Austria-Hungary Rejects Serbia’s Response

King’s Academy

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 133rd installment in the series.

July 25-26, 1914: Austria-Hungary Rejects Serbia’s Response

The delivery of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914 triggered frantic activity across Europe as men of state tried to defuse the situation by getting Austria-Hungary to extend the deadline or soften the terms. But in the end their uncoordinated efforts were too little, too late—and it didn’t help that some of them were sending mixed messages.

Wrong Impressions

In the final hours before the Serbian response was received at 6pm on July 25, Austria-Hungary and Germany tried to persuade Europe’s other Great Powers not to get involved. Above all they hoped that France and Britain, which had no direct interest in Serbia, would urge moderation on Russia—and at first it looked like they might get their wish.

In Paris the text of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum was delivered to Justice Minister Jean-Baptiste Bienvenu-Martin, filling in for Premier (and Foreign Minister) René Viviani, who was still at sea with President Raymond Poincaré on the return journey from St. Petersburg. According to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Paris, Count Szécsen, Bienvenu-Martin seemed to understand the need for harsh measures, and the German ambassador, Wilhelm von Schoen, made a similar report, leading German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow to conclude that “France, too, desired a localization of the conflict.”

Meanwhile, in London, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey still refused to take sides. On July 25, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov instructed Russia’s ambassador to London, Alexander Benckendorff, to point out that

So long as it is possible to avert a European war, it is easier for England than for any other Power to exert a moderating influence on Austria…  It was therefore very desirable that England should firmly and clearly make it understood that she considers Austria’s action unjustified by the circumstances and extremely dangerous to European peace. 

That same day, Grey’s own assistant undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, Eyre Crowe, argued that Germany’s attitude would determine the outcome, and that London should therefore warn Berlin before it was too late: “The point that now matters is whether Germany is or is not absolutely determined to have this war now. There is still the chance that she can be made to hesitate, if she can be induced to apprehend that the war will find England by the side of France and Russia.”

But Grey was reluctant to make even veiled threats to Berlin and Vienna, hoping instead to offer Britain’s services as an impartial mediator between Austria-Hungary and Russia—obviously still failing to comprehend that Austria-Hungary was set on war with Serbia no matter what. He also continued to suggest that Germany join the other Great Powers in mediating the dispute, for example telling the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, Berlin could “influence the Austrian government to take a favorable view” of the Serbian response—again failing to understand that Germany was actually encouraging Austria-Hungary to spurn compromise and crush Serbia. 

The Germans and Austrians took French and British ambiguity as evidence that neither would come to Russia’s aid, which in turn made it unlikely that Russia herself would actually fight when the chips were down. Thus on the evening of July 25 Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg sent a telegram to Kaiser Wilhelm II (still enjoying a cruise in the Norwegian fjords on the royal yacht) assuring him that “Paris and London are actively working for localization of the conflict.”

Victims of Their Own Deceit

But this was a disastrous misapprehension, as events would soon reveal. First of all, as minister of justice, Bienvenu-Martin had no experience or authority over French foreign policy, and the Germans should never have imagined that his casual remarks actually represented the views of the French government—a fact he emphasized himself. 

Second, when it came to Britain the Germans were ironically falling victim to their own trickery. Lichnowsky was under instructions to say that Germany had not been consulted by Austria-Hungary about the latter’s plans regarding Serbia. Foreign Secretary Grey took this lie at face value and assumed that Germany also wanted to keep the peace, which is why he didn’t threaten Berlin—but if he had known that Germany was secretly encouraging Austria-Hungary, he probably would have.

As a matter of fact, the German deception went even further than that: when Grey asked Berlin to urge Vienna to accept outside mediation of the dispute with Serbia, the Germans said they would recommend the idea to their ally—but actually told the Austrians to ignore the British suggestion and proceed with their plan.

