A pic­ture acquired from the his­tor­ic­al archives of Sara­jevo on June 28, 2014 shows Arch­duke Franz Ferdin­and inspect­ing his troops dur­ing mil­it­ary manœuvre, on June 27, 1914 in Sara­jevo, the day before his assas­sin­a­tion.

It was Chris­toph­er Clark who recently, in “The Sleep­walk­ers”, had the bene­fi­cial idea to have a crit­ic­al look at who and what exactly the people were who did, in fact, determ­ine the fate of the con­tin­ent (and much of the world) in these hot days of July 1914, respect­ively in the years pre­ced­ing this sum­mer.

If we sur­vey the European chan­celler­ies in the spring and early sum­mer of 1914, it is impossible not to be struck by the unfor­tu­nate con­fig­ur­a­tion of per­son­al­it­ies. From Castel­nau and Jof­fre to Zhil­in­sky, Con­rad von Hötzen­dorf, Wilson and Moltke, the seni­or mil­it­ary men were all expo­nents of the stra­tegic offens­ive who wiel­ded a fluc­tu­at­ing but import­ant influ­ence on the polit­ic­al decision-makers.

In 1913 – 14 first Del­cas­sé, then Paléo­logue, both hard­liners, rep­res­en­ted France in St. Peters­burg; Izvol­sky, still determ­ined to avenge the “humi­li­ation” of 1909, offi­ci­ated in Par­is. The French min­is­ter in Sofia, Andre Panafieu, observed in Decem­ber 1912 that Izvol­sky was the “best ambas­sad­or in Par­is,” because he had “per­son­al interests against Ger­many and Aus­tria,” and his Rus­si­an col­leagues noticed that whenev­er he came to speak of Aus­tri­an policy vis-a-vis Bel­grade his voice took on “a palp­able tone of bit­ter­ness which had not left him since the time of the annex­a­tion.” The excit­able Aus­tro­phobe Miroslav Spala­jković was now at the Ser­bi­an min­istry in St. Peters­burg – his old enemy Count For­gach was help­ing to for­mu­late policy in Vienna. One is reminded of a Har­old Pinter play where the char­ac­ters know each oth­er very well and like each oth­er very little. [1]

Yet behind the facades, their mas­culin­ity was of the brittle sort. If we look at the pho­to­graphs – as Stefan Zweig observed, their pom­pous­ness makes us laugh – that por­tray their stiff offi­cious­ness, bur­li­ness, lov­ingly tendered mous­taches and uncom­fort­able cloth­ing, we recog­nize van­ity – men for whom appear­ances were the armour of the soul and who pro­jec­ted over­drawn notions of ego and hon­our as well as clandes­tine dread of volat­il­ity and impot­ence upon the bat­tle­field of dip­lomacy, and when words failed they sub­sti­tuted blood – that of young­er men.

The buri­al of Fran­cis Ferdin­and was a less­er affair ...

At no time was the “hon­our” of nations an import­ant if ima­gin­ary qual­ity like then, in whose pur­suit tens of mil­lions of men were slaughtered and maimed. The siz­able egos of fin-de-siècle man­hood, how­ever, came with that sort of iras­cib­il­ity which the Aus­tri­an ulti­mat­um to Ser­bia had so suc­cess­fully tar­geted. Of course, the Ser­bi­an gov­ern­ment – well aware of its lax­ity towards ter­ror­ist organ­iz­a­tions – could have taken the unruffled point of view that ten years later no one would care wheth­er a few Aus­tri­an detect­ives had pur­sued their own invest­ig­a­tions in Bel­grade after the assas­sin­a­tion of Fran­cis Ferdin­and or not, and it would seem that except for the rap­id Rus­si­an inter­ven­tion Pasić would have grudgingly sub­mit­ted to the Aus­tri­an yoke. But once the hon­our of the Ser­bi­an nation – not always its most con­spicu­ous char­ac­ter­ist­ic – was in doubt, acqui­es­cence was impossible – et pereat mundus.

Sara­jevo after anti-Serb riots ...

While St. Peters­burg dis­cussed the mobil­iz­a­tion scen­ari­os, Beth­mann Holl­weg in Ber­lin presen­ted Wilhelm’s idea of an Aus­tri­an “Halt in Bel­grade” (that a tem­por­ary Aus­tri­an occu­pa­tion of Bel­grade might suf­fice), as the Kaiser’s pro­pos­al of the 28th came to be known, to Vienna on the even­ing of the same day – albeit in a watered-down form. In his ini­tial cable, a scep­tic­al Holl­weg min­im­ized the impact of His Master’s Voice by cau­tion­ing Tschirsch­ky to care­fully “avoid giv­ing the impres­sion that we wish to restrain Aus­tria.” But on the next day, July 29, the chan­cel­lor changed his tune, per­haps cau­tioned by Lichnowsky’s warn­ings that Eng­land seemed likely to stand by the Triple Entente yet con­sidered a demarche in the dir­ec­tion of a “Halt in Bel­grade” solu­tion pos­sible, and instruc­ted Tschirsch­ky to:

