Sam Seitz

The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 were significant for a number of reasons. They demonstrated the increasingly prominent role of nationalism in shaping conflict in Europe, portended the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and arguably set the stage for World War One by inflaming nationalist sentiments in the Balkans and thus contributed to the rise of radical groups like the Black Hand. While often eclipsed by World War One, a significant amount of scholarship has nevertheless been focused upon the wars in the Balkans. In this paper, I will compare the scholarly work published on the Balkan Wars with newspaper articles published during the conflict. By examining the explanations emphasized by newspapers and contrasting them with more disinterested, modern scholarship, I hope to reveal certain contemporaneous narratives that differ from modern conceptions of the conflict but which, nonetheless, shaped perceptions of the conflict during the period in which it occurred. Ultimately, I argue that contemporaneous newspaper coverage held an overly romanticized conception of the Slavic fight against oppression and failed to fully grapple with the broader interests of the great powers of Europe.

It is important to note that my approach is imperfect. While I try to incorporate a broad range of newspaper articles from a number of different publications in the U.S., the archival sources from which I draw are still fairly limited and, therefore, may not fully encompass every salient narrative that existed during the conflicts. Furthermore, modern scholarship does not uniformly agree on one interpretation of the conflict, though most scholars do tend to highlight similar events when explaining the wars. It is impossible, therefore, to compare historical newspaper articles with “the” modern scholarly explanation. Nevertheless, I believe that the diverse set of publications examined in this paper mitigate these weaknesses and allow for a substantive and meaningful comparison.

Origins of the First Balkan War

The Balkan Wars had their roots in the Treaty of San Stefano, which created a large Bulgarian state (technically it was an autonomous Ottoman province, but it was de facto independent) after the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. The formation of Bulgaria was pushed by Russia in the aftermath of the war as a means of extending Russian dominance into the Balkans. The idea was that Bulgaria, by virtue of its Slavic population, would serve as an influential Russian client and thus assist Russia in securing its interests in the Bosporus Strait and in the Balkans more generally.[1] However, the establishment of a large de facto Bulgarian kingdom generated angst among other regional Slavic states, like Serbia, that feared it would come to dominate the region.[2] External great powers such as Great Britain were also skeptical of Bulgaria, as the Ottomans perceived it as granting Russia too much influence in a region they believed was crucial to their strategic interests. Thus, Bulgaria was partitioned in the 1878 Berlin Settlement, ceding a significant amount of territory in Macedonia. While the partition did not directly contribute to the First Balkan War, it created lingering animosities among Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece over the question of Macedonia.[3]

Tensions were heightened in 1908 by the dual shocks of the Young Turk Movement and the Bulgarian declaration of formal independence from the Ottoman Empire.[4] The Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina further destabilized the region, as Serbia and Russia looked at Austria-Hungary with increasing suspicion.[5] The fact that Bulgarian independence came as a complete surprise to the Ottomans made the events of 1908 even more disruptive, as they perceived the security of their remaining European possession to be in jeopardy and felt that they had little time to prepare.[6] The Ottomans responded to Bulgaria’s independence by attempting to negotiate military alliances with other states on the Balkan Peninsula. In particular, they lobbied Serbia for support. However, the British intervened to block Ottoman overtures because they feared a conflict between Bulgaria and Serbia, a state with which they maintained cordial relations.[7] Finally, regional pressures also increased due to Serbian frustration with Ottoman policy in Albania. The Serbian government was particularly incensed by Ottoman strictures which forbade Serbs from teaching in Kosovo. The Ottomans maintained that this policy was designed to equalize religious and ethnic rights in the region, but the Serbians believed it to be an infringement upon the rights of ethnic Serbs.[8]

By this point, the Slavic states in the Balkans began to consider an alliance with which to check Ottoman power in the region. This decision was largely in response to the aforementioned developments, but it also resulted from Italy’s war in Libya, which weakened the Ottoman Empire and signaled to other revisionist powers, such as the Slavic states in the Balkans, the frail condition of the Ottoman Empire.[9] The establishment of the Balkan League – the formal name of the alliance between the Balkan states – was also promoted by Russia, which viewed it as means of extending its regional influence.[10] To support the creation of the Balkan League, Russia worked to ameliorate the conflicting territorial disputes of the Balkan states. Specifically, Russia led an arbitration over the division of Macedonia through its military attaché in Bulgaria, Colonel Georgi D Romanovski. By securing Serbian concessions in Macedonia – essentially granting the majority of the territory to Bulgaria – the Russians were able to cement the Serbian-Bulgarian alliance.[11] To prevent losing control of the alliance, the Russians also inserted a secret clause into the Serbo-Bulgarian Treaty which gave it veto power over the League’s foreign policy and, in particular, its decision to go to war with the Ottomans. However, as will soon become evident, internal coordination between the League allowed them to bypass the Russian veto.[12]

