World War I Centennial: An Emperor’s Personal Plea for Peace

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 54th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 4-6, 1913: An Emperor’s Personal Plea for Peace

As fighting between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire resumed in February 1913, Europe seemed to be teetering on the edge of a much wider war. Austria-Hungary, fearing the growth of Serbian power, was determined to prevent Serbia from gaining access to the sea through its newly-conquered territory in Albania, and mobilized eight army corps along its borders with Serbia and Russia to intimidate the small Slavic kingdom and its powerful patron. The Russians felt obliged to back up their Slavic cousins in Serbia, and although the Council of Ministers in St. Petersburg ultimately decided against counter-mobilization, they quietly retained that year’s army recruits in service, raising their military strength along the Austrian border without actually mobilizing. Austria-Hungary was supported by its ally Germany, Russia by its ally France, and France by its informal ally Britain. The two alliance blocs were facing off in an alignment foreshadowing the First World War.

Indeed, while most of the leaders of Europe’s Great Powers were privately skeptical about the wisdom of going to war, keeping the peace wasn’t a simple matter. Then, as now, foreign policy decision-making was dominated by considerations of “prestige”—the somewhat nebulous but very real measure of a country’s power based on perceptions of its military might, economic strength, internal cohesion, domestic political support, and history of keeping (or breaking) promises to other countries. With the demands of prestige always in the forefront of their minds, Europe’s leaders were determined not to look weak in front of their peers, which meant they couldn’t appear to give way in the face of intimidation. And that made it much more difficult to defuse the situation in Eastern Europe, where neither Russia nor Austria-Hungary felt they could afford to back down because of a military threat.

To work out a peaceful solution that avoided diminishing anyone’s prestige, the Great Powers convened at the Conference of London in December 1912, where negotiations over the new shape of the Balkans would (hopefully) help end the military standoff. Despite the continued warfare between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire, the Conference made progress: in December the Great Powers—including Russia—all agreed to recognize Albanian independence, and by February 1913 the Serbs had given up their claim to the Albanian port city of Durazzo (Durrës), satisfying the first Austro-Hungarian demand. However the Serbs’ Montenegrin allies still hoped to capture Scutari, which Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold, wanted to give to Albania, and the Serbs were also determined to hold on to Dibra (Debar) and Jakova (Dakovica), two inland market towns which Berchtold also believed should go to Albania.

With negotiations threatening to deadlock and troops standing guard on both sides of the border, Franz Josef, the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, decided to intervene directly by reaching out to Tsar Nicholas II. While not totally unheard of, this kind of personal engagement was rare; even in the old-fashioned dynastic states of Eastern Europe, where the monarchs set overall policy, they still usually left the conduct of foreign affairs, like the rest of the business of government, to their ministers and their subordinates.

After recovering from his surprise, Count Berchtold readily agreed to the Emperor’s proposal to send one of Austria’s most illustrious noblemen, Gottfried Maximilian Maria, Prince zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, Ratibor und Corvey, to St. Petersburg bearing a personal letter from Franz Josef asking the Tsar for peace. Hohenlohe was an astute choice for this mission: in addition to impeccable aristocratic credentials, he had previously served as the Austro-Hungarian military attaché in St. Petersburg for five years, during which time he became a personal friend of Nicholas II and therefore a “court favorite.”

Prince Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst left Vienna for St. Petersburg on February 1, 1913, and was granted an audience with the Tsar on February 4. After presenting the emperor’s letter, during several subsequent meetings with the Tsar and Sazonov, the prince emphasized that the Austro-Hungarian mobilization along the Russian and Serbian frontiers was purely defensive, and Austria-Hungary had no intention of attacking Serbia, provided the Serbs were willing to compromise. Meanwhile Austria-Hungary might be willing to cancel some of its military preparations if Russia was willing to do the same.

Of course, the first part wasn’t strictly true: Austria-Hungary’s mobilization along the Serbian border was clearly intended to convey a threat of offensive action if Serbia didn’t conform to Vienna’s wishes. Diplomatic double-speak aside, Prince Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst’s mission played a major role in defusing the tension between Austria-Hungary and Russia by demonstrating goodwill and opening a personal channel of communication between the two monarchs; now the rest of the issues separating the two empires could be resolved. At Sazonov’s urging Serbia soon gave up its claim to Scutari (although the stubborn Montenegrins continued to lay siege to the city, foreshadowing yet another crisis) and in return Count Berchtold agreed to let Serbia keep Dibra and Jakova. Military de-escalation came not long after.

But the peaceful conclusion of the Albanian Crisis in 1913 didn’t prevent the catastrophe of 1914—and may even have contributed to it. For one thing, opinion in most European capitals was divided between a “war party” and a “peace party,” and the hawks came away feeling they gave up too much in the compromise. In St. Petersburg, Russian nationalists and Pan-Slavs criticized the Tsar and Sazonov for selling out their Slavic cousins yet again, while in Vienna the extraordinarily belligerent chief of the general staff, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf, complained that Austria-Hungary had missed a major opportunity to settle accounts with Serbia.

Their allies voiced similar feelings. In late February 1913, Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, the British officer in charge of coordinating military plans with France, told London that top French generals believed war was coming, and wanted to fight Germany sooner rather than later. And in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II and chief of the general staff Helmuth von Moltke, who’d grown increasingly paranoid about encirclement over the course of the crisis, also viewed war as inevitable. Indeed, on February 10, 1913, Moltke wrote to Conrad warning that “a European war must come sooner or later in which ultimately the struggle will be one between Germanism and Slavism…”

See all installments of the World War I Centennial series here.

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February 5, 2013 - 11:00pm
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