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9-08-2015, 21:17

THE FIVE-WEEK CRISIS, 28 JUNE–1 AUGUST 1914

The Great War disrupted and destroyed lives on a scale never known before. More than 60 million men were mobilised and 8.5 million were killed, 21 million were wounded and in every town and village in Europe the blinded and maimed victims served as daily reminders decades after the war was over. In every town and village war memorials commemorate the names of those who gave their lives for their country. The war, which involved millions and for which millions suffered, was launched by the decision of just a few men negotiating and conspiring in secret. They bear a heavy responsibility. What made these men act the way they did? Were they aware of what they were doing, or did they just muddle into war through confusion and error? There was a widespread illusion about the course the war would take. The troops left for the front believing that they would be home by Christmas. With the new mass armies it was thought that the war would be decided by the devastating battles fought at the outset. No one expected that this would be just another war, like those of the mid-nineteenth century, ending with the victors exacting some territorial and financial punishment from the vanquished and leading to a new balance of power. There was, however, no illusion about what was at stake. Grey’s famous words about the lights going out all over Europe expressed a sentiment that would have been well understood in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. Bethmann Hollweg gloomily predicted the toppling of thrones and the victory of socialism. In Vienna, the future existence of the Habsburg Monarchy was felt to be at stake: defeat would lead to its dissolution. Tsarist Russia was beset by serious internal disturbances and French society was deeply divided on the eve of the war. There were no illusions about the devastating consequences of this war from which a new world would emerge. There were hesitations on the brink of war. It was then too late. How had the powers allowed the crisis caused initially by a terrorist crime, the assassination of an archduke, the heir to the Habsburg throne, to escalate until there was no way out but a devastating European war? There seems to be no obvious connection between the murder committed by a young man in Bosnia and the clash of armies of millions. The assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was the work of a handful of Bosnian youths who had romantically dedicated their lives to Serb nationalism and had been greatly influenced by the Russian terrorists in exile. They received their weapons from the secret Serbian conspiratorial Black Hand organisation headed by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic´ who was also in charge of army secret intelligence. The Bosnian youths, who had spent some time in Belgrade, had been helped across the Serb frontier by Serbian agents. The prime minister of Serbia, Nikola Pasˇic´, and King Alexander were powerless against the army officers and the Black Hand. But Pasˇic´ did send a vague warning to Vienna that the archduke would be in danger when he visited Sarajevo. The amateur assassins almost bungled their task. On the morning of 28 June, the first attempt failed and the bomb thrown by one of the six conspirators exploded under the car following the archduke. Incredibly the archduke, his wife and the governor of Bosnia drove through the open streets again the same afternoon. When the archduke’s chauffeur hesitated which way to go, by mere chance one of the conspirators, Gavrilo Princip, found himself opposite the archduke’s stationary car. He aimed two shots at the archduke and the governor of Bosnia; they mortally wounded Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The government of Serbia did not want war in 1914, for the country had not yet recovered from the exertions of the Balkan wars. But the government could not control the army nor prevent the secret societies from fomenting and aiding anti-Habsburg movements in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The assassination of the archduke was unwelcome news to the government, for the king and his government would now be called to account for allowing anarchical political conditions which gave the terrorists their base and power. In Vienna, the Dual Monarchy’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold, before those fateful shots at Sarajevo had given no serious thought to war. He did not judge the internal state of the Habsburg Monarchy as so desperate. Serbia and Russia would surely be restrained by firm Austro-Hungarian diplomacy backed by imperial Germany. The Habsburgs could continue to rely upon the divisions and mutual antagonisms of their Slav subjects. The Slovenes were Catholics and loyal