A Crisis the World Didn’t Know Existed
On 4 July 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofie were buried at their estate of Artstetten. Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary didn’t even attend the funeral of his nephew and heir. Royal gossip in Europe was well aware that the Archduke had been disliked by the Emperor. Franz Josef and his court had taken every available opportunity to treat the Archduke’s wife Sofie as low-level trash. They were dismissive and rude, and seemed to enjoy bullying the couple into humiliations and forced-conforming to regulations that were often overblown and made-up.
So when Franz Ferdinand and Sofie were murdered by gunshot wounds in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Franz Josef was more relieved than fraught with the loss of a loved family member.
History states that it was this assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne and his wife was the trigger that started a war that would soon engulf the entire Western World and their colonies in the most bloody conflict the world had ever seen. But was it really?
Two weeks before the assassination of the Archduke, the Austrian Foreign Minister circulated a memo that called for the complete destruction of Serbia. This memo was included in a package Austria sent to Germany to justify attacking Serbia. Austria-Hungary had long seen the Pan-Slav movement active in Serbia as agitation aimed to destabilize Austria-Hungary’s influence in the Balkans and possibly rip apart the Empire itself. The letter stated that the only way to save Austria-Hungary was to “…eliminate Serbia as a state.”
Quite a lot of the reasoning behind eliminating Serbia was settled firmly at the door of the Russian Empire. Russia had long considered itself the protector of the Slav people, often referring to other Slavs and Slav nations as “brother”. They were assembling a Slav alliance that would involve Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece. This alliance would be firmly pitted against Austria-Hungary. Russia had been fighting Austro-Hungarian influence in a proxy war for nearly 100 years by supporting the Karađorđević royal family in Serbia over the more Austrian-leaning Obrenović family, support that led to the bloody murder of the last Obrenović king and his wife, murdered by the same organization that would be behind the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
It certainly didn’t help matters that the Serbian people were celebrating the death of Franz Ferdinand. Unloved as the Archduke had been, Franz Josef could not let the disrespect of his assassination stand. As Conrad von Hotzendorf, Chief of the Military said in regards to Serbia, “If you have a poisonous adder at your heel, you stamp on its head. You don’t wait for it to bite.” To Austria-Hungary, every action Serbia took – before and after the assassination – was just more proof that the Serbian state needed to be dispensed with.
The world was shocked, of course, when the Archduke was assassinated. It filled headlines in nearly every nation. Few knew the machinations going on behind the scenes, however; and other than the elites at the helm, everyone assumed that reactions would be limited to a localized affair where Austria-Hungary would deal with the recalcitrant Serbia forthwith. As July stretched on, the world that was not privy to the behind-the-scenes dealings of the great powers took their holidays, lounged on beaches, and continued on.
Most people weren’t privy to the Dual Alliance treaty between Austria-Hungary and Germany which stated that in the even that either of them were attacked by Russia, the other state would come to their aid.
Average people were also not aware that Russia and France had signed their own pact, the Franco-Russian Military Convention of 1892, that guaranteed the two nations would support each other in the event of an attack by either Germany or Austria-Hungary.
Even the Austrians and Germans were unaware that Italy, which had signed on to the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany had signed yet another treaty with France on the side that effectively took them out of the war equation.
And since most of the world was unaware that Germany’s war plans called for attacking France by going through Belgium, no one thought to consider that the 1839 Treaty of London was a British assurance of Belgian neutrality.
The dominos were in place behind the ornate curtain of the stiffly formal and ornate Edwardian era.
From the moment of the assassination, Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm himself urged Austria to act quickly and decisively. Such action could, it was believed, keep the fighting local to Serbia. Most of the world was horrified by the assassination, and so Austria could capitalize on that good will and sideswipe the first domino before it could fall back and start a chain reaction. Wilhelm was urging Austria to act as early as 4 July. But still, Austria dithered.
