Missed Signals

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
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.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios