The Annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 was a dress rehearsal for the events following the Sarajevo assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914. The diplomatic exchange between Russia and the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire left Russia embarrassed and looking for opportunity to redeem its standing within the Great Powers of the day.
Conflicts Between Great Powers
Most conflicts between nations happen when one or more weakened powers withdraw from the scene and rising nations or neighbors scramble for the leftovers. This is a scene that has been replayed throughout history and can be seen in the rise and fall of the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Spaniards, French, Hapsburgs, Ottomans, Britons, Americans, and China just to name a few. But rather than studying the war between the Great Powers of 1914 through 1918, this essay will examine one of the causes, perhaps the harbinger of the events of Sarajevo: the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908. This study will explain the context and background of the event; highlight the historical context in which it occurred; identify the key players in the event; examine the negotiations, the announcement, and the crisis to follow the event; and analyze the outcomes and how it contributed to the decisions made in the late summer of 1914. The study will show how an underestimation of nationalist passions in the Balkans and a fumbling foreign policy led to the disgrace and embarrassment of Russia on the world stage. It was an embarrassment that Russia swore it would not suffer again.
The Historical Context
If the Ottoman Empire was the “sick man of Europe,” then certainly the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to be in the wings waiting to take up that title upon the eventual passing of the frail Empire that for centuries bridged the gap between the East and West. The decline of these two empires and the subsequent struggle to pick up the pieces that occurred between the major powers of Russia, France, Britain, and those new upstarts Germany and Italy led to numerous conflicts, both diplomatic, and armed in the twenty or so years before the events of August 1914. Prior to the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the events that occurred in the Balkans and elsewhere betwixt the two dying Empires had been localized with only moderate, passing interest paid by the monarchs of the Great Powers. Yet, this one incident and the very public manner in which it was done disgraced a powerful, but wounded empire that would bear bitter fruit only six years later.
The annexation was an attempt by Austria to shore up its declining power in the Balkans, bring order to the chaos of the withdrawing Ottomans, stem the tide of Slavic nationalism, and in the same light, to hold the line against the ambitious nation of Serbia. Russia, the self-anointed protector of the Slavic people and as evidenced in the Crimean War, the advocate of the Orthodox peoples in its area of influence, was publically slighted and outraged when the issue of the opening of the Dardanelles straight was not resolved. However angered the Russian bear was, she was still licking her wounds following the disastrous forays into Japan and Manchuria as well as dealing with the chaos and turmoil of revolution. Unable to back up its goals through military means, the mighty nation simmered and waited for an opportunity of her own to reinforce her standing as a great power.
At the turn of the Twentieth Century, two empires lay dying. In the 1500s, the empires administered by the Hapsburgs and the one by the Ottoman Turks spanned most of continental Europe, Asia Minor, the Levant, and much of North Africa. The Ottoman Empire herself had been in steady decline since her height in the late 1500s, notably due to incompetent leadership; constant wars with her neighbors Austria and Russia; and a stagnation of economy and technological progress. After being turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683, the Ottomans began their long retreat from Europe. While they steadily withdrew, the Austrians fought their own decline and struggled to maintain their territory.
At the height of their power, the Hapsburgs of Austria had controlled the Iberian Peninsula, most of Germany, several provinces in Italy, vast swathes of Eastern Europe, and of course Austria herself. But, following the mid-1500s abdication of King Charles V, the lands were ruled independently by his squabbling successors and Austria began her great decline. One by one, the ethnically diverse provinces began to slip away from Vienna’s central control. This decline occurred because of many factors, chief among them being the distractions of a continuous Ottoman invasion; the Protestant Reformation and challenge of Catholic rule in the German states; and unstable, inflexible rulers.
Sensing her decline Austria perennially remained on the defensive, seeking out alliances whenever she could find them. Militarily, they had been consistently defeated since the days of Frederick the Great. They had to fend off invasion from Prussia; they allied with Bordeaux France; they fought Revolutionary France, and pragmatically divided the spoils; and they allied with Russia to defend against Napoleonic invasion. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Austria as an Empire was merely a shell of her former self.
Though the Great Powers conspired to keep the peace and quell further revolutionary activity after defeating Napoleon, the Pandora box of nationalism had been cracked. By the time the 1848 revolutions swept across Europe, Russian-Austrian relationships had gone stale as the Ottomans withdrew from the Balkans and nationalism swept southern and eastern Europe. The Italian provinces united to form their own nation. The Russians backed the independence movements of Slavic nations while Austria saw its tenuous grip on the remaining parts of its Empire slipping. Austria declined as alliances shifted and Prussia consolidated the German states and squashed France in the wars of unification. After France aligned with Russia out of fear of further Prussian aggression, Austria naturally sought protection from Germany, her former rival for central European hegemony.
