Saturday, March 01, 2014

Italy, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans and the First World War

Freiz Fellner's Der Dreibund: Europäische Diplomatie vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg (2nd edition; 1960) tells the story of the relationships among the German Reich, the Habsburg Empire and Italy which resulted in the First World War in the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the First World War with their nominal ally Italy joining the British-French-Russian (Triple Entente) side in May 1915.


Austria-Hungary regarded it as a terrible betrayal that Italy entered the war on the Entente's side. This poster of the time depicts Italy - with rather bizarre imagery - as a "Judas."


Since Fellner's book is an old-fashioned diplomatic history, I'll provide a few of the key dates from the later 19th century in this process:

  • Dreikaiserbund (Three Emperors' League): 1873-75; re-established 1881-1887; "brought Russian recognition of Habsburg predominance in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula." (Reinhold Wagnleitner, "Austria" Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2012)
  • 1878: Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia-Hezogovina
  • Zweibund (Dual Alliance): Treaty between German and Austria-Hungary 1879-1918; Austria-Hungary and Germany pledged to support each other in a war of aggression by Russia
  • Austro-Hungarian "alliance" with Serbia: 1881; effectively made Serbia a protectorate of the Habsburg Empire
  • Dreibund (Triple Alliance): 1882; "It was primarily a defensive treaty against a French attack on Italy or Germany." (Wagnleitner)
  • Austro-Hungarian defensive treaty with Romania: 1883
  • German-Russian Reinsurance Treaty: 1887
  • First and Second Mediterranean Agreements: 1887; "joined Great Britain to the powers (Austria-Hungary and Italy) interested in blocking Russia from the Straits and enabled Kálnoky to abandon direct agreements with Russia. The Three Emperors' League of 1881 was allowed to expire, and Austria-Hungary was thus left without any formal understanding with Russia." (Wagnleitner)
  • Austro-Russian Agreements of 1897: aimed at limiting Italian ambitions in the Balkans
The Dual Alliance of 1879 between Germany and Austria-Hungary proved to be an enduring one until it came to disaster in the First World War. Germany had won a war with the Habsburg Empire in 1866 and the Dual Alliance was a recognition by Austria-Hungary that they had no claim to authority over any territories of the new German Reich. For centuries, the Habsburgs had headed the Holy Roman Empire which incorporated the various and sundry German states, duchies, kingdoms, etc. At the time of the Treaty of Vienna in 1815 that began the post-French Revolution Restauration period, Austria-Hungary was still considered the most powerful nation militarily in the world. The 1866 German victory established Prussian ascendancy in the German world in fact, and the Dual Alliance of 1879 recognized that diplomatically.

The Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy was established first in 1882, with several esxtensions and some modifications thereafter. Much of Fellner's short book is devoted to the relationship between Austria-Hungary and Italy. From the time of the Dual Alliance on, Austro-Hungarian foreign policy was focused heavily on expansion in the Balkans. The hold of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire on the peoples of that region was steadily weakening during the late 19th century and continuing into the 20th.

Austria-Hungary's perceived interests revolved around their goal of expanding in the Balkans. Italy also had its eyes on the Balkans. This Italian interest didn't begin in the 19th century. This map shows Venetian colonies in the Balkans and the 15th and 16th century:

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Italy in the decades leading up to the First World War was interested in expanding into the Balkans across the Adriatic Sea, particularly into Albania. Austria-Hungary wanted to keep them out. Russia also had perceived interests in the Balkans and so there was a continual risk of Russia and Austria-Hungary coming into direct conflict there. So Austria-Hungary wanted to be sure they had German backing in a war with Russia and at least Italian neutrality in the case of such a war.

