The Blank Cheque
Last week we discussed the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife the Archduchess Sophie. Today, we will take a look at how some of the Great Powers of Europe reacted in the first week or two after this shocking assassination. Discussing this period in history is famously fraught with danger for historians, as it is a point of deep contention as to which if any of the decisions made in these next few weeks caused the First World War to break out. When the war finally ends in 1918, and formal negotiations begin to reestablish the borders and international relationships of Europe, figuring out whose fault the last four years of destruction and bloodshed was became an incredibly important and controversial issue. Now as I said at the very beginning of this series, I am not an expert on the First World War. However, of all the aspects of it I have studied, the July Crisis is the area I have studied the most, and while I don’t want to give the impression that what I am going to say in these next few episodes is historic gospel, I am fairly confident in my analysis of this period in terms of figuring out why the war between the Entente and the Central Powers broke out when and how it did.
Now, I realize I’ve never actually discussed what terms like “the Entente” and “the Central Powers” mean in the context of 1914, so I’d like to start today by quickly laying out the powers in those alliance systems to get a sense of what the battle lines will look like once the war itself breaks out at the end of July and beginning of August 1914. Briefly, in 1914 the European Great Powers were roughly divided up into two principal alliance blocs. Great Britain, France, and Russia formed what was dubbed “the Triple Entente,” a name we will discuss more in a second, and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy formed what was dubbed “the Triple Alliance.” Now the origins of the name “the Triple Entente” were that Russia and France had, since 1894, held a strong alliance of mutual defense principally aimed in opposition to Germany, the country that Russia and France most greatly feared in a potential war. Roundabout 1907, Great Britain had signed onto this pact, but only very informally. In essence, Britain declared an official friendliness towards France and Russia, but did not sign a formal alliance with them that would compel them to fight in a war on their side. Hence, we call this side the Triple Entente, “Entente” being a word to describe a friendly understanding between two or more countries rather than a hard alliance.
The reason Britain was somewhat hesitant to sign a binding alliance with Russia and France was essentially threefold. First, concerning the French, while the two had not come to blows since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, there were literal centuries of antagonistic relations between France and Great Britain going all the way back to the Hundred Years War of the Middle Ages. During the 19th century, Britain and France had slowly begun to warm up to one another, but there was still a healthy amount of distrust about the other’s intentions on both sides. Beyond that, the two were rivals with one another for colonial territories, and while a war had never broken out between the two during this period, there were several near misses where war almost broke out, and here I’m thinking of the so-called Fashoda Incident of 1898 when French colonial explorers bumped into British colonial explorers in what is today South Sudan and made mutually exclusive claims upon the Nile River basin. So while Britain and France never went to war during the 19th century, there was enough mutual distrust and dislike on all sides that nearly led to war a few times, and so bringing the two into a hard alliance was a dicey proposition.
The second reason for the looseness of the Entente agreement was distrust and rivalry between Britain and Russia. As we briefly discussed in our supplemental episode on 19th century colonialism, the Russian Empire in Central Asia expanded south while the British Empire in India expanded north, and there was real fear on both sides that this borderland might serve as an invasion route by one side or the other. This was not mere paranoia; well, ok, maybe it was a bit of paranoia, but as we know in the 1850s Britain and Russia had fought a full on war against each other in the Crimea that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Something like that happening again was a real possibility. And, while I neglected to discuss this previously, back in 1902 the British had actually signed an alliance with the rising power of Japan and during the Russo-Japanese War the British forbade the Russians from using the Suez Canal, and very nearly went to war with Russia in support of their new ally Japan. They didn’t, but they almost did. So again as with the French, a firm alliance between Britain and Russia was a pretty hard sell at this point in history. Yeah, sure, in 1907 the two sides signed what was called the Anglo-Russian Convention which formalized their territorial holdings in central and south Asia and established warmer relations between the two, but they could hardly be considered friends.
Finally, perhaps the biggest reason the Britain was reluctant to sign a formal treaty of alliance with either France or Russia, let alone both of them, was the long-standing British aversion to committing to hard military agreements with anyone on the European continent. This was referred to, at the time, as Britain’s “splendid isolation,” that being an island nation above the petty squabbles of the other European states, Britain could afford to stand somewhat aloof from the rest of Europe. As the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury said in 1896, any danger in Britain’s isolation, “is much less danger than the danger of being dragged into wars which do not concern us.” So although everyone in 1914 knew that Britain was diplomatically friendly with France and Russia, the two of whom were in a firm alliance, Britain could take comfort in the fact that she need only get involved in a war if it suited her purposes, and could stay out of any conflicts that did not concern her. This will prove to be, charitably, wishful thinking, and less charitably, one of the biggest reasons why the July Crisis of 1914 was not solved peacefully. But we’ll get into all of that a little bit down the road.