Russia at the Turn of the Century
In 1904, Russia went to war with Japan. Russia desired secure, warm-water ports on the Pacific while Japan viewed the Russian presence with warranted suspicion. For the Russians, it was an unmitigated disaster. They were decisively defeated on the seas and their losses catastrophic on land. The debacle led to the first revolution against the Romanovs in 1905. The war with Japan left the Russian military in shambles, unable to come to her ally France’s aid should the need arise. “Military experts everywhere in Europe agreed that Russia was incapable of fighting an offensive war throughout the period from 1906 to 1908. … Russian military opinion considered that ‘Russia will for a certain time be almost valueless as a military ally against Germany.’” The Russian Chief of the General Staff, General F. F. Palitsyn “estimated in March 1906 that it would be three and a half years before the Russian army recovered fully, provided that enough money flowed to keep the factories in production.” It was this impotence that encouraged rather than deterred German aggression in the Moroccan crisis of 1905.
It may as well be a certainty that Russia’s state of military disrepair was a significant factor in the timing and decision-making of Austria-Hungary in the Bosnian issue. For the past three years, the subject of Russia’s military weakness was a key point of discussion in many circles. Military attachés from Austria and Germany both regularly communicated with their governments on St. Petersburg’s lack of preparedness. Indeed, in “a rare moment of candor”, Russia even acknowledged to France’s military attaché, Brigadier General Moulin, that they “refused even to prepare for taking the offensive against Germany;” a key component of the mutual defense plan in case of German aggression against France.
Politically, Russia had undergone her first revolution in 1905 as multiple strikes crippled the country following the Bloody Sunday killing of demonstrators in St. Petersburg. Due to the ongoing war in the east, Nicholas II was unable to suppress the strikers militarily and reluctantly agreed to liberal reforms that resulted in universal suffrage, an elected legislature, and political parties.
In 1908, the very year of the annexation of Bosnia, the Oktobrist Party leader, Aleksandr Guchkov publically decried the Russian military’s state of readiness in a speech before the Duma. While Guchkov no doubt intended his speech to be a boon to his nationalist party and made it out of deep concern and for patriotic reasons, his statements “laid open Russia’s military weakness for all to see.” This speech was delivered just three months before the annexation and simply confirmed Austria-Hungary’s estimation of Russian preparedness.
Austria-Hungary at the Turn of the Century
Militarily, the Austro-Hungarian Empire “continually amazed observers simply by continuing to function at all.” The divided political nature of the Dual Monarchy between the Austrians and the Magyars made even the simplest of annual military appropriations an exhausting exercise. Like the squabbling that takes place today in the divided U.S. Congress, the military was many times held hostage for mostly political reasons in impasses between Hungarian legislators and those in Vienna. Despite the losses of the Italian and German states, it is testament to the skill of Austrian diplomats to have maintained the Empire’s own stability for as long as they did.
While the military could not be counted upon in times of crisis, the politicians of the Empire assuredly could. The cruel reality of the times was that the Empire was “a weak agrarian power that lacked both the economic resources of the Western powers and the manpower with which Russia compensated for its backwardness, [and] simply lacked the military strength to fulfill unaided the responsibilities thrust on it.” The upshot of this situation was that Austria depended upon the alliances she created.
In the original Concert of Europe, Austria-Hungary was charged with administering the Italian and German states while the Ottomans, the Balkans. Following the loss of Italy and Germany to the nationalist cause, and the implosion of the Ottoman power over its imperial holdings, Austria-Hungary rightly looked to its south in concern. In an Empire comprised of numerous nationalities, languages, and cultures, Vienna understood the threat to her integrity posed by nationalism and set about attempting to stabilize its southern flank.
Serbia at the Turn of the Century
Serbia had become a sovereign nation in 1878 and initially enjoyed fairly good relations with Austria-Hungary. Much of the Dual Monarchy’s southern regions were populated by Serbs whose forefathers had fled Ottoman oppression. For a time, the ethnic Serbs in the Dual Monarchy enjoyed their freedoms but had more recently experienced discrimination and persecution by the Roman Catholic majority. In 1903, a bloody palace coup in Belgrade installed Serbian nationalist Peter Karageorgevitch as the new king of Serbia. This monarch rode a wave of popular Serb nationalism. There was a palpable feeling of Slavic pride and the Austrians feared that this nationalism on display in Belgrade “would act as a dangerous magnet, tending to draw away Austria’s Serb subjects to form the ‘Greater Serbia.’” With such a large and ethnically diverse population, Austria feared her ethnic minority populations would be inspired by Serbia and attempt to throw off Viennese rule.
