Nationalism inspires a pride within a group of people that ignites change and strengthens unity. It is what keeps heritages and cultures of nations alive. But what happens when the people advocating Nationalism are trapped within a nation in which they do not desire to be? The Pan-Slavic movement in Eastern Europe in the early 20th Century created a tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia that culminated in WWI. This tension was caused by the threat Pan-Slavism posed on Austria-Hungary due to its high Slavic population and its recent annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina.
Another tension-builder was that Russia, a Slavic nation and a super-power at the time, was fully supporting this movement, thereby indirectly challenging Austria-Hungary to control of its own people. The tension had been mounting long before WWI began, but it was the breaking of this tension through the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand that triggered the War. Serbia wanted unification of all Slavs, most of which were under Austro-Hungarian rule, and the tension this created resulted in one of the worst wars the world has ever seen.
The bulk of the tension was created between Serbia and Austria-Hungary through the spread of Pan-Slavism. Pan-Slavism is a term used to refer to the advocation of the unification of all Slavic people throughout Eastern Europe (Kohn 9). A person is considered Slavic if they belong to one of the many people groups in Eastern Europe (modern day Poland and Ukraine), Western Russia, and the Balkans (Coetzee 124). Pan-Slavism sought to unite the Slavic peoples that had been oppressed for centuries by the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottoman Turks.
Serbia was the main proponent of Pan-Slavism in the Balkans as it sought to unite the Slavs in the area after the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina to Austria-Hungary in 1908, and with it, half a million Slavs (Cirkovic 243). The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina was violently opposed by the Slavs in Serbia who believed they “deserved to be with their Slavic brothers” (Brook-Shepherd 181). Bosnia-Herzegovina became the focal point of all Pan-Slavic ambitions. The annexation provoked an intense upsurge in Serbian lands to protect Serbian interests in the annexed areas.
This led to the creation of a secret patriotic organization, “Unification or Death! ” or otherwise known as “The Black Hand,” (MacKenzie 61) in order to achieve the unification of all Serbs – by force if necessary. Tension was heightened by the actions of The Black Hand that tried to stir up revolts within Austria-Hungary via propaganda and the spread of anti-Austrian mentalities. (Cirkovic 246). A revolt was a scary thought for Austria-Hungary as 28 of their 49 million people were Slavs (Habib).
With such a high population being Slavic, the spread of Pan-Slavism presented a real threat to Austria-Hungary if its Slavs were allowed to separate. The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina enhanced the tension through its causing of an increase in Pan-Slavism which ultimately led to the catastrophe of WWI. The backbone of this increase derived from Russia and their ties to the Slavic movement. Russia’s support of Pan-Slavism in the Balkans threatened Austria-Hungary in a way that Serbia could not. Russia represented a nation that could get what it wanted, when it wanted and posed a greater military threat than that of small Serbia.
Russia’s allegiance to Serbia stemmed from their shared Slavic ethnicity. The cultural links between the Balkan and Russian Slavs had developed over time into a program for political unification. From the first conference of Slavic peoples in Moscow in 1867 (Keylor 7), Russians advocating Pan-Slavism envisioned the creation of a vast Slavic empire united under the Russian Czars (MacKenzie 60). Russia’s support of this movement gave the Slavs in the Balkans, more specifically, Serbia, fervor in the face of the Austro-Hungarians, causing them to aggressively seek national unity at any cost.
They knew that Russia’s interests in Pan-Slavism put them in an advantage over Austria in that, if they went to war, Russia would be there to help them. A young generation was emerging within Serbia and Bosnia whose experience of national and social struggles had taught them the effectiveness of violence as a means to achieve goals (as seen in the Balkan Wars 1912-13). It was a generation that demanded action and sacrifice instead of words and political wisdom (Cirkovic 246). Russia repeatedly assured their Slav brethren that they only had to wait (MacKenzie 58).
Serbian agitation against Austria-Hungary was increased and the more the Austro-Hungarians attempted to subvert it, the more violent and fanatical it became. The fearlessness that was born from the support of Russia led those seeking Slavic unity to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, thereby triggering the cascade that began WWI. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914 (Brook-Shepherd 250), gave the Austro-Hungarians the justification needed to attack the Pan-Slavic threat.
All that was known at the time was that the assassins were Slavs (Kohn 255) and that they had committed the crime in the hotbed of Pan-Slavic attention in Bosnia. It was later revealed that the murderer was associated with the afore-mentioned “Black Hand” group that advocated unification of all Slavs at whatever the cost (MacKenzie 61) The immediate significance of the murder was that it gave Austria-Hungary a pretext for suppressing the Pan-Slavic movement by attacking the heart of it all, Serbia.
The assassination of the Archduke released the tension that had built up in Austria-Hungary. Austria was part of the Triple Alliance which included Germany, and Italy. They were assured of Germany’s support and therefore were not afraid of the Russian response to an attack on Serbia. It was well-known to the German government that an Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia would almost certainly provoke Russia’s intervention on behalf of its Slavic brothers (Keylor 38). No one expected Russia to stand back and allow Austria-Hungary to annihilate its Slavic comrades in Serbia.
Germany encouraged Austria to send an unfulfillable ultimatum to Serbia saying “That the Serbian Government suppress ALL anti-Austrian activities in Serbia and to dismiss all officials who foment it or else they will have no choice but to go to war” (Mitrovic 11). The lack of response to the ultimatum led to Austria’s declaration of war on July 28, 1914 (Habib). The war declaration, combined with an elaborate Alliance system, set in motion a cascade of events where Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, followed by Germany declaring war on Russia, and then France declaring war on Germany and so on until it became WWI.
In the end it was an alliance of Britain, France, Russia, and Japan, against an alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and the Turks, with Italy switching sides halfway through (Coetzee 8-9). Austria-Hungary sought to extinguish the Pan-Slavic threat and, in doing so, brought the whole world in to the greatest war the world had ever seen. The Slavic people of the early 20th Century desperately wanted unification of all Slavs from Russia to the Mediterranean. The Slavs were a unique thnic group that survived centuries of oppression and began a Pan-Slavic movement to unite all under one banner. It transcended national loyalties and went beyond into racial and ethnic ones. The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina was the incentive, Russia’s support of Pan-Slavism was the fuel, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by members of “The Black Hand” was the trigger. The Pan-Slavic movement created a unified goal at the cost of a disunited world. It created a tension within nations that had no end but in bloodshed.
There is no difference in race, but Pan-Slavism sought to distinguish Slavs from the rest of the world. All people come from somewhere, but we are all meant to live together.
Works Cited Brook-Shepherd, Gordon. Archduke of Sarajevo: The Romance and Tragedy of Franz Ferdinand of Austria. 1st Ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984. Cirkovic, Sima M. The Serbs. Oxford, U. K: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. , 2004. Coetzee, Frans, Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee. World War I & European Society: A Sourcebook. Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1995. Habib, Henri. Class Lectures. History of the World: 1900-1945. University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON. October 1/2009. Keylor, William R. , Jerry Bannister. The Twentieth Century World: An International History. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2005. Kohn, Hans. Pan-Slavism: Its History and Ideology. 2nd Ed. New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, 1960. MacKenzie, David. Serbs and Russians. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Mitrovic, Andrej. Serbia’s Great War: 1914-1918. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2007.