Bosnian crisis

The Bosnian Crisis of 1908-1909, also known as the Annexation crisis, erupted into public view when on October 5, 1908, Bulgaria declared its independence and on October 6, 1908, Austria-Hungary announced the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Britain, Italy, Serbia, Montenegro, Germany and France took an interest in these events. In April 1909 the Treaty of Berlin was amended to accept the new status quo bringing the crisis to an end. The crisis permanently damaged relations between Austria-Hungary on the one hand and Russia and Serbia on the other. The annexation and reactions to the annexation are contributing causes of World War I.


Under article 25 of the Treaty of Berlin, 1878 Austria-Hungary received special rights in the Ottoman Empire's provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Sanjak of Novibazar. Article 25 stated: "The provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina shall be occupied and administered by Austria-Hungary." and continued "... Austria-Hungary reserves the right to maintain garrisons and to have military and trading roads over the whole area of that portion" (the Sanjak of Novibazar) "of the ancient Vilayet of Bosnia." [Albertini (2005: 22-23).] Austria-Hungary exercised its rights, taking firm control of Bosnia-Herzegovina and jointly occupying the Sanjak of Novibazar together with the Ottoman Empire. This state of affairs persisted from 1878 until the outbreak of the crisis in 1908. The Treaty of Berlin also stated that the Straits of Constantinople would be closed to warships during time of war. This had the effect of bottling up the Russian fleet in the Black Sea.

The Sanjak of Novibazar separated Montenegro from Serbia and prevented the geographic and political union of these two states which were often closely aligned. The Austrian occupation of the Sanjak was also significant because it provided Austria-Hungary with a staging area for possible future expansion towards the Aegean port of Salonika in Ottoman controlled Macedonia. Bosnia-Herzegovina was a multi-sectarian state composed mostly of Bosnian Moslems, Croatian Catholics, and Serbian Orthodox, with the largest single group being the Serbian Orthodox. In 1903, a coup in Serbia, brought in a new dynasty and shifted political power to more nationalistic elements. These nationalists saw the Sanjak of Novibazar and Bosnia-Herzegovina as natural avenues for territorial expansion. Relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary gradually deteriorated. By 1907, Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Alois Aehrenthal began formulating a plan to solidify Austria-Hungary's position in Bosnia-Herzegovina through annexation. His opportunity came in the form of a letter from Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky and their infamous meeting at Buchlau castle in Moravia, Austria-Hungary.

The Buchlau Bargain

An exchange of letters

On July 2, 1908, Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky wrote to Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Alois Aehrenthal and proposed a discussion of reciprocal changes to the 1878 Treaty of Berlin in favor of the Russian interest in the Straits of Constantinople and Austro-Hungarian interests in the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Sanjak of Novibazar. On July 14 Aehrenthal responded with guarded acceptance of the proposed discussion. [Albertini (2005: 195–6).] After long and complex discussions within Austria-Hungary, Aehrenthal on September 10 outlined a slightly different bargain to Izvolsky. In exchange for a friendly Russian attitude in the event Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austria-Hungary would then withdraw its troops from the Sanjak. The letter then went on to offer to discuss, as a separate matter, the Straits question on a friendly basis. [Albertini (2005: 201-202).]

The meeting at Buchlau

On September 16, Izvolsky and Aehrenthal met face-to-face at Buchlau. No minutes were taken during these private meetings which lasted a total of six hours. Izvolsky accepted the responsibility to write up the conclusions of the meeting and forward them to Aehrenthal. On September 21 Aehrenthal wrote to Izvolsky asking for this document to which Izvolsky replied two days later that the document had been sent to the Czar for approval. This document, if it ever existed, has never been produced. [Albertini (2005: 207).]

Aehrenthal’s version of the agreement

By Aehrenthal’s account given by Albertini, Izvolsky agreed that Russia would maintain "a friendly and benevolent attitude" if Austria-Hungary were to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina. Reciprocally, Austria-Hungary, should Russia move to open “the Straits to single ships of war” would maintain a benevolent attitude. The two agreed that a likely consequence of the annexation was Bulgaria would declare its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Austria-Hungary would offer no territorial concessions to Serbia or Montenegro, but if they supported the annexation then Austria-Hungary would not oppose Serbian expansion in the Balkans, and support the Russian demand to revise Article 29 of the Treaty of Berlin which restricted Montenegrin sovereignty. The parties agreed "these changes could receive sanction after negotiation with the Porte and the Powers", but "there would be no more talk of Bosnia-Herzegovina". Annexation would probably take place at the beginning of October. [Albertini (2005: 206-207).] The original of Aehrenthal’s account has not been found and so historians have had to make do with an undated office copy of the document. [Albertini (2005: 208).]

Izvolsky’s version

On September 30, Austria-Hungary informed Izvolsky, who was in Paris at the time, that the annexation would take place on October 7. On October 4, Izvolsky prepared a report at the request of the British Ambassador to France, Bertie. Izvolsky stated that his position was that annexation was a matter to be settled between the signatories to the Treaty of Berlin. With the compensation of Austro-Hungarian withdrawal from the Sanjak of Novibazar, Russia would not consider the annexation as reason to go to war, but Russia and other governments would insist on changes to the Treaty favorable to themselves, including opening the Straits, Bulgarian independence, territorial concessions to Serbia, and abolition of restrictions on Montenegrin sovereignty under article 29. [Albertini (2005: 207-208).] Bertie told British Foreign Minister Grey that he felt Izvolsky was not being completely honest.

The annexation

On October 5, Bulgaria declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. On October 6, Emperor Franz Joseph announced to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina his intention to give them an autonomous and constitutional regime and the provinces were annexed. [Albertini (2005: 218-219).] On October 7, Austria-Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Sanjak of Novibazar. Bulgarian independence and the Bosnian annexation were not countenanced by the Treaty of Berlin and set off a flurry of diplomatic protests and discussions.

