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The Ultimatum Plan

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 128th installment in the series.

July 7-9, 1914: The Ultimatum Plan

After receiving promises of German support for their planned war against Serbia, on July 7, 1914 Emperor Franz Josef left for his summer retreat at Bad Ischl while his council of ministers met again in Vienna to consider their options. But first there was one more person who had to be persuaded: the Hungarian Premier Count István Tisza (left).

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As the political leader of the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy, the approval of this elder statesman was indispensable, and it was by no means certain they would get it: The conservative Magyar aristocrats who ran Hungary felt their kingdom already included too many restive Slavs, and as their representative Tisza was bound to oppose any plan that involved annexing Serbian territory. This presented a conundrum, as the Austrians intended to eliminate Serbia as an independent state. So where, exactly, would it go?

Foreign Minister Berchtold (center) hit on a clever solution, promising Tisza that Austria-Hungary would not take any territory for itself; instead, most of Serbia’s lands would be turned over to its neighbors, Bulgaria and Albania, and a puppet government installed for whatever was left (top). This promise may have been disingenuous—after expending blood and treasure, Vienna was unlikely to give up its gains so easily—but it placated the Hungarian premier, who could now reassure his constituents the Empire wasn’t going to absorb any more Slavs.

To accommodate Tisza, Berchtold also gave up his idea of a surprise attack on Serbia, which the Hungarian premier warned would provoke Russia, and agreed to Tisza’s demand that they instead use diplomacy to engineer a plausible pretext for war. Tisza explained his conditions in a letter to Emperor Franz Josef on July 8:

Any such attack on Serbia would, as far as can humanly be foreseen, bring upon the scene the intervention of Russia and with it a world war … Hence in my opinion Serbia should be given the opportunity to avoid war by means of a severe diplomatic defeat, and if war were to result after all, it must be demonstrated before the eyes of all the world that we stand on a basis of legitimate self-defense…

This was the origin of the ultimatum plan, a tricky stratagem intended to make it look like Austria-Hungary sought a peaceful resolution before resorting to force. Basically, Berchtold proposed sending Belgrade an ultimatum with conditions so outrageous the Serbs could never accept them, giving Austria-Hungary the excuse it needed for war. Above all, Berchtold and chief of the general staff Conrad (right) agreed, Austria-Hungary had to avoid being forced into a negotiated solution by the other Great Powers, as it had at the Conference of London. This time, they were going to deal with Serbia once and for all.

One big question remained: Would Russia come to Serbia’s rescue? The Austrians and Germans tried to persuade themselves it wouldn’t for a number of reasons—some more convincing than others. For one thing, they hoped Tsar Nicholas II would refuse to take the side of assassins, especially as several of his predecessors had been murdered. They also guessed that while Russia was arming rapidly, it wasn’t yet prepared for war. Finally, they expected France and Britain to exercise a restraining influence on their ally.

All these assumptions proved false. True, Nicholas II was no friend to regicides, but Serbia had a king of its own and the Russians could always dispute the evidence linking Sarajevo to Serbia. Second, although Russia remained far from her ideal strength, in January and February 1914, the tsar’s ministers concluded they were ready for war with Germany and Austria-Hungary on land. Third, far from exerting a restraining influence, ever since the Second Moroccan Crisis the French had been urging Russia to be more assertive. Finally, the Germans and Austrians failed to appreciate that Russia (having alienated Bulgaria) couldn’t afford to lose Serbia, its sole remaining ally in the Balkans.

In truth, they never quite bought their own arguments anyway. On July 6, the same day Kaiser Wilhelm II assured acting Navy Minister Capelle he “did not anticipate major military complications,” the German undersecretary for foreign affairs, Arthur Zimmerman, told Alexander von Hoyos, the Austro-Hungarian emissary who obtained German backing for war, “Yes, 90 percent probability for a European war if you undertake something against Serbia.” The next day, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg admitted to his friend Kurt Riezler that an attack on Serbia “can lead to a world war,” and Berchtold in Vienna told the council of ministers “he was clear in his own mind that a war with Russia would be the most probable consequence of entering Serbia.” (He later doctored the minutes to say war “might” result.) 

How can we make sense of this strange “double-think,” in which the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary seemed to hold two contradictory ideas in their minds at the same time? In the end, it may have reflected the sense of fatalism prevailing in both capitals. Berlin and Vienna clearly hoped Russia would stay out of a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia—but also rationalized that if Russia took Serbia’s side, it would be an opportunity to settle accounts with the great eastern empire before she grew any stronger. In the same vein, they hoped France and Britain wouldn’t come to Russia’s aid—but if they did, it was merely proof Germany and Austria-Hungary were victims of a conspiracy of encirclement, which they had to break through before it was too late.

German fear of encirclement always loomed in the background. On July 7, 1914, Riezler recorded his impressions of his talk with Bethmann-Hollweg:

The secret reports that he shares with me present an alarming picture. He regards the Anglo-Russian naval staff talks … as very serious, the last link in the chain … Russia’s military power growing fast; their strategic construction [of railroads] in Poland making them unstoppable. Austria grows ever weaker and more immobile … The future belongs to Russia, which grows and grows into an ever greater weight pressing down on our chest. 

In this context, following years of mounting anxiety and confrontation, the decision for war emerged with inexorable logic and developed an irresistible momentum all its own; the hand of Fate was beginning to move, and as Bethmann-Hollweg warned Riezler, the outcome would mean “the overthrow of everything that exists.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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Star Wars Premiered 41 Years Ago … and the Reviews Weren’t Always Kind
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A long time ago (41 years, to be exact) in a galaxy just like this one, George Lucas was about to make cinematic history—whether he knew it or not. On May 25, 1977, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Star Wars, Lucas’s long-simmering space opera that would help define the concept of the Hollywood “blockbuster.” While we're still talking about the film today, and its many sequels and spinoffs (hello, Solo), not every film critic would have guessed just how ingrained into the pop culture fabric Star Wars would become. While it charmed plenty of critics, some of the movie’s original reviews were less than glowing. Here are a few of our favorites (the good, the bad, and the Wookiee):

"Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star."

—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood."

—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."

—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

“There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp—that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

—Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal

Star Wars … is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach Star Wars, though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Viewed dispassionately—and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time—Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

—Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!”

—John Simon, New York Magazine

"Star Wars is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue, but from a technical standpoint, it is an absolutely breathtaking achievement. The special effects experts who put Lucas' far-out fantasies on film—everything from a gigantic galactic war machine to a stunningly spectacular World War II imitation dogfight—are Oscar-worthy wizards of the first order. And, for his own part, Lucas displays an incredibly fertile imagination—an almost Fellini-like fascination with bizarre creatures.”

—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

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