World at War - M. B. Synge




The Story of the Balkan States

"That shifting, intractable, and interwoven tangle of conflicting interests, rival peoples, and antagonistic faiths."
—JOHN MORLEY.

But the Triple Entente was not to bring peace to Europe. Only two months after the historic meeting at Reval—October 1908, like a bomb-shell the news spread through Europe that the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary had annexed two of the Balkan States, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with their little mountain capital, Serajevo. Little could men foresee at this time that five years later Austria's heir—the Archduke Francis Ferdinand—would be assassinated here, an event which precipitated that Great World War that was to blaze over Europe for four long years.

Now these far-away Balkan States were the "happy hunting ground" of all the Great Powers, and especially did Austria-Hungary and Russia contend for their friendship.

To the north of Greece they lay, Turkey, Rumania, Bulgaria, Servia, Montenegro, Albania, and the two provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were just then causing all the trouble.

With its great ranges of mountains, partly bounded by the blue-green Danube, with its sparkling climate and wealth of old monasteries, with its vast plains and moors and lakes, this Balkan Peninsula was a land of mixed races, of constantly changing frontiers, of petty jealousies and short-lived alliances—each State having its own separate history, each its own independent ruler, each its own interests.

There was consternation throughout the Balkans at Austria's annexations, for, by the Treaty of Berlin, Bosnia and Herzegovina were still part of Turkey's reduced Empire.

For some time past the "Young Turks" had realised that reform in administration was a necessity, and it was never likely to happen under the "Red Sultan," whose murderous record was one of the most terrible in Turkish annals. They had sent an ultimatum to Abdul Hamid, who had been Sultan since 1876, demanding a Parliament within twenty-four hours. The Sultan replied that the idea was excellent, and a Turkish Constitution was at once proclaimed.

On 17th December 1908 the new Parliament was opened at Constantinople amid brilliant sunshine and surrounded by great crowds. Bright scarlet banners with crescent and star in white waved from every window under the domes of St Sophia.

The little Sultan stood there, saluting and nervously clasping his sword. He had suspended the old Constitution which had held for over thirty years!

A strong Turkey might reassert rights over her lost provinces, but Abdul Hamid was weak; further, he was a tyrant, and he must go.

"Down with the Sultan," was the cry.

"Abdul Hamid," ran the proclamation of the young Turks, "who for thirty-three years has exposed the Fatherland to the mercy of infamous scoundrels, who has consented to the deportation of thousands of patriots, who having been pardoned by the nation broke his oath and provoked the destruction of thousands of honest men, is no longer recognised by the nation as its sovereign." Inside his palace the Sultan heard the surrounding troops, but for long he refused to surrender. Then they entered—his thousand courtiers had fled. He was almost alone.

"I am a man of ill-luck," he cried. "Go and leave a ship that is sinking."

The old man was exiled to Salonika, and his younger brother, under the name of Mohammed V., reigned in his stead. But Turkey's efforts at reform on European lines were hopeless, and soon the neighbouring States were groaning at her tyranny and cruelty. The Kaiser alone continued her friend.

Indeed, far from being reformed, the condition of Macedonia, left under Turkish rule by the Congress of Berlin, had become well-nigh intolerable, and massacres of the Christians in their midst still continued. Many Bulgarians lived there too under very great hardships.

Now Bulgaria had been an independent country since 1878. The country lay between the Balkan Mountains and the River Danube, and her first ruler had been chosen for her by the Tsar of Russia, who appointed his nephew, Alexander of Battenberg.

"Accept your Prince from me," he had said at the time, "and love him as I love him."

The result was that Bulgaria became practically a Russian province, until the friendship between nephew and uncle gradually cooled and then ended. Alexander was kidnapped by Russian officials in his own palace at Sofia, and hustled out of his kingdom.

After "hawking the vacant throne all over Europe," it was offered in 1887 to Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg, a man with Austrian and German blood in his veins, then living in Vienna.

