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The Balkan Wars in the Powder Keg of Europe

Balkan Wars
The entry of Constantine I of Greece with George I of Greece and the Greek army in Thessaloniki. Public Domain

The Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913 resulted in significant territorial realignments in the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire lost almost all of its remaining European territories, including Macedonia, Albania, and parts of Thrace. This reshaping of borders had long-lasting consequences for the political and ethnic landscape of the region.

The combined armies of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria overcame the numerically inferior and strategically disadvantaged Ottoman armies and achieved rapid success during a series of battles that took place in the Balkan Peninsula.

Issues that led to the Balkan Wars

At the heart of the Balkan Wars were three issues: the disposition of Macedonia, the problem of Crete, and the liberation of the countries still under Ottoman control, especially Albania.

Some Macedonians wanted full unification with Greece. Others wanted a separate Macedonian state or wanted Macedonia to be included in a Serbian or Albanian or Bulgarian state. This issue was appallingly divisive, and the choice often was a matter of life or death. Guerrilla fighters and propagandists entered Macedonia from Greece and all the other countries of the region.

Athens actively supported the irredentist movement in Macedonia with money, materials, and about 2,000 troops. Thessaloniki became more of a Greek city as non-Greek merchants suffered boycotts and left. Greece’s lack of access to this key port heightened tension with the Slavic neighbors.

Under these circumstances, all the Great Powers became more involved in the Macedonian problem in the first decade of the 20th-Century.

Britain pressured Greece to curb guerrilla activities. When the Young Turks took over the government of the Ottoman Empire with a reformist agenda in 1908, a short period of cordial negotiations with the Greeks was chilled by reversion to nationalist, authoritarian rule in Constantinople.

New Ottoman intransigence over Crete and Macedonia combined with Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos‘ demand for complete reunification to raise the prospect of war in 1910.

The Balkan powers initiated the First Balkan War by marshaling more than one million troops and then declaring war on the Turks in October 1912. Venizelos’ military modernization paid rich dividends. Within a matter of weeks, the Greek army took Thessaloniki and besieged Ioannina to the west.

The armies of all three allies fought mainly to gain a favorable position in a postwar settlement. In the May 1913 Treaty of London, the Ottoman Empire ceded all its European possessions to the Balkan allies, with the exception of Thrace and Albania, the latter of which became independent.

Because the Treaty of London made no division of territory among the allies, and because Greece and Serbia had divided Macedonian territory between themselves in a bilateral agreement, Bulgaria attacked both, initiating the Second Balkan War. Greece and Serbia won victories that ensured major territorial gains at the Treaty of Bucharest in August 1913.

The addition of southern Epirus, Macedonia, Crete, and some of the Aegean Islands expanded Greece by 68 percent, including some of the richest agricultural land on the peninsula, and the population nearly doubled. The major Greek cities of Ioannina and Thessaloniki were reclaimed.

Although more than three million Greeks remained in Ottoman territory, the Balkan Wars had brought the Megali Idea closer to realization than ever before, before the 1922 disaster in Asia Minor. When King Constantine was crowned following the assassination of King George in Thessaloniki in March 1913, national morale had reached a high point, but it didn’t last into the next decade.

Region remained volatile in the aftermath of the wars

While the Balkan Wars helped to establish some new nation-states, they also created tensions and conflicts between different ethnic and religious groups. The region remained volatile in the aftermath of the wars, leading to further conflicts and geopolitical tensions in the years that followed.

The Balkan Wars are often seen as a precursor to World War I. The conflicts heightened tensions between European powers and contributed to the complex web of alliances and rivalries that eventually erupted into a global conflict in 1914.

The Balkan Wars demonstrated the potential for regional conflicts to escalate into wider European conflagrations.

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