After the alliance between Serbia and Bulgaria was secured, other regional powers quickly joined. The Bulgarians invited the Greeks in order to access their navy, which was crucial to disrupting Ottoman logistics and reinforcements.[13] Given the close ties between the Greeks and Bulgarians, joining the League was an easy decision for Greek policymakers. Greek enthusiasm for the alliance was further bolstered by their desire to use it to acquire parts of Macedonia. Additionally, the British lobbied the Greeks to join the League, which further abetted their integration into the alliance.[14] The Bulgarians were also able to receive verbal commitments from the Montenegrins thus rounding out the League.[15]

After the League fully solidified, the regional crises became more and more dangerous. The Ottomans felt increasingly insecure because, just as was the case with the Bulgarian declaration of independence, they had underestimated the threat of the Balkan League, believing historical animosity to be sufficient to prevent a pan-Slavic alliance from emerging. With forces still tied up against the Italians, they appeared more vulnerable than ever.[16] Potential de-escalation was further stymied by the great powers’ inability to coordinate and cooperate in the region. Austria wanted to maintain the status quo – and the status quo instability – because they believed it granted them maximum flexibility. Russia sought to expand the influence of the South Slavs, though it still publicly opposed war.[17] Meanwhile, the French were concerned by rising tensions, as they worried that war was inevitable and would damage their interests in the region, and the British were largely forced to remain detached because British liberals loathed the conservative Ottoman regime and worked to block British cooperation with it.[18]

By September, the muddled and conflicting responses of the great powers coupled with the Ottomans’ inability to reform moved the region to the brink of war.[19] The instability in the Balkans was compounded by increasingly restive ethnic groups. Christian communities in Macedonia became more intransigent and vocal in their opposition to Ottoman policies, which they felt granted special privileges to the Albanians, and Serbian nationalists also began to mobilize against perceived Ottoman inequities in Albania.[20] In response, the Bulgarians demanded that the Ottomans install a Christian governor in Macedonia. However, the Ottomans refused to do this because, as per the Berlin Treaty, it would necessitate consultation with the independent Balkan states.[21] By October, the Balkan League began to mobilize its forces, and war became unavoidable.[22]

The Origins of the Second Balkan War

The end of the First Balkan War after the Armistice of Chataldzha and surrender of Scutari failed to resolve the territorial ambitions of the Balkan states.[23] The primary flashpoint was Macedonia. As argued previously, the settling of Serbian and Bulgarian claims in Macedonia in the Serbo-Bulgarian Alliance was a crucial step in laying the groundwork for the Balkan League. Serbia agreed to grant Bulgaria the majority of Macedonia in exchange for military support. However, the First Balkan War saw Serbia acquire the majority of Macedonia for itself. Bulgaria requested that the land be transferred in accord with the Serbo-Bulgarian Treaty, but the Serbs argued that the agreement was now void because of events on the ground.[24] Further cracks emerged over Russian arbitration between Romania and Bulgaria, which granted Romania control over the Bulgarian port of Silistra, angering both sides.[25] Tensions also emerged between Greece and Bulgaria, and these strains can be traced back to the original establishment of the Balkan League. When Bulgaria negotiated Greek entry into the League, it did so hoping to acquire Salonika for itself to act as an outlet for its Macedonian territory. However, this was never announced to the Greeks because the Bulgarians, confident in the superiority of their army, believed they could reach Salonika before the Greeks and thus avoid the issue altogether.[26] In fact, the Bulgarians were not able to beat the Greeks to Salonika, but they continued to demand it for themselves, leading to conflict between Bulgaria and Greece.[27]