to the Crown. The Croats were Catholics too, and union with the Greek Orthodox Serbs was opposed by the majority of them. Nor were the Serbs in favour of any general union of southern Slavs, ‘Yugoslavia’, which would place them in the minority of such a new state. They dreamt of a ‘Greater Serbia’, but this would have placed the Croats in a minority. The idea of ‘Yugoslavia’ had won the adherence of only a minority of students and intellectuals. The majority of the southern Slavs had no thought of leaving the Habsburg Monarchy in 1914. Every Austro-Hungarian minister since 1909 realised that the threat to the existence of the Habsburg Empire was due not to the challenge of any of the small Balkan states such as Serbia, but to Russia utilising Balkan discontents against the Dual Monarchy. That is why the misunderstanding and dispute between Russia and Austria- Hungary – the so-called Bosnian crisis – was such a significant milestone on the road to war. Russia had been forced to back down when faced with Germany’s determined support of Austria-Hungary. In this way, the changed status of two provinces in the Balkans – which made no real difference to the map of Europe – led to disastrous consequences out of all proportion to the issues involved. Henceforth, the good Austro- Russian understanding, designed to prevent the two powers from becoming so entangled in local Balkan conflicts that thereby they could be dragged into hostility with each other, was broken by crises that threatened the peace of Europe. Rivalry, suspicion and intrigue in the Balkans replaced the cooperation of former years. The final crisis was occasioned by the assassination of the archduke. In Vienna, news of the assassination entirely changed the attitude of Berchtold and the majority of the Monarchy’s ministers. A diplomatic offensive was no longer thought enough. Habsburg prestige was now so seriously involved that, unless Serbia was ‘punished’, the empire’s role as a great power would be at an end. Serbia could not be allowed to get away with this last and most serious provocation by sheltering behind Russia. If the Monarchy could prove that Russian protection could not save Serbia from its wrath, the lesson would not be lost on the other Balkan states and Austria-Hungary’s international position of power would be reasserted. Berchtold concluded that Serbia’s hostility must be broken and that only Serbian submission to the will of the Monarchy should be allowed to save it from war and conquest. There were three obstacles. The Austro- Hungarian army was not ready for war: it would need more than a month to prepare. The chief of staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, moreover, pointed out that, if Russia intervened, the Austro- Hungarian army would need German military cooperation to cope successfully with a war on two fronts, the Serbian and Russian. The Monarchy’s ministers were in any case convinced that the Monarchy could not risk war with Russia unless the German ally stood side by side with Austria- Hungary in war. Would the imperial German government support the Monarchy now? The third obstacle to war was internal, the opposition of the Hungarian prime minister, Count Tisza. On 4 July 1914, the Council of Ministers, meeting in Vienna, decided that the first step was to ascertain the attitude of the kaiser and his ministers. Count Hoyos was sent to Berlin with a personal letter from Emperor Franz Josef to the kaiser, and a set of questions from the Monarchy’s ministers. They did not beat about the bush, but wanted to know whether Germany would come to Austria-Hungary’s help if Russia chose to intervene on behalf of Serbia. They also explained what was in store for Serbia. Serbia would be eliminated ‘as a power factor in the Balkans’. From a variety of recorded conversations, in Berlin, for two years and more there had been mounting fears about the planned expansion of Russian military power. The weakness of the Habsburg Monarchy became increasingly apparent, and there were serious doubts about its future after the old emperor’s death, which could not be long delayed. There were also nagging doubts about Austria-Hungary’s loyalty to the alliance with Germany. Would the alliance survive if Germany once again forced the Monarchy to desist from doing what it thought imperative for its survival – to show it was stronger than Serbia and would not tolerate Serbian hostility? Imperial Germany felt it needed the support of Austria- Hungary if the mass Russian Slav armies were to be checked. A war with Russia arising out of an Austro-Serb conflict would ensure the Monarchy’s support. A war starting between Germany and Russia, or Germany and France, might not find Austria-Hungary on Germany’s side. Then there was a calculation of quite a different kind. Bethmann Hollweg hoped to weaken, perhaps even to