Nationalism and Imperialism

1 .Narrative: What were the main developments?map.png

The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by the Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip on 28th June 1914 was not a random act of political violence. Rather, it represented the final explosive clash between Austrian Imperialism and Serbian Nationalism. This had been developing since the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, which had carved land out of the Ottoman Empire: in particular, it created an independent Serbia on the one hand, and placed Bosnia under Austrian control on the other.

The territory over which Austro-Hungary and Serbia were to clash was Bosnia. Austro-Hungary claimed the right to rule the area on the basis of imperialism, in others worlds they had the right for empires to rule weaker areas in order to maintain international stability. Serbia, however, claimed the right to rule the area on the basis of Pan-Slav nationalism: they believed that as the Bosnians were fellow slavs, that they should have the right to rule themselves. With such wildly differing perspectives regarding how territories should be ruled, there was never any realistic hope of reaching a compromise settlement. The situation remained tense throughout the later nineteenth century, with Germany's Bismarck predicting in the 1880s that the next major war in Europe would be sparked off by "some damned foolish thing in the Balkans".

The 1908 Bosnian Crisis: Austria becomes more aggressive
In 1908 that the Bosnian Crisis raised tensions to the point of war. The Austrian Foreign Minister, Aehranthal, met his Russian counterpart Isvolsky and they signed an agreement which said that Russia would ignore Austria's takeover of Bosnia if Austria would support Russian attempts to persuade Britain to open up the Black Sea Straits to Russian ships.
Austria then suddenly announced the formal absorption of Bosnia into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the German foreign minister made it clear to Isvolsky that if Russia protested then Austria would publish the secret agreement - which would make it obvious to the Serbs that the Russians had betrayed them.

1908:The German foreign minister (von Bulow) tells the Russian foreign minister (Isvolsky) to accept Austria's annexation of Bosnia - or else!

Russia, having only just emerged from a disastrous war with Japan, was in no position to fight; on the other hand, Austria had been given total support by her ally Germany - a "blank cheque", as it were. Britain and France accepted the change in status of Bosnia and the Serbs were forced to agree "to modify the line of her political conduct in regard to Austria-Hungary and to live in the future on good terms with it". Both Serbia and Russia were outraged and vowed never to be humiliated by Austria in this manner again.

The 1912-13 Balkan Wars: Serbia becomes more aggressive
In 1912 Serbia formed an alliance with a number of other Balkan nations and led a devastating attack upon the Ottoman Empire, from whom they wrested large amounts of territory. However, the allies then quarrelled amongst themselves about the division of the spoils and a second Balkan War broke out between them in 1913. The end result was that Serbia doubled in size and power, which alarmed Austro-Hungary.

2. Analysis: Why did this factor contribute to the outbreak of World War One?

The tension between Austro-Hungary and Serbia was of monumental significance, because each one was backed up by a world power: Germany on the one hand, Russia on the other. A war between Austro-Hungary and Serbia would likely draw in Germany and Russia. Russia's alliance with France meant that Germany had to anticipate a dreaded "War on Two Fronts" and on this basis she formed the Schlieffen Plan. This plan depended for its success on striking the first blow, and this in turn meant that any crisis over Bosnia could quickly escalate into a major European conflagration before a diplomatic solution could be found.


"One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" - Otto von Bismarck
"The provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina shall be occupied and administered by Austria-Hungary." - Treaty of Berlin, 1878
"In order to raise Bosnia to a higher level of political life ... The new order of things will be a guarantee that civilization and prosperity will find a sure footing in your home" - Franz Josef's Proclamation of the Annexation, 6 October, 1908
"The German sword had been thrown into the scale of European decision" - Prince von B├╝low, German Foreign Minister, boasts of Germany's influence in the 1908 crisis

4. Three weblinks

Maps of the Balkans over time, from the New York Times:
Excerpts from the Treaty of Berlin regarding the Balkans:
Summary of Bosnia on the eve of WW1: