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Anton von Werner, Congress of Berlin (1881): Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli

The Congress of Berlin (13 June – 13 July 1878) was a meeting of the representatives of six great powers of the time (Russia, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Germany),[1] the Ottoman Empire and four Balkan states (Greece, Serbia, Romania and Montenegro). It aimed at determining the territories of the states in the Balkan peninsula following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 and came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Berlin, which replaced the preliminary Treaty of San Stefano, signed three months earlier between Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

Borders in the Balkan peninsula after the Treaty of Berlin (1878)

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who led the Congress, undertook to stabilise the Balkans, recognise the reduced power of the Ottoman Empire and balance the distinct interests of Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary. At the same time, he tried to diminish Russian gains in the region and to prevent the rise of a Greater Bulgaria. As a result, Ottoman lands in Europe declined sharply, Bulgaria was established as an independent principality inside the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Rumelia was restored to the Turks under a special administration and the region of Macedonia was returned outright to the Turks, who promised reform.

Romania achieved full independence; forced to turn over part of Bessarabia to Russia, it gained Northern Dobruja. Serbia and Montenegro finally gained complete independence but with smaller territories, with Austria-Hungary occupying the Sandžak (Raška) region.[2] Austria-Hungary also took over Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Britain took over Cyprus.

The results were first hailed as a great achievement in peacemaking and stabilisation. However, most of the participants were not fully satisfied, and grievances on the results festered until they exploded in the First and the Second Balkan wars in 1912–1913 and eventually World War I in 1914. Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece made gains, but all received far less than they thought that they deserved.

The Ottoman Empire, then called the "sick man of Europe", was humiliated and significantly weakened, which made it more liable to domestic unrest and more vulnerable to attack.

Although Russia had been victorious in the war that occasioned the conference, it was humiliated there and resented its treatment. Austria gained a great deal of territory, which angered the South Slavs, and led to decades of tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bismarck became the target of hatred by Russian nationalists and Pan-Slavists, and he would find that he had tied Germany too closely to Austria-Hungary in the Balkans.[3]

In the long run, tensions between Russia and Austria-Hungary intensified, as did the nationality question in the Balkans. The congress was aimed at revising the Treaty of San Stefano and at keeping Constantinople within Ottoman hands. It effectively disavowed Russia's victory over the decaying Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War. The congress returned territories to the Ottoman Empire that the previous treaty had given to the Principality of Bulgaria, most notably Macedonia, thus setting up a strong revanchist demand in Bulgaria, leading in 1912 to the First Balkan War.


Pro-Greek ethnic map of the Balkans by Ioannis Gennadius,[4] published by the English cartographer E. Stanford in 1877

In the decades leading up to the congress, Russia and the Balkans had been gripped by Pan-Slavism, a movement to unite all the Balkan Slavs under one rule. That desire, which evolved similarly to the Pan-Germanism and Pan-Italianism, which had resulted in two unifications, took different forms in the various Slavic nations. In Imperial Russia, Pan-Slavism meant the creation of a unified Slavic state, under Russian direction, and essentially a byword for Russian conquest of the Balkan peninsula.[5] The realisation of the goal would have Russian control of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, thus giving Russia economic control of the Black Sea and substantially increasing its geopolitical power. In the Balkans, Pan-Slavism meant unifying the Balkan Slavs under the rule of a particular Balkan state, but the state that was meant to serve as the locus for unification was not always clear, as initiative wafted between Serbia and Bulgaria. The creation of a Bulgarian exarch by the Ottomans in 1870 had been intended to separate the Bulgarians religiously from the Greek patriarch and politically from Serbia.[6] From the Balkan point of view, unification of the peninsula needed both a Piedmont as a base and a corresponding France as a sponsor.[7]

Though the views of how Balkan politics should proceed differed, both began with the deposition of the sultan as ruler of the Balkans and the ousting of the Ottomans from Europe. How and even whether that was to proceed would be the major question to be answered at the Congress of Berlin.

