Th. Rothstein Justice, 25 March 1911

The German ‘Menace’
7. The Balkan Crisis

Source: Justice, 25 March, 1911, p. 2;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

At the risk of tiring the reader by these excursions into the diplomatic past, I am obliged to review yet another international conflict of great magnitude, in which the part played by Germany has, as usually, been represented as that of the black villain in the piece: I mean the Balkan crisis of 1908-9. Its story is rather complicated and long, and I shall have to confine myself to its broadest outlines.

The crisis arose out of the annexation by Austria, on October 7, 1908, of the two Turkish provinces, Bosnia and Herzegovina, of which she had been in “occupation” on a mandate from Europe, since the Berlin Congress of 1878. The annexation was an act of considerable brutality and an infringement of international law. It was an act of brutality against Turkey, who had just become a constitutional State, and had every right to expect from the Great Powers some consideration for the prestige of her new regime. It was also an act of brutality against the Servians, who had been nursing throughout the thirty years the hope that the two provinces, peopled as they were by men of their race, might one day be re-united with their kingdom. Lastly, it was an infringement of the “public law of Europe,” inasmuch as it violated one of the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin, which recognised the Austrian occupation of the two provinces as being only “temporary.” The latter aspect of the Austrian action was the more glaring, as it was none other than Austria herself who, at the London Conference of 1871, which followed the violation by Russia of the international provisions concerning the outlet from the Black Sea, had insisted upon, and carried through, a motion proclaiming it “an essential principle of the law of nations that no Power can repudiate treaty engagements or modify treaty provisions except with the consent of the contracting parties by mutual agreement.”

The high-handed action of Austria naturally aroused the indignation of the whole of Europe, and, above all, of England, who, by the mouth of Sir Edward Grey, immediately declared that “we cannot recognise the right of any Power or State to alter an international treaty without the consent of the other parties to it.” Russia and England put forward a demand for an international conference, after the precedent of 1871, in order that Austria might submit her action to the assembled Powers for judgment and ultimate sanction, and as Austria refused to fall in with the idea a great tension arose all round which, on two distinct occasions, threatened to plunge Europe into a war. First it was Turkey who demanded reparation for the wrong done to her, and then it was Servia who put up a claim for some territorial and economic compensation. Both Turkey and Servia were strongly supported by England and Russia, but ultimately Turkish claims were satisfied by Austria by the payment of a lump sum of money in February, 1909, and five weeks later Russia renounced her opposition to the act of annexation, and Servia gave in unconditionally. In April, England and the other Powers, without formally dropping the idea of a European conference, recognised the act of annexation, and the crisis came to an end.

Where did Germany come in in this matter? There was first the circumstance that she was the ally of Austria, and had presumably sanctioned the latter’s action. Secondly, it was Germany who brought about the unconditional surrender of Russia in the matter of Servian claims. When the crisis was at its acutest, and Servia was expected every day, relying on the support of Russia, to make an attack upon Austria, Germany informed the Russian Government that she would, in accordance with the terms of her treaty with Austria, stand by the latter’s side in any conflict that might ensue; if Servia were to attack Austria, Austria would reply by invading Servia, and if Russia should then come to the assistance of Servia Germany would have no option but to fight Russia. Russia, on considering the situation, came to the conclusion that the game was not worth the candle, and surrendered without even letting France and England know of her decision. The Czar himself immediately telegraphed to the Kaiser informing him of the decision, whereupon a week later the Kaiser telegraphed back offering his congratulations. This exchange of telegrams afterwards gave rise to the legend that Russia had surrendered on a direct demand from the Kaiser.

It was this action of Germany which chiefly aroused at the time the ire of the British and French Statesmen and their respective Press; and when in 1910 the Kaiser visited Vienna and made a speech praising the strength of the Austro-German alliance, and alluding to German action in March, 1909, as that of a knight rising by the side of his friend in “shining armour,” the Anglo-French Press turned the figure of speech which conveyed a purely defensive meaning into that of the mailed fist, which carried with it an offensive connotation. Germany, it was said had again dictated the policy of Europe, has humiliated a Great Power (Russia, to wit), had forced England and France to sanction an offence against the public law of Europe, and had sacrificed the rights and interests of a small Slav race on the altar of Pan-Germanism. And though, the prime offence of Austria was soon forgotten and condoned – Sir Edward himself went to Marienbad and made up the quarrel with the French people, whereupon even the “Times” discovered that Austria was, after all, not so much to blame, as her hand had been forced by the previous sudden act of Bulgaria in proclaiming her independence from Turkey – the secondary grievance against Germany has not lost its edge to this very day.

