In the region between Germany, Russia, and the Balkan Peninsula, one nation after another lost its political independence, while others never even succeeded in gaining political independence to lose. In addition to the history of the empires that controlled East Central Europe and the Balkans, there is a history of nations striving for nationhood.
The conquest of the Balkans by the Ottoman Empire was the dominant event of this region’s history in the later Middle Ages. But when that advance turned into a retreat, the question of Eastern authority appeared.
During the 1800s large numbers of Balkan peoples passed from Ottoman to Austrian rule. In addition to these political changes, the stimuli of the Enlightenment spreading to eastern Europe promoted a revival of cultural and national traditions.
Romanians of the provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia were among the first to expect liberation from Turkish rule, which Russia’s victories in 1770 against the Ottomans seemed to make possible. The Küçük Kaynarca Treaty of 1774 shaped the future of the region.
Russia was later to claim that it had won a right to interfere on behalf of the sultan’s Orthodox subjects, giving those subjects the reassurance that they had an ally in Russia.
In Poland, divided between Austria, Russia, and Prussia between 1772 and 1795, a resistance movement began. This insurrection had a promising start in 1794, but the Prussian failure to support the Poles was a devastating letdown. Consequently, the failed insurrection served as an excuse for the total dismemberment of the country.
The Balkan nations’ wars for independence started in Serbia, where the struggle against Ottoman rule continued throughout the Napoleonic period, in part because of the response that the ideology of the French Revolution evoked within the region.
Ottoman authority in Serbia was the weakest and foreign influence strongest than anywhere else in the Ottoman provinces. The revolutionary leader George Petrovich founded the Karageorgevich dynasty. The revolt began in 1804 with hope of success until another Russo-Turkish War broke out two years later.
Serbian insurgents were encouraged by a series of victories against regular Ottoman troops in 1805 and 1806, but also by the capture of Belgrade in January 1807. The Russians, however, abandoned the Serbs to their fate when the Peace of Bucharest was concluded in 1812.
The fight resumed in 1815, the year of the Congress of Vienna, under a new leader, Milosh Obrenovich. His descendants were to be for almost 100 years the rivals of the Karageorgevich. Obrenovich realized that independence would not be won immediately, so he tried to gain gradual concessions from the Ottomans.
In 1817 Obrenovich became prince of a small Serbia with partial autonomy. Advantage was taken of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29. This time, the peace treaty included full autonomy for Serbia, and in 1830, Obrenovich was recognized as hereditary ruler, and Serbia’s territory was enlarged.
In 1839 the parliament (created in 1835) elected the son of George Petrovich, Alexander, under whom great progress was made toward unity with the Croats. The center of the Yugoslav movement was in Montenegro, where the throne was occupied by Petar Njegosh from 1830 to 1851.
In Greece the new-Hellenic movement wanted to create an independent Greek state. That movement had a strong appeal in western Europe, and the Greeks had a good chance to find outside support.
Prince Alexander Ypsilanti raised a rebellion against the Turks in 1821, and a genuine Greek insurrection broke out simultaneously. Russia seized the opportunity to intervene along with Britain and France, thus accelerating the achievement of independence.
Instead of merely an autonomous status, the independence of Greece had to be recognized by the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829. The treaty confirmed the autonomous position of the Danubian principalities and recognized the autonomy of Serbia.
Polish, Ukrainian, and Czech Nationalism
In former Poland an insurrection against Russian rule broke out in November 1830. Under Czar Alexander I, the Poles were deeply disappointed. Alexander’s promises proved impossible to fulfill.
The tension increased when Alexander died in 1825. His successor, Nicholas I, considered the parliamentary regime of Poland incompatible with the Russian autocratic form of government.
Hence the Poles rose in defense of their constitution, and the struggle ended in a Russian victory. The uprising saw participation in the Lithuanian and Ruthenian regions contributing to the rise of Lithuanian and Ukrainian nationalism.
The Ukrainian movement was influenced by the rising ideology of Pan-Slavism. In contrast to the Poles, the Ukrainians claimed cultural autonomy rather than independence. Such ideas belonged to the group that founded the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius in 1846.
The name indicates its ideas of Slavic solidarity on religious grounds and its cultural character. But it was also dedicated to the idea of national freedom. In Russia’s Baltic provinces, the local self-government favored the small German upper class.
There was a separation between these German Balts and the Latvian and Estonian peasant population, but among both nonGerman groups, a cultural revival emerged during the first half of the 19th century. The movement began with the study of folklore and the appearance of newspapers in the native tongues.
The same change from cultural to political nationalism can be found in the Austrian Empire. Since 1830, the Matice ceska (Czech mother) encouraged the use of the Czech language, thereby reviving national traditions in opposition to Austria. Czech writers of Slovak origin contributed to the revival of those Slavs who had never experienced independent states, like the Slovenes and the Slovaks.
Playing the various nationalities against one another, the government used Czech officials in Polish Galicia and welcomed the antagonism between the Magyars and the other groups in Hungary. Hungarian nationalism, too, made rapid progress. The Hungarian Diet prescribed instruction in the Magyar language in the schools of Croatia.
Croat nationalism was more alarmed by the pressure coming from Budapest than by the centralization being promoted in Vienna. The idea of Yugoslav unity became popular when the writer Ljudevit Gaj propagated the Illyrian movement.
Another crisis began with a Polish insurrection directed against all three partitioning powers. Fighting started on May 9, 1848, and the insurrectionary forces had to capitulate. A violent anti-Polish reaction followed. In Austria, too, the Polish question was reopened, and concessions were made.
When Polish activity was transferred to the eastern part of Galicia, the Austrian government favored the claim of the Ruthenians. The whole province was again subject to strict control by the central authorities.
During the 1848 Revolution Bohemia was invited to send representatives to the Frankfurt parliament, but the invitation was declined by historian and new Czech leader František Palacky.
When a revolution broke out in Vienna in March 1848, there seemed to be hope of cooperation among peoples who anticipated that their national rights would receive consideration under a liberal constitution.
The Slavic Congress opened in Prague on June 2, 1848, and delegates met to represent their constituents’ desire that a reorganization of the Habsburg dynasty would give them a chance for freedom.
In the end, the congress was disbanded. A constituent assembly drafted a constitution that would satisfy the claims of the various nationalities. Self-government was provided for each of the historic lands of the monarchy. Although constructive, these ideas never materialized.
The Slavs, though a majority in the Habsburg monarchy, were not the only group that had to be taken into consideration. Any change in authority was met with opposition between the historic concept of Hungary and the aspirations of the non-Magyar nationalities. They were afraid of the Magyar leaders and were not prepared to recognize the equality of all nationalities.
The Slavs and the Croats were the strongest opponents of the Hungarian Revolution. Fearing for Croatia’s traditional autonomy, the Croat army crushed the Magyars. Even the occupation of Budapest in early 1849 did not put an end to the Magyar resistance.
They decided to dethrone the Habsburgs, and in April 1849 declared Hungary’s independence. The Magyars had to fight both the Austrians and the Russians because the emperor had enlisted Russian aid. Attacked by superior forces, the Hungarians had to surrender in August 1849.
For their uprising and resistance, the Hungarians were ruthlessly punished. The non-Magyar nationalities were equally disappointed; even Croatia lost its autonomy. Only the Poles made some progress toward independence.
Romanian Independence and Unification
In 1853 the Crimean War started as one more conflict between Turkey and Russia. The next year, France and Britain came to Turkey’s aid. The matter of Russia protecting the Christians in Turkey was connected with the problem of the liberation of the Balkan peoples.
In the wake of its defeat in the Crimean War, it turned out that Russia was less weakened than the Ottoman Empire was. At the 1856 peace conference in Paris, only the Romanians made their problems known. The sultan had to enlarge the autonomy of both Romanian principalities.
The delayed unification of the two Danubian principalities seemed a prerequisite for a fully independent Romanian state. In 1858 Moldavia and Wallachia received the right to choose their own princes.
The choice of the same prince by both of them ended their separation in 1859. But even then, Romania was far from including all Romanian populations, which remained partly under Austrian and Russian rule, while the principality (and Serbia) remained under Ottoman suzerainty.
Serbia was going through a crisis because of the feud of the two dynasties, and as a result of this, Obrenovich returned to power in 1858. He resumed the idea of cooperation with the other Balkan peoples. Despite his assassination in 1868, his policy was continued.
Another Polish insurrection broke out in January 1863. As early as 1860 patriotic demonstrations had created tension. The independence movement created a National Committee that decided to arm the peasants in preparation for the planned uprising.
Russian countermeasures hastened the outbreak of the insurrection. It found support in Lithuania, while it proved impossible to win the Ukrainian peasants, and the uprising was quickly crushed.
Poland was turned into another Russian province. Even more complete was the elimination of everything Polish in historic Lithuania. The Russians decided to stop the national movement among the Lithuanians by forcing them to use the Russian alphabet.
Thus Lithuanian nationalism developed in Prussia, which did not consider its Lithuanian minority dangerous. The Poles had no similar opportunities, but instead they found possibilities for cultural progress in Austria.
The Habsburg dynasty officially promoted Catholicism, which was an advantage for the Poles. In spite of the Polish presence in Galicia, the Ruthenian population of that province also found conditions favorable to national development.
The reorganization of Austria took place with an 1867 compromise with Hungary and the establishment of basic laws determining the constitution of the Austrian part of what was now a dual monarchy. Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria, admitted the difficulties of ruling a multinational state in which non-Germans constituted about three-quarters of the population.
After the disastrous war of 1866 against Prussia and Italy, the emperor tried to federalize the Habsburg dynasty. But he was inclined to an intermediary solution, fully satisfactory only to the Magyars.
In its historic boundaries, Hungary was recognized as an independent state with its own constitution, parliament, and government, reducing the ties with Austria to the creation of joint ministries for foreign affairs, war, and common financial affairs.
Much less satisfactory was the situation of the other nationalities of Hungary. Only the Croats in 1868 received autonomy in an additional compromise. There remained in Croatia an opposition to that settlement. Furthermore, the 1867 compromise did not end pressures from other nationalities for equality and independence.
In Hungary, the Yugoslav movement was strengthened by the existence of independent Serbia. The South Slavs were in a situation similar to that of the Romanians in Transylvania and of the Slovaks and Ruthenians. Neither group had any autonomous rights or guarantees of free cultural development.
A part of the Croats and all the Slovenes, together with the Czechs, the Poles, and the Ukrainians of Galicia, and some Romanians, remained under the Austrian part of the monarchy.
They were disappointed by the fact that, unlike Hungary, the other areas of the kingdom only received provincial autonomy, with equal rights for all languages in local administration, the courts, and the schools. Even the Poles had to give up claims for a real national self-government.
Particularly opposed to the 1867 settlement were the Czechs. Under these conditions, the leadership of the Czech national movement passed from the moderate Old Czechs to the radical Young Czechs.
During the 1870s another Balkan crisis was approaching in connection with the Bulgarian independence movement. When the Turks repressed a revolt in 1876 in Bulgaria, Russia again intervened and made an agreement with Austria and Hungary.
The Balkan Peninsula was divided into autonomous states, and both Austria and Hungary were promised some rewards in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The conflict ended in a complete victory for Russia, allied with all Balkan nations.
In the Peace Treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 3, 1878, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro were declared fully independent, and a large Bulgarian state was created. The borders, however, conflicted with the aspirations of other Balkan peoples.
Alarmed at this extension of Russia’s influence, European leaders met to discuss boundaries at an international congress held in Berlin, where the Peace of San Stefano was completely revised.
The disappointment felt by the Bulgarians convinced them that Russia was their only protector. Serbia and Romania became independent principalities. In Bulgaria, Alexander of Battenberg, the nephew of the Russian czar, was chosen as prince.
There was a strong movement for real independence, both in the principality and in the Turkish province of Eastern Rumelia. These incompatible policies led to inevitable clashes in which Alexander proved unpredictable.
The union of Eastern Rumelia with Bulgaria was finally achieved in 1885. Battenberg’s replacement by Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg in 1887 strengthened German and AustroHungarian influence in Bulgaria.
In the 1878 Berlin Congress, Austria was granted the provisional right to occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina. That acquisition introduced almost 2 million Orthodox and Muslims into the Habsburg realm.
This was a blow to Serbia, which had hoped to gain these provinces with their predominantly Serbian population. Nevertheless, after 1878 Serbia pursued a pro-Austrian policy under Obrenovich, who proclaimed himself king of Serbia in 1882.
