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.
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.”
As expected, the Serbian refusal on these two points
Source: Mental Floss