The conflict between the Greeks and Bulgarians drew in the Serbians, as they worried that a Bulgaria that stretched from the Black Sea to Albania would weaken their influence in the region. Thus, they requested Russian arbitration.[28] However, the Russians were concerned that by arbitrating they would alienate at least one of the two powers, thus weakening their leverage over the Slavic states. Continued Russian vacillations forced Serbia and Greece to take the initiative, and they negotiated an agreement which would effectively divide Macedonia between them and provide them both with spheres of influence in Albania.[29] The Montenegrins agreed to support them because they believed it prudent to reciprocate Serbia’s support during the Scutari campaign at the end of the First Balkan War, and the Ottomans and Romanians, though refusing to explicitly ally with Serbia and Greece, clearly shared their interests.[30] Conflict became likelier after the accession of the Bulgarian hardliner Stoyan Danev to the office of prime minister.[31] As Russia continued to stall, Bulgarian leaders became increasingly concerned because they knew that Russian inaction would leave Serbia with de facto control over Macedonia. Before Danev could even meet with the Russians, though, Bulgarian King Ferdinand ordered limited strikes on Serbian and Greek units in Macedonia. Although Danev rushed to de-escalate the crisis, it was too late, and the Second Balkan War had begun.[32]

Assessing the Modern Interpretation

As the previous sections demonstrate, modern scholarship focuses on three major themes when explaining the conflicts. First is nationalism: Ethnic unrest among Ottoman minority populations played an important role in sparking conflict, and Serbian and Bulgarian desires to reclaim Macedonia, which both saw as their rightful territory, contributed to both Balkan Wars. Second is power: Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and the Ottomans all worried about their relative power in the region and fought, in part, to secure their preeminence in the Balkans. Third is foreign meddling: Nearly all of the great powers had ulterior motives in the Balkan region ranging from territorial acquisition to increased influence, and their meddling (or, in some cases, non-intervention) contributed to the regional instability that eventually erupted into war.

Newspaper Coverage of the First Balkan War

Most coverage of the First Balkan War focused on two narratives, both exceedingly supportive of the Slavic states. The first narrative was that the oppressive Muslim Turks were aggrieving the Balkan Christians and preventing them from acquiring their God-given freedoms. These accounts almost always featured a healthy dose of Islamophobia. For example, “The Balkan War Cloud,” an article published in the Los Angeles Times, refers to Ottoman soldiers as “fanatical followers of the prophet” and declares that the Young Turks “can hardly be held in leash, so eager are they to rally to the blood-red banners – the emblems of their faith – to engage the hated infidel.”[33] Ironically, the report portrayed Islam as such a monolithic and imposing force that it predicted the Ottomans would overrun the Balkans and only be stopped by the Christian great powers of Europe, an event that obviously did not occur. Although this almost comically hysterical portrayal of Islam certainly appears to be somewhat of an outlier, a number of other newspaper articles posited similar arguments, though with slightly more constrained language. For example, “Balkan Revolution and its Effect on Austria,” a New York Times op-ed written by a U.S. Naval Academy professor, decried the Ottomans for their “military feudalism and all its concomitant evils.”[34] Another piece, “The Balkan War Scare,” also depicted the Ottomans in a negative light, announcing that “the Turks have lately been at their old tricks among the Mallsorri,” a Christian Macedonian ethnic group.[35]

The other narrative focused on the “evils of the Triple Alliance,” singling out Italy and, even more so, Austria-Hungary for blame. The aforementioned “Balkan Revolution and its Effect on Austria,” despite taking the Ottomans to task, was actually far more critical of Austro-Hungarian actions in the Balkan Peninsula. Professor Pupin, the author of the report, lambasted Austrian recalcitrance on the issue of Serbian access to the Adriatic and decried its annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Moreover, he argued that Austria sought to impose artificial ethnic divisions on an otherwise homogenous Slavic people to generate internecine conflict and “divide and rule.”[36] Another newspaper article, “Peace of Europe Hangs on Point,” assigned “special responsibility [to] Austria and Italy” while praising Russia and the Triple Entente more generally for “working the hardest to prevent the Balkan war.”[37] Indeed, the article is primarily framed around the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente and their interests in and competition over the Balkans. The author of “Peace of Europe Hangs on Point” also made a number of dubious claims about intra-Slavic solidarity and, even less convincing, Russian acceptance of a Bulgarian occupation of Constantinople.[38] Another article, “War A Struggle Between Old and New,” framed the conflict similarly by arguing that Austrian conservatism and declining relative power justified “progressive Bulgaria… the America of Europe” and its allies fighting to break free from the Austrian yoke.[39] To be certain, the narrative put forward by these articles was not the only one. In fact, “Serbia’s Claims Absurd, Says Konta” directly responded to Prof. Pupin and accused him of cherry-picking evidence of Austrian oppression.[40] However, the anti-Austro-Hungarian narrative clearly seems to have been the dominant one.

