07/16/2014 09:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Today in World War I -- July 11-17, 1914


'One day the great European war will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans."
- Otto von Bismarck, 1888

The July Crisis

The period between June 29 and August 1 has been called the "July Crisis." During this period, and especially in the two weeks from July 5 through 19, the Austrian government formulated its reply to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. On July 5, the German government pledged its unconditional support for whatever action Austria took against Serbia in reprisal. On July 23, the Austrian government presented the Serbian government with a 10 point ultimatum and gave it just 48 hours to accept them. The 10 demands had been specifically chosen to be so intrusive of Serbian sovereignty, so humiliating to the Serbian government, that Serbia would have no option but to reject them out of hand. Armed with the political cover that its attempt at a political solution had failed, Vienna would then be free to launch an attack on Serbia. Within a week of its ultimatum, Europe was in the midst of an all-out mobilization. In less than two weeks the "great European war" predicted by Bismarck had begun.

If only the Austrian government had been less vengeful, if only the German government had acted to constrain its Austrian ally, if only Serbia had been more willing to support the Austrian investigation into the assassination, or had initiated its own investigation and moved to arrest the conspirators. If only Russia had been less adamant in its support of Serbia, if only diplomacy had been given more time to craft a peaceful solution. The list of "if only(s)" is endless. But would any of these "if only(s)" have made a difference in the end? To answer that question we need to consider the underlying factors that shaped the actions and positions of the principal actors in the July crisis

Austrian Fears

The Austrian government was convinced that Serbian aspirations to unify the Serb people, both those inside the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and those in the surrounding area, would prove destabilizing to the empire and could trigger a revolt of other minorities and ultimately the collapse of Austria-Hungary. Russian diplomatic initiatives to organize under Russian leadership an alliance consisting of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro was equally worrisome. Though it would be difficult to maintain, much less organize, such an alliance would, in Austrian eyes, have only one purpose--to roll back or dismember the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

On June 14, the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Leopold Berthold, circulated a memorandum in which he called for the destruction of Serbia. That memorandum, along with an accompanying letter by the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, was presented to Kaiser Wilhelm on July 5. In his letter the Austrian emperor declared that the only way of preventing the disintegration of Austria-Hungary was "to eliminate Serbia as a state". He also stated unequivocally that the decision to invade Serbia had already been made even before the assassination of the Archduke. This was the fourth time since 1912 that the Austrian government had sought Berlin's support for an invasion of Serbia. Germany had declined on the previous three occasions, citing the fact that the German military was not yet ready for a general war. This time, the Kaiser assured the Austrian government that Berlin would unequivocally back whatever action Vienna took towards Serbia.

Serbian Inflexibility

It was generally accepted by everyone, including Serbia's Russian and French allies, that the Serbian government had been complicit in the assassination plot. The weapons used by the six conspirators had all come from a Serbian military depot in Belgrade. Five of the conspirators were 19 years of age or younger and had been recruited and assisted by a number of Serbian military officers and government officials.

On July 13 however, the Austrian investigators of the assassination plot advised Count Berchtold:

"There is nothing to prove or even to suppose that the Serbian government is
accessory to the inducement for the crime, its preparations, or the furnishing
of weapons. On the contrary, there are reasons to believe that this (is) altogether
out of the question."

Moreover, it was later disclosed that Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic had instructed the Serbian ambassador to Vienna to advise the Austrian government of a potential plot against the Archduke during his visit to Sarajevo.

Why then did the Serbian government refuse all requests by Austrian authorities to assist with their investigation or to launch their own investigation into the assassination and move to arrest any of the conspirators? Why did the Serbian government make no attempt to clear itself of the charges that it had been complicit in the plot to assassinate the Archduke? The answer was politics. Serbia was scheduled to hold a general election on August 14. The death of the Archduke had been met by wide spread rejoicing in Serbia, notwithstanding the fact he had been considered sympathetic to the aspirations of the Bosnian Serbs. Any action that would have been seen as bowing to Austrian pressure would have been political suicide for the Serbian government.

German Aspirations

The German response to the July crisis was shaped by three principal considerations: fear of Austrian instability, concern for the growth of Russian military power, and a desire to remain in the background while still encouraging a quick and decisive Austrian response. The result were policies that were often contradictory and at times incoherent.

