Background to the “Tinderbox of Europe”: The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78

From “Literary and Historical Atlas of Europe”, by J.G. Bartholomew, 1912

The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina

by the Austria-Hungarian Empire in 1908-09 set in motion the chain of events that led directly to the outbreak of the First World War. The act permanently altered the complex set of military and diplomatic arrangements arrived at by the Congress of Berlin in 1878 concerning the Balkans. The 1878 Congress itself had been a European Great Power response to the decisive victories of the Tsarist Russian armies over the Ottoman Empire in Bulgaria1 The Russo-Turkish War in turn had been precipitated by the Herzegovina Uprising (1875-1878) a rebellion against Ottoman rule in the province that received support from the de facto sovereign “principality” of Serbia that had been established in the 1830’s, a status shared by Montenegro (1855) and Romania (1866). This was an international status that nominally preserved Ottoman sphere of influence suzerainty over these states while in fact abolishing both the Ottoman military presence and civil administration in their territories.

The Herzegovina Uprising soon sparked a rebellion against Ottoman rule within its Bulgarian territories in the April Uprising of 1876. The effectively bankrupt Ottoman central government relied heavily on local Balkan irregular militia based on the substantial Muslim and, in southern Bulgaria, Turkic, populations in both provinces, and both rebellions were suppressed with much bloodshed.2 Serbian volunteer irregulars were heavily involved in the Herzegovina Uprising, and the Ottoman reaction was soon followed by a declaration of war on on the Ottoman empire by Serbia and Montenegro on June 30, 1876. However the Serbian military effort, now supported by Russian “pan-Slavic” volunteers, fared poorly, and by October 1876 the Russian Empire mobilized some 20 divisions and demanded the halt of Ottoman military operations against Serbia with 48 hours, to which the Ottomans complied. The Great Power intervention in Balkan affairs had begun.

Indeed it had begun before the Russian ultimatum. Upon the outbreak of the Serbian-Ottoman War, the Emperors of Austria-Hungary and Russia, together with the Russian Chancellor Prince Gorchakov and Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Andrássy, had met at Reichstadt castle in Bohemia (modern Czech Republic) and had come to a secret agreement concerning the Balkans. At that meeting Russia agreed to an Austria-Hungarian military occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in exchange for the establishment of defacto independent Bulgarian principality, as well as the Russian annexation of the port of Batumi on the east coast of the Black Sea, and the return of Southern Bessarabia (modern Moldava) lost by Russia during the Crimean War. Thus the precedent that was consummated in the Austria-Hungarian annexation of 1908-09 was first established at the Reichstadt meeting.

Russia, meanwhile, sought to complete the reversal of the effects of its defeat by Britain and France in the Crimean War in the

Author: Kandi

1850’s, one of which had been the proscription of a Russian fleet in the Black Sea. This was first accomplished by Russia’s diplomatic support for German unification in the 1860’s, accomplished in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, effectively knocking France out of the picture and thereby weakening the British position vis-a-vis the Balkans and its efforts to prop up the Ottoman Empire. Thus the Russians could hope to intervene militarily without fear of counter intervention by any of the other Great Powers.

The threat of a new Russo-Turkish war was instead met with a collective diplomatic response in the form of the 1876–1877 Constantinople Conference, attended by Britain, Russia, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy as well as the Ottomans. The Powers sought to have the Ottomans acquiesce in the devolution of a Greater Bulgaria in two parts (including Macedonia) as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina into autonomous principalities, while also pressing for administrative and legal reforms in the status of Christians in the Ottoman territories. Unfortunately for their plans, the Ottoman regime was in the throes of a political turmoil that saw the overthrow of two sultans and the appearance of a reformer faction known as the Young Ottomans, whose leader Midhat Pasha produced the first constitution of the Ottoman Empire, an event that was the immediate predecessor, as will be seen, to the Young Turk movement of 1908. Indeed the constitution was approved by the new Sultan Abdul Hamid II on the same day the Conference submitted its demands. These were never agreed to by the new Ottoman regime, and Russia prepared for war.

On January 15, 1877, Russia and Austria-Hungary signed a written agreement confirming the results of an earlier Reichstadt Agreement, declared war on the Ottomans on 24 April 1877 and its troops entered Romania, with Romanian permission, across the newly built Eiffel3 Bridge on the Prut River, just finished on that same day. The Ottomans retaliated against the Romanians, Romania then declared its complete independence as a “Kingdom” and became an important military ally in the Russian expeditionary effort. The Russians were initially outnumbered by the Ottoman forces, 185,000 to around 200,000, but after hard fighting and the additions of Romanian and Serbian forces, the Ottoman military was driven south of the Balkan Mountains, and by 1878 Russia and its allies were moving towards Constantinople itself.

By Todor Bozhinov

The prospect of a Russian occupation of Constantinople finally roused the British Empire to action, still very much the world’s leading imperialist power even if weakened by the inability of its French partner in the region. Russia was pressured to accept the truce offered by Ottoman Empire on January 31, 1878, but continued to move towards Constantinople. The British sent a fleet of battleships to intimidate Russia from entering the city, and Russian forces stopped at San Stefano on the outskirts of the city. Thereupon Russia unilaterally negotiated the Treaty of San Stefano on March 3, 1878 wherein the Ottoman Empire would recognize the independence of Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and the autonomy of a Greater Bulgaria.

The abrupt transformation of the balance of forces in the Balkans also alarmed the Austria-Hungarians, and therefore also the new Great Power in Europe, the recently formed German Empire of Otto von Bismarck, who feared the disintegration of the so-called League of Three Emperors – Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary – founded in 1872 as a revival of the “Holy Alliance” for the express purpose of suppressing the spread of bourgeois liberal, working class socialist or Slavic national liberation movements in Central or Eastern Europe. According to Ruth Henig4, the “Three Emperors” could agree to little of a concrete nature; however they were able to find the wherewithal to issue “a ringing declaration against revolution in general”, singling out in particular “the Marxist International” as special target of their condemnation, though Henig lets on that this was an “international movement of worker’s associations and socialist revolutionaries which was at the time more concerned with its own squabbles over ideological purity than with thrusting forward (with) a significant revolutionary challenge”. Our Three Emperors appear to have had more prescience before the fact than does Ms. Henig after!

Thus Bismarck enters the world stage in one of the most significant acts of his career, as sponsor of and host to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, in an effort to both preserve the status quo, while also granting some acknowledgment to the new facts on the ground in the Balkans.

Next: The Congress of Berlin, The postwar settlement.

2Estimates of from 30,000 to 100,000 deaths in the Bulgarian uprising have been made by “The establishment of the Balkan national states, 1804-1920”; Charles Jelavich, Barbara Jelavich; 1986, p.139. All body counting is to be taken with a grain of salt given the large investment in ethno-religious chauvinism by the participants, both in the late 19th century and today.

3Yes, this is the very same Gustave Eiffel of the Paris tower that bears his name, see

4The Origins of the First World War (1989), pg 3


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s