The Bosnian Crisis of 1908-09 was very much the precursor of the events in the Balkans that spilled over into the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in June 1914. In this sense the Bosnian Crisis needs to be analysed within the same context as the assassination that was to trigger World War One.
The Bosnian Crisis was a very complicated issue that involved nine nations. In 1878, Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina with the agreement of the rest of Europe (Treaty of Berlin). Bosnia-Herzegovina were the two most northwesterly provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Austria-Hungary signed an agreement that the Sultan’s sovereignty over the area would be upheld but few expected Austria-Hungary to adhere to this. In fact, Austria-Hungary quickly made plans to annex the provinces. However, annexation had not been agreed at the Berlin meeting of Europe’s powers and the whole question remained dormant until after 1900.
If Austria-Hungary wanted to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina, she would have needed the full agreement of other European powers, especially Russia. In 1906, Austria-Hungary was generally experiencing problems among the people in the Balkans that it ruled over. The Austro-Hungarian Empire principally contained Croats, Slovenes, Serbians, Albanians and Macedonians and the whole issue of independence for these peoples reared its head.
Russia had lost a great amount of international prestige when she was defeated by Japan in the 1905 war in the Far East. The destruction of the Russian Navy at Tsuhima Bay was seen as a humiliating defeat. Russia, therefore, needed to restore her standing in Europe and in Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky they had a man who was determined to do just this. The Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Baron Lexa von Aehrenthal, also wanted to show that his nation was more than a mere satellite of Germany. He was willing to negotiate with Russia on their issues and the two men met in September 1908. Austria-Hungary wanted Russian support for the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina while Russia wanted Austrian support for the ending of the 1841 convention that banned men-of-wars from using the Bosphorus and Dardanelle’s, effectively trapping the Russian Navy in the Black Sea. If Russia had broken this convention with no support it would have provoked Britain who had a major naval presence in the Mediterranean; however, with support from Austria-Hungary, this would have been less of an issue for the Russians, though still provocative to Europe’s major naval power.
When both men met they put forward each nations aspirations. What actually happened at the meeting is open to dispute, as the Russians never released their official minutes of the meeting. The Austrians did and claim that an agreement was reached that each would support the other. Later the Russians did not dispute this but Izvolsky did claim that Austria gave no hint that the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina would be “imminent" and he interpreted what was said as meaning that annexation would take place but that it would be sometime in the future.
Bosnia-Herzegovina was annexed on October 6th 1908. This occurred before Izvolsky had sounded out Britain and France with regards to Russia’s desire to fully use the Bosphorus/Bosphorus. Izvolsky believed that Aehrenthal had tricked him – Russia had declared her support for the annexation but got nothing in return.
To spite Austria-Hungary, Izvolsky then suggested that Serbia should receive territorial compensation from Austria-Hungary to balance up the land annexed from Bosnia-Herzegovina. This Austria refused to even consider. Germany, though irked by the annexation, supported Austria-Hungary and Russia had to climb down. By the end of 1908, Russia had achieved nothing – no concessions for the use of the Straits and a powerful neighbour expanding her territory. It had also bonded Germany and Austria-Hungary even more and to all intents Russia appeared alarmingly isolated. The only thing Izvolsky achieved was to push Russia and Serbia together. Serbia had been against the annexation, as she wanted Bosnia-Herzegovina for herself. In late 1908, there was even talk of Serbia declaring war on Austria-Hungary and the press in Belgrade stirred up a great deal of public anger – not that it had to try too hard. While Serbia received no support from West European states, Nicholas II of Russia met with the Serbian Foreign Minister, Milovanovich, and while the tsar did not offer Serbia his full support in terms of military aid, he made it clear that he supported what the Serbs hoped to achieve but advised a patient approach.
Secretly – and this only became known in 1918 – Austria-Hungary and Germany’s chiefs-of-staff were in contact with regards to the declining situation in the Balkans. In January 1909, Conrad von Hötzendorf wrote to Helmuth von Moltke, the German chief-of-staff, that
“The possibility must be reckoned with that in the event of an Austro-Hungarian war in the Balkans (that is, against Serbia) Russia will enter upon warlike action in favour of the opponents of the monarchy."
Hötzendorf asked Moltke what military support Germany would offer to Austria-Hungary in the event of a war in the Balkans. Moltke replied – and stated very clearly that what he wrote was fully supported by Wilhelm II – that
“At the moment Russia mobilises, Germany will also mobilise and mobilise its entire army."
When Aehrenthal knew about the contents of this letter he safely assumed that he did not have to make any concessions to Izvolsky or Serbia.
