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by Stephen Yellin

This is part of a series of daily articles that covers the run-up to the catastrophe of World War I in July 1914. The diplomatic crisis exactly 100 years ago was sparked by the murder of the main force for peace in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Archduke Franz Ferdinand, together with his wife Sophie – by a Serbian terrorist. Backed by Germany’s offering of unconditional support in using force to retaliate against Serbia – the infamous “blank check” – the Viennese authorities began preparing a list of demands for the Serbian government to accept or face war. The demands were deliberately made to ensure war would occur.

The ultimatum was finally issued on July 23, 1914, over 3 weeks after the Archduke’s murder. The 12 days that followed are the focus of this series.

Feel free to refer to my list of important figures in keeping track of who's who.

Previous days:
Thursday, July 23rd - the fuse is lit
Friday, July 24th - "c'est la guerre europeene"
Saturday, July 25th - "we stand upon the edge of war"
Sunday, July 26th - “War is thought imminent. Wildest enthusiasm prevails.”

Monday, July 27th – “You’ve cooked this broth and now you’re going to eat it.”

As the Austrian government came under heavy pressure from Berlin to declare war on Serbia, even though its armies would be unable to act for another 2 weeks, the one figure capable of slamming the brakes and putting the proverbial war machine in reverse reemerges on the scene. The irony is that this same man was the one who, by casually offering Vienna a “blank check” of support, had given the green light to the latter’s ultimatum to Belgrade. The figure of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a joker in the pack of policy-making playing cards, looms large in the days that follow.


The Kaiser reaches Berlin Monday morning. He is furious with his Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, and with good reason. Bethmann had convinced the Kaiser to take his annual summer cruise off the Norwegian coast following the “blank check” meetings of July 5-6, then deliberately downplayed the gravity of the crisis once it began on July 23rd. For example, he had yet to tell his master of Russia’s military preparations or of Serbia’s mobilization in response to the ultimatum. Wilhelm, however, had his own sources in Berlin that fed him information aboard his yacht. When Wilhelm finally received the text of the ultimatum on the 25th - from the Wolff news agency, not his government – he made up his mind to return home and take charge of the crisis.

As a precautionary measure Wilhelm ordered the Germany navy in the Baltic Sea to return to port in Kiel rather than risk a sneak attack from the Russian fleet in the same region.  Bethmann attempted 3 times to convince the Kaiser not to abandon his cruise and cancel the fleet’s return. Wilhelm’s tendency to write vitriolic diatribes in the margins of reports displayed itself yet again in response to Bethmann’s telegram:

Unbelievable assumption! Unheard of! It never entered my mind!!! [The return of the fleet to Kiel] was done on report of my minister [probably the Navy secretary]about the mobilization at Belgrade! This may cause the mobilization of Russia; will cause mobilization of Austria…Moreover, I am not accustomed to the take military measures on the strength of one Wolff telegram, but on that of the general situation, and that situation the Civilian Chancellor [Bethmann] does not yet grasp. [Exclamation points in original]
Photograph of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Notice that he is posed in such a way that his withered left arm appears the same size as his right one.
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Even as Wilhelm heads for his palace of Potsdam outside the capitol, Bethmann sends him a misleadingly optimistic report on the crisis that cited Austria-Hungary’s inability to start a war until August 12th and (inaccurately) the lack of Russian mobilization. The Kaiser is no more fooled at this point than his Chancellor. It is not a pretty sight when Bethmann met Wilhelm at the Wildpark Station in Potsdam that Monday, as Sean McMeekin relates in July 1914:
“How did it all happen?” the Kaiser asked him. Bethmann, recalled Count August Eulenberg, one of Wilhelm’s confidants, “utterly cowed, admitted that all along he had been deceived and offered the Kaiser his resignation”. His Majesty answered “You’ve cooked this broth and now you’re going to eat it.”
The problem with this royal dressing-down is that Wilhelm is just as guilty as Bethmann of cooking the “broth”. Wilhelm had first offered the “blank check” to the Austrian ambassador; he had joined Bethmann in urging a swift military strike by Vienna on Serbia; and, like Bethmann and Jagow, he had ignored the harshness of the Austrian ultimatum. When it was suggested to the Kaiser on board his yacht that Vienna ought to modify the terms to gain international support for its cause, the Kaiser retorted “Ultimata are either accepted, or they are not! There is no discussion! That is why they have the name!”

