WWI Centennial: 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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