How could the death of one man cause the death of millions? Since the end of the First World War, this question has preoccupied many historians and students of history. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of the Habsburg Monarchy, and heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, threw European diplomacy into chaos, and just one month later the continent would be embroiled in war. The concept seems counterintuitive; the murder of this man by a Bosnian fanatic in a state visit to Sarajevo should not have led to total war involving France, Britain, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and eventually the Ottoman Empire and the United States. As a result, many point to the complex system of alliances that existed within Europe at the time, with the argument being that “the guns went off by themselves” — that is, Europe was so precariously balanced, with the default for any crisis being to resort to armed alliances, that any disturbance would lead inevitably to war. To others, this crisis was merely an excuse, a disingenuous casus bellum for a war long planned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most historians of this line — notably Fritz Fischer, while more recently Max Hastings has taken the same argument — argue that the guilty party was Germany, whose belligerence equated to none other than a “grasp for world power”, an attempt to dominate the globe. Others have seen the shadows of conspiracy elsewhere; a key example is Sean McMeekin, who sees the Russians as being primarily accountable for what followed. Yet we should not dismiss the importance of the event itself. Before Franz Ferdinand was murdered, war seemed to be an unlikely possibility. After he was murdered, Europe drifted closer and closer to battle. In order to understand this, we should look at the events of the so-called “July Crisis”, the period between the assassination and the outbreak of war.
Serbia and Austria-Hungary.
It should come as no surprise that the two protagonists in the Balkans on the day of the assassination responded in very different ways to the outrage. In Serbia, from whence the material and logistical support for the Young Bosnia activists had come, officialdom and public sentiment stood in stark contrast to one another. We will recall that the Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pasic, was a pragmatic, deeply cautious leader, keenly aware of the perpetual animosity between his state and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the weeks leading up to the assassination, Pasic almost certainly became aware of the fact that an attempt would be made on Franz Ferdinand’s life. His response to this had been to (belatedly) seal Serbia’s borders, and provide a series of veiled warnings to Austrian diplomats. Beyond this, he had shown little energy in attempting to head off the outrage, though this is unsurprising; Pasic’s position in government was never entirely secure, and to have tipped off the Austrians would have earned the ire of the Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (“Black Hand”) irredentist organisation, led by the Serbian intelligence head, Dragutin Dimitrijevic, codenamed “Apis.” Pasic was hardly in a position to oppose Apis and escape with his career (or, perhaps, even his life.) In any case, it is by no means certain that Pasic possessed anything more than general hearsay and rumours, and it is extremely unlikely that he or his government as a whole was in any way complicit in the planning. None of Pasic’s cautious measures dissuaded the archduke from his visit to the Bosnian provincial capital, nor in any way made the job of the Princip cell more difficult. When Princip was arrested by Austro-Hungarian police, immediately after he had shot the archduke, he made many attempts to shoulder the sole responsibility, denying that his fellow terrorists were involved, and insisting that the planning, weaponry, and so on, had been sourced only by him. But there was plenty to cast suspicious Austrian eyes in the direction of Belgrade. Princip clearly belonged to Young Bosnia; that much was certain. Young Bosnia was known to have ties with two radical Serbian pan-nationalist groups — the aforementioned Ujedinjenje ili smrt!, and the less violent but parochially Greater Serbian Narodna Odbrana. Both were suspected of having ties with Serbian officialdom. And, while Belgrade had immediately sent its condolences to Vienna, it could not stop or hide the public outpouring of support for the assassins. The coffeehouses of Belgrade resounded with fiery songs and speeches; the celebrations for St. Vitus’ Day in Kosovo became merged with ecstatic acclamations of approval for the killing of a hated Austrian; within a day of the assassination, but before Vienna had recovered from the shock to be able to accuse Serbia of complicity, Pasic and several of his ministers were already warning Austria not to exploit the “regrettable event” in order to settle historic scores with Serbia. Serbia’s attempts to defuse the situation only served to make it look complicit, and the general sympathy for Young Bosnia made it look enthusiastically so. And then there was the matter of the assassins’ weapons, which had been procured by Apis from the Serbian Army’s own arsenal at Kragujevac. These factors, coupled with the jubilation in the Serbian streets, left few Austrian officials in any doubt. The same day that the Serbian press and ministers began denying responsibility, the Austrian delegation in Belgrade reported to Vienna that, though the Serbian government could not yet be directly linked to the plot, “they are surely indirectly guilty.” Such a verdict, it would seem, would have incited the Serbian irredentists of the coffee scene only because it did not afford them full and total responsibility; even as the government attempted to distance itself from the killing, Serbian society saw itself as being linked intimately to Princip and his fellow assassins, be that in spirit or through more material ties. And that, to the Serbian public, was not a matter of horror or shame but of pride.
