Friday, January 31, 2014

Joschka Fischer on the Balkans and the legacies of the First World War

Joschka Fischer takes a shot at defining the present-day legacy of the First World War in The Great War’s Long Shadow Project Syndicate 01/29/2014.

What he has to say about the Balkans is especially interesting:

After the Cold War’s end and the collapse of the Russian Empire’s Soviet successor, war returned to the Balkans under very similar conditions to those that prevailed in the period before 1914, with aggressive nationalism ultimately reconfiguring the disintegrating Yugoslavia as six separate states. Of course, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, whose call for a "Greater Serbia" triggered the war, was not alone: For a moment, Europe was in danger of reverting to the confrontation of 1914, with France and the United Kingdom supporting Serbia, and Germany and Austria favoring Croatia.

Fortunately, there was no relapse, because the West had learned its lessons from historical mistakes. Today, three factors loom large in the avoidance of disaster: the United States’ military presence in Europe, the progress of European integration, and Europe’s abandonment of great-power politics. Yet there is no point in fooling oneself: Only as long as the Balkan countries believe in the European Union and the benefits of membership will today’s precarious peace in the region become permanent.
The centenary articles on the start of the war will refer to the obvious role Serbian hostility toward the Habsburg's Austro-Hungarian Empire had in starting the war through the Gavrilo Princip's assassination of Austria Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

We'll see how much background we see in the popular press on the major influence of Balkan conflicts in the buildup to the war in the years before Franz Ferdinand showed up in Sarajevo.

Much less those like the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 that wound up feeding into the complex alliances that made the Balkans such a death-trap for peace. (Christopher Clark, Die Geschichte, unsere exzentrische Lehrerin Süddeutsche Zeitung 30.01.2014) That war involved an attempt by Italy to seize what is now Libya as a colonies from the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled the area, known then as the provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica. Italy wound up in control of contested provinces.

More directly affecting the conditions that burst into conflict in 1914 were the two Balkan Wars, that of 1912 and the second in 1913.

George Kennan wrote about those wars in the New York Review of Books, "The Balkan Crisis: 1913 and 1993" (07/15/1993 issue), which also appeared as an introduction to The Other Balkan War: A 1913 Carnegie Endowment Inquiry in Retrospect (1993). He wrote of the 1912 war which pitted the Balkan League of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). Kennan wrote:

But never, surely, did any coalition of powers launch a war on the basis of flimsier understandings among them about what it was they were fighting for than did the participants of this military action against the Turks. The relations among the supposed allies, and particularly the most prominent of them — Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks — had, even before this, been of the worst kind, ridden by rivalries, suspicions, and conflicting aims. The result was predictable. The defeat of the Turks ended with forces of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece occupying portions of the helpless Macedonia. Each had aspirations with relation to the territory that could be satisfied only at the expense of the others. It was not surprising, therefore, that in June 1913 war broke out among them. It was this that was known as the second Balkan war.
Of the 1913 war, Kennan wrote:

This second fracas centered upon the fighting between the Serbs and the Bulgarians, longstanding rivals for preeminence in that southern part of the Balkans. Hostilities were furious but brief, lasting only over the midsummer of 1913. The Bulgarians, already overextended by their action against the Turks, were decisively defeated. A species of peace treaty (like many such arrangements, in essence a provisorium) was signed in Bucharest on August 10, 1913.

The news that war had broken out in the Balkans, reaching the major Western countries in the
early autumn of 1913, naturally came as a shock to the adherents of the European and American peace movements. The shock was modified, to be sure, by the fact that in Britain and America public opinion, and in particular the liberal opinion so prominently represented in the peace movements, had for years been strongly, sometimes fulsomely, sympathetic to the Balkan Slavs in their struggle for liberation from Turkey. Many well-meaning people in the West found it easy, in the light of this enthusiasm, to forget that the hostilities had been inaugurated in the first war by the Balkan Slavs themselves, in ways that constituted violations not only of international law but of existing contractual agreements of one sort or another.

In the case of the second war, the situation was different. The Turks (although they took advantage of the occasion to recover a small part of the territory they had lost) were no longer a principal party to the hostilities. Not only that, but reports were now coming in of the extreme savagery of the fighting that had marked the first war and of the many atrocities against war prisoners and innocent civilian populations that had accompanied it. It was becoming evident that by no means all of the atrocities had come from the Turkish side. Altogether, it was now being realized that the continuation of the Balkan hostilities constituted a serious challenge to the peace movements of the time. [my emphasis]
The fanatical nationalistic passions involved in these wars and sharpened by the wars and the atrocities they involved raised the temperature and imbalanced the judgment of the parties involved, not least those in decision-making position in the Habsburg Empire.

Manfred Rauchensteiner writes in Der Tod des Doppeladlers. Österreich-Ungarn und der Erste Weltkrieg (1993):

Die ständigen Spannungen im Zusammenhang mit dem Balkan sensibilisierten aber nicht nur, sie stumpften auch ab. Es verging doch kaum ein Tag, da nicht über einen neuerlichen Zwischenfall geschrieben und gesprochen wurde, an dem es keinen Notenwchsel gab oder das Interesse gewissermaßen gebündelt wurde. Und gerade in Österreich-Ungarn sah man so gut wie ausschhließlich auf den Balkan. Das erklärt auch zum Teil, weshalb dann in der Julikrise 1914 für die Danaumonarchie die europäische Kräftekonstellation keine Rolle zu spielen schien. Es war halt wieder einmal der Balkan, der zu schaffen machte und bei dem man nun endgültig eine eine Lösung nach Art des Gordischen Knotens suchte. (p. 26)

[The continuing tensions in connection with the Balkans not only sensitized [people in Austria-Hungary], they also made them callous. Hardly a day went by that there wasn't some brand new incident written and spoken about, on which there was no exchange of [diplomatic] notes, or in which [Austro-Hungarian] interests weren't somehow bundled up. And precisely in Austria-Hungary people looked so good as exclusively toward the Balkans. That also partially explains why, in the July Crisis of 1914, for the Danube Monarchy [Austria-Hungary] the European constellation of power seemed to play no role. It was just the Balkans once again that had pulled something off and toward which one needed to finally seek a solution of the Gordian Knot type [solving the seemingly unsolvable].
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