break up, the alignment of Russia, France and Britain. Bethmann Hollweg’s calculations were all based on ‘ifs’. If Russia should decide to back Serbia and then applied to Paris for backing, and if France then refused to risk war with Germany so that Russia might threaten Austria- Hungary with war, Russia would discover that the French alliance was, in reality, worthless. If all this happened then Germany would be in a position to win back Russia’s friendship, perhaps even its alliance. If, on the other hand, it should come to war, then better now than later. But the Dual Monarchy must initiate the war so that at home it could be presented as being fought in defence of Germany’s ally against tsarist Russia. Russia would be cast in the role of aggressor. The critical discussions between the kaiser, Bethmann Hollweg and the military took place immediately after the arrival of Count Hoyos in Berlin. The decision, when it was reached, was not the kaiser’s alone. That is a myth. The decision was to back Austria-Hungary to the hilt, with German military support if necessary, should Russia intervene to prevent the Dual Monarchy from dealing with Serbia. The Habsburg ministers were given a free hand to settle with Serbia in any way they thought appropriate. That was the message to Vienna on 6 July, the kaiser’s famous ‘blank cheque’. The Habsburg ministers were also urged to act quickly against Serbia while the governments of Europe were still shocked by the assassinations at Sarajevo. In Germany, the chief of staff, General Moltke, continued his health cure at the spa of Karlsbad. Admiral Tirpitz stayed away from Berlin and the kaiser departed on his yacht to cruise in the North Sea. Everything was done to avoid an air of crisis, to camouflage the impending Habsburg action. Why? It could only have been to allay British, Russian and French suspicions that Germany secretly stood behind Austria-Hungary. A diplomatic triumph for Austria-Hungary and Germany was still preferable to war. Europe was to be faced with a sudden fait accompli. What went wrong? In Vienna the ministers were not unanimous, even after receiving the German assurances. Count Tisza, the powerful Hungarian prime minister, remained opposed to war at their meeting on 7 July and the following week gave way only on condition that the Dual Monarchy first agreed not to annex any Serbian territory after the expected victory. Tisza, a Magyar, wanted to see no more Slavs added to the population of the empire. Then there was further delay as the army asked for more time. Berchtold used it to compile a justificatory dossier of Serbia’s recent wrongdoings for presentation to the chancelleries of Europe when the time for action eventually came. Then Berchtold decided to wait until the French president, Poincaré, and the French prime minister, René Viviani, had ended their visit to St Petersburg. Thereby, he hoped that Austria would act at the very moment when Russia would find it more difficult to consult its French ally. More than three weeks had now elapsed since the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo. The Austrians had worked in greatest secrecy, and Europe had been lulled into a false sense of calm. On 23 July the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum was presented in Belgrade and, in just six days, Europe plunged headlong from peace to certain war. On 25 July, Serbia mobilised its army and, in a cleverly worded reply later that day, appeared to accept many of the Austrian demands, although not to the point of submitting Serbia to Austrian supervision. The same evening, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador left Belgrade and Austria-Hungary mobilised against Serbia. Even though the Austro-Hungarian army would not be ready for another three weeks, Austria- Hungary declared war on 28 July and, to make war irrevocable, bombarded Belgrade on 29 July. Between the break of diplomatic relations and the actual declaration of war, Sir Edward Grey attempted mediation and sent proposals to Berlin in an attempt to preserve the peace of Europe. Bethmann Hollweg wanted no such interference and Grey’s efforts came to nothing. When the kaiser learnt how the Serbians had replied to the ultimatum, he was personally delighted. So much for the myth that he was thirsting to go to war. He immediately wrote a note on the morning of 28 July from his palace in Potsdam, expressing his evident relief that now there was no longer any need for war – ‘On the whole the wishes of the Danube Monarchy have been acceded to, every cause for war has vanished’ – and he added that he was ready to mediate. But by then Bethmann Hollweg and Berchtold had instigated the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia which the kaiser heard about later that day. Bethmann Hollweg now made every effort to localise the war. On 30 