Please com­mu­nic­ate the enclosed (FN 1) to Count Ber­chtold at once, adding that we regard such com­pli­ance on the part of Ser­bia as suit­able basis for nego­ti­ations on con­di­tion of an occu­pa­tion of Ser­bi­an ter­rit­ory as a guar­an­tee.” (3) 

[FN 1: A copy of Lichnowsky’s tele­gram from Lon­don, which laid out an Itali­an pro­pos­al to get the Great Powers, i.e. France, Ger­many, Great Bri­tain and Italy to for­mu­late terms under which Ser­bia could accept the Aus­tri­an ulti­mat­um in toto, and cited Sir Grey’s opin­ion that it might be “pos­sible to bring about an under­stand­ing as to the extent of Aus­tri­an mil­it­ary oper­a­tions and demands,” which in turn Holl­weg thought close enough to the HALT IN BELGRADE pro­pos­al that Eng­land would also sup­port the lat­ter.]

Ini­tially, Holl­weg had been less than pleased with Wilhelm’s ini­ti­at­ive for, essen­tially of little flex­ib­il­ity, he was loath to give up his policy of ‘loc­al­iz­a­tion’ of the con­flict, although it became more likely with every passing day that Rus­sia could not be neut­ral­ized. The chan­cel­lor did not believe that Rus­sia would resort to war, but if she threatened to do so, he was pre­pared to call the bluff. It was no bluff, it turned out – Rus­sia, sure of France and almost sure of Great Bri­tain, did not blink. The pro­spect of unin­ten­ded con­sequences occa­sioned a change in the chancellor’s opin­ion – Wilhelm’s offer of medi­ation began to make sense. In the night of July 29/30, Holl­weg instruc­ted Tschirsch­ky to tell Ber­chtold that:

We are, of course, pre­pared to ful­fill our duty as allies, but must decline to let ourselves be dragged by Vienna, irre­spons­ibly and without regard to our advice, into a world con­flag­ra­tion.” (4)

Actu­al dates of Declar­a­tions of War

Sud­denly the dynam­ics of Aus­tro-Ger­man rela­tions had exchanged their polar­ity – ini­tially the Ger­man gov­ern­ment had urged Vienna to speedy action, so as to pre-empt all these prob­lems that now towered before the two, while Aus­tria had been her usu­al per­func­tory self – now, as Holl­weg sought to pull the emer­gency brake, Ber­chtold turned a deaf ear. But instead of doub­ling his efforts, Holl­weg quickly fell back into apathy, sub­mit­ting his own fate and that of the nation to the pre­or­dained but unfathom­able offices of Divine Provid­ence. It should have been clear by then that the best scen­ario avail­able to the Ger­man chan­cel­lor was to urge on, nay, force the Kaiser’s pro­pos­al, HALT IN BELGRADE, down Berchtold’s throat, no mat­ter the cost.

But this Holl­weg did not do – he did not cor­res­pond at all with Tschirsch­ky on the mat­ter on this morn­ing of July 30. Instead, he spent the day pre­oc­cu­pied by the tumul­tu­ous com­mo­tion but little con­struct­ive dis­cus­sion pre­cip­it­ated in Ber­lin by the Tsar’s omin­ous tele­gram of 1:20 am, July 30 – the one that men­tioned the “mil­it­ary meas­ures ... decided five days ago,” and the delayed receipt of Pourtales’s mes­sage sent on 3 pm the day before, inform­ing Ber­lin of the Rus­si­an mobil­iz­a­tion. The bad news sparked the Kaiser’s fam­ous com­ments:

So that [the five days men­tioned by the Tsar] is almost a week ahead of us. And these meas­ures are sup­posed to be of defence against Aus­tria, who is not attack­ing him!!! I can­not com­mit myself to medi­ation any more, since the Tsar, who appealed for it, has at the same time been secretly mobil­iz­ing behind my back.

... It is only a manœuvre to keep us dangling and increase the lead he has already gained over us. ...

Accord­ing to this the Tsar with his appeal for my help has simply been act­ing a part and lead­ing us up the garden path! That means I have got to mobil­ize as well!” (5)


[1] Clark, Chris­toph­er, The Sleep­walk­ers – How Europe Went to War in 1914, Allen Lane 2012, ISBN 978−0−713−99942−6, pp. 358 – 9

[3] [4] [5] Alb­ertini, Luigi, The Ori­gins of the War of 1914, 1st Ed. Oxford 1952, 3 Vols., Enigma Books 2005, ISBN 1 – 292631-26-X, pp. (II), 504; p. (III) 1; pp. (III) 2 – 3

To be con­tin­ued ... (© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2015/19)

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