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 129th installment in the series.
July 14, 1914: “A Leap In the Dark”
On July 14, 1914—the day Austria-Hungary’s leaders finally decided on war with Serbia—Germany’s Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg told his friend and advisor, the philosopher Kurt Riezler, that Germany was about to take “a leap in the dark” by backing the plan. But to be honest, Germany and Austria-Hungary were already operating in the dark, stepping on each other’s toes as they stumbled towards war.
By mid-July, Berlin and Vienna had agreed on exactly one thing: Austria-Hungary was going to use the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as a pretext to crush Serbia, which would (hopefully) end the threat of Pan-Slav nationalism once and for all. But all the critical details, including the timing of the attack, remained undecided.
To be fair, nothing was ever simple in Austria-Hungary, especially if it involved big decisions, which were avoided whenever possible. When an important decision simply had to be made, it required consultation and consent from both the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Empire. In this case, Imperial Foreign Minister Count Berchtold and chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf (both Austrians) had to convince Hungarian Premier Count István Tisza to support their war plan. But Tisza was not the kind of man to be maneuvered into a decision he disagreed with, even if it had the support of Emperor Franz Josef himself.
Following the first crown council on July 7, Tisza still had serious reservations about the plan to attack Serbia, warning it could easily lead to war with Serbia’s patron Russia. To reduce the risk, he demanded that Austria-Hungary first present its case diplomatically by documenting Serbian involvement followed by a “last chance” for Serbia to knuckle under. This was the origin of the ultimatum plan devised by Berchtold as a diplomatic fig leaf: Austria-Hungary would gather evidence of Serbian complicity and then present Belgrade with demands so outrageous the Serbs would have to reject them.
From July 10 to 14, 1914, everything finally came together to sway Tisza to the war party. First his demand for evidence was satisfied by the investigation of Baron Friedrich von Wiesner, who arrived in Sarajevo on July 11 and on July 13 sent a preliminary report that cleared Serbia’s government of involvement but traced the plot back to Serbian army officers, stating there was “hardly a doubt that the crime was resolved upon in Belgrade, and prepared with the cooperation of Serbian officials…"
Around this time, the Austrians also received a promise of neutrality from Romania in the event of war, removing another source of hesitation for Tisza, who feared unrest in Hungary’s Romanian population. But the trump card was the attitude of Berlin. Tisza knew that Austria-Hungary depended on Germany for security, and Berchtold pounded home the message that Berlin expected Vienna to settle the Serbian problem now—and if it didn’t, the exasperated Germans might decide the alliance wasn’t worth the trouble.
The foreign minister could point to a string of messages from Berlin urging action (in a typically Byzantine ruse, Berchtold may have secretly asked the Germans to send these messages to help him convince Tisza). On July 12, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, Count Szőgyény, advised Vienna that “Kaiser Wilhelm and all other responsible personages here … invite us not to let the present moment pass but to take vigorous measures against Serbia and make a clean sweep of the revolutionary conspirators’ nest there once and for all.” As for the risk of a wider war, the Germans believed “It is by no means certain that if Serbia becomes involved in a war with us, Russia would resort to arms in her support… The German Government further believes it has sure indications that England at the present moment would not join in a war over a Balkan country…”
As a conservative nobleman, Tisza’s main goal was maintaining the traditional order, which above all meant preserving the Hapsburg monarchy, the source of all political legitimacy. On top of this and evidence of Serbian complicity, German pressure finally tipped the balance, and at a second meeting of the crown council on July 14, 1914, Tisza agreed to the plan for an ultimatum followed by war. This should have been cause for rejoicing in Vienna and Berlin—but now the allies found themselves at odds over timing, as the Germans pressed for immediate action and the Austrians pleaded for delay.
