Path to World War One in the East
The failure of diplomacy
author Paul Boșcu, February 2015
The path that led the Russian Empire, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire to war was long and complex. Ethnic and economic problems, combined with nationalism, imperialism and a crumbling Ottoman Empire were some of the contributing factors.
The path that led to the Eastern front of World War I was complex and long. Imperial ambitions, coupled with ethnic and economic problems, contributed to the start of the conflict. A series of regional crises preceded the war.

To Austria-Hungary in particular, Germany seemed unable to follow a steady course. This was partly due to the fact that Germany continued both to affirm the alliance and yet at the same time undercut Austria-Hungary's economic position in the Balkans. Furthermore, Germany's efforts could as often reflect dynastic sympathies — there were Hohenzollerns on the thrones of Greece and Romania — as Austrian interests.

Russian involvement in the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria and Serbia, was not in harmony with Austrian objectives in the region. In the Balkans, imperial rivalries intersected and overlapped with the cold war of the alliances. The Balkans were also the point where three empires — Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian — came face to face with the imminent prospect of their own decline as great powers.

Russia was plagued by the spectre of revolution, dragged down by her systematic internal problems and in desperate need of modernization. The Russo-Japanese War had demonstrated that quantity was not enough: there had to be quality too. The Russians needed a well-trained army equipped with modern weapons, a strong naval presence on every coast and a total reorganization of the logistical sinews of war. It was clear however that, given time, Russia would be a valuable ally to France.

Turkey was in a dangerous position, since it was nearly bankrupt. It was difficult to see how war could benefit such a country. Certainly Turkey could not afford to be on the losing side: that would surely mark the final dissolution of her tottering Empire.

The origins of the tensions in the Balkans which became the immediate cause of the First World War lie not so much in Austrian aggression — although in time this came to play its part — as in the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

Russia was the most enigmatic of the Great Powers. Possessed of staggering potential, she remained a fitfully dozing giant. Her land mass was enormous, while her armies seemed inexhaustible, fuelled by a population of some 170 million. Yet Russia was a country only slowly feeling its way into the twentieth century. Although there had been some acceleration in her slow industrialization, she was still by no means a modern state and was deeply reliant on the financial assistance offered by France to develop her infrastructure. Yet Russia was by no means just a tool of the French, and had her own distinct territorial and geopolitical ambitions.

An enduring Russian ambition in foreign policy, although better described as an obsession, lay in securing control of the exit from the Black Sea, via the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, to the Mediterranean. This aim would ultimately require the conquest of Constantinople and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Several wars had already been triggered by this aggressive intent, most notably the Crimean War of 1854-6 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

The Russian balance of trade, particularly the bulk export of grain, was dependent on its safe passage through the Dardanelles. Government ministers were all too conscious that any closure of the Straits would cause severe economic damage. Russia was naturally extremely concerned about any threatened augmentation of Turkish naval strength in the Black Sea. But there was also a jealous determination to prevent any other country from securing control of the Straits. However, it was considered that, if the power was not held by Russia herself, then better the Turks than some more virile challenger such as Bulgaria or Greece.

Russia had also sought to spread out to the east, expanding beyond Central Asia, pressing into Siberia and eventually seeking a port to provide access to the Pacific Ocean. These ambitions led Russia into conflict with Japan, a hitherto little considered nation which had successfully acquired many of the trappings of a modern nation state. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, the Russians had been badly beaten and forced into a humiliating defeat. This, however, was only a temporary halt to the Russian programme of imperial expansion across borders not shared with a fellow Great Power.

Industry, though growing fast, had come late to Russia, and an industrial working class existed in only a few cities. Peasant discontent over land tenure was matched by industrial unrest over low wages and poor working conditions. But as war approached, patriotic fervor erupted, and when the Tsar appeared in Palace Square, the crowd fell to its knees.

There were, nevertheless, numerous potential time bombs in the multinational Russian Empire, which added to the political discontent. First, like its rulers, the empire was not especially Russian. In 1897 its first census showed that only 44.3 percent of the population was 'Great Russian'. Nationalism elsewhere in the empire, compounded by cultural and religious differences, was a growing problem.

Only by adding Belorussia and Ukraine could the 'Tsar of all the Russias' claim two-thirds of his subjects as Russian. Turkestan and the Steppe Governorates were overwhelmingly Muslim, and there were also large Muslim populations in Transcaucasus and Tatarstan.

Finnish nationalism became enough of a problem in the pre-war decade for the army's Finnish regiments to be temporarily disbanded and conscription of Finns suspended.

The Russian Orthodox Church was widely seen as an arm of the Russian state by the predominantly Lutheran Finns, Estonians and Latvians, Catholic Lithuanians and Poles, and Ukrainian Uniate Catholics. These all retained strong religious and cultural links with Scandinavia, central or western Europe. The Georgians and Armenians had their own Orthodox churches, much older than Russia's, and not accountable to the Russian Synod.

Poland, divided between Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia, would become the focus of a triangular contest of promises for post-war independence and reunification. Nor could Russia take Ukraine for granted; nationalism was resurgent there, among Orthodox as well as Uniates.

That Russia should in 1914 find itself aligned with the British and French Empires against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey was neither inevitable nor accidental. Russia joined Britain and France to secure Greek independence from Ottoman rule. But for most of the next 80 years Britain and Russia were arch rivals and actually went to war once, in the Crimea. Russia sought expansion to the south and east. Stopped in its tracks by the British, Russia sought to expand its influence in Eastern Europe, in direct conflict with Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Germany. Russia therefore sought to ally itself with France and her old rival, Britain.

The British and French supported Turkey in the Crimean war mainly to thwart Russia's designs on the Turkish Straits. Russian control of the region would have placed that country across the main route to their possessions in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the east, Russia gained vast territories in the Amur valley and on the Pacific coast at China's expense, then sought hegemony over Manchuria and Korea. However, its ambitions there collided with those of Japan, which emerged from over two centuries of isolation to adopt a European modernization model complete with imperialism.

Russia annexed the independent Khanates of central Asia, and combined them with land taken from China into the Governorates of the Steppe: modern-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, formerly Turkestan. Its southward expansion brought it close to the borders of British India and increased their rivalry, with the British fearing a Russian invasion of India, the Russians fearing British expansion into central Asia, and both contending for control over Iran, Afghanistan and Tibet.

The Triple Alliance Treaty between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy was sufficiently anti-French and anti-Russian for the two empires to come together in an alliance against their common enemies.

Recognising Germany as a greater threat to both than either was to the other, Russia and Britain settled their differences in Iran, Afghanistan and Tibet. In Iran each defined a sphere of influence adjacent to its imperial borders in Transcaucasus and India, with an Iranian-controlled buffer zone between them. Russia acknowledged Afghanistan as 'outside the Russian sphere of influence', and Britain undertook not to occupy or annex any part of it. Both agreed to stay out of Tibet, and to respect China's suzerainty.

Russia had an interest in propagating the idea of Pan-Slavism, which propounded the cultural and political unity of all Slavs. This concept was rendered problematic by the spirited objections and refusal to cooperate of several of the existing Slavic states and revolutionary movements. Such Slavs saw their future as independent countries, not as subservient elements in the Russian Empire. However, Russia had developed strong links with Serbia, which had emerged from the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire to become internationally recognized at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

Expansion in Asia had never precluded continued Russian interest in the fellow Slavs and Orthodox co-religionists under Muslim Turkish or Catholic Austro-Hungarian control, where Russia could present itself as 'big brother'. In 1877-78 its victory over Ottoman Turkey ensured the independence of Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria; but British diplomacy again frustrated Russia's aim of controlling the Turkish Straits.

