In 1912, several Balkan states—Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro—attacked Turkey and succeeded in taking a large area of land away from Turkish control. The next year, they fought among themselves over the spoils of war. These brief but bloody Balkan wars raised tensions to a fever pitch. By 1914, the Balkans were called the “powder keg of Europe”—a barrel of gunpowder that a tiny spark might cause to explode.
How did imperialism heighten tensions in Europe?
As Bismarck had predicted, the Great War began in Eastern Europe. A regional conflict between tiny Serbia and the huge empire of Austria-Hungary grew rapidly into a general war that would mark one of history's significant turning points.
The crisis began when Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary announced that he would visit Sarajevo (sa ruh YAY voh), the capital of Bosnia. Francis Ferdinand was the nephew and heir of the aging Austrian emperor, Francis Joseph. At the time of his visit, Bosnia was under the rule of Austria-Hungary. But it was also the home of many Serbs and other Slavs.
News of the royal visit angered many Serbian nationalists. They viewed the Austrians as foreign oppressors. Some members of Unity or Death, a Serbian terrorist group commonly known as the Black Hand, vowed to take action.
The archduke ignored warnings of anti-Austrian unrest in Sarajevo. On June 28, 1914, he and his wife, Sophie, rode through Sarajevo in an open car. As the car passed by, a conspirator named Gavrilo Princip (GAV ree loh PREEN tseep) seized his chance and fired twice into the car. Moments later, the archduke and his wife were dead.
When news of the assassination of Francis Ferdinand reached Vienna, the government of Emperor Francis Joseph blamed Serbia. Austria-Hungary believed that Serbia would stop at nothing to achieve its goal of a South Slav empire. Austria decided its only course was to punish Serbia.
In Berlin, Kaiser William II was horrified at the assassination. He wrote to Francis Joseph, advising him to take a firm stand toward Serbia. Instead of urging restraint, Germany gave Austria a “blank check,” or permission to undertake whatever action it chose.
This political cartoon was published in 1912 in the British magazine Punch.
What view of the Balkans does this cartoon present?
For weeks, diplomats shuttled notes among the great powers, trying to head off a conflict. Backed by Germany, however, Austria-Hungary sent Serbia a harsh ultimatum, or final set of demands. To avoid war, said the ultimatum, Serbia must end all anti-Austrian agitation and punish any Serbian official involved in the murder plot. It must even let Austria join in the investigation. Austria-Hungary gave Serbia 48 hours to reply.
Serbia agreed to most, but not all, of the terms of Austria's ultimatum. This partial refusal gave Austria the opportunity it was seeking. On July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia.
How did Austria's alliance system influence Austria's decision to send Serbia an ultimatum?