Today in European history: the Treaty of San Stefano (1878)

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Today we’re commemorating the anniversary of a treaty that doesn't exist. By “doesn't exist,” I don’t mean that it was in effect for a while but then got superseded by another treaty. I mean it never came into effect. I mean its terms were so unacceptable to so many European powers—states that hadn’t even participated in the war that preceded it, mind you—that they called a Europe-wide congress to block it from coming into effect and to negotiate a replacement. That’s the Treaty of San Stefano.

You can’t have a treaty without some precipitating incident or reason for negotiating it (I mean I guess you could but that would be weird), and in this case the precipitating incident was a war between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire that had begun in April 1877. You rarely have a war without something precipitating that, and in this case there were at least two precipitating factors, the Crimean War and the rise of Balkan nationalism. The Crimean War part is fairly simple. For one thing, Russia lost that war and was hoping to get back at least some of the territory (mostly around the Danube) it had forfeited as well as a bit of its great power prestige. For another thing, the Ottoman Empire was forced, as part of the settlement to that war, to agree that its Christian subjects would have equal rights alongside its Muslim subjects, a pledge that was dicey from a religious perspective and that the Ottomans only ever partially fulfilled.

The war also highlighted the Ottoman Empire’s weaknesses and the degree to which some European powers (Britain and France) would go to keep other European powers (Russia and, to a lesser extent, Austria-Hungary) from picking away at it and upsetting the balance of power. Speaking of the balance of power, it wasn’t doing so hot by 1877, as first the Italian War of 1859 and then the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the German unification process undermined whatever aspects of the Vienna System had survived the Revolutions of 1848. In 1873 the leaders of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia created the “Three Emperors’ League,” an alliance dreamed up by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck mostly as a way to keep Austria and Russia from allying with France against Germany. Part of the League’s mandate was to make sure Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, remained under control, even (or especially) in case the Ottoman Empire were to collapse.

The French government responded to the League’s formation by dallying with the second trigger for the 1877-1878 war, nationalism. Specifically, Eastern European nationalism. In short, France supported nationalist movements in Poland and in the Balkans. The Russians, fearing a loss of influence over their fellow Slavs, more or less abandoned the League in the Balkans and also began to support nationalism, albeit a pan-Slavic nationalism that would leave Balkan Slavs united with or at least dependent upon Moscow. Austria-Hungary, which supported Balkan nationalism to a point (specifically to the point where the Balkans would become independent from the Ottomans and be absorbed into Austria-Hungary) also resumed meddling around in the Ottoman Empire’s remaining European territories.

The Russian-Ottoman war was part of a broader situation known as the “Great Eastern Crisis,” which began in 1875 with a rebellion led primarily by ethnic Serbs in Herzegovina. Feeling the same nationalist fervor that had fueled uprisings earlier in the century in Serbia and Montenegro, both of which had by now achieved de facto if not outright independence from the Ottomans, rebels began their uprising in the summer of 1875, and it quickly spread to Bosnia and to the region of Raška, which is mostly part of Serbia today. They were aided by the Serbian and Montenegrin governments, which both wound up declaring war on the Ottomans in mid-1876. Meanwhile, in the spring of 1876 another rebellion broke out in Bulgaria. We’ve talked about these uprisings elsewhere, but the upshot is that the overwhelmed Ottomans were forced to turn to untrained and uncontrolled militias to put them down, and that led to some horrific consequences in terms of loss of life. Those irregular fighters massacred tens of thousands of people in Bulgaria, for example, drying up any well of support the Ottomans might have had with Britain and France and triggering a much wider conflict.

Although the Ottoman military was in rough shape in 1876, the Serbian and Montenegrin militaries were clearly worse off, and their war soon began to turn in the Ottomans’ favor. The European powers stepped in to demand that the Ottomans offer terms, but those terms were so harsh that even the beleaguered Serbs couldn’t accept them. This triggered the European powers to hold a bizarre conference in the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, in which the Ottomans weren’t really allowed to participate. This is one of those events where I think you just have to say “oh so that happened, great” and move on without thinking about it too much. The conference decided to impose “reforms” that basically amounted to autonomy for both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria. The Ottomans, who were winning the war handily at this point, said “no thanks” to that idea.

