by Stephen Yellin
Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie in Sarajevo by a Bosnian terrorist – the spark that led to World War I and the horrific repercussions of that conflict (Hitler, Stalin, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, Middle East instability and more). I greatly appreciate the warm reception of my article on Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Inspired by this I've written today’s story: for today marks the 100th anniversary of another pivotal point leading to the “Great War”: Germany’s decision to give Austria-Hungary free reign to invade Serbia in retaliation for the killings – the infamous “blank check”.
While the impact of Germany’s decision is well known, the events that led to the “check” being issued are much less so. Who were the prime movers and why did they act as they did? Was the “blank check” truly as open-ended as it suggests? And could a wider European war been averted had events turned out differently?
(Note: my sources include 2 recent books on the run up to World War I - Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings and The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan)
An Unequal Alliance
Everyone who’s had to read a world history textbook in school probably remembers that there were 2 groups of “alliances” in pre-1914 Europe: the “Triple Entente” of France, Russia and (reluctantly) the United Kingdom, and the “Triple Alliance” of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Yet these rival blocs were less united that history shows; Italy wriggled its way out of the Triple Alliance when war came in August 1914 while the UK was frequently at loggerheads with Russia over imperial control of Iran and the fate of the Ottoman Empire.
Yet not even the so-called “Dual Alliance” of Germany Austria-Hungary was free of tension and conflict. The 2 nations had gone to war over the future of Germany in 1866 with the then-Prussian Chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck masterminding a swift, decisive triumph. Yet the “Iron Chancellor” had wisely chosen not to seize any Austrian territory following the victory as he sensed that Germany would need an ally against the enmity of France and (after 1890) Russia.
Thus was born the “Dual Alliance” of 1879, but it was hardly an alliance of equals. Germany’s industrial, economic and scientific power surged forward in the years following unification in 1871; by 1914 Germany had passed every European power economically and was producing technological breakthroughs on a regular basis. Austria-Hungary, on the other hand became increasingly weighed down by a backward economy and its highly fractious, multi-national politics. This affected each country’s military, too: Germany expanded and upgraded its army while creating a Navy from scratch (more on this in a bit), while the Hapsburg monarchy’s forces lagged behind in both quality and quantity.
While Germany threatened to dominate the European continent, its ally threatened to go the way of the decaying Ottoman Empire. This imbalance between an increasingly powerful Germany and the increasingly weakening monarchy on the Danube was a major factor in explaining why Vienna acted as it did in July 1914.
Conrad was less concerned about Tisza’s veto than a much more powerful one – Germany’s. An Austrian attack on Serbia threatened to bring in Russia to defend their “Slav brothers”; without German support Vienna would be outnumbered and fighting on 2 fronts. Up to 1914 the Dual Alliance had counted on Romania as a Balkan ally to counter Serbia but the Romanians were increasingly moving into the Russian orbit, too. Berchtold, agreeing with Conrad, decided to reach out to Berlin and see where Germany would stand if Austria attacked Serbia. German support would in the worst-case scenario bolster Austria-Hungary’s eastern flank against Russia; in the best-case scenario it would deter Russia from going to war leaving Vienna free to crush the Serbians.
The All-Highest Warlord?
Perhaps the real blame for World War I and the ensuing calamities of the 20th century can be laid to the doctor who presided over the birth of Queen Victoria’s first grandchild. When “Vicky”, the Princess Royal gave birth to her first child by Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia on January 27, 1859 it was only after a terrible ordeal that saw the child nearly die. Using forceps the doctor managed to pull the baby out by its left arm and safely delivered it but in the process permanently damaged the limb. The future Kaiser Wilhelm II was left with a withered arm 6 inches shorter than the other as the result of Erb’s palsy and (quite possibly) brain damage from lack of oxygen during the ordeal.
All this meant that Wilhelm’s Chancellors and senior Imperial officials frequently had to “manage” their autocrat master to not only keep the Reich running but essentially govern it in his stead. Wilhelmine Germany resembled a sailing ship whose drunken captain frequently loses control of the wheel but insists on staying at his post. The Daily Telegraph affair resulted in Imperial Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg increasingly taking over foreign policy matters.
