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The month that changed the world: Monday, 6 July to Sunday, 12 July 1914

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


Having assured the Austrians of his support on Sunday, the kaiser on Monday departed on his yacht, the Hohenzollern, for his annual summer cruise of the Baltic. When his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, met with Count Hoyos and the Austrian ambassador in Berlin that afternoon, he confirmed that Germany would stand by them ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’. He agreed that Russia was attempting to form a ‘Balkan League’ which threatened the interests of the Triple Alliance. He promised to seize the initiative: he would begin negotiations to bring Bulgaria into the alliance and he would advise Romania to stop nationalist agitation there against Austria. He would leave it to the Austrians to decide how to proceed with Serbia, but they ‘may always be certain that Germany will remain at our side as a faithful friend and ally’.

In London the German ambassador, now back from a visit home, arranged to meet with the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, on Monday afternoon. Prince Lichnowsky aimed to persuade Grey that Germany and Britain should co-operate to ‘localize’ the dispute between Austria and Serbia. Lichnowsky explained that the feeling was growing in Germany that it was better not to restrain Austria, to ‘let the trouble come now, rather than later’ and he reported that Grey understood Austria would have to adopt ‘severe measures’.

On Tuesday the Austrian government met in Vienna to determine precisely how far and how fast they were prepared to move against Serbia. The meeting went on for most of the day. The emperor did not attend; in fact, he left the city that morning to return to his hunting lodge, five hours away, where he would remain for the next three weeks. Berchtold, in the chair, told the assembled ministers that the moment had come to decide whether to render Serbia’s intrigues harmless forever. He assured them that Germany had promised its support in the event of any ‘warlike complications’.

The Triple Alliance
The ministers agreed that vigorous measures were needed. Only the Hungarian minister-president expressed any concern. Tisza insisted that they prepare the diplomatic ground before taking any military action, otherwise they would be discredited in the eyes of Europe. They should begin by presenting Serbia with a list of demands: if these were accepted they would have achieved a splendid diplomatic victory; if they were rejected, he would vote for war. Berchtold and the others disagreed: only by the exertion of force could the fundamental problem of the propaganda for a Greater Serbia emanating from Belgrade be eliminated. The argument went on for hours, but Tisza had the power of a virtual veto: Austria-Hungary could not go to war without his agreement. Reluctantly, the ministers agreed to formulate a set of demands to present to Serbia. These should be so stringent however as to make refusal ‘almost certain’.

On Wednesday, 8 July, officials at the Ballhausplatz began working on the draft of an ultimatum to be presented to Serbia. They were in no hurry. The chief of the general Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorff, had determined that, with so many conscript soldiers on leave to assist in the gathering of the harvest, it would be impossible to begin mobilization before 25 July. The ultimatum could not be presented until 22-23 July.

By Thursday in Berlin they were beginning to envision a diplomatic victory for the Triple Alliance. The secretary of state, Gottlieb von Jagow, just returned from his honeymoon, told the Italian ambassador that Austria could not afford to be submissive when confronted by a Serbia ‘sustained or driven on by the provocative support of Russia’. But he did not believe that ‘a really energetic and coherent action’ on their part would lead to a conflict. From London, Prince Lichnowsky reported that Sir Edward Grey had reassured him that he had made no secret agreements with France and Russia that entailed any obligations in the event of a European war. Rather, Britain wished to preserve the ‘absolutely free hand’ that would allow it to act according to its own judgement. Grey appeared confident, cheerful and ‘not pessimistic’ about the situation in the Balkans.

Meeting with the German ambassador in Vienna on Friday, Berchtold sketched some preliminary ideas of what the ultimatum to Serbia might consist of. Perhaps they might demand that an agency of the Austro-Hungarian government be established at Belgrade to monitor the machinations of the ‘Greater Serbia’ movement; perhaps they might insist that some nationalist organizations be dissolved; perhaps they could stipulate that certain army officers be dismissed. He wanted to be sure that the demands went so far that Serbia could not possibly accept them. What did they think in Berlin?