Had the Serbian public been privy to the manoeuvres in the Austrian court, it would perhaps have been more restrained in its reaction. For Vienna was shocked, certainly, but it was by no means paralysed or prostrate. Franz Ferdinand had been an unpopular figure; irascible, aloof, and reform-minded, he had built his political career on bucking the stifling conventions of the Habsburg court. He had not been the heir to the throne before the death of Franz Josef’s only son, Rudolf, in a bizarre (presumed) murder-suicide in 1889. Thereafter, the archduke had demonstrated a rebellious streak. His marriage to Countess Sophie Chotek was only approved by the emperor on condition that it were morganatic — that is, Sophie was not to adopt any of her husband’s titles, and would often not be permitted to attend state functions at which Franz Ferdinand would be representing the monarchy. His ideas for the transformation of the Empire into a federation affording more rights to its many minorities alarmed the status quo, and there was little in his character that endeared him to the public in general, much less his political opponents in the court. For all that, though, he was still a Habsburg and, more importantly, the next in line to the throne. Franz Josef, his uncle, was 83 and in poor health, and both the line of succession and the emperor’s spirit had already been broken by Rudolf’s strange death a quarter of a century earlier. Upon being informed of the murder of his nephew, Franz Josef reportedly broke down in severe distress — not at the loss of his relative, with whom he had often clashed politically and personally, but at the belief that God had taken a terrible vengeance on Austria.
Franz Josef’s response to the killing reflected that of the country at large. While Franz Ferdinand had been disliked, he was still the anointed heir to the Empire. An attack on him was therefore an attack on the Empire itself. Franz Josef’s chief of staff and head of the army, Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf, informed only that the arrested assassin was a “Bosnian of Serbian nationality”, rashly concluded that the assassination was a “declaration of war by Serbia on Austria-Hungary.” According to the foreign minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, Conrad’s official telegram to the Chancellery read simply “War. War. War.”
It is here that we see the colossal blunder on the part of Apis and his Bosnian lackeys. Pasic may have been denying Serbian involvement — and, indeed, on 7 July Pasic sent an official denial to Vienna — but it was clear that there was some manner of Serbian collusion, official or otherwise. The nature of the assassination was that of an existential threat to the Empire, which would likely result in an energetic response. Worse, the target of the assassination was the very man who had so often in the past counselled against war with Serbia. Franz Ferdinand was not liked by his uncle, but he did have a penchant for swaying him against the belligerent tendencies of his chief of staff, Conrad, whose force of character he had been able to match. Now, Franz Ferdinand was dead, removing from the Habsburg court the retarding power against war. The archduke’s old ally, Berchtold, was passive and could easily be overwhelmed by personality. Franz Josef was not necessarily for war, but he relied on the counsel of his inner circle. This left Conrad, the archetypal hawk, who had called for war with Serbia more than twenty-five times since 1908. Conrad himself was prone to fatalistic bouts of depression, and under no illusions about what his course of action must be, and what the outcome would entail. Writing to his beloved mistress, Gina, Conrad claimed: “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so old a monarchy and so glorious an army cannot go down ingloriously.” Even while the diplomats scrambled to make sense of what had happened, then, arguably the most powerful remaining influence in the Habsburg Monarchy had already decided where the responsibility lay, and what the course of action must be.
