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World War I Centennial: Austria-Hungary Escalates, Kaiser Convenes War Council

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He’ll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 48th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

December 7 and 8, 1912: Austria-Hungary Escalates, Kaiser Convenes War Council


Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As 1912 drew to a close, Europe seemed to be teetering on the brink of war. The victory of the Balkan League over the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War put Serbia on a collision course with Austria-Hungary over the issue of Serbian access to the sea through (formerly Ottoman) Albania, including the important port of Durazzo (Durrës). Fearing Serbia’s influence on Austria-Hungary’s restive Slavs, Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Berchtold was determined to prevent Serbia from becoming a maritime state by creating an independent Albania—and was apparently willing to resort to military means to achieve this goal.

On November 21, 1912, Austria-Hungary flexed its muscles by mobilizing six army corps near Serbia and Russia (Serbia’s patron and protector), which sent a clear message: Serbia and its allies, Greece and Montenegro, had to evacuate Albania. But it also raised the risk of conflict between Austria-Hungary and Russia, which could easily become a wider European war with the involvement of Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany, Russia’s ally France, France’s (informal) ally Britain, and Italy, on one side or the other. (On December 5, Italy signed the third and final renewal of the Triple Alliance Treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but also had secret agreements with France and Russia.)

On November 28, Albania declared independence with support from Austria-Hungary, but most of the country was still occupied by Serbian, Greek, and Montenegrin forces; the Serbians captured Durazzo and Serbian and Montenegrin armies continued to besiege the important city of Scutari, which Berchtold also wanted to give to Albania. On December 3, the Greek navy bombarded Vlorë, where the Albanian provisional government was meeting—not exactly an indication the Balkan League was prepared to recognize Albanian statehood.


Click the map to enlarge.

On December 7, 1912, Austria-Hungary ratcheted up the tension again by mobilizing two more army corps even closer to Serbia: the XVI corps, based in Sarajevo, and the XV corps, based in Ragusa (Dubrovnik). At Berchtold’s request, Emperor Franz Josef also called up the Landswehr, or local militia, in Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast. Perhaps most significant, on December 7 Franz Josef reappointed the energetic, bellicose General Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf to his old post of chief of the general staff, where he exerted a powerful (and technically unconstitutional) influence on Austro-Hungarian foreign policy.

On December 14, 1912, Conrad advised Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne (who, as Conrad’s political patron, was responsible for his appointment on December 7) that in the face of rising Slavic nationalism, Austria-Hungary’s only chance of survival was to simply absorb Serbia—by force if necessary. In the long term, Franz Ferdinand and Conrad essentially hoped to do an end run around Slavic nationalism by restructuring the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a tripartite state with the addition of a third monarchy representing the Slavs—an idea known as “trialism.” In the most likely scenario, Serbia might join the empire but retain its own monarchy, like the Kingdom of Bavaria in the German Empire.

Whatever happened, Conrad advised: “The unification of the Southern Slav race is one of those phenomena of nation resurgence which can neither be explained away nor artificially prevented. The only point at issue is whether this unification is to take place inside the dominions of the Monarchy—i.e. at the cost of Serbian independence, or under the aegis of Serbia at the cost of the Monarchy.”

Unsurprisingly, this idea was bitterly opposed by Serbian nationalists and pan-Slav ideologists in the Balkans and Russia, who prized independence as an integral part of the Slavic national project. “Trialism” was also absolutely opposed by the Hungarians, who feared it would diminish the power they secured in the dual monarchy agreement of 1867 by absorbing more Slavic subjects (making Franz Ferdinand a dangerous enemy to both Slavic nationalists and Hungarian aristocrats).

Now, in the face of yet another Serbian affront (access to the sea), Austria-Hungary was apparently taking a hard line. Typically, Conrad was prepared to go all the way: On January 9, he advised foreign minister Berchtold to attack Serbia as soon as possible, and “Russia must be overthrown.” But Franz Ferdinand opposed going to war over Albania, “that poverty stricken grazing ground for goats." Like Conrad, the heir to the throne felt the real long-term threat to Austria-Hungary was Italy, a Great Power with nationalist claims on Austrian territory (even though it was supposed to be Austria-Hungary’s ally under the Triple Alliance).

On the other side, was it really worth it for Russia to call Austria-Hungary’s bluff and risk a European war, all over the issue of Serbian access to the sea? To keep the situation from spiraling out of control, diplomats from all Europe’s Great Powers hurried to arrange a meeting where they could settle the situation in the Balkans. The Conference of London (actually two parallel conferences—one between the Great Powers, one between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire) was set to convene on December 17, 1912.

Kaiser Convenes Imperial War Council

While some European powers were working to defuse the situation, others seemed to be looking for a fight. Germany was in a particularly belligerent mood—not because German interests were really affected by the issue of Serbian access to the sea (they weren’t), but out of concern for the prestige and influence of their ailing ally Austria-Hungary, both in the Balkans and Europe in general. Between their anxiety about Austria-Hungary’s position and paranoia about “encirclement” by Britain, France, and Russia, the German leadership was not in a mood to compromise or heed warnings.

It was no surprise, then, that British attempts to clarify the situation produced the opposite response. On December 3, 1912, British Chancellor Richard Haldane warned the German ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky, that Britain would probably side with France in the event of a European war. Instead of responding to this warning by steering a more cautious course and trying to conciliate Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II was infuriated by what he considered a threat—indeed a “moral declaration of war.”

On December 8, 1912, the Kaiser convened what came to be known as the “Imperial War Council” to consider the possibility of a European war and assess Germany’s chances. Attendees at the War Council included Wilhelm II, chief of the German general staff Helmuth von Moltke, and Admiral von Tirpitz, the architect of German naval strategy, as well as two other top admirals. Tellingly, Germany’s top civilian leaders weren’t even invited: Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and foreign secretary Kiderlen-Wächter only found out about the meeting a week later.

Wilhelm and Moltke took a dire view of the huge increase in Russian economic and military power, which, together with French armaments and the Anglo-German naval arms race, threatened to tip the balance of power against Germany and Austria-Hungary forever. They had to break out of the Triple Entente’s encirclement before it was too late, and Moltke favored a preventive war against France and Russia sometime soon, probably in the next couple years, but also recognized the need to prepare public opinion: “I consider a war inevitable—the sooner, the better. But we should do a better job of gaining popular support for a war against Russia, in line with the Kaiser's remarks.”

In keeping with the racialist thinking of the day, Wilhelm and most of his peers viewed the confrontation between Austria-Hungary and Serbia as the harbinger of an impending “racial struggle” between the Germanic and Slavic peoples, as he warned German Jewish shipping magnate Albert Ballin, director of the giant Hamburg America Line, in a personal letter on December 15, 1912. In 1912, Berchtold chose to settle the matter diplomatically, but through this racial lens, the situation in the Balkans was grim and inexorable; to the German and Austro-Hungarian elites, some kind of confrontation was inevitable.

In the end, on December 8, 1912, Wilhelm sided with Tirpitz, who begged for another year and a half, promising the German fleet would be ready for war in 1914. In the meantime, all agreed, Germany had to focus on ramping up its own armaments program, strengthening its alliance with Vienna, and seeking potential allies among Europe’s “undecided” states, including Bulgaria, Romania, and the Ottoman Empire. Everyone hoped that Britain would stay out of the fight (an interesting mental contortion, considering they were meeting in response to a British warning, but entirely typical of Germany’s leadership).

See all entries here.

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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