Newspaper Coverage of the Second Balkan War

The coverage of the Second Balkan War was more uniform in its assessment, though there were a few disagreements on the margin. Virtually every publication agreed on the “tragedy” of the Second Balkan War. “An Intra-Balkan War” declared the conflict to be “pathetically foolish” because it put the Slavic states’ “future in peril.”[41] The op-ed “A Needless Struggle” characterized the war as nothing more than a “selfish fight for spoils.” While never explicitly confirmed in any of the primary sources I analyzed, this frustration with the “petulance” of the Balkan states likely derived from the damage the Second Balkan War did to the myth of a united, pan-Slavic project that was so gleefully promoted by liberals in much of the Western media. Interestingly though, all of the articles, if they took a position, clearly favored Bulgaria during the Second Balkan War, even as they denounced the war itself. The article “A Needless Struggle,” for example, maintained that Bulgaria “deserve[d] its spoils” and accused the other Balkan power of being played by the “wily Turks.”[42]

Comparisons

It is clear that there exists a fair degree of overlap between modern scholarship on the Balkan Wars and contemporary newspaper analysis. With respect to the first Balkan War, both newspaper op-eds and modern scholarship emphasize the role that Christian minorities played in generating tensions between the Ottoman Empire and Balkan Slavs. Both accounts also highlighted the role that Austria-Hungary, through the Bosnian annexation, contributed to instability. An important difference, however, is that most contemporary scholarship understands Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman motives within the context of their national interests and does not use the same type of pro-Slavic and anti-Muslim rhetoric found in many of the contemporaneous opinion pieces. Moreover, current scholarship recognizes the destabilizing role that the Russian Empire played in the region by encouraging the creation of the Balkan League – of which it subsequently lost control – and then creating the seeds of its destruction by failing to arbitrate effectively. Unlike the newspaper article “Peace of Europe Hangs on Point,” modern historians seem to agree that Russia was just as important in instigating war in the region as the Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians were.

Modern historical scholarship also differs in that it emphasizes the broader great power competition in the region. Of course, historians have the benefit of hindsight and can see the linkages between the Balkan conflict and World War One. Nevertheless, one cannot read newspaper articles from the period and fail to be surprised at the relatively sophomoric analysis of great power interests. At least in the American coverage this paper analyzes, the degree of pro-Entente propaganda is almost comical, and it led to absurd and ahistorical claims. For example, one op-ed argued that Russia would “perfectly understand” if Bulgaria occupied Constantinople.[43] Recent archival scholarship, however, demonstrates that Russia did not, in fact, “perfectly understand” and was quite alarmed at the prospect of Bulgaria holding the Bosporus Strait.[44] Modern scholarship also differs from contemporaneous newspaper coverage in that it recognizes the fragility of the Balkan League. Newspaper writers from the period seemed to hold a very romanticized view of a pan-Slavic coalition rising up against Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman oppression, and they did not grasp the competing historical memories of Greater Serbia and Greater Bulgaria that would make conflict in Macedonia all but inevitable.

This kind of narrative was also prevalent during coverage of the Second Balkan War. Many reports and op-eds used almost patronizing tones when addressing the foolish and petulant Balkan states that just could not put away their petty differences to unite as one united Slavic power. In short, newspaper writers and pundits of the period simply did not appear to grasp the deep historical memories of Bulgarians and Serbians, and thus they discounted the nationalist forces that drove early 20th century Balkan politics. Perhaps because of this, journalists at the time never seemed to write about the conflict over Macedonia. Indeed, while many op-eds and reports spoke of the great territorial gains Bulgaria made, none that I analyzed mentioned the territory it did not acquire: Macedonia. Ironically, it is this very region that modern historians consider most important in triggering the onset of the Second Balkan War.

Conclusion

By highlighting the differences between modern historians and contemporaneous journalists, one can begin to see the ideas that framed the understanding of the conflicts during the period. Perhaps the two biggest differences are the interpretation of the South Slavs’ motives and the role of external great power. Unlike modern scholars, newspapers of the period seemed to hold a highly romanticized view of Slavic solidarity and cooperation. This largely skewed their conception of the conflict, as it prevented them from foreseeing the rise of the Second Balkan War. Second, the great powers are framed almost exclusively in terms of their relation to the Balkan states: the evil Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians versus the noble Russians and Entente powers. This analysis ignores the broader geopolitical stratagems of the great powers, though, and thus likely contributed to the erroneous view of many journalists that the destruction and savagery of the Balkan Wars had ensured that Europe would not see major conflict again. By focusing solely on the Balkans, in other words, the press failed to grasp the bigger picture and the coming calamity of World War One.

