Events that shaped World War 1 (Part II)

Crisis in the Balkans

Balkan is a mountainous peninsula in the south-eastern corner of Europe was home to an assortment of ethnic groups. With a long history of nationalist uprisings and ethnic clashes, the Balkans were known as the “powder keg” of Europe.

Europe’s Powder Keg (barrel of gunpower)

By the early 1900s, the Ottoman Empire disintegrated and many Balkan territories got the independence. New nations, including Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia were born.

Each group longed to extend its borders. Serbia, for example, had a large Slavic population. Serbia hoped to absorb all the Slavs on the Balkan Peninsula. Russia, itself a mostly Slavic nation, supported Serbian nationalism. Austria, which feared rebellion among its small Slavic population, felt threatened by Serbia’s growth. In addition, both Russia and Austria-Hungary had hoped to fill the power vacuum created by the Ottoman decline in the Balkans.

  • In 1908, Austria annexed, or took over, Bosnia and Herzegovina. These were two Balkan areas with large Slavic populations. Russia was totally unprepared for war. When Germany stood firmly behind Austria, Russia and Serbia had to back down.
  • By 1914, Serbia had emerged victorious from several local conflicts. As a result, the nation had gained additional territory and a new confidence. It wanted to take Bosnia and Herzegovina away from Austria. In response, Austria-Hungary vowed to crush any Serbian effort.

A Shot Rings Throughout Europe

Into this poisoned atmosphere of mutual dislike and mistrust stepped the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie. On June 28, 1914, the couple paid a state visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. It was to be their last. The royal pair  were shot at point-blank range as they rode through the streets of Sarajevo in an open car. The killer was Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old member of the Black Hand. The Black Hand was a secret society committed to ridding Bosnia of Austrian rule.

  • Austria use the murder as an excuse to punish Serbia. An angry Kaiser Wilhelm II urged Austria to be aggressive, and he offered Germany’s unconditional support. In effect this gave Austria license to do what it wanted with Serbia.
  • On July 23, Austria presented Serbia with an ultimatum including an end to all anti-Austrian activity, allow to conduct an investigation into the assassinations. Serbian leaders agreed to most of Austria’s demands. Austria rejected Serbia’s offer and declared war. Meanwhile, Russian leaders ordered the mobilization of troops toward the Austrian border. The British foreign minister, the Italian government, and even Kaiser Wilhelm himself urged Austria and Russia to negotiate. But it was too late. The machinery of war had been set in motion.

Balkan Issue

  • After 1871, Balkan region became the centre of nerve. The Balkans was a region of geographical and ethnic variation comprising modern-day Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro whose inhabitants were broadly known as the Slavs.
  • Ottoman Empire controlled large part of Balkans. Vulnerabilities increased after the fall of Ottoman empire and rise of nationalism. The Balkan peoples based their claims for independence or political rights on nationality and used history to prove that they had once been independent but had subsequently been subjugated by foreign powers. As the different Slavic nationalities struggled to define their identity and independence, the Balkan area became an area of intense conflict and a scene of big power rivalry. Russia, Germany, England, Austro-Hungary were keen on countering the hold of other powers over the Balkans. This led to a series of wars in the region and finally the First World War.
  • Ottoman Empire grew weaker and by early 20th century, its rule over Balkans had almost ended and Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania emerged as independent states. However, issue of nationalities was not resolved. Serbia emerged as a champion of Slav people, many of whom also lived in Austria-Hungary and was supported by Russia for creation of a Greater Serbia which would include Ottoman provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina that were now under Austria-Hungary and some southern areas of Austria-Hungary which were inhabited by Slav people (the Croats, Slovenes and Serbs).
  • Balkan Wars, 1912-13 further intensified the bitterness between Austria-Hungary and Serbia in which some of the other Balkan states had united with Serbia on Russian support to conquer Macedonia from Ottomans. After Ottoman defeat, Austria-Hungary, with German support made Albania an independent state rather than part of Serbia. 
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Industrialization & Economic Rivalries

From 19th century industrialization began in Belgium (1815-30), Sweden, France, United States and Prussia (1840-60), Norway, Russia and Japan (1870-90). Economies of America and Germany displaced England from this position of pre-eminence from the 1880s. The growth of Japan after the Meiji restoration (1868) and industrialization of Russia further altered the global economic environment.

The latecomers in the field of industrialization (such as Prussia, Russia and Japan) were staking claims beyond the “national territories”. The Pan-German League, founded in 1893 and representing right-wing conservative forces wanted economic and territorial control over Central Europe. Germany began expanding its economic clout over European nations.

In Japan, the rightwing militant nationalists (Black Dragon Society 1901), Empire Foundation Society (1926), and Japan Production Party (1931), demanded an “equitable distribution of world resources”. They even favoured military action to establish “A Coprosperity Zone” in the East under the Japanese leadership.

Conflicts in Europe

  1. Britain was a parliamentary democracy but not truly democratic as universal adult franchise was not there. People of Ireland also wanted ‘Home Rule’.
  2. Germany was a parliamentary democracy, but emperor was powerful. Territory of Germany included parts of Poland and Alsace Lorraine which she has taken from France after war of 1870-71.
  3. France wanted to avenge on Germany of 1871’s defeat and recover Alsace Lorraine.
  4. Austria-Hungary was the dominant power in Central Europe and Emperor Francis Joseph ruled both Austria and Hungary. It had multi-ethnic communities also like – Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia, Slovaks, Poles, Romanians, Serbs, Croats etc. and were discontented. Issue of Slav nationalism was stoked by Russia and Serbia.
  5. Russia was backward economically with an outdated political system with Czars as autocratic rulers. Democracy or parliament was totally absent till 1905 when a revolutionary attempt led to establishment of Duma, the Russian Parliament.
  6. Italy was another aspiring power, but was relatively backward.
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