Interesting question. While we wait for someone to take on the task of plumbing its depths, you may find the discussion in these past questions helpful:
1. [Has Otto von Bismarck really said “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans”?](https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/31fotp/has_otto_von_bismarck_really_said_if_there_is/).
2. [How did the Balkans become the region of Europe most prone to ethnic conflict? Did either the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and predecessor states) or the Ottoman Empire have significant influence in this?](https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/64i9f6/how_did_the_balkans_become_the_region_of_europe/). /u/commiespaceinvader’s answer isn’t hugely focused on WWI in particular, but is incredibly in depth and relevant.
3. [This excellent AMA, focused broadly on the history of the Balkans, has some relevant information as well.](https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/2irc4o/history_of_the_balkans_ama/)
4. [Why was WWI considered “inevitable”?](https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/2cpyy7/why_was_wwi_considered_inevitable/)
5. [To what extent did ethnic and nationalist tensions in the Balkans contribute to the outbreak of WWI?](https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/37n91p/to_what_extent_did_ethnic_and_nationalist/cro6xyn/)
The question is somewhat malformed, because there is no actual proof that Bismarck ever said that. In fact, I was surprised to read all about it a few years ago when I went from the German-language historical sphere to also discussing history on an international scale in the English language – because we Germans have no record of this quote, and one of us is supposed to have said it. Seeing as how English was not the international language of choice back then, it would stand to be argued that there should be more German sources about this quote than English ones – but in fact, there is not a single one that I know of. If anyone knows the German original, I’d be glad.
But as they say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there certainly was a whole bunch of conflict in the Balkans and concern about said conflict in the rest of Europe. So this is the supposed quote, in English, as according to Wikiquote’s “Disputed” section on Bismarck.
*Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal … A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all … I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where … Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.*
Wikiquote takes this quote from Andrei Navrozov’s *Chronicles* (Volume 32, 2008), with Navrozov also already putting its legitimacy in doubt. The earliest apparance of something akin to this Bismarck quote in English language literature seems to be Winston Churchill’s 1923 account of the Great War, *World Crisis*, more specifically Volume 1, concerned with the years 1911 to 1914. Churchill attributes the quotes as having come to his attention from Albert Ballin, a German diplomat, who in turn according to Churchill told Churchill that he heard it from Bismarck. Dubious, to say the least.
So the first time someone mentions the quote is 1923, a quarter of a century after Bismarck’s death – and that someone is Winston Churchill, a man who always was more concerned with writing history with his books than writing books about history.
Anyway, with the question about the accuracy of the quote out of the way, we can nevertheless look at the history of the Balkan Conflict up until the 1890s and then until 1914 and beyond.
First, a lesson in historical geography. [This](https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/balkan_states_1899.jpg) map comes courtesy of the great cartography index of the University of Texas at Austin. Seriously, UT has amazing maps from various historical eras freely available to browse. Bless them.
Anyway. The map is from 1899, so shortly after Bismarck’s death and the last possible nsituation he could have looked at. As the quote is IMO bogus, we might as well go to the 1890s rather to the 1870s.
The Balkans are surrounded by four great powers:
The Ottoman Empire, to the southeast and in the center. The Ottomans for a long time were the principal power in the Balkans and defined most of its conflicts. It was the Ottomans who brought Islam to the region, which is the reasion Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania are majority- or plurality-Muslim countries to this day. This religious zeal on the part of the Turks made them easy to hate for the local Christians, be they catholic, orthodox or protestant. However, the Ottomans were for a long time the absolutely dominant power of the region, easily suppressing any and all resistance.
After taking Constantinople in 1453, they swept across the disunited and squabbling Christian warlords straight into Habsburg-controlled Hungary, seizing it for themselves and only being stopped when their first siege of Vienna was repelled in 1529, the first of several painful defeats for Ottoman expansionism, next to the loss at Lepanto in 1571, the failed attack on Malta in 1565 and eventually their second failed attempt to take Vienna in 1683 [insert Sabaton meme here]. But although their *expansion* was stopped, the Christian reconquest of these territories was slow and riddled with losses and casualties at Turkish hands. The primary antagonist to the Ottomans were the Habsburg Austrians, to whom we will get shortly. Through the 1600s and 1700s, the Ottomans remained a force to be reckoned with, but through various, primarily internal, factors, they began to decline in the late 1700s.