Protests and compensations


Serbia mobilized its army and on October 7 the Serbian Crown Council demanded that the annexation be reversed or, failing that, Serbia should receive compensation, which it defined on October 25 as a strip of land across the northern most portion of the Sanjak of Novibazar. [Albertini (2005: 222-223).] In the end these demands were rejected, although Serbia later conquered the Sanjak.

Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire protested Bulgaria’s declaration of independence with more vigor than the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina which it had no practical prospects of governing. A boycott of Austro-Hungarian goods however did occur, inflicting commercial losses on Austria-Hungary. On February 20, Austria-Hungary settled the matter and received Ottoman acquiescence to the annexation in return for ₤2.2 million. [Albertini (2005: 277).] Bulgarian independence could not be reversed.

France, Britain, Russia and Italy

The annexation and Bulgarian declaration were viewed as violations of the Treaty of Berlin. France, Britain, Russia and Italy therefore were in favor of a conference to consider the matter. German opposition and complex diplomatic maneuvering as to the location, nature and preconditions of the conference delayed and ultimately scuttled it. [Albertini (2005: 225-285).] Instead, the Powers reached agreement on amendments to the Treaty through consultations between capitals.

Russia and Serbia back down

British opposition to amending the Treaty of Berlin with respects to the Straits left Russia with empty hands and therefore Izvolsky and the Czar regarded the annexation and Aehrenthal's maneuvers as made in bad faith. Cognizant of Aehrenthal's heritage, Izvolsky exploded making the remark::"The dirty Jew has deceived me. He lied to me, he bamboozled me, that frightful Jew." [Joll & Martel (2007: 69).] To bring Izvolsky to heel, Austria-Hungary threatened to release and then ultimately began leaking documents, in which, over the course of the last 30 years, Russia had agreed that Austria-Hungary had a free hand to do as it liked with Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Sanjak of Novibazar. These documents were an embarrassment to Russia, especially with regards to its relations with Serbia. Czar Nicholas II wrote to Emperor Franz-Joseph and accused Austria-Hungary of betraying a confidence and relations between the two countries were permanently damaged. Under Germany’s advice, Austria-Hungary kept in confidence the July 2 and September 23 correspondence from Izvolsky to Aehrenthal and these were a continued threat to Izvolsky’s position if Russia did not firmly and publicly accept amendment of Article 25 of the Treaty of Berlin to accept the annexation. On March 22, Germany put Russia on the spot, demanding that Russia give a clear and unequivocal "yes" or "no" as to whether it committed to accept this amendment. Failure to give a positive reply would cause Germany to withdraw from the diplomatic discussions "and let things take their course". [Albertini (2005: 285-286).] Under such pressure, Izvolsky caved and advised the cabinet to accept the amendment of Article 25 for fear that otherwise Austria would be free to act against Serbia. The cabinet agreed. On March 23 the Czar accepted the decision and communicated the decision to German Ambassador to Russia Portales. [Albertini (2005: 287).] Britain however was not quite ready to acquiesce and stated that it would do so only once “the Serbian question had been settled in a pacific manner. France fell in line behind Britain.

On March 26, Austria-Hungary provided Britain with the negotiated text of Serbia’s March declaration committing Serbia to accept the annexation. It ran::"Serbia recognizes that she has not been injured in her right by the "fait accompli" created in Bosnia-Herzegovina and that consequently she will conform to such decision as the Powers shall take in regard to Article 25 of the Treaty of Berlin. Submitting to the advice of the Great Powers, Serbia undertakes already now to abandon the attitude of protest and opposition which she has maintained in regard to the annexation since last autumn and undertakes further to change the course of her present policy towards Austria-Hungary to live henceforward with the latter on a footing of good-neighborliness. Conformable to these declarations and confident of the pacific intentions of Austria-Hungary, Serbia will reduce her army to the position of spring 1908 as regards its organization, its distribution and its effectives. She will disarm and disband her volunteers and bands and will prevent the formation of new units of irregulars on its territories." [Albertini (2005: 291-292).]

The next day Austria-Hungary asked for Britain’s firm assurance that once the negotiations with Serbia were complete, Britain would accept the amendment of Article 25. Without such assurance Austria-Hungary stated it would break off negotiations with Serbia. [Albertini (2005: 289).] Later that day Austria-Hungary decided to partially mobilize its armed forces. On March 28 Britain committed as requested. On March 31 Serbia made its formal declaration of acceptance to Austria-Hungary representing a complete Serbian climb down. The crisis was over. [Albertini (2005: 291-292).] The Great Powers signed the amendments to the Treaty of Berlin in the various capitals from April 7 to April 19.

A little over a year later, as a result of this diplomatic defeat, Izvolsky was demoted and made ambassador to France. He was permanently embittered against Aehrenthal and the Central Powers. The Russian Diplomat and newspaperman de Schelking relates Izvolsky's political downfall: "In the Salons of Petrograd he" (Izvolsky) "was given the Sobriquet 'Prince of the Bosphorous'. In his conceit Iswolsky could not see he was being mocked." [de Schelking (1918: 183).]



econdary sources

* Albertini, Luigi. 2005. "Origins of the War of 1914 - Vol. 1", Enigma Books, New York.
*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.
* Joll, James, & Martel, Gordon. 2007. "The Origins of the First World War". Pearson/Longman, London.
* Shelḱīng, Evgeniǐ Nīkolaevīch and Makovskī, L. W. 1918. "Recollections of a Russian Diplomat: The Suicide of Monarchies". The Macmillan company, New York.

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