With the growth of nationalism in the course of the nineteenth century, ancient empires began to split along the seams of peoples that had been stitched together by rule of force for centuries. The Holy Roman Empire had disintegrated, much of it becoming reborn as the German Empire. Italy reunited after some 1500 years since the Romans. Later, in the Balkans, the various peoples of the mountainous peninsula began to erupt against centuries-long Ottoman domination.
The “Great Powers” of Europe, the dominant empires in the world, scanned the political situation and waiting for opportunities to conduct influence toward their goals. Russia stood ready to expand into a pan-Slavic rule, uniting the Balkans under their sphere and gaining significant ports. Austria-Hungary wanted to keep the balance with the Ottomans, using them as a pendulum to guide Serbian nationalism away from imperial lands. Germany and France both wanted influence in the eastern Mediterranean, the former with the Ottomans as a puppet state and the latter with political control in the Levant.
Modernist thought struck the Ottoman Empire at home with the Young Turk movement pushing a new constitution in 1908. Struggles between Bulgarian/Greek freedom fighters and the Ottoman army in Macedonia had continued since 1904, but now was the time for action. Bulgaria named its tsar, Austria-Hungary officially annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Italy began the path for victory in the Italo-Turkish War in 1911, gaining much of the Ottoman Mediterranean territories.
In 1912, war would spread like plague through Eastern Europe. With the Turks falling to Italian forces, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro rose up as the Balkan League. Austria-Hungary was uncomfortable at seeing their counterpart begin to fall and hoped to reign in the battles by declaring an ultimatum against Serbian troops that had pushed south into Albania. The Serbs reportedly “spat” at the ultimatum and continued their liberation and division of Balkan territory among the League.
German Kaiser Wilhelm II had vowed support to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and, with such imperial clout, the Austrians joined the Balkan War against the League. In response, the Russians excitedly went to war in support of the League they had helped establish. France and Britain both took up neutral positions despite France's longtime alliance with Russia and Britain's not-so-secret unease at any Russian expansion, which had been seen in the Crimean War only decades before.
In the German Imperial War Council of December 8, it was realized that the fitness of the German army was not what the Kaiser had hoped, and victory would not be quick. The Austrians found themselves simply holding fronts against Russia and the Balkan League. While the first two years of war were grim, Germany and Austria arose in 1914 with a huge military push through Poland. Russians pursued scorched earth, but the speed of the German army checked their age-old tactic. Hundreds of thousands of Russians would die as the Germans marched toward Moscow before the Czar called for armistice.
In the south, Austria found itself stretched and finally broken. The empire collapsed into anarchy that even anti-Serbian sentiment could not resolve. At the Treaty of London in 1917, a new eastern Europe was drawn up. Many new nations stood independent: Albania, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belorussia, and Lithuania. Much weakened, Russia erupted into civil war between Communist and Tsarist factions that lasted until foreign Allied troops settled the matter in the favor of the Tsar in 1919, with the new independent nation of Ukraine being founded. The Ottoman Empire, too, would succumb to the rash of revolution through the 1920s that were said to be akin to those of the 1790s and 1840s. Nationalism broke up the empire, which caused the Great Powers to grab influence in the Middle East where they could.
The twentieth century would see effective reform of the imperial system, guaranteeing more social rights, but the overall rule of monarchs balancing one another continued. Some said that the settling of the Eastern Question saved the kings of Europe, but many historians scoff at the idea of a war so vicious that it would cause the end of constitutional monarchy as Europe's inherent political system.
In reality, Serbia acceded to the October 18 ultimatum. Austria-Hungary did not wish to become part of the war due to its own internal struggles, especially after Germany withdrew their boast of military readiness until “mid-1914.” By that time, all of Europe had built up such war machines that the spark of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke ignited the “War to End All Wars.” In the meantime, the Balkan League had settled much of themselves through the First Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire and then the Second against Bulgaria to settle disputes over land.