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Independence of the Balkan Peoples

This map is part of a series of 20 animated maps showing the history of The first World War, 1914-1918.

Since the preceding century the Ottoman Empire has experienced a long period of weakening, but the interplay of European powers has, for a long time, neutralized the Christian populations’s will to freedom.

In 1875, the Sultan still controls the main part of the Balkans, even if this domination is formal in the northern part, where Serbia and Romania have gained their autonomy. But, from this date on, a series of crises, fueling each other, upset the map of the region.

The first crisis is provoked by revolts against Ottoman taxes. The very brutal Turkish repression outrages Europe, but in its divided state, Europe is unable to impose concessions on the Sultan.

Using this weakness as a pretext, the Czar declares war on Turkey; Russian troops quickly reach the gates of Constantinople.

In a first treaty, signed at San Stefano in March 1878, the Czar imposes on the Sultan an autonomous Greater Bulgaria that occupies the entire central area of the Balkans. But, this new state, largely under Russian influence, poses an obstacle to Serbian and Austrian territorial ambitions, and in London’s view, constitutes a threat to the Straits.

Faced with risking general unrest, Bismarck arranges a conference in Berlin in June 1878.

The Congress of Berlin confirms several agreements from the Treaty of San Stefano.: the independence of Serbia, Romania, Montenegro, and the imposition of Austrian administration in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Sandjack of Novi Pazar. On the other hand, Greater Bulgaria is reduced in size, losing Thrace, which is returned to the Sultan and broken apart into two entities: an autonomous Bulgaria and the Principality of Rumelia.

Greece, for its part, is promised will get Thessaly.

The situation resulting from the Congress of Vienna is not stable. This partial dismantlement of the European part of the Ottoman Empire has stimulated, without satisfying, the hunger for nationhood among the Balkan peoples; and the setback that the Czar has been forced to accept in the Bulgarian affair has further accentuated the rivalry between Russia and Austria-Hungary.

In 1908, Austria-Hungary decides to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina. This coup de force provokes Serbian and Russian indignation, but the Czar, unsupported by his allies France and England, has to accept the fait accompli.

Profiting from this latest crisis, Crete is united with Greece, while Bulgaria has its independence recognized.

In the following years, Russian diplomacy seeks to regain power and encourages entente among Balkan States.

At the beginning of 1912, Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks and Montenegrins form an alliance in order to attack Turkey, which is rapidly defeated, and must give up the bulk of its possessions on the European continent.

For all that, the entanglement of populations makes it difficult to divide up the spoils. Unhappy with the arbitrations that are taking shape regarding the division of Macedonia, Bulgaria launches a new war against its former allies, but is rapidly defeated.

The Treaty of Bucharest, signed on April 10, 1913, decides on a new division of the Balkans:

-The greatest beneficiary is Serbia, which obtains the greater part of Macedonia, and has a common border with its like-minded neighbour, Montenegro. On the other hand, Austria-Hungary brings about Albania’s independence, thus depriving the Serbs of access to the sea.

-Greece grows to include Epirus, southern Macedonia and most of the Aegean Sea islands.

-Bulgaria obtains a territorial expansion to the south with access to the Aegean, but this falls short of its ambitions; furthermore, it has to give up Southern Dobruja to Romania.

-Turkey recovers a small part of territories given up the preceding year.

This latest crisis further exacerbated the rivalry among the great powers, in particular, between Russia, protector of the Serbs, and Austria-Hungary, which supports the Bulgarians.

The following year this rivalry will spark the outbreak of the First World War.