The Ottoman Empire had dominated the Balkans for centuries, from the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 all the way into the 20th century. But while the Ottoman sultan may have still controlled a significant amount of land in the Balkans through the end of the First Balkan War (1912-1913), his hold on the region was severely weakened during the 19th century.
The unique cultures of the Serbs, Greeks, Romanians, Montenegrins, Bulgarians, and Albanians had not been submerged over time, and memories of their former medieval states still remained, along with a rising sense of nationalism. Rebellions in the Balkans against the Ottomans had happened before, such as the Banat Uprising by Serbians in 1594 and the Orlov Revolt in Greece in 1770, but none were successful until the 19th century. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the peoples of the Balkans took advantage of Ottoman decline and the interest of the Great Powers to gain their independence from the Ottoman Empire.
The first people to successfully rebel against the Ottomans were the Serbs. In 1801, a group of janissaries had taken control of Serbia, revoking the privileges granted to the Serbs by the Ottoman sultan and even massacring a number of Serbian chieftains. In 1804, a group of Serbs elected Karađorđe (Black George) as their leader and decided to fight back against the janissaries and revolted to get rid of the janissaries. But even when the janissary threat had been mostly nullified, the Serbs continued the fight against the Ottoman Empire, receiving assistance from Russia. But when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, the Serbs were left in the lurch. The Ottomans put down the First Serbian Uprising in 1813, and Karađorđe and his allies fled.
But following on the heels of the First Serbian Uprising, the Second Serbian Uprising was launched under the leadership of Miloš Obrenović in 1815. Obrenović insisted that his goal was not Serbian independence, but rather corrected the ills of Ottoman misrule. To prove himself to the Ottoman sultan, he had his rival (and leader of the First Serbian Uprising), Karađorđe, killed in 1817. The Second Serbian Uprising ended that same year, but it was not until 1830 that the autonomous status of Serbia inside the Ottoman Empire was officially declared by the Ottoman state.
In the following decades, as the leadership of Serbia bounced back and forth between the families of Karađorđe and Obrenović, Serbia gradually expanded its territory and its legal status. In 1867, the Ottomans removed the last of their forces from the country, with the condition that the Ottoman flag continue to fly next to the Serbian one in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. However, the new 1869 Serbian constitution described Serbia as independent. In 1878, Serbia finally gained full recognition of its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of San Stefano, which was confirmed in the Treaty of Berlin latter that year.
Greece was the first European state under Ottoman rule to gain complete independence. In 1821, a rebellion coordinated by a secret organization known as the Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends) was launched with the goal of winning Greece’s independence. Interestingly, the rebellion first started far to the north of Greece, in the Danubian Principalities (today’s Romania and Moldova), which were at that time ruled by ethnically Greek princes from Constantinople that were appointed by the Ottoman sultan. The campaign was led by the leader of the Filiki Eteria, Alexander Ypsilantis, who had connections to Russia. The northern rebellion was supposed to coordinate with a rebellion in Greece, but the Filiki Eteria alienated their local Romanian allies and it was quickly crushed by the Ottomans later the same year.
Meanwhile Greece itself had risen in rebellion against Ottoman rule. According to tradition, the Greek War of Independence started on March 25th, 1821, when Metropolitan Germanos of Patras blessed the flag of the Greek independence movement in the medieval monastery of Agia Lavra. Although the Greeks experienced early successes, the fighting continued for years and the tide of battle moved back and forth. Both sides benefitted from their allies. The Ottoman Sultan called on his powerful vassal, Muhammad Ali of Egypt, to assist him, and the Greeks were put on the defensive. But after the Treaty of London (1827), Great Britain, France, and Russia intervened, crushing the Turkish-Egyptian navy at the Battle of Navarino later that year. The three Great Powers originally were going to have Greece become an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, but later, at the urging of Great Britain and France, Greece became an independent power with the signing of the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832.
The Danubian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia had always been under less direct Ottoman rule given that they were further from Constantinople than regions such as Greece or Bulgaria. In the Treaty of Paris (1856), which ended the Crimean War, they were given autonomous statuses within the Ottoman Empire. Both principalities chose the same prince, Alexander Ioan Cuza, as their prince, and the two principalities were effectively united. In 1862 the two were formally united as the Principality of Romania.
The Romanian War of Independence was concurrent with the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), when Romanians fought for independence from the Ottoman Empire. In the Treaty of Berlin (1878), Romania was given its independence, although it lost some territories to Russia. As a final move showing Romania’s full independence, the Romanian parliament raised Romania from a principality to a kingdom in 1881.
Montenegro had never completely fallen under Ottoman control. The mountainous realm of Montenegro was difficult to control and the Montenegrin clans fiercely maintained their autonomy and were lead by prince-bishops known as vladikas. In 1876, Montenegro and Serbia declared war on the Ottoman Empire in coordination with a rebellion in Herzegovina. While the Montenegrin army won several battles, the real factor that turned the tide was Russia, who declared war on the Ottomans in 1877. The Ottoman Empire accepted Montenegro’s de jure independence in the Treaty of San Stefano (1878), and Montenegro’s independence was confirmed in the Treaty of Berlin (1878).
