According to The Times, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand ‘produced horror and consternation throughout Europe.’ In London, King George V ordered a week’s mourning at court, and in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II was genuinely grieving for his friend ‘Franzi’.
However, in Vienna the response was more varied. The official reaction to the assassination, which was thought to have been instigated by Serbia, was indignant outrage, but this outward appearance was in stark contrast to the privately held thoughts of many. Franz Ferdinand had not been universally popular. Moreover, some of the decision-makers in Vienna had been keen for a ‘reckoning’ with Serbia for some time, a move that always been opposed by the Archduke, and considered this assassination a golden opportunity.
Vienna and Berlin
In order to understand why the crisis escalated into full-scale war, we must first look at Vienna and Berlin, for it was here that a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia was consciously risked and planned.
A leading Austrian diplomat (Leopold von Andrian-Werburg) recalled after the war: ‘We started the war, not the Germans and even less the Entente—that I know.’ France, Russia, Britain and Italy entered the stage much later in July 1914, when most decisions had already been taken.
Until this point, most European statesmen had been deliberately kept in the dark by the decision-makers in Vienna and Berlin about their plan for a showdown with Serbia.
The Austrian Chief of the General Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf welcomed an excuse for a war with Serbia. Other so-called ‘hawks’ in Vienna were also keen to seize the opportunity of waging a war against Serbia whose pan-Slav agitation threatened to undermine the cohesion of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
However, first of all it would be necessary to establish how the Dual Monarchy’s ally, Germany, would react to any potential move against Serbia. Therefore, an envoy was despatched to ascertain Berlin’s position.
Berlin's blank cheque
On 5 July, Count Alexander von Hoyos arrived in the German capital with a memorandum and a letter by Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph which explained the Austrian predicament in the wake of the assassination and asked the German decision-makers to support Austria’s plans to seek revenge from Serbia.
Hoyos was assured that Germany would support Austria unconditionally, even if it chose to go to war over the assassination, and even if this might escalate into a European war.
This was Berlin’s so-called ‘blank cheque’ to Vienna. The German Kaiser even felt that ‘this action must not be delayed’, and ‘even if a war between Austria-Hungary and Russia were to result’, the Austrians were reassured ‘that Germany would stand by our side’, as the Austrian Ambassador in Berlin, Count Ladislaus Szögyény-Marich, reported.
Why did Germany’s decision-makers decide to support their ally come what may? In their calculations, the crisis was an opportunity to test the Entente which seemed to be encircling Germany and its weakening ally Austria-Hungary.
They were confident that a war could still be won by the Triple Alliance partners (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy), while in the long run, the Entente Powers (Russia, France and Great Britain) would become invincible.
The worry was in particular that Russia would increase its army and improve its railway infrastructure to such an extent that in the near future it would become impossible for Germany to fight a successful war against Russia. Germany would then be helplessly ‘encircled’ by hostile powers in the East (Russia) and West (France, and possibly Britain).
Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg summarised this strategy in July 1914 thus: ‘If war does not come, if the Tsar does not want it or concerned France counsels peace then we still have the chance to break the Entente apart over this.’ Thus Russia would have been defeated—either militarily or diplomatically, before its army increases could take effect.
Planning an ultimatum
Berlin’s promise of support enabled the Viennese Government to plan its next steps against Serbia at an important meeting of the Joint Council of Ministers on 7 July. All participants were aware of the fact their actions could not only lead to a war with Serbia, but also with Russia, because Russia saw itself as a protector of Slavic people and might not stand aside as Serbia was crushed by Austria-Hungary. The meeting agreed that a war with Serbia needed to be provoked with an ultimatum, so that outwardly Vienna appeared to be acting reasonably and moderately, rather than simply declaring war on Serbia immediately.
Only the Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza disagreed with the general mood of the meeting ‘that a purely diplomatic success, even it if ended with a glaring humiliation of Serbia, would be worthless’. The ultimatum was to be deliberately unacceptable, and only 48 hours would be given to Belgrade to respond. Berchtold advised Kaiser Franz Joseph: ‘The text of the note to be sent to Belgrade […] is such that we must reckon with the probability of war.’
The planned ultimatum needed to be kept a secret while Austria-Hungary’s decision-makers waited for the right moment to make their demands of Serbia. This was the time of the annual harvest leave of soldiers. Not only would it have looked suspicious if these had been recalled to their barracks, but also the harvest could not be jeopardized.
An additional problem was posed by a planned state visit of the French President and other members of the French Government to Russia. Between 21 and 23 June the two allies would be able to discuss their joint response to any Austrian provocation of Serbia. Rather than allow this, it was decided to time the ultimatum so that it would arrive at the most inconvenient point in time for Russia’s and France’s leaders, just when President Raymond Poincaré had boarded the ship France to begin his long journey home. He would not step on French soil until 29 July, leaving the French Government essentially without effective leadership during the crisis.
Throughout these early days of the crisis, Vienna’s leaders kept their colleagues in Berlin informed of their plans, while to the outside world, both governments gave the impression of calm, even sending their main decision-makers on holiday to keep up this illusion. Their Italian alliance partner was also deliberately kept in the dark. It is due to this deception that the other major powers did not play a significant role in the July Crisis until 23 July, the day when the ultimatum was finally presented in Belgrade.
Within 48 hours, Vienna would break all diplomatic relations with Serbia. How would the Entente partners react to this deliberate provocation? Read on to find out in The July Crisis: Ultimatum and outbreak of war
This page is part of our collection about the origins of the First World War.