This was precisely why Bethmann and his government had tried to keep the Kaiser in the dark. Highly erratic, high-strung and possibly with a screw loose or 2, the “all-highest Warlord” lacks a firm grip on his empire and its policies. Add to this the Kaiser’s tendency to draw back from the brink of war – demonstrated in the crises of 1905-6, 1908-9, 1911 and 1912-3 – and it becomes understandable why the government tried to sideline its leader. His nerves could be trusted to hold in a crisis.

German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg
An Imperial Council meeting is held at 3PM that day; thanks to Bethmann’s stubborn refusal to abandon his plan to keep the conflict “localized” between Vienna and Belgrade, as well as an appalling lack of up-to-date information on Russian and British military preparations, the Kaiser is convinced war is not imminent and heads back to his palace. This false sense of security was shared in private correspondence from others at the Council meeting including the German army’s commander, Field Marshall von Moltke. Not until late that evening will the Russian and British military reports be read in Berlin; as for Serbia’s response to the ultimatum – which had triggered Austria’s mobilization and the Kaiser’s return – it is left for the Kaiser to read first thing in the morning. Incredibly, neither the Kaiser nor his Chancellor has read it.


While Bethmann struggles to “manage” the Kaiser and the crisis alike, Foreign Secretary Jagow continues to prod Vienna into action. Had the Kaiser ordered his ally not to declare war that Monday it is quite possible Austrian Foreign Secretary Berchtold, already unnerved by the revelation that his armies will not be ready to attack for another 2 full weeks, would have put the brakes on rather than risk losing German backing against the threat of a Russian military response. No such order comes from Berlin that day; instead, Bethmann and his fellow ministers agree to declare war on Serbia the next day.

The British ambassador to Vienna cables Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey that “the Austro-Hungarian note was so drawn up as to make war inevitable, that the Austro-Hungarian government are [sic.] fully resolved to have war with Serbia.”

St. Petersburg

The Russian preparations for mobilization continue apace. The military district of Warsaw, part of Russian-ruled Poland is put under martial law, as are St. Petersburg and other major cities in European Russia. The British ambassador to France, reflecting the view of his country’s governing class writes: “It seems incredible that the Russian Government should plunge Europe into war in order to make themselves the protector of the Serbians.”


President Poincare and Prime Minister Viviani remain on board their ship home from St. Petersburg. They finally get messages transmitted to them via wireless, including press reports that criticize them for their absence from Paris. After refueling in Copenhagen the French hasten for home at top speed. They will not reach the French coast for another 2 days. In their absence the French government, having promised to back Russia up if they go to war, sits and waits for events to unfold before taking any action publically.


Sir Edward Grey returns to his office that morning. Reading the Serbian response to the Austrian ultimatum for the first time, he is stunned that Belgrade’s acceptance of most of its points was insufficient to deter Austrian aggression. Feeling that Serbia had met the demands “to a degree which he would have never thought possible”, he warns German ambassador Lichnowsky that his government now had the burden of preserving the peace. “The key to the situation is Berlin,” Grey says, “and if Berlin seriously means peace, Austria can be restrained from pursuing a foolhardy policy.” In this the Foreign Secretary is correct: regardless of Russia’s plans and France’s support for those plans, war will not break out if Austria-Hungary cannot cash its “blank check”. (That such an agreement exists is not known outside of Berlin and Vienna but Grey is far from alone in thinking the 2 governments are in cahoots together.)

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, 1905-1916.
Sir Edward Grey
Grey, ill-informed by the British ambassador to Russia of the latter’s preparations, honestly believes the diplomatic screws need only be put to Austria-Hungary to defuse the crisis. He requests that Germany act as a mediator to halt Vienna from attacking, or else he will hold Germany responsible for the actions of its ally. Lichnowsky, fully alarmed, warns Jagow and Bethmann that “if war comes in these conditions, we shall have England against us.”

Bethmann agrees to pass on Grey’s request to Vienna; critically, however, he insists to the German ambassador that he is doing so merely to try and keep Britain from viewing Germany as the aggressor. “By a rejection of all mediatory action we should be held responsible for the conflagration by the whole world and be represented as the real warmongers,” he tells Ambassador Tschirschky. The latter does not send Grey’s request to the Austrian government, while Jagow assures the Austrian ambassador that Berlin is not about to abandon Vienna.

Gottlieb von Jagow, German Foreign Minister
Unbeknownst to either Grey or the Germans, Winston Churchill is "putting on his war paint", as a British Cabinet colleague will derisively point later that week. The First Lord of the Admiralty secretly puts the British Navy on alert in areas close to German and Austrian naval concentrations. In doing so Churchill has committed an act of insubordination; neither Grey nor Prime Minister Asquith is aware that Great Britain is taking steps towards war even as it attempts to save the peace.
Winston Churchill prior to 1914
Whether Churchill's actions are reckless or prudent will depend on the choices his government will make in the week that follows.

Originally posted to stephenyellin on Sun Jul 27, 2014 at 09:08 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Let me know what YOU think (9+ / 0-)

    I appreciate the positive feedback I've gotten from many of you, and hope I will continue to earn it in the week ahead.

    Feel free to send these posts to others, and enjoy! (If one can enjoy the advent of catastrophe, that is.)

    "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

    by MrLiberal on Sun Jul 27, 2014 at 09:10:06 AM PDT

  •  this is where duplicity (8+ / 0-)

    became such a key factor. england and france knew of russia's mobilization, but ignored it or pretended otherwise. wilhelm and nicholas just weren't very bright, vienna was now under conrad's sway, with the moderating force of franz ferdinand gone. serbia actually very reasonably accepted very strict terms, but wouldn't go all the way to effectively ceding its sovereignty. a slow motion disaster.

    The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

    by Laurence Lewis on Sun Jul 27, 2014 at 09:33:33 AM PDT

    •  Agreed re: "slow motion disaster" (4+ / 0-)

      "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

      by MrLiberal on Sun Jul 27, 2014 at 10:00:58 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  They great culprits (3+ / 0-)

      at this point was the jingoists in each cabinet that became the leading voices. The was embraced by many, thinking that some saber rattling was necessary to put everyone in its place. They looked around and they saw many "splendid little wars" like the wars to unite Italy or Germany or the Balkan wars or even Crimea , choosing to ignore the ones that foretold what was going to happen like the Civil War or the Russo-Japanese one, and they thought that they could manage this to be a short lesson to X or Y.

      One of the worse Kaiser Wilhem II the man who most did to provoke the war and that was nothing but a powerless puppet in the hands of the real hardcore right wing hawks a mere two years after it started.

      •  and sazonov and berchtold (6+ / 0-)

        both had been considered soft by their nations' respective hawks, and both now wanted to prove they weren't.

        i don't think it's fair to say wilhelm did the most to provoke the war. nicholas approving mobilization was as much a trigger as anything else. but he, like wilhelm, was not too bright, and susceptible to manipulation. and the duplicity of france and england was not without purpose.

        The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

        by Laurence Lewis on Sun Jul 27, 2014 at 10:33:46 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I think he did (4+ / 0-)

          Not at this point but before, letting the treaty with Russia expire, moving the Brits into the hands of the French with his naval policy, moving aggressively against other western powers, being in favor the blank check that clearly would bring Russia in and so on. In the Willie Nicky telegrams, the Kaiser tells him that his mobilization will be only partial that he needed not to be afraid. Of course by then the doomsday machine blueprint the German military had been training was already being put in gear, it had to.

          I'm not saying I consider Wilhelm the main culprit for the was, as you said to many to pick one, but he was the one in my opinion that most did to make the right climate for the war.

          •  I meant the Tzar (2+ / 0-)

            It was Tzar Nicholas who was telling Wilhelm in the telegrams that the Russian mobilization was necessary posturing, Russia had lost to much face in the previous decades, and that they could solve this amicably. Of course Schlieffen Plan in hand not a single Russian unit could be mobilized without setting the whole thing up

          •  i'd say sazonov (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Iberian, thanatokephaloides

            because he consciously chose to manipulate nicholas into approving the wide mobilization that inevitably would lead to wider war.

            keep in mind that wilhelm's blank check was intended to be for a quick war, limited to the balkans. he wanted austria to get it over with quickly, before russia would have time even to begin to respond. but austria couldn't move quickly, because tisza needed convincing, and because their soldiers were on their annual summer farming leave.

            i also think there were so many realignments of alliances in the decades before the war that it's impossible to single out any one or two. at one point, wilhelm even tried to make a treaty with england. up until the last days before the war, he still had hope that england would stay out, and that was partially because england wasn't being honest about what it knew about russia.

            but moltke's intransigence about sticking to a poorly thought out plan also was a key trigger, as was the brutality of the germans in belgium. the summer of 1914 was a perfect storm of stupidity, incompetence, and mendacity.

            The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

            by Laurence Lewis on Sun Jul 27, 2014 at 11:00:38 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  I really like these diaries and this approach. (4+ / 0-)

    It give a feeling for the rhythm of how the war happened that is missing when you read about this in a book.


  •  Gestures and perceptions (4+ / 0-)

    can be as significant as overt statements or deeds at times.

    Churchill's refusal to disperse the Home Fleet could be interpreted by a potential aggressor that the British would fight if one or the other of the Entente powers went to war.  

    Messimy's orders to pull their frontier forces 10 km from their border with Germany would also be a gesture that, if anyone was getting ready to attack, it wouldn't be France.

  •  Today in Parliament (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TofG, MrLiberal, thanatokephaloides

    I thought I would look at what Sir Edward Grey told Parliament on 27 July 1914. He certainly did not understate the seriousness of the situation in his brief reply, in answer to the question by Bonar Law (the leader of the Conservative opposition).

    As the quote is from a century old public document, Hansard which is the equivalent of the Congressional Record in the US, I do not think there is any copyright issue. The Hansard Archive is available through the UK Parliament website.

    HC Deb 27 July 1914 vol 65 cc936-9 936
    §Mr. BONAR LAW I rise to ask the Foreign Secretary a question of which I have given him notice: whether he would communicate any information to the 937 House as to the situation which exists between Austria and Servia?
    §The SECRETARY of STATE for FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Sir E. Grey) The House will, of course, be aware through the public Press of what the nature of the situation in Europe is at this moment. I think that it is due to the House that I should give in short narrative form the position which His Majesty's Government have so far taken up.
    Last Friday morning I received from the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador the text of the communication made by the Austro-Hungarian Government to the Powers, which has appeared in the Press, and which included textually the demand made by the Austro-Hungarian Government upon Servia.

    In the afternoon I saw other Ambassadors, and expressed the view that, as long as the dispute was one between Austria-Hungary and Servia alone, I felt that we had no title to interfere, but that, if the relations between Austria-Hungary and Russia became threatening, the question would then be one of the peace of Europe: a matter that concerned us all.

    I did not then know what view the Russian Government had taken of the situation, and without knowing how things were likely to develop I could not make any immediate proposition; but I said that, if relations between Austria-Hungary and Russia did become threatening, the only chance of peace appeared to me to be that the four Powers—Germany, France, Italy, and Great Britain, who were not directly interested in the Servian question—should work together both in St. Petersburgh and Vienna simultaneously to get both Austria-Hungary and Russia to suspend military operations while the four Powers endeavoured to arrange a settlement.

    After I had heard that Austria-Hungary had broken off diplomatic relations with Servia, I made by telegraph yesterday afternoon the following proposal, as a practical method of applying the views that I had already expressed:—

    I instructed His Majesty's Ambassadors in Paris, Berlin, and Rome to ask the 938 Governments to which they were accredited whether they would be willing to arrange that the French, German, and Italian Ambassadors in London should meet me in a Conference to be held in London immediately to endeavour to find a means of arranging the present difficulties. At the same time, I instructed His Majesty's Ambassadors to ask those Governments to authorise their representatives in Vienna, St. Petersburgh, and Belgrade to inform the Governments there of the proposed Conference, and to ask them to suspend all active military operations pending the result of the Conference.

    To that I have not yet received complete replies, and it is, of course, a proposal in which the co-operation of all four Powers is essential. In a crisis so grave as this, the efforts of one Power alone to preserve the peace must be quite ineffective.

