Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier

The title is, of course, Bismark's famous dismissal of the Balkans. I have recently begun re-reading Robert Massie's seminal work Dreadnought. In the early chapters he runs through the important diplomatic events of the Victorian era by way of introducing the playing field on which Germans and British struggled for naval supremacy in the pre-Great War years. If you know the history of late-nineteenth-century Europe, you can skip the next three paragraphs.

A great deal of diplomatic and military fuss during these years, of course, focused on the Balkans. The story goes, more or less, as such: the Turks owned them, the Russians wanted them, the Austrians meddled with them, nobody got them. The Russians were motivated to interfere in the Balkans by twin concerns: pan-Slavism and opposition to the Turks. The Russians tried for centuries to exert enough pressure on the Turks so that the Porte would not be able to close the Bosporus and Dardanelles to Russia's Black Sea Fleet (the Baltic anchorages froze in the winter, and besides, battleships at Helsinki are not much use in protecting or menacing near east shipping).

Austria, on the other hand, had spent even more centuries wresting back north Balkan territory that the Turks had overrun in the 15th through early 17th centuries. The Balkans were her backyard, in which the Sick Man was enough of a trouble: other Great Powers surely couldn't be allowed to run free in it. Britain didn't particularly care whether the Balkans existed or not. She simply desperately wanted the straights closed to the Russian fleet, which could cut vital supply lines across the Mediterranean if loosed. The Prussians only cared about maintaining all the European spheres more or less in their present orbits, which happened to favor Germany.

So when in 1877 the Russians crushed the Ottomans in a war and extracted an independent (Russian-dominated) Bulgaria that filled most of the southern Balkans in the peace, the other powers were concerned. Ultimately Bismark hornswaggled the czar into renegotiating the peace at a Berlin conference that doled out diplomatic candy to other powers and forced Russia to surrender many of her gains. Nothing much changed from the European status quo antebellum except that now the Russians disliked Germany, of which they had been somewhat fond before. Eventually Wilhelm II sacks Bismark, the old diplomatic system falls apart, Russia and Austria dissolve, and millions of people die. Twice.

But suppose Bismark plays his cards differently. The British were incensed at the treaty, but were just beginning to reassert diplomatic influence in continental Europe and could have been fended off by diverse means. He could have let Russia keep most---perhaps not all---of the Big Bulgaria (it was a quite large state). He should have arranged a few guaranties for Turkey, so the Ottoman empire didn't implode (a constant fear and danger of the other powers). This effectively would have given Austria the short end of the stick.

The Austrians, however, never gained anything positive out of the Balkan influence they got from the Congress of Berlin: it was troublesome, expensive, and ultimately regicidal because, mirabili dictu, the Slavs didn't like being pushed around by Hapsburgs.. The principal problem that would face the Austro-Hungarian empire was not lack of diplomatic influence, it was internal tension between ethnic groups who could no longer be held together by the imperial crown. The Russians likely would have gained little in terms of actual power from increased Balkan influence. They would have had to oversee the internal squabbling there, and it would have done little to remedy the shortcomings in manufacturing and leadership that stymied the empire until its collapse. Even if the czar had been able to open the straights to steam for Suez, the Mediterranean Squadron could have blasted the Russians to the bottom of the Sea of Marmara as they attempted to force the Dardanelles (cf, Tsushima). Maybe the Russians should have been made to promise not to base warships in Bulgarian ports.

In the end, the European system was undone by Russian and Austrian perceptions of their own internal and diplomatic weakness (and Wilhem II's being a warmongering fool when he needed to be cool-headed). If Russia had been allowed to keep these victories, there would have been no lingering perception that she was being weakened by falling down on her obligations to fellow Slavs. If Austria had been kept out of new Balkan adventures, she could have been encouraged to focus on internal administrative improvements, perhaps the adoption of some form of federal system that would have both put minority nationalists more at ease and simultaneously allowed better functioning of government bodies. Her ties with Germany would provide her with diplomatic support and her absence from volatile meddling in the Balkans would remove sources of tension. As for Italy, well, nobody really cared what Italy thought: all Italy really wanted was Trieste, and she wasn't ever powerful enough to get that.

I think there's at least an interesting argument to be made, then, that if the Congress of Berlin had ended more favorably to Russia, the turmoil that led to the Great War might not have occurred, and old Andrew Cusack wouldn't have to be so sadly nostalgic.

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