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.
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]
“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.
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.”
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.)
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.