Count Alexander Petrovich Izvolsky
Alexander Petrovich Izvolsky was the Russian Foreign Minister during the Annexation crisis. He had previously been posted to Tokyo during the build-up to the Russo-Japanese War and followed that assignment as the Foreign Minister to Denmark. By any account, Izvolsky was woefully unprepared for the ambitious foreign policy he hoped to accomplish. The chief of Izvolsky’s concerns was the reestablishment of Russia’s prestige following her humiliation in East Asia. The seemingly surest way to accomplish that and perhaps the most feasible was to force the issue of the opening of the Dardanelles straight; long a subject of Russian discontent. Lacking a warm-water port with free access to the West, Russian warships had for many years been held in check by the Ottomans who controlled the straights. The implosion of Ottoman power and the Entente Russia reached with Britain presented the ideal time to bargain for opening the straights.
Izvolsky has been “described … as a man of great gifts but of inordinate ambition which led him to seek laurels by rash actions.” He was “shrewd, subtle, proud, belonging to the Russian rural nobility but supposed to be a great admirer of British Liberalism.”
Count Alois Lexa von Ährenthal
Alois Lexa von Ährenthal succeeded the “prudent Goluchowski” in the post of Foreign Minister in 1906. Britain’s Asquith described Ährenthal as “the cleverest and perhaps least scrupulous of Austrian statesmen. Albertini states “his diplomacy … composed more of hard arrogance and dissolvent intrigue than of prudent reserve and ingratiating souplesse was a mixture of pretension and subtlety, of force and ruse, of realism and cynicism: his readiness to cheat, to circumvent, to outwit hid a harsh and ruthless will.” Ährenthal’s initial goal was to revive the Dreikaiserbund in an attempt to make Austria less dependent upon Germany, which was a marked departure from the policy of Goluchowski. This hope was shattered by the disclosure of the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 and was replaced by a pragmatic policy of diffusing tensions within the Balkans. Ährenthal hoped to accomplish this by isolating the Serbians and pacifying those Slavs under the Double Eagle with a carrot approach rather than the stick; and by not provoking the Russians.
Ährenthal “resented the subordinate position in European politics to which the Monarchy had been reduced in consequence of domestic crises and the great assertiveness of Germany.” He hoped that by negotiating with Russia on the subject of Bosnia while offering them support for the opening of the Bosporus the result would be a foreign policy coup for Austrian prestige, a stabilization of her southern borders, and a lesser need to rely on Germany.
In September of 1907, heady with confidence over his securing the British Entente which defused Anglo-Russian tensions in the Middle East, Izvolsky went to Vienna to meet with his Austrian counterpart Ährenthal. Since 1904, Izvolsky had been trying to force the issue of the Dardanelles with any Great Power that would listen. He unsuccessfully tried to bend the ear of Britain’s Edward VII at Copenhagen when he was the ambassador to Denmark and again unsuccessfully attempted during the Entente negotiations with Britain in 1907.
During the informal discussions with Ährenthal, Izvolsky mentioned the question of the Dardanelles. He plainly stated the Russian desire to open them to her war ships was an even higher priority now that she had lost her port to the Pacific at Port Arthur. Ährenthal, quickly recognizing an opportunity to advance his agenda of pulling the southern Slavs under the wing of the Dual Monarchy, less than subtly mentioned the possibility of formally annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina. Izvolsky showed support for this arrangement and the two went their separate ways.
Following the Vienna meeting, Ährenthal brought the subject of the annexation to his government and was answered with tacit agreement. Ährenthal wished to use the subject of the Sandžak of Novibazar to sweeten the deal for the Russians. Under the 1885 Treaty of Berlin, Austria-Hungary was charged with not only occupying Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also this small province which was also under titular control of the Ottomans. In this aspect Ährenthal and the Austrian Chief of the General Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf clashed. Von Hötzendorf viewed the small strip separating Montenegro from Serbia as a defense against pan-Slavic aspirations and as a fail-safe path to the Aegean, while Ährenthal saw the Sandžak as a somewhat meaningless piece of land but withdrawing its military forces from it as a powerful symbolic gesture of Austria’s intentions of no further designs of expansion.
In January 1908, after attaining consent from his home government to pursue the military abandonment of the Sandžak, Ährenthal publically announced designs for a railway transecting the same Sandžak. This sparked the beginning of misunderstandings and conflict. The Russians interpreted this move as duplicitous in intent; signaling an Austrian desire to encircle Serbia. Albertini opines Ährenthal proposed the line so as “to enhance the value of this renunciation in the eyes of the Great Powers.” The Russian perspective on this point seems more accurate in that one of the intentions of Austria was in fact to isolate Serbia from potential expansion. Now whether that isolation was intended to be defensive or offensive in nature depends on who was able to more effectively bend the ear of Francis Joseph. There is no reason to believe the architect of the policy, Ährenthal had any designs on Serbia, though a case can certainly be made that von Hötzendorf wished to strike Serbia.