First, Berlin wanted to insure the stability of its key ally. The collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire would create a bevy of small, Russian influenced, states whose interests would likely run counter to those of Germany. On a prior occasion, Berlin had declined to support an Austrian invasion of Serbia arguing that certain preconditions had to be met before it could risk igniting an all-out war. By the summer of 1914, the last of those preconditions, the widening of the Kiel Canal in order to allow the unhindered transfer of the German High Seas Fleet between the Baltic and the North Sea, had been completed.

Secondly, the German government was increasingly concerned by what it saw as the growing power of Russian military forces. The Great Military Program launched in 1912 planned for a 39% increase in Russian military forces by 1918, and a significant increase in Russian artillery forces as well. Concurrently with the military expansion, Russia launched a major railroad building campaign in the areas of western Russia immediately adjacent to Germany and Austria-Hungary. There was a significant element within the German military that believed that a conflict between Russia and Germany was inevitable. In their view, better to fight Russia now than to fight a stronger Russia in the future.

Finally, the German government was urging swift action on the part of Austrian authorities in order to present Serbia's allies with a fait accompli before they would have a chance to formulate a response. During the Bosnian annexation crisis of 1908, German declaration of support for Austria-Hungary had been sufficient to keep Russia on the sidelines. Kaiser Wilhelm believed that a similar show of unconditional German support would again keep Russia from intervening on Serbia's behalf.

When it became clear that neither Germany's threat to mobilize its armed forces nor Kaiser Wilhelm's appeals to his cousin Nicky to forestall Russian mobilization were effective, the German government switched tack insisting that any potential conflict could be "kept local". Kaiser Wilhelm was certain that even in the event of a war with Russia he could persuade Great Britain, and possibly even France, to remain neutral. At the same time Berlin was signaling that it was open to finding a diplomatic solution, while still insisting that the issue of any Austrian reprisals against Serbia was strictly an internal Austrian matter and should not be subject to arbitration by third parties.

Russian Ambitions

Between 1905 and 1913, Russia had suffered a succession of military and diplomatic humiliations. Beginning with its defeat by Japan in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, Russia had been forced to stand aside during the Bosnian annexation crisis and it had been unable to come to the aid of Serbia in either of the Balkan wars of 1912 or 1913. In response, Russia had begun a program to dramatically expand and modernize its military. As the July crisis unfolded Russia was determined to exercise its prerogatives as a "great power" and restore the diplomatic and military prestige that had been tarnished in the preceding decade.

There was a second factor that also shaped the Russian response. Beginning in 1912 miners at the Lena Gold Mines had gone on strike to protest the provisioning of substandard meat in the company's commissaries. That meat had been described as either rotten or consisting largely of horse penises. Either way, it was hardly appetizing. The strike sparked a rising tide of labor unrest that gripped Russia for the following two years. On July 20, in an impassioned speech from a balcony at the winter palace in St Petersburg, Nicholas II rallied his Russian subject with appeals to their patriotism and pan-Slavic aspirations. The resulting tide of patriotic fervor united Russia as it had not been since 1905, and put an end to much of the labor unrest.

As the July crisis unfolded, Nicholas II was determined to avoid a war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but he was equally adamant that Russia's desire to retain the prerogatives of a great power, and the need to maintain domestic political stability, would not allow him to back down.

As the July crisis unfolded over the weeks between the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and the commencement of general hostilities on August 3, the positions of the four principal antagonists had quickly gelled into inflexibility. Austria was determined to destroy Serbia seeing it as an existential threat to the survival of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Indeed that decision had been made before the assassination of the Archduke. Domestic political considerations would not allow Serbia the flexibility of being conciliatory. Its intransigence only served to aggravate the crisis further. Bristling from a long series of political and military humiliations, Russia was determined to exercise its prerogatives as a great power.

German policy was inconsistent and at times incoherent. On the one hand, Germany was pushing Austria to invade Serbia, while at the same time trying to neutralize Russia to prevent the outbreak of a wider conflict. On the other hand, elements in the German government and military were in favor of a broader war, convinced that Germany would win it and that the odds with respect to Russia would be less favorable in the future. Diplomatically Germany seemed to signal that it was open to a diplomatic solution while at the same time insisting that as an internal Austrian matter, outside arbitration by the "Four Powers" was not appropriate. By the time Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, attempted to organize the other European powers to craft a diplomatic solution, the situation was already hurtling towards the abyss of war.

Blog commentary drawn from, Joseph V. Micallef, Understanding World War I: A Concise History