The Balkans had been effectively under the rule of the Ottoman Turks since 1389, when the medieval Serbian kingdom was crushed at the Battle of Kosovo. However, beginning in the 17th century with the Turkish defeat at Vienna in 1683, the Turks were in almost a constant retreat. Wars with Russia that had ended in 1774 with the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainardji and in 1792 at Jassy had established Russia as a diplomatic presence in the Balkans and determined to make its presence felt.
Moreover, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had inaugurated the League of Three Emperors with Russia and Austria in 1872–73, as a way of making palatable the sudden rise to prominence in Central Europe of a united Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71.
The League of Three Emperors was a de facto diplomatic understanding, or demarche, that the future of the Balkans could be settled by Austria and Russia. Bismarck felt that Germany had no real interests in the Balkans, which, in his famous phrase, were “not worth the bones of a Pomeranian [part of Germany] grenadier.”
It turned out that the League of Three Emperors could not have come at a better time for Czar Alexander II of Russia. Freed from a concern over Austria and Germany as a source of danger, Alexander was able to modernize both his army and navy.
Coincidentally, Alexander’s modernization of the Russian juggernaut came at the perfect time. In its years of decline since 1683, Turkish rule had veered from incompetent to brutal and back again, with a few efforts at enlightened reform that never lasted.
In June 1875 the Slavic Christians in Bosnia and Herzegovina revolted against Turkey, and the Ottoman Turks retaliated in force. In spite of these reprisals, the rebellion against Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II spread in April 1876 to Bulgaria. Soon the entire Balkans had risen up against Abdul Hamid II, whom many of Ottoman subjects called Abdul the Damned.
In 1876 Prince Milosh Obrenovich, although a vassal of Turkey, also declared war on the Ottomans. Like Alexander II of Russia, he had recently modernized his armed forces. With the Serbs, the Montenegrians rose up against the Turks, turning the original Bosnia-Herzegovina revolt into an all out Balkan rebellion against Abdul Hamid II.
At the same time, the doctrine of Pan-Slavism animated the Russian people to come to the aid of the South Slavs in the Balkans. Pan-Slavism had its origin in the outburst of nationalism against Napoleon I of France and held that mystical, ancient bonds united all Slavs.
Because Russia was the most powerful Slavic state, it meant that it had an obligation to help the “little Slavic brothers” in the Balkans. Since this philosophy also provided a rationale for Russian expansion into the Balkans, it received the encouragement of the czarist government. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, was also a great propagandist for PanSlavism. On April 12, 1877, Alexander II declared war on the Ottoman Empire.
In one of the great defensive battles of the 19th century, the Turkish general Osman Pasha managed to hold the Russians and their new Romanian allies for five months at Plevna (Pleven), but eventually the superior Russian force compelled him to surrender. As a mark of his heroism, he was treated with great courtesy by the Russian commanders.
Once the siege of Plevna was won, the Russians and their allies kept up the impetus of their drive to the south. It appeared that they were determined to go all the way to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and end the Ottoman power once and for all.
However, although the British public had been aroused by the Turkish atrocities in the Balkans, the British prime minister did not want to see the Russian Bear swimming in the Dardanelles, the gateway to the Mediterranean, which had been a British lake since the victory of Lord Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. For the same reason, the British had intervened in the Crimean War from 1854–56 on the side of the Ottoman Empire, to keep the Russians from conquering the empire and gaining access to the Mediterranean.
In February 1878 the British Mediterranean fleet was put on a war footing and sailed to a position off Constantinople, a potent reminder that the Russians had advanced as far as the British were going to allow them to. Queen victoria herself announced that “she would rather abdicate than allow the Russians to enter Istanbul [Constantinople].”
Alexander II was conscious that if a peace were not made with the Turks, the British, and also Austria, might intervene on the side of his enemy. Therefore, in March 1878, Turkey and Russia concluded the Treaty of San Stefano. The Russians sought to take full advantage of the Turks in their defeated state.
The treaty immediately aroused the envy and concern of Austria, which had its own plans for expansion into the Balkans, ultimately to the disadvantage of the Serbians. Bismarck began to realize that his League of Three Emperors was in a deep crisis as a result of the San Stefano treaty. Consequently, he invited the great powers of Europe to the Congress of Berlin from June to July in 1878.
Great Britain was reassured by the fact that the territorial integrity of the Ottomans in Europe was maintained, and the great harbor at Constantinople would not become a Russian naval base. Austria was allowed to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it would later annex to its empire in 1908, causing great hatred among the Serbs, who also desired the territory.
Russia lost most of its conquests won in the war, although the Congress of Berlin did regain for Russia much of the territory given up at the Peace of Paris, which had brought the Crimean War to an end in 1856. However, because much of Bulgaria had had to be relinquished to the Ottomans, and Great Britain and Austria had coerced Russian into doing so, the Pan-Slavs considered the Treaty of Berlin as having robbed Russia of what it justly gained by right of conquest in the war.
The Treaty of Berlin, although it attempted to avert a European war, only tragically succeeded in sewing the seeds for World War I 26 years later. In June 1914, precisely 26 years after the opening of the Congress of Berlin, the Serb terrorist Gavrilo Princip would kill the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in the streets of Sarajevo in Bosnia.