The two installments of the Three Emperors' League (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia) bracketed a key moment in the process of Ottoman disintegration in the Balkans, the Russo-Turkish War:

In 1877 Russia and its ally Serbia came to the aid of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria in their rebellions against Turkish rule. The Russians attacked through Bulgaria, and after successfully concluding the Siege of Pleven they advanced into Thrace, taking Adrianople (now Edirne, Tur.) in January 1878. In March of that year Russia concluded the Treaty of San Stefano with Turkey. This treaty freed Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro from Turkish rule, gave autonomy to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and created a huge autonomous Bulgaria under Russian protection. Britain and Austria-Hungary, alarmed by the Russian gains contained in the treaty, compelled Russia to accept the Treaty of Berlin (July 1878), whereby Russia's military-political gains from the war were severely restricted. ("Russo-Turkish wars." Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2012) [my emphasis]

Present day Balkans (Source: Wikimedia Commons)(

But Italy also had colonial ambitions in Africa, especially Libya, which meant they wanted to stay on the good side of the leading sea power, England, which could also affect their ability to expand into the Balkans, as well. Italy also had an ongoing dispute with Austria-Hungary over the territory of South Tirol/Trentino, which wound up permanently part of Italy from the end of the First World War.

On the other hand, Italy was concerned about France as a competitor for colonial possessions in Africa, so they were reluctant to embrace an alliance with France.

But it was, of course, the situation in the Balkans that spawned the Great War. George Kennan wrote in "The Balkan Crisis: 1913 and 1993," New York Review of Books 07/13/1993 issue:

By the beginning of the twentieth century a number of new states—notably Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania — had sprung up in the area thus liberated from Turkish control [during the geographical contraction of the Ottoman Empire in the later nineteenth century]. Those states were, without exception, monarchically governed; and the monarchs were, as a rule, somewhat more moderate and thoughtful than their subjects. But their dynasties were not well established. Their powers were usually disputed by inexperienced and unruly parliamentary bodies. Borders were in many instances vague and lacking in firm acceptance. The entire peninsula was, in short, devoid of international stability.
These states were unstable, jealous of each other's territory, and given to a radical version of nationalism. Any powers that were trying meddle in that area were at a high risk of surprises, blow-ups and unanticipated escalations of conflicts.

Fellner emphasizes 1902 as a critical diplomatic turning point for the Triple Alliance. The three partners renewed the pact that year. But by then, Italy had grown in power and influence in the previous two decades. They had just won assurance from Britain that it would support Italy's colonial position in Tripoli, Libya. And with the renewal of the Triple Alliance, Italy also reached a neutrality agreement later the same year with France, known as the Prinetti-Barrère Agreement. Technically, the Triple Alliance and the Prinetti-Barrère Agreement did not conflict with each other for Italy. Both pledged Italy to neutrality in the case of a Franco-German war.

But it represented a shift in the relative emphasis Italian foreign policy placed on good relations with Britain and France compared to relations with Austria-Hungary. There was also a lot of irritation on Italy's side from what its diplomats perceived as high-handedness from its Triple Alliance partners, particularly in Germany's resistance to formal declarations that the Triple Alliance was not directed against France. Because for Germany, it was directed against France. And Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Prinetti came from a background in private business, and wasn't as accustomed to diplomatic niceties as his predecessors. Fellner says that his German and Austro-Hungarian counterparts found him an "empfindlichen and besonder reizbaren Verhandlungspartner" ("sensitive and particularly excitable negotiating partner").

But with the potential of conflict between France and Italy drastically reduced, the problems with Austria-Hungary loomed much larger in the Italian view. Fellner argues that the value of Albania was greatly exaggerated in the views of both Italy and Austria-Hungary. But:

Von 1902 an beginnt eine Intensivierung der italienischen Adria- und Balkanpolitik, die Österreich-Ungarn nicht hinnehmen konnte. Dadurch trat aber der Konflikt zwischen diesen beiden Staaten, der in den ersten Jahrzehnten des Dreibundes zurückgedrängt war, weil die beiden westlichen Partner nur die französische Gefahr vor Augen gehabt hatten, in ein akutes Stadium. Die in der historischen Tradition, den weltanschaulichen Differenzen und dem nationalen Chauvinismus begründeten Gegensätze zwischen Italien und Österreich-Ungarn werden nun durch den machtpolitischen Konflikt auf der Balkanhalbinsel verstärkt und offenbaren der ganzen Welt die strukturelle Schwäche des Dreibundes. Und da der Wille zur Zusammenarbeit und zu Rücksichtnahme auf die Interessen des Partners in beiden Landern fehlte, führt von 1902 an der Weg des Dreibundes in gerader Linie zu dessen Auflösung am Beginn des Ersten Weltkrieges. (Seite 61)

