The Balkan Wars: 100 Years Later, a History of Violence

The Balkan wars, which began on Oct. 8, 1912, are considered minor footnotes in 20th century history. But they mean so much more

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Soldiers remove the dead from the battlefield at Adrianople during the First Balkan War.

A century ago today, the Balkan wars began. On Oct. 8, 1912, the tiny Kingdom of Montenegro declared war on the weak Ottoman Empire, launching an invasion of Albania, then under nominal Turkish rule. Three other Balkan states in league with the Montenegrins — Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia — rapidly followed suit, waging war on the old imperial enemy while drawing upon a wellspring of national sentiment in each of their homelands. By March 1913, their blood-soaked campaigns had effectively pushed the enfeebled Ottomans out of Europe. Yet by July, Greece and Serbia would clash with Bulgaria in what’s known as the Second Balkan War — a bitter monthlong struggle that saw more territory change hands, more villages razed and more bodies dumped into the earth.

The peace that followed was no peace at all. A year later, with Europe’s great powers entwined in the fate of the Balkans, a Yugoslav nationalist in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo killed the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Europe plunged into World War I.

(PHOTOS: The Balkan Wars: Scenes from the Front Lines)

“The Balkans,” goes one of the many witticisms attributed to Winston Churchill, “generates more history than it can locally consume.” To Churchill and many Western observers of his era, this rugged stretch of southeastern Europe was a headache, a geopolitical mess that had for centuries been at the crossroads of empires and religions, riven by ethnic tribalisms and the meddling of outside powers. Half a century earlier, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck — the architect of the modern German state — expressed his disgust with this nuisance of a region, scoffing that the whole of the Balkans was “not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier” in his employ.

But while these grand statesmen of the West saw a backward land brimming with ancient hatreds, the Balkans’ turbulent past, and the legacy of the Balkan wars in particular, perhaps offers a more instructive history lesson for our present than even World War I. This is not just because the Balkan wars spawned some historic firsts on the battlefield — such as the first instance when aircraft was used to attack an enemy (by the Bulgarians) or some of the first grim scenes of trench warfare in continental Europe (observers recount how, in one trench, the legs of dead Turkish soldiers froze into the ground and had to be hacked off). It’s because in many ways these battles fought a century ago reflect our world today: one where internecine and sectarian conflicts — in, say, Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo — are enmeshed in the agendas of outside powers and where the trauma of that violence often augurs more of the same.

On the surface, the Balkan wars were opportunistic land grabs. The Ottoman Empire, at this point very much “the sick man of Europe,” had held sway over a vast swath of the region since the 15th century, but by the 19th century was a steadily hemorrhaging territory. Newly independent states in Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia — at times, egged on, at others, reined in by imperial powers like Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany and the U.K., who were all jockeying for supremacy— were now possessed by their own fantasies of creating a Greater Serbia or Greater Bulgaria. The genie of ethnic nationalism was very much out of its bottle, and the Balkans were suffused with anti-Turkish, anti-Muslim feeling. See these popular lines of doggerel, penned by a mid-19th century Montenegrin prince:

So tear down minarets and mosques,

and the kindle the Serbian yule logs,

and let us paint our Easter eggs …

… our faiths will be submerged in blood.

The better of the two will be rise redeemed.

[Eid] can never live in peace

with Christmas Day.

And there was blood. The joint Balkan invasion of Turkish territory in Albania, Macedonia and Thrace, along the rim of the Aegean Sea, saw brutal, bitter fighting, miserable sieges and myriad atrocities committed on all sides. A Czech correspondent described the approach to Lozengrad, the Bulgarian name for what’s now Kirklareli, Turkey, as something out of Dante’s Inferno. “Only his dark genius could recreate all the horrors of the cold swamps out of which stick the twisted and mutilated bodies of the fallen,” he wrote in the Czech daily Pravo Lidu in October 1912. Another journalist entering the city of Adrianople (now Edirne, Turkey) when it was finally surrendered by the Ottomans to the Bulgarians in March 1913, recounted the utter desolation of the ancient town, then a “ghastly theater of blood”: “Everywhere bodies reduced to mere bones, blue hands ripped from forearms, the bizarre gestures, empty eye-sockets, open mouths as if calling in desperation, the shattered teeth behind the torn and blackened lips.”