Did German action in March, 1909, really deserve all the harsh things which were said about it? To appreciate at their true value the lamentations which were at the time poured out from the editorial offices of the anti-German Press in this country and in France it is necessary to recollect a few diplomatic facts which preceded the annexation. How did Austria at all acquire her hold over Bosnia and Herzegovina? I have mentioned that the mandate to occupy them was first given to Austria at the Berlin Congress. It is highly instructive to note that the Power on whose initiative and insistence this mandate was given was none other than – England! It was Lord Salisbury, the then Foreign Secretary, and second British plenipotentiary, who introduced the motion to hand over the two provinces to Austria, and it was the first British plenipotentiary, Lord Beaconsfield, who explained that England could never consent to the formation of strong Slavic States in the Balkans. The dismemberment of the Servian race was, therefore, the work of England. So much for her concern for small nationalities, and the sincerity of her charge against Germany in March, 1909.

But England did not stand alone in her, treacherous dealings with the Servian race; she was worthily seconded in this by – Russia. The latter, anxious to secure the neutrality of Austria during the impending war with Turkey, agreed at the famous Reichstadt interview of 1876 to allow Austria to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the agreement was embodied in a secret convention concluded at Buda-Pesth in the year following. When, therefore, England, at the Berlin Congress, made the proposal in respect of the occupation of the two provinces Russia raised no objection, Prince Gortschakoff remarking that the matter was of no concern to him. So much for Russia’s solicitude for the Servian race in 1909. As Milan Obrenovitch, the first Servian King, once remarked, the Servian race was always used by Russia as small change for the payment of her accounts with Austria.

But there was something more. Austria’s action was a breach of international law; but already in 1879 Russia, by a secret treaty recognised Austria’s title to the occupation of the two provinces as permanent, and in June 1908 – that is, four months before the Austrian coup – Isvolsky, the Russia Foreign Minister, transmitted, on his own initiative, a memorandum to his Austrian colleague, Aehrenthal, suggesting to him that Austria might now formally annex Bosnia and Herzegovina if she would only support Russia in her claims for the opening of the Dardanelles: Aehrenthal agreed to the bargain, and at Buchlau, in September following, the latter was confirmed by a personal exchange of promises. Neither England nor France knew anything of this agreement, but that did not prevent them three weeks later, from supporting the Russian contention that Aehrenthal’s action was a breach of faith! The exquisite hypocrisy of that contention was, in the case o Russia, only too obvious. It was, however not less obvious in the case of England, who has broken all faith and all law by occupying Egypt in 1882 and staying there to this day.

What, then, remains of the charges against Germany? Nothing but that she, having regard to the general situation in Europe, reminded Russia of the risks she and her friends were running in keeping up a warlike, tension over a thing which really was of no importance, and thereby saved the peace o the world. This was the great crime which Germany committed in the eyes of the Anglo-French chauvinists. But three years previously the same gentry, having themselves broken an international treaty, had resented to the point of war the action of Germany in intervening on behalf of the “public law of Europe,” and her own guaranteed rights. Now that Germany had merely condoned a breach of international treaty – a breach moreover, which did not alter the actual status quo in any respect, which did not infringe anybody’s actual rights, which had been rendered inevitable at one time or another by England’s own action, and had been suggested and sanctioned in advance by Russia – now there arose a great hubbub, not withstanding the fact that Germany’s action secured the peace of Europe! Guardians of the world’s peace and the world’s morality indeed! The truth is, the Entente Powers were disappointed in their expectation that Austria might be dragged before a European aeropagus; and thus taught a lesson as to the small value of her alliance with Germany and they cried over the failure of their stratagem .


P.S. I apologise to Professor Beesly for having omitted to mention the attitude of the Positivists on the Anglo-French deal over Morocco and Egypt. The omission is chiefly due to the fact that I had in my mind not individuals or societies, but political parties.