The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who led the Congress, undertook to stabilize the Balkans, recognize 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 holdings 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 in order to gain Northern Dobruja. Serbia and Montenegro finally gained complete independence, but with smaller territories, with Austria-Hungary occupying the Sandžak (Raška) region. Austria-Hungary also took over Bosnia and Herzegovina, whereas Britain took over Cyprus.
The results were first hailed as a great achievement in peacemaking and stabilization. However, most of the participants were not fully satisfied, and grievances regarding the results festered until they exploded in the First and the Second Balkan wars of 1912-1913, and subsequently in a World war in 1914. Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece made gains, but far less than they thought they deserved. The Ottoman Empire, called at the time the "sick man of Europe," was humiliated and significantly weakened, rendering 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 at Berlin, 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 found that he had tied Germany too closely to Austria in the Balkans.
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 in Ottoman hands. It effectively disavowed Russia's victory over the decaying Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War. The Congress of Berlin 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 that in 1912 led to the First Balkan War.
In the decades leading up to the Congress of Berlin, Russia and the Balkans had been gripped by a movement known as Pan-Slavism, a desire to unite all the Balkan Slavs under one rule. This movement, which evolved similarly to the Pan-Germanic and Pan-Italian movements that resulted in the unification of their respective nations, took different forms in the various Slavic nations. In Imperial Russia, Pan-Slavism meant the creation of a unified Slavic state under Russian direction – essentially a byword for Russian conquest of the Balkan peninsula. The realization of this goal would result in Russia’s controlling of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, giving it 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 – though which state was meant to serve as the locus for unification was not always clear; initiative wafted between Serbia and Bulgaria. It is worth remembering that the creation of a Bulgarian Exarch by the Ottomans in 1870 intended to separate the Bulgarians religiously from the Greek Patriarch and politically from Serbia. From the Balkan point of view, the peninsula needed a Piedmont, and a corresponding France to sponsor its unification. 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 this was to proceed, or whether it was to proceed at all, was the major question to be answered at the Congress of Berlin.
The Balkans were a major stage for competition between the European Great Powers in the second half of the nineteenth century. Britain and Russia both had stake in the fate of the Balkans. Russia was interested in the region both ideologically as a pan-Slavist unifier and as a way to secure greater control of the Mediterranean, while Britain was interested in preventing Russia from doing exactly that. Furthermore, the unification 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 Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and one without large direct interests in the settlement, was the only power which could mediate the Balkan question.
Russia and Austria-Hungary, the two powers most invested in the fate of the Balkans, were allied with Germany in the League of Three Emperors, founded to preserve monarchy and conservatism on continental Europe. This meant that the Congress of Berlin was mainly a dispute among supposed allies with conflicting goals. Otto von Bismarck and the German Empire, the arbiter of the discussion, would thus have to choose before the end of the congress which of their allies to support. This decision was to have direct consequences on the future of European geopolitics.
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. MacKenzie says, "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." 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.
After the Bulgarian April Uprising in 1876 and the decisive Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, Russia 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, something that alarmed other powers in Europe. Britain, which had threatened war with Russia if they were to occupy Constantinople, and France, did not want another power meddling in the Mediterranean or the Middle East, where both of them were prepared to make large colonial gains. Austria-Hungary desired Habsburg control over the Balkans, and Germany wanted to avoid their allies going to war. The 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 European liberalism.
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 concerning their states, but were not members of the Congress. The Congress was solicited by Russia's rivals, particularly by Austria-Hungary and Britain, and hosted in 1878 by Otto von Bismarck. The Congress of Berlin proposed and ratified the Treaty of Berlin. The meetings were held at Bismarck’s chancellory, the former Radziwill Palace, from 13 June 1878 until 13 July 1878. The congress revised or eliminated 18 of the 29 articles in the Treaty of San Stefano. Furthermore, using as a foundation the treaties of Paris (1856) and Washington (1871), the treaty effected a rearrangement of the Eastern situation.
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. London and Paris were nervous about the diminishing influence of the Ottoman Empire and about Russian cultural expansion to the south, where both Britain and France were poised to colonize Egypt and Palestine. Through the Treaty of San Stefano, the Russians, led by chancellor Alexander Gorchakov, had managed to create a Bulgarian autonomous principality under the nominal rule of the Ottoman Empire, thus sparking British "Great Game"--the well-entrenched fears of 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 Straits that separate the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. This arrangement was not acceptable to London, 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 its 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, whereby Britain was allowed to occupy the strategically placed island of Cyprus. This 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 Turkish demands. Negotiations between the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Andrássy and the 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."
The Congress of Berlin is frequently viewed as the culmination of the "Battle of Chancellors" involving Alexander Gorchakov of Russia and Otto von Bismarck of Germany. They were able to effectively 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." He used the Great Eastern Crisis of 1875 as proof of growing animosity in the region.
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 Three Emperor's League by choosing between Russia and Austria as an ally. In order to maintain peace in Europe, Bismarck sought to convince other European diplomats on dividing up the Balkans so as to foster greater stability. During the process of division, Russia began to feel short-changed even though it eventually gained independence for Bulgaria. One can therefore see the underpinnings of the alliance problems in Europe prior to the First World War. One reason why Bismarck was able to mediate the various tensions present at the Congress of Berlin stemmed from his diplomatic persona. He sought peace and stability when international affairs did not pertain to Germany directly. He viewed the current situation in Europe as favorable for Germany, therefore any conflict between the major European powers threatening the status quo was against German interests. And at the Congress of Berlin, "Germany could not look for any advantage from the crisis" that had occurred in the Balkans back in 1875. As a result, Bismarck claimed impartiality on behalf of Germany at the Congress. This 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 mainly between the representatives of the Great Powers.
According to Henry Kissinger, 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 Three Emperors League. Now that he could no longer rely on Russia's alliance, he began to form relations with as many potential enemies as possible.
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 it had created was first bisected, 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. Bulgaria was promised autonomy, and guarantees were made against Turkish interference, but these 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 Habsburg 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 Ottomans. 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.
In Russia, the Congress of Berlin was considered a dismal failure. Finally defeating the Turks decisively after the many inconclusive Russo-Turkish wars of the past, many Russians expected “something colossal” – a re-imagining of the Balkan borders in support of Russian territorial ambitions. Instead, Russia’s victory resulted in a decisive Austro-Hungarian gain on the Balkan front. This gain was brought about by the rest of the European powers’ preference for a powerful Austria-Hungary, an empire that 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. Russian chancellor Gorchakov said of the subsequent Treaty of Berlin “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 this represented only a minor stumble on the road to Russian hegemony in the Balkans, it in fact gave Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia over to Austria’s sphere of influence, essentially removing all Russian influence from the area.
The Serbs were upset with "Russia [...] consenting to the cession of Bosnia to Austria."
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.
Italy was dissatisfied with the results of the Congress, and the tensions between Greece and the Ottoman Empire were left unresolved. The Bosnians and Herzegovinians would also prove to be a problem to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in later decades. The League of 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 alliance. The border between Greece and Turkey was not resolved. In 1881, after protracted negotiations, a compromise border was accepted after a naval demonstration of the Powers, resulting in the cession of Thessaly and the Arta Prefecture to Greece.
Thus, the 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 his and his government's objections to the Treaty of San Stefano and the favorable position in which it left Russia. According to A. J. P. Taylor, writing in 1954: "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."
Though the Congress of Berlin constituted a harsh blow to Pan-Slavism, it by no means solved the question of the area. The Slavs of the Balkans were still in their majority under non-Slavic rule, split between the rule of Austria-Hungary and the ailing Ottoman Empire. The Slavic states of the Balkans in fact learned that banding together as Slavs didn’t benefit them as much as playing to the desires of a neighboring Great Power, damaging the unity of the Balkan Slavs and encouraging competition amongst the fledgling Slav states.
The underlying tensions of the region would continue to simmer for upwards of thirty years until they again exploded in the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. In 1914, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand led to the First World War. In hindsight, we can see that the stated goal of maintaining peace and balance of powers in the Balkans utterly failed, as the region remained a theater of conflict for Great Power politics far into the twentieth century.
The Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Andrássy, in addition to 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." "High [Austro-Hungarian] military authorities desired [an ...] immediate major expedition with Salonika as its objective."
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.
On 10 October 1878 the 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.