After initial Ottoman victories against Serbian insurgents, the country successfully broke from the Ottoman yoke in 1817. In 1821, the Ottomans failed to prevent Greek independence. The 1850s saw Montenegro break free and when Russia and the Ottomans found themselves at war in the late 1870s, that also provided the chance for Romanian freedom. The Ottomans by 1899 were on their way out – but they still held the heartland of the Balkans, including various peoples that still desired freedom or that were appealing to control for the other great powers.
These other great powers being the Austrians to the northwest and the Russians to the northeast and to a lesser extent Italy across the sea in the west. Italian ambition primarily aimed at North Africa for now, going to war against the Ottomans in 1911 and critically seizing not only Libya but also several islands in the Aegean Sea, but Italy would by World War 2 also get involved in the Balkan game. That’s a story for another time.
So, what did these powers have in terms of interests and conflicts at the time of Bismarck’s death?
The Ottomans wanted to **survive**. Cutting their losses and preserving what they at that point still had was their main objective, with a counterattack not really possible. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 would of course prove them right, being pushed off the Balkan peninsula entirely until Bulgarian arrogance provided them a chance to at least restore control over the area of East Thrace – a territory that to us is better known as “that weird part of Turkey in Europe even though most of the country is in Asia”.
The Austro-Hungarians wanted to **expand**. Not only did this rampant Austro-Hungarian nationalistic imperalism eventually cause the first declaration of war of World War 1, Austria-Hungary saw itself threatened by its various ethnicities (and rightfully so) as well as by the surrounding great powers. Both Italy and Russia were perceived as threats (and rightfully so). It was opportunism after losing the struggle regarding German dominance to Prussia in the 1860s that primarily drove Austria-Hungary to look southeast. The Seven Weeks War had established the North German Confederation, which would eventually become the German Empire, and had also seen a significant Italian advance into Veneto – an advance that did not go far enough in the eyes of Italian nationalists, who know looked longlingly at South Tyrol, Istria and Dalmatia, all still in Habsburg hands. In hindsight, it likely would have been better for Austria-Hungary to hunker down rather thank taking the offensive in Bosnia 1908 and then Serbia 1914, but that was simply not the diplomatic way of thinking back then.
The Balkan peoples wanted to **push out the Great Powers, but different GPs depending on which country you’re talking about**. It is no isolated incident that a pan-nationalistic Serb killed the prince of a great power to cause World War One. The Serbians really didn’t want the Austrians in Bosnia, where many Serbians lived – and definitely not on their doorstep at all. Serbia had witnessed Austria’s reach for Bosnia in 1908 and was concerned about its own position – and rightly so, as proven by the fact that Austria’s attack on Serbia was what kicked off the Great War on 28 July 1914. The Romanians wanted to liberate fellow ethnic Romanians living under the Hungarian and thus Habsburg yoke. Montenegro didn’t have great plans of expansion, but they also didn’t like the idea of the Habsburg kicking in their front door. Greece was still too small for its own liking and tried to take a bite from the Ottomans – which it eventually did in the 1912 Balkan War and then, as dessert, they even got some of the Bulgarian spoils in 1913 in round two.
The Russians wanted **allies and economic influence**. Russia was kind of the wildcard in the Balkans, as they didn’t want to directly control the territory. That and their ethnic Slavicness made them appear as natural allies to several countries in the Balkans, but they eventually only ended up allying Serbia. Romania had preferred to enter into an assocation with the Central Powers to bide its time and see the diplomatic situation develop, Bulgaria viewed Russia as a possible friend but they absolutely hated the Serbians post 1913 and so eventually chose to cut their losses and end the rivalry with the Turks to over the Turks get on the good side of the Germans and eventually the Austrians to then in turn get a second shot at reclaiming the Balkan empire they had failed to conquer in the 1913 Second Balkan War. The Russians also were the country perhaps even more than the others concerned with its own prestige after losing a war to Japan of all countries in 1904. Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov, one of the leading actors behind the tsar’s throne, warned that Russia was at risk of becoming a second-grade power if after Japan, they also failed to repel Austria. Russia’s main fixation in terms of its own wargoals were the Turkish-held Dardanelles, Russia’s economic lifeline, as the Black Sea at that point was Russia’s only viable and reliable access to international shipping waters, perhaps next to Baltic ports in Latvia and Lithuania – that were also not reliable since Denmark and especially Germany or the UK could cut off Russian supplies over the Baltics without much effort.
So, yeah. Plenty of potential for conflict even when Bismarck was still alive, a potential that then increased drastically after 1904 (Russia vs Japan), 1908 (Bosnian Crisis and Bulgarian Independence), 1911 (Italy vs Turkey), 1912 (First Balkan War) and 1913 (Second Balkan War).
UNIFICATION OF GERMANY UNDER OTTO VON BISMARCK:
1st Chancellor “Otto von Bismarck”:
Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898), known as Otto von Bismarck, was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. In the 1860s he engineered a series of wars that unified the German states (excluding Austria) into a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership. With that accomplished by 1871 he skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to preserve German hegemony in a Europe which, despite many disputes and war scares, remained at peace. For historian Eric Hobsbawm, it was Bismarck, who “remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, and devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining the power.
Truer Words Have Been Spoken in 1862 King Wilhelm I appointed Bismarck as Minister President of Prussia, a position he would hold until 1890 (except for a short break in 1873). He provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria and France, aligning the smaller German states behind Prussia in defeating his arch-enemy France. In 1871 he formed the German Empire with himself as Chancellor, while retaining control of Prussia. His diplomacy of real political and powerful rule at home gained him the nickname the “Iron Chancellor.” German unification and its rapid economic growth was the foundation to his foreign policy. He disliked colonialism but reluctantly built an overseas empire when it was demanded by both elite and mass opinion. Juggling a very complex interlocking series of conferences, negotiations and alliances, he used his diplomatic skills to maintain Germany’s position and used the balance of power to keep Europe at peace in the 1870s and 1880s.
Politics the art of Arcane:
He was the master of complex politics at home. He created the first welfare state in the modern world, with the goal of gaining working class support that might otherwise go to his Socialist enemies. In the 1870s he allied himself with the Liberals (who were low-tariff and anti-Catholic) and fought the Catholic Church in a culture war. He lost that battle as the Catholics responded by forming a powerful Center party and using universal male suffrage to gain a bloc of seats. Bismarck then reversed himself, ended the culture war, broke with the Liberals, imposed tariffs, and formed a political alliance with the Center party to fight the Socialists. A devout Lutheran, he was loyal to his king, who in turn gave Bismarck his full support, against the advice of his wife and his heir. While Germany’s parliament was elected by universal male suffrage, it did not have real control of the government. Bismarck distrusted democracy and ruled through a strong, well-trained bureaucracy with power in the hands of a traditional Junker elite that comprised the landed nobility of the east. Under Wilhelm I, Bismarck largely controlled domestic and foreign affairs, until he was removed by young Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890.
Bismarck, an aristocratic Junker himself, had an extremely aggressive and domineering personality. He displayed a violent temper and kept his power by threatening to resign time and again. He possessed not only a long-term national and international vision, but also the short-term ability to juggle many complex developments simultaneously. As the leader of what historians call “revolutionary conservatism,” Bismarck became a hero to German nationalists; they built hundreds of monuments glorifying the iconic symbol of powerful conservative leadership. Historians generally praise him as a statesman of moderation and balance who kept the peace in Europe, and was primarily responsible for the unification of Germany and building its world-renowned bureaucracy and army.
It was a historic state originating out of the Duchy of Prussia and the Margraviate of Brandenburg, and centered on the region of Prussia. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organized and effective army. Prussia, with its capital in Königsberg and from 1701 moved to Berlin, shaped the history of Germany. In 1871, German states united to create the German Empire under Prussian leadership.