Berlin chose not to think anything. The ambassador was instructed to inform Berchtold that Germany could take no part in formulating the demands. Instead, he was advised to collect evidence that would show the Greater Serbia agitation in Belgrade threatened Austria’s existence.

At the same time the fourth – but secret – member of the Triple Alliance, Romania, was warning that it would not be able to meet its obligations to assist Austria. Romanians, the Hohenzollern king advised, were offended by Hungary’s treatment of its Romanian population: they now regarded Austria, not Russia, as their primary enemy. King Karl did not believe the Serbian government was involved in the assassination and complained that the Austrians seemed to have lost their heads. Berlin should exert its influence on Vienna to extinguish the ‘pusillanimous spirit’ there.

By the end of the week Italy had added its voice to the chorus of restraint. The foreign minister, the Marchese di San Giuliano, insisted that governments of democratic countries (such as Serbia) ‘could not be held accountable for the transgressions of the press’. The Austrians should not be unfair, and he was urging moderation on the Serbians. There seemed every reason to believe that peace would endure: the British ambassador in Vienna thought the government would hesitate to take a step that would produce ‘great international tension’, and the Serbian minister there had assured him that he had no reason to expect a ‘threatening communication’ from Austria.

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. Read all of Gordon’s blog posts.

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Image credit: Map highlighting the Triple Alliance. By Nydas. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Vandenbroeck

    I notice the blog entrees jump from (the previous entree)Jun 29. to July 6.

    But on July 3. for example there was among others the important conversation between Neuman and Hoyos that de-facto led to the blank check.

    What Neuman told Hoyos seems also indicative of what else might have gone on in, less reported on, reactions within the German military establishment,or?

    Take for example the letter General of the German Cavalry Wenninger, wrote to the Saxon Minister of War: No. 73/3472 /Berlin, 3 July 1914:

    “I have to report to your Excellency that in responsible circles here the political situation is regarded as very serious – also for us. At the memorial service for His Imperial Highness Archduke Franz Ferdinand I had the opportunity to talk things over with Generalmajor Count Waldersee, Generalquartiermeister in the Great General Staff. What he said seemed to be the opinion of the Chief of the General Staff of the Army. He opined that we might become involved in a war from one day to the next. Everything depended on what attitude Russia took in the Austro-Serbian business. In any case the course of events was also being closely watched by the Great General Staff. I gained the impression that they would regard it with favor if war were to come about now. Conditions and prospects would never become better for us.”

    Bringing up the question what sources inspired Neuman to say things like for Austria to attack “now better then later”?

    It is unthinkable that Austria would have taken the path of confrontation with Serbia without the active backing of the Continent’s dominant military power.

    As Hoyos himself would later write: Berlin, had been at liberty `to say “No” to us and stop us from making a move against Serbia; we might have felt aggrieved but the German government would certainly not have been influenced by our good or bad mood’.( A. von Hoyos, Der deutsch-englische Gegensatz und sein Einfluss auf die Balkanpolitik Österreich -Ungarns (Berlin and Leipzig, 1922),p.81.)

  2. Vandenbroeck

    PS. Correction, the Hoyos /Victor Nauman conversation of course took place on 1.July.

    I also checked the original German of Hoyo’s report as published in the document section of Gerd Gerd Krumeich*, Juli 1914. Eine Bilanz. Mit einem Anhang: 50 Schlüsseldokumente, 2013, p.212-14.

    From that it appears that from the beginning it was all (or a lot) about Russia, or as Nauman is reported to have said: Eine Aktion gegen Serbien “würde fur Deutschland der der Prüfstein sein, ob Russland den Krieg wolle oder nicht.”

