Leon Trotsky
War and the International

The Balkan Question

“The War at present being waged against Russian Czarism and its vassals is dominated by a great historic idea. The impetus of this great historic idea consecrates the battlefields of Poland and of Eastern Russia. The roar of cannon, the rattling of machine guns, and the onrush of cavalry, all betoken the enforcement of the democratic programme for the liberation of the nations. Had Czarism, in league with the French capitalistic powers and in league with an unscrupulous ‘nation of shopkeepers’, [7] not succeeded in suppressing the Revolution of 1905, the present slaughter of the nations would have been avoided.

“A democratic Russia would never have consented to wage this unscrupulous and futile War. The great ideas of freedom and justice now speak the persuasive language of the machine gun and the sword, and every heart susceptible of sympathy with justice and humanity can only wish that the power of Czarism may be destroyed once for all, and the oppressed Russian nationalities may again secure the right to decide their own destinies.”

The above quotation is from the Nepszava of August 31, 1914, the official organ of the Socialist party of Hungary. Hungary is the land whose entire inner life was erected upon the high-handed oppression of the national minorities, upon the enslavement of the labouring classes, upon the official parasitism and usury of the ruling caste of large landowners. It is the land in which men like Tisza are masters of the situation, dyed-in-the-wool agrarians, with the manners of political bandits. In a word, Hungary is a country closest of kin to Czar-ruled Russia.

So what is more fitting than that the Nepszava, the Socialist organ of Hungary, should hail with outbursts of enthusiasm the liberating mission of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies? Who other than Count Tisza could have felt the call to “enforce the democratic programme for the liberation of the nations”? Who was there to uphold the eternal principles of law and justice in Europe but the ruling clique of Budapest, the discredited Panamists [8]? Would you entrust this mission to the unscrupulous diplomacy of “perfidious Albion”, [9] to the nation of shopkeepers?

Laughter turns away wrath. The tragic inconsistencies of the policies followed by the International not only reach their climax in the articles of the poor Nepszava ; they disarm us by their humour.

The present series of events began with the ultimatum sent to Serbia by Austria-Hungary. There was not the slightest reason why the international Social Democracy should take under its protection the intrigues of the Serbs or any other of the petty dynasties of the Balkan Peninsula. They were all endeavouring to hide their political adventures under the cloak of national aspirations. We had still less cause to lash ourselves into a state of moral indignation because a fanatic young Serb responded to the cowardly, criminal and wily national politics of the Vienna and Budapest government authorities with a bloody assassination. [It is noteworthy that these opportunistic Austrian and German Socialists are now writhing with moral indignation over the “treacherous assassination at Sarajevo”. And yet they always sympathized with the Russian terrorists more than we, the Russian Social Democrats, did, who are opposed on principle to the terroristic method. Lost in the mist of chauvinism, they can no longer see that the unfortunate Serbian terrorist, Gavrilo Prinzip, represents precisely the same national principle as the German terrorist, Sand. Perhaps they will even ask us to transfer our sympathies from Sand to Kotzebue? Or perhaps these eunuchs will advise the Swiss to overthrow the monuments erected to assassin Tell and replace them with monuments to the Austrian governor, Geissler, one of the spiritual forerunners of the murdered Archduke?—L.T.]

Of one thing we have no doubt. In the dealings between the Danube Monarchy and the Serbian government, the historic right, that is to say, the right of free development, rests entirely with Serbia, just as Italy was in the right in the year 1859. Underneath the duel between the imperial police scoundrels and the terrorists of Belgrade, there is hidden a far deeper meaning than merely the breed of the Karageorgevitches or the crimes of the Czar’s diplomacy. On one side were the imperialistic claims of a national state that had lost its vitality, and on the other side, the striving of the dismembered Serbian nation to re-integrate itself into a national whole and become a living vital state.

Is it for this that we have sat so long in the school of Socialism to forget the first three letters of the democratic alphabet? This absolute lapse of memory, moreover, made its appearance only after the 4th of August. [10] Up to that fatal date the German Marxists showed that they knew very well what was happening in South Eastern Europe.