I’d also like to briefly discuss the membership and structure of what will be dubbed “the Central Powers” during the War, but what in 1914 was more formally referred to as “The Triple Alliance.” As we know, Germany and Austria-Hungary had been strongly allied to each other since the 1880s thanks in large part to the diplomatic efforts of Otto von Bismarck. In 1882, added into this alliance was the Kingdom of Italy, and the reason this alliance, formally the Triple Alliance, is often called “The Central Powers” is because these three countries – Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy – controlled most of Central Europe. Now Italy, fully unified since the 1860s and seizing Rome as their capital from the pope in 1870, was not quite the same kind of “Great Power” as her partners Germany and Austria-Hungary. Historian Margaret Macmillan, whom I have quoted quite a few times in this show, has a great line about this wherein she calls Italy, “a great power more by courtesy than in reality.” But beyond that, her alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary was always a bit strained. There are a number of reasons for this, most of which are rather too complicated and nuanced to get into here today, but the most important one for our purposes was Austro-Hungarian control over a region in the eastern alps known as Tyrolia and another region sometimes called “Dalmatia” on the Adriatic Sea. Both of these regions, the former just north of Venice and the latter on the eastern side of the Adriatic, were mostly populated by ethnic Italians, and Italy had ambitions to take control of these regions to truly complete the process of Risorgimento. This will help explain why Italy will essentially abandon her alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary once war breaks out in August of 1914, and eventually will join the Entente side of the fight in 1915.
Anyway, now that we have that background out of the way, today I want to focus on the reaction of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie from the perspective of three countries in particular: Serbia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany. In the next few episodes we will get to the diplomatic and political fallout in the other great European states, particularly the Entente powers – remember, that is Britain, France, and Russia. But I want to spend today in the countries of the “Central Powers” as well as Serbia, as in many ways it was not so much news of the assassination itself that sparked the other European powers into action, but rather how these three countries responded to the assassination.
So first, let us turn to the reaction in Serbia, and in particular her Prime Minister, Nikola Pašić. Pašić was born in Serbia in 1845, and had for the last few decades been arguably the most important and influential force in Serbian politics. He was the head of the Serbian Radical Party, the largest and most powerful political party in the country, and had served as Prime Minister on and off since the 1890s. He was famously as wily and inscrutable as he was adroit and judicious, and had survived multiple regime changes, wars, and even execution orders in his career as the ascendant political leader in Serbia. His star had especially started to rise after 1903, when the King and Queen of Serbia had been murdered in a coup and their dynasty, the Obrenović dynasty, was replaced by the current ruling family, the Karađorđević dynasty. Not to get too into this coup, but the murder of the Obrenović King Alexander I and his wife Queen Draginja had been masterminded and carried out by none other than Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijević, the leader of the Black Hand who had recruited the members of Young Bosnia into assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Now I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of this coup from 1903, as I want to keep the focus here on 1914, but it is important to note that the murder of the ruling Obrenović dynasty and their replacement by the Karađorđević dynasty had given the Kingdom of Serbia a reputation among some people as a nation of regicides. And as the current Prime Minister of the country Pašić had survived this regime change and remained in power, there were some who wondered whether or not he had a hand in the coup in 1903 and naturally wondered if he had been involved in the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand.
This was not just a debate amongst the statesmen and diplomats in 1914, but a debate that has raged amongst historians ever since. Though there is no hard evidence linking Pašić to the conspiracy to murder the Archduke, there is some evidence that he knew something was up. Certainly, Pašić had a keen eye for detecting possible trouble and discord, which was the only reason he had survived for so long in the treacherous world of Serbian politics. For example, on June 24, 1914, just four days before the assassination, Pašić wrote a letter to the Serbian Minister of War in which he wrote, “All our allies…if they knew what our officers and sergeants are doing, would not only abandon us, they would stand on the side of Austria-Hungary and allow her to punish her restless and disloyal neighbor, who prepares revolts and assassinations on her territory.” Now some historians have used this and other evidence like it as proof that Pašić was fully aware of the plot, as he was well aware of the Black Hand and may have even had spies within it reporting its activities. These historians make the further case that Pašić perhaps even supported the assassination of the Archduke as a prerequisite for Serbia annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina. But personally, I air on the side of Pašić not knowing the details of this plot, certainly not supporting it, and at best just being aware that something like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was likely.
Now, why do I say with such certainty that Pašić did not support the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, even if he knew about it (which for the record I do not think he did). Well, let’s read a little bit more of that letter I quoted above. Pašić went on to say after warning of assassination plots in Serbia that, “The life interests of Serbia impose on her the obligation to be aware of everything that could provoke an armed conflict with Austria-Hungary at a time when peace is necessary for us to recuperate and prepare for the future events that lie ahead.” Recall from last week, that in the last two years Serbia had been involved in two massive wars against her neighbors, the First Balkan War of 1912 and the Second Balkan War of 1913. After these wars Serbia had nearly doubled her territory, but had spent a copious amount of money and lives in pursuing this goal. While many in the Serbian government, including perhaps Pašić himself, desired for Serbia to conquer Bosnia-Herzegovina from Austria-Hungary, Pašić for his part believed that Serbia needed time to recover from the Balkan Wars and consolidate her gains for at least a few years before they were ready to challenge the Austrians militarily.