On July 2, Izvolsky penned a letter to Ährenthal that expressed Russian consent to the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in exchange for Austria’s expression of support for the opening of the Dardanelles to Russian war ships. In this curious wording, Izvolsky committed a diplomatic blunder of an almost unprecedented scale; effectively granting every demand while receiving nothing tangible in return.
While Ährenthal’s plans came along slowly, in July 1908 an event happened which threatened to forestall the intentions of both Austria and Russia. The sick man of Europe experienced a cure in the form of the Young Turk revolution. The accompanying reforms and positive, ambitious outlook of the Committee of Union and Progress worried Ährenthal that the reforming Turks may gain support of several of the Great Powers and undermine the design to wrest away Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria. So Ährenthal sped up his timeline and in August and early September, he gained assent from the dual governments of the Dual Monarchy for the design upon Bosnia-Herzegovina and the withdrawal from the Sandžak.
On September 16 1908, Izvolsky met with Ährenthal at Buchlau castle in the modern-day Czech Republic to discuss the issues of the annexation, the withdrawal from the Sandžak, and the Bosporus Straights. From here, unfortunately, all that remains is the written account of Ährenthal as Izvolsky did not take notes on the deliberations. What did occur following the meeting is known. Izvolsky departed Buchlau at a leisurely pace, taking a holiday while enroute to present the proposals to the signatories of the Treaty of Berlin; the key action necessary to gain consent for the various points which were agreed to at Buchlau. Ährenthal, on the other hand, immediately got to work on implementing the annexation plan.
In concert with his plans to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ährenthal also hinted strongly to Sofia to declare her independence from the Turks. Ährenthal believed having Bulgaria proclaim her independence would overshadow what he thought to be the measly matter of formerly annexing a de-facto province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This being done, the Bulgars jumped the gun on Ährenthal and proclaimed their independence on October 5. This annoyed Ährenthal greatly, forcing him to move up his timeline by a few days, and made the announcement of the annexation the same day.
This, October 5, being less than a month after Buchlau, and before Izvolsky had spoken with France and Britain, hit the international community hard. Stunned by the announcement, Izvolsky suddenly found himself under fire from the British and French, who were not amiable to the deal and had not been consulted. It especially angered the Serbs who viewed the annexation as a threat to their sovereignty.
The conference of Buchlau is one of the great mysteries found in history. Precisely what wording was used during the meeting is lost with varying interpretations existing between eminent historians like Albertini, Fay, Fleming, and Schmitt. As told by the translator of Izvolsky’s memoirs, Charles Louis Seeger, it is a shame that Izvolsky’s early death interrupted his plan to write his version of the details of the Bosnia affair that are now hidden to history. The lack of documentation of the negotiations between Ährenthal and Izvolsky from the Russian point of view leaves us only with Ährenthal’s version of the story. Though Ährenthal and Izvolsky’s accounts following the conference differ, it is likely that Izvolsky was unaware of the timing of the annexation and was purposefully kept in the dark by Ährenthal.
It is clear that there was a divide in at least the agreements from both sides. Izvolsky maintained the terms negotiated at Buchlau were to be subject to the ratification of the signatories to the Treaty of Berlin as these changes necessitated significant revisions to the document. Ährenthal agreed to the need for a conference of nations to apply revisions but claimed he told Izvolsky the question of the annexation was to be off the table and a settled matter. It is hard to believe Izvolsky agreed to such a statement or even had the authority from the Tsar to make it but Izvolsky could never produce any documentation presenting his side of the story while Ährenthal could produce his official documentation of the events that took place on September 16.
Ährenthal knew Russia's weakness; her fear of revolution. He correctly assessed the egoism and ambition of Izvolsky. He was aware of the weakness, ineptitude, and the paralyzing indecision of Nicholas II. Furthermore, the German fear of a policy of encirclement fostered by Great Britain had been aroused by the conferences at Algeciras and Reval. Ährenthal gambled that Germany would not abandon her only reliable European ally. It was a safe bet. … Ährenthal duped Izvolsky, humiliated the Russian Empire, and seized from Germany the diplomatic initiative which Bismarck had preserved so jealously.
The Announcement and Crisis
The October 5 1908 announcement by Francis Joseph of the formal annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina sent shockwaves from Sarajevo to Moscow, from Skopje to London, from Belgrade to Paris. Serbia’s close ally and Jugoslav aspirant Montenegro angrily rejected the land-grab and announced it would no longer hold to Article 29 of the Berlin treaty which limited its sovereignty on its coastline with the Adriatic. Cetinje made its own formal list of demands and delivered them to Izvolsky to be presented at the assumed upcoming European Conference to negotiate the changes. These included a rescinding of the annexation, a deletion of Article 29, and other small territorial changes to Montenegro’s benefit.
France had been forewarned of the announcement by the Austro-Hungarian ambassador. Having assumed Izvolsky had already communicated the agreements reached at Buchlau, Count Khevenhüller, the ambassador, relayed the news of the imminent annexation to the French government. In the relaying of the message, Khevenhüller, allayed French worries by stating the initiative had “the concurrence of the Cabinets of St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Rome.” With this assurance that her ally Russia was satisfied, France, with the exception of Prime Minister Clemenceau reacted in a rather apathetic manner.
Shortly after the French notification, the Quai d’Orsay notified Britain as well. Britain was not so much concerned by the actual event as much as to the damage done to the new Turkish government that it backed. Britain equally did not wish to offend its new partner Russia in the very beginning of their new-found warm relationship. They swiftly issued a demarche to Vienna expressing their concern for the method used in securing this annexation and further concern for the state of treaties if they could be re-written with secret negotiations of a minority of parties. Yet Britain never considered going to war to protect the egos of the Russians, or the insult upon the Turks. It hoped to methodically keep the peace and the status quo of the alliances developed.
The Germans supported the annexation but the Kaiser was incensed it had been made without consultation with him. Since Bismarck, the hallmark of German foreign policy was to keep France weak and out of alliance with another foreign power. Since Bismarck’s dismissal, the collapse of Austro-Russian relations, and the Franco-Russian entente, the Bismarck strategy morphed into rupturing the alliance. It is a logical conclusion that severely damaging Russian interests in the Balkans without having an active hand therein would serve to severely strain the ties between Paris and St. Petersburg. Certainly Bülow and Wilhelm both knew the French would not go to war over the Slavic question and saw this as an opportunity to support an ally whilst simultaneously driving a wedge between Paris and St. Petersburg, showing France’s unsteady nature as an ally.
After the announcement Ottoman Turkey was understandably miffed. In one fell stroke she had lost nominal control of the provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina and of Bulgaria. Yet, she was pragmatic enough to understand that her only recourse lay not in the force of arms, but in appealing to the Great Powers for either redress or compensation. “After the first feelings of indignation had died down, the Porte took the position that while it was prepared to reconcile itself with the fait accompli in Bosnia, … it must be compensated for the loss of the Bulgarian tribute.” Faced with this demand and knowing that the subject of Bosnia would likely arise in any European Conference forced by the issue of Bulgaria, the Dual Monarchy along with Bulgaria came to terms of monetary compensation to be paid to Turkey for the territories. The private manner in which the compensation question happened kept the Turkish demand for a conference off the table, further enhancing the status of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s annexation as a fait accompli.
Naturally, Serbia had the largest outcry. Scores of demonstrators in the streets of Belgrade hurled invective at Vienna. Stuck between the rock of possible revolution and the hard place of unintentionally provoking Austrian military response, the Serbian government mobilized its reserve military to deal with the unrest. The Serbian parliament passed resolutions condemning the action, secured war bonds as insurance, and created something that played a major part in the events of 1914. Schmitt describes it thusly:
In the light of subsequent history, however, the most important incident of these days was the establishment of the society called Narodna Odbrana [“National Defence”], “which should protect and promote our interests in the annexed provinces” … it was to the alleged activities of this organization that the Austro-Hungarian government ascribed the revolutionary ferment in Bosnia-Herzegovina which was mad the basis for the ultimatum of 23 July 1914.
In the months following the announcement, Serbia increased the heated rhetoric, demanding Bosnia be given its independence and territorial compensation for herself. Belgrade continued to make appropriations for war funding and conducted their annual induction of new army recruits four months early.
In all of this, Britain, France, and Germany looked upon the crisis with concern but were unwilling to step in themselves to solve the crisis backed by military force. Germany of course, was in favor of the outcome of the announcement while Britain and France were mainly concerned for the continuation of peaceful relations in the region and that Turkey received a fair shake.
The Russian response to the announcement is somewhat of a mystery as well. It is a testament to Izvolsky’s amateur handling of the entire affair that official Russian sentiment from St. Petersburg was against the annexation that Izvolsky had reportedly assented to. The Russian Prime Minister Stolypin and Nicholas II both rejected the annexation outright. It was such a rejection that Stolypin threatened resignation should Russia concur with the annexation. It is unclear if Izvolsky acted on his own accord at Buchlau and negotiated away concessions that he had no right to or if Ährenthal had cleverly manipulated statements from Izvolsky he never intended to make. The Russian narrative itself is not consistent. There does exist conflicting stories about Nicholas II’s foreknowledge and agreement to the affair. Regardless, Russia was upset and pushed for a European congress to settle the issue.