The capture of Adrianople effectively brought what’s considered the First Balkan War to a close. A treaty brokered in London by Europe’s great powers ended hostilities by May, but would soon unravel when, in late June, territorial disputes led to the Greeks and Serbs turning on the Bulgarians — the biggest victors of the First Balkan War — and, even at times with the help of Turkish fighters, stripping the Bulgarians of much of the gains they had made in the earlier conflict. It was a huge source of national humiliation for the Bulgarians, who had mobilized 500,000 troops — a quarter of their entire male population — during the wars.

In all, over the course of the Balkan wars, some 200,000 soldiers died in less than a year with countless numbers of civilians massacred in raids on towns or laid low by starvation and disease. Grisly accounts followed one after the other of pogroms and ethnic cleansing in a dizzyingly complex, diverse part of the world that, for all the inefficiencies and injustices of Ottoman rule, had existed in relative multicultural harmony for centuries. A landmark report on the Balkan wars, issued in 1913 by the then brand new Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., claimed that “there is no clause in international law applicable to land war and to the treatment of the wounded, which was not violated … by all the belligerents.” The Carnegie report went on to declaim “the megalomania of the national ideal” — the ugly, crude nationalism that fired the expansionist zeal of countries the world over. “Violence carries its own punishment with it and something very different from armed force will be needed to establish order and peace in the Balkans,” the report warns.

But that was a message, like many others made then by dovish liberals and peaceniks, that went unheeded. At a time when the great powers were steadily amassing arms and tying themselves into alliances primed for war, the smaller Balkan states could only end up pawns in a much bigger game of chess. Resurgent Serbian nationalism, backed by Russia, put the two ultimately at odds with Austria-Hungary, triggering World War I. “The Balkans were not the powder keg, as is so often believed: the metaphor is inaccurate,” writes journalist and Balkans historian Misha Glenny, in his book, The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999. “They were merely the powder trail that the great powers themselves had laid. The powder keg was Europe.”

What followed, of course, involved more bloodshed, more seismic upheavals, more redrawing of maps. Decades later, the Balkans tragically convulsed in another round of ethnic warfare following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of Yugoslavia’s own communist state. As some commentators parroted Churchill and Bismarck’s dismay with the region, Mark Mazower, a noted scholar of Eastern Europe now at Columbia University, wrote in an essay how the fragile politics of a nation — not simply old ethnic enmities — can lead to the disintegration of once tolerant, integrated societies: “It has been war — first as a specter then as a reality — which affected people’s sense of ethnic identity.”

Looking at the vicious sectarian fighting taking place now in Syria, one wonders what sort of country can possibly emerge when the shooting stops. The hideous excesses 0f an authoritarian regime, the cash and weaponry supplied to rebels by foreign powers and the unraveling of the delicate political consensus that once existed has led to a grinding, miserable civil war with no end in sight.

Prescient for its time, the 1913 Carnegie report opens with an impassioned appeal for peace and an end to the “monstrous business” of the arms race. Otherwise, the legacy of the Balkan wars was clear:

[It will be] only the beginning of other wars, or rather of a continuous war, the worst of all, a war of religion, of reprisals, of race, a war of one people against another, of man against man and brother against brother. It has become a competition, as to who can best dispossess and “denationalize” his neighbor.

Violence, as the report says, is its own punishment. And a century doesn’t seem so long ago.




@ayracorhan @TIMEWorld You'd think this author had never read Todorova's book, 'imagining the Balkans'. Yet more essentializing, etc., etc.,


Congratulations to Mr. Ishaan Tharoor for his staggering article. Every paragraph of his article uproots the gross prejudice the Western world, and others as well, has held concerning the Balkans and the conflicts waged for centuries in that geography. Others have tried to draw parallels between past conflicts and the situation in Syria today. But none were able to put it as vividly as Mr. Tharoor. The grandsons of the outside powers that continue to meddle with the social fabric of the lands that are at the cross-roads of past and present civilizations, to redraw maps to their own greedy liking, should read Mr. Tharoor’s article with diligence and review history with an untainted mind free of yesterday’s and today’s crafty politics. Otherwise; if they persist in wearing horse-blinders and not acknowledging the message of the Carnegie report written a century ago and underlined by Mr. Tahoor, they will never recognize the means that is needed to restore order and everlasting peace among mankind. Mr. Tahoor’s article needs one correction. As much as they would like to assert erroneously in their own historical works, the Bulgarians were not the first to use aircraft to attack opposing forces. The Italians preceded the Bulgarians by a year when they employed aircraft against Ottoman troops in Tripoli (Libya today; another cauldron of inferno brewed by the governments which sustain their economy by that “monstrous business”).


Paul46 and Mr.Tharoor:

Does this remind you guys of the PLAGIARIST CHARGE against Mr.Zakaria?

CHECK OUT my following response I wrote on FZ-CNN-GPS on 08/28/2011


Mr. Zakaria has this uncanny "DESIRE" to stay in the limelight with all these "PROPHESIES" by "merely" stating the obvious by sewing amp; weaving ALREADY PUBLISHED FACTS....something that's not much of a no brainer to majority of informed Americans!

He does this typically by making broad, sweeping statements often times encompassing both sides of the aisle, leaving him just enough room to wriggle out in the event of an unsavory situation! Often times on issues closest to his heart, including support for Muslim issues all over the world, anti-Semitism, or America bashing we see him unleashing his passion with a variety of cherry-picked data, half-truths to further his cause.


As a Bulgarian, I appreciate the message in the article about the Great Powers' role through action/inaction and inconsistent policies toward the Balkan region in influencing the future of the region. I am even willing to forgive the fact that by omitting details about the motivations of the original war of Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria against the Ottoman Empire, the author leaves the readers with the impression that these were random acts of violence and opportunistic attempts at territorial grabbing. But we, the unwashed citizens of Balkan Europe, are used to being depicted as primitive, tribal, and aggressive. What else is new?

Anyway, For those unfamiliar with the area in the late 19th early 20th century, basically England needed access through the Mediterranean and the Suez canal and on to their colonies in the East, so they had to maintain good relations with the Ottomans. The Ottoman empire's bad human rights record, to use a modern term, towards the non-Muslim populations, created some controversy in England's domestic politics (how can we support them when they treat Christians so badly, etc.), so it's fair to say UK and the Ottoman empire were frienemies. Logically, England picked Greece, as most strategically important to them in terms of trade routes, so they supported them until the days when Greece almost became communist, by elections, but of course England did not allow that (I am fast forwarding to the 1940s here). How nice. As to the rest of the region, specifically Bulgaria, England had no qualms about handing them over to the Russians, who subsequently staged a communist takeover--by coup, not by election of course, as there was no popular support for this and the West did not lift a finger. We Bulgarians would have loved an international intervention to help us get rid of the communist regime but alas, we had to endure all 45 years of it because we are unimportant economically to the west. So, what is the lesson? Even though I believe the history and politics of the Middle East are vastly more complicated than the Balkans (although the Balkans are not simple either), there are a lot of similarities. There are lots of ethnicities that want independence in the region. Be sensitive about labeling the locals belligerent when in many cases they are in the middle of powerful international economic interests. This insensitivity and lack of interest unless oil is involved is part of why people turn to religious extremism, or to Russia and Iran, as a last resort.


