Congress of Berlin

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The Congress of Berlin took place from 13 June to 13 July 1878. Its general purpose was to create a new peace settlement between the Ottoman Empire and Russia after the Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878). The specific goals of the congress included a revision of the Treaty of San Stefano, which the Russian government had imposed on Turkey earlier that year: Turkey hoped for better peace conditions. The Austro-Hungarians and the British considered the Treaty of San Stefano a violation—directed against their own interests—of previous arrangements with the Russian government. They especially opposed the establishment of a "Greater Bulgaria," fearing it would be used by the Russians as a puppet state aiding in their domination of the Balkans. In spring 1878 the Russian government concluded that their opponents, especially Great Britain, were ready to go to war, if necessary, in order to revise the Treaty of San Stefano. The British sent a fleet toward Istanbul, a gesture that looked like a possible repeat of the Crimean War (1853–1856) to the Russians. Russian leaders were aware that they were unable for military and political reasons to risk such a war against Great Britain, not to mention possibly Austria-Hungary. This was particularly so because the Russian army was weakened by disease, and thus the Russians agreed to an attempt at a compromise.

The involved powers agreed to settle the conflict through a conference. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who had declared several times that Germany had no interests in this particular crisis except to preserve European peace, offered his services as an "honest broker" (ehrlicher Makler) in a speech made to the German parliament in January 1878. With this congress agreed to, the powers involved attempted a peaceful way to avoid war. The high-ranking participants involved made the Congress of Berlin one of the most important political events in nineteenth-century Europe. Among the participants were such prominent figures of European politics as Bismarck, Benjamin Disraeli (of Great Britain), Count Gyula Andrássy (Austria-Hungary), Alexander Gorchakov (Russia), William Henry Waddington (France), and Count Luigi Corti (Italy). Alexander Karatheodori headed the Ottoman delegation. The Balkan nations sent delegates to the conference, but they could report on the positions of their countries' leaders only upon request.

One of the most important points of issue in the discussions was determining the size of the new state of Bulgaria. The border of Bulgaria, according to the Treaty of San Stefano, was drawn according to what were considered in these times "ethnic" borders among Bulgarian populations. The leaders of Great Britain and Austria-Hungary objected to this "Greater Bulgaria," because they feared it would come to be under Russian domination, with the entirety of the Balkans and Istanbul to follow.

The agreements reached in the difficult negotiations greatly altered the Treaty of San Stefano. The Greater Bulgaria that existed in that treaty was divided into three regions: Bulgaria was made a principality under nominal Ottoman suzerainty; Eastern Rumelia (Bulgaria south of the Balkan Mountains) was to be governed, with certain autonomous rights, by a Christian appointee of the Ottoman emperor; and Macedonia was to remain under unrestricted Ottoman sovereignty. Bosnia-Herzegovina was assigned to Austria-Hungary for administration and military occupation for thirty years to follow. Austria also occupied the sanjak (Turkish district) of Novi Pazar. Montenegro, Serbia, and Romania got full independence from the Ottoman Empire and made some territorial gains, and so did Greece, which got a border rectification in Thessaly. Russia got Ardahan, Batum (now Batumi), and Kars from the Ottomans and Bessarabia from Romania, in return for the Dobruja. In a separate agreement with the Ottoman government, which was kept secret during the conference, Great Britain acquired control over Cyprus. Crete was promised its own constitutional government. Other provisions of the Congress of Berlin included the protection of religious minorities in Turkey.

Considering the diplomatic culture of the period, the Congress of Berlin was a remarkable event. Disraeli was the first European statesman to use English instead of French on such an occasion. Bismarck directed the congress efficiently and speedily but came down hard on the Turkish delegation, allowing little room for maneuvering.

The most important results of this congress were the shaping of the future of Bulgaria and the weakening of the Ottoman Empire. The Congress of Berlin preserved European peace for years to come, but did not find a permanent solution to the position of the Balkan region between the status quo and questions of nationality. The establishment of a Greater Bulgaria, according to the Treaty of San Stefano, would have been a clearer solution and would have given the history of the Balkans and consequently the history of Europe a different outcome.

See alsoBismarck, Otto von; Bulgaria; Germany; Russo-Turkish War; San Stefano, Treaty of.


Langer, William L. European Alliances and Alignments, 1871–1890. 2nd ed. New York, 1950.

Medlicott, W. N. The Congress of Berlin and After: A Diplomatic History of the Near Eastern Settlement, 1878–1880. 2nd ed. Hamden, Conn., 1963.

Melville, Ralph, and Hans-Jürgen Schröder, eds. Der Berliner Kongress von 1878: Die Politik der Grossmaáchte und die Probleme der Modernisierung in Südosteuropa in der zweiten Hálfte des 19. Jahrhunderts. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1982.

Taylor, A. J. P. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918. Oxford, U.K., 1954.

Holger Afflerbach

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Congress of Berlin

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Congress of Berlin