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The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913: Prelude to the First World War

March 14, 2005

The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913: Prelude to the First World War

By Richard C. Hall

176 pp., 6 maps

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

In The Balkan Wars, Minnesota State University Professor Richard C. Hall has provided the first readable and concise overview of the short but turbulent series of wars that gripped the Balkans beginning in the fall of 1912 and carried over into the middle of the following year, resulting in an uneasy peace that was shattered in 1914 by the outbreak of the Great War.

While the book does have certain shortcomings, Professor Hall has by and large succeeded in weaving together the series of complex events that ensued before, during and after the wars, and in doing so has made an invaluable contribution to the historiography of the period, one recommended to all fans of Balkan history and European history in general.

One of the book’s strong points is that, despite being relatively short, it succeeds in portraying events in a larger context, the bigger picture of Great Powers machinations and how the Balkans fit into their scheming. The author stresses this connection because he wants to show how the Balkan Wars were a prime cause of the First World War.

Indeed, even though the European powers were clearly bruising for a fight, the war could not have been fought when it was and as it was had the Balkans not erupted in a massive insurrection against the Ottoman Empire, and thus rewritten the political map of southeastern Europe. In Hall’s treatment, we find that it is the Great Powers who had to adjust and react to something undertaken by their unpredictable Balkan upstarts, and not the other way around.

This point is stressed in a variety of ways. Hall reminds us that the European powers (and even the Americans) took a great interest in the war. He recounts American volunteers and returned expatriates fighting on the Greek and Montenegrin sides. Throughout the book, the narrative is peppered with quotes from military attache and diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and the US, who all responded variously on what the wars seemed like to them and how they were significant.

Why was there such interest? On the one hand, all the Balkan countries (and the then non-state of Albania) except Greece were client states of one of the Great Powers alliances, and thus enemies of the others. Particularly stressed in this context is the antagonism between Austria-Hungary and Russia over Serbia’s aspirations in Bosnia and Montenegro’s ambitions in northern Albania, and how this uneasy confrontation would create a very volatile situation that exploded soon after, with the 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War. The author presents other examples of imperial meddling, such as the creation of an Albanian state by Austria-Hungary and Italian as a way of checking Serbian and Greek power: despite being “…no strong advocates of nationalism in general,” the Austrians saw that “…a large and strong national Albania was a good way to guarantee control of the Adriatic” (p. 73).

Another reason for this foreign interest in the Balkans, which we sometimes forget today, is the sheer scale of the military campaigns of 1912. For observers of the time, it was alternately breathtaking and deeply worrying. The second battle of the war, fought between the Turks and Bulgarians at Lyule Burgas-Buni Hisar was “…the largest battle in terms of numbers of soldiers involved and casualties” Europe had seen in some 42 years, or since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 (p. 31). Not long after this battle, the Ottomans successfully defended Constantinople by digging in at the Chataldzha lines outside the capital – something that the author reminds was “…the most important Ottoman victory against a European army for 200 years.” (p. 44). The Balkan Wars also saw the first aerial bombardments and the testing of other ever-more modern weaponry made in the West. So the conflict did set precedents.

While Hall concedes that the names of these epic battles have since been forgotten by most Westerners, he does a major service in showing how in 1912 Europe they were of massive geopolitical importance. Actually, they proved far more significant than the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s, which despite the massive media attention devoted to them did not have the potential to create wider conflicts or change the boundaries of neighboring states. In this sense the Yugoslav wars remained civil conflicts, whereas the Balkan Wars were, in light of the colonial empires administered by the Great Powers, direct challenges to an entire global order.

Other interesting details emerge. Hall shows how the media was used cleverly to advance the war effort. For example, at the very outbreak of war Bulgarian General Mihail Savov sought to trick the Ottomans into thinking his first goal was to storm Adrianople, which the general staff had already decided against in the interests of making a lighting sweep on Turkish forces in Thrace. Savov told the media that “he was prepared to sacrifice 100,000 men, ‘like the Japanese,’ in order to take the fortress.” (p. 24).

