The Congress of Berlin Settlement


True to the counterrevolutionary spirit

The Balkans before…

of the Three Emperors’ League, the 1878 Congress of Berlin had as its primary purpose the containment of the desires for national liberation on the part of the many subject peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. In this purpose the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck calculated – correctly – that he had a partner in Tsarist Russia. Bismarck was not to be disappointed, as the Tsars’ representative Alexander Gorchakov, having achieved his main objective – the overturn of the results of the Crimean War – was happy to sell their “little Slavic brothers” down the Danube or Bosporus. Bulgaria was granted only “principality” status, its total territory halved, Macedonia, Thessalonika and parts of Thrace being restored to the Ottomans. The Bulgarian territory itself was divided into two states, the Principality proper and “Eastern Rumelia”, both granted the status abandoned by the Romanians at the Congress, which country also horse-traded some Bessarabian provinces to Russia for Dobruja, directly connecting the country to the Black Sea coast.

…and after the Berlin Congress.

Serbia was also promoted in status from autonomous principality to independent kingdom, and also received territorial additions in the conquered Nis-Morava River area plus an adjacent piece of formerly Greater Bulgaria. However the consolidation of the Serbian and Bulgarian victories while leaving the status of Bosnia-Herzegovina in an indeterminate state was clearly a direct threat to the Austria-Hungarian position, with its many Slavic nationalities subordinated to the two-headed beast of the “Dual Monarchy” of the Austrian and Hungarian states. Austria-Hungary therefore demanded that Gorchakov make good on the pre-war deal struck at Reichstadt Castle.  Russia remained true to its word, and Bosnia-Herzegovina became a “condominium”, nominally still under Ottoman sovereignty but both occupied militarily and administratively in what amounted to an Austria-Hungarian colony. Austria-Hungary also gained the right to station troops in the colorfully named Sanjak of Novi Pazar, a strip of territory that conveniently separated Serbia from Montenegro.

All in all, quite a win for Austria-Hungary considering its non-involvement in the Russo-Turkish War, above all in the containment of South Slavic national aspirations. However when Austria-Hungary attempted to implement the Congress settlement, it was met with armed resistance in the Bosnia-Herzegovinian territory, and an army of over 80,000 had to be mobilized to break the resistance from mostly Muslim militias in operations that occurred over the period from 29 July to 20 October 1878, costing the Empire some 5,000 casualties.  But the price paid in the long run was more profound;  The settlement marked the definitive end of the anti-Ottoman axis around which Hapsburg Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary had based their foreign policies for centuries, including support along Christian religious lines that might assist in the break up of the Ottoman holdings in the Balkans.  This had been a prejudice of some assistance in the formation of an autonomous Serbia in the early 19th century.  Of course Christian anti-Islamic and anti-Turkish prejudice continued to be of service by all of the historically Christian Great Powers with the clear exception, in the era forthcoming, of a non-Christian Imperial Japan.

A more Austria-Hungarian-centric view.

But Austria-Hungary lost interest in the further dismemberment of the remaining Balkans possessions of the Ottomans, particularly, as in the case of Ottoman Albania and the recently united Italy, they would more likely fall into the hands of other Powers.  Indeed Italy and its ambition to move in on Ottoman territories in North Africa and Albania would in the end come to play the key role in lighting the fuse that led directly to the explosion of the Great War.  A historical epoch spanning centuries of epic wars with Ottoman power had come to an end.

The war and shifting national borders in the Balkans resulted in mass displacement of population, particularly those of Muslim or Turkish origin in the territories of Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina, with estimates in the hundreds of thousands having been made refugees.  They were joined by many of the Jewish communities of Bulgaria, who left for Constantinople rather than leave themselves at the notorious mercy of a Tsarist-influenced Christianity.