The Serbian Response

Meanwhile, as the hours crept by on July 25 and the deadline approached, Serbian leaders worked feverishly to craft a humble response that would satisfy as many of the Austrian demands as possible, but without sacrificing Serbia’s sovereignty. Ultimately, the Serbians agreed to nine out of eleven conditions, including issuing an official statement disavowing subversion aimed against Austria-Hungary; suppression of publications inciting hatred of Austria-Hungary; dissolution of “Narodna Obrana,” a Yugoslav propaganda organization; elimination of anti-Hapsburg content from textbooks and teaching; removal from service of all army officers who espoused anti-Austrian propaganda; arrest of Ciganović and Tankosić, both implicated in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; suppression of cross-border smuggling between Serbia and Bosnia; and explanations of anti-Austrian statements by high-ranking Serbian officials. 

But two demands remained unfulfilled: item five, for the participation of representatives from the Austro-Hungarian government in the suppression of subversive moments, and item six, participation of Austro-Hungarian officials in the internal Serbian judicial investigation. Both conditions would have undermined Serbian sovereignty, leaving the Serbian government no choice but to deliver the following fateful response: “As regards the participation in this inquiry of Austro-Hungarian agents... this cannot be accepted, as this is a violation of the constitution and of criminal procedure.”

Chronicling America

As expected, the Serbian refusal on these two points provided Austria-Hungary the pretext it needed to break off diplomatic relations in preparation for war. After receiving the Serbian response at 6pm the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Belgrade, Baron von Giesl, notified Vienna, burned his codebooks, sent a note to Prime Minister Pašić declaring that diplomatic relations were broken off, and immediately headed to the Belgrade train station, where he boarded the next train for Austria-Hungary at 6:40pm. 

After receiving news of the Serbian response at 7:45pm, around 9 pm Emperor Franz Josef ordered mobilization against Serbia under “Plan B” (for “Balkans”), which called for the formation of three armies along the Serbian frontier—the Second, Fifth, and Sixth (see map below)—while three others guarded Austria-Hungary’s border with Russia. On the other side Serbia’s Prince Regent Alexander had already decreed mobilization that afternoon, and the Serbian government began evacuating Belgrade—just a few miles from Austro-Hungarian territory across the Danube River—and relocating to Kragujevac, about 50 miles to the south. In the opening weeks of the war the Serbian First, Second, and Third Armies would form north and west of Kragujevac before advancing to the Austro-Hungarian frontier (top).

On the evening of July 25 enthusiastic crowds gathered in Berlin and Vienna, cheering the rejection of the Serbian response. The British ambassador to Vienna, Sir Maurice de Bunsen, later recalled: “The demeanour of the people at Vienna and, as I was informed, in many other principal cities of the Monarchy, showed plainly the popularity of the idea of war with Serbia… Now the floodgates were opened, and the entire people and press clamoured impatiently for immediate… punishment of the hated Serbian race.” 

Russia Prepares to Mobilize

At the same time Russia was preparing to mobilize in support of Serbia, marking a dangerous escalation of the situation. On the morning of July 25, before Serbia even presented its response to the Austrian ultimatum, Tsar Nicholas II ordered “pre-mobilization” measures including the return of troops on maneuvers, automatic promotion of all cadet officers to full officers, and call-up of reservists for frontier divisions. The Tsar also approved—“in principle”—mobilization against Austria-Hungary, involving 13 army corps containing a total 1.1 million men; however the actual order for mobilization wasn’t yet given.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov hoped that a show of strength would suffice to deter Austria-Hungary from attacking Serbia, and also believed that a “partial mobilization,” limited to the Russian frontier with Austria-Hungary, could convey this message without threatening Germany. However he failed to realize two key details.