Unification Germany under Otto von Bismarck:
Otto von Bismarck pushed German unification through “blood and iron” and skillful understanding of realpolitik. As the map of central Europe stood in 1850, Prussia competed with Austria for dominance over a series of small principalities fiercely keen on maintaining their independence and distinctive characteristics. Prussia proper stretched from modern-day Lithuania to central Germany. Prussia also controlled the German lands around the Rhine River in the west. In between, from Denmark to Switzerland, lay small provinces that Bismarck needed to incorporate under the Prussian crown to create a viable German Empire.
Construction of Prussian Army and Political tactics:
In 1862, Bismarck reorganized the Prussian army and improved training in preparation for war. In 1864, he constructed an alliance with Austria to fight Denmark over Denmark’s southern provinces of Schleswig and Holstein. Prussia received Schleswig while Austria administered Holstein. That situation, however, could not stand for long, as Austrian Holstein was now surrounded by Prussian lands.
War with Austria:
The second episode in Bismarck’s unification efforts occurred in 1866. In concert with the newly formed Italy, Bismarck created a diplomatic environment in which Austria declared war on Prussia. The dramatic prelude to the war occurred largely in Frankfurt, where the two powers claimed to speak for all the German states in the parliament. In April 1866, the Prussian representative in Florence signed a secret agreement with the Italian government, committing each state to assist the other in a war against Austria. The next day, the Prussian delegate to the Frankfurt assembly presented a plan calling for a national constitution, a directly elected national Diet, and universal suffrage. German liberals were justifiably skeptical of this plan, having witnessed Bismarck’s difficult and ambiguous relationship with the Prussian Landtag (State Parliament), a relationship characterized by Bismarck’s cajoling and riding roughshod over the representatives. These skeptics saw the proposal as a ploy to enhance Prussian power rather than a progressive agenda of reform. Bismarck provoked a conflict with Austria over an unrelated border dispute and in the subsequent Seven Weeks’ War–named for its brevity–Prussia crushed the collapsing Austrian army. The peace settlement transferred Holstein to Prussia and forced Austria to officially remove itself from all German affairs.
With Austria out of Bismarck’s way, his next obstacle was the skepticism of the southern provinces. Overwhelmingly Catholic and anti-militaristic, the southern provinces doubted Prussia’s commitment to a united Germany of all provinces. Prussia’s Protestantism and historic militarism made the gulf between north and south quite serious. Therefore, Bismarck turned to realpolitik to unite the Germanic provinces by constructing a war against a common enemy. In 1870, Bismarck forged a note from the French ambassador, implying that the ambassador had insulted the Prussian king. After he leaked this letter to both populations, the people of France and Prussia, roused by nationalist sentiment, rose up in favor of war. As Bismarck hoped, the southern provinces rallied to Prussia’s side without any hesitation.
Military conflict and tactical operation “In July 1870, France declared war on Prussia”
Napoleon III had tried to secure territorial concessions from both sides before and after the Austro-Prussian War, but despite his role as mediator during the peace negotiations, he ended up with nothing. He then hoped that Austria would join in a war of revenge and that its former allies particularly the southern German states of Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria, would join in the cause. This hope would prove futile since the 1866 treaty came into effect and united all German states militarily, if not happily to fight against France. Instead of a war of revenge against Prussia, supported by various German allies, France engaged in a war against all of the German states without any allies of its own. The reorganization of the military by von Roon and the operational strategy of Moltke combined against France to great effect. The speed of Prussian mobilization astonished the French, and the Prussian ability to concentrate power at specific points — reminiscent of Napoleon I’s strategies seventy years earlier , overwhelmed French mobilization. Utilizing their efficiently laid rail grid, Prussian troops were delivered to battle areas rested and prepared to fight, whereas French troops had to march for considerable distances to reach combat zones. After a number of battles, notably Spicheren, Wörth, Mars la Tour, and Gravelotte, the Prussians defeated the main French armies and advanced on the primary city of Metz and the French capital of Paris. They captured Napoleon III and took an entire army as prisoners at Sedan on 1 September 1870.. Alsace-Lorraine was transferred to Germany in the peace settlement, allowing Prussia to declare the German Empire, or Second Reich, on January 21, 1871.
