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).

Wikimedia Commons

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.

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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