First of all, the pre-mobilization order actually affected all Russian forces along both the German and Austro-Hungarian borders—and the Germans were unlikely to grasp, or care about, the fine distinctions between pre-mobilization and mobilization. Indeed, it was all a matter of semantics, and the preparations certainly looked warlike to the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Maurice Paléologue, who told the Italian ambassador on the evening of July 25 that the Tsar’s “Council of Ministers has taken decisions on the… measures to be put in force in the war against Austria and Germany, now regarded as imminent.” Later Paléologue accompanied Izvolsky, the Russian ambassador to France (now hurrying back to his post) to the train station, where, amid crowds of soldiers, they agreed, “It is war this time.”

Second—and even more disastrously—there was no such thing as “partial mobilization” against Austria-Hungary: the Russian general staff had only drawn up plans for general mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary, on the reasonable assumption the allies would fight together. In other words, it was all or nothing, and when the Tsar’s ministers discovered this unfortunate fact, they would face a terrible choice: back down and let Austria-Hungary crush Serbia, or proceed to general mobilization.

More Misstatements 

As the sun rose on July 26, 1914, the situation in Europe was rapidly spinning out of control, but no one had declared war and swift, forceful diplomacy might yet have saved the day. Unfortunately, now it was Sazonov’s turn to misspeak. Still hoping to defuse the situation, the Russian foreign minister assured the German ambassador, Friedrich Pourtalès, that “no mobilization order had been issued… [and] the Cabinet had decided not to issue one until Austria-Hungary assumes a hostile attitude toward Russia”—for some reason leaving out Serbia, the focal point of the whole conflict. It’s hard to understand this omission, but Sazonov may simply have assumed that the phrase “toward Russia” covered Serbia as well, since everyone understood the basic situation—but in these fraught negotiations any misunderstanding could be catastrophic.

To be fair, Sazonov was in good company when it came to tragic misstatements. In one of the more significant errors, over breakfast on July 26, Britain’s King George V told the Kaiser’s brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, “We shall try all we can to keep out of this and shall remain neutral.” While it’s easy to see how the Germans might interpret this in an encouraging light, as with Bienvenu-Martin’s statements they never should have given so much weight to the opinion of a single individual, especially as the British monarch no longer exercised much real control over foreign policy; the king, who had not consulted extensively with Prime Minister Asquith or Foreign Secretary Grey, was expressing a personal opinion at most. 

In any event, the Germans often fell prey to irrational optimism. For example, on July 24, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and Lord Chancellor Richard Haldane had dinner with Albert Ballin, a German shipping magnate and close friend of the Kaiser, who was apparently acting as an unofficial envoy from Berlin, and offered them the following unusual deal: “Suppose we had to go to war with Russia and France, and suppose we defeated France and yet took nothing from her in Europe, not an inch of her territory, only some colonies to indemnify us. Would that make a difference to England’s attitude? Suppose we gave a guarantee beforehand!”

Churchill and Haldane were skeptical about this strange, improbable proposal for a number of reasons. For one thing, there was no way to know that Germany would keep her word after defeating France and establishing control of the continent. But Ballin somehow came away with the impression that Britain might be open to such an arrangement, leading to another round of desperately confused last-minute negotiations as the fateful month of July 1914 drew to a close.

The Chain Reaction

Whatever the Germans—and many British—may have hoped, Britain didn’t actually have much choice about getting involved in a European war, having learned the hard way that she couldn’t allow the continent to fall under the control of a single power, as during the imperial heydays of Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte. On July 26, Crowe, the perceptive undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, sketched out the chain reaction that was about to start: 

I am afraid that the real difficulty to be overcome will be found in the question of mobilization. Austria is already mobilizing. This… is a serious menace to Russia, who cannot be expected to delay her own mobilization... If Russia mobilizes, we have been warned that Germany will do the same, and as German mobilization is directed almost entirely against France, the latter cannot possibly delay her own mobilization even for the fraction of a day… This however means that within 24 hours His Majesty’s Government will be faced with the question whether, in a quarrel so imposed by Austria on an unwilling France, Great Britain will stand idly aside, or take sides…

See the previous installment or all entries.

Can You Guess J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beast From Its Magical Power?

The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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