Mercer rightly contends Russia knew the inevitability of the annexation and essentially sought to get “something for nothing” whilst “exploit[ing] anti-Austrian feelings in the Balkans and capitaliz[ing] on Europe’s dismay over the violation of the Berlin treaty.” This strategy of course, hinged on keeping the negotiations at Buchlau secret. Ährenthal, though, was forced by events occurring in Turkey and Bulgaria to force the issue quicker than the Russians expected. And when Izvolsky expressed buyer’s remorse, the threat of releasing the Ährenthal account of the conference at Buchlau quieted the official Russian stance, forcing her to internalize its grievances.
Following Britain and French demurring on opening a conference on the issue of the annexation and the Serbs preparing for war with the Dual Monarchy, Austria-Hungary appealed to Germany for assistance to mediate the crisis. Germany responded by issuing a telegram to Nicholas II that in no uncertain terms, demanded their assent to the annexation of Bosnia with no strings attached, else, Germany would stand by and let “things take their course.” This of course insinuated that Austria-Hungary would militarily step in and crush Serbia. Russia, in her feeble state, knew it could not intervene to help, and given the sentiments of France and Britain, she knew she had no choice but to assent to the demands and tell Serbia to stand down.
Analysis of the Fallout
Throughout the affair, Izvolsky comes across as relatively ignorant, unprepared, and inadequately matched in comparison to Ährenthal. While Ährenthal understood the political as well as military concerns of his government, for example, in dealing with the issue of the Sandžak, Izvolsky showed remarkable ignorance in the state of affairs of the Russian military following the disasters in the east. Just two years following the defeat, Izvolsky had “suggested that joint Anglo-Russian military action in Turkey” could have very beneficial consequences for Russian interest in the region. This suggestion was of course made during the period in which all military attachés regularly reported to their governments of the inability of Russia to wage any offensive war. This is in addition to the political realities of post-Revolutionary Russia in which the people had little stomach for more foreign adventures in pursuit of the glory of Imperial Russia.
Due to the debacle, Russia realized her impotence and had vastly underestimated the outrage generated by Serbia. She had unwittingly uncovered a seething hot-bed of nationalism in her own sphere of influence that threatened to undermine the partnership, albeit uneasy, it had enjoyed with Austria-Hungary for many years. “In the face of these elemental forces the diplomatic devices of a tiny decision-making elite that had contained Austro-Russian differences … for the past century were swept away.”
At the end of the affair, the Russians found themselves out-maneuvered on all fronts. Her alliance with France was established primarily as a mutual defense against Teutonic aggression, not as a club with which to back up Slavic interests in the Balkans. Despite the underhanded nature of Ährenthal’s diplomacy, France would never come to Russia’s aid militarily solely to avenge offenses done to Serbia. Britain was only in the beginning stages of friendly relations with Russia having sparred with the bear for many years over the Middle East. Neither Grey, nor Clemenceau would back up Russia with military might over this minor regional issue.
As has been shown, Serbia was outraged and pushed what most expected to be a minor bump in international relations up to the point of armed conflict between herself and Austria-Hungary. That the Great Powers underestimated the terrific response from Belgrade is understandable given that Russia had already in a conspiratorial manner handed over the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Dual Monarchy in 1877 as compensation for remaining neutral in a Russo-Turkish war. The fact that the Serbs flew into an uproar when the provinces were officially handed over speaks volumes to the passion of the flame of Slavic nationalism and the conflagration that would ignite in Sarajevo not only six years later.
It is this writer’s contention that Izvolvky and Ährenthal did not set out to destroy a working partnership with each other. They were not intent on building an alliance. They did not wish to poison their relations to the extent that it did six months following the annexation announcement. Both Izvolsky and Ährenthal believed the peoples being bartered in private talks would simply go along with whatever outcome the powerful elites determined for them. This estimation was based upon the normal course of affairs history had displayed. The passion that nationalism could inflame was a very new phenomenon. They vastly underestimated the reactions their decisions would make in Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and elsewhere.
In many historical circles, Austria-Hungary gets the majority of the blame for causing the crisis. Certainly, Ährenthal was evasive and duplicitous in his dealings with Russia, but how can he be blamed for accepting a diplomatic gift from an incoherent and incompetent Russian government? Now whether Austria-Hungary should get the blame for setting the ripe conditions for the Great War to take place six years later is another matter, but certainly none of the powers believed the little regional spat between the powers could evolve into that great a mess.
