World History 2 173 - 11.2.1 The “Sick Man of Europe”

The Ottoman Empire had always been predicated on expansion. It drew its strength from its territorial gains and the exploitation of the best and brightest from these new territories to serve the leader of the empire, the sultan. The strategy had worked for a number of centuries, even delivering an Ottoman army as far as the gates of Vienna in 1683 before it was pushed back. At its height, the empire encompassed areas of the Middle East, northern Africa, and significant swaths of southeastern Europe (Figure 11.7).

This is a series of four maps showing the geographic evolution of the Ottoman Empire. In 1300, the empire was a small region on the southern coast of the Black Sea. In 1683, the empire’s borders stretch from the north African coast to the coasts of the Red Sea to the coasts of the Black Sea. In 1913, the empire has decreased to the eastern coast of the Red Sea and the southern coast of the Black Sea. In 1920, the empire has shrunk to a small region on the southern coast of the Black Sea.
Figure 11.7 These maps show the extent of the Ottoman Empire at its birth in northern Anatolia, at its height in the seventeenth century, on the eve of World War I, and after the war’s conclusion. (credit: modification of work “Territorial changes of the Ottoman Empire” by “Esemono”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Starting in the 1800s, however, the Ottoman Empire entered a period of waning power as it grew unable to respond to nationalistic challenges. In the 1820s, nationalist leaders in Greece began fighting the Greek Civil War, and in 1830 Greece gained its independence from the Ottomans. More countries split off from the Empire in the 1870s, including Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria. By the end of the nineteenth century, the demise of the empire, now known as “the sick man of Europe,” was being predicted; only the timing was in question. The Ottoman Empire was no longer strong enough to hold onto its outlying areas, and these grew ever more destabilized. The other powers in Europe watched with concern as the Ottoman Empire became weaker and other countries stepped in to fill the power vacuum, occupying and administering a region but not annexing it as Ottoman influence withdrew.

The ideology of nationalism was taking hold across Europe in the 1800s, and in the 1900s it only grew. The prospect of having a country for each nationality was tantalizingly appealing: Poland for the Poles, Serbia for the Serbs, and so on. In an empire, however, nationalism was a powerful danger. Empires were built of many different nationalities, and they would disintegrate if each group were granted its own land and nation. The Ottoman Empire had already seen such pressures develop in its eastern sections, and Austria-Hungary faced this problem as well: more than ten different nationalities could be found within its borders. The concept of nationalism threatened the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s very survival (Figure 11.8).

The map is titled “Linguistic Map of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.” The map is divided into eight regions that have some overlap: The western region is labeled Germans; the central region is labeled Magyars. The following regions are categorized as Slavs: the northern region is labeled Czeco-Slovaks; a smaller northern region is labeled Poles; the northeastern corner is labeled Ruthenians (Ukrainians); a small region in the west is labeled Slovenes; the southern region is labeled Serbs and Croats; the southeastern region is labeled Roumians.
Figure 11.8 This map displays the various nationalities that all resided within the empire of Austria-Hungary at the time of World War I. (credit: modification of work “Linguistic map of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in the 1910s” by Yale University Library/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The theory of pan-Slavic nationalism, which would unite all Slavic people under one rule, was a powerful one too. Slavic peoples have a shared historic culture and similar languages that include Bulgarian, Russian, Croatian, Serbian, Slovak, Czech, and Polish. They extended throughout the Balkan region and shared many of the same animosities toward the imperial powers of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. By the twentieth century, Serbia had emerged as the leader of the pan-Slavic position in the Balkans. Its policy was characterized by hatred of Austria-Hungary and opposition to that empire’s forays into Balkan issues. Russia, too, was a Slavic nation and showed great interest in what was happening to its historic kin in the Balkans. Indeed, Russia saw itself as the natural leader of any potential pan-Slavic political entity that might emerge in the Balkans. Russia also saw Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans as rivals in the region and did not want either power to make any territorial gains. Russia hoped that by gaining influence in the Balkans, it could gain direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. Before 1914, however, Russia was not prepared to risk war to maintain this stance.

The Balkans was a prime example of both the threat of nationalism and the threat from the weakening power of the Ottoman Empire. The region housed people of different nationalities and different religions. The Ottomans had been steadily losing power there and were certain to continue to do so. The nearby empire of Austria-Hungary looked covetously upon the Balkans, seeing an opportunity to take over more territory. In 1908, Austria-Hungary moved to block Serbian expansion in the Balkans by taking over administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with its capital of Sarajevo (Figure 11.9).

This is a set of two maps. The first map shows where the Balkans are located in a larger map of Europe. The second map is a closeup map of the Balkans that shows the location of Austria-Hungary, Russia, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire, Montenegro, Italy, Albania, Macedonia, and Greece. The Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Ionian Sea, and Adriatic Sea, are also labeled. The map includes a border through Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro that is labeled Ottoman Empire before World War I.
Figure 11.9 This map shows the Balkan region in the period before World War I. Note the size of Serbia and its proximity to Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. (credit: modification of work “Bosnia and Herzegovina” by CIA/The World Factbook, Public Domain)

Serbia continued its plan to exercise more control through the Balkans and helped found the Balkan League with Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro in 1912. The league then touched off the First Balkan War in October 1912 by attacking Macedonia, which was still held by the Ottomans. In May 1913, the Balkan League comprehensively defeated the Ottomans and forced them to give up most of their territory in Europe. Disagreements among the victors in the Balkans soon devolved into the Second Balkan War as Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece in 1913. Bulgaria was soon defeated, but this loss drove it to forge a deeper alliance with the Central powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire—when World War I broke out.

The Balkan Wars also forced continued displacement of Muslims from the region. After Serbia’s independence decades earlier, there had been systematic efforts to force Muslims to leave. This drive spread throughout the Balkans as Christians increasingly attacked Muslims, causing hundreds of thousands to relocate to the Ottoman Empire. As the empire withdrew from the Balkans, many of these Muslims left with it, although substantial Muslim populations remained and still live in the Balkans today. The Ottoman Empire then had to cope with a substantial population increase at the same time that its standing in the world was on a decline.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax