Congress of Berlin

Congress of Berlin
Congress of Berlin

The Congress of Berlin in July 1878 was held in response to nationalistic revolts against Ottoman Turks in the Balkans between 1875 and 1877. In 1875 the peasants of Bosnia had rebelled against their Turkish landlords, bringing fellow Slavic states such as Serbia and Montenegro to their aid.

Although the Turks defeated the Serbians and Montenegrins, the Balkan conflagration spread to Bulgaria, where the population rose in revolt against Turkish rule. The atrocities perpetuated against Bulgarian insurgents—real, imagined, and exaggerated—had an impact on public opinion in Europe.

In the wake of these revolts, Pan-Slavic sentiment supported Russian intervention to come to the rescue of their Orthodox coreligionists and Slavic brothers. They went to war in the summer of 1877 and, early in 1878 after vigorous Turkish resistance, forces were approaching Constantinople, the Ottoman capital.

The Turks then signed the Treaty of San Stefano. Under those terms Serbia and Romania became officially independent (they had long enjoyed de facto sovereignty), and Montenegro had its independence confirmed.

It was the fear of other powerful nations, especially Austria and Great Britain, that led to the assembly of the congress. The Treaty of San Stefano had, in fact, been made because these powers had threatened to intervene.

Austria had moved troops to the border of Romania, where it could strike at the flank of Russian troops if necessary, and the British fleet entered the straits adjacent to Constantinople so as to bombard Constantinople if Russia attempted to take it.

This concern was related to the Eastern Question, which dealt with control of the Strait, including access to the Dardenelles (which controlled the route between the Black Sea), the Mediterranean, and the Bosphorus (the link between Asia and Europe).

The decline of Turkey, the ruler of the Straits, had aroused fear and uncertainty regarding the future of these important passageways. When the British noted that Russia’s entrance into Constantinople would be cause for war, the Treaty of San Stefano was signed.

Without regard for the anxiety of other European powers, Russia dictated the treaty to create a huge Bulgaria that not only included Bulgaria proper but most of Macedonia from the Aegean to the Serbian border. Other Turkish areas were taken (with the exception of Albania), and Russia annexed territories that it had conquered in the Caucasus.

Austria and Italy were opposed to the treaty, and Britain feared that Russian dominance of the Straits would endanger British dominance in the Mediterranean and the route to India. Other Balkan states such as Greece and Serbia opposed the creation of a large Bulgaria, and Romania resented the loss of all of Bessarabia to Russia and part of its southern province of Dobruja to Bulgaria.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck realized his carefully constructed system of alliances would be torn asunder, so he invited Russia, Great Britain, and Austria to a German-hosted conference held in Berlin.

The results of this Congress of Berlin (also attended by France and Italy) were much less favorable to Russia, which had to give back some of the territory it had won in the Caucasus. In effect, Bismarck supported Austria over fellow Russian member in the Three Emperors’ League of Austria, Germany, and Russia. The Bulgaria of San Stefano was split into three parts.

Eastern Rumelia, the southeastern section, received a Christian governor but remained under the military and police control of the Turks (in 1885 it was annexed to Bulgaria). The north was made a virtually independent monarchy under a king (and in 1908 its independence was declared), and the rest, including Macedonia, was given back to the Turks.

Other changes took place. Greece received Thessaly to the north; Great Britain received Cyprus as a protectorate; and Austria received the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina as protectorates. The result of the Congress of Berlin was ultimately negative.

Although Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister, informed the Turks that they had been given breathing space, he also cynically observed that he doubted that they would take it. He was correct in that assumption. Russia became estranged from Germany’s ally, Austria, and closer to France, Germany’s greater enemy.

Austria’s acquisition of Bosnia and Herzegovina infuriated the Serbs who began a campaign for the territory that ultimately led to World War I when the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.