The Bosnian Crisis of 1908-1909.


The annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in October, 1908, led to a controversy between the Dual Monarchy and Turkey. It also led to international complications which for several weeks early in 1909 threatened to end in a general European war. This was the Bosnian crisis.


By article 25 of the Treaty of Berlin, 1878, Austria-Hungary was permitted to occupy and administer Bosnia and Herzegovina. This arrangement was made in consequence of an understanding between Russia and the Dual Monarchy, entered into on the eve of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and of the support given to the Austro-Hungarian claims by England and Germany at the Congress of Berlin.. As the provinces were inhabited chiefly by Serbs, and as a route across that region would afford Serbia the most convenient form of the long-desired access to the Adriatic, the Serbian agents at the Congress of Berlin tried to protest against the arrangement. But the congress would not even hear the protest.

From the beginning of the occupation Austria-Hungary counted upon ultimately obtaining permanent possession. Serbia, however, continued to hope that the provinces, or at least such a portion of them as would give access to the Adriatic, would some day be to her. The crisis in 1908-1909 sprang from the fact that Serbia believed that she must prevent the consummation of annexation by Austria-Hungary or give up permanently her long-cherished hopes.


Soon after the proclamation of annexation Serbia called a part of the reserves to the colors and lodged a vigorous protest with the powers, demanding either a return to the status quo ante or compensations calculated to assure the independence and material progress of Serbia. Serbian newspapers demanded a strip of territory extending across Novi-Bazar and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Adriatic. The Government of the Dual Monarchy refused to receive the Serbian protest. It denied that Serbia had any right to raise a question as to the annexation.


For a time the attitude of the powers was uncertain. With the exception of Germany, whose attitude at first was extremely reserved, all of the powers objected to the action of Austria-Hungary, but apparently more to the form than to the fact of annexation. As the controversy developed Germany came quickly and decidedly to the support of its Austro-Hungarian ally. In Russia public opinion expressed itself strongly in support of Serbia. The Russian Government, which at first had shown a disposition to do no more than record a formal protest against the infraction of the Treaty of Berlin, responded by supporting the demand first made by Turkey for an international conference to consider the matter. The British and Italian Governments then supported this demand with considerable vigor, while France sought to play a conciliatory role.


Austria-Hungary declared that it was not opposed on principle to a conference, but made its acceptance depend upon the program for the conference, which it insists, must be agreed upon in advance.

It took the position that the conference ought not to discuss the validity of the annexation, but should confine itself to registering the measure as a fait accompli. Russia, after considerable exchange of opinion with the other powers, submitted a project for a program ,which included an item dealing with advantages to be accorded to Serbia and Montenegro. Austria-Hungary, in reply, did not flatly reject the Russian proposal, but suggested that the advantages for Serbia and Montenegro should be economic only. While the discussion was in progress the Austro-Hungarian Government was endeavoring to prevent the calling of the proposed conference by settling its controversy with Turkey. Such a settlement was arranged in principle on January 12, 1909. After that Austria-Hungary claimed that there was no longer any occasion for the meeting of a conference.


Popular feeling in Serbia did not abate. There was a strong demand that opposition to the annexation should be pushed vigorously. To avert the danger of war, Russia proposed to the powers a collective démarche at Vienna and at Belgrade. Germany promptly refused to take part, while Austria-Hungary hastened to make known that it would refuse to receive any such proposition. Learning that France and England were not inclined to lend their support, Russia quickly dropped the proposal.

The crisis was brought to a close in a manner which involved a triumph for Austria-Hungary over Serbia and for Germany and Austria-Hungary over Russia - a triumph which left behind it much bitterness of spirit in the states which were forced to yield. The humiliation that Russia and Serbia were compelled to endure was undoubtedly a very considerable factor in determining the whole course of events which from that date led directly to the World War. The precise manner in which Serbia was forced to yield was at the time veiled in a good deal of mystery, giving rise to numerous conflicting accounts of just what happened. Complete information is not yet available. It is clear, however, that Russia, under some form of strong pressure from Germany, was forced to abandon Serbia. The Kaiser subsequently asserted that hestood beside his ally, Austria-Hungary, "in shining armor", while Prince von Bülow declared that the "German sword had been thrown into the scale of European decision". Even then Serbia yielded only under constraint from all the powers. Her humiliation was recorded in the declaration she was forced to send to Vienna (March 31, 1909):

Serbia recognizes that the situation created in Bosnia-Herzegovina does not involve any injury to the rights of Serbia. In consequence, Serbia will conform to the decision which the powers are going to take in regard to article 25 of the treaty of Vienna. Serbia, conforming to the advice of the powers agrees to renounce the attitude of protest and opposition which she has taken since the month of October of last year. She agrees to modify the line of her political conduct in regard to Austria-Hungary and to live in the future on good terms with it. In conformity with this declaration and confident of the pacific intentions of Austria-Hungary, Serbia will bring back her army, in the matter of organization, distribution, and of state of activity, to the situation existing in the spring of 1908. She will disband the volunteer bodies and will prevent the formation of irregular bands upon her territory.

Source: Anderson, Frank Maloy and Amos Shartle Hershey, Handbook for the Diplomatic History of Europe, Asia, and Africa 1870-1914. Prepared for the National Board for Historical Service. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1918.

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