The Ultimatum Plan

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 128th installment in the series.

July 7-9, 1914: The Ultimatum Plan

After receiving promises of German support for their planned war against Serbia, on July 7, 1914 Emperor Franz Josef left for his summer retreat at Bad Ischl while his council of ministers met again in Vienna to consider their options. But first there was one more person who had to be persuaded: the Hungarian Premier Count István Tisza (left).

Wikimedia Commons

As the political leader of the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy, the approval of this elder statesman was indispensable, and it was by no means certain they would get it: The conservative Magyar aristocrats who ran Hungary felt their kingdom already included too many restive Slavs, and as their representative Tisza was bound to oppose any plan that involved annexing Serbian territory. This presented a conundrum, as the Austrians intended to eliminate Serbia as an independent state. So where, exactly, would it go?

Foreign Minister Berchtold (center) hit on a clever solution, promising Tisza that Austria-Hungary would not take any territory for itself; instead, most of Serbia’s lands would be turned over to its neighbors, Bulgaria and Albania, and a puppet government installed for whatever was left (top). This promise may have been disingenuous—after expending blood and treasure, Vienna was unlikely to give up its gains so easily—but it placated the Hungarian premier, who could now reassure his constituents the Empire wasn’t going to absorb any more Slavs.

To accommodate Tisza, Berchtold also gave up his idea of a surprise attack on Serbia, which the Hungarian premier warned would provoke Russia, and agreed to Tisza’s demand that they instead use diplomacy to engineer a plausible pretext for war. Tisza explained his conditions in a letter to Emperor Franz Josef on July 8:

Any such attack on Serbia would, as far as can humanly be foreseen, bring upon the scene the intervention of Russia and with it a world war … Hence in my opinion Serbia should be given the opportunity to avoid war by means of a severe diplomatic defeat, and if war were to result after all, it must be demonstrated before the eyes of all the world that we stand on a basis of legitimate self-defense…

This was the origin of the ultimatum plan, a tricky stratagem intended to make it look like Austria-Hungary sought a peaceful resolution before resorting to force. Basically, Berchtold proposed sending Belgrade an ultimatum with conditions so outrageous the Serbs could never accept them, giving Austria-Hungary the excuse it needed for war. Above all, Berchtold and chief of the general staff Conrad (right) agreed, Austria-Hungary had to avoid being forced into a negotiated solution by the other Great Powers, as it had at the Conference of London. This time, they were going to deal with Serbia once and for all.

One big question remained: Would Russia come to Serbia’s rescue? The Austrians and Germans tried to persuade themselves it wouldn’t for a number of reasons—some more convincing than others. For one thing, they hoped Tsar Nicholas II would refuse to take the side of assassins, especially as several of his predecessors had been murdered. They also guessed that while Russia was arming rapidly, it wasn’t yet prepared for war. Finally, they expected France and Britain to exercise a restraining influence on their ally.

All these assumptions proved false. True, Nicholas II was no friend to regicides, but Serbia had a king of its own and the Russians could always dispute the evidence linking Sarajevo to Serbia. Second, although Russia remained far from her ideal strength, in January and February 1914, the tsar’s ministers concluded they were ready for war with Germany and Austria-Hungary on land. Third, far from exerting a restraining influence, ever since the Second Moroccan Crisis the French had been urging Russia to be more assertive. Finally, the Germans and Austrians failed to appreciate that Russia (having alienated Bulgaria) couldn’t afford to lose Serbia, its sole remaining ally in the Balkans.

In truth, they never quite bought their own arguments anyway. On July 6, the same day Kaiser Wilhelm II assured acting Navy Minister Capelle he “did not anticipate major military complications,” the German undersecretary for foreign affairs, Arthur Zimmerman, told Alexander von Hoyos, the Austro-Hungarian emissary who obtained German backing for war, “Yes, 90 percent probability for a European war if you undertake something against Serbia.” The next day, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg admitted to his friend Kurt Riezler that an attack on Serbia “can lead to a world war,” and Berchtold in Vienna told the council of ministers “he was clear in his own mind that a war with Russia would be the most probable consequence of entering Serbia.” (He later doctored the minutes to say war “might” result.) 