Of course, Conrad von Hötzendorf could not simply declare war, though he was quite correct in most regards; Austria could not afford not to act in the event of its heir to the throne being assassinated, but the resulting struggle could well be hopeless. After all, Serbia had powerful friends. Russia, Austria-Hungary’s major antagonist, had responded quickly to events in Sarajevo. Most governments — even that of Serbia — had sent condolences to Vienna, lamenting the death of Franz Ferdinand, but St. Petersburg had not. Embassies throughout Europe lowered their flags to half-mast in respect to the grief of Austria; Russia’s were the exception to the rule. In Belgrade itself, the Russian minister to Serbia, Nikolai Hartwig, immediately assumed that the assassin was a Serb, but claimed that the murder was a good thing, since “the Austrian dynasty is an exhausted race.” At one point, it was even suspected that the Russians may have had an active hand in the assassination itself, since Vienna was quickly convinced of the Serbian government’s complicity, but Franz Josef believed that Belgrade was secretly controlled behind the scenes by none other than Hartwig. Russia’s approval of a shipment of 120,000 rifles for the Serbian Army, just two days after the assassination, seemed to confirm its position in defence of Serbia. The Russian Army was a formidable force (though, as the Triple Entente powers would all discover to their discomfort from August 1914 onwards, the “Russian Steamroller” was little more than an optimistic myth.) And yet here was the problem confronting Conrad, Franz Josef, and Berchtold. If Serbia was to be punished for its transgressions — and there could be little doubt, as the facts became more and more clear, that at least some elements in Serbian officialdom had been involved — then that punishment would almost certainly amount to war. Against Serbia, Austria-Hungary would likely prevail. But Russia had positioned itself as the protector of Serbia, and Russia was a different matter altogether. Austria was unlikely to be capable of beating Russia; Conrad suggested that he might prevail if he were able to take the Russians by surprise, as the Japanese had a decade earlier. However, several tens of thousands of Austrian troops, who would be vital for any campaign against Russia, had been sent on summer leave, and while these men could be recalled, the logistics of doing so would definitely tip Conrad’s hand and permit the Russians to mobilise to meet the threat. Yet war and only war would satisfy Austrian honour. At this point, it was left to Vienna to turn to its own powerful patron.
Germany presents a curious problem in the story of the July Crisis. Austro-Hungarian belligerence, Serbian impertinence, and even Russia’s aggressive attitude are all, to some extent, understandable. But it was the involvement of Germany that tipped the scales in the Balkans from that of an admittedly alarming regional conflict into an ever-escalating blundering towards general European war. In 1914 Germany was the most mercurial and unpredictable of the European great powers, having either instigated or been involved in a number of crises in the first decade of the century. In 1905, Germany had threatened war with France over the issue of Moroccan independence and the establishment of German commercial interests in North Africa. Germany’s building of a powerful fleet of battleships and battlecruisers, from 1898 to 1912, had incensed British policymakers, who saw this as a threat to the dominance of the Royal Navy at sea. German investments in the Ottoman Empire had led to the planning and start of construction of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, a mammoth transportation initiative that, when complete, would allow the movement of German troops into Asia Minor and towards French and British interests in Asia and the Subcontinent; in particular, the British feared that this could threaten both Egypt and India. Germany’s industrial output easily outstripped most of its potential opponents, and its army, based on Prussian lines, was regarded as a model of efficiency. Finally, while Franz Ferdinand was unpopular with most, he had forged a firm friendship with Germany’s Kaiser, the moody and temperamental Wilhelm II. His murder came as a shock to Wilhelm, and it was to be expected that the German leader would seek to assist his Austrian allies in avenging his friend’s death. Therefore, if Germany were to become involved in the unfolding crisis, its role was unlikely to be a calming one.
This, however, is not necessarily fair to the Germans, and we can certainly not ascribe Germany’s actions to come as irrational, or based on vengeance. In many ways, Germany was a victim of its own success. Its rise to power on the Continent was unprecedented, and Berlin had struggled to come to terms with its newfound importance. Many of the problems dated back to the German unification in 1871, which had occurred in part as a result of the defeat of France by combined German armies. Thereafter, the first German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had managed a complex and convoluted system of alliances designed to keep France isolated; at the same time, French policymakers had vowed revenge on the Germans. Even as late as 1914, official French policy called for the return of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, by force if necessary. Germany may have been able to deal with French aggression as long as Bismarck’s strategy of isolation had continued to work, but in 1890 Bismarck was dismissed, and Wilhelm II, refusing to renegotiate the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, inadvertently drove St. Petersburg into the waiting arms of Paris. Worse, after the turn of the century, Britain increasingly sided with the French on issues of European diplomacy. The two Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911 was ambiguous affairs, and (certainly in the latter case) it could well be argued that the Germans were correct to threaten intervention to head off French attempts to upset the balance of power. But the manner in which the Germans attempted to intervene — in 1911, by sending a warship, the Panther, to Agadir — frightened Whitehall, which was already wary of the Germans since the navy had launched its vast building initiative. For their part, the Germans appear to have been confused by Britain’s apparent unfriendliness.
