The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 127th installment in the series.
July 5, 1914: Germany Gives Austria-Hungary a “Blank Check”
The “blank check” is an infamous episode in the history of the First World War; the first truly fatal error made by Germany – a promise of unconditional support for whatever action Austria-Hungary might take to punish Serbia.
In the days following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, key officials in Vienna decided the time had come to crush Serbia, long a thorn in the side of the Dual Monarchy. But Austria-Hungary still needed an official promise of support from Germany. This was the background to the “Hoyos Mission” of July 4-5, 1914, when Foreign Minister Berchtold dispatched his chief of staff, Count Alexander von Hoyos (above), to Berlin with a personal letter from Franz Josef to Kaiser Wilhelm II. The elderly emperor was unambiguous:
The attack directed against my poor nephew is the direct consequence of the agitation carried on by the Russian and Serbian Pan-Slavists whose sole aim is the weakening of the Triple Alliance and the destruction of my Empire… [I]t is no longer an affair at Sarajevo of the single bloody deed of an individual but of a well-organized conspiracy, of which the threads reach to Belgrade… [T]he continuance of this state of things constitutes a constant danger to my house and to my realm.
Franz Josef then proposed a new balance of power in the Balkans reconciling Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and the Ottoman Empire – “But this will not be possible unless Serbia which is at present the pivot of Pan-Slavist policy is eliminated as a political factor in the Balkans.” In other words, the key to peace in the Balkans was the destruction of Serbia. An attached memorandum emphasized the Pan-Slav threat to Germany:
Russia's policy of encirclement directed against the Monarchy… has for its final aim to make it impossible for the German Empire to resist the aims of Russia or her political and economic supremacy. For these reasons those in charge of the foreign policy of Austria-Hungary are convinced that it is in the common interest of the Monarchy, as in that of Germany, to oppose energetically and in time in this phase of the Balkan crisis, the development foreseen and encouraged by Russia by a pre-concerted plan.
The letter and memo included nothing like a point-blank demand for support – Austrian diplomacy was both too proud and too delicate for that – but they left no doubt that Austria-Hungary was asking for German backing in a very risky venture that might involve war with Russia. The Austro-Hungarian ambassador, Count Szőgyény, certainly made the request crystal clear when he lunched with Wilhelm on July 5, while in a separate meeting Hoyos put the case to German undersecretary for foreign affairs Arthur Zimmerman (filling in for Foreign Secretary Jagow, on his Swiss honeymoon).
Over lunch, Wilhelm told Szőgyény he understood the need for “severe measures” against Serbia, adding, “he did not in the least doubt that [Chancellor] Bethmann von Hollweg would entirely agree with his own view” in favor of war. The German attitude was confirmed by Zimmerman, who told Hoyos that Germany “regarded immediate intervention against Serbia as the most radical and best solution of our difficulties in the Balkans.”
That evening, the Kaiser met with Bethmann-Hollweg, Zimmerman, and chief of the general staff Helmuth von Moltke, and informed them of his tentative promise of support to Szőgyény, which they of course approved. Around 10 p.m. on July 5, Szőgyény telegraphed Berchtold in Vienna that they could count on Germany’s “full support,” come what may, and the next day Bethmann-Hollweg said Franz Josef could “rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance...”
The Germans seemed remarkably relaxed after the meetings on July 5: no one thought it necessary to recall Foreign Secretary Jagow from his honeymoon, and the next day the Kaiser left for his annual summer cruise aboard the royal yacht in the Norwegian fjords while the ailing Moltke returned to his own extended vacation – a “spa cure” in Karlsbad, Bohemia.
The Germans managed to convince themselves the Russians wouldn’t back up Serbia, but this proved to be wishful thinking. Indeed, the Russians were already beginning to express unease. On July 6, Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov warned the Austro-Hungarian charge d’affaires in St. Petersburg, Count Otto von Czernin, that it would be “dangerous” for Austria-Hungary to try to trace the Sarajevo conspiracy back to Serbia, adding that St. Petersburg would object to any excessive demands on Belgrade. But Sazonov’s warnings, like others to come, were dismissed as “bluff.”
The “blank check” of July 5 was above all an act of negligence by Germany, in part because it failed to address important details like the timing of all subsequent moves. Berlin expected Vienna to take swift action against Serbia while the Sarajevo murders were still fresh, delivering a sudden fait accompli to the Triple Entente and thus (maybe) decreasing the chances of a wider war. What they got instead were the classic Austrian traits that always drove the efficient Prussians crazy: indecision, prevarication, and delay.
It started on July 6, when chief of the general staff Conrad belatedly announced that many of the Dual Monarchy’s units were away on summer leave, including most of the Hungarian troops, who were helping bring in the early harvest. This embarrassing turn of events – the first of many in store for Austria-Hungary – meant mobilization couldn’t be ordered until around July 25 at the earliest. And the longer they waited, the more time Russia, France, and Britain would have to confer and work out a coordinated response.