Contemporary depiction of Turkish refugees, 1877

Of the other Great Powers in attendance at the Berlin Congress, the relative weakness and increasing ambiguous position of the British Empire is of special note. The incapacity of France after its defeat in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War with regards to intervention in Great Power conflicts also lessened the ability of Britain to intervene effectively in support of the two countries’ policy of blocking Russian access to the Bosporus by propping up the Ottomans as in the Crimean War.  That policy was now in shambles following the Russo-Turkish War, casting Britain rather adrift in its relations to the other Great Powers and the Ottomans, to the extent that Britain could not make up its mind whether to either continue propping up the Ottomans or to join the rest in taking its own bite out of the decaying Ottoman regime.  In the end it opted for a somewhat confused combination of both, as Britain was able to literally “lease” the island of Cyprus from Constantinople in the form of a protectorate, while at the same time backing both Austria-Hungary’s claim to a Bosnia-Herzegovinian condominium and the reconstitution of Ottoman Europe as a barrier to Russian influence.

Meet the new taxman.

The payment of rent to Constantinople provided a vital sort of support to a regime always on the verge of bankruptcy, particularly considering the large Anglo-French involvement in Ottoman finances.  Britain made sure, however, that the funds were extracted out of the hides of the Cypriot people with the imposition of high taxes, launching the history of London’s own oppressive and avaricious rule over the Eastern Mediterranean island country, only to terminate as yet another “fine mess” the former British Empire was to deed the world from Ireland to Palestine, from Afghanistan to the Argentine Malvinas.  Of course the naive hope that British rule would be a pathway to enosis with the independent Greek state were quickly betrayed.  On the other hand, support for Austria-Hungary marked a reversal of the British position at the time of the Treaty of San Stefano, as the Marquess of Salisbury, the British Foreign Secretary at the Congress, had originally supported the Russian position.  After returning from the Congress, Salisbury famously confessed that by supporting Austria-Hungary instead of Russia, the British had “backed the wrong horse” in this peculiar sort of trade in horseflesh, a confession that was to turn out to be all too true.  Britain did not yet grasp the implications of the fundamental shift in the relations of forces and balance of power between states that had begun to get underway at this time, and that would lead to the Great War.

A Marxist blog could not depart the scene of the postwar settlement without giving the final word to the original “Marxists” who were still very much alive at the time, in this case Frederick Engels: “There was only one way of salvation for the Russian government, the way open to all governments brought face to face with overwhelming popular resistance — foreign war. And foreign war was resolved upon; a war, proclaimed before Europe as undertaken for the deliverance of Christians from protracted Turkish misrule, but proclaimed before the Russian people as carried on for the bringing home of their Slavonic brethren in race from Turkish bondage into the fold of the Holy Russian Empire.

Marx-Engels Caricature

“This war, after months of inglorious defeat, has now come to an end through the equally inglorious crushing of Turkish resistance, partly by treachery, partly by immensely superior numbers. But the Russian conquest of the greater part of Turkey in Europe is itself only the prelude to a general European war. Either Russia, at the impending European Conference (if that Conference ever meets), will have to recede so much from the position now gained, that the disproportion between the immense sacrifices and the puny results must bring the popular discontent to a violent revolutionary outburst; or else, Russia will have to maintain her newly conquered position in a European war. More than half exhausted as she is already, her government cannot carry her through such a war — whatever may be its final result — without important popular concessions. Such concessions, in the face of a situation as that described above, mean the commencement of a revolution. From this revolution the Russian government cannot possibly escape, if even it may succeed in delaying its outbreak for a year or two. But a Russian revolution means more than a mere change of government in Russia herself. It means the disappearance of a vast, though unwieldy, military power which, ever since the French Revolution, has formed the backbone of the united despotisms of Europe. It means the emancipation of Germany from Prussia, for Prussia has already been the creature of Russia, and has only existed by leaning upon her. It means the emancipation of Poland. It means the awakening of the smaller Slavonic nationalities of Eastern Europe from the Pan-Slavist dreams fostered among them by the present Russian government. And it means the beginning of an active national life among the Russian people themselves, and along with it the springing up of a real working-class movement in Russia. Altogether, it means such a change in the whole situation of Europe as must be hailed with joy — by the workingmen of every country as a giant step towards their common goal — the universal emancipation of Labor.”*

Engels’ perspective was to prove accurate, though more time was required for it to come to fruition than he might have wished.

* From



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