[From 1902 on began an intensification of the Italian Adriatic and Balkan policy that Austria-Hungary could not accept. Thereby, the conflict between the two states that had been suppressed in the first decades of the Triple Alliance because the two western partners {Italy and Germany} had only the French danger in view, entered an acute stage. The contrasts between Italy and Austria-Hungary, which were founded in historical tradition, the different worldviews and national chauvinism, were now strengthened by the conflict over political power in the Balkan Peninsula and revealed to the entire world the structural weaknesses of the Triple Alliance. And because the will to work together and to take the partner's interests into consideration was lacking in both countries, from 1902 on the path of the Triple Alliance led in a straight line to its dissolving at the beginning of the First World War. (p. 61)]

Going back to citing dates for a moment:

  • 1908-9: Austria-Hungary formally annexes Bosnia-Herzogovina, backed by the Russians with the Ottoman Empire agreeing to essentially sell their claim in Bosnia-Herzogovina to Austria-Hungary, Serbia opposes, Russia switches sides to back Serbia, Germany backs Austria-Hungary, Russia backs down, war is avoided.
  • 1909: Italy makes agreements with both Russia and Austria-Hungary aimed at maintaining the post-annexation status quo in the Balkans. The Racconigi Agreement between Italy and Russia was formally aimed at preventing any single power from becoming dominant in the Balkans, that single power being Austria-Hungary.
  • 19+11-12: Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12, which transferred Turkish authority in Libya (the Turkish provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica) to Italy
  • 1912-13: First Balkan War; Balkan League (Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia) vs. Ottoman Empire. In the London Treaty of 1913, the four Balkan League members divided up the largest part of Macedonia. Bulgarians, Greeks and Serbians had contested Macedonia among them for decades.
  • 1913: Second Balkan War over the division of the spoils from the First; it pitted Bulgaria against Greece, Romania and Serbia. Bulgaria, the main loser, moved closer to Austria-Hungary. Albania wound up ruled by a German prince at the demand of Austria-Hungary, which required Serbia to give up Albanian territory it had acquired.

This latter issue heightened tensions significantly with Italy, whose relation to Austria-Hungary had been touchy since Italian unification. Austria-Hungary was obligated under the Triple Alliance to consult with Italy before pressing actions that changed the status quo in the Balkans, which they neglected to do in other cases and in this one, as well. But Italy had colonial ambitions in Albania, and this was seen in Rome as a direct attack by Austria-Hungary on Italian interests, as Fellner explains (p. 80).

The 1914 Carnegie Endowment’s International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars on the Balkan situation after the two Balkan Wars:

Macedonia, no longer a tomb, has become a hell. Thrace is torn in pieces. Albania erected into a principality, remains the most unhappy and the wildest object of the eager watching of Austria, Servia [sic], Montenegro, Greece and Italy. The churches and the Christian schools are fighting among themselves, enjoying less liberty than under Ottoman rule. Constantinople, more than ever, will be the eternal apple of discord under the surveillance of the Russians, who are themselves under the surveillance of Germany, Austria Hungary and Roumania, in fact of all the Powers, friends, allies and enemies. Greater Greece, Greater Bulgaria, and Greater Servia, the children of contemporary megalomania, will in their turn keep a close watch over the Bosphorus. The islands bring on a contest between Turkey and Asia on one hand, and Italy, Greece, England and all the great European Powers on the other. The Mediterranean open to new rivalries, becomes again the battlefield which she had ceased to be. (p. 16)
And after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand met his sad fate in Sarajevo in 1914, this cauldron of hatred, violence, nationalist fanaticism and foolish great-power meddling led to what would be the world's most destructive conflict up until that time.

By the time that conflict broke out, Italy saw the prospect of gains in South Tirol/Trentino and the eastern side of the Adriatic (Albania). And saw their colonial ambitions in Africa were likely to take a major hit if they incurred the opposition of Britain and France.

So they entered the war against Austria-Hungary.

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