It was Christopher Clark who recently, in “The Sleepwalkers” [Allen Lane, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0713999426], 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. [Sleepwalkers, p. 358-9]
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.
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.
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 enclosed1 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) [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)
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 manoeuvre 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)
To be continued … (© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)