However, as the July Crisis began to unfold, Germany’s main concern was not Britain but Russia. Neither power was directly involved in the Sarajevo outrage, but Russia’s immediate guarantee of Serbian integrity suggested that it might attempt to take advantage of the situation and further its own interests in the Balkans. Given Russia’s alliance with France, it was not inconceivable that Germany’s most intractable enemy might benefit as well, which was an intolerable state of affairs. More immediately, the diplomats in Berlin recognised that the crisis posed a severe threat to the post-Bismarckian order. After Bismarck’s dismissal, Germany had failed to diplomatically isolate France and in the process it had not only shed allies but had found itself in an unclear diplomatic position with other powers. The Ottoman Empire, for example, was nominally an ally, but this relationship was hardly exclusive; at the same time as German private enterprise was attempting to develop the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, significant French financial interests were also pouring into Turkey, and while the Ottoman Army had entered into a modernisation program led by a German, General Otto Liman von Sanders, the Ottoman Navy had begun similar reorganisation under the auspices of the British Admiral Limpus. Constantinople’s position, then, was ambiguous at best. Italy, also tied to Germany by treaty, was hardly an impressive power, and would prove itself to be unreliable. Having once counted on Britain for support (or, at least, neutrality), Germany now found Whitehall to be inscrutable. This left just Austria-Hungary as Germany’s only dependable ally, and while Austria-Hungary was certainly no longer the impressive empire it once was, its friendship was still better than standing alone. In the current diplomatic climate, with Germany surrounded by France and Russia, both of whom enjoyed good relations with one another, Germany could not afford to alienate its one ally. Thus, when Austria-Hungary entered its hour of need, and sent diplomats to approach Wilhelm and his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, there could be little doubt that Berlin would, at least, be well-disposed towards whatever Vienna required.
As it turned out, Vienna required a great deal. It had not been difficult for Conrad to convince Franz Josef of the need for vigorous action to be taken against Serbia; if Berchtold objected, it is unlikely he did so with any force, and his later actions suggest that he was quickly convinced by Conrad’s war case. On 4 July, Berchtold sent his chef de cabinet, Count Alexander von Hoyos, to Berlin, to meet with the German Undersecretary of State Arthur Zimmermann. The next day, Hoyos discussed Austria’s response with Zimmermann, while the Austrian minister to Germany, Count Ladislaus von Szögeny-Marich, lunched with the Kaiser to discuss the same. On 6 July, both Austrian diplomats met with Bethmann-Hollweg, who confirmed what had been suggested during the earlier meetings: the German Army stood ready, and the German officials were willing to guarantee the Habsburg Empire, affording it backing in whatever circumstances eventuated. This undertaking became known as the “blank cheque”, and what it amounted to was this: if Austria-Hungary chose to go to war with Serbia, and Russia chose to defend Serbia, Germany would go to war on behalf of Austria-Hungary.
The “Blank Cheque.”
Why did Germany issue this guarantee? Certainly, it presented something of a risk. Russia’s army was massive, comprising 1.4 million men in peacetime, with a potential strength of over five million once general mobilisation orders were given. If Germany went to war with Russia, then it could also expect that France would, in turn, declare war on Germany, owing to its standing alliance with Russia. The cornerstone of German policy, besides isolating France, had always been to avoid a two-front war, yet this would be the realisation of Germany’s worst fears — a war against two powerful foes in both the east and the west. And, while Germany clearly felt that it had both a moral and — more importantly — a practical obligation to support its ally, we must remember that Germany, not Austria-Hungary, was the powerbroker in this dual alliance. An open guarantee would encourage Austria-Hungary to take any action, however dangerous; Germany, though, had the strength behind it to instead encourage Austria-Hungary to restrain itself.