Great powers in the Balkans

The Balkans were a major stage for competition between the European great powers in the second half of the 19th century. Britain and Russia both had interests in the fate of the Balkans. Russia was interested in the region, both ideologically, as a pan-Slavist unifier, and practically, to secure greater control of the Mediterranean; Britain was interested in preventing Russia from accomplishing its goals. Furthermore, the Unifications of Italy and Germany had stymied the ability of a third European power, Austria-Hungary, to further expand its domain to the southwest. Germany, as the most powerful continental nation after the 1871 Franco-Prussian War had little direct interest in the settlement and so was the only power that could mediate the Balkan question.[8]

Russia and Austria-Hungary, the two powers that were most invested in the fate of the Balkans, were allied with Germany in the conservative League of Three Emperors, founded to preserve the monarchies of Continental Europe. The Congress of Berlin was thus mainly a dispute among supposed allies of Bismarck and his German Empire, the arbiter of the discussion, would thus have to choose before the end of the congress one of their allies to support. That decision was to have direct consequences on the future of European geopolitics.[9][8]

Ottoman brutality in the Serbian–Ottoman War and the violent suppression of the Herzegovina Uprising fomented political pressure within Russia, which saw itself as the protector of the Serbs, to act against the Ottoman Empire. David MacKenzie wrote that 'sympathy for the Serbian Christians existed in Court circles, among nationalist diplomats, and in the lower classes, and was actively expressed through the Slav committees'.[10]

Eventually, Russia sought and obtained Austria-Hungary's pledge of benevolent neutrality in the coming war, in return for ceding Bosnia Herzegovina to Austria-Hungary in the Budapest Convention of 1877.

Treaty of San Stefano

Ethnographic map by German geographer Heinrich Kiepert, 1878. This map received a good reception in contemporary Europe and was used as a reference at the Congress of Berlin.[11]

After the Bulgarian April Uprising in 1876 and the Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, Russia had liberated almost all of the Ottoman European possessions. The Ottomans recognized Montenegro, Romania and Serbia as independent, and the territories of all three were expanded. Russia created a large Principality of Bulgaria as an autonomous vassal of the sultan. This expanded Russia's sphere of influence to encompass the entire Balkans, which alarmed other powers in Europe. Britain, which had threatened war with Russia if it occupied Constantinople,[12] and France both did not want another power meddling in either the Mediterranean or the Middle East, where both powers were prepared to make large colonial gains. Austria-Hungary desired Habsburg control over the Balkans, and Germany wanted to prevent its ally from going to war. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck thus called the Congress of Berlin to discuss the partition of the Ottoman Balkans among the European powers and to preserve the League of Three Emperors in the face of the spread of European liberalism.[13]

The Congress was attended by Britain, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Delegates from Greece, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro attended the sessions that concerned their states, but they were not members of the Congress. The Congress was solicited by Russia's rivals, particularly Austria-Hungary and Britain, and it was hosted in 1878 by Otto von Bismarck. It proposed and ratified the Treaty of Berlin. The meetings were held at Bismarck's Reich Chancellery, the former Radziwill Palace, from 13 June 1878 to 13 July 1878. The congress revised or eliminated 18 of the 29 articles in the Treaty of San Stefano. Furthermore, by using as a foundation the Treaties of Paris (1856) and Washington (1871), the treaty rearranged the East.

Other powers' fear of Russian influence

Ethnic composition map of the Balkans by the German-English cartographer Ernst Georg Ravenstein of 1870

The principal mission of the participants at the congress was to deal a fatal blow to the burgeoning movement of pan-Slavism. The movement caused serious concern in Berlin and even more so in Vienna, which was afraid that the repressed Slavic nationalities would revolt against the Habsburgs. The British and the French governments were nervous about both the diminishing influence of the Ottoman Empire and the cultural expansion of Russian to the south, where both Britain and France were poised to colonise Egypt and Palestine. By the Treaty of San Stefano, the Russians, led by Chancellor Alexander Gorchakov, had managed to create in a Bulgaria an autonomous principality, under the nominal rule of the Ottoman Empire. That sparked the Great Game, the massive British fear of the growing Russian influence in the Middle East. The new principality, including a very large portion of Macedonia and with access to the Aegean Sea, could easily threaten the Dardanelle Straits, which separate the Black Sea from the Mediterranean Sea. The arrangement was not acceptable to the British, which considered the entire Mediterranean to be a British sphere of influence and saw any Russian attempt to gain access there as a grave threat to British power. On 4 June, before the Congress opened on 13 June, Prime Minister Lord Beaconsfield had already concluded the Cyprus Convention, a secret alliance with the Ottomans against Russia in which Britain was allowed to occupy the strategically-placed island of Cyprus. The agreement predetermined Beaconsfield's position during the Congress and led him to issue threats to unleash a war against Russia if it did not comply with Ottoman demands. Negotiations between Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Andrássy and British Foreign Secretary Marquess of Salisbury had already 'ended on 6 June by Britain agreeing to all the Austrian proposals relative to Bosnia-Herzegovina about to come before the congress while Austria would support British demands'.[14]