Enter Russia, frustrated that it had lost its status as protector of Ottoman Christians after the Crimean War and still with dreams of pan-Slavism to fulfill. The Russians cut a deal with Austria-Hungary, ensuring its neutrality, and then declared war on the Ottomans in April 1877. The war was a fairly lopsided affair, though on paper it didn’t seem that way at first. Russia had more manpower to put into the war but the Ottomans were fighting a defensive war and had better weapons, having outfitted themselves with some very swanky new European and American firearms and artillery pieces. The problem was that the Ottomans fought too defensive a war, basically hunkering down and letting the Russians come to them. This allowed the Russians to take all the initiative, and they used it effectively. The Russians were also able to spread the Ottomans thin, by helping to restore the shattered Serbian army, standing up tens of thousands of Bulgarian and Romanian auxiliaries, and opening a second front in the Caucasus.

Finally remembering that whole “we don’t want Russia to conquer the Ottoman Empire” thing that had animated them during the Crimean War, Britain and France stepped in to put a halt to things in early 1878. They pressured Russia into accepting the Ottomans’ surrender, and Britain sent a fleet to Constantinople to stop the advancing Russian army from taking the Ottoman capital. The Ottomans stopped at San Stefano (known today as Yeşilköy), on the western outskirts of the city, and as you can no doubt tell from the name that’s where they and the Ottomans drew up their treaty, which they signed on March 3.

There were several parts to the treaty, including the recognition of Serbian and Montenegrin independence as well as the addition of new territory to their states, the transfer of several territories in the Caucasus and in the Danube region from the Ottomans to Russia, and the creation of a substantially autonomous Bosnia and Herzegovina province, which Austria-Hungary had expected to come into its control as a reward for staying out of Russia’s way. But the thing that most alarmed Britain and France was the creation of an autonomous Principality of Bulgaria that was, well, exceedingly large.

That state up there includes Macedonia, both its Balkan/Slavic part (the Republic of North Macedonia if you want to use the modern name) and much of its Greek part. It has access not just to the Black Sea but also to the Aegean, and really with just a little bit of imagination (hello, Albania!) you could imagine it gaining access to the Adriatic as well. Under the reasonable supposition that this new principality would more or less function as a Russian vassal state, the European powers decided they simply couldn’t tolerate it ever coming into existence. Even Serbia wasn’t terribly thrilled by the size of the new Bulgaria and Serbia was also a Russian client.

The result of the general dissatisfaction with San Stefano was the Congress of Berlin, again organized by Bismarck, which met from mid-June through mid-July of 1878 and included the six acknowledged European powers (Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia), the Ottomans, and four smaller states impacted by all of these events (Greece, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia). The goal was to rewrite San Stefano in a way that acknowledged the Ottoman defeat while diminishing the scope of the Russian victory and easing the concerns of both Austria-Hungary and Britain. In particular, apart from Russia the European powers aimed to squash this whole “pan-Slavism” movement. The outcome, the Treaty of Berlin, was a compromise in the truest sense, being a deal that all the parties could accept but that still irritated pretty much everybody. This map tells most of the story:

Serbia and Montenegro got their independence and some of the additional territory they’d received in San Stefano, but not all of it. Austria-Hungary did get to assume control over Bosnia and Herzegovina, which became a “protectorate,” as well as some additional Balkan territory like the aforementioned Raška region. Romania also had its independence confirmed but had to give the valuable Bessarabia region to Russia. Britain got to have Cyprus, as a treat. Finally and most importantly, the autonomous Principality of Bulgaria was redrawn to be about a third the size it had been under San Stefano. Another part of that territory was created as a separate and much less autonomous region called Eastern Rumelia, while Macedonia was to remain under direct Ottoman control. Eastern Rumelia would eventually merge into Bulgaria anyway, in 1885, though both were still technically under Ottoman control until Bulgaria declared its independence in 1908.

As I say, not too many of the parties were happy with this outcome, and you can make a strong case that Bismarck (the main organizer behind the congress) really screwed up in harshly penalizing Russia and ignoring the wishes of Balkan Slavs. Austria-Hungary was pleased with its new Balkan territory, but the Slavs who suddenly found themselves under Austria-Hungary’s “protection” were not. Serbia and Montenegro were angry at having lost territory in the revised treaty. Bulgarian leaders were unhappy at the territory they lost, and Greek leaders were unhappy that none of that territory had gone to Greece. The Ottomans were unhappy, though there wasn’t much they could do about it. Above all, Russia was unhappy and the general feeling in Moscow seems to have been one of humiliation at having been slapped down by the other European powers. Russia and Germany managed to settle their beef to some degree over the next couple of decades, but not entirely, and the bad blood the treaty generated over the allocation of Balkan territory contributed to the First and Second Balkan Wars and then to World War I.