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Bacon and Steam Trains: The Serbian Pork War and the Berlin-Baghdad Railway

As the centenary commemorations of the First World War start to build up, we look at some of the causes of the conflict.

The rivalry between Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia for territories and influence in the Balkan region was a fundamental cause of the First World War. The rivalry between the Hapsburg and the Romanov dynasties  manifested itself in the economic rivalry between the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the landlocked Kingdom of Serbia, and this rivalry was prosaically expressed in a customs war about pork. Between 1906-09 the huge Austrian-Hungarian Empire imposed a customs blockade on the importation of  Serbian pigs.

The friendly relations between the German Reich and the Ottoman Empire were seen as a threat by both  Tsarist Russia and the British Empire. Russia feared losing influence in the Balkans (its close ally was Serbia), and German control of the Dardanelles, while the British felt threatened by German access to the Middle East which would affect the Suez Canal, the oil rich Persian Gulf and the vital route to India. These fears for Russia and Britain were manifested in the building of the Berlin to Baghdad Railway.

In 1903 90 percent of Serbia's foreign trade was with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire which was mainly livestock in the form of pigs. This economic arrangement with Austria-Hungary guaranteed trade and revenue for the Kingdom of Serbia but it also impeded Serbia's industrial growth. In 1903 the Austrian-Serb commercial treaty was expiring, and negotiations were foundering because Serbia wanted to reduce its economic dependence on Austria-Hungary. In order to evade the economic control of Austria-Hungary, Serbia started to build economic links with other counties such as Bulgaria and France.

Serbian pork

In January 1904 Serbia arranged a loan through a French businessman who would purchase 150,000 Serbian pigs per year, and then placed a large artillery order with Schnedier, a French munitions firm. Previously, Serbia purchased munitions from the Skoda factories in Bohemia in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

In April 1904 Serbia entered into secret commercial negotiations with Bulgaria which became public in June 1905, and the Serbian-Bulgarian Customs Union became effective in March 1906. Trade negotiations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary came to an end. Tariff-laden Austrian goods became unsellable in Serbia.

In retaliation, Austria-Hungary closed its borders to all trade with Serbia with effect from 1 March 1906. The Imperial authorities claimed there was an outbreak of disease in Serbian pigs which threatened to infect Austrian livestock.  This meant the end of exporting Serbian pigs to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and the beginning of what became known as the Serbian Pork War.

Initially the end of pig exports to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was a shock to the Serbian economy. Serbia framed the issue of its pigs in terms of Serbian nationalism and Balkan independence from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The trade embargo forced Serbia to find alternative export markets. French investment was sought to build new packing plants for international trade, materials were ordered from Germany, construction projects were financed with capital from France, and  trade agreements were signed with Romania, France, Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Belgium, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and Germany. Serbia also put pressure on the Austria-Hungary protectorate of Bosnia-Herzegovina to allow a rail link  so it could have an economic outlet on the Adriatic Sea. Serbia also made an arrangement with the Ottoman Empire to export livestock from the port of Salonica on the Aegean Sea,  and received  aid for the construction of processing plants, modern slaughterhouses and canning factories for livestock. The net economic result for Serbia was that its foreign trade surpassed what it had been before the embargo and its agricultural industry was thoroughly modernised, pig farming was vertically integrated into a single operation.

Serbia was also interested in expanding its territory to include Bosnia-Herzegovina where many ethnic Serbs lived.  Austria-Hungary, fearing greater Serbian economic power, formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina to their empire in October 1908 which angered Russia and Serbia but they were unable to take action because they received no support from Britain or France. The annexation had to be accepted by Russia and Serbia in March 1909.  Austria-Hungary also planned to build a railway line to the Aegean Sea through Austrian occupied former Ottoman territory which would by-pass Serbia and also create a commercial barrier between Serbia and the Adriatic Sea.  The annexation coupled with pork embargo only fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism at home in Serbia and amongst Bosnian Serbs. In fact it was a Bosnian Serb who assassinated  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary  in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo which precipitated the First World War.

German ultimatum

In 1909 the economic war over pigs between Austria-Hungary and Serbia came to an end when tensions over Bosnia-Herzegovina between Austria-Hungary and Russia reached such a level that international war was a possibility. Germany intervened and issued an ultimatum demanding the ending of Russian aid to Serbia. Trade was normalised between Austria-Hungary and Serbia but increased Serbian nationalism was the result of Austria-Hungary's economic war.

The major international issue of the nineteenth century was the 'Eastern Question' or what to do with the 'sick old man of Europe' which was the decaying Ottoman Empire on the European mainland. By the turn of the twentieth century the Ottoman Empire had little territory left in Europe  but it still held vast swathes of territory in Asia Minor, the Levant, Palestine, Mesopotamia and the Arabian peninsula which was all resource-rich with oil, chrome, antimony, lead and zinc, and with effective irrigation had a thriving agricultural industry. What was needed was a railway transportation system to move minerals and resources through the Ottoman Empire to link up with industrialised Europe.