Endnotes:

[1] Richard C. Hall, “Bulgaria and the Origins of the Balkan Wars,” in War and Nationalism: The Balkan Wars, 1912–1913, and Their Sociopolitical Implications, ed. M. Hakan Yavuz and Isa Blumi (Salt Lake City, U.S.: University of Utah Press, 2013), 85.

[2] Ibid., 86.

[3] Ibid., 86-89.

[4] Ibid., 90.

[5] Gül Tokay, “The Origins of the Balkan Wars: A Reinterpretation,” in War and Nationalism: The Balkan Wars, 1912–1913, and Their Sociopolitical Implications, ed. M. Hakan Yavuz and Isa Blumi (Salt Lake City, U.S.: University of Utah Press, 2013), 180-181.

[6] Ibid., 179.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 183.

[9] Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York, U.S.: Harper Perennial, 2013), 262.

[10] Hall, “Bulgaria and the Origins of the Balkan Wars,” 95.

[11] Ibid., 94-94.

[12] Clark, 262-263.

[13] Hall, “Bulgaria and the Origins of the Balkan Wars,” 96.

[14] Tokay, 184.

[15] Hall, “Bulgaria and the Origins of the Balkan Wars,” 97.

[16] Tokay, 184.

[17] Ibid., 187.

[18] Ibid., 185.

[19] Ibid., 189.

[20] Ibid., 190-191.

[21] Ibid., 191.

[22] Hall, “Bulgaria and the Origins of the Balkan Wars,” 96-97.

[23] Richard C. Hall, The Balkan Wars 1912-1913: Prelude to the First World War (London, U.K.: Routledge, 2002), 97-98.

[24] Clark, 275.

[25] Hall, The Balkan Wars 1912-1913, 98.

[26] Hall, “Bulgaria and the Origins of the Balkan Wars,” 96.

[27] Hall, The Balkan Wars 1912-1913, 98.

[28] Ibid., 99.

[29] Ibid., 100.

[30] Ibid., 101.

[31] Ibid., 103.

[32] Ibid., 105.

[33] Marshall D. Taylor, “The Balkan War Cloud,” The Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1912, 114.

[34] M. L. Pupin, “Balkan Revolution and its Effect on Austria,” New York Times, December 15, 1912, 8.

[35] “Balkan War Scare,” New York Times, October 2, 1912, 12.

[36] Pupin, 8.

[37] J. L. Garvin, “Peace of Europe Hangs on Point,” The New York Times, November 12, 1912, n.p.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Roger W. Babson, “War A Struggle Between Old and New,” New York Times, February 23, 1913, n.p.

[40] Alexander Konta, “Serbia’s Claims Absurd, Say Konta,” New York Times, January 6, 1913, n.p.

[41] “An Intra-Balkan War,” New York Times, May 28, 1913, 10.

[42] “A Needless Struggle,” South Bend New Times, July 31, 1913, 6.

[43] Garvin, n.p.

[44] Clark, 264.

Bibliography

Babson, Roger W. “War A Struggle Between Old and New.” New York Times. February 23, 1913.

“Balkan War Scare.” New York Times. October 2, 1912.

Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. New York, U.S.: Harper Perennial, 2013.

Garvin, J. L. “Peace of Europe Hangs on Point.” The New York Times. November 12, 1912.

Hall, Richard, C. The Balkan Wars 1912-1913: Prelude to the First World War. London, U.K.: Routledge, 2002.

Hall, Richard C. “Bulgaria and the Origins of the Balkan Wars,” in War and Nationalism: The Balkan Wars, 1912–1913, and Their Sociopolitical Implications, ed. M. Hakan Yavuz and Isa Blumi, 85-100. Salt Lake City, U.S.: University of Utah Press, 2013.

“An Intra-Balkan War.” New York Times. May 28, 1913.

Konta, Alexander. “Serbia’s Claims Absurd, Say Konta.” New York Times. January 6, 1913.

“A Needless Struggle.” South Bend New Times. July 31, 1913.

Pupin, M. L. “Balkan Revolution and its Effect on Austria.” New York Times. December 15, 1912.

Taylor, Marshall D. “The Balkan War Cloud.” The Los Angeles Times. October 3, 1912.

Tokay, Gül. “The Origins of the Balkan Wars: A Reinterpretation,” in War and Nationalism: The Balkan Wars, 1912–1913, and Their Sociopolitical Implications, ed. M. Hakan Yavuz and Isa Blumi, 176-197. Salt Lake City, U.S.: University of Utah Press, 2013.