“A Leap In The Dark”

Main Lesson

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 129th installment in the series. 

July 14, 1914: “A Leap In the Dark” 

On July 14, 1914—the day Austria-Hungary’s leaders finally decided on war with Serbia—Germany’s Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg told his friend and advisor, the philosopher Kurt Riezler, that Germany was about to take “a leap in the dark” by backing the plan. But to be honest, Germany and Austria-Hungary were already operating in the dark, stepping on each other’s toes as they stumbled towards war.

By mid-July, Berlin and Vienna had agreed on exactly one thing: Austria-Hungary was going to use the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as a pretext to crush Serbia, which would (hopefully) end the threat of Pan-Slav nationalism once and for all. But all the critical details, including the timing of the attack, remained undecided.

To be fair, nothing was ever simple in Austria-Hungary, especially if it involved big decisions, which were avoided whenever possible. When an important decision simply had to be made, it required consultation and consent from both the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Empire. In this case, Imperial Foreign Minister Count Berchtold and chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf (both Austrians) had to convince Hungarian Premier Count István Tisza to support their war plan. But Tisza was not the kind of man to be maneuvered into a decision he disagreed with, even if it had the support of Emperor Franz Josef himself.

Wikimedia Commons (1, 2, 3

Following the first crown council on July 7, Tisza still had serious reservations about the plan to attack Serbia, warning it could easily lead to war with Serbia’s patron Russia. To reduce the risk, he demanded that Austria-Hungary first present its case diplomatically by documenting Serbian involvement followed by a “last chance” for Serbia to knuckle under. This was the origin of the ultimatum plan devised by Berchtold as a diplomatic fig leaf: Austria-Hungary would gather evidence of Serbian complicity and then present Belgrade with demands so outrageous the Serbs would have to reject them.

From July 10 to 14, 1914, everything finally came together to sway Tisza to the war party. First his demand for evidence was satisfied by the investigation of Baron Friedrich von Wiesner, who arrived in Sarajevo on July 11 and on July 13 sent a preliminary report that cleared Serbia’s government of involvement but traced the plot back to Serbian army officers, stating there was “hardly a doubt that the crime was resolved upon in Belgrade, and prepared with the cooperation of Serbian officials…" 

Around this time, the Austrians also received a promise of neutrality from Romania in the event of war, removing another source of hesitation for Tisza, who feared unrest in Hungary’s Romanian population. But the trump card was the attitude of Berlin. Tisza knew that Austria-Hungary depended on Germany for security, and Berchtold pounded home the message that Berlin expected Vienna to settle the Serbian problem now—and if it didn’t, the exasperated Germans might decide the alliance wasn’t worth the trouble.

The foreign minister could point to a string of messages from Berlin urging action (in a typically Byzantine ruse, Berchtold may have secretly asked the Germans to send these messages to help him convince Tisza). On July 12, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, Count Szőgyény, advised Vienna that “Kaiser Wilhelm and all other responsible personages here … invite us not to let the present moment pass but to take vigorous measures against Serbia and make a clean sweep of the revolutionary conspirators’ nest there once and for all.” As for the risk of a wider war, the Germans believed “It is by no means certain that if Serbia becomes involved in a war with us, Russia would resort to arms in her support… The German Government further believes it has sure indications that England at the present moment would not join in a war over a Balkan country…”

As a conservative nobleman, Tisza’s main goal was maintaining the traditional order, which above all meant preserving the Hapsburg monarchy, the source of all political legitimacy. On top of this and evidence of Serbian complicity, German pressure finally tipped the balance, and at a second meeting of the crown council on July 14, 1914, Tisza agreed to the plan for an ultimatum followed by war. This should have been cause for rejoicing in Vienna and Berlin—but now the allies found themselves at odds over timing, as the Germans pressed for immediate action and the Austrians pleaded for delay.