    The time allowed in this matter has been so short that I have had to take the risk of making a proposal without the usual preliminary steps of trying to ascertain whether it would be well received. But, where matters are so grave and the time so short, the risk of proposing something that is unwelcome or ineffective cannot be avoided. I cannot but feel, however, assuming that the text of the Servian reply as published this morning in the Press is accurate, as I believe it to be, that it should at least provide a basis on which a friendly and impartial group of Powers, including Powers who are equally in the confidence of Austria-Hungary and of Russia, should be able to arrange a settlement that would be generally acceptable.

    It must be obvious to any person who-reflects upon the situation that the moment the dispute ceases to be one between Austria-Hungary and Servia and becomes one in which another Great Power is involved, it can but end in the greatest catastrophe that has ever befallen the Continent of Europe at one blow: no one can say what would be the limit of the issues that might be raised by such a conflict, the consequences of it, direct and; indirect would be incalculable.

    §Mr. HARRY LAWSON May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is true that this morning the German Emperor accepted the principle of mediation which he has proposed?
    §Sir E. GREY I understand that the German Government are favourable to the idea of mediation in principle as between Austria-Hungary and Russia, but that as to the particular proposal of applying that principle by means of a Conference which I have described to the House, the reply of the German Government has not yet been received.

    There is no man alive who is sufficiently good to rule the life of the man next door to him. Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris, M.P.

    by Gary J on Sun Jul 27, 2014 at 03:09:48 PM PDT

  •  WW I history wasn't taught--just mentioned in a (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TofG, thanatokephaloides

    paragraph or two--when I was in school.  Why? Probably because of the Great Depression i.e., lack of funds for text books.

    Later, when I learned something about that war it struck me that the fantasy about "going back in time and killing Hitler" was misplaced.  A more effective journey would be "going back in time and preventing WW I."

    But what act, exactly would have accomplished the prevention of  WW I?   I'm not at all sure that preventing the killing of the Grand Duke or whoever would have been enough.

    In Georgia, acting the fool with a gun is not only legal, it is encouraged by the governor and the state legislature.

    by Mayfly on Sun Jul 27, 2014 at 04:36:29 PM PDT

    •  prevention of WW I (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      TofG, Mayfly
      But what act, exactly would have accomplished the prevention of  WW I?
      While she was still alive, Queen Victoria (UK) could have called a conference of the major European Monarchs, virtually all of whom were related to her either by blood or marriage.

      A general agreement could have been pounded out there restraining all of those Monarchies and their nations from plunging into war over "some damn fool thing in the Balkans" (Otto von Bismarck). This would have essentially forced Serbia and Austria-Hungary to find a way to live as the neighbors they were, which in turn would have prevented the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, which would in turn have made it possible to prevent WWI.

      The prestige to pull such a thing off was something that Victoria had, but could not convey to any of her descendants. Neither Edward VII (UK), nor Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany), Tsar Nikolai II (Russia), nor Franz Josef I (Austria-Hungary) had this degree of clout, but Queen Victoria did. Pope Leo XIII might have been able to pull it off, too, but Pope Pius X could not do so -- and he is known to have tried.

      "He hid in the forest, read books with great zeal.... He loved Che Guevara, a revolutionary Veal..... Cow Tse Tongue...." -- Cows With Guns, Dana Lyons

      by thanatokephaloides on Sun Jul 27, 2014 at 07:38:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  A remarkably good description of the crisis (a (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MrLiberal, thanatokephaloides

    standard I've used since I majored in history is, is it readable). Names and dates in history are like numbers and symbols in math and physics---the letters and punctuation which the subjects use to make meaning and discoveries.

    Given the pre-Willy ability of most Prussian and German rulers (going back to the Great Elector) it's unfortunate that Europe had him at the helm of Germany. Not that others weren't as excited as schoolboys at the prospect of war (including Young Winston).

  •  An excellent series, thank you! (0+ / 0-)

    I had to go back and re-read them, but I have not been disappointed. Please continue!

    And yeah, I know tarantulas don't really act like that at all, so no snarking, this is the internet damnit!

    by itzadryheat on Mon Jul 28, 2014 at 04:07:27 PM PDT

  •  Another missing "no"? (0+ / 0-)

    You say Kaiser Wilhelm was "highly erratic", but then you say "His nerves could be trusted to hold in a crisis." Which is it?

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