How did Serbian nationalism create tension in the Balkans before WWI?

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mrkirschner | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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The history of Serbian nationalism in the Balkans originated with the Ottoman conquest of their lands in 1389.  The Serbians, through hundreds of years of Muslim rule, were able to maintain their cultural traditions and unique brand of Christianity.  With the declining power and influence of the Ottomans in the Balkans at the turn of the 20th Century, all of the states of Europe were interested in this vital region.  In two Balkan Wars a couple of years before the start of World War I, Serbia was victorious and gained significant territory as a result.  This gave the people and the nation confidence and renewed vigor.

The victory also energized the dozens of Serbian nationalist groups that were established since the turn of the century.  The primary goal of these groups was to free Serbia from foreign control and influence, particularly from Austria-Hungary.  Russia supported these aims because the Balkans was of great economic and military importance to its agenda.  Russian agents supported the propaganda movement of these Serbian nationalist groups.

Austria-Hungary did very little to slow this tide of Serbian nationalism.  In 1908, the empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Austro-Hungarian generals began to talk tough about the Serbians and were very concerned about the expansion gains of Serbia after the Balkan Wars.

In 1888, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck predicted that a major European conflict was on the horizon and would “start with some damn foolish thing in the Balkans.”  His prognostication ability proved to be better than most would have hoped.  On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist group known as the Black Hand assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne:  Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the king Franz Josef.  This violent action by Serbian nationalists set off a chain of events that plunged Europe into war.

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