When he declared war on Bulgaria in 1885 after Bulgaria’s occupation of Eastern Rumelia, Serbia was defeated. After securing Thessaly from Turkey in 1881, Greece fought another war against the Ottoman Empire in 1897 that only brought minor remedies regarding the Thessalian frontier.
Ongoing Nationalistic Conflict
It was not until the 1905 revolution that Europe realized the importance of nationalism within the Russian Empire. Before that crisis, the dissatisfaction of the nonRussian minorities did not appear be serious.
In the czarist empire, the Russian majority seemed immense because the Ukrainians and the White Russians were not official nationalities. However, the larger non-Russian ethnic groups made steady progress in their national consciousness.
The Byelorussians, the Ukrainians, and other nationalities formed a belt of foreign elements along Russia’s western frontier. Russia kept even the most developed nationalities under strict control. Even the Poles had to postpone their hopes for liberation, focusing instead on economic and social progress.
In the Baltic, the Estonians and the Latvians emerged in opposition to Russification. Landmark events in the rise of Estonian nationalism included the compilation of the national epic (Kalevipoeg, published 1857–61) and a later collection of popular traditions.
Similarly, the Latvians created their own epic (Lacplesis) and started a collection of popular songs. The Lithuanian national renaissance was different because a medieval tradition of independence could be evoked.
A new tendency arose that disregarded the tradition of the former Polish-Lithuanian Union and based Lithuanian nationalism on ethnic and linguistic grounds. Writing in the Lithuanian language was making progress despite restrictions imposed by the Russian government. Lithuania’s nationalism, however, carried no clearly expressed political aim.
Discouraged by Russia’s imperialism, many Slavs looked with hope to the Habsburg monarchy, where the problem of nationalities was continually discussed in an entirely different spirit from that in the czarist empire.
The nationalities of Austria and Hungary were divided into two groups—nations that were living entirely within the monarchy and those with smaller fragments in other nations.
As for the latter, an additional distinction should be made between minorities attracted by an independent nation on the other side of the border (as within the Serbs and the Romanians) and those who had no nation of their own at all (as in the case of the Poles and the Ukrainians).
The Hungarians, fearful of Slavic influence, were invested in the future of the Dual Monarchy, in which they enjoyed a privileged position. After 1876 the trend toward Magyarization of all non-Magyar nationalities became even stronger.
Even Croatia’s autonomy was hardly respected. The controversies between Magyars and Croats were a special danger because they opened the question of Yugoslav authority. Despite old rivalries that separated Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, the movement toward Yugoslav unity made progress.
There was unrest among these southern Slavs that was exacerbated by influences from the independent states of Serbia and Montenegro. Any concession to the Yugoslavs meant a revival of the Czech claims for a restoration of their historic statehood.
In the Balkans, but not in east-central Europe, the 19th century saw the formation of several independent states. A first period between 1800 and 1830 brought some national liberation during the first Balkan revolutions against Ottoman rule.
Next came a long period (lasting from 1830–78) of political and social development, while a third phase saw the inclusion of the Balkan peoples into the European power play during the age of imperialism between 1878 and 1903.
The development of a national consciousness of all these peoples varied according to the different political and social conditions prevailing in the respective regions. National consciousness, formerly limited to the upper strata of society, penetrated into the lower classes. Considerable political development occurred under Habsburg rule.
As the Ottoman Empire weakened in the 19th century, the Balkan nations began to reemerge, though their independence was compromised as they became pawns for competing European powers. Revolutionary risings were frequent under the Ottomans and, as far as the Poles are concerned, in the czarist empire.
All these processes had both nationalistic and agrarian elements. The former aimed primarily at the organization of national states, while the latter was marked by endeavors to get rid of foreign landlords. The Balkan people, up to the eve of World War I, profited from the Ottoman Empire’s notorious weakness.
The non-German Habsburg peoples in the Austrian part of that empire were awarded some degree of cultural autonomy, while in Hungary only the Magyars reached their goal of a practically autonomous state. The Russians faced a massive wave of Russification after the disastrous failure of several Polish uprisings.
The final elimination of all political freedom through and after the partitions of Poland between 1772 and 1795 struck a nation with such a long tradition of independence that the divided Polish territories remained throughout the 19th century a permanent center of unrest. Nevertheless, non-Russian people made considerable progress in cultural, social, and economic matters, thereby preparing the way for their independence after 1918.