07/21/2014 08:48 am ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

This Week in World War I, July 17-23, 1914

The Austrian Ultimatum: An Alternative Perspective

On July 23, 1914, the Austrian government presented the Serbian government with a list of 10 demands and gave Belgrade 48 hours in which to comply or face war with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In the words of Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister, "it was the most formidable document ever presented by one nation to another." The demands had been made in response to the assassination of the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. These demands had been crafted to be so intrusive of Serbian sovereignty, so humiliating, that it was expected that Serbia would have no choice but to reject them. The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia has been criticized as being "unreasonable," i.e., unduly harsh and provocative and, by further inflaming the crisis, as being a prime instigator in the chain of events that would ultimately lead to World War I.

The "unreasonableness" of the Austrian demands has been underscored by a number of additional factors. At the time the ultimatum was issued, Austria's own preliminary investigation had already indicated that the Serbian government was not complicit in the assassination, indeed there was evidence suggesting the opposite. Secondly, notwithstanding Vienna's claim that the demands had been made in response to the murder of the Archduke, the decision to attack Serbia had been made two weeks prior to the attack. Moreover, Austria's actions were part of a long running attempt to go to war with Serbia. On three previous occasion since 1912, Austria-Hungary had sought German support for an attack on Serbia. Only after receiving, on July 5, a German assurance of support for its actions against Serbia did it proceed to make its demands on the Serbian government. Finally, notwithstanding the aggressiveness of Austria's demands, the Serbian government immediately accepted eight of them, asking for more time on the remaining two, and suggested that they be submitted to arbitration by the International Court at The Hague.

Was the Austrian response "unreasonable"? Let's consider the facts. The attack had been carried out by a group called "Unification or Death." It was the paramilitary wing of a political organization called Narodna Obrana (National Defense or The People's Defense). That organization was one of several similar organizations in Serbia committed to the unification of the Serb peoples and prepared to engage in violent acts in pursuit of that goal. These organizations received the unofficial support of the Serbian government, as well as the direct support of high ranking officials in the Serbian government and military. Prince Alexander, the heir to the throne of Serbia and the head of its military, was also a strong supporter. Narodna Obrana had been implicated in assassination attempts against the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, unsuccessfully, his heir, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, successfully, and a host of other Austrian officials. Today, there is no question that we would consider such groups to be "terrorist organizations." Moreover, the political aims of these organizations, the unification of the Serb peoples, could, in all likelihood, have only been accomplished by the dismemberment of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Not surprisingly, Vienna considered these objectives profoundly threatening. (See the earlier blog posting, THIS WEEK in WORLD WAR I, July 10-17, 1914)

Are there any other historical examples against which to compare and contrast the Austrian ultimatum? In fact there is, the American response to the attack by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. The details of that attack are well known so I will not repeat them here. Let us look instead at the position that Washington took.

On September 20, nine days after the al-Qaeda attack on the United States, President Bush, in an address to a Joint Session of Congress, made five demands on the Taliban Government in Afghanistan:

1. Deliver to the U.S. all al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan;
2. Release all imprisoned foreign nationals;
3. Protect foreign journalists, diplomats, and aid workers;
4. Close immediately all terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and hand over to the U.S. every terrorist and their supporters;
5. Give the U.S. full access to terrorist training camps for inspection.

Washington did not impose a deadline for the acceptance of its demands, but made it clear that they were non-negotiable and that it expected immediate compliance.

The Taliban government in Kabul had condemned the September 11 attack. While acknowledging that bin Laden was living in Afghanistan, it demanded proof of bin Laden's involvement and called for restraint pending an investigation. Al Qaeda itself did not immediately acknowledge its involvement, waiting until October 2001 to indicate, vaguely, its role. On September 19, the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, offered to enter into negotiations with the United States on its demands and also claimed that Washington was using the attack on September 11 as a pretext for removing the Taliban government. On October 4, the Taliban government offered to turnover bin Laden to Pakistan for trial in an international tribunal that operated in accordance to Islamic Sharia law. On October 7, the Taliban government again offered to detain bin Laden and try him under Islamic law provided Washington made a formal request to the Taliban government and presented evidence of bin Laden's complicity. The United States rejected all of the Taliban's offers out of hand arguing that the Taliban government and al Qaeda's leadership were so inexorably linked that it did not believe that The Taliban would deliver on its promise to turnover bin Laden and that in any case the American demands went well beyond what they had offered. On October 7 the U.S. commenced air strikes. One week later, the Taliban government offered to hand over bin Laden if the United States stopped bombing Afghanistan. Again that offer was rejected.

The American demands on the Taliban were no less intrusive on their sovereignty than were Vienna's claims on Serbia. The details differed in form. The U.S. did not demand that the Taliban halt any anti-American propaganda, for example, while Vienna insisted that any anti-Austrian propaganda cease immediately. Both countries made a request for inspection and oversight capabilities that, realistically, could only have been carried out by stationing some sort of military force in each country and both governments insisted that the "terrorist" organizations be disbanded and their members and supporters be arrested. On balance, taking the two sets of demands side by side, they were on the whole very similar. Both responses targeted the government of a state that had harbored "terrorists" and whose officials were supporters of them and, in all likelihood, aware of an impending attack even if they were not directly involved with it. In both cases the offended party concluded that only by directly attacking the state that had harbored those "terrorist organizations" could it eliminate the threat and that it could not trust the offending state to bring the "criminals" to justice. One can accept or criticize both responses, but one would be hard pressed to accept one response as legitimate and one as not.

Serbia was closely allied with Russia. The Austrian ultimatum ultimately triggered a Russian mobilization and subsequent mobilizations by Germany, and then France and Great Britain. At the time of the September 11 attacks, only three countries recognized the Taliban government, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Pakistan. The first two withdrew their recognition on the heels of the attack. Had the Taliban been allied with another major power the American intervention might have triggered a broader conflict. At the very least it might have constrained the scope of American action. As it was, no great power came to the Taliban's defense.

So was the Austrian response to the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand justifiable or was it a rash, overly aggressive act that ultimately triggered the First World War? Judging by the American response to the terrorist attacks on September 11; it does not seem unreasonable, the underlying Austrian intentions and the ultimate consequences notwithstanding.