The matter was further complicated when Turkey demanded to be compensated for the loss of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Their demand was supported by Britain. After much haggling, the Austrians agreed to pay the Turks a sum of about £2 million, which the Turks accepted and recognised the annexation. However, a matter that had initially involved Austria-Hungary and Russia had now dragged in Germany, Serbia (though Serbia was always going to be involved), Turkey and Britain.
In January 1909, the Serbian Foreign Minister Milovanovich made such an inflammatory speech against the Austrians in the Serbian Parliament that he was forced to write an apology to Aehrenthal. It was symptomatic of how the situation was degenerating.
In an attempt to pacify what was emerging in the Balkans, Sir Edward Grey asked Aehrenthal bluntly via telegram what Austria’s intentions were with regards to Serbia. He had first gained approval from Paris and Moscow about the contents of this telegram. Grey also asked Germany to support his quest to pacify the region but with no luck. Germany put the emphasis on Serbia to appear to be more peaceful rather than condemn Austria-Hungary. Grey decided to ask Izvolsky to put pressure on Serbia to be more willing to come to an agreement with Vienna. To complement this, he asked Aehrenthal to offer Serbia aid to stimulate Serbia’s economic growth. Grey also got France to support his move and Paris made it clear to Izvolsky that he had to inform Belgrade that Serbia had to start being more conciliatory and less provocative. On February 27th 1909, Izvolsky telegraphed Belgrade that they had to be more open to conciliation and that Russia did not support their desire for territorial compensation and that Serbia “must not insist on this".
Given the circumstances of what had emerged in the previous twelve months, it would appear strange that Serbia agreed to this. However, a newly appointed coalition government appeared to hint at the desire for a fresh start. In a letter sent to Belgrade, the Serbian government stated that it had neither desire for war nor any intention of starting one and that Serbia’s relation with Austria-Hungary remained “normal". Izvolsky was very influential in drafting this letter, which finished with a stated desire for the great powers of Europe to restore order in the Balkans.
The letter was not well received in Vienna. What irked Aehrenthal was the comment made by Serbia that she was content for the great powers of Europe to resolve the Balkan issue. Aehrenthal believed that only Austria-Hungary had a right to be involved in a dispute between neighbours and that the great powers had no right to be involved. Vienna informed Berlin that she was prepared to invade Serbia if the government in Belgrade failed to make an unequivocal declaration towards “peaceful intentions". Germany rejected the letter because it failed to mention anything about Serbian disarmament. Aehrenthal, probably buoyed by Germany’s stance, declared the letter unacceptable because it was addressed to Europe’s great powers and not directly to Austria-Hungary. A date was set – March 16th 1909 – for Serbia to have addressed all of the concerns expressed by Vienna. On March 14th, the Serbian government sent a note to Austria’s representative in Belgrade. The note was primarily concerned with commerce between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. It was quickly rejected.
However, on the previous day a conference took place in Russia that effectively meant that Serbia would be isolated if war occurred. On March 13th Russian army and naval senior officers met at Tsarskyoe Selo. They all agreed, along with the Minister of War, that Russia could not go to war and that military support for Serbia was “out of the question". This decision was reaffirmed on March 20th. There were those in Berlin was believed that this decision was a clear indication that Russia’s military might was not as great as some thought.
To what extent the decision at Tsarskyoe Selo made politicians in Berlin more hawkish is difficult to know, but historians have assumed that this was the case. It may well have had the same impact on Aehrenthal. Grey did what he could to rein in the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister but with little success. Aehrenthal planned to announce his desire that the ruler of Serbia should be the ‘King of Croatia’ (Emperor Franz Josef) who should take over from the dynasty that ruled Serbia in March 1909 – the Karageorge’s. Grey cautioned Aehrenthal that Serbia would not accept this and that what he was doing was bound to lead to friction.
However, Aehrenthal had gauged the situation correctly. He believed that there was no desire for war among the Triple Entente (Russia, France and the United Kingdom). Russia had clearly expressed her position while Britain’s naval might would have had little impact in the area. France’s large army would have had little direct impact on Austria and would have had to attack via Germany to get to the region. This was not going to happen in 1909. On March 29th 1909, Germany reaffirmed its support for Austria and condemned Serbia for its warlike attitude. Two days later, Serbia accepted Austria’s demand that she recognise Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia also announced that she would be a “good neighbour" to Austria-Hungary.
In Vienna and Berlin there was a universal belief that Aehrenthal had been successful. There was also a shared belief that both Britain and Russia had shown a very clear desire to avoid war, almost at all costs. It was also assumed that France would be unwilling to go to war over Serbia without the support of the other two members of the Triple Entente.