How can we make sense of this strange “double-think,” in which the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary seemed to hold two contradictory ideas in their minds at the same time? In the end, it may have reflected the sense of fatalism prevailing in both capitals. Berlin and Vienna clearly hoped Russia would stay out of a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia—but also rationalized that if Russia took Serbia’s side, it would be an opportunity to settle accounts with the great eastern empire before she grew any stronger. In the same vein, they hoped France and Britain wouldn’t come to Russia’s aid—but if they did, it was merely proof Germany and Austria-Hungary were victims of a conspiracy of encirclement, which they had to break through before it was too late.

German fear of encirclement always loomed in the background. On July 7, 1914, Riezler recorded his impressions of his talk with Bethmann-Hollweg:

The secret reports that he shares with me present an alarming picture. He regards the Anglo-Russian naval staff talks … as very serious, the last link in the chain … Russia’s military power growing fast; their strategic construction [of railroads] in Poland making them unstoppable. Austria grows ever weaker and more immobile … The future belongs to Russia, which grows and grows into an ever greater weight pressing down on our chest. 

In this context, following years of mounting anxiety and confrontation, the decision for war emerged with inexorable logic and developed an irresistible momentum all its own; the hand of Fate was beginning to move, and as Bethmann-Hollweg warned Riezler, the outcome would mean “the overthrow of everything that exists.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

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Roomba/Amazon

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Microsoft/Amazon

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Apple/Amazon

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15 Moving Facts About Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987).
Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987).
Paramount Pictures

Steve Martin and John Candy starred in the holiday movie classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles, writer/director John Hughes’s first big foray away from writing about teenage angst. Martin played Neal Page, a marketing executive who is desperate to get back home to Chicago to see his wife and kids for Thanksgiving, but along the way is thoroughly aggravated by shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (Candy) and the many, many, many mishaps that befall the two throughout their travels. Here are some facts about the film that are not pillows.

1. Planes, Trains and Automobiles was inspired by John Hughes’s own hellish trip trying to get from New York City To Chicago.

Before he became a screenwriter, Hughes used to work as a copywriter for the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago. One day he had an 11 a.m. presentation scheduled in New York City on a Wednesday, and planned to return home on a 5 p.m. flight. Winter winds forced all flights to Chicago to be canceled that night, so he stayed in a hotel. A snowstorm in Chicago the next day continued the delays. The plane he eventually got on ended up being diverted to Denver. Then Phoenix. Hughes didn’t make it back until Monday. Experiencing such a hellish trip might explain how Hughes managed to write the first 60 pages of Planes, Trains and Automobiles in just six hours.

2. Howard Deutch was originally supposed to direct Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Deutch directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful for Hughes. Hughes decided to direct himself after Steve Martin signed on. Deutch got to direct The Great Outdoors instead.

3. Steve Martin thought the script for Planes, Trains and Automobiles was too long.

The comedian, who had written his own screenplays, thought the 145-page length of the script was a lot for a comedy. When Martin asked Hughes where he thought they might cut scenes, Hughes was confused by the question. Martin later claimed that the first cut of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was four and a half hours long.

4. John Hughes acted out the entire movie to a publicist hoping to work on Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Reid Rosefelt went in to meet Hughes for the unit publicist position. Rosefelt recalled in his blog that he found it strange, but admirable, that Hughes did not allow Rosefelt to see the script to the movie he would potentially work on and promote beforehand. After the two grew more comfortable with one another at their meeting, Rosefelt asked what the movie was about—he only knew Steve Martin and John Candy were starring and it was called Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Hughes then performed the entire movie for him. Rosefelt didn’t get the job.

