July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.
By Gordon Martel
Two weeks after the assassination, by Monday, 13 July, Austria’s hopes of pinning the guilt directly on the Serbian government had evaporated. The judge sent to investigate reported that he had been unable to discover any evidence proving its complicity in the plot. Perhaps the Russian foreign minister was right to dismiss the assassination as having been perpetrated by immature young men acting on their own. Any public relations initiative undertaken by Austria to justify making harsh demands on Serbia would have to rely on its failure to live up to the promises it had made five years ago to exist on good terms with Austria-Hungary.
Few anticipated an international crisis. Entente diplomats remained convinced that Germany would restrain Austria, while the British ambassador in Vienna still regarded Berchtold as ‘peacefully inclined’ and believed that it would be difficult to persuade the emperor to sanction an ‘aggressive course of action’. Triple Alliance diplomats found it difficult to envision a robust response from the Entente powers to any Austrian initiative: the cities of western Russia were plagued by devastating strikes; the possibility of civil war in Ulster loomed as a result of the British government’s home rule bill; the French public was already absorbed by the upcoming murder trial of the wife of a cabinet minister.
Austria and Germany tried to maintain an aura of calm. The chief of the Austrian general staff left for his annual vacation on Monday; the minister of war joined him on Wednesday. The chief of the German general staff continued to take the waters at a spa, while the Kaiser was encouraged not to interrupt his Baltic cruise. But behind the scenes they were resolved to act. On Tuesday Tisza assured the German ambassador that he was now ‘firmly convinced’ of the necessity of war: Austria must seize the opportunity to demonstrate its vitality; together with Germany they would now ‘look the future calmly and firmly in the face’. Berchtold explained to Berlin that the presentation of the ultimatum would be have to be delayed: the president and the premier of France would be visiting Russia on the 20-23 of July, and it was not desirable to have them there, in direct contact with the Russian government, when the demands were made. But Berchtold wanted to assure Germany that this did not indicate any ‘hesitation or uncertainty’ in Vienna. The German chancellor was unwavering in his support: he was determined to stand by Austria even if it meant taking ‘a leap into the dark’.One of the few discordant voices was heard from London, where Prince Lichnowsky was becoming more assertive: he tried to warn Berlin of the consequences of supporting an aggressive Austrian initiative. British opinion had long supported the principle of nationality and their sympathies would ‘turn instantly and impulsively to the Serbs’ if the Austrians resorted to violence. This was not what Berlin wished to hear. Jagow replied that this might be the last opportunity for Austria to deal a death-blow to the ‘menace of a Greater Serbia’. If Austria failed to seize the opportunity its prestige ‘will be finished’, and its status was of vital interest to Germany. He prompted a German businessman to undertake a private mission to London to go around the back of his ambassador.
The German chancellor remained hopeful. Bethmann Hollweg believed that Britain and France could be used to restrain Russia from intervening on Serbia’s behalf. But the support of Italy was questionable. In Rome, the Italian foreign minister argued that the Serbian government could not be held responsible for the actions of men who were not even its subjects. Italy could not offer assistance if Austria attempted to suppress the Serbian national struggle by the use of violence – or at least not unless sufficient ‘compensation’ was promised in advance.
From London Lichnowsky continued to insist that a war would neither solve Austria’s Slav problem nor extinguish the Greater Serb movement. There was no hope of detaching Britain from the Entente and Germany faced no imminent danger from Russia. Germany, he complained, was risking everything for ‘mere adventure’.
These warnings fell on deaf ears: instead of reconsidering Germany’s options the chancellor lost his confidence in Lichnowsky. Instead of recognising that Italy would fail to support its allies in a war, the German government pressed Vienna to offer compensation to Italy sufficient to change its mind. By Saturday, the secretary of state was explaining that this was Austria’s last chance for ‘rehabilitation’ and that if it were to fail its standing as a Great Power would disappear forever. The alternative was Russian hegemony in the Balkans – something that Germany could not permit. The greater the determination with which Austria acted, the more likely it was that Russia would remain quiet. Better to act now: in a few years Russia would be prepared to fight, and then ‘she will crush us by the number of her soldiers.’
On Sunday morning the ministers of the Austro-Hungarian common council gathered secretively at Betchtold’s private residence, arriving in unmarked cars. This time there was no controversy. After minimal discussion the terms of the ultimatum to be presented to Serbia were agreed upon. Count Hoyos recorded that the demands were such that no nation ‘that still possessed self- respect and dignity could possibly accept them’. They agreed to present the note containing them in Belgrade between 4 and 5 p.m. on Thursday, the 25th. If Serbia failed to reply positively within 48 hours Austria would begin to mobilize its armed forces.
Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.