Proclamation of the German Empire:
The humiliating capture of the French emperor and the loss of the French army itself, which marched into captivity at a makeshift camp in the Saarland (“Camp Misery”), threw the French government into turmoil; Napoleon’s energetic opponents overthrew his government and proclaimed the Third Republic.The German High Command expected an overture of peace from the French, but the new republic refused to surrender. The Prussian army invested Paris and held it under siege until mid-January, with the city being “ineffectually bombarded”.On 18 January 1871, the German princes and senior military commanders proclaimed Wilhelm “German Emperor” in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles. Under the subsequent Treaty of Frankfurt, France relinquished most of its traditionally German regions (Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine); paid an indemnity, calculated (on the basis of population) as the precise equivalent of the indemnity that Napoleon Bonaparte imposed on Prussia in 1807; and accepted German administration of Paris and most of northern France, with “German troops to be withdrawn stage by stage with each installment of the indemnity payment.
Over all Timeline:
1804: Napoleon Bonaparte, self-crowned emperor of France, began his conquests of Germanic states east of the Rhine.
1805: Dissolution of the Austrian-led Holy Roman Empire, Francis I of Austria declared the new Austrian Empire.
1805: Napoleon grouped the Germanic states into the Confederation of the Rhine as a French client-state.
1815: After the defeat of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna reinstated the Germanic states into the German Confederation under the leadership of the Austrian Empire.
1819: The Carlsbad Decrees suppressed any form of pan-Germanic activities to avoid the creation of a ‘German state’; the Kingdom of Prussia, however, initiated a customs union with other Confederation states.
1834: The Prussian-led custom union evolved into the Zollverein that included almost all Confederation states except the Austrian Empire.
1848: Revolts across the German Confederation, such as in Berlin, Dresden and Frankfurt, forced King Frederick William IV of Prussia to grant a constitution to the Confederation. In the meantime, the Frankfurt Parliament was set up in 1848 and attempted to proclaim a united Germany, but this was refused by William IV. The question of a united Germany under the Kleindeutsch solution (to exclude Austria) or the so-called Großdeutsch (to include Austria) began to surface.
1861: King Wilhelm I became King of Prussia and he appointed Otto von Bismarck as the Chancellor, who favored a ‘blood-and-iron’ policy to create a united Germany under the leadership of Prussia.
1864: The Danish-Prussian War started as Prussia protested against Danish incorporation of Schleswig into the Kingdom of Denmark. The Austrian Empire was deliberately drawn into this war by Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia. The Austro-Prussian victory led to Schleswig, the northern part, being governed by Prussia and Holstein, the southern part, being governed by Austria, as per the Treaty of Vienna (1864).
1866: Bismarck accused the Austrian Empire of stirring up troubles in Prussian-held Schleswig. Prussian troops drove into Austrian-held Holstein and took control of the entire state of Schleswig-Holstein. Austria declared war on Prussia and, after fighting the Austro-Prussian War (Seven Weeks’ War), was swiftly defeated. The Treaty of Prague (1866) formally dissolved the German Confederation and Prussia created the North German Confederation to include all Germanic states except the pro-French, southern kingdoms of Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg.
1870: When the French emperor, Napoleon III, demanded territories of the Rhineland in return for his neutrality amid the Austro-Prussian War, Bismarck used the Spanish Succession Question and Ems Telegram (1868) as an opportunity to incorporate the southern kingdoms. Napoleon III declared war against Prussia.
1871: The Franco-Prussian War ended with Prussian troops capturing Paris, the capital of the Second French Empire. Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg were incorporated into the North German Confederation in the Treaty of Frankfurt (1871). Bismarck then proclaimed King Wilhelm I, now Kaiser Wilhelm I, as leader of the new, united Germany (German Reich). With the German troops remaining in Paris, Napoleon III dissolved the French Empire and a new republic, the Third French Republic, was created under Adolphe Thiers.