World War I Centennial: Italy Warns Austria-Hungary Not to Attack Serbia

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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 76th installment in the series. 

July 12, 1913: Italy Warns Austria-Hungary Not to Attack Serbia

By the summer of 1913, key Austro-Hungarian leaders were convinced that Serbia posed an existential threat which could only be dealt with militarily. The chief of the army’s general staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, had long called for war against Serbia, and the events of the First Balkan War helped bring the indecisive foreign minister, Count Berchtold, around to Conrad’s point of view. The outbreak of the Second Balkan War, when Serbia fought Bulgaria, seemed to offer another chance for Austria-Hungary to put Serbia in its place. On July 3, 1913, Berchtold warned the German ambassador, Heinrich von Tschirschky, that the Dual Monarchy would lose its Slavic territories if Serbia became any more powerful, and Tschirschky informed Berlin that Austria-Hungary was considering intervening against Serbia. Once again war loomed on the European horizon.

German leaders, their nerves strained by months of Balkan crises, were ambivalent about the prospect of their ally Austria-Hungary going to war just when a peaceful resolution seemed to have been achieved at the Conference of London; Kaiser Wilhelm II’s scribbled note on Tschirschky’s message read simply, “Completely crazy! So war after all!” But Germany was ready to back up her ally if it came to a fight.

The decisive factor keeping the peace this time was the attitude of Italy, the third member of the Triple Alliance. Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti foresaw that Austro-Hungarian intervention against Serbia would probably provoke Russia to act to protect its “Slavic brothers” in the Balkans, leading to a general European war, and instructed the Italian foreign minister, San Giuliano, to discourage Austria-Hungary from this dangerous course.

In a meeting on July 12, 1913, San Giuliano warned the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Rome, Kajetan von Mérey, that if Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia, it shouldn’t expect any help from Italy against Serbia’s ally Russia. True, under the terms of the Triple Alliance Italy was pledged to support Austria-Hungary if the latter were attacked—but the alliance was strictly defensive in nature, and if Austria-Hungary got itself embroiled in a conflict with Russia by attacking Serbia, Italy wouldn’t lift a finger.

In his report to Vienna, Mérey summarized San Giuliano’s warning and argument: “In view of the gravity of the situation he consulted with the Prime Minister and was obliged to inform me that Italy could not follow the Monarchy in this course. We should be seriously mistaken if we were to count on the passivity of Russia … the intervention of Russia would mean a European conflagration.” At the same time, “In the present case there is no question of imminent danger, nor in general of a serious threat to the existence of the Monarchy. These are hypothetical future perils which can be averted by quite other methods than war. An attack on Serbia by us would therefore constitute an offensive action … It would be impossible in this eventuality to want to invoke the Triple Alliance which is purely defensive in character…”

Austria-Hungary’s Count Berchtold took the hint and dropped the idea of war—for the time being, at least.

A Precedent Lost

In interpreting the terms of the Triple Alliance this way, Giolitti and San Giuliano were setting a precedent which could have helped avert disaster just over a year later: In July 1914, a similar warning, delivered in timely fashion, might have discouraged Vienna and Berlin from risking war, since they wouldn’t be able to count on Italy’s assistance.

The only problem was that Giolitti stepped down in March 1914, and was succeeded as prime minister by Antonio Salandra, a foreign policy novice who mostly followed San Giuliano’s lead. For his part, San Giuliano felt competent to manage Italy’s foreign affairs by himself; during the crisis of July 1914, he hoped to use the possibility of Italian cooperation as a bargaining chip to win territorial concessions from Austria-Hungary, so he never informed Salandra of the important precedent established in July 1913, when Giolitti put the brakes on Austria-Hungary’s plans for war. As a result the new prime minister didn’t realize it was possible—let alone urgently necessary—for Italy to make a similar intervention one year later.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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July 12, 2013 - 1:00pm
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