The Situation in the Balkans

[The Outlook, August 25, 1915]

The biggest war in history is being fought on many fields.

On which of these fields is the struggle most momentous? Belgium? France? Galicia? Poland? At the present time the developments at the Dardanelles seem most far-reaching of all, especially as inducing possible new allies, either to England, France, Italy, and Russia on the one hand, or to Germany, Austria, and Turkey on the other. Of course, if the Dardanelles could be occupied and Constantinople captured, both the material and moral effect to the first set of allies would be great. Russian grain would freely pass to the east and English munitions to the west. It is equally important, however, to the Teutonic allies and Turkey to prevent this.

Nearly nine months ago England and France sent a battle fleet to force the Dardanelles Straits and to proceed through the Sea of Marmora to capture Constantinople. England and France expected Russian help, coming to Constantinople by the way of the Black Sea and the Strait of the Bosphorus.

But that help apparently never arrived. Even if it had, England and France might still, be where they are to-day, having advanced but a few miles into the Dardanelles, and having sustained enormous losses in men and ships.

As Russian aid to take Constantinople is not forthcoming, England and France need other help.

It was at first thought that Italy would furnish it, that she would declare war on Turkey (because of Turkey's bad treatment of Italian Consuls), that she would land forces on the northern Turkish Aegean shore for a march on Constantinople, attacking it in the way the Bulgars did eleven hundred years ago. But this hope proved vain. Italy aided in another way.

Then it was thought that Rumania would help. But the difficulty in the way of Rumanian help to an alliance in which Russia is a factor is that Russia has been a potential foe since 1877, when Russia appropriated the Rumanian province of Bessarabia. If Russia had now the generous wisdom to say, "Take back Bessarabia and we will also help to win Transylvania from Hungary for you, so that you may gather together all the Rumans scattered abroad, whether eastward or westward," who can doubt that Rumania would at once have thrown her lot with Russia's allies? But so far Russia has lost the chance, nor have her allies been able to goad her to appropriate action. This is doubly unfortunate since Rumanian, like Italian, sympathy has been manifesting itself with the oppressed in this war. On the other hand, German and Austrian agents have been busy with promises of the possession of Bessarabia. As they have not yet promised Transylvania, Rumania has lent a deaf ear. Indeed she has done more, for, in emphasis of her neutrality, she has forbidden the passage of German munitions to Turkey across her territory. Accordingly an Austro-German force has been assembled at Orsova, on the Danube, at the point where the Austrian, Rumania, and Servian boundaries meet, less than forty miles from the Bulgarian frontier, the indication perhaps being that in order to reach Constantinople it is not necessary for German munitions to go by way of Rumania and the Black Sea.

Then it was thought that Greece might help in return for the promise of the shore of Asia Minor, the motherland of the Greece of to-day. This seamed to bear an immediate indication of coming to something. It was rumored that the Greek Prime Minister had come to an agreement with the Bulgarian Prime Minister by which Bulgaria, in return for certain Macedonian lands captured by The Greeks during the Balkan wars, would remain neutral. But the Greek Premier, Venizelos, perhaps reckoned without two factors, namely, the monarch and his own political opponents. The Greek King wishes to maintain neutrality in the war. Whether this means a neutrality friendly to Germany, Austria, and Turkey, rather than to England, France, Italy, and Russia, is not known. But it would be, strange if the monarch's German wife (the Kaiser's sister) and his German military training did not influence him. As to the Premier's political opponents, such a storm broke when his position with regard to Bulgaria became known that he resigned office and was succeeded by another. An election took place later which revealed Venizelos's true position, and when Parliament met on August 16 he was found to have twice as many followers as his successor had. His successor thereupon resigned. Will the King now bow to the will of the people and place Greece in this war as most Greeks desire, or will he await the results of a possible revolution?

Then there is Servia. The war was begun because of Servia. Will she help those who have helped her by abandoning some of the immense territory, which she has gained during the two Balkan wars? Proportionately she won more than did any other State—she nearly doubled her area. Cession of the territory inhabited by Bulgars is now demanded by Bulgaria. If the Allies promise to reward Greece on the shore of Asia Minor, they will doubtless agree to reward Servia on the shore of the Adriatic. The Servian Parliament met on August 16, and on that very day the Austrian guns again attacked Belgrade. Such a hint might have been more significant in the Serbian capital but for the fact that a year ago the, Austrian guns attacked the city and bombarded it for four months before it surrendered, and then the Austrians held it only a week.

Finally, it is to Bulgaria that the Allies look for help. Bulgaria and part of old Macedonia are inhabited by the Bulgars, or Vulgars. Of all so-called Slav races they are nearest in kin to the Turks. Their racial stock comes from Middle Asia. Proceeding across southern Russia, the Bulgar nomads conquered the Slavs in the Bulgarian peninsula and there founded an empire (702-1014) which rose to greatness under its Czar Simeon and again in a later age under Czar John Asen I (1218-1241), who could speak of "the lands I have conquered from Adrianople to Durazzo, the Albanian, Greek, and Servian lands." It has been said that every child in Bulgaria is told the story of how this ancient empire came to an end at the Battle of Kostendil in 1330, and of the resultant Servian overlordship until 1389, when Servia succumbed to the Turk.

