin and Vienna aimed to prevent the creation of anti-Ottoman Balkan Alliance under the Russian umbrella.[xviii]

Nevertheless, there were two crucial points of the Austro-German disagreement in relation to their collective Balkan policy:

1)      While the Habsburg Emperor-King wanted to see only Bulgaria as a new member state of the Central Powers, for the German Emperor Serbia could be included into this political-military bloc too. For Vienna, Serbia and Montenegro should be kept out from the Central Powers in order not to influence the Austrian South Slavic population against the Viennese court.

2)      The German Kaiser was not willing to support the Austrian policy to enlarge Bulgaria at the Greek and Romanian territorial expense because of the family links between Germany’s Hohenzollerns and Greece’s Kings George and Constantine, Romania’s King Karol respectively.

However, despite these disputes, both Berlin and Vienna reached, for instance, a common agreement on the question of Albania: in the case of the Ottoman withdrawal from the Balkans, as greater as Albanian independent state was to be created and to exist under the Germanic protectorate and support (i.e., of Germany and Austria).[xix]

to be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] Great power is a “state deemed to rank amongst the most powerful in a hierarchical state system, reflected in its influence over minor states” [Heywood A., Politics, Third Edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 450].

[ii] Поповић В., Источно питање, Београд, 1928, 8, 210−216; Цвијић Ј., Балканско полуострво и јужнословенске земље, Београд, 1966, 10−12.

[iii] On the new imperialism, new militarism, and WWI, see in [Magone M. J., Contemporary European Politics: A Comparative Introduction, London‒New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2011, 49‒52].

[iv] On Capitalism and its enemies from 1800 to 1918, see in [Marr A., A History of the World, London: Macmillan, 1912, 383‒465].

[v] On the German unification in 1871, see in [Darmstaedter F., Bismarck and the Creation of the Second German Reich, London, 1948; Pflanze O., Bismark and the Development of Germany. Volume I: The Period of Unification, 1815−1871, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962; Medlicott E., Bismarck and Modern Germany, Mystic, Conn., 1965; Pflanze O., (ed.), The Unification of Germany, 1848−1871, New York: University of Minnesota, 1969; Rodes J. E., The Quest for Unity. Modern Germany 1848−1970, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971; Michael J., The Unification of Germany, London−New York: Routledge, 1996; Williamson G. D., Bismarck and Germany, 1862−1890, New York: Routledge, 2011; Headlam J., Bismarck and the Foundation of the German Empire, Didactic Press, 2013].

[vi] Paul Rorbach became the most influential German proponent of the creation of the great German overseas empire. He was writing that creation of a great German empire in the world cannot be fulfilled without the great world war, i.e. without “the blood and the lead”. About the concept and practice of colonialism, see in [Berger S., (ed.), A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Europe 1789‒1914, Malden, MA‒Oxford, UK‒Carlton, Australia: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006, 432‒447].

[vii] On the creation of the mass nationalism in Germany, see in [Mosse G. L, The Nationalization of the Masses: Political symbolism and mass movements in Germany from the Napoleonic wars through the Third Reich, Ithaca, NY: Cornel University Press, 1991].

[viii] Kautsky K., Comment s’est déclanchée la guerre mondiale, Paris, 1921, 21. Attempts to reach disarmament by some kind of international agreement and/or treaty began at the Conferences of The Hague in 1899 and 1907. However, both of them ended without any significant result [Palmowski J., A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 171].

[ix] On the foreign investment in the Ottoman Empire at the eve of the Great War in the context of political domination over the country, see in [Готлиб В. В., Тайная дипломатия во время первой мировой войны, Москва, 1960].

[x] On the penetration of the German financial capital in the Ottoman Balkans in the first decade of the 20th century, see in [Вендел Х., Борба Југословена за слободу и јединство, Београд, 1925, 553−572].

[xi] On the German geopolitical concept of Mitteleuropa, see in [Naumann F., Mitteleuropa, Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1915; Meyer C. H., Mitteleuropa in German Thought and Action, 1815−1945, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1955; Katzenstein J. P., Mitteleuropa: Between Europe and Germany, Berghahn Books, 1997; Lehmann G., Mitteleuropa, Mecklemburg: Mecklemburger Buchverlag, 2009].

[xii] In 1878, the Berlin Congress, where the Great European Powers redraw the political map of South-East Europe after the Great Eastern Crisis and the 1877‒1878 Russo-Ottoman War, placed the Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzegovina under the administration of Austria-Hungary (which annexed it in 1908) and recognized an independence of Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro while tributary Principality of Bulgaria received an autonomous status. Greece, Montenegro, Serbia, and Romania got territorial enlargements at the expense of the Ottoman Empire [Ference C. G. (ed.), Chronology of 20th-Century Eastern European History, Detroit‒Washington, D. C.‒London: Gale Research Inc., 1994, 393].

[xiii] Hobus G., Wirtschaft und Staat im südosteuropäischen Raum 1908−1914, München, 1934, 139−151.

[xiv] Архив Србије, Министарство Иностраних Дела Србије, Политичко Одељење, 1898, Ф-IV, Д-I, поверљиво, № 962, “Српско посланство у Петрограду – Ђорђевићу”, Петроград, April 18th [old style], 1898.

[xv] The German Prime Minister (Kanzellar) stated during the crisis upon the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 that the German Balkan policy will strictly follow the Austro-Hungarian interests in the region.

[xvi] Алексић-Пејковић Љ., Односи Србије са Француском и Енглеском 1903−1914, Београд, 1965, 35−42.

[xvii] Жебокрицкий В. А., Бьлгария накануне балканских войн 1912−1913 гг., Кийев 1960, 59−61.

[xviii] Huldermann V., La Vie d’Albert Ballin, Payot, Paris, 1923, 207−213; Die Grosse Politik der Europäischen Kabinette 1871−1914, Vol. XXXIV, № 13428, № 12926, Berlin, 1926. About the Serbian endeavor to create the Balkan Alliance in the mid-19th century, see in [Пироћанац М. С., Међународни положај Србије, Београд, 1893; Пироћанац М. С., Кнез Михаило и заједнићка радња балканских народа, Београд, 1895].

[xix] Pribram A. F., Die politischen Geheimverträge ÖsterreichUngarns 1879−1914, Wien−Leipzig, 1920; Преписка о арбанаским насиљима, Службено издање, Београд, 1899; Documents diplomatiques français, Vol. II, Paris, 1931; Архив министарства иностраних дела, Извештај из Цариграда од 25.-ог септембра, 1902, Београд; Ilyrisch-albanische Forschungen, Vol. I, 1916, 380−390; Neue Freie Presse, 02−04−1903; British documents on the Origins of the War, 1899−1914, Vol. V, London, 68−72.  

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