July, he urged Vienna to exchange views with St Petersburg. He resisted calls for mobilisation in Berlin and he initiated the kaiser’s personal telegrams appealing to the tsar not to mobilise. The weak tsar was under pressure from his own military advisers to mobilise. The French military, too, were urging mobilisation and the French ambassador in St Petersburg, Maurice Paléologue, pressed their views on the foreign minister, Sazonov. The French general staff was terrified that war would begin in the west and find the Russians unprepared. Russia, if it went to war, could count on French support; the tsar had known this for certain ever since the visit of President Poincaré and Prime Minister Viviani to St Petersburg (20–3 July). But the Russians, in so vital a question for the empire, would reach their own decisions just as the Austrians had had to do. The reaction of the tsar, Sazonov and his ministers was to seek to ‘localise’ the crisis in a way neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary had in mind. When Bethmann Hollweg spoke of ‘localisation’, he meant that the Dual Monarchy should be allowed to dictate terms to Serbia. The tsar and Sazonov, on the other hand, hoped that Germany and the other powers would stand aside while Russia supported Serbia to prevent Austria- Hungary from attacking Serbia. To the Russians, the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia was hurling down the gauntlet. But could Russia risk war now? There was much civil disturbance and there were large-scale strikes; the army would be in a much stronger position three years later. The news of the ultimatum reached Sazonov on the morning of 24 July. His first reaction was to advise the Serbians to surrender to Austrian demands and not to fight. But later that afternoon, the Russian Council of Ministers agreed to recommend to the tsar a ‘partial’ mobilisation against Austria-Hungary only. Russian involvement in the fate of Serbia was also officially announced. The line was now to put pressure on Austria-Hungary. The following day, 25 July, the tsar at an imperial council confirmed the need for preparatory military measures in anticipation of partial mobilisation. By 26 July, these secret preparations were in full swing. The news of the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia and bombardment of Belgrade on 29 July threw St Petersburg into a frenzy. The tsar agreed to a general mobilisation, but after receiving the kaiser’s telegram changed this to a ‘partial mobilisation’, against Austria only. In reality, though, the tsar’s motive was to avoid pushing Germany into mobilisation – partial or total made no difference, for the Austro-Hungarian-German alliance and campaign plans would necessitate German mobilisation anyway. It was too late in Berlin to continue playing the game of ‘localising’ the Austro-Serbian war. With the military in Berlin now also in a frenzy, Moltke insisting on the need to mobilise, Bethmann Hollweg and the kaiser could not resist the ‘military imperative’ much longer. On 31 July, the Russian military persuaded the tsar that a ‘partial mobilisation’ was technically impossible, and Nicholas II consented to general mobilisation. But the nature of German military planning had made war inevitable after the Russian partial mobilisation on 29 July. The very concept of the Schlieffen Plan was responsible for the situation that mobilisation meant war. Its implications may not have been grasped fully by the kaiser and Bethmann Hollweg in July. But in militaristic Wilhelmine Germany, the generals’ views on military necessity were conclusive. Until the moment of Russian mobilisation, Moltke, the chief of staff was ready to leave control to Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg. But, when on 30 July it became clear that the chancellor’s policy of frightening Russia into acquiescence had failed, there was not a moment to lose. France had to be defeated before Russia could complete her mobilisation. The German onslaught must now start without delay against Belgium and France. Ultimatums were sent to Russia and France and war was declared with unseemly haste on Russia on 1 August 1914, and on France two days later. The German invasion of Belgium was followed by a British ultimatum and declaration of war on 4 August. It was the same Schlieffen Plan that was responsible for forcing the pace in St Petersburg and Paris. That the Germans would at the outset turn the mass of their armies against France and not Russia was known. The Russian–French military plans were constructed accordingly, with the promise of an early Russian offensive to relieve pressure on the French. That is why the French military were so worried about ‘partial mobilisation’ against Austria-Hungary. In the event of war they wanted Russia’s military effort to be directed against the main