This quote is also interesting in that it, like others provided, supports the larger context in which Hall is framing his narrative. Today we often forget that in the general public consciousness of the time, Japan’s very recent victory over Russia at Port Arthur in 1904 was achieved by the fanaticism of the former’s soldiers. An English Balkan War correspondent picks up on this, averring that the Bulgarians fought “…with unparalleled determination and ferocity, absolutely throwing away their lives in the Japanese manner whenever a point had to be taken or won” (p. 30).

However, in other cases the mention of the media is insufficient and leaves intriguing questions. For instance, Hall mentions a debate that was driven by the Bulgarian media vs. the Serbian one which helped fuel the fire leading to the Second Balkan War – though we learn little more about it than that (p. 89).

Yet the book’s major flaw, if it can be called that, lies in the author’s sometimes annoying reliance on conditional hypotheses in telling his story. With every diplomatic or military move recounted, Hall offers an alternative of how the subject should have/would have/could have acted better.

This kind of Monday morning quarterbacking becomes a little tiresome, but is ultimately more a failing of style rather than of substance. There are many other ways in which an author can attribute causality to an event (or non-event), without always taking recourse to conditionals. Nevertheless, if the reader is prepared for this, it is possible to find much stimulating thought in Hall’s treatment. And, in the sense that many readers interested in the Balkan Wars tend to be from one of the ethnic “sides” involved, it perhaps makes sense in a certain way to depict events thus, as there is no finer Monday-morning-quarterback than an ardent nationalist possessing literacy.

However, at some places this technique is called for. Clearly, the Bulgarian catastrophe of the Second Balkan War – in which the country lost most of its war gains by lashing out against its former allies – should have been avoided, and the author gives several plausible scenarios in his closing chapter whereby Bulgaria, had it been guided more rationally, could have held on to the major gains it achieved through the massive sacrifice of soldiers and armaments it had made in fighting the Turks practically to the gates of Constantinople. In Halls’ convincing treatment of events, the Bulgarian decision to wage war becomes utterly nonsensical in the big picture, and serves illustratively as an example for other countries that are guided by romance over reason.

Along with the fatal presence of military hubris in the Bulgarian ranks, the author blames naive Bulgarian expectations that Russia would come to its aid diplomatically, and provides a bigger picture of the greater European alliance structure and antagonisms that led Russia to not support its traditional ally. In general, Hall does a good job of describing the tenor of the various negotiations and conferences that ensued during and after the wars, and in listing what was at stake for all involved. This helps the reader to understand why decisions were made as they were.

Another flaw that some will no doubt deny is the complete failure to mention a separate Macedonian people. This is understandable considering that the author’s sources by and large come from the “official” warring parties. Among the conjectures that could have been made but wasn’t is the idea that the Balkan Wars, which centered on Macedonia, would have been much less intractable had any side possessed clear control of it. Resistance to Bulgarian rule did not come only from the Greeks and Serbs (you can still find old people in Macedonia today who say, “you can survive anything, except when a Bulgarian beats you”).

This failure to mention a Macedonian ethnicity at all leaves the question of how the modern Macedonian state arose something of an enigma – especially since Hall considers the nationalist currents of all the other warring states. Since he wants to link the issues and ramifications of the Balkan Wars to the modern-day Yugoslav wars, and indeed states that in the 1990’s “…the viability of the post-Yugoslav state came into question”(p. x), the author could have devoted a little room to at least mentioning the Macedonian ethnic question – especially considering that, as he admits, the Balkan Wars were driven by the Macedonian Question.

Despite these shortcomings, however, Richard C. Hall has generally succeeded in The Balkan Wars. He has provided a cogent, lucid and engaging introduction to the conflicts that gripped the Balkans in 1912-13, and which led directly to the First World War. His synthesis, based on archival and secondary sources, is sufficiently readable and broad-based as to be attractive to not just Balkan specialists but to all those interested in WW1-era European history in general.

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