Although the idea of a Bulgarian identity and nation had grown in the 18th and 19th centuries just like in Serbia or Greece, there were no substantial Bulgarian uprisings on the same level as the Greek War of Independence. In the Russo-Turkish War of 1878-88, the Russian army had marched through Bulgaria, and the Treaty of San Stefano (1878) had created an independent, Greater Bulgaria.
But Great Britain and Austria-Hungary feared an increased Russian power in the region, so the Treaty of San Stefano was revised at the Congress of Berlin, and the Treaty of Berlin (1878) changed the situation. It made Bulgaria only a small principality that had a large degree of autonomy and was effectively independent, but was still legally part of the Ottoman Empire. The province of Eastern Rumelia, roughly the southern half of today’s Bulgaria, also became an autonomous unit inside the Ottoman Empire, but was not part of the Principality of Bulgaria.
Following a bloodless coup, Eastern Rumelia was unified with Bulgaria in 1885. Although Bulgaria had been de facto independent since 1878 (it had its own flag, constitution, and foreign policy), it gained its legal independence in 1908, when King Ferdinand formally declared Bulgaria’s independence in the city of Tarnovo, the old capital of the medieval Second Bulgarian Empire.
While Albania had fiercely resisted the Ottoman advance under their great medieval leader Skanderbeg (r. 1443-1468), many Albanians had converted to Islam over the following centuries of Ottoman rule. Many Albanians had also risen high up in the Ottoman government, including such esteemed individuals as the Köprülü family, which had provided seven grand viziers between 1656 and 1711, and Muhammad Ali (r. 1805-1848), the autonomous Khedive of Egypt, whose descendants ruled Egypt until 1952. In addition, a sense of nationalism rose more slowly than in Albania’s neighbors. All of these factors contributed to Albania not achieving any degree of independence until the 20th century.
Several Albanian revolts took place in the first decade of the 20th century, but without much success. Then the Albanian Revolt of 1912 succeeded in forcing the Ottomans to agree to a series of demands, including granting Albania autonomy inside the Ottoman Empire, in September, 1912. The success of this revolt, along with the Ottoman defeat in the Italo-Ottoman War (1911-1912), signaled to the Ottoman Empire’s neighbors that it was feeble.
A month later, the First Balkan War broke out; an alliance of Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro rapidly conquered almost all of Ottoman Europe, excepting Constantinople. An Albanian congress declared the independence of Albania at the city of Vlöre in November, while most of Albania was taken from the Ottomans by the advancing Serbian army. In the London conference, the Great Powers originally planned to keep Albania as an autonomous region of the Ottoman Empire, but as it became clear that the Ottomans would lose all of its territory connecting Constantinople to Albania, this became unrealistic. So an Albanian rump-state would be established, with the Balkan allies still controlling significant regions of Albania.
Throughout 1913, several Albanian movements took place, as well as costly Albanian interference in Macedonia during the Second Balkan War and an Ottoman attempt to retake the land. The Treaty of Bucharest, which ended the Second Balkan War in late 1913, granted Albania its current borders. But Albania was still heavily destabilized, and during World War I the country was mostly occupied, not truly gaining independence until after the war.
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From 1804 to 1914, the political landscape of the Balkans was entirely changed. During the course of the 19th century, all of these countries had gradually gained more and more land at Ottoman expense. Although other Balkan peoples, such as the Croats, and Bosnians, also had the precedent of a medieval state at which to look back, along with the Macedonians they only became independent of after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991. But with the independence of six new countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Balkans had become on the map what it had long been in fact: a rich well of different cultures and peoples.
1804 – First Serbian Uprising begins
1815 – Second Serbian Uprising begins
1821 – Greek War of Independence begins
1830 – Serbia declared an autonomous state
1832 – Treaty of Constantinople: Greece becomes independent
1856 – Treaty of Paris: Wallachia and Moldavia gain autonomy
1862 – Wallachia and Moldavia formally unite to form Romania
1867 – Last Ottoman forces leave Serbia
1878 – Treaty of San Stefano: Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania gain independence; Greater Bulgaria created (not carried out due to Treaty of Berlin)
1878 – Treaty of Berlin: Serbian, Montenegrin, and Romania independence confirmed; Bulgaria declared an autonomous state
1881 – Romania declares itself a kingdom to signify its independence
1885 – Bulgaria united with Eastern Rumelia
1908 – King Ferdinand declares Bulgaria’s independence
1912 – Albanian Revolt of 1912; Albania gains autonomy
1912 – First Balkan War
1912 – Albania declares its independence at Vlöre
1913 – Treaty of London: First Balkan War ends; small Albanian state is created
1913 – Second Balkan War
1913 – Treaty of Bucharest: Albania with current borders is created