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The Treaty of Berlin in 1878: A Failed Attempt to Resolve the Balkan Issue

The final act of the Treaty of Berlin was signed on July 13, 1878. The congress that preceded the treaty took place in the German capital from June 13 to July 13, 1878. This treaty is crucial for three main reasons. First, it was one of the major peace agreements in the period after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (more here). It also revised almost completely the treaty of San Stefano (more here) that had been signed a few months ago. In fact, if the Treaty of San Stefano had not preceded it, the Treaty of Berlin would not have emerged. Finally, the congress was chaired by Bismarck, the Chancellor of Germany (more here), whose diplomatic prowess once again emerged throughout this treaty. Τhe final act of the Congress of Berlin was signed by many powers of Europe included Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. This article will briefly review the revisions made by the Treaty of Berlin to the Treaty of San Stefano, whether the problems arising from the first treaty were resolved, and Bismarck's influence over it.

Anton von Werner's painting, Congress of Berlin (1881), depicting the final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878. Bismarck (Germany) is shown in the centre, between Gyula Andrássy (Austria-Hungary) and Pyotr Shuvalov (Russia). On the left are Alajos Károlyi (Austria-Hungary), Alexander Gorchakov (Russia) (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli (Great Britain).
Anton von Werner's painting, Congress of Berlin (1881), depicting the final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878. Bismarck (Germany) is shown in the centre, between Gyula Andrássy (Austria-Hungary) and Pyotr Shuvalov (Russia). On the left are Alajos Károlyi (Austria-Hungary), Alexander Gorchakov (Russia) (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli (Great Britain).

The Problems of the Treaty of San Stefano

Many problems arose from the Treaty of San Stefano that the Congress of Berlin had to solve. These problems were due to the fact that the Treaty of San Stefano was signed by Russia and the Ottoman Empire without taking into account the great powers of Europe. The enormous benefits that Russia gained in the Balkans from this treaty could not help but trouble the leaders of France and Britain, who were concerned about their own interests in Middle East (Burns, 1973/2006).

The most important task of the Congress was to decide the fate of Bulgaria, but Bulgaria itself was excluded from the congress. At that time, Bulgaria was not a sovereign state and consequently was not a subject of international law. The Treaty of San Stefano had created a Bulgarian state, which was just what Britain and France feared the most. This state was called “Greater Bulgaria”, as it was given vast territories. It was also under Russian protection and influence, therefore a Russophile country. Russia gained the right to station naval and military troops within Bulgarian borders and ports (Jelavich, 2004).

Borders in the Balkan peninsula after the Treaty of Berlin (1878).
Borders in the Balkan peninsula after the Treaty of Berlin (1878).

Revisions and Modifications

The treaty of Berlin formally recognized the independence of Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and the autonomy of Bulgaria, which proclaimed themselves as kingdoms. However, Bulgaria did not keep the provinces it had gained from the Treaty of San Stefano. The autonomous province of Eastern Rumelia and Macedonia was given back to the Ottomans, thus undoing Russian plans for a Russian puppet-state. Under these terms Bulgaria was no longer a problem. The Treaty of Berlin confirmed most of the Russian gains from the Ottoman Empire specified in the Treaty of San Stefano (Crampton, 2005).

Despite the pleas of the Romanian delegates, Romania was forced to cede southern Bessarabia to the Russian Empire. As compensation, Romania received areas around the Danube Delta and the Delta itself. The treaty also limited the Russian occupation of Bulgaria to 9 months, which limited the time during which Russian troops and supplies could be moved through Romanian territory (Hitchins, 1994).

The Treaty of Berlin also vaguely called for a border rectification between Greece and the Ottoman Empire. After protracted negotiations in 1881, the kingdom of Greece claimed Thessaly from the Ottomans. Kosovo remained part of the Ottoman Empire. Austria-Hungary was allowed to station military garrisons in Bosnia and Novi Pazar. Even though it was placed under Austro-Hungarian occupation, Bosnia remained part of the Ottoman Empire (Berstein & Milza, 1992/1997).

The British made clear their objections to the Treaty of San Stefano and its favorable position of Russia. They feared that the Russians would gain access to the Aegean sea through Bulgaria and threaten British interests in the Middle East and consequently in India. They wanted to set up a rickety sort of Turkish rule in the Balkans, so as to block the Russian expansion to south-east. Thus, by significantly weakening the Russian-influenced Bulgarian state and maintaining the Ottoman presence in the Balkans, the British got what they wanted. (Burns, 1973/2006).

The Role of Bismarck

It is no coincidence that this treaty was signed in Berlin. Bismarck, by taking on the role of protector of European balances, proposed his mediation in order to find a solution, and so the congress took place in Berlin. His only concerns were the preservation of peace and the normalization of the relations between Austria-Hungary and Russia, which were both allies of Germany. Bismarck dominated the debates, which were evolving rapidly because of his diplomatic skills. Under the pretext that Germany had nothing to gain from the resolution of the disputed issues, he convinced the participants that he sincerely wanted a compromise to be reached. Whether or not he achieved his goals is a major question (Berstein & Milza, 1992/1997).


Judging by the aftermath, the only things the Treaty of Berlin achieved were to prevent Russia from expanding into the Balkans and to recognize the independence of Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria. The congress solved an international crisis caused by the San Stefano treaty, as it modified the peace settlement in order to satisfy the interests of Great Britain. Russia could not extend its naval power and the Ottoman Empire was maintained as a European power. The interests of Austria-Hungary were satisfied, because it was allowed to occupy Bosnia and to increase its influence in the Balkans. In acting so, however, the congress left Russia humiliated. Russia hoped that Austria-Hungary and Germany, as its allies, would tolerate or at least maintain a neutral stance on its huge gains from the Treaty of San Stefano (strong military presence in the Balkans and naval access to the Aegean sea). However, they fully opposed its demands and left Russia diplomatically exposed. Furthermore, the congress failed to consider the aspirations of the Balkan peoples themselves. The problem remained and was prolonged during the following decades. Its consequences were the rise of nationalism in the Balkans and the outbreak of the Balkan wars in 1912 and the First World War in 1914 (Britannica, 2021).

Image Sources

Bartholomew, J. G. (1910). Borders in the Balkan peninsula after the Treaty of Berlin (1878). [Map]. A literary & historical atlas of Europe. Retrieved from:

Werner, A. V. (1881). Congress of Berlin. [Oil on Canvas]. Berliner Rathaus, Berlin. Retrieved from:


  • Berstein, S. & Milza, P. (1997). History of Europe, the European Agreement and the Europe of Nations 1815-1919, (A. K. Dimitrakopoulos, Trans.). Athens: Alexandria (Original work published 1992). pp. 154-157.

  • Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2021, June 6). Congress of Berlin. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from:

  • Burns, E. M. (2006). European History, Western Civilization, (T. Darveris, Trans.) (4th ed.). Thessaloniki: Epikentro (Original work published 1973). p. 785.

  • Crampton, R. J. (2005). A Concise History of Bulgaria. Cambridge: University Press. p. 84.

  • Hitchins, K. (1994). Rumania: 1866–1947. Oxford: University Press. p. 50.

  • Jelavich, B. (2004). Russia and the Formation of the Romanian National State, 1821–1878. Cambridge: University Press. p. 286.

Author Photo

Miltos Spiratos

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