Encompassing modern-day nations like Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania, the Balkans is a small, fractured region in Southeastern Europe. The religiously, ethnically and linguistically diverse area has long been the seat of wrenching sectarian conflicts, and the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885 is no exception.
The war occurred in the destabilizing context of Ottoman decline. Founded by Turks in Northwestern Anatolia in 1299, the Ottoman Empire ruled over the Balkans from the 14th and 15th centuries for over 500 years, until the 19th and early 20th centuries, when provinces began seeking and winning independence as modern nation-states. At its peak, the expansive empire controlled the lands of North Africa, Spain, Southeastern Europe and the Middle East. By the 1800s corruption and European interference had triggered a period of sustained Ottoman decline. Eagerly awaiting new territorial conquests, the Central European powers of Russia, Germany and Austria began calculating how to best exploit the Empire’s slow collapse.
The Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885 was a very brief and largely forgotten war, lasting a scant two weeks in November. Yet it represents a small chapter in a wider Balkan history of unrest, violence and expansionism. In September of 1885 Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia, a semi-autonomous province in the weakening Ottoman Empire, declared their unification. This nascent nationalism disturbed the central European powers intent on expanding their influence in the Balkans. Likewise, Serbia worried about the effects the union would have on Serbian regional power. Encouraged by Austrian promises of territorial gains, Serbia declared war on November 14th.
With Austria supporting Serbia, Russia came to the aid of the newly unified Bulgaria. The larger Central European powers supported “the quarreling countries with officers and supplies”, fueling the war (McNabb 5). Though Russia withdrew its support, Bulgaria proved victorious at the Battle of Slivnitza on November 19th, turning the tide of the short war. (Slivnitza serves as the setting for Sergius’ fictitious cavalry charge in Arms and the Man; Captain Bluntschli flees back through the Petkoff’s hometown in the wake of the battle.) Peace was finally declared March 3rd 1886, though actual fighting had ended in late November.