On July 3, 1914, after the assassination at Sarajevo, the Vorwärts wrote:

“The bourgeois revolution of the South Slavs is in full swing, and the shooting at Sarajevo, however wild and senseless an act in itself, is as much a chapter of this revolution as the battles by which the Bulgarians, Serbs, and Montenegrins liberated the peasants of Macedonia from the yoke of Turkish feudal exploitation. Is it a wonder that the South Slavs of Austria-Hungary look with longing to their racial brothers in the kingdom of Serbia? The Serbs in Serbia have attained the highest goal a people can attain in the present order of society. They have attained national independence. Whereas in Vienna or Budapest they treat every one bearing the name of Serb or Croatian with blows and kicks, with court-martial justice and the gallows.... There are seven and a half million South Slavs who, as a result of the victories in the Balkans, have grown bolder than ever in demanding their political rights. And if the imperial throne of Austria continues to resist their impact, it will topple over and the entire Empire with which we have coupled our destiny will break to pieces. For it is in line with historic evolution that such national revolutions should march onward to victory.”

If the International Social Democracy together with its Serbian contingent, offered unyielding resistance to Serbia’s national claims, it was certainly not out of any consideration for the historic rights of Austria-Hungary to oppress and disintegrate the nationalities living within her borders; and most certainly not out of consideration for the liberating mission of the Habsburgs. Until August, 1914no one, except the black and yellow hirelings of the press, dared to breathe a word about that. The Socialists were influenced in their course of conduct by entirely different motives. First of all, the proletariat, although by no means disputing the historic right of Serbia to strive for national unity, could not trust the solution of this problem to the powers then controlling the destinies of the Serbian kingdom. And in the second place—and this was for us the deciding factor—the International Social Democracy could not sacrifice the peace of Europe to the national cause of the Serbs, recognizing, as it did, that, except for a European revolution, the only way such unity could be achieved was through a European war.

But from the moment Austria-Hungary carried the question of her own fate and that of Serbia to the battlefield, Socialists could no longer have the slightest doubt that social and national progress would be hit much harder in South Eastern Europe by a Habsburg victory than by a Serbian victory. To be sure, there was still no reason for us Socialists to identify our cause with the aims of the Serbian army. This was the idea that animated the Serbian Socialists, Ljaptchevitch and Katzlerovitch, when they took the manly stand of voting against the war credits. [To appreciate fully this action of the Serbian Socialists we must bear in mind the political situation by which they were confronted. A group of Serbian conspirators had murdered a member of the Habsburg family, the mainstay of Austro-Hungarian clericalism, militarism, and imperialism. Using this as a welcome pretext, the military party in Vienna sent an ultimatum to Serbia, which for sheer audacity, has scarcely ever been paralleled in diplomatic history. In reply, the Serbian government made extra-ordinary concessions, and suggested that the solution of the question in dispute be turned over to the Hague tribunal. Thereupon Austria declared war on Serbia. If the idea of a “war of defence” has any meaning at all, it certainly applied to Serbia in this instance. Nevertheless, our friends, Ljaptchevitch and Katzlerovitch, unshaken in their conviction of the course of action that they as Socialists must pursue, refused the government a vote of confidence. The writer was in Serbia at the beginning of the War. In the Skuptchina, in an atmosphere of indescribable national enthusiasm, a vote was taken on the war credits. The voting was by roll-call. Two hundred members had answered “Yes”. Then in a moment of deathlike silence came the voice of the Socialist Ljaptchevitch – “No”. Every one felt the moral force of this protest, and the scene has remained indelibly impressed upon my memory.—L.T.] But surely we had still less reason to support the purely dynastic rights of the Hapsburgs and the imperialistic interests of the feudal-capitalistic cliques against the national struggle of the Serbs. At all events, the Austro-Hungarian Social Democracy, which now invokes its blessings upon the sword of the Habsburgs for the liberation of the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Finns and the Russian people, must first of all clarify its ideas on the Serbian question, which has gotten so hopelessly muddled.

The question at issue, however, is not confined to the fate of the ten million Serbs. The clash of the European nations has brought up the entire Balkan question anew. The Peace of Bucharest, [11] signed in 1903, has solved neither the national nor the international problems in the Near East. It has only intensified the added confusion resulting from the two unfinished Balkan Wars, unfinished because of the complete temporary exhaustion of the nations participating in it.

Rumania had followed in the path of Austro-Hungarian politics, despite the Romanesque sympathies of its population, especially in the cities. This was due not so much to dynastic causes, to the fact that a Hohenzollern prince occupied the throne, as to the imminent danger of a Russian invasion. In 1879 the Russian Czar, as thanks for Rumania’s support in the Russo-Turkish War of “liberation”, cut off a slice of Rumanian territory, the province of Bessarabia. This eloquent deed provided a sufficient backing to the dynastic sympathies of the Hohenzollern in Bucharest. But the Magyar-Habsburg clique succeeded in incensing the Rumanian people against them by their denationalizing policy in Transylvania, which has a population of three million Rumanians as against three-fourths of a million in the Russian province of Bessarabia; and they further antagonized them by their commercial treaties, which were dictated by the interests of the large Austro-Hungarian landowners. So that Rumania’s entrance into the War on the side of the Czar, despite the courageous and active agitation against participation in the War on either side, carried on by the Socialist party under the leadership of my friends Gherea and Rakovsky, is to be laid altogether at the door of the ruling class of Austria-Hungary, who are reaping the harvest they have sown here as well as elsewhere.