There would be no formal alliance between Russia and Serbia, but Russia was determined, where possible, to protect the small Serbian state from her aggressive neighbours, whether they be Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria — a Slavic country less enamoured with Russia — or the fading Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, Russia’s own ambitions in the region precluded too great an expansion of Serbia. Such contradicting motivations were symptomatic of the murky world of Balkan politics.

While Russia was growing rapidly, there were severe internal pressures caused by her anachronistic system of government: an autocracy ruled over by Tsar Nicholas II. The social unrest boiled over in widespread revolution. Amidst a plethora of strikes and mutinies, workers’ councils were established in major centers of population. In the end Nicholas II was forced to concede with a degree of political reform, creating a central legislative body in the Duma with some voting rights, thus taking the first tentative steps on the road to a constitutional monarchy.

The tensions lay between reactionary conservatives who wanted to preserve the status quo, liberals who were working towards social reform presided over by a more restrained constitutional monarchy, and revolutionaries of all complexions who wanted to tear down the state and bring power to various factions of the people.

The various opposition factions were divided in their response between those who were satisfied for the moment and those for whom it was not enough. This lack of unity allowed the Tsar to re-establish control, but there was no doubt as to the underlying threat to the established order.

German General Alfred von Schlieffen believed that the Russian Army was in such poor condition that until it was fundamentally reformed it would not be capable of effective offensive operations. Yet the Russians would soon demonstrate a regenerative capacity that would utterly confound German hopes. Indeed, the ‘Great Programme’ of army reform commencing in 1913 promised to deliver a peacetime Russian Army some 2,200,000 strong by around 1918.

This prospect of vastly augmented Russian military might would be at the heart of the conundrum bequeathed to Schlieffen’s successor as Chief of General Staff, General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. Germany would face not just war on two fronts, but ultimately the daunting prospect of a huge modern Russian army rapidly mobilized onto the Russo-German border by means of its railways, newly financed thanks to substantial French investment.

The Russians were well aware that the Germans intended to attack the French first and so would be wishing merely to stand fast in East Prussia. The question was how best to deploy the massed Russian armies in the crucial first month of the war. The Russian High Command had to bear in mind the configuration of the border between Russia and the Central Powers, which was in itself a problem.

The last partition of Poland had left the huge salient of ‘Russian’ Poland thrusting some 230 miles deep into the Central Powers, wedged between the Austro-Hungarian Carpathian Mountains to the south and German East Prussia in the north. There were no naturally defensible borders; indeed, a logical military response would have been to evacuate the whole area. Such a withdrawal would not of course suit the French facing the main German offensives, who needed the Russians to exert the maximum pressure on their enemy.

The Russians produced Plan 19, which boldly envisaged deploying most of their mobilized forces against Germany with just nineteen divisions left to face the Austrians, facilitated by the withdrawal from Russian Poland to a more defensible shorter border. Opponents to the plan within the Russian High Command pointed out the considerable risks of Austrian offensive operations overwhelming the forces facing them.

The Russians also had a wide variety of theoretical plans relating to their long-term ambitions to secure Constantinople. War games based on this theme were a perennial occupation of the Russian High Command, but these plans represented an aspiration, a goal to be achieved later in the war, rather than an immediate realistic option.

There were also political considerations as to the wisdom of evacuating Poland, which might prove difficult to regain, especially given the doubtful adherence to the Russian state of many Poles.

Stuck on the sidelines of Europe was Turkey, the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks shared many of the problems faced by their old adversaries, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only half the population were indigenous Turks, the rest a conglomeration of many nationalities. Turkey had lost most of her European territories as Greece, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria had all gained their independence. There was also the long-standing threat from Russia to consider. Turkey seemed surrounded by enemies while the pressures of nationalism gnawed away at her vitals.

The Turks had to face all these threats hamstrung by an agricultural economy, with minimal heavy industries, little or no exploitation of natural resources and all the while crippled by a huge national debt.

Although the British professed friendship to Turkey and had sent a Naval Mission, it was the Germans who seemed most willing to assist – or take advantage of – the Turks. Their Military Mission was deeply embedded in the Turkish Army, while the Berlin to Baghdad railway was an ambitious project with which they sought to secure and exploit new commercial spheres of influence for German industry.

Over the last half of the nineteenth century, the great powers of Europe had endeavoured to manage Turkey's decline, in particular its withdrawal from the Balkans, in as gradual a manner as possible. In 1878 they stepped in after the Russian defeat of Turkey, and at the Congress of Berlin acknowledged the independence of Serbia, Romania, Montenegro, and Bulgaria, the latter albeit under Ottoman suzerainty. They also entrusted the administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina to Austria-Hungary while leaving it technically in Turkish possession. Turkey's lingering status as a European power was confirmed by its continued direct rule over Rumelia and Macedonia.

Turkey's biggest potential time bomb was in its Arab dependencies, which affected the Eastern Front only in that Turkish troops fighting Arabs and their British or French patrons could not be used elsewhere.

The Eastern Question — the struggle to manage the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which all powers expected to be imminent — was not terribly urgent for either France or England. London had long since wrested control of Ottoman Egypt and the Suez Canal, which together formed the linchpin of British global communications. Some French imperialists did look on Syria and Lebanon with greedy eyes. But the Parisian capital was already so dominant in the Ottoman Empire that the absorption of the Levant into the French sphere of influence seemed to be only a matter of time.

The Young Turks, a group of Turkish patriots, staged a revolution against the oriental despotism of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Abdul Hamid granted the constitution which the Young Turks demanded, but then staged a counter-revolution. The Young Turks rallied, ousted Abdul Hamid, and installed his brother, Mohammed V, as the new Sultan. The Young Turk revolution threatened to transform the situation in European Turkey. If the Young Turks were to apply the principles of democracy and nationalism to the Balkans, Austro-Russian control of the situation would be considerably lessened. Alternatively, a reinvigorated Ottoman Empire might try to reassert its crumbling position in the Balkans.

Russia, although understandably peeved at not reaping any return from its success on the battlefield, had come to accept that it must collaborate with Austria-Hungary in the management of Ottoman decline. By 1908, however, both had acknowledged an interest in revising the Congress of Berlin. Russia, thwarted in its Far Eastern ambitions, had turned south-west and wanted the use of the Black Sea straits for its warships, while Austria-Hungary was anxious to regularize its position in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Habsburgs had struck a compromise with Hungary in 1867. Franz Joseph became simultaneously emperor of Austria and king of Hungary. Each state had its own assembly, the Austrian Reichsrat and the Hungarian Diet. Delegations of the two convened once a year, albeit in separate buildings, to approve common expenditure. Ministers for the two nations were answerable to the emperor. This duality was called the Ausgleich and, although not without its weaknesses, it functioned effectively until 1918.

The two national Presidents of the Council of Ministers, plus the three joint ministers—the foreign minister, the minister of war, and the common minister of finance—together constituted the common ministerial council. The foreign minister set the agenda for the common council and thus became the de facto chancellor of the dual monarchy.

The army itself was also common to both parts of the empire, and in many ways the most effective embodiment of its supra-national and multinational status, although in addition Austria and Hungary each had a separate territorial army.

The Ausgleich was a pragmatic and sensible response which lasted until 1918. Its strength rested on its application of internal imperialism: the Germans, albeit in a somewhat more liberal and enlightened form, were left free to dominate Austria, while Hungary was consigned — by virtue of a very restrictive franchise — to the Magyars. The Ausgleich’s weaknesses were twofold. First, the Ausgleich was renewable every ten years: Austria-Hungary was therefore on perpetual notice as to its future. Secondly, it was a compromise that commended itself to only one group, the Magyars. For everybody else it was a halfway house. A few wanted a return to centralism. More saw the relative independence achieved by the Magyars as an indication that comparable devolution might be possible for the other ethnic groups.