enemy, Germany. No wonder Paléologue was urging full mobilisation in St Petersburg. In this way was Bethmann Hollweg’s diplomatic ‘offensive’ matched by the offensive strategy of the German general staff with its aim of destroying the French will to resist by seeking total victory in the west. Behind the ‘governments’ – the handful of men who made the decisions in Berlin, Vienna, Paris and St Petersburg – stood populations willing to fight for republic, king and emperor. Only a tiny minority dissented. For the largest socialist party in Europe, the German, the war was accepted as being fought against tsarist Russian aggression. The different nationalities of the Dual Monarchy all fought for the Habsburgs, the French socialists fought as enthusiastically in defence of their fatherland ruthlessly invaded by the Germans. The responsibility for starting the conflict in July and August must rest primarily on the shoulders of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Russia and France reacted and chose to fight rather than to withdraw from the confrontation, which would have left the diplomatic victory to Germany and Austria-Hungary. Whether they had wisely interpreted their national interests is another question. For Britain it was a preventive war. Not directly threatened by Germany, Britain was looking to the future and what that future would hold for it if Germany were able to gain the mastery of continental Europe. But Britain’s was a ‘preventive’ war in quite a different sense to Germany’s. The British government had done everything possible to prevent war from breaking out, but the Cabinet decided it could not afford to stand aside. Yet Britain cannot be absolved from blame. War broke out in 1914 not only as a consequence of the shots at Sarajevo. The tensions that had been building up in Europe and the wider world for two decades and more had created the frame of mind that led the European chancelleries along a fatal path. For Britain, faced with the relative decline of its power, the problem of defending its empire loomed ever larger. It negotiated with France a division of interests of territory – Morocco and Egypt – that did not exclusively belong to either. Russia also was appeased for a time. Inevitably, fears and hostilities in Europe were raised. British foreign secretaries were well aware of this and would have preferred it not to be so. But Britain’s immediate interests were placed before international harmony. That is the darker thread that ran through British policy. During the last decade before the war Britain too tended to follow Bismarckian Realpolitik. Just as it wanted to avoid imperial clashes with Russia, so too Britain feared that the entente with France might not prove strong enough to prevent Germany and France reaching a settlement of their differences. Then Britain would have been isolated in the world. British policy was too compromised to allow Grey, in the summer of 1914, a strong mediating role. But, given German war plans and the small size of the British army at the outset, the hope that London might influence decisively the course of events in Europe during July 1914 was an illusion anyway. Nowhere were domestic political considerations the decisive influence. The war was about national power, and ambitions, and also fears as to how national power would in the future be exercised. Russia was not satisfied with its already huge empire. France was conscious of its secondary status in Europe which, if it were left without an ally, would leave it at Germany’s mercy. Austria- Hungary wished to annihilate Slav hostility beyond its frontiers. For imperial Germany, a future in which its military power was no longer superior to the combined military forces of its potential enemies was not to be tolerated. This had to be averted by diplomacy or so-called ‘preventive’ war. Germany’s own diplomacy had contributed much to the French and British feelings of insecurity. It had finally placed Germany in the unenviable position of being on bad relations with its neighbours in the East and the West. The working out of the Schlieffen Plan saddled it with the guilt of violating a small neutral state and with the necessity to strike the first blow, for it was Germany who had to declare war in order to keep to the timetable of the famous war plan. What the coming of the war in 1914 reveals is how a loss of confidence and fears for the future can be as dangerous to peace as the naked spirit of aggression that was to be the cause of the Second World War a quarter of a century later. A handful of European leaders in 1914 conceived national relationships crudely in terms of power and conflict, and the future in terms of a struggle for survival in competition for the world. For this, millions had to suffer and die.

 

 

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