The language of the Bulgar has become pure Slav, with only slight modifications, thus differing from the neighboring Rumanian, which is a combination of Dacian, Latin, and Bulgarian, with intermixtures of Hungarian and Turkish.

The Bulgars are of medium height, but powerfully built, their physical excellence being largely due to their highland climate and environment. Outdoor agricultural life and soberness keep the Bulgars from the temptations of a false civilization. The Bulgars who live in Bulgaria are known as Bulgarians in distinction from those still living in Macedonia, Thrace, and Rumania. The Bulgarians number nearly five million, and the other Bulgars perhaps one million. Macedonia has been divided among Bulgars, Serbs, and Greeks. Had Bulgaria remained content with her gains from the first Balkan War, she would have kept the territory inhabited by Bulgars in Macedonia and assigned to her by the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878 (suppressed by the Congress of Berlin), by the Treaty with Servia in 1912, and by the Treaty of London in 1913. Unfortunately, however, the Bulgarian king, a very ambitious man, was not satisfied with obtaining half of the abandoned Turkish territory, but wanted three-fourths. He emerged from the second Balkan War with about one-fourth.

According to the "Statesman's Year Book," the following increases in area and population have resulted from the partial extinction of Turkey during the Balkan Wars:



Old Territory
Sq. Miles

New Territory
Sq. Miles

Sq. Miles







Old Population

New Population






To bound that part of Macedonia which Bulgaria wants one should draw a line east and west just under Uskub, in Servia, and include Monastir in the area to the south. One should also include, to the east of Salonika, the present Greek port of Kavala, and its hinterland to the north.

For five centuries, not only Macedonia, but also Bulgaria, Servia, and the rest of the Balkans, were smothered under Turkish oppression. Of all the Balkan States, Bulgaria has most strongly expressed the power of rejuvenation. This has been shown best in the domains of education and of arms. As to the first, the Bulgarians spend twice as much for elementary instruction as do the Servians, for instance. In higher education, the University of Sofia at the Bulgarian capital, and the high schools for both sexes at Philippopolis (the ancient Philippi (of the New Testament), are giving good accounts of themselves, as are the high schools at Varna and elsewhere and the American Institute at Samakov, a secondary school for boys, organized over half a century ago by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Many of the teachers connected with the native Protestant mission work have been educated in this school. America has, indeed, been the chief factor in the making of Bulgaria. Under Dr. Hamlin and Dr. Washburn young Bulgars fitted themselves to become leaders of their people. Robert College is still furnishing men for hundreds of responsible positions in Bulgaria. Had it not been for the influence of this College, Bulgaria would doubtless have been dominated by Russian instead of by American ideals. Our vital connection with Bulgaria makes her present position of deep interest to all friends of civilization in this country, for America has certainly been Bulgaria's mentor. Our missionaries and educational agents are the more closely allied with the Bulgarians because of the greater freedom of religious opinion that exists there than in any other Balkan country, with the possible exception of Rumania. Certainly, in the quarter of a century of her existence, though brought into being ostensibly by Russia, Bulgaria has attained a liberty which Russia has not yet secured.

As to armies, one needs but to mention the battle of Lule-Burgas in the first Balkan War, doubtless one of the twenty greatest battles in history, to feel that the Bulgarian army is the most redoubtable fighting force in the Balkans. Military service in Bulgaria is universal and compulsory. The service begins at the age of twenty, and comprises two years in the infantry and three years in the other arms. Reservists are liable to be called out for three weeks annual training. The peace strength of the army is supposed to be something under 350,000. The war strength is of course very much greater.

Many observers have been much puzzled at Bulgaria's long period of waiting. In this they may have not calculated upon the national characteristics. One of the first of these characteristics to strike the foreigner is placidity, which of course can degenerate into mere stolidity. At all events, in contrast with Greece, Servia, and even Rumania, Bulgaria represents a marked balance of poise.

Another quality is thrift. Bulgaria is a peasant state, but its lands, farms, and gardens are in a far better condition than those of the neighboring peasant state of Servia. As to economic wealth, the nation must be thrifty in order to obtain, as it did recently, one hundred million dollars from Berlin bankers. And this is the more significant because the Bulgarian Government explicitly declared that "the loan is a purely business transaction, and carries with it no political engagement whatsoever towards Germany or Austria." Its advantage to the Berlin bankers lies in their control of certain mining and transportation interests.

Another quality to be noted among the Bulgarians is that of sturdiness. It is true that their ruler is a foreigner, half German. But so is the ruler of Rumania, and the King of Greece himself is not very Greek! Even the King of Servia sits on the throne only by the right of vendetta. No one of these four nations will tolerate foreign rulers except in proportion as they identify themselves with native interests. It has already been noted that the rulers of Rumania and Bulgaria have bowed to the will of their people in the refusal to allow the transport of German munitions despite the Teuton reply that such a refusal is an unfriendly act. But what is of much greater significance is the declaration of the Bulgarian Prime Minister that the Bulgarian army would at once march on Constantinople if Italy, France, England, and Russia would guarantee to Bulgaria that part of ancient Macedonia which she believes she ought to have.

Will they? The answer depends on Greece and Servia, and Greece has already given an indication through her powerful Premier of what she would do. Will Servia do as much?

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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