Bismarck as host

The Congress of Berlin is frequently viewed as the culmination of the battle between Chancellors Alexander Gorchakov of Russia and Otto von Bismarck of Germany. They were able to persuade other European leaders that a free and independent Bulgaria would greatly improve the security risks posed by a disintegrating Ottoman Empire. According to historian Erich Eyck, Bismarck supported Russia's position that "Turkish rule over a Christian community (Bulgaria) was an anachronism which undoubtedly gave rise to insurrection and bloodshed and should therefore be ended".[15] He used the Great Eastern Crisis of 1875 as proof of growing animosity in the region.

Borders of Bulgaria according to the preliminary Treaty of San Stefano (red stripes) and the superseding Treaty of Berlin (solid red)

Bismarck's ultimate goal during the Congress of Berlin was not to upset Germany's status on the international platform. He did not wish to disrupt the League of the Three Emperors by choosing between Russia and Austria as an ally.[15] To maintain peace in Europe, Bismarck sought to convince other European diplomats on dividing up the Balkans to foster greater stability. During the division, Russia began to feel cheated even though it eventually gained independence for Bulgaria. Problems in the alliances in Europe before the First World War were thus noticeable.

One reason that Bismarck was able to mediate the various tensions at the Congress of Berlin was his diplomatic persona. He sought peace and stability when international affairs did not pertain to Germany directly. Since he viewed the current situation in Europe as favourable for Germany, any conflicts between the major European powers that were threatening the status quo was against German interests. Also, at the Congress of Berlin, "Germany could not look for any advantage from the crisis" that had occurred in the Balkans in 1875.[15] As a result, Bismarck claimed impartiality on behalf of Germany at the Congress. That claim enabled him to preside over the negotiations with a keen eye for foul play.

Though most of Europe went into the Congress expecting a diplomatic show, much like the Congress of Vienna, they were to be sadly disappointed. Bismarck, unhappy to be conducting the Congress in the heat of the summer, had a short temper and a low tolerance for malarky. Thus, any grandstanding was cut short by the testy German chancellor. The ambassadors from the small Balkan territories whose fate was being decided were barely even allowed to attend the diplomatic meetings, which were between mainly the representatives of the great powers.[16]

According to Henry Kissinger,[17] the congress saw a shift in Bismarck's Realpolitik. Until then, as Germany had become too powerful for isolation, his policy was to maintain the League of the Three Emperors. Now that he could no longer rely on Russia's alliance, he began to form relations with as many potential enemies as possible.


Ethnic composition map of the Balkans in 1877 by A. Synvet, a known French professor of the Ottoman Lyceum of Constantinople

Bowing to Russia's pressure, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro were declared independent principalities. Russia kept South Bessarabia, which it had annexed in the Russo-Turkish War, but the Bulgarian state that it had created was first bisected and then split further into the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia, both of which were given nominal autonomy, under the control of the Ottoman Empire.[18] Bulgaria was promised autonomy, and guarantees were made against Turkish interference, but they were largely ignored. Romania received Dobruja. Montenegro obtained Nikšić, along with the primary Albanian regions of Podgorica, Bar and Plav-Gusinje. The Turkish government, or Porte, agreed to obey the specifications contained in the Organic Law of 1868 and to guarantee the civil rights of non-Muslim subjects. The region of Bosnia-Herzegovina was given over to the administration of Austria-Hungary, which also obtained the right to garrison the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, a small border region between Montenegro and Serbia. Bosnia and Herzegovina were put on the fast track to eventual annexation. Russia agreed that Macedonia, the most important strategic section of the Balkans, was too multinational to be part of Bulgaria and permitted it to remain under the Ottoman Empire. Eastern Rumelia, which had its own large Turkish and Greek minorities, became an autonomous province under a Christian ruler, with its capital at Philippopolis. The remaining portions of the original "Greater Bulgaria" became the new state of Bulgaria.

Allegorical depiction of Bulgarian autonomy after the Treaty of Berlin.
Lithograph by Nikolai Pavlovich

In Russia, the Congress of Berlin was considered a dismal failure. After finally defeating the Turks despite many past inconclusive Russo-Turkish wars, many Russians had expected "something colossal", a redrawing of the Balkan borders in support of Russian territorial ambitions. Instead, the victory resulted in an Austro-Hungarian gain on the Balkan front that was brought about by the rest of the European powers' preference for a powerful Austria-Hungarian Empire, which threatened basically no one, to a powerful Russia, which had been locked in competition with Britain in the so-called Great Game for most of the century. Gorchakov said, "I consider the Berlin Treaty the darkest page in my life". The Russian people were by and large furious over the European repudiation of their political gains, and though there was some thought that it represented only a minor stumble on the road to Russian hegemony in the Balkans, it actually gave Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia over to Austria-Hungary's sphere of influence and essentially removed all Russian influence from the area.[19]

The Serbs were upset with "Russia... consenting to the cession of Bosnia to Austria."[20]

Ristić who was Serbia’s first plenipotentiary at Berlin tells how he asked Jomini, one of the Russian delegates, what consolation remained to the Serbs. Jomini replied that it would have to be the thought that 'the situation was only temporary because within fifteen years at the latest we shall be forced to fight Austria.' 'Vain consolation!' comments Ristić.[20]

Greek Delegation in the Berlin Congress

Italy was dissatisfied with the results of the Congress, and the tensions between Greece and the Ottoman Empire were left unresolved. Bosnia-Herzegovina would also prove to be problematic for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in later decades. The League of the Three Emperors, established in 1873, was destroyed, as Russia saw lack of German support on the issue of Bulgaria's full independence as a breach of loyalty and of the alliance. The border between Greece and Turkey was not resolved. In 1881, after protracted negotiations, a compromise border was accepted, occurring after a naval demonstration of the great powers, resulting in the cession of Thessaly and the Arta Prefecture to Greece.

Thus, the Berlin Congress sowed the seeds of further conflicts, including the Balkan Wars and (ultimately) the First World War. In the 'Salisbury Circular' of 1 April 1878, the British Foreign Secretary, the Marquess of Salisbury, made clear the objections of him and the government to the Treaty of San Stefano because of the favorable position in which it left Russia.[21]

In 1954, British historian AJP Taylor wrote: "If the treaty of San Stefano had been maintained, both the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary might have survived to the present day. The British, except for Beaconsfield in his wilder moments, had expected less and were therefore less disappointed. Salisbury wrote at the end of 1878: We shall set up a rickety sort of Turkish rule again south of the Balkans. But it is a mere respite. There is no vitality left in them."[22]

Though the Congress of Berlin constituted a harsh blow to Pan-Slavism, it by no means solved the question of the area. The Slavs in the Balkans were still mostly under non-Slavic rule, split between the rule of Austria-Hungary and the ailing Ottoman Empire. The Slavic states of the Balkans had learned that banding together as Slavs benefited them less than playing to the desires of a neighboring great power. That damaged the unity of the Balkan Slavs and encouraged competition between the fledgling Slav states.[23]

The underlying tensions of the region would continue to simmer for 30 years until they again exploded in the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. In 1914, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand the Austro-Hungarian heir, led to the First World War. In hindsight, the stated goal of maintaining peace and balance of powers in the Balkans obviously failed, as the region would remain a source of conflict between the great powers well into the 20th century.[24]

Internal opposition to Andrássy's objectives

Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Andrássy and the occupation and administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina also obtained the right to station garrisons in the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, which remained under Ottoman administration. The Sanjak preserved the separation of Serbia and Montenegro, and the Austro-Hungarian garrisons there would open the way for a dash to Salonika that "would bring the western half of the Balkans under permanent Austrian influence".[25] "High [Austro-Hungarian] military authorities desired... [an] immediate major expedition with Salonika as its objective".[26]

On 28 September 1878 the Finance Minister, Koloman von Zell, threatened to resign if the army, behind which stood the Archduke Albert, were allowed to advance to Salonika. In the session of the Hungarian Parliament of 5 November 1878 the Opposition proposed that the Foreign Minister should be impeached for violating the constitution by his policy during the Near East Crisis and by the occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The motion was lost by 179 to 95. By the Opposition rank and file the gravest accusations were raised against Andrassy.[26]

On 10 October 1878, French diplomat Melchior de Vogüé described the situation as follows:

Particularly in Hungary the dissatisfaction caused by this 'adventure' has reached the gravest proportions, prompted by that strong conservative instinct which animates the Magyar race and is the secret of its destinies. This vigorous and exclusive instinct explains the historical phenomenon of an isolated group, small in numbers yet dominating a country inhabited by a majority of peoples of different races and conflicting aspirations, and playing a role in European affairs out of all proportions to its numerical importance or intellectual culture. This instinct is today awakened and gives warning that it feels the occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina to be a menace which, by introducing fresh Slav elements into the Hungarian political organism and providing a wider field and further recruitment of the Croat opposition, would upset the unstable equilibrium in which the Magyar domination is poised.[27]


United Kingdom United Kingdom

  • Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield (Prime Minister)
  • Marquess of Salisbury (Foreign Secretary)
  • Baron Ampthill (Ambassador to Germany)

Russian Empire Russian Empire

  • Prince Gorchakov (Foreign Minister)
  • Count Shuvalov (Ambassador to Great Britain)
  • Baron d'Oubril (Ambassador to Germany)

German Empire German Empire

  • Otto von Bismarck (Chancellor)
  • Prince Hohenlohe (Ambassador to France)
  • Bernhard Ernst von Bülow (State Secretary for Foreign Affairs)

Austria-Hungary Austria-Hungary

  • Count Andrássy (Foreign Minister)
  • Count Károlyi (Ambassador to Germany)
  • Baron Heinrich Karl von Haymerle (Ambassador to Italy)

French Republic France

  • Monsieur Waddington (Foreign Minister)
  • Comte de Saint-Vallier
  • Monsieur Desprey

Kingdom of Italy Kingdom of Italy

  • Count Corti (Foreign Minister)
  • Count De Launay

Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire

  • Karatheodori Pasha
  • Sadullah Pasha
  • Mehmed Ali Pasha
  • Catholicos Mkrtich Khrimian (representing Armenian population)

Romania Romania

  • Ion C. Brătianu
  • Mihail Kogălniceanu

Greece Kingdom of Greece

  • Theodoros Deligiannis

Serbia Serbia

  • Jovan Ristić

Montenegro Principality of Montenegro

  • Božo Petrović
  • Stanko Radonjić

Albanians in the Ottoman Empire Albania

  • Abdyl Frasheri
  • Jani Vreto


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  6. Taylor, Alan J. P. (1954). Struggle for the Mastery of Europe 1848–1918. UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 241. ISBN 0198812701. 
  7. Glenny 2000, pp. 120–127.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Glenny 2000, pp. 135–137.
  9. William Norton Medlicott (1963). Congress of Berlin and After. Routledge. pp. 14–. ISBN 978-1-136-24317-2. 
  10. David MacKenzie (1967). The Serbs and Russian Pan-Slavism, 1875-1878. Cornell University Press. p. 7. 
  11. Understanding Life in the Borderlands. p. 174. "In the map shown in figure 7.2,... used as a reference at the Congress of Berlin - clear praise for its perceived objectivity." 
  12. Ragsdale, Hugh, and V. N. Ponomarev. Imperial Russian Foreign Policy. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1993, pp. 239–40.
  13. Glenny 2000, pp. 135–138.
  14. Albertini 1952, p. 20.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Erich Eyck, Bismarck and the German Empire (New York: W.W. Norton, 1964), pp. 245–46.
  16. Glenny 2000, pp. 138–140.
  17. Kissinger, Henry (1995-04-04). Diplomacy. Simon & Schuster. pp. 139–143. ISBN 0-671-51099-1. 
  18. Oakes, Augustus, and R. B. Mowat. The Great European Treaties of the Nineteenth Century. Clarendon Press, 1918, pp. 332–60.
  19. Ragsdale, Hugh, and V. N. Ponomarev. Imperial Russian Foreign Policy. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1993, pp. 244–46.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Albertini 1952, p. 32.
  21. Walker, Christopher J. (1980), Armenia: The Survival of A Nation, London: Croom Helm, p. 112
  22. AJP Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1914–1918, Oxford University Press (1954) p. 253
  23. Glenny 2000, pp. 133–134.
  24. Glenny 2000, p. 151.
  25. Albertini 1952, p. 19.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Albertini 1952, p. 33.
  27. Albertini 1952, pp. 33–34.