Austria-Hungary and the Balkans

[Unfortunately, through miscarriage in the mails, this paper is some six weeks overdue; but the Editors thought that Mr. Buxton’s great knowledge of the Near-Eastern question would still be useful to those Americans who are interested in forming sound opinions on the phase of that question which is here treated.]

SOUTHEASTERN EUROPE presents a baffling mixture of races intermingled in inextricable confusion. The two main ingredients are German and Slav, but there are also Hungarians; Roumanians, part ly Latin in language and descent, and inclined to patronize the other Balkan States on that account; Greeks, proud of what they believe to be their ancestors; Bulgars, Slav in language, Turanian in blood; Albanians, a race apart, with a peculiar language; and in the environs of Constantinople, a few Turks. To add to the confusion caused by the diversity of races and tongues there is, further, a medley of creeds — Greek Uniate, Greek Orthodox, Bulgarian Exarchist, Roman Catholic, Mohammedan; there are differences of alphabet and calendar even where the language is the same; and the particularism for which the Slav is famous.

This Babel of races was early laid hold of in the north by the House of Hapsburg, which incorporated it in a bureaucratic empire, and in the south by the Turk, who ground his subjects into the dust or massacred them in fits of ferocity, according to his wont.

In the nineteenth century two factors in this situation reached an acute stage of development, namely, the growth of nationalism and the disintegration of the Turkish Empire. The result was that the Balkan nations began to shake themselves loose from Turkey, and the many races of Austria-Hungary began to grow restive under their bureaucratic tutelage. This movement reached a new stage after the war of 1866, when the monarchy was thrown back on the Balkans and forced to adopt the dual system — giving Germans and Magyars a free hand in their home affairs, on the tacit understanding that they should combine to keep down the Slav majority.

With the subsequent German-Austrian alliance (1879), the policy of the Drang nach Osten reached its full stature, and the breach with Russia steadily widened. Germany, working through Austria-Hungary, wished to drive a corridor through the Balkans, hold Constantinople, and control Turkey. Russia, in the name of Panslavism, and moved by mystic and idealistic as well as by strategic reasons, wished to control the Balkans, possess Constantinople and the Straits, and turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake. France and England appeared on the scene, first as the enemies of Russia and the upholders of Turkey in the name of the balance of power, and then, by the same token, as the friends of Russia and the opponents of Germany.

The net result of the play of intrigue and counter-intrigue was that the Balkan States were set by the ears, national hatreds inflamed, domestic reforms checked all over Europe, and the Turk allowed to harry his subjects at his own sweet will. In 1907 it looked as if Austria-Hungary would make a bold and wise reform, raising herself from a dualistic to a triform state by giving the Slavs self-government. Instead, came Count Aehrenthal’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, throwing Serbia into the arms of Russia.

In 1912, under Russian auspices and through the statesmanship of M. Venizelos, came the Balkan League and the war against Turkey. But by checking Serbia’s access to the Adriatic and setting up an independent Albania, Austria succeeded in causing strife among the Balkan Allies, and the League broke up in the Second Balkan War. A weakened and exasperated Serbia was at once an easy victim and a dangerous neighbor to the Dual Monarchy, and so arose the machinations of the nationalist societies, the murder at Serajevo, and the great European war. Austria threatened Serbia, Russia backed her up; Germany supported Austria, France supported Russia, England supported France; Austria attacked Serbia, and Europe entered upon the fiercest and most barbarous war that the world has ever seen.

In discussing Austria-Hungary we should not forget that this country is in some ways a model of what the Balkans should be. Here a medley of quarrelsome and jealous races enjoy order, coöperation, a fair degree of prosperity and education, and proud and ancient traditions, the vitality of which has been shown in the war. The predictions of Austria’s collapse have been falsified, and the death of the Emperor Francis Joseph, so far from being the signal for a general dissolution, has put on the throne a keen and energetic young ruler who is disposed toward reform.

In regard to the treatment of her subject nationalities, Hungary’s record is bad; but even Hungary now possesses a cabinet pledged to universal suffrage. Austria passed her universal suffrage measure in 1907. Since then there has been a Slav majority in the Reichsrat, and the factor keeping the nationalities in subjection has been not so much pressure from above as racial antagonisms within. Divide et impera, in a country in which there is universal suffrage, is a form of chicanery which can succeed only in the absence of solidarity, energy, and political wisdom among those whom it is proposed to divide.