Of the 20 million inhabitants of Hungary, less than half were Magyars and the remainder included Romanians, Slovaks and Croats, and Serbs. Austria was even more variegated: 10 million Germans formed the largest group in the total population of 28 million, but Poles and Ruthenes lived in Galicia, Czechs in Bohemia, and there were smaller groupings of Slovenes, Italians, Serbs, and Croats. For many of these the Ausgleich became not a stopping point, but an intermediate stage to trialism or even federalism. The major block to change, and indeed the key element in domestic politics in the decade before the First World War, was the intransigence of the Magyars.

Either trialism or federalism would diminish Hungary; the Magyar solution was one of repression and of Magyarization, particularly in relation to the use of the Hungarian language. In 1903 the Hungarian Diet declined to increase the recruitment contingent for the army in line with the growth in population, unless a separate Hungarian army were formed. Franz Joseph refused, since a challenge to the unity of the army was a challenge to Habsburg authority itself. The Diet was twice dissolved in an effort to form a fresh government, and even the possibility of a military occupation was mooted.

The threat of universal suffrage contributed to the renewal of the Ausgleich, albeit on terms which left the Austrians paying 63.6 percent of the common expenses. Furthermore, Tisza forced through the army bill in 1912 and reformed the Diet so as to make its proceedings more workable. He also moderated policy towards the Croats, second only to the Romanians as the largest and most independent of the non-Magyar groupings in Hungary.

For the monarchy, the most attractive solution to the impasse was to widen the Hungarian franchise: the power of the Magyar aristocracy would be broken and at the same time sufficient national divisions created to allow the possibility of enhanced Habsburg influence. By the same token, the major Magyar parties, and in particular Count Istvan Tisza, Hungary's President of the Council of Ministers in 1903-5 and again from 1913, were determined to block suffrage reform. Magyar compliance with Franz Joseph's instructions was so minimal that in 1914 only 6 per cent of Hungary's population enjoyed the vote.

Tisza was shrewd enough to realize that Magyar bloody-mindedness must not go so far as to make the Ausgleich unworkable: that would only hasten its demise. Hungary would maximize its power, he calculated, if it established itself as the key element in a continuing empire, and indeed if that empire remained a member of a major international alliance. The by-products of such policies — effective government and the enhancement of the army — pleased Franz Joseph, and were sufficient to persuade him to abandon the pursuit of real political reform.

Franz Joseph's espousal of a moderate liberalism did not proceed from any love of liberalism per se but from its attraction as a device to soften national opposition and thus indirectly to buttress Habsburg power. South Slavic and Czech culture and education received a considerable boost from ordinances which allowed official languages other than German. The suffrage of 1882 progressively enfranchised the lower middle class, the shopkeeper and the artisan. The Poles in Galicia became effectively self governing. The final step, that of universal suffrage introduced in 1907, was in part the corollary of Franz Joseph's attempt to carry through the same reform in Hungary.

In both the major crises triggered by Germany in the pursuit of Weltpolitik, the two Moroccan confrontations of 1905 and 1911, Germany enjoyed less than fulsome support from its major ally, Austria-Hungary. The shared Germanic traditions suggested a common identity that was in practice largely superficial. The more recent history of the two countries suggested division rather than fusion. In 1866 Prussia had summarily ended Austria's leadership of the Germanic states on the battlefield. The subsequent thrust of Germany's development highlighted differences as much as points of contact. It was thus necessity that allied Austria-Hungary with Germany.

German unification elevated the idea of nationalism, but Austria-Hungary — as a multinational empire — had perforce relied on supra-nationalism for its continued integrity throughout the nineteenth century. In order to consolidate its legitimacy as a government, Austria-Hungary had used the networks of international relations and the authority of treaties to buttress the domestic status quo. The creation of Germany had upset the Concert system and the balance of power.