Germany’s position was more or less one of confusion, naïveté, and — perhaps — opportunism. Indeed, but for the apparent agreement between the Kaiser, Zimmermann, and Bethmann-Hollweg, opinion within the halls of power in Germany was mixed. In principle, most agreed that Austria-Hungary had some sort of right to intervene against Serbia, and most agreed that Germany should support its friend. But what would this mean? As the crisis had begun, it had been the German ambassador to Vienna, Heinrich von Tschirschky, who had assumed the de facto role of Franz Ferdinand, counselling Franz Josef to exercise restraint in his dealings with Pasic. Tschirschky attempted to head off Conrad’s talk of war. But Tschirschky had taken this position without instructions from Berlin, and was harshly criticised for doing so by his own leader, Wilhelm II. Wilhelm himself, though, did not seem to grasp the gravity of the situation; after his lunch with Szögeny-Marich, he had left Potsdam for his usual seasonal yachting trip to Scandinavia. To say the least, that the leader of Germany would depart on a pleasure sail while his government provided Austria-Hungary with permission to declare a war which might involve Russia and France is bizarre. On the other hand, the “blank cheque” insisted only that Germany would back Austria in its actions against Serbia. Russia was not even mentioned in the official communique; elsewhere, it seems that German officials were divided as to whether this support would involve Germany in any actions against Russia. Zimmermann, in his meeting with Hoyos, felt that there was “a ninety percent likelihood of a European war.” That evening, though, Wilhelm II and his military cabinet agreed that the Russians would likely not interfere. After all, the assassins were nothing more than common criminals and if the Serbian government had conspired with them — as Hoyos assured Zimmermann it had — then it was also to be considered criminal. The Russians might plump and rattle their sabres, but surely they would not get themselves involved in so grubby an affair, especially not when they had now been warned by the Germans to keep away.
Yet, even if Zimmermann was correct, and German support would lead to all-out European war, there were some within the German hierarchy who saw this as the most desirous outcome. Having lost the Russian alliance in 1890, many — particularly within the General Staff of the army — had concluded that Germany would inevitably be involved in a war with Russia and France. That time had nearly come in 1905 and 1911, when the Germans had clashed with the French over Morocco. Just two months earlier, the quartermaster general of the German Army, Georg von Waldersee, had reported to his political superiors that Germany’s neighbours could only be considered enemies; worse, they were growing stronger with every passing year, and when they felt that the time was right, they would simultaneously launch an attack on Germany’s borders. Perhaps Waldersee could have been dismissed as hysterical, but France’s deep animosity was well known, and Russia had a penchant for imperial opportunism. To Waldersee and his colleagues, if war was inevitable then Germany had to be proactive. It could not wait until it was attacked because that would be far too late, since France and Russia would attack when it best suited them. Therefore, Germany must act preemptively, taking the initiative while circumstances favoured it and not its potential enemies. In 1914, Waldersee noted, Germany still had an upper hand, and while the advantage was dwindling, it was still an advantage.
The Kaiser did not offer the “blank cheque” as a direct means of provoking a European war. But the potential benefits of a war — or, rather, a war in the immediate future, rather than one later, dictated by France and Russia — must have weighed on his mind. Moreover, though Wilhelm evidently believed that a German-backed Austria-Hungary would not provoke the Russians, the fact that Germany had offered assurances (even without naming Russia in those assurances) sparked dangerous thinking within the General Staff. For Germany was now embarking upon a foreign policy that could lead it directly into conflict with Russia. Since Russia was allied to France, it was likely that this conflict would involve France. Therefore, German military planners began preparing for war, not against Russia (for which they had no plan), but against France (for which they did.)
Based on the positive reports from Hoyos and Szögeny-Marich, the Habsburg court made its preparations. There was no doubt among the government ministers that Serbia would be dealt with militarily, though by now talk had turned from avenging Franz Ferdinand to removing a conspicuous thorn in the Empire’s side. However, perhaps in an attempt to avoid Russian conflict, or to mollify the Hungarian prime minister, Istvan Tisza, who had argued strongly for negotiations with Pasic, it was decided that Serbia would first be presented with a set of demands. Officially, were Serbia to agree to the demands in this ultimatum, it could avoid an Austrian declaration of war. However, the tone of the ultimatum is clear from the meetings in which it was drafted; Conrad von Hötzendorf, despite not being a government minister, took a key role in its wording, and Berchtold, by now fully convinced of the righteousness of the cause, argued belligerently for harsh terms. Austria-Hungary would demand that Serbia dissolve all nationalist organisations, especially the Black Hand and Narodna Odbrana. Members of these organisations would be dismissed from the Serbian Army and state apparatus (and, indeed, a proviso in the final version insisted that any official Austria-Hungary objected to would be dismissed immediately.) The Serbian government was to abandon its goals of forming a “Greater Serbia.” More to the point, since the conspiracy to kill Franz Ferdinand had riddled the Serbian state, Serbian authorities could not be trusted to root out the guilty parties. As a result, a special commission of Austro-Hungarian police was to be set up in Belgrade, with jurisdiction to arrest any conspirators. Serbia would also accept that Austria-Hungary had the right to enter Serbian territory at any point in time to deal with any perceived security threats. On 23 July, the Austrian ambassador in Belgrade delivered the ultimatum to the Serbian government; Serbia had just 48 hours to comply, or it would be war.
