WWI Centennial: Austrians Decide on War With Serbia

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 126th installment in the series.

July 2, 1914: Austrians Decide on War with Serbia 

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, shocked Europe—but few, if any, guessed it would trigger the greatest war in history. And yet, by the first days of July, the wheels of fate had already been set in motion by a handful of powerful men meeting behind closed doors in Vienna. 

At first, in the immediate aftermath of the Sarajevo murders, it appeared compromise and accommodation might smooth over a serious—but not necessarily catastrophic—diplomatic crisis. Most informed observers expected Austria-Hungary to make some tough demands on Serbia, which would have to make obeisance. Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić (who tried to foil the conspiracy) moved to placate Austria-Hungary by condemning the crime and sending condolences to Vienna. On the other side the German ambassador to Vienna, Heinrich von Tschirschky, warned the Austrians against “hasty measures.” But when the plotters were interrogated, it didn’t take long for the Austrian authorities to uncover the role of Serbian army officers. 

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Plenty of people already guessed that Serbia was entangled with the assassination: On July 1, the French ambassador to Belgrade, Léon Descos, noted in a letter to Paris that the Serbian nationalist movement had “allowed itself to be dragged by the military-party towards new methods and objectives… The very circumstances of the crime betray the existence of a national organization the ends of which are easy to imagine.” And the Serbian charge d’affaires in Paris later admitted that the Black Hand “were so powerful and had succeeded so well in concealing their actions… that it was impossible to stop them… Pašić knew! We all knew! But nothing could be done.” 

So while the Austrians weren’t quite clear on the structure of the conspiracy, they were basically correct in connecting the assassins to officials in Belgrade, including Milan Ciganović and Major Vojislav Tankosić, the right-hand man to Apis. And that was enough to bring the world tumbling down.

Whatever he might say in public, Pašić, for one, guessed what was coming, gloomily predicting on the afternoon of June 28, “It is very bad, it will mean war.” The next day, he ordered Ciganović, who had helped the plotters while also serving as an informer inside the Black Hand, smuggled out of Serbia to Montenegro to keep him out of reach of investigators.

But before the investigation even began, the Austrians had already decided to settle accounts with Serbia. The prime movers were the bellicose chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf (top, center), and Foreign Minister Berchtold (top, right), who agreed on war against Serbia no later than July 2, and immediately set to work convincing Emperor Franz Josef (top, left).

Their cooperation reflected a new alignment. At first, Berchtold—who freely admitted he knew little of Balkan affairs on his appointment as foreign minister in February 1912—believed that Austria-Hungary could deal with Serbia without resorting to violence. But from 1912-1914, he grew increasingly frustrated with the intractable Serbs and used the threat of military action to force Serbia to give up Albania in December 1912, then to force Serbia’s sidekick Montenegro to give up the strategic city of Scutari in May 1913, and again to force Serbia to withdraw troops from eastern Albania in September 1913.

And still it went on: In the spring of 1914, the Austrian foreign minister suspected (correctly) that the Serbs were covertly supporting Esad Pasha Toptani, a powerful Albanian clan leader and former Ottoman officer, who organized a rebellion against the Prince of Wied, Berchtold’s preferred candidate for the Albanian throne. Berchtold was also alarmed by rumors that Serbia would absorb Montenegro, gaining access to the sea and setting the stage for the final struggle to free the Dual Monarchy’s Southern Slavic peoples. In short, the assassination of the Archduke was just the latest in an ongoing series of provocations by Serbia, all exacerbating the “real issue”—the rebellious mood among the empire’s own South Slavs, who looked to their ethnic kinsmen for liberation. In this context, Conrad’s repeated calls for war against Serbia became more and more persuasive; the outrage in Sarajevo simply provided the pretext. 

Of course, Berchtold and Conrad weren’t the sole decision-makers—but Emperor Franz Josef was also leaning towards war. Meeting with the German ambassador Tschirschky on July 2, he said he needed to confer with Kaiser Wilhelm II, “For I see the future very black… and conditions [in the Balkans] grow more disquieting every day. I do not know if we can continue any longer to look on passively and I hope that your Kaiser also measures the menace which the adjacency of Serbia signifies for the Monarchy.” To this Tschirschky replied, “His Majesty can surely rely on finding Germany solidly behind the Monarchy as soon as there is a question of defending one of its vital interests.”

Tschirschky had obviously changed his tune from just a few days before, reflecting new orders from Berlin, which shared Vienna’s fears that Slavic nationalism would undermine Austria-Hungary—leaving Germany to face the Triple Entente of France, Russia and Britain alone. As early as October 1913, the Kaiser assured Berchtold, “The Slavs are born not to rule but to obey… Belgrade shall be bombarded and occupied until the will of His Majesty [Franz Josef] has been carried out. And you can be sure that I will back you and am ready to draw the saber any time your action makes it necessary.”

Now Wilhelm, traumatized by the loss of his friend Franz Ferdinand, issued a sharp reprimand to Tschirschky for advising restraint in Vienna, scribbling in the margins of the ambassador’s June 30 report: “Will Tschirschky have the goodness to drop this nonsense! It is high time a clean sweep was made of the Serbs,” adding, “Now or never!” In the same vein, on July 1, Victor Naumann, a German publicist with close ties to Foreign Secretary Jagow, visited Vienna and told Berchtold’s chief of staff, Count Hoyos, that “after the Sarajevo murder, it was a matter of life and death for the Monarchy not to leave this crime unpunished but to annihilate Serbia… Austria-Hungary will be finished as a Monarchy and as a Great Power if she does not take advantage of this moment.”

Through formal and informal channels, Germany was already urging Austria-Hungary to act. The next step was for Count Hoyos to carry a personal letter from Franz Josef to Wilhelm, formally asking for German support for the planned reckoning with Serbia. But it was already clear that Berlin and Vienna were in agreement about Serbia; the key question was whether Russia would come to Serbia’s aid, increasing the chances of a much wider conflict. Here, in the first of a series of fatal mistakes, the German and Austrian leadership were confident that the war could be “localized,” meaning limited to Austria-Hungary and Serbia.

Meanwhile, the rest of the continent remained oblivious to the gathering storm. July was holiday season, and many members of the European elite had already left sweltering cities for country estates, health spas, and beachside retreats. The junior officials who remained behind to man the desks had even less of an idea what was brewing. Hugh Gibson, the new secretary to the U.S. embassy in the Belgian capital of Brussels, wrote in his diary on July 4: “For the last two years I have looked forward to just such a post as this, where nothing ever happens, where there is no earthly chance of being called out of bed in the middle of the night to see the human race brawling over its differences.” At the end of that fateful month Gibson felt it necessary to clarify: “No, my recent remarks about nothing ever happening in Brussels were not intended as sarcasm.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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