The first problem was the discovery by chief of the general staff Conrad that a large part of Austria-Hungary’s military was away on summer leave until late July. Second, Berchtold and his fellow ministers knew that French President Raymond Poincaré and Premier René Viviani were due to visit France’s ally Russia from July 20-23; if the ultimatum became public while they were still guests of Tsar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg, the French and Russian leaders would be able to confer in person and work out a coordinated response to the Austrian gambit—exactly what Berchtold didn’t want. On the other hand, if Austria-Hungary waited until after the visit to send the ultimatum, the French leaders would be at sea and relatively isolated, as long-distance ship-to-shore radio communications were still dodgy at best. The sudden death of the Russian ambassador to Serbia, Baron Nicholas Hartwig, on July 10 could only add to the confusion (hugely obese, Hartwig died of a heart attack while visiting the Austro-Hungarian embassy, fueling gossip of a covert assassination).
Beginning with the crown council on July 14, the Austrians formulated a plan employing deception on a grand scale. They would deliver the ultimatum to Serbia on the evening of July 23, after Poincaré and Viviani were safely at sea, and give Belgrade 48 hours to respond, so they could proceed immediately to mobilization on July 25. Until then, however, Vienna and Berlin would avoid any hint of belligerence in order to lull Russia, France and Britain into a false sense of security.
The Germans weren’t happy about Vienna’s decision to wait until late July, reasoning it was better to strike now in the hopes of catching the Triple Entente flat-footed. On July 11 Riezler recorded Bethmann-Hollweg’s attitude: “[The Austrians] apparently require a frightfully long time to mobilize… That is very dangerous. A quick fait accompli, and then friendly toward the Entente, then we could survive the shock.” In the same vein, on July 13 the German chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke (on vacation in Karlsbad, Bohemia) urged, “Austria must beat the Serbs and then make peace quickly.”
The Italian Question
Berlin and Vienna also disagreed on the critical question of whether to inform Italy, the unreliable third member of the Triple Alliance, about their plans. The only way Italy might be persuaded to join them in a war of aggression was the promise of territorial concessions—specifically Austria’s own ethnic Italian lands in the Trentino and Trieste (top and below, in red), long coveted by Italian nationalists as the final missing piece of a united Italy. But the Germans and Austrians didn’t see eye-to-eye on this issue: While the Germans were quite comfortable offering up chunks of their ally, the Austrians were understandably reluctant to give up lands that had been part of the Hapsburg patrimony for centuries.
As early as June 30, the German ambassador to Vienna, Tschirschky, urged Berchtold to consult Italy, and on July 2 he repeated the advice to Emperor Franz Josef, but the Austrians brushed off the German concerns. The issue reemerged in the following weeks, when it became clear Italy might not stand idly by if Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia. On July 10, Italy’s Foreign Minister San Giuliano (above) warned the German ambassador, Baron Ludwig von Flotow, that Italy would have to be compensated for any expansion by Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, naming Austrian Trentino as the price. Increasingly alarmed by the Italian attitude, on July 15 Germany’s Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow again urged Austria-Hungary to take Italy into her confidence in a message to Tschirschky, the German ambassador in Vienna:
There is no doubt in my mind that in an Austro-Serbian conflict, [Italian public opinion] would side with Serbia. A territorial extension of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, even a further spread of its influence in the Balkans, is viewed with horror in Italy and regarded as an injury to Italy’s position there… It is therefore in my opinion of the highest importance that Vienna should discuss with the Rome Cabinet the aims it proposes to pursue in the conflict and should bring it over to its side or… [at least] keep it strictly neutral… In strict confidence, the only compensation regarded as adequate in Italy would be the acquisition of the Trentino.
But once again, the German warnings fell on deaf ears in Vienna. Frustrated by Vienna’s repeated refusals, the Germans took matters into their own hands on July 11, when Flotow tried to get the ball rolling by secretly outlining Austria-Hungary’s plans in a meeting with Foreign Minister San Giuliano. Even worse from the Austro-Hungarian (and later German) perspective, the leak began spreading as San Giuliano sent telegrams to Italy’s ambassadors across Europe, warning that Austria-Hungary was planning something big. Because all the Great Powers routinely eavesdropped on diplomatic communications, Russian intelligence probably decrypted the Italian messages and informed Russian diplomats, who in turn spread the word to France and Britain. Thus Poincaré and Viviani likely knew something was afoot when they met the tsar and his ministers from July 20 to 23, giving them plenty of time to coordinate their response.