A Commitment Over Coffee
Hoyos, the emissary from Austria-Hungary’s Berchtold arrived in Berlin on July 4th, 1914. He promptly went to Ambassador Szőgyény and gave him his instructions. The next day Szőgyény went to have lunch with the Kaiser at his palace at Potsdam outside Berlin. (The same palace would be used 31 years later to accommodate another alliance – the “Big 3” of World War II during their postwar discussions.) Szőgyény described what happened in a secret report to Vienna later that day:
I presented His Majesty [Wilhelm] with [Franz Joseph’s] letter and the attached memorandum. The Kaiser read both papers quite carefully in my presence. First, His Majesty assured me that he had expected us to take firm action against Serbia, but he had to concede that, as a result of the conflicts facing [Franz Joseph], he needed to take into account a serious complication in Europe, which is why he did not wish to give any definite answer prior to consultations with the chancellor.Wilhelm, in other words would wait for Bethmann-Hollweg to weigh in – which in effect meant the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary Jagow would get their turn to “manage” the Kaiser’s decision for him. Szőgyény was not about to give up so easily, however. He waited until coffee was served and pressed the case for Austrian action anew:
When, after our déjeuner, I once again emphasized the gravity of the situation, His Majesty authorized me to report to [Franz Joseph] that in this case, too, we could count on Germany’s full support. As mentioned, he first had to consult with the chancellor, but he did not have the slightest doubt that Herr von Bethmann Hollweg would fully agree with him, particularly with regard to action on our part against Serbia. In his [Wilhelm’s] opinion, though, there was no need to wait patiently before taking action.Here then was issued the “blank check” of historical infamy: an off-the-cuff statement made over a cup of coffee by a man infamous for backing away when the chips were down. Wilhelm had made similar bellicose statements in the past – the Algericas Crisis in 1905/6, the Bosnian Crisis of 1908, the second Morocco Crisis of 1911 and the Balkan Wars of 1912/13 – only to emerge as “Wilhelm the Timid” when the crisis was over. Nor was the decision his alone as Bethmann-Hollweg would still need to give his assent. Finally Wilhelm felt Russia, led by his cousin Tsar Nicholas II would not intervene if Austria-Hungary acted quickly: the Kaiser could not imagine the Tsar approving of regicide (the killing of Franz Ferdinand) any more than he had. It is clear that Wilhelm's anger over his friend's murder convinced him of the need for a military response (this wouldn't last as we shall see in a future article).
The Kaiser said that Russia’s stance would always be a hostile one, but he had been prepared for this for many years, and even if war broke out between Austria-Hungary and Russia, we could rest assured that Germany would take our side, in line with its customary loyalty. According to the Kaiser, as things stood now, Russia was not at all ready for war. It would certainly have to think hard before making a call to arms.
Nevertheless the commitment had been made.
Now Or Never
Szőgyény and Hoyos then met with Bethmann-Hollweg and the German Foreign Undersecretary, Arthur Zimmermann (he of the “Zimmermann Telegram” that proved the casus belli for America’s entry into the war in 1917). Just as the Kaiser predicted his Chancellor likewise gave the green light to Vienna.
[After discussing Bulgaria and Romania]… Finally, as far as concerns Serbia, [Wilhelm], of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence.Why did Bethmann-Hollweg do this? Part of the explanation lies with the unfortunate state of mind that possessed German government leaders in 1914: it not only saw itself as “encircled” by the Entente but forced to rely on an increasingly weakened ally in Austria-Hungary.German military planners knew that the Russian army was rapidly recovering from the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War a decade ago with the help of massive French loans; they estimated that by the year 1916 the Russian army would be sufficiently strong that Germany could no longer defeat it. “Now or never” was the attitude of Germany’s military and its powerful political influence reflected that assumption.
The Emperor Franz Joseph may, however, rest assured that [Wilhelm] will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.
Personal tragedy played a part, too: Bethmann-Hollweg’s wife had just passed away after a long illness and he was deeply depressed from her loss. An air of fatalism thus infected the makers of German policy both military and civilian. Whether Germany’s military eagerly sought a European war prior to 1914 (“the sooner the better” in Moltke’s infamous words) is still being hotly debated but there is little question they were mentally as well as militarily prepared for it.
Yet the German “blank check” came with an assumption: Berlin expected Vienna to attack immediately and settle the matter before Russia and its allies could react. A fait accompli would make Russia “think hard before making a call to arms”, to use Wilhelm’s words. It was the same strategy Vienna had used when annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908; the Russians had protested and threatened war, but ultimately backed down. In short Berlin had written a check they did not anticipate cashing but were willing to do if called on to pay up.
All awaited the immediate assault by Austria-Hungary on Belgrade. The assault was not forthcoming. Why a 3-week delay occurred and what else was going on in Europe in the interval will be the subject of next week’s article.
Thanks for reading!