One of Germany’s greatest statesmen Otto von Bismarck, who unified most Germans into the German Empire in 1871 (leaving the Austrians and Swiss-Germans outside the Empire), and the main practitioner of Realpolitik (politics as the art of the possible).
Born 1 April 1815 in Schönhausen near Berlin (200th anniversary of his birth) and a polyglot speaking German, English, Italian, French, Polish and Russian, Bismarck held strong and disdained views on the Balkans, a region of Europe he considered rather troublesome.
Through the power struggles that took place during the 19th century involving leading European nations such as France, Great Britain, Austria (later Austria-Hungary) and Russia, Germany often played the role as a mediator to ensure the different parties’ interests would not result in a war that would threaten the continent’s security and the balance of power.
Also known as the “Iron Chancellor”, Bismarck has often been portrayed as a statesman with little sympathy for the Balkans. In Henry Kissinger’s eminent book, Diplomacy, the US National Security Advisor presents a series of events confirming Bismarck’s strong views.
Although Bismarck believed in fighting wars in the national interest of his country, he was particularly against starting wars in the Balkans due to the region’s ethnic and religious complexity and its troubled past.
On one occasion, he pointed out that the Balkans “were not worth the bones of a Pomeranian [region located in northeastern Germany and northwestern Poland] grenadier.”
In 1888 he is even quoted as saying “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”
It was through the League of the Three Emperors (Germany, Austria and Russia) established in 1873 that Bismarck intended to prevent tensions in the Balkans from getting out of hand – although he well knew that Russia and Austria were competitors for influence in the Balkans.
In 1878 he had to act as an “honest broker” in the dispute between Austria and Russia over the newly independent Bulgaria and the share of influence among Vienna and Moscow.
As part of the gradual dissolution and fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire, starting from the beginning of the 19th century and resulting in the independence of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania and later Albania in fulfillment of their aspirations for self-determination, the emergence of new Balkan states did not generate sympathy from the “Iron Chancellor.”
Together with the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Benjamin D’Israeli (1874-80), both viewed the Balkan Slavs as “chronic and violent troublemakers.”
It needs to be asserted that the nationalistic aspirations of the Albanians resulting in an independent state came later than the Slavs of the Balkans. Most likely, Bismarck’s and D’Israeli’s characterizations also included non-Slavic subjects in the Balkans such as the Albanians, Romanians and Greeks.
During Bismarck’s era, Germany took a very cautious view towards the Balkans and made it clear to countries with a stake in the region, such as Russia and Austria, that Berlin had absolutely no interest in territorial expansion in the Balkans.
Bismarck remained the German Chancellor until 1890 when he was replaced by Leo von Caprivi, appointed by the new Kaiser Wilhelm II. Shortly after Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, national sentiments stirred among Serbs resulting in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by the Serbian Gavrilo Princip in Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo June 28, 1914. The assassination of the Archduke subsequently led to the outbreak of the First World War.
It is evident that Bismarck had stereotypical views on the Balkans and its subjects. However, it should not be ignored that the “Iron Chancellor” may have understood the region’s complexity and different historical experience better than any of his peers.
The famous philosopher Edmund Burke once highlighted the importance of understanding historical errors: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
Bismarck himself once said: “Fools learn from experience. I prefer to learn from the experience of others.”