While Austria was opportunistic and devious, Russia, of course had fumbled the entire exchange. Nicholas II claimed to have not given permission to Izvolsky to barter away Bosnia-Herzegovina no matter what the price, though Izvolsky’s assistant denies this, stating the Tsar had approved a memorandum detailing the plan prior to Izvolsky’s approach to Ährenthal. When Francis Joseph announced the annexation, Nicholas II decried it, isolating Izvolsky. How this occurred exactly is unknown. Schmitt speculates it could be attributed to the Tsar’s propensity to go along with whatever the latest aid or advisor said. Whatever happened, Izvolsky was abandoned by his government and left to attempt to force a European Conference to which Austria-Hungary could be brought to heel by France, Britain, and Russia. This, of course, the second Algeciras, never happened and Russia was left smarting to restore her credibility both amongst the Great Powers from a military standpoint, and to the Slavs in the Balkans who rightly wondered if they had been sold down the river by their benefactor. “The Russians themselves were determined at all costs that the humiliation of 1909 must never be repeated.”
While it is clear that the crisis of the annexation did not result in general war, it is an interesting proposal to consider what could have happened had Russia’s military not been so incapable or politics so unsteady. Would Nicholas II have moved upon Austria Hungary because of this offense? It is unlikely given the risk versus reward considerations for such a seemingly minor offense. However, given Nicholas’s ineptitude and instability it is worthy of consideration. It seems more likely that if the Russians had more potent a military capacity, Ährenthal, astute as he was, would not have so brazenly affronted Russia. Still, given the events of July and August 1914, it is a valid question.
Despite the perception of bowing to Slavic interests, during the crisis, Russia was not so much concerned about the nation of Serbia or some of the Slavic peoples in the Balkans, but was mortified by the prospect of losing her status as one of the Great Powers. For Russia, the existential threat of the whole affair was that “of an Austro-Hungarian punitive expedition against Serbia and the blow that this would deal, by exposing Russia’s impotence to prevent it, to her standing as a Great Power, both in the Balkan capitals and in Europe generally.” Given Russia’s weakness, it is puzzling that Izvolsky set out on an ambitious foreign policy to repair her damage in the Japanese war. Gooch explains Russia’s foreign follies in the years immediately following the humbling in Japan thusly:
Russia … was unfit for war, and should have kept aloof from the quarrels of the Powers. Her initial mistake in tying herself to France and thereby needlessly antagonising Germany was followed by an endeavour to secure hegemony in the Balkans, which involved the hostility of Austria.
Why Russia would risk this kind of damage to her standing in the world for only the prospect of opening the Bosporus Straights is also a good question. Izvolsky must have been extremely overconfident in the prospects of achieving this goal as all it took was the casual mention of Austria’s openness to the idea that led him to pursue it with reckless abandon. “By threatening to resist and then backing down, Russia lost far more than a payoff from the Austrians. The situation in 1909 led others to ignore later Russian diplomatic statements.”
How the Annexation Crisis Anticipated the Great War
It is important to place the Bosnian annexation crisis in context not only of what was to occur in 1914 but also in light of what previously happened in the first Moroccan crisis and the subsequent conference that resulted in Germany backing down due to the combined, unwavering pressure of France and Britain. Mercer explores how the fallout from that conflict informed how the participants of this Balkan crisis would react not three years later. Following Algeciras, “Germany left … with three lessons: Germany had a reputation for lacking resolve and other states would seek to exploit it; Germany was alone in the world except for Austria and so Vienna must be supported; Germany should avoid conferences when in the minority.” This accounts for how the German position against a European Conference to settle the Bosnian affair was so intransigent. One can extend this logic further to explain how Germany did not believe Russia would mobilize in 1914 to protect Serbia from Austrian attack.
The systems of alliances that developed post-Bismarck were expedient and largely untested prior to the first Moroccan crisis. At Algeciras, the Franco-British Entente Cordiale was put to the test with Germany experiencing a diplomatic defeat and sensing the need to deepen its own alliance with Austria-Hungary. The Bosnian crisis served this purpose nicely. While Wilhelm was likely truthfully furious that he was not consulted by Austria, he had to have been pleased the crisis occurred as it did with the strengthening of Austria and the relationship with her. The overall “result of the crisis was thus to consolidate both alliance systems, to extend the scope of the German-Austrian one, and to increase the level of tension between the two.”
It was this mentality of the fear of a loss of prestige that was shared by all the belligerents of 1914. Russia was terrified she would never be taken seriously in international affairs due to the Bosnian affair. Austria-Hungary sensed its own weakness and susceptibility to being torn apart piece-meal from the inside by nationalists. France felt threatened by Germany’s industrial and military might and had good reason to be due to the lessons of 1871. Germany felt surrounded by large powers, one of which she had offended recently, and the other which had allied militarily with the first one. Britain felt threatened as her main claim to being a Great Power, her navy, was on the cusp of being eclipsed by the new industrial power of Germany. In 1914, all of these nations went to war to protect their prestige, their borders, and their ability to do so. In that sense, the Great War was inevitable.
[Russia’s] inability to take up the challenge in 1909 was a bitter memory, and no one had a right to expect that she would submit to such a humiliation again. … By 1914 she had regained her self-confidence and was prepared to meet a challenge from any quarter. Had she left her protégé to the tender mercies of Austria, she would have forfeited all claim to be the champion of the Slavonic races and have handed over the Balkan peninsula and Turkey without a struggle to the domination of the Central Powers. Russia could no more be expected to remain neutral in face of an Austrian attack on Serbia than England in face of a German attack on Belgium. The same instinctive pride of a Great Power which compelled Vienna to throw down the glove compelled Petrograd to take it up.
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Dailey, Kenneth I. “Isvolsky and the Buchlau Conference,” Russian Review 10, no. 1 (January 1951): 55-63.
Fleming, D. F. The Origins and Legacies of World War I. New York: Doubleday, 1968.
Gooch, G. P. “Recent Revelations on European Diplomacy,” British Institute of International Affairs 2, no. 1 (January 1923): 1-29.
Guisinger, Alexandra and Alastair Smith. “Honest Threats: The Interaction of Reputation and Political Institutions in International Crises,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 46, no. 2 (April 2002): 175-200.
Hamilton, Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig. Decisions for War, 1914-1917. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Izvolsky, Alexander Petrovich.. Recollections of a Foreign Minister. Translated by Charles Louis Seeger. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921.
Massey, Isabella M. “The Diplomatic Origins of the First World War,” International Affairs 25, no. 2 (April 1949): 182-191.
May, Arthur J. “The Novibazar Railway Project,” The Journal of Modern History 10, no. 4 (December 1938): 496-527.
Mercer, Jonathan. Reputation and International Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Schmitt, Bernadotte. The Annexation of Bosnia: 1908-1909. New York: Howard Fertig, 1970.
Snyder, Glenn H. “The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics,” World Politics 36, no 4 (July 1984): 461-495.
Strachan, Hew, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Treadway, John D. The Falcon & the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1983.
 David G. Herrmann, The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 61.
 Ibid., 113.
 Ibid., 97.
 F. R. Bridge, “The Foreign Policy of the Monarchy,” in The Last Years of Austria-Hungary: A Multi-National Experiment in Early Twentieth-Century Europe, ed. Mark Cornwall (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002), 14.
 Sidney Bradshaw Fay, The Origins of the World War: Volume I, Before Sarajevo (New York: The Free Press, 1966), 358-359.
 Alexander Petrovich Izvolsky, Recollections of a Foreign Minister, trans. Charles Louis Seeger (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921), 3-5.
 Luigi Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914, Volume I, trans. and ed. Isabella M. Massey (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), 188.
 Ibid., 190.
 Ibid., 191.
 Albertini, 190-191.
 Fay, 369.
 Bernadotte Schmitt, The Annexation of Bosnia: 1908-1909 (New York: Howard Fertig, 1970), 4.
 Fay, 367.
 Albertini, 194.
 Ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 196, 197.
 Ibid., 207.
 Ibid., 217-218.
 Izvolsky, v.
 Kenneth I. Dailey, “Isvolsky and the Buchlau Conference,” Russian Review 10, no. 1 (January 1951), 59-61.
 Ibid., 61-62.
 John D. Treadway, The Falcon & the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914 (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1983), 23, 24.
 Schmitt, 34.
 Schmitt, 100.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 47.
 Ibid., 146
 Ibid., 36.
 Schmitt, 20.
 Jonathan Mercer, Reputation and International Politics, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 115.
 Albertini, 286.
 Fay, 371.
 Bridge, 23.
 Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 37.
 Schmitt, 20.
 Ibid., 36.
 Bridge, 25.
 Bridge, 24.
 G. P. Gooch, “Recent Revelations on European Diplomacy,” British Institute of International Affairs 2, no. 1 (January 1923), 21.
 Alexandra Guisinger and Alastair Smith, “Honest Threats: The Interaction of Reputation and Political Institutions in International Crises,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 46, no. 2 (April 2002), 190.
 Mercer, 130.
 Glenn H. Snyder, “The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics,” World Politics 36, no 4 (July 1984), 478.
 Gooch, 27.