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 August, 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 121st installment in the series.
June 13, 1914: Franz Ferdinand Wants Peace in the Balkans
Depending who you ask, the meeting on June 12-13, 1914 between Kaiser Wilhelm II and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, was either a war council—or the exact opposite. Actually it was probably a little bit of both.
The German emperor was supposedly just paying a friendly visit to the Archduke’s beautiful chateau in Konopischt, Bohemia (today Konopiště, Czech Republic, above), where they could go hunting and stroll in the estate’s enormous rose gardens. But the real purpose was to get Wilhelm—and thus Germany—on board for Austria-Hungary’s new strategy in the Balkans.
Like all good strategies, this involved a number of contingency plans, including the possibility of war against Serbia, should the truculent Slavic kingdom refuse to bend to Austria-Hungary’s will. Thus Franz Ferdinand asked Wilhelm if Germany would support Austria-Hungary if she moved against Serbia, and probably received assurances that Germany would stand by her ally, in line with Wilhelm’s previous statements (the record here is unclear).
But whatever Wilhelm’s response, the June 13 exchange was hardly evidence of a plot to attack Serbia in the near future, as some historians later interpreted it. For his part the Archduke still opposed war with Serbia, and only inquired about Germany’s attitude at the request of Emperor Franz Josef, who in turn was probably prompted by Foreign Minister Berchtold and chief of the general staff Conrad. If Franz Ferdinand had anything to say about it, this scenario would remain strictly hypothetical.
In fact the Archduke was sympathetic to Austria-Hungary’s Slavic peoples, and hoped to reconcile them to Hapsburg rule (thereby neutralizing the Serbian threat) by reforming the empire—either by adding a third monarchy representing the Slavs, or reinventing it as a federal state with more autonomy at the local level. The obstacle in both cases was certain opposition from the Hungarians, who wielded disproportionate power in the Dual Monarchy and refused to grant their non-Hungarian subjects more rights.
Indeed Franz Ferdinand warned Wilhelm that the Hungarians weren’t just antagonizing the Slavs: the powerful Hungarian Premier István Tisza was also creating a huge foreign policy headache with his repressive measures against Hungary’s ethnic Romanian population, which in turn alienated the neighboring Kingdom of Romania—long associated with the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, but now drifting to the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and Britain. In fact the Romanians were about to host Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II and Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov in a state visit to the Black Sea port of Constanța—yet another ominous development.
The main message the Archduke communicated to the Kaiser on June 13 concerned this complicated situation and what Germany could do to help solve it. Vienna was cultivating an alliance with Bulgaria as a counterweight to Romania, he confided, but the best thing would be to keep Romania in the Triple Alliance, reconcile her with Bulgaria, and thus form a new balance of power that would intimidate Serbia and lock Russia out of the Balkans. To accomplish this, however, the Hungarians had to stop mistreating their own Romanians—and Franz Ferdinand believed the only way Tisza might yield on this issue was if Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally, Germany, sent a clear message that Hungary needed to moderate its domestic policies in order to keep Romania friendly.
The Kaiser promised he would speak to Tisza when he saw him next, but the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 changed everything—clearing the way for war against Serbia and putting the Romanian question on the back burner, where it remained until it finally boiled over in the middle of the Great War.
Meanwhile, Russian intelligence caught wind of the meeting and passed on selected details—specifically, Wilhelm’s promise to support Austria-Hungary if it attacked Serbia—to the chief of Serbian military intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević (codename Apis), who would later try to justify the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on the grounds that he was a warmonger preparing a surprise attack on Serbia. Of course this was the exact opposite of the truth, and anyway the plot had been put in motion long before the meeting at Konopischt; in short Dimitrijević was probably just looking for excuses after the fact.
New French Government Upholds Three-Year Service Law
In France, June 13, 1914 brought the resolution the worst political crisis experienced by the Third Republic since the infamous Dreyfus Affair. Following the victory of the leftist Radicals and Socialists in elections held in April and May, 1914, the stage was set for an all-in battle over the controversial Three-Year Service Law of 1913, which aimed to increase the size of France’s standing army by extending the term of service for army conscripts from two to three years. The leftists were determined to overturn the law but President Poincaré, a conservative, was equally determined to preserve it.
In the first weeks of June 1914 Poincaré tried again and again to find someone in the new left-dominated Chamber of Deputies who could form a new government that would uphold the law—but failed repeatedly. On June 12 his most recent candidate for Premier, the moderate Alexandre Ribot, was hooted down in the Chamber amid calls for the end of the Three-Year Service Law. But the amusement was wearing off and French public opinion was starting to turn against the entire political class, which seemed incapable of fulfilling even the most basic tasks of government—a feeling familiar to 21st century Americans. As newspapers across the political spectrum heaped ridicule on the Chamber of Deputies, opposition among the Radicals (who despite their name were actually moderate compared to the Socialists) began to crumble, raising hope of a compromise.
It fell to René Viviani, Poincare’s first choice for premier a few weeks before, to form a new government through some political sleight-of-hand, otherwise known as lying. On June 13, 1914 Viviani formed a new cabinet dominated by moderate leftists who told their constituents they were committed to overturning the Three-Year Service Law – but then reversed their position as soon as the Chamber voted to approve the cabinet. Indignant, the Socialists withdrew their support, but the Radicals were able to muster enough votes to keep the government in power. The Three-Year Service Law was safe … for now.
“Russia is Ready, France Must Be Ready Too!”
Upholding the Three-Year Service Law was crucial to preserving France’s alliance with Russia, the cornerstone of French national security. Just in case anyone forgot was at stake, on June 13, 1914 the Russian war minister, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, published an anonymous op-ed in Birzheye Vedomosti, a Russian newspaper that often served as an official mouthpiece, titled “Russia is Ready, France Must Be Ready Too!”
The article pointed out that Russia was building strategic railroads and preparing to increase its standing army to 2.3 million men and urged France to maintain the Three-Year Service Law, raising the French standing army to 770,000 men. Only then could would they have a decisive advantage against Germany and and Austria-Hungary, with standing armies of 880,000 and 500,000, respectively.
Sukhomlinov’s opinion piece sent a clear message to friend and foe alike, including Germany, where its inflammatory rhetoric only stoked paranoia about encirclement. When Kaiser Wilhelm received a translated version he scribbled angry notes in the margins, noting that Russia’s strategic railroads were “All against Germany!” and concluding “Well! Finally the Russians have shown their hand. Any person in Germany who does not now believe that the Russo-Gauls are not working together at high tension for a war with us very soon and that we should take corresponding counter-measures deserves to be sent to the lunatic asylum…”
A few days alter Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg passed the article along to the German ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky, with this gloomy note: “The reaction on German public opinion has been unmistakable and serious. Whereas formerly, it was only the extremists among the Pan-Germans and militarists who urged that Russia was making systematic preparation for a war of aggression upon us very soon, even moderate public men are now inclined to this view…”