In truth, the Austrians never intended that Serbia would accede to their demands. It was inconceivable that any country, especially one so jealously and vociferously defensive of its sovereignty as Serbia, could accept terms that would impinge on, and even completely negate, that sovereignty. To accept would be giving the Habsburgs control over Serbian state and military appointments and foreign policy, not to mention the establishment of law and order. But, by proffering the ultimatum, Vienna hoped to give itself a legal basis for its planned invasion. We offered them a solution, Austria could claim, but they left us no alternative. Perhaps this would dissuade the Russians.
The Russians, however, had already made their position clear. Tsar Nicholas II had already been sent word of the gist of the Austrian ultimatum as early as 16 July, as a result of leaks from both Austrian and German foreign ministry officials. His diplomats, in turn, had passed on the general terms to Pasic by 19 July — half a week before they were presented by the Austrians. It cannot be coincidence that, in consultation with Russian officials, Pasic’s circular to his government ministers on receiving the leaked ultimatum was to insist that Serbia would vigorously defend its independence; clearly, St. Petersburg had counselled Belgrade in its response. When the finalised copy of the terms was presented, though, not even this foreknowledge could prevent the Serbian ministries from dissolving into panic. The ministry of war promised to fight, and ordered the general mobilisation of the army, but the army was in no condition to go to war. Russia had been supportive in theory, but on 23 July it could offer nothing more than vague assurances that it found the terms “disgusting” — hardly reassuring when Serbia faced annihilation. Pasic desperately appealed to the other European capitals, without success; the French went so far as to suggest that Serbia should give in. Thus, in spite of the proud resolution of the military figures in Pasic’s government, the Serbian officials set about drafting a reply that would accept nearly all of Vienna’s demands. There would be only two exceptions: Pasic argued that Serbia simply could not permit perpetual Austrian intervention on Serbian soil, nor an Austrian police investigation to arrest Serbian citizens. To accede to these, he argued, would effectively mean dissolving Serbia’s autonomy completely. He was, perhaps, buoyed in his resolve to reject these terms by a belated reassurance from St. Petersburg, just hours before the deadline for the Serbian response, that Russia would stand by Serbia in the event of Austrian aggression. Thus, Pasic presented the Austrian ambassador with a conciliatory response that baulked on two points and two points only. But the instructions from Berchtold were clear: all or nothing. With Pasic’s response in hand, Austrian Ambassador Baron Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen burned the embassy cipher book, and boarded a train for Vienna. In the capital, Conrad, Berchtold and Franz Josef made the final preparations for their declaration of war. This, they delivered on 28 July.
“So after all!” Franz Josef responded to the news of 25 July, but the drama was not yet over. Vienna’s rejection of Pasic’s response set into motion a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. But their patrons still had room to manoeuvre to avoid a larger conflagration. In many ways, though, their path had been set in stone just as much as Austria-Hungary’s and Serbia’s had. On the same day, Nicholas II secretly finalised orders for the full mobilisation of the Russian Army. There is significant evidence, however, to suggest that a covert mobilisation had begun well before this, perhaps as early as the beginning of the month. Germany was watching closely. On 26 July, German attaches around the Russian Empire sent a flurry of reports indicating that military manoeuvres had been cancelled, soldiers on leave had been recalled, and many military districts were now on high alert. On 31 July, having received proof of Russia’s full mobilisation, Germany’s High Command responded in kind, declaring an “Imminent Danger of War”, and calling up the army for immediate service. In doing so, however, Germany’s diplomats made a fateful error. The General Staff had long presumed that the Franco-Russian Alliance was a binding, general treaty. In fact, it was defensive in character, requiring one party to respond in force only in the defence of the other. Were Russia to mobilise and go to war with Austria-Hungary, as it seemed intent on doing, Paris would have no binding reason to intervene. But France had begun taking precautionary measures on 28 July, cancelling leave and recalling troops from Morocco and Algeria. This was all the convincing German war planners needed to throw into motion their plans for the much-feared two-front war; believing that the Russians would take months to mobilise, and unaware that mobilisation had likely begun much earlier in the month, the Germans calculated that a knockout blow against the comparatively weaker French in the west, forcing Paris to surrender, would allow 1.7 million German troops in the west to swing eastwards within a few weeks, and thus face the Russians before they had a chance to fully mobilise. In misinterpreting the Franco-Russian Alliance, then, the Germans saw any move by the French — even the quite reasonable measure of recalling troops from leave, when other European states looked set to go to war — as a prelude to the likely simultaneous strike on Germany by both Russia and France. In doing so, and preparing accordingly, German war planners turned a localised eastern war into one that would extend to the western coast of Europe. How this would be accomplished, and the route it would take, would determine whether the last great power of Europe — Great Britain — chose to abandon its policy of splendid isolation, and enter the conflict. What, in this case, is most pertinent is that, on 3 August, Germany declared war on France, and the next day German armies swept into neutral Belgium, en route to French territory.
