The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914

The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914

By John D. Treadway

Purdue University Press, 1983

Originally reviewed by Chris Deliso on March 8, 2008 here.

In the preface to this helpful study of Montenegrin diplomacy in the pre-WWI era, author John D. Treadway cites Greek-Canadian historian L.S. Stavrianos: “the role of Montenegro in South Slav and general Balkan affairs was quote out of proportion to her ridiculously meager material resources.”

Indeed, the author’s primary goal in The Falcon and Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914 is to document, for the first time in a generalist scholarly English work, just how significant Montenegro really was, both through its own active diplomacy and in its existence as an apple of discord among larger European powers, in the turbulent series of events that led up to the apocalypse of world war in 1914.

Published as it was back in 1983, Treadway’s work can no longer be considered the most recent or most comprehensive of studies on pre-war Montenegrin history. However, it is a readable modern study that, despite some tired figures of speech and cliches in the style, maintains a steady narrative and sheds light on the motivations and mindsets of some of the leading figures, most notably Montenegrin Prince (and subsequently King) Nikola Petrovic and Austro-Hungarian Minster of Foreign Affairs Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal.


The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914 is one of those old-school political histories in which diplomatic entreaties and subterfuge are considered, without much self-critical awareness, the primary shapers of History on a grand stage. Although somewhat abandoned now in favor of more inter-disciplinary and atomizing methodologies, this formula used by Treadway works well in the case of turn-of-the-century Montenegro, a tiny principality that at the time was even lacking half of its current coastline.

Chronically poor, composed largely of rocky mountains and non-arable land, Montenegro was severely economically challenged, not to mention surrounded by difficult neighbors, such as the avaricious Austro-Hungarian Empire to the north and fierce Albanian tribesmen to the south. Even if it hadn’t been part of the country’s cultural heritage, a little Byzantine diplomacy would seem to go a long way in the case of a small Balkan state that had very little defenses. Fortunately, there was plenty of that in stock in a country that had little else.

The author does a good job of explaining the methods and motivations of crafty Prince Nikola, Montenegro’s long-lived ruler and father-in-law of the Serbian King Petar Karadjordjevic. Constantly engaged in a studied, and rather insincere set of appeals designed to win over the rulers of Russia, Austro-Hungary, Italy and other European powers, Prince Nikola used all the weapons in his arsenal- an especially useful one was the classic Byzantine method of alliance through arranged marriages. By wedding his numerous children into the royal families of various states, Nikola attempted to build sympathy and open windows of influence for his tiny state in Europe. And indeed, he was surprisingly successful in doing so, despite the perceived unimportance of his principality.

However, as the author makes clear in his detailed narrative, the fortunes of Montenegro and its mercurial ruler were entirely bound up with the larger questions of Great Power rivalry in the increasingly high-stakes world of the post-Treaty of Berlin Balkans. In this respect, Montenegro’s main card was its strategic location on the Adriatic, and just south of the Austro-Hungarian border and just north of the volatile Ottoman one.

As the author explains through a very detailed discussion of events, everything that happened in and around Montenegro was part of larger calculated plans and hypotheses by which the Great Powers tried to get the better of one another or push for advantage. Montenegro was often able to exploit these conflicting desires. However, in consistently raising the level of tension almost to the point of war — something that would have appeared reckless in a larger country having more to lose — Montenegro’s leaders exhibited cunning, daring and a certain kind of mad courage that more than once allowed them to successfully bluff their way out of dangerous situations.

The structure of The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914 broadly supports its style and methodology, that is, it sticks to a simple chronological accounting of events. This makes it an ideal read for general-interest fans of the Balkans, though many of the events and episodes it recounts are sufficiently obscure that the book will no doubt have something to offer to the more advanced student as well.

The Narrative and its Topics

After a first chapter which sets the scene for the unfolding narrative with a sketch of Montenegro’s social structure and political leadership in the centuries leading up to the 20th, and which outlines the prevailing dynamic of bilateral relations between Montenegro and Austro-Hungary, Russia and other states, the second chapter starts off with the “Annexation Crisis’ of 1908- referring to the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia in October, thee months after the Young Turk revolution dramatically changed the footing of the declining Ottoman Empire. As the author makes clear, Vienna’s dubious decision dramatically raised the political temperature in Europe and brought the whole tangled Balkan question to the fore. The third chapter continues to discuss the annexation’s fallout (in 1909), and the “capitulations” of Serbia and Montenegro to the Habsburgs’ bold power play.

The fourth and fifth chapters continue to discuss a conspiracy against Prince Nikola (the “Kolasin Conspiracy’), the monarch’s golden jubilee and official crowning as “king’, and the ambivalent role of Montenegro as both protector and persecutor of Albanian militants from the Malissori tribe just across the border, who in 1910 and 1911 rebelled against weak Ottoman rule.

By following the twists and turns of Balkan diplomacy, as it resonated from Cetinje (then the capital of Montenegro) through the halls of power in Europe, the author does a good job in chapter six of showing how far-off events, such as the Italian-Turkish war in Tripoli in 1911, impacted on Montenegro and enhanced its strategic significance. The “road to war’ is also vividly described from a diplomatic point of view in this chapter, which gives an account of the secret dealings — including King Nikola’s masterful visit to Vienna, ostensibly to visit Austrian officials, but really to cement an understanding with Bulgaria regarding Montenegrin participation in the Balkan alliance that would declare war on the Turks in the fall of 1912.

The final chapters of The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914 are devoted to the Balkan Wars up to the outbreak of WWI, and especially Montenegro’s role throughout. The issue of most acute sensitivity was its desire to claim more territory on the Adriatic, and particularly the lake town of Scutari (Shkoder) in northern Albania. The siege, and then brief occupation of this town by Montenegrin forces, incredibly enough almost led to a wider war; the insolence of the upstart regime of King Nikola in standing down the might of the Austro-Hungarians represents one of the defining moments of Montenegrin participation in the conflict.

Other Observations

One of the benefits of Treadway’s details-rich account is that it tends to reduce the tendency to view the various combatants and interests involved in monolithic terms. The author makes a point of refuting certain previous historians’ opinions that dictate Germany was spoiling for war from behind the scenes, and that the Habsburgs’ boorish behavior can be largely attributed to the Germans. And he certainly does make a strong case for Montenegro having played a much more important role in issues of war and peace in Europe than has been previously thought.

In fact, by following the action through the personal meetings of diplomats and international conferences, the author portrays a confusing atmosphere of simmering conflict in which voices of moderation and negotiation prevailed often, and in which the specific personalities of those involved molded the course of events.

In this respect, this careful balancing of the national, individual and partisan ambitions and goals of Montenegro, the European Great Powers and other Balkan states is perhaps the most commendable thing about The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914. While necessarily incomplete in regards to the wider European picture, this saga of a small nation’s struggle to champion its cause in an era of sudden and irreversible change does an admirable job of presenting a fully fleshed-out chronology of the events and diplomatic exchanges that dominated the heady final days of the independent Montenegrin principality and the dawning of a new era.

Readers of this book will also like:

Kenneth Morrison, Montenegro: A Modern History

Michael Hochedliger, Austria’s Wars of Emergence, 1683-1797

Rebecca West, Black lamb and grey falcon: A journey through Yugoslavia