    The above statement further gains on importance when one reads Krumreich’s underlying thesis about the July crises, that the German intend should be seen as a “test”, that if Russia dared to mobilize against Austria-Hungary Germany then would act on its “better now than later.” Krumeich writes in his introduction: “Die damaligen Vorstellungen vom Krieg bleiben auch in bestinformierten Arbeiten zur Julikrise neuesten Datums eine terra incognita. Zum anderen bemühe ich mich, der berühmt-beruchtigten Lokalisierungstheorie auf die Spur zu kommen. Viele Jahrzebme lang war es ein Hanptargument der Verfechter der deutschen Unschuld ,an der Eskalation der Krise, dass man doch stets versucht habe, den Konflikt auf Österreich-Ungarn und Serbien zu beschränken, ihn also zu “lokalisieren”, wie es in den Dokumentcn der Julikrise immer wieder heisst. In Wirklicbkeit aber, so meine These, war gerade der Anspruch der deutschen Regierung, dass der Konflikt unter allen Umstanden “lokalisiert” bleiben musse, eine grobe Herausforderung aller internatonalen Gepflogenheiten jener Zeit. Dahinter stand das Kalkül, herausfinden zu wollen, wie weit Russland kriegswillig und kriegsbereit sei. Sollte Russland fur Serbien eintreten, also die “Lokalisierung” nicht beachten, dann gelte es fur Deutschend, “lieber jetzt als später” den ohnehin unvermeidlichen Krieg mit Russland zu beginnen. Niemand unter den deutschen Politikern und den Militärs, die so dachten und handel ten, ist auch nur auf die Idee gekommen, so scheint mir, dass durch diese Erpressungsstrategie die russische Entscheidung zum Krieg erst provoziert werden könnte.”(p.13)

    What is your opinion about the above?

    As for my previous question what sources inspired Nauman, you mention in your book that Naumann indeed referred to “ Germany’s army and navy circles.” Yet as for what the exact sources (or persons) that inspired Nauman’s above statement , for example Krumreich (as I also have seen others do) refers here to Wilhelm von Stumm, Jagow, and Zimmermann. Whereby Thomas Otte in his “July Crisis” mentions that Nauman in Vienna was Tschirschky’s go-between…

    Krumeich writes:” Naumann war offensichtlich von einem Beamten des Auswärtigen Amtes, dem Vortragenden Rat und Russlandexperten Wilhelm von Stumm, mit Informationen versehen worden, die er weitergeben sollte. Man weiss nicht, ob dies Stumms eigene Initiative war ,oder ob er – was wahrscheinlicher ist – die Auffassung des Staatssekretars Jagow und des Unterstaatssekretars Zimmermann weiterergab.”(July 1914, p.67.)

    And finally what your above comment about 6.July concerns it is known that there were also two separate meetings of the Emperor. One Governmental, with Behman Hollweg, Zimmermann and Jagow, and the other where I like to ask you about, with the German Military.

    What seems significant here are some of the reports of those who attended.

    Apparently Kaiser Wilhelm left open the possibility that because from action against Serbia by Austria-Hungary “complications could arise” (reported by Generalquartiermeister Georg Count von Waldersees as quoted in Kautsky, Die deutschen Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch,1919, p. xv] the participants of the meeting decided “to in any case take all preparatory measures for a war.”(Hilmar Freiherr von dem Bussche- Haddenhausen, Aufzeichnung, as quoted by Kautsky, Die deutschen Dokumente, Anhang VIII, p. 171.)

    The Emperor also ordered a mobilization of the German fleet and to make as many as possible torpedo boats and submarines ready for war. (Reported by Division Chief in the Imperial Navy Albert Hopman, diary entree of 6.Juli 1914,in Michael Epkenhans, Die wilhelminische Flottenruestung 1908-1914. Weltmachtstreben, industrieller Fortschritt, soziale Integration, Munchen 1991, p. 382-4.)

    Don’t these preparations again point to a suspicion Russia could indeed get involved?

  3. Megaen Kelly

    Is this the first article of the series? I feel I missed something.

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