CLOSE
Original image

Missed Signals

Original image

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons (1, 2, 3), Austro-Hungarian-Army.co.uk

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 130th installment in the series.

July 16-18, 1914: Missed Signals

By July 14, 1914, Austria-Hungary had decided to attack Serbia and enlisted the support of her ally Germany, all under a cloak of secrecy meant to keep Europe’s other Great Powers unaware, unprepared, and ultimately uninvolved. But the news leaked thanks to the German ambassador at Rome, Baron Flotow, who hinted what was going on to Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano on July 11. San Giuliano telegraphed the news to Italy’s ambassadors across Europe, and the message was apparently intercepted by Russian spies, who soon spread the word. In short, the secret plan was no longer secret, at least in elite diplomatic circles, meaning there was still a good chance to avert disaster—but tragically, during this crucial period European diplomats on all sides missed important signals. The cost of their mistakes would be tallied in millions of lives.

Brushing Off the Russians

On July 16, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, Nikolai Shebeko, reported:

Information reaches me that the Austro-Hungarian Government… intends to make certain demands on Belgrade, claiming that there is a connection between the question of the Sarajevo outrage and the Pan-Serb agitation within the confines of the Monarchy. In so doing it reckons on the non-intervention of Russia… It would seem to me desirable that… the Vienna cabinet should be informed how Russia would react…

Sazonov didn’t see Shebeko’s telegram until July 18, when he returned from a brief vacation at his country estate, but he then summoned Austria-Hungary’s ambassador to St. Petersburg, Count Frigyes Szapáry, to warn him Russia could “in no circumstances agree to any blow to Serbia's independence.” However, Austria-Hungary continued to ignore the Russian warnings, instead heeding the advice of Germany, where the German undersecretary for foreign affairs, Arthur Zimmerman (above, left), expressed confidence Russia was bluffing and would ultimately be restrained by France and Britain.

British Omissions

For this to work, however, France and Britain would first have to know what was happening between Austria-Hungary and Russia. This was another area where key signals were missed—especially by the British government, still distracted by the Irish crisis.

On July 16, the British ambassador to Austria-Hungary, Sir Maurice de Bunsen, reported:

I gather that … a kind of indictment is being prepared against the Serbian government for alleged complicity in the conspiracy … and that Austro-Hungarian Government are in no mood to parley with Serbia, but will insist on immediate unconditional compliance, failing which force will be used. Germany is said to be in complete agreement with this procedure.

Two days later, the British ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanan, reported that Sazonov warned him, “Anything in the shape of an Austrian ultimatum at Belgrade could not leave Russia indifferent and she might be forced to take some precautionary military measures.”

These reports from British ambassadors clearly showed that Austria-Hungary and Russia were on a collision course. But Prime Minister Asquith and Foreign Secretary Grey (above, second from left) were reluctant as ever to get embroiled in continental affairs, especially when their attention was focused on the Irish issue. In fact Grey didn’t even meet with the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to London, Count Mensdorff, until July 23—when it was already too late.

Meanwhile, from July 15 to 20, French President Raymond Poincaré and Premier René Viviani were at sea aboard the battleship France, headed for a long-planned conference with Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers in St. Petersburg. Although the French leaders weren’t totally incommunicado, long-distance ship-to-shore radio communications were still patchy (even with the benefit of the powerful Eiffel Tower transmitter), so their ability to get news during this period was limited.

Determined Germans

The British weren’t the only ones ignoring their own ambassadors. The German government had a habit of simply not listening to bad news from foreign countries, especially if the country in question happened to be Britain. Even worse, Berlin often withheld information from its ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky (above, second from right), who was viewed as an unreliable “Anglophile.” Nonetheless, on July 18 German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow sent a long message to Lichnowsky secretly explaining that

Austria… intends now to come to a settlement with Serbia and has conveyed this intention to us… We must see to localizing the conflict between Austria and Serbia. Whether this is possible will depend in the first place on Russia and in the second place on the moderating influence of the other members of the Entente…  at bottom Russia is not now ready to strike. France and England will not want war now.