But the matter is not disposed of by fixing the historical responsibility. Tomorrow, in a month, in a year or more, the War will bring to the foreground the whole question of the destiny of the Balkan peoples and of Austria-Hungary, and the proletariat will have to have its answer to this question. European democracy in the nineteenth century looked with distrust at the Balkan people’s struggle for independence, because it feared that Russia might be strengthened at the expense of Turkey. On this subject Karl Marx wrote in 1853, on the eve of the Crimean War:

“It may be said that the more firmly established Serbia and the Serbian nationality is, the more the direct influence of Russia on the Turkish Slavs is shoved into the background. For in order to be able to maintain its position as a state, Serbia had to import its political institutions, its schools... from Western Europe.”

This prophesy has been brilliantly fulfilled in what has actually happened in Bulgaria, which was created by Russia as an outpost on the Balkans. As soon as Bulgaria was fairly well established as a national state, it developed a strong anti-Russian party, under the leadership of Russia’s former pupil, Stambulov, and this party was able to stamp its iron seal upon the entire foreign policy of the young country. The whole mechanism of the political parties in Bulgaria is so constructed as to enable it to steer between the two European combinations without being absolutely forced into the channel of either, unless it chooses to enter it of its own accord. Rumania went with the Austro-German alliance, Serbia, since 1903, with Russia, because the one was menaced directly by Russia, the other by Austria. The more independent the countries of South East Europe are from Austria-Hungary, the more effectively they will be able to protect their independence against Czarism.

The balance of power in the Balkans, created by the Congress of Berlin [12] in 1878, was full of contradictions. Cut up by artificial ethnographical boundaries, placed under the control of imported dynasties from German nurseries, bound hand and foot by the intrigues of the Great Powers, the peoples of the Balkans could not cease their efforts for further national freedom and unity. The national politics of independent Bulgaria was naturally directed towards Macedonia, populated by Bulgarians. The Berlin Congress had left it under Turkish rule. On the other hand, Serbia had practically nothing to look for in Turkey with the exception of Sanjak, Novy Bazar. Its national interests lay on the other side of the Austro-Hungarian boundary, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. Rumania had no interests in the South, where it is separated from European Turkey by Serbia and Bulgaria. Rumania’s expansion policy was directed towards the North West and the East, towards Hungarian Transylvania and Russian Bessarabia. Finally, the national expansion of Greece, like that of Bulgaria, collided with Turkey.

Austro-German politics, aiming at the artificial preservation of European Turkey, broke down not on account of the diplomatic intrigues of Russia, although these of course were not lacking. It broke down because of the inevitable course of evolution. The Balkan Peninsula had entered on the path of capitalist development, and it was this fact that raised the question of the self-determination of the Balkan peoples as national states to the historical issue of the day.

The Balkan War disposed of European Turkey, and thereby created the conditions necessary for the solution of the Bulgarian and Greek questions. But Serbia and Rumania, whose national completion could only be achieved at the expense of Austria-Hungary, found themselves checked in their efforts at expansion southwards, and were compensated at the expense of what racially belonged to Bulgaria—Serbia in Macedonia, and Rumania in Dobrudja. This is the meaning of the second Balkan War and the Peace of Bucharest by which it was concluded.

The mere existence of Austria-Hungary, this Turkey of Middle-Europe, blocks the way to the natural self-determination of the peoples of the South-East. It compels them to keep constantly fighting against each other, to seek support against each other from the outside, and so makes them a tool of the political combinations of the Great Powers. It was only in such chaos that Czarist diplomacy was enabled to spin the web of its Balkan politics, the last thread of which was Constantinople. And only a federation of the Balkan states, both economic and military, can interpose an invincible barrier to the greed of Czarism.

Now that European Turkey has been disposed of, it is Austria-Hungary that stands in the way of a federation of the Balkan states. Rumania, Bulgaria, and Serbia would have found their natural boundaries, and would have united with Greece and Turkey, on the basis of common economic interests, into a league of defence. This would finally have brought peace to the Balkan Peninsula, that witches’ cauldron which periodically threatened Europe with explosions, until it drew it into the present catastrophe.

Up to a certain time the Socialists had to reconcile themselves to the routine way in which the Balkan question was treated by capitalistic diplomats, who in their conferences and secret agreements stopped up one hole only to open another, even wider one. So long as this dilatory method kept postponing the final solution, the Socialist International could hope that the settlement of the Habsburg succession would be a matter not for a European war, but for the European Revolution. But now that the War has destroyed the equilibrium of the whole of Europe, and the predatory Powers are seeking to remodel the map of Europe—not on the basis of national democratic principles, but of military strength—the Social Democracy must come to a clear comprehension of the fact that one of the chief obstacles to freedom, peace and progress, in addition to Czarism and German militarism, is the Habsburg Monarchy as a state organization. The crime of the Galician Socialist group under Daszynski consisted not only in placing the Polish cause above the cause of Socialism, but also linking the fate of Poland with the fate of the Austro-Hungarian armies and the fate of the Habsburg Monarchy.

The Socialist proletariat of Europe cannot adopt such a solution of the question. For us the question of united and independent Poland is on a par with the question of united and independent Serbia. We cannot and we will not permit the Polish question to be solved by methods which will perpetuate the chaos at present prevailing in South-Eastern Europe, in fact through the whole of Europe. For us Socialists the independence of Poland means its independence on both fronts, on the Romanov front and on the Habsburg front. We not only wish the Polish people to be free from the oppression of Czarism. We wish also that the fate of the Serbian people shall not be dependent upon the Polish nobility in Galicia.

For the present we need not consider what the relations of an independent Poland will be to Bohemia, Hungary and the Balkan Federation. But it is perfectly clear that a complex of medium-sized and small states on the Danube and in the Balkan Peninsula will constitute a far more effective bar to the Czarist designs on Europe than the weak, chaotic Austro-Hungarian State, which proves its right to existence only by its continued attempts upon the peace of Europe.

In the article of 1853, quoted above, Marx wrote as follows on the Eastern question:

“We have seen that the statesmen of Europe, in their obdurate stupidity, petrified routine, and hereditary intellectual indolence, recoil from every attempt at answering the question of what is to become of Turkey in Europe. The driving force that favours Russia’s advance towards Constantinople is the very means by which it is thought to keep her away from it, the empty theory, never carried out, of maintaining the status quo. What is this status quo? For the Christian subjects of the Porte [13] it means nothing else than the perpetuation of their oppression by Turkey. As long as they are under the yoke of the Turkish rule, they look upon the head of the Greek Church, the ruler of 60 million Greek Church Christians, as their natural protector and liberator.”

What is here said of Turkey now applies in a still greater degree to Austria-Hungary. The solution of the Balkan question is unthinkable without the solution of the Austro-Hungarian question, as they are both comprised in one and the same formula—the Democratic Federation of the Danube and Balkan Nations.

“The governments with their old-fashioned diplomacy,” wrote Marx, “will never solve the difficulty. Like the solution of so many other problems, the Turkish problem, too, is reserved for the European Revolution.” This statement holds just as good today as when it was first written. But for the Revolution to solve the difficulties that have piled up in the course of centuries, the proletariat must have its own programme for the solution of the Austro-Hungarian question. And this programme it must oppose just as strenuously to the Czaristic greed of conquest as to the cowardly and conservative efforts to maintain the Austro-Hungarian status quo.


A reference to England.


The internationally financed Panama Canal Company (President Ferdinand de Lesseps) crashed in February 1889. The scandal touched many prominent people, including Clemenceau.


Perfidious Albion: The French La perfide Angleterre, perfidious England, had become by the time of the French Revolution, shortened to Albion perfide.


4th August 1914: On June 28, 1914 a Bosnian student Gavrilo Prinzip assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo. On July 23, Austria delivered an unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia and declared war on July 28.


Balkan Wars: The first began October 1912. The Turks were pushed back to Constantinople. It ended with the Treaty of London, May 30, 1913. Turkey was forced to give up all claims to its former European possessions. Albania was created as a new state. In June 1913, the second War broke out. Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece, and Rumania and Turkey opposed Bulgaria. It ended with the Treaty of Bucharest, July 30, 1913. Italy invaded Albania in 1914.


The Congress of Berlin, held June-July 1878 under the chairmanship of Bismarck, revised the Treaty of San Stefano (March 1878) which ended the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. At Berlin, the Great Powers carved up South Eastern Europe to their advantage.


Porte: The Sublime or Ottoman Porte was the Turkish Court at Constantinople till 1923.