The March to the Brink

This is a continuation of my review of the events and also of Hew Strachan’s book.

It was 100 years ago today. Events of the past few weeks had already cast the lots of millions scheduled to die. By 27 July 1014 the point of no return had passed, and there were few who could not see this. The Balkans were already ablaze. Western Europe was a pile of kindle.

Hew Strachan: The First World War. Kindle edition, location 59

Hew Strachan: The First World War. Kindle edition, location 59

The murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, by a Serbian radical had quickly gotten powerful forces off the knife edge they had occupied for the past few years.

In Austria-Hungary, the most powerful advocate of restraint, Franz Ferdinand, was dead. On 30 June Berchtold proposed a ‘final and fundamental reckoning with Serbia’. Franz Josef, now almost eighty-four, agreed. His eyes were moist, less because of personal grief (like others, he had found Franz Ferdinand difficult) than because he realised the potential implications of the assassination for the survival of the empire. The issue was its continuing credibility, not only as a regional player in the Balkans but also as a multi-national state and a European great power. If it lacked the authority even to be the first, it could hardly aspire to be the second.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 266-271). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

At this point we begin to meet a few of the individuals who twiddled while nations burned. One such is Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, “Chief of the General Staff of the armed forces of the Austro-Hungarian Army and Navy during the 1914 July Crisis that led to the outbreak of World War I” Before he died, Franz Ferdinand had been seriously considering firing Conrad.

For the first time since he had taken up office in 1906, the chief of the general staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff, found himself in step with the Foreign Ministry. Conrad had never fought in a war but he had studied it a great deal. As a social Darwinist, he believed that the struggle for existence was ‘the basic principle behind all the events on this earth’. Therefore Austria-Hungary would at some stage have to fight a war to preserve its status. ‘Politics’, he stated , ‘consists precisely of applying war as method.’ In other words, state policy should be geared to choosing to fight a war at the right time and on the best terms. The Bosnian crisis in 1908 — 9 had been one such opportunity. Conrad had demanded a preventive war with Serbia. He went on to do so repeatedly, according to one calculation twenty-five times in 1913 alone. Both Aerenthal and Franz Ferdinand had kept Conrad in check, using his bellicosity when they needed it to send a diplomatic signal and marginalising him when they did not.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 271-279). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Now the Archduke was gone, and Conrad was free to do his mischief. He proved to be a person with even less wit than principle.

By the summer of 1914 Conrad thought the increasing tensions in his relationship with the archduke meant that his remaining time in office was likely to be short. This worried him for personal as well as professional reasons. He was deeply in love with Gina von Reininghaus, who was married and the mother of six children. In a country as devoutly Catholic as Austria, divorce seemed to be out of the question — unless Conrad could return victorious from a great war. Certainly Conrad’s response to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was more visceral than rational. He favoured war, although he believed that ‘It will be a hopeless fight’. ‘ Nevertheless’, he wrote to Gina, ‘it must be waged, since an old monarchy and a glorious army must not perish without glory.’

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 282-287). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

On such petty and personal matters hung the destinies of nations.

Austria-Hungary sharpened its position. Duplicity was not disregarded. Even before the murder of Franz Ferdinand the posturing that would lead to war was being etched out. One part of this was a memorandum drafted by Franz von Matscheko:

Policy paper written by Franz von Matscheko, an official in the Austro-Hungarian foreign office, in June 1914 outlying Austria’s policy toward Serbia and Russia, particularly how Austria could use Bulgaria as a counter to Serbia, which at the time was a strong ally of Russia. The paper’s importance is that it made clear Austria’s belief that Serbia’s continued existence was a dire threat to the Hapsburg Empire, and that Serbia must be removed “as a political factor in the Balkans”

Now Austria-Hungary began work to align the combatants for its local war:

If Austria-Hungary was going to fight a Balkan war, it needed Germany to protect its back against Russia. German support could do two things: it could deter Russia from intervention on the side of Serbia and it could support Vienna in its pursuit of Bulgaria as its Balkan ally. The Matscheko memorandum was revised and sharpened for German consumption. The new version gave greater emphasis to Russia’s aggressiveness, played on the uncertainties of Romania’s position, and stressed the need for action as soon as possible. However, it still did not specify war, and neither did the personal letter from Franz Josef to the Kaiser that was drafted to accompany it.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 304-308). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

What is so remarkable about the whole business is the low level at which Earth-turning decisions were made. Key to the onset of war was the German commitment to back Austria-Hungary in its enterprise. Not much care was given to the making of this decision. It is here best to quote a lengthy passage from Strachan:

On the evening of 4 July 1914 Berchtold’s chef de cabinet, Alexander, Graf von Hoyos, boarded the train for Berlin. He carried both the latest version of the Matscheko memorandum and the Emperor’s letter to the Kaiser. Hoyos was another of the young hawks in the Foreign Ministry: convinced that Austria-Hungary must dominate the Balkans, he had been an advocate of armed intervention against Serbia in the First Balkan War. On his arrival in the German capital, he gave the Emperor’s personal letter and Matscheko’s memorandum to Count Szögyény, Austria’s ambassador, who delivered them to the Kaiser over lunch in Potsdam on 5 July. Meanwhile, Hoyos briefed Arthur Zimmermann, the deputy foreign minister. The murders had triggered in Wilhelm both principled outrage and personal loss. He was uncharacteristically decisive. Of course, he declared, Austria-Hungary should deal quickly and firmly with Serbia, and certainly such action would have Germany’s support. His only reservation was the need to consult his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, a fifty-seven-year-old product of the Prussian bureaucracy, described by his secretary as ‘a child of the first half of the 19th century and of a better cultivation’. 7 The latter duly attended a crown council, a meeting convened by the Kaiser, that same afternoon, as did Zimmermann and Erich von Falkenhayn, the Prussian minister of war. At last Berlin pledged its support for Vienna’s determination to create a Balkan league centred on Bulgaria. What Austria-Hungary did with Serbia was its own affair, but it should be assured that if Russia intervened it would have Germany’s backing. On the following morning, 6 July, Bethmann Hollweg conveyed the conclusions of the crown council to the Austrian representatives and Hoyos returned to Vienna.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 308-321). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

As we will see later, the decision to commit to Austria-Hungary was one the German nation would quickly regret, and at great length.

Germany’s support for Austria-Hungary has become known as the ‘blank cheque’. Indubitably it was a crucial step in the escalation of the Third Balkan War into a general European war. But the Kaiser’s crown council had formed no view that that was the inevitable outcome of a crisis which it had helped to deepen but which — at least for the moment — it did little to direct or control.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 322-325). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

By this time 100 years ago the war had already started. To the entire world it was apparent that Austria-Hungary wanted war with Serbia, but for whatever reason, there was this need to show some justification. Austria-Hungary hit Serbia with absurd demands, demands which no sovereign state could meet and which Austria-Hungary was not prepared to accept even if they were met.

At 6 p.m. on 23 July, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Serbia delivered an ultimatum, demanding that the Serb government take steps to extirpate terrorist organisations operating from within its frontiers, that it suppress anti-Austrian propaganda, and that it accept Austro-Hungarian representation on its own internal inquiry into the assassinations. The Austro-Hungarian government set a deadline of forty-eight hours for Serbia’s reply, but the ambassador had packed his bags before it had expired.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 383-386). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Serbia appealed to Russia, its presumed protector. Those in Germany making the decisions had reckoned that Russia would stand clear. Things had been dicey in the Russian Empire since the 1905 uprising, and the Germans were sure Russia was afraid its entry would foment revolution. This was a miscalculation.

Serbia had therefore moved to a military response before the diplomatic tools had been exhausted. But it was not the first power in the July crisis to do so. On receipt of the ultimatum, Prince Alexander of Serbia immediately appealed to the Tsar of Russia. The Russian council of ministers met on the following day, 24 July. Sergey Sazonov, Russia’s foreign minister and a career diplomat, ‘a man of simple thought’ and an anglophile, 11 said that Germany was using the crisis as a pretext for launching a preventive war. The minister of the interior confounded those in Berlin and Vienna who believed that Russia would be deterred from responding by the fear of revolution: he declared his conviction that war would rally the nation . And the ministers for the army and navy, the recipients of so much funding over the previous five years, could hardly confess the truth : that their services were not yet ready . The council approved orders for four military districts to prepare for mobilisation.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 404-411). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

The fire was well and truly lit now. Russia’s mobilization is considered the key element of the final blow-up. It was a signal for others to begin entraining troops and calling up reservists.

On 25 July Franz Josef ordered mobilisation against Serbia only, to begin on 28 July . On that day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The guns mounted in the fortress of Semlin fired across the Danube, and from the river itself monitors of the Austro-Hungarian navy lobbed shells into the Serb capital. The hospital was hit. ‘Windows were shattered to smithereens’, Dr Slavka Mihajlovi reported, ‘and broken glass covered many floors. Patients started screaming. Some got out of their beds, pale and bewildered. Then there was another explosion, and another one, and then silence again. So, it was true! The war had started.’

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 464-469). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Semlin does not exist today. A lot has changed in 100 years. It is now Zemun, and since the war it has been incorporated into the Serbian capitol of Belgrade.

Zemun and Belgrade

From Google Maps

The shots fired from Semlin were the first of the war, but the official start of World War One is usually credited with Germany’s declaration of war on Russia on 1 August, 100 years ago today.

The Russian Empire, unwilling to allow Austria-Hungary to eliminate its influence in the Balkans, and in support of its longtime Serb protégé, ordered a partial mobilisation one day later, 29 July. Germany mobilised on 30 July, and Russia responded by declaring a full mobilisation that same day. Germany imposed an ultimatum on Russia, through its ambassador in Berlin, to demobilise within 12 hours or face war. Russia responded by offering to negotiate the terms of a demobilisation. However, Germany refused to negotiate, declaring war against Russia on 1 August 1914.

Two of the other major combatants, France and England, had not yet joined, and the war was as still only a European mess. All that was to change in the following days.

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One thought on “The March to the Brink

  1. Pingback: Twentieth Century War Comes To Europe | Skeptical Analysis

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