He reached the picturesque old capital Tirnovo amid enthusiastic crowds and shouts of "Long live free independent Bulgaria." He advanced to Sofia, the capital, through the terrific heat of midsummer, to be met with—"Welcome, royal Prince. The Bulgarian people thank you for your courage in coming here at this critical moment."

Russia was naturally angry, especially when Ferdinand of Bulgaria married, and his son and heir, Prince Boris, was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church. Later the young Crown Prince was baptised according to the rites of the Orthodox Church, and the Tsar Nicholas acted as godfather.

Russia and Bulgaria then moved forward together, until they separated in the Great War.

To sever the last ties with Turkey, Ferdinand now assumed the old title of "Tsar of Bulgaria," and on 5th October 1908 the principality was converted into a kingdom, by which deed Turkey and Bulgaria were nearly brought to war.

To the North of the Danube from Bulgaria lay Rumania, created in 1861 from several smaller principalities with a capital chosen for her at Bucharest. A few years later the vacant throne was offered to Prince Carol of Hohenzollern, related to the Kaiser. It is said the young Prince had never heard of Rumania, but when the offer reached him he took down an Atlas and finding that a straight line drawn from London to Bombay passed through Rumania, he exclaimed: "That is a country with a future," and at once accepted the crown.

Marrying the beautiful and gifted Elizabeth of Wied, known to the world as "Carmen Sylva," the Prince and Princess soon made themselves one with their adopted country. In 1881 Rumania was proclaimed a kingdom, but the death of their only child, "l'enfant du soleil," made it necessary to appoint an heir to the throne. To this end, the new king's nephew, Prince Ferdinand of Hohenzollern, was invited to come to the court of Rumania, and the succession was settled on him. He married Princess Marie, granddaughter both to Queen Victoria and the Tsar Alexander of Russia.

A Hohenzollern on the throne and a Hohenzollern heir to the throne, what wonder that King Carol's sympathies were with Germany, or that he could say wholeheartedly: "Although I am King of Rumania, I am and shall always remain a Hohenzollern."

An inland country, with no outlet to the sea, divided from Austria-Hungary by the Danube and from Turkey by a very "chaos of mountain masses," lay Serbia, the most northern of the Balkan States, with its capital at Belgrade.

Soon after Rumania had been declared a kingdom, Prince Milan of Serbia also assumed a royal crown. The newly created king had been on the throne of Serbia since he was a boy of thirteen—a very different ruler to King Carol! To add to his misfortunes, he had made an unfortunate marriage with the beautiful Queen Nathalie. Unhappy and unpopular, he abdicated in 1889 in favour of his only son, Alexander, a boy of thirteen. The country was under a Regent for the next four years, when suddenly, at the age of seventeen, Alexander declared himself of age and took the affairs of his kingdom into his own hands. This threw the country into confusion, which was made infinitely worse, when the young ruler married one, Draga, once lady-in-waiting to his mother, Queen Nathalie. To strengthen his position he now followed Russian guidance in his foreign policy. But, to his Serbian subjects, nothing could justify his unpopular marriage, and the tragic reign reached a tragic end when one June night in 1903, the gates of the royal palace at Belgrade were blown up and the King and Queen of Serbia were assassinated with cruel and savage fury. This ghastly crime sent a thrill of horror through all the countries of Europe.

The regicides at once proclaimed Prince Peter, an exiled claimant of a rival Serbian dynasty, King of Serbia. The new king was no longer young. He had married Princess Zorka of Montenegro, and lived quietly at Cettinje for some time past with his two little sons George and Alexander. The neighbouring States of Serbia and Montenegro had long been friends.

King Nicholas had been on the throne of Montenegro since 1860. He was an enlightened ruler, and a force to be reckoned with in the Balkan States. His mountainous little land was thinly inhabited, but the Montenegrins were warlike and brave. Not long before his daughter became Queen of Serbia another daughter, Helen, had married the Crown Prince of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, later to become Queen of that country.