5. John Candy arrived to shoot Planes, Trains and Automobiles with exercise equipment in tow.

On the first day of shooting, the crew brought in treadmills, weights, and other exercise equipment for Candy to use in his hotel suite. Martin said Candy didn’t use any of it.

6. The entirety of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was meant to be shot in Chicago, but there wasn’t enough snow.

Some exterior scenes were filmed in Buffalo, New York. Martin said that the cast and crew pretty much lived the plot of the movie. “As we would shoot, we were hopping planes, trains, and automobiles, trying to find snow.”

7. The constant delays on production on Planes, Trains and Automobiles were very beneficial to one actor.

In John Hughes: A Life in Film, Kirk Honeycutt wrote that one actor, who played a truck driver, was only supposed to have one line and work for one day. Hughes chose to keep him on standby. The actor ended up working enough days while the crew waited for the snow to come that he was able to make a down payment on a house. It’s very possible this was Troy Evans, who was uncredited, as the shy truck driver in the movie. He went on to appear, credited, on ER for the show’s final five seasons as Frank Martin.

8. Edie Mcclurg’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles improvisations impressed John Hughes.

McClurg, probably best known as Grace, Principal Rooney’s secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, played the St. Louis car rental employee upon whom Neal dropped 18 F-bombs. For the first few takes, McClurg simply raised her finger and had a standard phone conversation with a customer. Then Hughes told her to improvise talking on the phone about Thanksgiving. She then came up with the stuff about needing roasted marshmallows and taking care of the crescent rolls because she can’t cook based on her own life. When she finished, Hughes asked her how she came up with those details so quickly. When McClurg explained she just got it from her own life just like he does with his scripts, he said, “Oh yeah!” She claims people to this day ask her to tell them they’re f*cked.

9. Steve Martin and Edie McClurg's F-bomb-filled exchange earned Planes, Trains and Automobiles an R rating.

That sweary tirade between Martin and McClurg is reportedly one of the scenes that made Martin want to make the movie. Its overuse of the word f*ck is also apparently what pushed the movie's rating from PG-13 to R.

10. In one scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Susan Page is watching She’s Having A Baby—another John Hughes movie.

In the scene that goes back and forth between Neal trying to sleep next to Del clearing his sinuses and Neal’s wife (Laila Robins) watching TV alone in their bed, she is somehow watching She’s Having a Baby, which wouldn’t be released in theaters until February of the following year. Kevin Bacon stars in that movie, and made a cameo in Planes as the guy who out-hustles Neal in getting a cab. Some people believe Bacon—who was officially listed in the credits as “Taxi Racer”—was playing his She’s Having a Baby character, Jake, in that scene.

11. A scene in a strip club was cut from Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

After their car blew up, Neal and Del went inside a strip club to use a phone, where Del got distracted by the dancers. Actress Debra Lamb didn’t know that her scene was cut until she went to a screening.

12. Jeri Ryan was cut from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but her scene wasn’t.

It was the actress’s first role. She was one of the passengers on the bus ride and couldn’t help but laugh at Martin and Candy’s antics. They re-shot the scenes without her.

13. Elton John wrote a song for Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Carlo Allegri, Getty Images

Elton John and lyricist Gary Osborne were almost finished writing the theme song when Paramount insisted on ownership of the recording master, which John’s record company would not allow. The song has never been released.

14. In the original ending of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Del followed Neal all the way home.

Hughes decided during the editing process that instead, John Candy’s character would be “a noble person” and finally take the hint from Martin’s character, and let Neal return home alone, before Neal has a change of heart and finds Del again.

15. In the scene where Neal thinks about Del on the train in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Steve Martin didn’t know the camera was on.

In order to get the new ending he wanted, Hughes and editor Paul Hirsch went back to look for footage they previously didn’t think would be used. Hughes had kept the cameras rolling in between takes on the Chicago train, without his lead’s knowledge, while Martin was thinking about his next lines. Hughes thought Martin had a “beautiful expression” on his face in that unguarded moment.