Lessons Learned from the Previous Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 Applicable Today
One hundred and eighteen years ago, the First Balkan War started initiating an unstoppable spiral of events leading to the Second Balkan War of 1913 and the Balkan Crisis of 1914 and the global World War I. What are the key lessons to be drawn from how the small Balkan states were able to drag the more powerful states into their ethnic conflicts? What are the principal unintended consequences of the influence of the Great Powers in the Balkans? And how can this provide an example of why NATO plays a crucial role in arresting the ripple effect of ethnic conflicts?
The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 show the unintended consequences of the influence of the Great Powers in the Balkans. In attempting to restrain each other and promote their own interests in the collapsing Ottoman Empire, the Great Powers of Great Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and sometimes Italy, created and reinforced their web alliances and exacerbated ethnic conflicts in the Balkans.
In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina to fight Serbian terrorism in the province and halt Serbia’s geopolitical objective of acquiring an outlet to the Adriatic Sea. Russian anger at this act led to creation of the Balkan League. Supported by other Great Powers as a buffer against future expansion of the Habsburgs in the Balkans, the Balkan League was composed of Serbia and Bulgaria – Russian satellites – and Greece and Montenegro.
Encouraged by the Italo-Turkish War in which Italy seized Ottoman Mediterranean possessions, instead of providing a shield to the north, on 8 October 1912, the Balkan League attacked to liberate the territories of Macedonia, Albania and Thrace from the Ottoman Empire. Since the Balkan League treaties did not fully flesh out the division of prospective conquests, the members left territorial disputes for Russia to arbitrate. The Greeks took Salonika and the Serbs occupied two-thirds of Macedonia, while the Bulgarians faced trench warfare in Macedonia against the main Turkish forces defending Istanbul. Motivated by its desire to gain a port on the Adriatic, Serbia joined Montenegro and Greece in invading Albania.
Before the Ottoman Empire’s final defeat in the First Balkan War, the great powers of Europe met in London on 17 December 1912 to try to repair the damage done by the Balkan League. In doing so, they almost started World War I. Austro-Hungary and Italy were concerned about Serbia and Montenegro’s occupation of Albania as they feared the Serbs would give the Russians a naval base on the Adriatic. The Serbs refused to relinquish their claims and Russia and then Austria-Hungary began to mobilize their forces. Both France and Germany pledged support to their respective allies. Britain delayed the war between the Great Powers when it secured an agreement on Albanian independence.
The May 1913 Treaty of London – imposed upon the Balkan League by the Great Powers – ceded all the Ottoman Empire’s European possessions to the Balkan allies, with the exception of a small area of Thrace and Albania. Unfortunately, the treaty mandated no territorial division. Occupying their own and most of Bulgaria’s share of Macedonia, the Serbs and Greeks expelled Bulgarian Macedonians from their territories. Denied Albania by the Great Powers, the Serbs and Greeks demanded even more of Bulgaria’s share of Macedonia. Russia, by default, supported the Serbs in not acting as an arbiter between Serbia and Bulgaria. After Bulgaria attacked Serbia in June 1913 and began the Second Balkan War, it was quickly defeated. Bulgaria relinquished most of the territory it gained in the First Balkan War to Serbia, Greece, Romania, and Turkey under the Treaty of Bucharest.
The Great Powers actions during the Balkan Wars led to both the reinforcement of the European alliances and nationalism in the Balkans. This set the stage for future Great Power disputes and ethnic conflicts. The emergence of a strengthened Serbia on their southern flank tilted the balance of force in Europe against Germany and Austria-Hungary and resulted in the two Central Powers accelerating both their military recruiting and joint training. They also reinforced their alliance with Istanbul and established one with Bulgaria. The Turkish defeats in the trenches of Thrace led to the apotheosis of a viable Turkish nationalism that focused on preserving the Turkish heartland rather than the dying empire. This nationalism would mobilize manpower for the defense of Gallipoli and prevent the British seizure of Istanbul. It also would lead to the Armenian Genocide. Bulgaria’s alliances with Germany and occupation of Macedonia in the subsequent two world wars came because of Russia’s support for Serbia in the Second Balkan War and the political influence of vengeful Macedonian refugees in Sofia.
After the Balkan Wars, the Great Powers continue with some success to restrain a strengthened Serbia’s national aspirations. “Rogue state” behavior in Bosnia-Herzegovina such as the 1914 Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand contributed to Germany and Austro-Hungary’s First World War, and later the 1992-95 Sarajevo siege that led to 1999 NATO’s “preventive” war against the Serbs. Both the Central Powers and NATO assumed that the Russians would not back their only Balkan ally, Serbia, for its involvement in ethnic driven terrorism. But only NATO was right. Italy stopped Serbian dreams of dominating Albania by occupying the kingdom. During World War II, Italy expanded its Albanian possessions into Kosovo by “liberating” the Albanians there. In addition to the Kosovar Albanians, Italy – like NATO in the 1990s – also supported Croat and Macedonian separatists against Serb domination.
In preserving the distinctive national identities of the Macedonians and the Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s, in the Great Power tradition, the international community continued to revive ethnic conflicts. The Western backed independence of Macedonia revived Balkan War era irredentist fears of the Greeks, who claimed that the new country harbored designs on Aegean Greece and Salonika. Subsequently, the international community referred to Macedonia as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (changed to the Republic of North Macedonia in 2019 before achieving NATO membership in 2020, ending a 28-year territorial dispute between the Southeast European countries of Greece and Macedonia between 1991 and 2019). Another more serious ethnic conflict within Macedonia itself was an Albanian insurgency sponsored by the Kosovar Albanians, who were liberated in 1999 by NATO’s Operation Allied Force. This led to the withdrawal of Yugoslav armed forces from Kosovo, and establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.
The Balkan Wars, like subsequent wars on the Balkan Peninsula, were the result of the Great Powers’ intervention in ethnic conflicts. Although the Great Powers created new states and established and reinforced alliances with existing Balkan states to satisfy their geopolitical interests, these nationalist states took advantage of the larger states to satisfy their own national aspirations. Since the Great Powers could not uniformly restrain the small Balkan states, these states were able to drag the more powerful states into their ethnic conflicts, subsequently engendering new conflicts that drew in other powerful states.
Today, NATO plays a crucial role in arresting the ripple effect of ethnic conflicts. Once highly controversial, in the post 9/11 world, the West’s successful intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina through NATO’s Stabilization Force (SFOR) and the somewhat successful “nation-building” by the International Community can now be seen, like NATO enlargement, as an example of how to stop ethnic conflicts and entrench Western values of free market, civil society, and democracy. Thus, NATO’s security planners should expand NATO’s strategic focus beyond a purely military function to look at cultural, political and economic aspects.
NATO’s intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina and initial enlargement of NATO were the first steps of the implementation of a vision that embraces the promise of the “end of history” (as Francis Fukuyama envisioned in the post-Cold War era with the dissolution of the Soviet Union), and avoids the perils of the ethnic conflicts. This vision’s scope has been further expanded and formalized by the events of September 11th and the global war on terrorism. Only through peacekeeping and enlargement by a NATO with strong enforcement mechanisms that guarantee both Western norms and security can the vision of “several Europes” and that of the “clash of civilizations” finally disappear.
NATO Assistant Secretary General Dr. John Manza had this to say about the substance of The North Atlantic Treaty: “It’s good to start by looking at The Washington Treaty itself, which makes it clear that NATO is not only a military alliance; it’s a political-military alliance. It’s an alliance built to defend democratic values. Having them (new allies and partners) at the table with all other democracies in one room consulting with each other. I think in Operations certainly it provides a venue for us to take a functional approach. These allies are all working together not just in the NATO Headquarters sitting around the big table, but they are in field together, developing relationships, sharing ideas, going through each other’s schools which is extremely important. So, all that cross fertilization, from lieutenants up to ministers of defense, it’s a great way to keep allies in check and following democratic rules.” 
Although NATO is the most successful political-military alliance in our history, the Alliance is facing more and emerging challenges. NATO’s traditional role to defend member states from threats by communist countries shifted to maintaining global peace and security and promoting democratic values and institution building. Thus, NATO facilitates political and military union and peaceful conflict resolution.
The impact of emerging threats on NATO leads to the need to optimize new organizational structures to support rapid information exchange, intelligence and data sharing, bringing national security issues at a supranational security level. The cost of security, including in cyber space, will increase and all allies must participate with 2 percent of GDP quota for defense according to Membership Action Plan. Another impact is re-thinking and developing new partnership program with Indo-Pacific partners and continue exercises in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea. There is a need to develop a security policy function, in addition to the evaluation of the partnership policy to optimizing NATO’s interaction with all partners in Western Balkans and beyond.
NATO’s continuous enlargement as a risk management safeguard will ultimately temper the unintended consequences of the influence of the Great Powers in the Western Balkans. Without the Great Powers interference, could we assume the Balkans would be without wars or ethnic conflicts? Would the Ottoman Turks still be in charge? Or would it be some other multi-national empire?
Footnotes J.M. Roberts, The Penguin History of Europe (London: The Penguin Group, 1996), 503.  Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and Great Powers, 1804-1999 (New York: Viking Penguin.1999), 224-225.  Richard C. Hall, The Balkan Wars 1912-1913 (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 99.  Ibid. 14.  Glenny, 242-3.  Robert Kaplan, Balkan Ghost (New York: Vintage Departures. 1993), 63-64.  Hall, 104.  David G. Hermann, The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 198.  Glenny, 325-331.  Kaplan, 64.  Hermann, 198.  Hall, 142.  Glenny, 431.  Glenny, 656.  Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend, and John Manza, “Dr. John Manza on NATO Readiness, NATO’s Iraq Mission, and Challenges Facing NATO Today,” Brussels Sprouts On-line Interview, 15 February 2019; available from https://player.fm/series/brussels-sprouts/dr-john-manza-on-nato-readiness-natos-iraq-mission-and-challenges-facing-nato-today; Internet; accessed 5 September 2019.
Davies, Norman. Europe: A History.London: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Gerolymatos, Andre. The Balkan Wars: Conquest, Revolution, and Retribution from the Ottoman Empire to the Twentieth Century and Beyond. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002.
Gilbert, Felix and David Clay Large. The End of the European Era: 1890 to Present. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and Great Powers, 1804-1999. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999.
Hall, Richard C.The Balkan Wars 1912-1913. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Hermann, David G. The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 198.
Hulpchick, Dennis P. The Balkans: From Constantinople to Communism. New York: Plagrave, 2002.
Janovic, Branimir M. The Balkans in International Relations.New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
Kaplan, Robert D. Balkan Ghosts. New York: Vintage Departures, 1993.
Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of Europe. London: The Penguin Group, 1996.
Thaden, Edward C. Russia and the Balkan Alliance of 1912. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1965.
Roxana Allen is an International Law and Cybersecurity Advisor and a SAIS’05 Johns Hopkins Alumna, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins University. She was the Head of Field Office Trebinje with OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina during the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia to stop the Kosovo War.