Dear Shashi, Whenever you write about historical events, it takes me back to college days and your 5 pager model answers, including the Balkan wars - the melting pot of Europe. Vijay Chugh

George Giri
George Giri

Violence cannot be an answer to any problem. Even on this century day of Balkan wars, the world is not going to understand it. Hope for the better, better late than never...


I can understand and accept the anti-violence idea of the author. But the frivolous comparison of contemporary situations with the far more complex (and totally misunderstood or neglected by the author) realities on the so called Balkans a century ago is totally unacceptable. Dear Mr. Tharoor, the modern history of this part of the world is extremely complicated both in terms of reality and ideological interpretations of past events and any attempt to deal with it with insufficient knowledge, respect and sensitivity is at least annoying.


To Amit_Atlanta--Good grief! I do indeed get the point that you enjoy  demonizing Islam--amp; you've obviously put a lot of time amp; energy into it. Why? When I mentioned that Islam carried the torch of civilization while Europe was in the clutches of a decadent European Christianity in the Dark Ages, I did not say that Islam is still carrying the torch. No, It appears that Islam has run its course, accomplished what it was supposed to accomplish--amp; that was a great, great deal, amp; we in the West owe Islam a great debt. Muhammad himself said that his religion would have an end. I only ask that we be fair amp; give credit where credit is due. The Islam of today is a tattered remnant of its past achievements. One might also (cautiously) argue that the same is true of Christianity--many of whose adherents now seem so eager to engage in warfare rather than "turn the other cheek". Mr. Tharoor's excellent essay steered entirely clear of any religious or cultural bigotry. Instead, he dealt with the issue in an extremely fair-minded manner. We would do well to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, we would do well to take another look at the Carnegie report.  No ill will here.  

chhaju ram advocate induscharw
chhaju ram advocate induscharw

Balkan, Ottoman stand no where but Arab spring is advancing and the great advancement bound to create liberal world that is global market of technology, knowledge and productive capital. history for sake of history or history firing old score must not be appreciated hence world is not interested at all.


Mr.Tharoor is totally ignorant of the barbaric Ottaman conquest amp; excesses in the Balkans which led all those wars. Along with the Balkan people, Hindus, and Jews have suffered too have suffered for centuries at the hands of  BARBARIC Muslim invaders.....something that's continuing till this day in India. I included the Jews here given that there were large #s of Jews living in the ME who were converted, driven out or killed by Muslims, and also MOST IMPORTANTLY the much lesser known fact of the HOLOCAUST WHICH WAS INSTIGATED BY THE MUSLIMS (by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem). In fact the Mufti's 30,000 strong Bosnian Muslim regiment under Hitler was responsible for some of the very worst excesses.........check it out on You Tube.

Also, I am deeply aware of the BARBARISM of the Balkan Muslim thugs/terrorists which is strangely forgotten amp; forgiven by America, and in return the Serbs, Croats were hounded.

Coming back to Mr.Tharoor, I believe he's on the CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS team and have seen him write largely PRO-ISLAMIC columns bashing Indians, Americans, Europeans alike, quite likely to please his boss THE SILENT JIHADIST Mr. FAREED ZAKARIA (BTW, a  fellow Indian American like myself amp; Mr.Tharoor)!

I end my response by stating that inspite of all the challenges India, America, Europe, Australia, NZ remain some of the GREATEST bastions of freedom and morality in the entire world, something that is in clear danger toady due to the rapid inroads being made by Islamists.

Europe and Indian have nearly lost that battle with the Islamists leaving America as the sole remaining BASTION OF FREEDOMS.




Just another point!


You said "And your boys in India were chit-chatting with the same Nazis about swastikas."

And Sir, you are CLEARLY WRONG!

The Hindu Swastika has been a symbol of Peace, Non-violence amp; Humanity for 1000's of years. The Nazis stole that from Hindus and used it for their own NEFARIOUS DEEDS.

Also, the Nazi and Indian Swastika look different, actually the Nazi Swastika is a REVERSAL of all that the Indian Swastika stood for. Just check out the Images on Google! 

 While you seemed knowledgeable for the most part, you showed off your sheer ignorance with this.....may be you were blinded in your quest to trash amp; malign India!

Dragomira Markova
Dragomira Markova

Mr Tharoor there is not enough space to discuss your article so in short it si full with distorted historical facts,  with important facts not mentioned at all and  finally that leads to wrong conclusions.  Just for your information Bulgarian people enter in that war in order to bring freedom to Bulgarians, who suffered under te ottoman yoke, which existence is proved by documents written by ottoman administration itself, signed by sultan so Bulgarian people fought in this war to reunite with its compatriots not for so-called "Great Bulgaria". Next time when you write check the facts! About the "harmonious" life in the empire Roberto Ripley wrote, I would like to point out that there is no resemblence between modern Syria and Ottoman empire - Syria is modern secular state, which has also appeared after the end of ottoman empire.

Roberto Ripley
Roberto Ripley

I truly hope your admin does not remove this:

This article is complete non-sense. It is pathetic to read criticizing article written by Indian of either Muslim, or Hindu origin, it doesn't really matter, written by Indian, at the end of the day.  I have a few questions for Mr. Ishaan. Based on your origin what in world do you think gave you a right to present that region as such? Did I talk crap about your India? No, right? Well maybe I should. Maybe you should have rather written an article about India, a cruel society where ridiculous percentage of your population, actually the most of your population gets born, lives, and dies on the streets, never, ever having a roof over their head, or God help, running water.  A racist society divided in horrible system of caste. A racist society where lower caste people are ostracized, excluded, and often deprived of basic human rights. A nation where human trafficking is so wide spread, that daily your country receives 5000-7000 young Nepalese girls (and boys). Yes, exactly. And then you enslave them and prostitute them. What kind of people are having sex with those kids in your country Mr. Ishaan? Shame on America for calling you a democracy!!!! My second question is who has paid you for this article. Seems to be a coin-operated article.

Now let's talk a little about your (very offensive) article...

1. You said they were "waging war on the old imperial enemy"...

Well I hope that you understand that these kingdoms and countries were occupied for a long time by Turkish invaders, and that this was nothing else but liberation of someone who was nothing else but intruder.  Those countries should be proud of their actions, resistance and fights they've put up for centuries against mighty enemy(s). Sure enough such bravery and determination had to produce results and finally they've kicked Turks (and most of the Islam) out of the Europe w/out any western help.  Sure enough, fighting like madman, they have also previously stopped the spread of Islam all over the Europe and penetration of Islam into those very same cowardice western countries who had never bother to help them.

2. Quote: Yugoslav nationalist in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo killed the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Europe plunged into World War I.

Serious? So 1/2 of region was occupied by Turks while the other half was occupied by Habsburgs.  So they kicked out two bullies and two invaders from their land and you present those people as some kind of terrorists of that era. Wow!!!

I don't know how Indians run and cherish their freedom, or fight their fights, but to me after hearing you - Indians sound more like some bunch of good Vassals, or cowards. Seems to me it has be one of the two. 

Let me tell you something Mr. Ishaan. When Yugoslav treasonous government signed a pact with Hitler, people gathered in the streets and proclaimed that they will rather die then be in pact with Hitler. Anyone else? I didn't think so.

French, Dutch, Scandinavians were in the meantime dancing with Nazis.  And your boys in India were chit-chatting with the same Nazis about swastikas.

So Hitler attacked in 1941, and guess what? Those people you have trashed so much, already had the first liberated territory in the very same first year of the war - 1941. Tell me how many other nations have pulled that gig, that quickly against axis powers. I will tell you: ZERO. Because they have probably had your mentality, cherishing Vassal status and openly showing lack of will for (necessary) fight. (necessary - if you have any dignity).

3. And please don't quote your Colonial Owners, such as that British clown Churchill, who sat on that Island and relied on American help. "To Churchill and many Western observers of his era, this rugged stretch of southeastern Europe was a headache". He is poor gutless soul in comparison to any Balkan's nation. If the British were in Balkans, they would be annihilated, so again, show some respect. It is easy to sit on an Island and play smarts.

4. With this next statement, Mr. Ishaan, you have really crossed the line:

"for all the inefficiencies and injustices of Ottoman rule, had existed in relative multicultural harmony for centuries".Harmony? So, Turks, you know, they have had a rule where you could keep your own kids, only if you accept Islam. Otherwise, your kids will be taken away from you, forcefully made muslims, and soldiers of Islam. Pre teenage boys were separated by force from their parents to be raised as Turkish soldiers (janicari), and pretty young Serbian girls were taken to harems. Christian Kids were sometimes killed just for  trying to get water ahead of  Turkish soldiers.And in your mind Mr. Ishaan that is a multi-cultural harmony? WOW again. I am speechless and I cannot believe that you hold a job at Time. Unreal. But let's keep on moving....I have advice for you Mr. Ishaan - Next time you write about Balkans, you know those "western headache" people, please write about the fact that WE GAVE YOU:the First Power Dam, alternate current that you use every day, the electric motors that are almost in every single device in the world, Remote controls, TV, Radio, tickers (and etc.  by Serbian Nikola Tesla),  Mechanical pencils and fountain ink pens invented by Mr. Penkala from Croatia, who also invented rail brakes, detergents, termophor,  and batteries. The tie you probably wear occasionally came from Balkans. Long distance phone calls by Mihajlo Pupin. Google Mileva Maric, and see where Einstein's work came from...Write about Region and Countries where we had pharmacies, and developed health care system as early as  in 14th century. Countries that had sewers and ate using fork and spoon while west was still eating like dogs. Our  Maritime republic of Dubrovnik denounced slavery (as early as) in 15th century and changed flag into LIBERTAS  (liberty) with the moto: Latin: Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auroEnglish: Liberty is not sold for all the gold in the world.And I can go on and on. I don't even know if you understand. We were so ahead of the west and we gave you all those "little" technological things, that propped the whole world from stone age, basically.  And we all know that  without these things OUR BRAIN POWER GAVE YOU, the  life, as you know it today would not be possible. In those very same countries that according to you call us headache. Shame on you Mr. Ishaan, you need to apologize.Writing a positive (non-paid) article about that region would be proper apology.


A very interesting read, one with a very important lesson. The labelling of the balkan region as a "powder keg" dismisses the area as inherently violent, backward and therefore undeserving of Western help. This promotes a lack of willingness to engage in the region in any meaningful depth, something that is being repeated in today's conflict zones with no sense of history.

I always love seeing a historical analysis on Time, well written!


The Author is 100% correct when he says “The Balkan Wars, which began on Oct. 8, 1912, are considered minor footnotes in 20th century history. But they mean SO MUCH MORE”………………..TODAY, to the ENTIRE NON-MUSLIM WORLD.

And, most Europeans, Americans, and Indians (in short the entire INFIDEL world believes that the above lines penned by Monet doggerel, the mid-19th century Montenegrin prince is ALL THE MORE RELEVANT TODAY than it had ever been.... due to:

a)      Growing Islamization of Europe, India, America, Australia

b)      The systematic MARGINALIZATION of MAJORITY Christians, Hindus amp; all Non-Muslims in their own lands (NOT to talk of their plight in Muslim countries where they are in a minority!)

c)       The ever increasing threat from the ISLAMIC BOMB from Pakistan and now Iran, and FINALLY amp; MOST IMPORTANTLY

d)      The raise of COVERT ISLAMISTS such as CNN/Time's Mr. FAREED ZAKARIA who are waging a SILENT JIHAD to destroy western amp; Indian civilization from within while PRETENDING to be its WELL WISHERS.

Americans, Indians, and Europeans are increasingly becoming aware of this PLOT to impose Islam on the entire world and as WE SEE A GLOBAL ANTI-ISLAMIC BACKLASH BREWING!!!