Critical Delays

The first problem was the discovery by chief of the general staff Conrad that a large part of Austria-Hungary’s military was away on summer leave until late July. Second, Berchtold and his fellow ministers knew that French President Raymond Poincaré and Premier René Viviani were due to visit France’s ally Russia from July 20-23; if the ultimatum became public while they were still guests of Tsar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg, the French and Russian leaders would be able to confer in person and work out a coordinated response to the Austrian gambit—exactly what Berchtold didn’t want. On the other hand, if Austria-Hungary waited until after the visit to send the ultimatum, the French leaders would be at sea and relatively isolated, as long-distance ship-to-shore radio communications were still dodgy at best. The sudden death of the Russian ambassador to Serbia, Baron Nicholas Hartwig, on July 10 could only add to the confusion (hugely obese, Hartwig died of a heart attack while visiting the Austro-Hungarian embassy, fueling gossip of a covert assassination).

Beginning with the crown council on July 14, the Austrians formulated a plan employing deception on a grand scale. They would deliver the ultimatum to Serbia on the evening of July 23, after Poincaré and Viviani were safely at sea, and give Belgrade 48 hours to respond, so they could proceed immediately to mobilization on July 25. Until then, however, Vienna and Berlin would avoid any hint of belligerence in order to lull Russia, France and Britain into a false sense of security. 

The Germans weren’t happy about Vienna’s decision to wait until late July, reasoning it was better to strike now in the hopes of catching the Triple Entente flat-footed. On July 11 Riezler recorded Bethmann-Hollweg’s attitude: “[The Austrians] apparently require a frightfully long time to mobilize… That is very dangerous. A quick fait accompli, and then friendly toward the Entente, then we could survive the shock.” In the same vein, on July 13 the German chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke (on vacation in Karlsbad, Bohemia) urged, “Austria must beat the Serbs and then make peace quickly.”

The Italian Question

Berlin and Vienna also disagreed on the critical question of whether to inform Italy, the unreliable third member of the Triple Alliance, about their plans. The only way Italy might be persuaded to join them in a war of aggression was the promise of territorial concessions—specifically Austria’s own ethnic Italian lands in the Trentino and Trieste (top and below, in red), long coveted by Italian nationalists as the final missing piece of a united Italy. But the Germans and Austrians didn’t see eye-to-eye on this issue: While the Germans were quite comfortable offering up chunks of their ally, the Austrians were understandably reluctant to give up lands that had been part of the Hapsburg patrimony for centuries. 

Main Lesson / Albanian Photography

As early as June 30, the German ambassador to Vienna, Tschirschky, urged Berchtold to consult Italy, and on July 2 he repeated the advice to Emperor Franz Josef, but the Austrians brushed off the German concerns. The issue reemerged in the following weeks, when it became clear Italy might not stand idly by if Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia. On July 10, Italy’s Foreign Minister San Giuliano (above) warned the German ambassador, Baron Ludwig von Flotow, that Italy would have to be compensated for any expansion by Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, naming Austrian Trentino as the price. Increasingly alarmed by the Italian attitude, on July 15 Germany’s Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow again urged Austria-Hungary to take Italy into her confidence in a message to Tschirschky, the German ambassador in Vienna:

There is no doubt in my mind that in an Austro-Serbian conflict, [Italian public opinion] would side with Serbia. A territorial extension of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, even a further spread of its influence in the Balkans, is viewed with horror in Italy and regarded as an injury to Italy’s position there… It is therefore in my opinion of the highest importance that Vienna should discuss with the Rome Cabinet the aims it proposes to pursue in the conflict and should bring it over to its side or… [at least] keep it strictly neutral… In strict confidence, the only compensation regarded as adequate in Italy would be the acquisition of the Trentino.

But once again, the German warnings fell on deaf ears in Vienna. Frustrated by Vienna’s repeated refusals, the Germans took matters into their own hands on July 11, when Flotow tried to get the ball rolling by secretly outlining Austria-Hungary’s plans in a meeting with Foreign Minister San Giuliano. Even worse from the Austro-Hungarian (and later German) perspective, the leak began spreading as San Giuliano sent telegrams to Italy’s ambassadors across Europe, warning that Austria-Hungary was planning something big. Because all the Great Powers routinely eavesdropped on diplomatic communications, Russian intelligence probably decrypted the Italian messages and informed Russian diplomats, who in turn spread the word to France and Britain. Thus Poincaré and Viviani likely knew something was afoot when they met the tsar and his ministers from July 20 to 23, giving them plenty of time to coordinate their response. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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