Did the Congress of Berlin create a more unstable Europe

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The Congress of Berlin was a gathering of the representatives of the Russian Empire, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Germany, the great powers in Europe and the Balkan states; Greece, Serbia, Rumania and Montenegro. and the Ottoman Empire. The Congress was hosted by the German Chancellor Otto Bismarck. The aim of the Congress was to resolve territorial and other disputes in the Balkans after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8. It also sought to ease tensions in Europe, because other great powers feared that Russia was too strong and was upsetting the continent’s balance of power. The Congress was also designed to restrain Pan-Slavic nationalism. However, the Congress, though successful in its immediate aims, it led to enduring instability in the Balkans, for generations.


The Ottoman Empire was in terminal decline and since the start of the 19th century it had been in retreat in the Balkans, which it had once dominated.[1] However, it still retained control over large areas of the southern Balkans. The region was very unstable. The population of the Balkans was made up largely of Slavs and many of these wanted the creation of a single Slavic state in the region, this ideology was known as Pan-Slavism. The nationalist ideology of Pan-Slavism was very hostile to the Ottoman Turks, but generally support Russian influence in the Balkans, as it was considered a Slavic nation. Russia considered itself to be the defender of the Christian Slavs against the Muslim Ottomans.[2]

In 1876, the Bulgarians rebelled against Ottoman rule. The Turkish Ottoman forces brutally crushed the revolt with great loss of civilian life. This led to Russian intervening on behalf of their fellow Slavs and Christians, the Bulgarians. From 1877-8, the Russians fought a war against the Ottomans, mainly in the Balkans.[3] The Russians, who were supported by Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Rumania, inflicted a series of defeats on the Turks. By 1878, the Turks had been forced out of almost all of their Balkan provinces. The Russian and their allies signed a Treaty with the Ottomans, in 1878. The terms of this treaty meant that Russia and its allies had confined the Turks to a narrow band of territory in the Balkans. To many observers it seemed likely that the Russians would go on to occupy Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.[4]

Russian soldiers during the Turkish-Russian War 1877-78.

Concert of Europe

The outcome of the war greatly alarmed the other European powers. The decisive Russian victory in the Balkans had important implications for all the other European powers. The German and Austro-Hungarian Empires were worried that the war had encouraged Slavic nationalism and they both had large Slavic minorities in their realms.[5] If there was a strong Slavic state created in the Balkans, it could foster Slavic nationalism among their own populations and could lead to instability or even the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in particular. The British and the French were also alarmed by the growing power of the Russians in the Balkans. The governments in Paris and London welcomed Russia’s victory but were worried that it could lead to it dominating the Balkans. In particular, they were worried about Russian ambitions in the Bosporus. This is one of the world’s most strategic waterways and it connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. The Russian Tsar had ambitions, to capture Constantinople. This would have allowed the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean and this was seen as a threat to French and British interests. Britain in particular, believed that if Russia was to dominate the Bosporus Straits it would threaten its ‘sphere of influence’ in the Mediterranean.[6] The British made clear that they would not allow the Russians access to the Bosporus. London made clear it would go to war with Russian over the issue.[7]

Congress of Berlin

Bismarck, along with the Austrian Chancellor persuaded the other great powers to attend a meeting in Berlin, to discuss the Balkans and to solve any differences by diplomatic means. Germany sought to portray itself as an ‘impartial arbitrator in the disputes in the Balkans’.[8] In fact, it had its own agenda, to maintain the informal alliance between it Austro-Hungary and Russia, the so-called League of the Three Emperors. In order to maintain peace in Europe, Bismarck sought to convince other European diplomats on dividing up the Balkans in a way that would prevent future instability. In June 1878, the representative of the Great European powers met and with the Balkan powers and the Ottomans discussed the future of the region. After several weeks of increasingly tense negotiations a series of agreements were arrived at and they were to form the basis of the Treaty of Berlin. The main points in the Treaty were:

  1. Recognition of Romania, Montenegro and Serbia as independent states.
  2. Bulgaria to secure more autonomy within the Ottoman Empire.
  3. The strategic province of Macedonia was to remain part of the Ottoman Empire
  4. Bosnia and Herzegovina were to become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.[9]

The Congress of Berlin was a victory for the British- they had denied the Russian Empire the opportunity to dominate the Balkans and hence the strategic Bosporus. Turkey was able to retain many of its European provinces despite Germany and Austria were relieved that no Pan-Slavic state under Russian influence would emerge in the Balkans. Russia was outraged, it had decisively defeated the Turks, and had apparently received nothing. The Pan-Slavic nationalists were also angered as their dreams of a strong unified Slavic state was also denied.[10]

                   Bismarck and representatives at the Congress of Berlin.

Legacy of the Congress

The Congress achieved the aim, of Bismarck, of ensuring that instability in the Balkans did not result in a general war between the great powers in Europe. However, in the longer term it was a disaster for Europe.[11]Prior to the Congress, there had been a level of stability in Europe, even though relations between France and Germany were still tense after the 1870-1 war. Russian was angered by the outcome of the Congress and eventually she was to end her loose alliance with Germany and Austro-Hungary. The Germans and Austrians had succeeded in their objectives at the Congress, but had lost an ally. Soon the various nations were seeking new alliances. This did much to establish the alliance system in Europe which was to contribute so much to the outbreak of the First World War. More importantly, the Congress failed to address the Pan-Slavic nationalists demands and this was to ensure continuing instability in the Balkans for many decades. The Congress failure to address the claims of the Slavs in the Balkans was to result in wars and terrorism in the region until the First World War and after.


The Congress of Berlin was very important, in that it helped to establish the outline of the modern Balkans and it kept Russian from expanding further into that region and beyond into the Ottoman Empire. However, it led inadvertently to the development of a series of international alliances that was ultimately result in two rival power blocs on the continent. it failed to placate the demands of the Pan-Slavic Nationalists. Indeed, Pan-Slavic nationalism was a contributing factor to the outbreak of the First World War. When a Serbian Pan-Slavic nationalist assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, this was to prove the catalyst for the First World War. The decisions made at the Congress was to leave the Balkans fundamentally unstable for several decades to come and even contributed to the wars in the region in the 1990s.


  1. Taylor, Alan J. P. (1954). Struggle for the Mastery of Europe 1848–1918. UK: Oxford University Press. p. 241
  2. Taylor, p. 167
  3. Taylor, p.256.
  4. Glenny, Misha (2000). The Balkans, 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers. Granta Books, p. 78.
  5. Glenny, 134
  6. Glenny, 78
  7. Albertini, Luigi (2002).The Origins of the War of 1914: European relations from the Congress of Berlin to the eve of the Sarajevo murder. Oxford University Press, p. 119.
  8. Taylor, p. 231.
  9. Taylor, p. 241.
  10. Albertini, p. 202
  11. Glenny, p. 67.