But Lichnowsky replied that Berlin was too optimistic about localizing the conflict: “Hence the chief thing seems to me that the Austrian demands should be worded in such a manner that with some pressure on Belgrade … they will be acceptable, not in such a manner that they will necessarily lead to war…” His forecast was correct, but the suggestion to soften the ultimatum showed he was still in the dark about the true nature of the plan: Vienna wanted Belgrade to reject the ultimatum, because Vienna wanted war.

Ostrich Austrians

Last but not least, the Austrians themselves were displaying some ostrich-like behavior by sticking their heads in the sand about Italy. Berlin was urging Vienna to cede Austria’s ethnic Italian territories of Trentino and Trieste to get Rome to join them, or at least remain neutral, and cautioned that Italy might join their enemies if they didn’t. But Emperor Franz Josef wasn’t inclined to start dismembering his empire—that was kind of the whole point—and Vienna breezily dismissed a series of Italian warnings conveyed by German diplomats.

On July 16, the German ambassador to Rome, Flotow, reported to Foreign Secretary Jagow in Berlin: “I regard it as hopeless if Austria, in view of the danger, does not pull herself together and realize that if she means to take any territory [from Serbia] she must give Italy compensation. Otherwise Italy will attack her in the rear.” Increasingly alarmed, on July 18 Jagow instructed the German ambassador to Vienna, Tschirschky, to advise the Austrians (again) “that an Austrian attack on Serbia would not only meet with a most unfavorable reception in Italy but would probably encounter direct opposition.”

However, Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Berchtold insisted—probably disingenuously—that Austria-Hungary had no territorial ambitions in Serbia, and therefore owed Italy nothing in the way of compensation. He was also receiving more positive reports from the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Rome, Kajetan von Mérey (who had suffered a nervous breakdown after the assassination of the Archduke, and was only now pulling himself together—above, right). Mérey was sanguine in his message of July 18, admitting Italy would be angry but predicting it wouldn’t come to a fight: thus, “I do not in any sense plead for previous consultations and negotiations with the Italian cabinet.”

In truth, Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano was also partly to blame. An elder statesman, he treated foreign policy as his personal bailiwick and often made decisions without consulting other members of the Italian government. After learning the basic outlines of the Austrian plan on July 11, he decided to use the mounting crisis to extract territorial concessions from Austria-Hungary, rather than coming right out and telling Vienna to back off, as he had a year before. Even worse, he never informed Prime Minister Salandra (a foreign policy novice) about the July 1913 precedent, so Salandra didn’t realize Italy had the option of telling Austria-Hungary not to go it alone.

Disturbed Serbs

If there was one country that heard the message loud and clear, it was Serbia herself. As early as July 15, the Serbian ambassador to Vienna, Jovan Jovanović, warned Belgrade that Austria-Hungary was preparing something big, and on July 18, Prime Minister Pašić (currently a political “lame duck,” but still technically in charge) ordered Serbia’s army to begin calling up reservists. The same day Slavko Gruić, secretary general of the Serbian foreign ministry, assured the unforgettably named British charge d’affaires in Belgrade, Dayrell Crackanthorpe, that “Serbia would not stand alone. Russia would not remain quiet if Serbia were wantonly attacked… Under present conditions a war between a Great Power and a Balkan state must inevitably … lead to a European conflagration.”

Ordinary Folks Smell Smoke

While diplomats on all sides did their best to project calm, by mid-July even some “ordinary” (albeit particularly perceptive) people were noticing something was afoot. On July 14, the French newspaper Le Figaro noted that newspapers in Austria-Hungary were whipping up public opinion against Serbia, and two days later Mildred Aldrich, an American journalist and author who’d just moved to a small village east of Paris, wrote in a letter to a friend: “Alas! I find that I cannot break myself of reading the newspapers, and reading them eagerly.  It is all the fault of that nasty affair in Servia…  It is a nasty outlook.  We are simply holding our breaths here.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Pop Culture
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
Original image
iStock

At its best, Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’ Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY

John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of this year and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In June, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE

Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
Original image
iStock

They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios