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 132nd installment in the series.
July 23-24, 1914: “This Is the European War!”
On the evening of July 23, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Belgrade, Baron Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen, delivered an ultimatum to the Serbian foreign ministry accusing Serbia of complicity in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and presenting a series of demands, including two that no sovereign government could accept: the participation of Austro-Hungarian officials first in Serbia’s internal investigation, and then in the suppression of anti-Austrian subversion in Serbia.
Serbia was bound to reject these conditions, setting the stage for Austria-Hungary to declare war on the small Slavic kingdom, which would very likely bring Russia hurrying to her aid. Disaster was now imminent, but there was still a chance for peace—if only Austria-Hungary could be persuaded to accept a lesser humiliation of Serbia, or at least extend the time limit on the ultimatum to allow negotiations. But Austria-Hungary, determined to avoid another compromise solution, continued to ignore warnings from the other Great Powers until it was too late.
The Austrian Ultimatum
The crisis struck in the middle of a crucial Serbian election that found Prime Minister Nikola Pašić and other key cabinet members off campaigning in the countryside when Baron Giesl delivered the Austrian note to the foreign ministry at 6pm on July 23. Presenting the document to Finance Minister Lazar Paču (filling in for Pašić) Giesl said the Serbian government had 48 hours to respond—and if the response proved unsatisfactory, the Austrian legation would leave Belgrade immediately.
Even before reading the note, Paču understood that the threat to break off diplomatic relations meant war was imminent. Hoping to buy time, he told Giesl that Pašić and most of the other ministers were away, making it difficult for the cabinet to meet on such short notice. But the Austrian ambassador simply left the note on the desk in front of the finance minister, saying the Serbs could do as they wished. The clock was now ticking.
The handful of ministers present read the document and immediately realized its import, according to Slavko Gruić, the secretary general of the foreign ministry, who later recalled: “For a while there was a deathly silence because no one ventured to be the first to express his thoughts. The first to break the silence was the Minister of the Interior, Ljuba Jovanović. After several times pacing the length of the spacious room, he stopped and said: ‘We have no other choice than to fight it out.’”
As the ministers desperately tried to locate and get in touch with Pašić (no easy thing in an age before cell phones), Paču immediately telegraphed all the Serbian embassies around Europe warning that the “demands upon us were such that no Serbian Government could accept them in their entirety.” Paču also informed the Russian charge d’affaires in Belgrade, Strandtmann, and later that night Prince Regent Alexander visited the Russian embassy to request diplomatic intervention on Serbia’s behalf.
Finally contacted by phone at a train station in southern Serbia, Pašić hurried back to Belgrade by 5am on July 24 and at once set diplomatic alarm bells ringing with messages to all the Great Powers, who were also about to receive copies of the Austrian ultimatum. The only hope for Serbia now lay in the Great Powers convincing Austria-Hungary to accept less than full compliance with the ultimatum or agreeing to extend the deadline.
On July 24, the British charge d’affaires, Dayrell Crackanthorpe, reported to Foreign Secretary Edward Grey in London: “Prime Minister who returned to Belgrade early this morning is very anxious and dejected. He begged me earnestly to convey to you his hope that His Majesty’s Government will use their good offices in moderating Austrian demands which he says are impossible of acceptance.” Meanwhile Prince Regent Alexander contacted his uncle, Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III, to request that he “use his good offices in Vienna in favor of an extension of the time limit and a softening of those terms of the ultimatum which conflict with Serbian law.” Alexander also sent a personal note to Tsar Nicholas II, stating,
We cannot defend ourselves. Therefore we pray Your Majesty to lend help as soon as possible. Your Majesty has given us so many proofs of your precious good will and we confidently hope that this appeal will find an echo in your generous Slav heart. I am the interpreter of the feelings of the Serbian nation which in this dark hour prays Your Majesty graciously to intervene on behalf of the destinies of Serbia. Alexander.
European Shock Waves
These pleas for help and the near-simultaneous arrival of the text of the Austrian ultimatum sent shock waves across Europe. On learning of the ultimatum around 10am St. Petersburg time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov exclaimed in French: “C’est la guerre Européenne!” (“This is the European war!”). Furious, Sazonov berated the Austro-Hungarian ambassador, Count Szapáry: “I see what is going on… You are setting fire to Europe! It is a great responsibility you are assuming, you will see what sort of an impression you will make in London and in Paris and perhaps elsewhere. It will be considered an unjustified aggression.” That afternoon Sazonov advised the Serbian ambassador to St. Petersburg, Miroslav Spalajkovic, that Serbia should only accept those demands compatible with its national dignity—in short, not to give in—while Russia tried to defuse the crisis.
This was a tall order. For one thing, despite his warning to Szapáry, Sazonov’s diplomatic leverage was limited. Of course France would back Russia—but Germany and Austria-Hungary were already counting on this, and indeed anticipated conflict with the Franco-Russian alliance in the near future. The key was getting Britain, still on the sidelines, to join them in warning against rash moves. A firm warning from London at this juncture would probably have served to deter Berlin and Vienna, which had no desire for war with the world-straddling British Empire and its powerful navy, or at least brought them to the negotiating table.
The British were just as surprised by the Austrian demands on Serbia, which arrived in the middle of fraught negotiations over Irish home rule. In one of the most memorable accounts of the July crisis, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill recalled the cabinet meeting that was just winding down when the bombshell landed:
The discussion had reached its inconclusive end, and the Cabinet was about to separate, when the quiet grave tones of [Foreign Secretary] Sir Edward Grey’s voice were heard reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to Serbia. He had been reading or speaking for several minutes before I could disengage my mind from the tedious and bewildering debate which had just closed. We were all very tired, but gradually as the phrases and sentences followed one another, impressions of a wholly different character began to form in my mind. This note was clearly an ultimatum; but it was an ultimatum such as had never been penned in modern times. As the reading proceeded it seemed absolutely impossible that any State in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back in the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.
Grey himself remarked that he had “never before seen one State address to another independent State a document of so formidable a character.” The cabinet immediately understood that the situation called for swift, energetic diplomacy by all the Great Powers, including Britain, if peace was to prevail.
But the British hesitated to commit themselves fully for a number of reasons, beginning with their history of “splendid isolation” and determination to maintain an appearance of neutrality. Indeed Grey found himself performing a delicate balancing act: any open promise of British support for Russia, he feared, would simply encourage the Russians to be more aggressive in confronting Germany and Austria-Hungary, adding fuel to the fire. It also risked undoing all London’s efforts to reconcile with Berlin over the last few years. Rather, Grey hoped to use Britain’s role as a (supposedly) impartial observer to steer both sides away from armed conflict and towards the negotiating table, as before.
Unfortunately Grey’s efforts to appear impartial were a little too convincing. On July 23, he told the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to London, Count Albert von Mensdorff, that an overly-harsh ultimatum could lead to war between four Great Powers—France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary—crucially omitting to mention that Britain and Italy might get involved too. The next day he repeated the warning to the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, who reported to Berlin, “he expressly emphasized the figure four,” now leading Germany’s leaders to believe Britain would stay out of the war as well. Grey also told Lichnowsky “if the presentation of this ultimatum to Serbia did not lead to trouble between Austria and Russia, we need not concern ourselves about it,” confirming that Britain wouldn’t get involved as long as the conflict remained localized.
Furthermore Grey hoped that negotiations backed by Germany could keep the conflict from spreading, telling Lichnowsky that “Germany, Italy, France, and [Britain], should work together simultaneously at Vienna and St. Petersburg in favor of moderation.” But the British foreign secretary had obviously failed to deduce that Germany and Austria-Hungary were secretly acting in unison and thus the Germans—far from working for peace—were in fact egging the Austrians on. The Germans sowed even more confusion by pretending they had no influence over Austria-Hungary: on July 23 Foreign Secretary Jagow instructed Lichnowsky to tell Grey “that we had no knowledge of the Austrian demands and regarded them as an internal question for Austria-Hungary in which we had no competence to intervene.”
Meanwhile, the Austrians did everything they could to calm British anxieties by, well, lying: On July 24, Foreign Minister Count Berchtold telegraphed Ambassador Mensdorff in London with instructions “to make clear to Sir Edward Grey that our… [note] is not be regarded as a formal ultimatum... [and] if the time limit expires without result [it] will for the time being be followed only by the breaking off of diplomatic relations...” In other words, the ultimatum was not an ultimatum and Austria-Hungary wasn’t planning to go to war. Of course the British would eventually realize this wasn’t true—but the Austrians were just playing for time, hoping that by the time London realized what was really going on Serbia would be defeated and it would all be over.
Russia Prepares to Escalate
The Austrians tried the same trick on Russia, but St. Petersburg wasn’t buying it. In one of his more outrageous fibs, on July 24 Berchtold told the Russian charge d’affaires in Vienna, Prince Nikolai Kudashev, “nothing was further from our thoughts than the wish to humiliate Serbia … our aim was purely to clear up the untenable relations of Serbia with the Monarchy…” Presented with this laughable assertion, Kudashev asked what would happen if Serbia refused to meet the Austrian demands. Berchtold admitted that the Austrian legation would leave Belgrade, and Kudashev reached the glaringly obvious conclusion: “Then it is war!”
However, the Germans and Austrians still believed the Russians were bluffing, and clung to this belief in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. On July 24, the German ambassador to St. Petersburg, Friedrich Pourtalès, reported a meeting with Sazonov in which the Russian foreign minister
declared with the utmost decision that Russia could not possibly admit that the Austro-Serbian difference should be settled between the two parties alone… Austria could not be prosecutor and judge in her own cause… Sazonov added that in his belief Austria-Hungary was seeking a pretext to “swallow” Serbia. “In that case however,” he said, “Russia will go to war with Austria.”
Pourtalès was disturbed by Sazonov’s outburst, but oddly gave no sign of this in his report that evening, instead assuring Berlin “that Russia will not take up arms” unless Austria-Hungary tried to annex Serbian territory—something Vienna had promised not to do. The fact that no one took this promise seriously was simply ignored, another victim of wishful thinking, equal parts fatalism and fantasy, in the final days of July 1914.
Indeed a crisis atmosphere now prevailed in St. Petersburg, where Sazonov and other key ministers felt they had to back their threats with military action. On July 24, at their urging Tsar Nicholas II tentatively agreed to order a partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary if the latter didn’t back down.
But this decision reflected a fatal flaw in the Tsarist regime—the failure of civilian officials to understand how their own war plans actually worked. Because the Russian general staff hadn’t drawn up any plans for partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary; the only plan they had was for general mobilization against Germany as well as Austria-Hungary, based on the reasonable assumption that the two allies would fight together. Once the ministers discovered that partial mobilization was impossible, they faced a fateful choice: back down and let Serbia be crushed, or proceed to general mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The latter option was extraordinarily dangerous, because the German Schlieffen Plan counted on Russian mobilization lagging behind Germany’s, which would hopefully give German armies around six weeks to beat France in the west before redeploying to face the Russians in the east. The beginning of Russian mobilization would, in effect, start the clock on the Schlieffen Plan, with each passing moment leaving Germany less time to conquer France, increasing the pressure on Germany’s general staff to set the plan in motion.
On July 23, Kurt Riezler, the friend and confidant of Germany’s Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, recorded in his diary: “The Chancellor thinks that if war comes, it will come because of a sudden Russian mobilization, without any talks. Then there will be nothing left to discuss, because then we would need to strike immediately, in order to have any chance of winning. Then our whole people will feel the danger and support us.”