The 'Orient Express' reached Istanbul in 1889, and in 1892 the railway was built from Istanbul to Ankara in Asia Minor by a syndicate of German businesses. The German Reich and  the Porte (Ottoman Empire) were on friendly terms, and both opposed to Russian attempts to control the Dardanelles and yielding influence in the Balkans. The proposed 'Berlin to Baghdad' railway line would link Germany to the oilfields in the Persian Gulf, in striking distance of  British oilfields in Persia, Russian oilfields in the Caucasus, close to British India,  and a railway  from Baghdad to Basra would also be a connection to Germany's African colonies in East and South West Africa and thereby avoid the British-controlled Suez Canal.

In 1903 the Deutsche Bank was awarded the concession to build the railway line from Konya in Anatolia through the Levant (Syria), Mesopotamia (Iraq) to Baghdad and thence to the Persian Gulf at Basra. By 1915 the railway line was 300 miles short of completion. The line was eventually completed in 1940. German advice and support was involved in the building of the Hejaz railway from 1900-08 which linked Damascus through Palestine to Medina in the Arabian peninsula. This line connected with the Berlin to Baghdad railway but was principally for the Ottoman Empire to strengthen its control over the desert tribes of the Arabian peninsula.

Threats to the Empire

The main issue for the British Empire was the economic threat posed by Germany in the competition for oil and trade  by the existence of the Berlin to Baghdad railway. The British believed that the Persian Gulf  with its oil resources and strategic importance was 'their' sphere of economic and political influence; the British Residency of the Persian Gulf was a diplomatic posting from 1763 to 1971.

The British policy in regard to Kuwait is testament to British attempts to exclude Germany from the Persian Gulf.  In 1899 Kuwait signed a treaty with Britain that gave the British control over Kuwait's foreign policy in exchange for British protection and an annual subsidy. The treaty was prompted by British fears about the proposed Berlin to Baghdad railway which with a link to Basra would lead to an expansion of German economic influence in the Persian Gulf. The creation of the artificial state of Kuwait at the head of the Gulf blocks access from Basra to the Gulf. In 1913 Britain signed a convention with the Porte that the Emir of Kuwait was diplomatically recognised by both the Ottoman and British Empires as the ruler of the autonomous city of Kuwait and hinterlands. With the start of the First World War and the Ottoman Empire in alliance with Germany, the British invalidated the convention and declared Kuwait an independent principality under the protection of the British Empire.

In 1901 British capitalists had negotiated a concession to explore for oil in Persia and in 1908 an oilfield was discovered which led to the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) which would later become BP.  Production of Persian oil products started at the Abadan refinery in 1913, and in the same year APOC was awarded a contract with the British government, in the shape of the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, as part of a three year modernisation programme for the Royal Navy to convert from using coal to oil. The British government took a controlling share in APOC.  Earlier in 1912 APOC had taken a 50 percent share in the new Turkish Petroleum Company to explore and develop oil resources in Mesopotamia (Iraq) which would eventually bear fruit with the discovery of a massive oilfield in 1927. 

It is clear British economic interests in the region were vital and the threat posed by Germany and its Berlin to Baghdad/Basra railway was very real. The British war aim in the First World War was to restrict German access to Mesopotamia and its oil, and strategic exclusion from rail access to the Persian Gulf was to be enforced by British military presence, and afterwards by removal of German ownership of the railway. The British Empire fully engaged  in a war against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, capturing Basra in 1914, defending the Suez Canal, supporting the Arab Revolt (Colonel T.E. Lawrence) 1916-18,  capturing Baghdad and  Jerusalem in 1917, and Damascus and Aleppo in the Levant (Syria) in 1918. The armistice of 30 October 1918 ended six hundred years of Ottoman rule in the Middle East and left the British and French in charge of the region.

A book called The War and the Baghdad Railway: The Story of Asia Minor and its relation to the present conflict  by Morris Jastrow was published in 1917. Jastrow wrote that 'Baghdad and the Persian Gulf in the hands of Germany would be a 42-centimetre gun pointed at India.' The contemporary history book  Pollard's Short History of the Great War (1919) notes the importance of the Berlin to Baghdad railway: 'on the 26 October 1918 Aleppo fell, and on 28 October we reached Muslimeh, that junction on the Baghdad railway on which longing eyes had been cast as the nodal point in the conflict of German and other ambitions in the East.'

The 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty accomplished everything that the British Empire wanted.  Germany lost its colonies in Africa which became mandates of the British Empire, Germany lost the ownership of the Berlin to Baghdad railway, the Ottoman Empire was broken up and Britain received as mandates Mesopotamia and Palestine, and  economic influence in Persia and the Gulf continued. But as we said in this magazine after the war, further wars were inevitable within this capitalist set-up:

'While competition between capitalist groups for routes, markets, and control of raw material exists, the cause of war remains' (Socialist Standard August 1919).

STEVE CLAYTON