World War I Centennial: Austria-Hungary Mobilizes Against Russia


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 45th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

November 21, 1912: Austria-Hungary Mobilizes Against Russia

The Balkan League’s triumph over the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, and subsequent dismembering of Turkish territory in the Balkans, provoked an international crisis that threatened to touch off a general European war.

After defeating the Turks at Kumanovo, Serbian armies seized Ottoman territory that would have doubled the size of the kingdom, had Serbia been allowed to keep it all. The territories claimed by Serbia in November 1912 included Albania, which would give Serbia its long-hoped-for access to the Adriatic Sea, including the important port of Durazzo (Durrës).

The Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Count Berchtold (pictured), fearing the growth of Serbian power and its effect on Austria-Hungary’s restive Slavic population, decided to stop the Serbs from getting access to the sea through diplomacy and, if necessary, military action; for the same reason he also vowed to stop Serbia’s sidekick, Montenegro, from taking the important city of Scutari. Instead of letting Serbia and Montenegro expand to the sea, Berchtold proposed (to the other European Great Powers) that both cities would be part of new, independent nation, Albania.

This put Austria-Hungary on a collision course not only with Serbia but the small Slavic kingdom’s patron and protector, Russia – which in turn raised the possibility of involvement by Russia’s ally, France, and Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany. In short, the dispute over a possible Serbian port on the Adriatic Sea outlined the dynamic that would push Europe into catastrophe less than two years later.

The conflict moved into crisis mode when Serbian forces reached the Adriatic Sea at Alessio (Albanian: Lezhë), 50 miles north of Durazzo, for the first time on November 17, 1912. Growing frantic, on November 21, 1912, Berchtold ratcheted up the tension by asking the Emperor Franz Josef to mobilize three army corps – the I, X, and XI – in the northeastern province of Galicia, along the Russian border, and partially mobilize three more – the IV, VII, and XIII – near Serbia.

There could only be one interpretation for these moves, which were clearly intended to intimidate Serbia and its Russian backers: Serbia would have to give up its hopes for a port on the Adriatic Sea, or Austria-Hungary would enforce its will by invading Serbia – and fighting Russia too, if the latter came to Serbia’s assistance.

Of course, it was possible that Franz Josef and Berchtold were bluffing – that was for the Russians to guess. On one hand, they’d only mobilized six out of a total 15 Austro-Hungarian army corps, which suggested their hearts weren’t set on war; on the other hand, the government in Vienna felt it had already suffered a major loss of prestige in the First Balkan War, so it might just be desperate enough to start a much bigger fight.

At first, the Russians weren’t inclined to back down in the face of Austro-Hungarian intimidation. In fact, on November 23, 1912, Tsar Nicholas II told his Council of Ministers that he had decided to mobilize three Russian army districts – Kiev, Warsaw, and Odessa – in response to the Austro-Hungarian mobilization. Of course, this might trigger counter-mobilization by Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany, which could quickly lead to a European war, as it actually did in 1914. On November 22, 1912, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II had promised Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, that Germany would back up Austria-Hungary in a war, and on November 17, the French premier Raymond Poincare assured the Russian ambassador that France would back up Russia. The stage was set for a conflagration.

The Russians Stand Down

Fortunately, internal divisions in St. Petersburg helped avert further escalation. The Council of Ministers, furious that Nicholas II had bypassed them in ordering mobilization, demanded that he cancel the orders. At the same time, France, Germany, and Britain were scrambling to arrange a diplomatic meeting that would allow them to iron out the complicated situation in the Balkans; the Conference of London, which first met in December 1912, ended up preventing Serbia from expanding to the sea, satisfying Austro-Hungarian demands.

But the Russian stand-down ultimately contributed to a dynamic that would eventually result in war. Most importantly, Count Berchtold and other Austro-Hungarian officials drew the (incorrect) conclusion that Serbia and Russia would always respond to military intimidation, leading them to take a more aggressive stance in future crises. Meanwhile Nicholas II, angry at being sidelined by the Imperial Council, began to assume a more autocratic role in Russian government; he was also sensitive to criticism from Russian “Pan-Slavs” that he had sold out their Serbians cousins, which prompted him to be more assertive in future crises as well.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.