Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Italy Warns Austria-Hungary Not to Attack Serbia

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

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 76th installment in the series. 

July 12, 1913: Italy Warns Austria-Hungary Not to Attack Serbia

By the summer of 1913, key Austro-Hungarian leaders were convinced that Serbia posed an existential threat which could only be dealt with militarily. The chief of the army’s general staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, had long called for war against Serbia, and the events of the First Balkan War helped bring the indecisive foreign minister, Count Berchtold, around to Conrad’s point of view. The outbreak of the Second Balkan War, when Serbia fought Bulgaria, seemed to offer another chance for Austria-Hungary to put Serbia in its place. On July 3, 1913, Berchtold warned the German ambassador, Heinrich von Tschirschky, that the Dual Monarchy would lose its Slavic territories if Serbia became any more powerful, and Tschirschky informed Berlin that Austria-Hungary was considering intervening against Serbia. Once again war loomed on the European horizon.

German leaders, their nerves strained by months of Balkan crises, were ambivalent about the prospect of their ally Austria-Hungary going to war just when a peaceful resolution seemed to have been achieved at the Conference of London; Kaiser Wilhelm II’s scribbled note on Tschirschky’s message read simply, “Completely crazy! So war after all!” But Germany was ready to back up her ally if it came to a fight.

The decisive factor keeping the peace this time was the attitude of Italy, the third member of the Triple Alliance. Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti foresaw that Austro-Hungarian intervention against Serbia would probably provoke Russia to act to protect its “Slavic brothers” in the Balkans, leading to a general European war, and instructed the Italian foreign minister, San Giuliano, to discourage Austria-Hungary from this dangerous course.

In a meeting on July 12, 1913, San Giuliano warned the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Rome, Kajetan von Mérey, that if Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia, it shouldn’t expect any help from Italy against Serbia’s ally Russia. True, under the terms of the Triple Alliance Italy was pledged to support Austria-Hungary if the latter were attacked—but the alliance was strictly defensive in nature, and if Austria-Hungary got itself embroiled in a conflict with Russia by attacking Serbia, Italy wouldn’t lift a finger.

In his report to Vienna, Mérey summarized San Giuliano’s warning and argument: “In view of the gravity of the situation he consulted with the Prime Minister and was obliged to inform me that Italy could not follow the Monarchy in this course. We should be seriously mistaken if we were to count on the passivity of Russia … the intervention of Russia would mean a European conflagration.” At the same time, “In the present case there is no question of imminent danger, nor in general of a serious threat to the existence of the Monarchy. These are hypothetical future perils which can be averted by quite other methods than war. An attack on Serbia by us would therefore constitute an offensive action … It would be impossible in this eventuality to want to invoke the Triple Alliance which is purely defensive in character…”

Austria-Hungary’s Count Berchtold took the hint and dropped the idea of war—for the time being, at least.

A Precedent Lost

In interpreting the terms of the Triple Alliance this way, Giolitti and San Giuliano were setting a precedent which could have helped avert disaster just over a year later: In July 1914, a similar warning, delivered in timely fashion, might have discouraged Vienna and Berlin from risking war, since they wouldn’t be able to count on Italy’s assistance.

The only problem was that Giolitti stepped down in March 1914, and was succeeded as prime minister by Antonio Salandra, a foreign policy novice who mostly followed San Giuliano’s lead. For his part, San Giuliano felt competent to manage Italy’s foreign affairs by himself; during the crisis of July 1914, he hoped to use the possibility of Italian cooperation as a bargaining chip to win territorial concessions from Austria-Hungary, so he never informed Salandra of the important precedent established in July 1913, when Giolitti put the brakes on Austria-Hungary’s plans for war. As a result the new prime minister didn’t realize it was possible—let alone urgently necessary—for Italy to make a similar intervention one year later.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

Scott Barbour/Getty Images
7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.


The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).


In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.


Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.


A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.


Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.


Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.


Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.


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