On the other hand, the small Balkan states, although their sturdy democracy and rapid progress after emergence from Turkish rule are in some ways a pleasing contrast with the somewhat effete bureaucracy of AustriaHungary, still bear both spiritual and material marks of their past misfortunes. To put it bluntly, most of the Balkan nations have yet to learn the most elementary lessons in racial tolerance. Bulgaria has shown an admirable spirit of forbearance toward the half million or so of Mohammedans and other Dissenters who dwell within her gates; but the other states still cling to the crudest policy of ‘nationalization’ by language penalties, suppression of churches and newspapers, and control of schools.

The truth of the matter is that Austria-Hungary is an empire and the Balkans are independent nations, whereas the ideal is a federative commonwealth. But which of the two is nearer the ideal, is not an easy matter to decide. However, it is safe to say that most advocates of the partition of AustriaHungary and the formation of several independent states are not moved by pure solicitude for the Slavs, but largely by fear of a Prussian Central Europe.

This fear of a Central Europe under German hegemony — a vast compact of nations drilled and trained from Berlin and stretching from Hamburg to the Persian Gulf— is a very real problem, and its solution is the Allies’ main object. As some one has wittily said, ‘Whatever else Germany may lose, she has at least conquered her allies.’

So far the Allies’ counter-project has been to break up Austria-Hungary by force of arms, and then to establish the resultant group of small nations on the basis of Russian protection. At its best this policy seemed to ignore the possibility of Tsarist Russia becoming the enemy to be feared. And in this connection it is relevant to note that the most eloquent advocate of the Central Europe scheme, Dr. Friedrich Naumann, bases his appeal throughout on fear— fear of France’s desire for revenge, of England’s commercial jealousy, but, above all, fear of Russian imperialism. To him and to the people whom he is addressing Central Europe is not the securing of dominance, but a measure of defense — a measure as grim as it is fatal. These considerations aside, the whole policy depended on a Russia willing, in the first place, to break up Austria-Hungary, and in the second place, always in future to go to war on behalf of some small state which might got embroiled with Germany or with a neighbor under German influence.

Since this policy was conceived, the Russian Revolution has taken place. Russia is now militarily incapable of encompassing the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary, as well as definitely opposed to this policy. Before surveying the new situation thus created, we should contemplate the following facts: —


The Eastern question is merely a peculiar and aggravated form of the European question — the tradition whereby nations regulated their affairs by dominance within and competition without. This was especially apparent in Central and Eastern Europe, where the three empires —Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary — formed, as it were, a triangle of reaction. With the fall of tsardom one side of this triangle is knocked out, and the system cannot survive. Indeed, the system was so hard pressed before the war that the Junker party in Germany is said to have advocated ‘ein frischer, fröhlicher Krieg’ as a desperate attempt to uphold the old order. Instead, after three terrible years of war, ruin stares Germany in the face, and — tsardom falls; the blackest hearth of reaction in Europe becomes the centre of democracy and coöperation. The effect in Germany is already becoming apparent.


To the peoples of Austria-Hungary, this war has seemed throughout a war of defense against Russian imperialism. They embarked light-heartedly enough on the adventure of ’punishing ’ Serbia, but the intervention of Russia put a very sombre complexion on affairs. The government was not long in sharing the discovery that Austria-Hungary had nothing to gain and everything to lose by a general European war; and since then they have continued to fight simply in order to avoid destruction. Consequently the Russian Revolution has removed the whole raison d’être of the war for the Dual Monarchy. This has been made abundantly evident by the energetic activities of the new Emperor and his ministers toward internal reform, and the explicit repudiation of annexations and indemnities. The lack of a federal constitution and the unwillingness to cede the Trentino to Italy seem to be the two obstacles between Austria-Hungary and peace, and it is possible that they might be surmounted if the issue were put squarely.


Bulgaria entered the camp of the Central Powers reluctantly, deliberately accepting the bird in the hand after patient and vain waiting for the two in the bush. Her aims were perfectly definite. She wished to unite under her flag the territories inhabited by her nationals and allotted to her in February, 1912, by the treaty with Serbia, namely, the so-called uncontested zone in Northeast Macedonia, which was taken by Serbia in the Second Balkan War; the great trade-route down the Struma Valley debouching at Kavala, taken by the Greeks, and the Southern Dobrudja, taken by the Roumanians, in the same war. In addition, the imponderabilia weighing for her decision were her dislike of Russian imperialism and her dread of Russia at Constantinople. Germany could offer her additional territory, but at the price of the eternal enmity of her neighbors and practical loss of independence. The Allies could offer her freedom and coöperation, but could not satisfy Bulgaria’s national aspira tions, owing to the reluctance of Ser bia, Roumania, and Greece to yield the necessary territory, in spite of the compensations offered elsewhere. The Revolution has removed the fear of Russian imperialism, and has set up a military situation which makes it extremely difficult to deprive Bulgaria of territory to which she clings, or to realize the wider aspirations of the Serbs and Roumanians. Lastly, the mere course of the war, with all that it entails, has brought all the Balkan nations to a more conciliatory frame of mind.

It is, then, evident that the Russian Revolution almost closes the door on the physical solution of the problem of Central Europe, but only to open an intrinsically more attractive diplomatic vista. Central Europe can hardly be broken up, but it may be dissolved. Hitherto Austria-Hungary has cleaved to Germany because she preferred the Kaiser’s categorical imperative to vivisection by the Tsar. Now she is faced on one side by a league of democratic nations which between them control the economic and political future of the world, and on the other by the prospect of being a minor partner in an impoverished and highly unpopular Central Europe, an institution with a shadowy present and a very problematical future. In these circumstances it is not unlikely that the Allies might tempt her by the offer of peace, coöperation, and freedom of commerce, in exchange for the cession of the Trentino to Italy and equity to the nationalities.

Bulgaria also seems to feel that she has no future in the war, or with the Central Powers, and nothing to fear from Russia. As a matter of fact, she came to this decision as far back as August, 1916, but her advances were then rejected. Subsequent events have strengthened her motive1 and inclined the Allies to listen to her.

The advantages of meeting the Austrian and Bulgarian desire for peace are obvious. Pressure would be brought to bear on German opinion in the direction of moderation; Germany’s route to the East would be broken; Turkey would be isolated, and the military situation at Saloniki would be eased.

The difficulties are equally obvious, and perhaps the chief is that of fair treatment of our Balkan Allies. But it seems probable that the disasters and calamities to which they have been subjected will have led Serbia, Roumania, and Greece to take a more accommodating view of the situation, and to realize, in the light of the Russian Revolution, how immensely difficult it would be to achieve the plenitude of their desires. Consequently some such arrangement as the following might satisfy all parties: —

(a) The Austro-Hungarian frontiers to be recognized, the claims of the nationalities in the Empire being met by internal reforms.

(b) Bulgaria’s former frontiers to be restored, and in addition her claims recognized to the so-called uncontested zone, to the Bulgarian portion of the recent Greek acquisitions in Macedonia, and to the part of the Dobrudja taken from her in 1913 by Roumania.

(c) Serbia to be compensated by fusion with Montenegro, thus gaining an outlet to the sea at Antivari. This outlet could be made satisfactory by the purchase of Spizza from Austria.

(d) Saloniki to be internationalized.

(e) Roumania to be restored and her countrymen in Transylvania to be granted autonomy.

In this discussion America has purposely been left to the last, as, in the execution of any such policy as this with Austria and Bulgaria, the United States would play the chief part. It must not be forgotten that comparatively good feeling still exists between Austrian diplomacy and that of America; and with regard to Bulgaria, the following important factors must be borne in mind. First, Bulgarians look upon America as their educational creator, and the entry of America into the war on the side of the Entente has been one of the most powerful new influences at work in Bulgaria. Second, practical expression has been given to this feeling by Bulgaria’s refusal to break off diplomatic relations with the United States.

There is the further consideration that the American people can approach this matter disinterestedly and with open minds, not clogged by past traditions or hampered by old associations. It is far easier to formulate a policy where none existed before, than it is to change drastically a policy already formulated and pursued for some time.

The American people enjoy in this matter a position of advantage, they have at hand the necessary diplomatic machinery, and they can grapple with this problem with unfettered energy and unclouded brains. May they succeed where others have failed!

  1. For example, as a symptom of Bulgarian feeling, vide the anti-German riots at Sofia last April, and the Serbian Press Bureau’s report that the Bulgarian Premier, M. Radoslavoff, is ' creeping round ’ toward friendly talk with Russia. — THE AUTHOR.