By 14 July an ultimatum was being drafted by the Austrian government to demand reparations for Serbia’s role in Franz Ferdinand’s death. The ultimatum was not designed to be accepted. As one German government official said, “[The ultimatum demands] were really of such a nature that no nation that still possessed self-respect and dignity could possibly accept them.”
But still the Austro-Hungarian government dithered in delivering their demands. Meanwhile, the other nations of Europe began to solidify their positions.
Telegrams flew back and forth all over the continent, and particularly between Austria and Germany. Germany continued to urge Austria to act quickly and decisively, while also corresponding with Russia to appear to be trying to head war off from that direction. The rush to start a war on the German side was not as much of a rush as it seemed – many German officials believed that the Teuton and Slav races were destined to fight in a race war for domination of Europe. The last hundred years had been building to this final showdown, and they were happy to have Austria do the triggering.
Russia saw right through the German manipulations, understanding that the crisis was being used by Germany to increase their regional power. The Russians also didn’t want to see their own behind-the-scenes manipulations of the Balkans be for naught, as they would if Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and absorbed it into their sphere of influence as an Austro-Hungarian protectorate. And finally, Russia was well aware that it had backed down from German aggressions in the past, actions that had only encouraged Germany to push even harder.
In short, Russia wasn’t going to tell Serbia to thumb their nose at Austria, but they weren’t going to stand idly by and lose carefully cultivated influence in the Balkan region, either. They had been positioning themselves as the protectors of world Slavs, and now that position was being tested. They didn’t dare come up short.
On July 23, in a bit of political theater that everyone saw immediately saw through, the entire German military and political leadership went on holiday. When the Austro-Hungarian government delivered their ultimatum to Serbia, the Germans were shocked, SHOCKED, that such a thing would go down.
The ultimatum was never meant to be accepted. It demanded that Serbia suppress all publications expressing antagonism toward Austria-Hungary, demanded Serbia dissolve all nationalist organizations within their own country, demanded that anything deemed anti-Austro-Hungarian propaganda be eliminated from textbooks and public documents immediately, demanded that specific Serbian civil servants and military leaders be removed from office, allow Austro-Hungarian representatives in to monitor and help disband “subversive movements”, arrest specific members of the Serbian government, and to allow Austro-Hungarian police carte-blanche within the borders of Serbia to investigate and arrest anyone who might have been involved in the assassination. The Austrians, egged on by the Germans, did not want a resolution. They wanted war. And Serbia had only 48 hours to try to remedy the situation.
Despondent, Crown Prince Alexander visited the Russian delegation that night to discuss the ultimatum. The Russians encouraged him to accept everything to avoid war. Meanwhile, they urged Austria to extend the deadline and to release their own official inquiry results as to the assassination. This the Austro-Hungarians did not wish to do, as the inquiry found no concrete evidence that the Serbian government had been involved, a finding that greatly diminished the Austrian position that Serbia must be punished.
Britain also jumped into the fray at this point, offering to mediate between the nations. Kaiser Wilhelm viewed the offer as “condescending.” At this point Winston Churchill saw the writing on the wall, “Europe is trembling on the verge of a general war. The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia being the most insolent document of its kind ever devised.”
The Russian ambassador to Great Britain agreed, “Only a government that wanted war could possibly write such a note.”
On 25 July Serbia submitted its answer to Austria. They accepted all demands except one – it would violate their national sovereignty too much to allow Austro-Hungarian police to operate with impunity on Serbian soil. The Serbians had already started mobilizing their army, not recovered from the recent Balkan Wars.
Russia also began mobilizing her troops and announced that they would not be able to remain “uninterested” if Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia.
Austria-Hungary was mobilizing her troops as well, and massing them in Bosnia on the Serbian border.
Finally, at 11 am on 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The dominos began to topple. The first shots of the war were fired less than 24 hours later, when the SMS Bodrog bombarded Belgrade in response to Serbian sappers blowing up a critical railway bridge over the Sava River on the border with Bosnia. The world now knew that there would be war.
“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey on 3 August 1914.
The guns of August were ready to sound.