Most galling of all was the outcome of Austria-Hungary's decision to impose economic sanctions on Serbia in 1906. In retaliation for Serbia's decision not to order arms from the Skoda works in Bohemia but from the French, Austria-Hungary refused to import Serbian livestock, in particular pigs. Serbia's response was to find alternative markets, including Germany. By 1910, when Austro-Serb commercial relations were resumed, Germany had replaced Austria-Hungary as one of Serbia's principal trading partners.

The economic development of Germany had transformed these otherwise implicit distinctions into direct and overt competition. The dual monarchy was therefore in no position to compete with Germany, which used its productive capacity as an arm of its foreign policy. Throughout the decade before the First World War, Austria-Hungary saw its Balkan markets fall to its ally.

For Germany, Austria-Hungary was better than no ally at all. The dual monarchy broke the ring of encircling and seemingly hostile powers; more positively, and increasingly more importantly, Austria-Hungary was the land bridge not merely to the Balkans but to Asia Minor. For the Habsburg monarchy, the Austro-German alliance replaced the Concert of Europe as the bulwark behind its fragile identity.

Germany's support also extended to the Magyars, whose land-owning aristocracy dominated Hungary in power if not in numbers, and whom the Kaiser portrayed as honorary Teutons in their battle against the Slav. The alliance therefore provided the Austro-Hungarians with an external validation which its precarious domestic condition made indispensable. Austria-Hungary's loss of control in the Balkans was not simply the result of German activities. The substitution in the region of Austro-Russian antagonism for their former detente created opportunities for the newly emergent Balkan states. The latter could exploit great-power rivalry for their own ends in a way that great-power collaborative action had in the past made impossible.

Serbia, rather than be content with its position as a client of the dual monarchy, was touting itself as the 'Piedmont' of the South Slavs — the nation that would lead the way to the formation of a large independent South Slav state. A greater Serbia would not only draw in Bosnia-Herzegovina but also the Serbs and possibly Croats who were resident within the empire proper: external problems would be projected back into the domestic arrangements of the dual monarchy.

Austria-Hungary had planned a railway line to link the Austrian and Turkish networks south of Serbia, so as to consolidate the empire's stabilizing influence in the Balkans and at the same time outflank Serbia. Britain — which saw the proposal as an extension of German ambitions, and part of a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway — opposed the plan, together with Russia. Austria-Hungary was confronted with a loss of prestige in the Balkans.

Serb sentiment, both in the population as a whole and in the army specifically, was not in sympathy with its government's actions. Narodna Odbrana, or National Defence, a Serb society committed to revolutionary activity in Bosnia, was forced by the government in the light of its undertaking to Austria to modify its position and concentrate on cultural activities. Its place was promptly taken by a secret organization, Ujedinjenje Hi Smrt — Unification or Death — known to its enemies as 'Black Hand'. The Black Hand was committed to Serbia's fulfilment of its self-appointed role as the Piedmont of the South Slavs.

The plans of Austria-Hungary are of considerably less account, for although technically a great power, in reality she was incapable of affecting events outside the confines of the Balkan region. Although involved in discussions with Moltke to try to harness the Austrian divisions to the cause against Russia, a strong intent to concentrate against Serbia was evident in all the Austrian plans.

Two variants existed: Plan ‘B’ pictured three Austrian armies invading Serbia while three more guarded the Russian frontier – a disposition that would be almost useless to their German allies; while Plan ‘R’ sought to use four armies to guard against a substantial Russian intervention to protect Serbia, while just two armies invaded Serbia. In the end, the Austrians seem to have played it by ear, still prioritising the destruction of their Serbian arch-enemies over the greater good of the Central Powers.

Conrad von Hotzendorf, the Austrian chief of the general staff, made contact with Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, his German counterpart, in an effort to establish German operational plans in the event of war with Russia. Moltke warned that Germany's initial concentration would be against France, but assured Conrad of German support against Russia if Russia acted with Serbia.

A serious crisis emerged when Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Previously, under the Treaty of Berlin of 1878, the Austrians had ruled the provinces, replacing the former Turkish administration. But this seemingly insignificant change in status provoked much angst, with almost every major power in the region taking a spirited interest, as each tried to push their own agenda. In the end Serbian protests were ignored and the annexation accepted, but a further layer of distrust had been created between the Austrians and the Russians.

The annexation itself had been intended to draw a line under Slav nationalism, but it merely fuelled Bosnian demands for separatism. The Balkan powder keg seemed increasingly likely to explode at the slightest provocation.

The foreign ministers of Austria-Hungary and Russia, Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal and Alexander Izvolsky, met at Buchlau to discuss the Balkan situation following the Young Turk Revolution. Aehrenthal wanted a clear demarcation between Austrian interests in the Balkans and Turkish interests. He therefore proposed the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. What he had in mind was a foreign policy success sufficient to rally the Habsburg loyalties of the national groupings and especially of the Magyars.

The lure for Russian diplomat Alexander Izvolsky was the prospect of getting something for nothing. By his reckoning, Austria-Hungary already exercised control over Bosnia-Herzegovina: formalizing the arrangement would leave Russia no worse off and would further Russia's wider foreign policy objectives after the defeat by Japan. The Balkan settlement imposed by the powers in the Treaty of Berlin, which still rankled in St Petersburg, would have been reopened, but through unilateral action by Austria, not Russia. Izvolsky would then be able to call for an international conference to review the treaty, and could appear as the protector of the Balkan Slavs.

Neither the Germans nor the Austrians expected the Bosnian crisis to result in war, but their attitudes were decisive in stiffening Austrian resolve. They had simultaneously strengthened the Triple Alliance, relieved Germany's own sense of encirclement, and exposed the weaknesses of the Triple Entente.

Internally, the acquisition of Bosnia-Herzegovina failed to resolve the conflicts generated by the Ausgleich. The new province was not incorporated into either Austria or Hungary, but administered jointly. The difficulties of establishing a wider Balkan policy were compounded: the case for a South Slav component within the empire, for trialism, was strengthened by the annexation. Thus Hungary's fears that it would lose its control over Croatia heightened.

The crisis which Austria-Hungary had initiated independently of Germany had had the effect of confirming Austrian subordination to its northern partner. Although Austria-Hungary would try to pursue an independent policy on other occasions before 1914, in the eyes of the Triple Entente — and especially of Britain — Austria was now no more than Germany's stalking-horse in south-eastern Europe.

The First Balkan War started when Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro banded together to attack Turkey. The Turks fought a poor campaign and were soon overwhelmed. But then the alliance between her Balkan opponents spontaneously imploded over their competing territorial claims when Bulgaria attacked her former allies, Greece and Serbia, and so began the Second Balkan War. Bulgaria was hopelessly isolated and by the time the war ended, Turkey, all but unnoticed, had succeeded in regaining much of the Balkan territory she had initially lost.

The rapidity and scale of the Balkan League's success took the great powers by surprise. A high growth rate in the population, without any accompanying industrialization to soak up the available labor, had permitted the Balkan states to form huge peasant armies. The Turks, outnumbered by almost two to one, spurned the counsel of their German military advisers and opted for encounter battles rather than defensive ones. The overall weakness of Turkey was not lessened, but the crisis also exposed the uncertainty as to the correct response of both the Austrians and the Russians, either of whom might have been expected to intervene.

The Austrians made some exploratory movements, but when it became apparent that the Germans were content to let events take their course, they did nothing even as their Serbian enemies prospered – Serbia almost doubled in size during the Balkan Wars.

The Russians at one stage also seemed inclined to order a partial mobilization, directed against Austria, but that idea was abandoned when the Russian leaders realised that such a radical gesture would provoke retaliatory mobilizations across Europe. No one was ready – or desperate enough – to risk triggering a full-scale war in 1912.

Turkey's defeat was a major setback for Germany and for Austria-Hungary. A strong Turkey, putting pressure on Russia in the Black Sea and the Caucasus, and on Britain in Egypt and Persia, relieved the burden on Germany. For Austria-Hungary such stunning Slav triumphs could only foster desires for national independence within the empire. In the immediate term, Serbia's expansion, and its claim to head a South Slav state outside Austria-Hungary, continued.

The Germans were set to appoint Lieutenant General Otto Liman von Sanders as commander of the Turkish I Corps. There was a longstanding German Military Mission in Constantinople, but this move gave Liman actual command of the very unit responsible for the defence of the Straits. This jagged at exposed Russian nerves as they faced the prospect of a Turkish Army strengthened by ongoing close military cooperation with Germany. There was much sabre-rattling before a compromise was reached whereby Liman was promoted to Inspector General of the Turkish Army and hence not actually in command of the Straits.

Liman’s promotion was in addition to a significant Turkish naval rearmament with the cooperation of the British Naval Mission – much to the frustration of the Russians, who felt they might have expected more consideration from their Entente partners.

A reinvigorated Turkey with a strong Black Sea Fleet played no part in Russia’s long-term plans for Constantinople. The end compromise defused the immediate crisis but left Russian animosity and underlying fears unresolved. Resentments were building up on all sides.

A German military mission, designed to train and upgrade the Turkish army, was not in itself a legitimate cause for objection. But the Turks appointed Liman to a command, not to an advisory post. Furthermore, Wilhelm II had instructed Liman to Germanize the Turkish army and to make Turkey an instrument of German foreign policy and a counterweight to Russia. Given the strength of Russia's reaction, the diplomats' more cautious approach prevailed over Wilhelm's instructions. Military objectives were subordinated to political, and Liman von Sanders became inspector-general of the Turkish army instead.

A conference convened by the Russians in the middle of the crisis, attended by the ministers for the services as well as by the chief of the general staff, revoked the renunciation of war that had guided Russian policy since 1905. Instead, war was deemed to be 'fully permissible', and the conference set out a series of escalatory steps designed to get Germany to comply with Russia's wishes.

Optimists in 1914 took comfort from the fact that the great powers had successfully surmounted a succession of crises since 1905. On the surface, it seemed that the international system could regulate itself. But none of those crises had resolved the underlying problems which had given them birth. Above all, nobody saw the Treaty of Bucharest and the end of the Second Balkan War as more than an armistice.

Austro-Serb relations remained locked in rivalry. Germany's own ability to manage another confrontation was diminished by its need to support its ally, a dependence made more pressing by Russia's military and economic growth.

The fact of direct Russo-German antagonism would change the dimensions of the next Balkan crisis. At the same time, the remoteness of Balkan politics and the fratricidal nature of their warfare did not diminish their importance for Europe as a whole.

Ottoman Turkey's army had performed poorly against Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, but was being reorganized and partly re-equipped by Germany. Its main roles in Germany's plans were to prevent the British and French from using the Turkish Straits as a supply route to Russia, and to tie up some Russian forces in Transcaucasus.

The Russians, for their part, felt they had suffered through a series of diplomatic debacles since the humiliating military defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, the Bosnian annexation, the Balkan wars — from which Russia herself had gained nothing tangible, despite the gains of nominal proxies like Serbia — and the Liman affair; but with no compensating victories to cushion the defeats.

To some extent, the perception that one was losing ground was chronic in the classical era of great-power diplomacy, when crises were usually evaluated in zero-sum terms. Diplomats everywhere were supremely sensitive to the slightest slip in their country’s status, which might imply a victory for rival diplomats, even if those rivals believed themselves to have lost. The sense of losing ground, however, was felt more by some powers than by others.