Amidst all of the parochial myth-making and damnation of the First World War, it is clear that placing blame, while perhaps cathartic, may well be a futile exercise. Certainly, Germany bears much of the responsibility; one cannot imagine, despite Conrad von Hötzendorf’s protestations, that Austria-Hungary would have risked annihilation at the hands of the Russian Empire without assurances that it would be protected by its more powerful, western neighbour. Even in giving its assurances, Germany could well have offered provisos, rather than a free hand that Austria so recklessly abused. On the other hand, the Germans, stung by prior events and eager to safeguard its only reliable friend in Europe, could be forgiven for assuming that their threat of armed intervention would be enough to warn off the Russians. At the same time, the confusion within Berlin’s circles of officialdom was palpable, and at times it seems as though German foreign policy was determined by bumbling amateurs at Wilhelmstraße.
Nor can we necessarily blame Austria-Hungary. It had taken its first steps out of shock but, having been faced with an existential crisis for which it held Serbia responsible, it could hardly back down and risk diminishing forever its power on the international stage. This was an empire in decline, but not yet moribund; the diplomats’ choices would shape the future of the Empire, and indeed determine whether, as Franz Josef feared, the assassination was part of heavenly damnation, or whether it would in fact offer a reprieve.
It is extremely unlikely that the Serbian government was culpable in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (though certainly some elements within Serbian diplomatic and military circles were), but this became largely moot as the crisis developed, and Austria-Hungary saw its opportunity to defeat its precocious bugbear once and for all. Belgrade’s terrified appeal for help was more than understandable. It is possible that, had Serbia’s Russian ally chosen to intervene in diplomatic circles, and attempt to force a negotiated compromise, the crisis may have passed. But Russia chose to mobilise — and in any event the same charge can be levelled at Germany, for failing to rein in Austria-Hungary. As for the French, having for much of July ignored the unfolding crisis, they suddenly became, quite unwittingly, both a pawn and a catalyst; the Russians expected the French to back them, and the Germans, also expecting this, read into every French manoeuvre an ulterior motive. At no point in the July Crisis was war inevitable, yet there was also a sense of inexorable logic to the outcome. The guns, perhaps, did not go off by themselves, but rather were triggered by blindfolded diplomats, reading and misreading circumstances, and suffering from both wilful and inadvertent communication breakdowns. One can almost imagine those same diplomats, not knowing the horrors to come, breathing a sigh of relief once war was declared: at last, there was no more ambiguity.
One last player, however, had not yet entered the field. Great Britain remained neutral as the other powers went to war, and while it had a series of mutual understandings with France and Russia, it had maintained its isolation from continental affairs for most of the last century. Its foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had not seen the crisis as anything other than a provincial Balkan sideshow. British interests were not threatened directly by any of the belligerents. Yet within days Britain would take a side, and plunge itself into war. Why it did this is the subject of the next post in this series.
- Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London. Allen Lane. 2012.
- MacMillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace. London. Profile. 2013.
- McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Origins of the First World War. Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press. 2011.
- McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War. London. Icon. 2013.
- Stevenson, David. 1914-1918. The History of the First World War. London. Allen Lane. 2004.