So what about the Austrians; how did the people and government of the Dual Monarchy react to the shocking news of the assassination of their crown prince and his wife? Well, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, at first the response was decidedly muted. As we discussed last week, Franz Ferdinand was not a particularly popular man in the Austro-Hungarian halls of power, and he did not exactly command a lot of popularity among the mass of the people either. Most people, if they thought of Franz Ferdinand at all, thought of him as something of an obnoxious crank, constantly getting into spats with his uncle the Emperor and displaying a kind of ostentatious piety that did not necessarily play well with the average Austro-Hungarian citizen. In fact, despite the fact that Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the throne, the Austro-Hungarian government decided that he and Archduchess Sophie only deserved a third-class state funeral. The prevailing mood of the people of Austria-Hungary, at least at first, is I think best summed up in a novel written in the 1920s by Jaroslav Hašek, called “The Good Soldier Švejk,” wherein two characters learn about the assassination and say, “‘And so they’ve killed our Ferdinand,’ said the chairwoman to Švejk…'which Ferdinand, Mrs. Müller?' he asked…'Oh no, sir, it's His Imperial Highness, the Archduke Ferdinand, from Konopište, the fat churchy one…They bumped him off at Sarajevo, with a revolver, you know.” Now this is not to say that there was not any public anger or grief at news of this murder, there definitely was. The assassination of the heir to the throne is definitely a pretty shocking turn of events, and many were outraged by it. But for the most part, this was seen as just another example of political violence in the unstable Balkan region which already had a well-earned reputation for unstable political violence. And certainly, no one, and I mean no one, believed that this assassination would turn out to be the cause for the largest and most destructive war the world had yet seen.
One last thing to say about Franz Ferdinand’s legacy was the complete misreading by many people of what his death meant for the future of the empire. As Franz Ferdinand was personally fairly belligerent, many believed that he was the head of the so-called “war party” in the Austro-Hungarian government. I honestly have no idea how this reputation came to be; its possible it was due to his personal friendship with the Austro-Hungarian Chief of the General Staff, a one Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf whom we will meet more fully next week, and Hötzendorf was very much in favor of aggressive military action. But that’s just a guess on my part. Regardless, Franz Ferdinand had no desire whatsoever for a war with Serbia, nor really anyone else. His beliefs about war with Serbia are best summed up in a quote in which he said with regards to his friend Hötzendorf, “Conrad’s idea is madness. A war with Russia will finish us. If we move against Serbia, we shall have war with Russia. Should the Kaiser of Austria and Tsar knock each other off their thrones and clear the way for revolution?” This was a highly insightful reading of the political situation, and Ferdinand would prove all too correct in his assessment.
So let us now introduce a few players in the coming drama of the July Crisis, two of whom are new to us, and two of whom we met very briefly in episode 8: The Calm Before the Storm. First, let us travel to Vienna to meet the Section Chief of the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Office, Count Alexander von Hoyos. Quick aside here, but in documents of this period the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Office is often referred to as the “Ballhausplatz,” the name of the building in Vienna where the Foreign Office was located. So if I start talking about the “Ballhausplatz,” I’m just referring to the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Office. Anyway, Hoyos was born in 1876 in the Hungarian controlled city of Fiume, modern day Rijeka in Croatia. He was born to an extremely well-bred noble family of Spanish origin that had migrated to the once independent Kingdom of Hungary back in the 1500s, and his family had a long history of serving the Habsburg monarchy in various high-profile positions. His father had served as the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to France, and so prominent was the Hoyos family that Alexander’s older sister, Marguerite, was actually married to the eldest son of none other than Otto von Bismarck.
If you’ll recall, back in 1908 Hoyos was sent to Berlin as a personal representative of the then Foreign Minister Count von Aerenthal to secure German support for the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a mission in which Hoyos was entirely successful. So successful was he, in fact, that in early July, 1914, Hoyos was again sent on special mission to Berlin, to once again secure German support for Austria-Hungary during this time of crisis. You see, while the general response to the murder of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in Austria-Hungary was fairly muted, there were those in the Austro-Hungarian government, particularly their Foreign Minister Count Leopold von Berchtold, who saw the assassination as both a threat and an opportunity. Clearly, these men believed, the Serbian government was involved in the assassination (as the assassins were mostly ethnic Serbs and the weapons they carried had been traced back to the Serbian Army arsenal), and when interrogated the assassins had openly stated that their goal in murdering the Archduke was as a precursor to “freeing” Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was quite apparent to this faction inside the Austro-Hungarian government (of whom Hoyos himself was an active supporter) that Serbia planned to unite the Slavic nations of the Balkans in a grand anti-Austrian alliance as they had so recently done against the Ottomans. Yet because the European public would mostly sympathize with the murdered Archduke and Archduchess and their empire, the Austro-Hungarians might have an opportunity to strike at Serbia now before Serbia was able to strike at them. This may be their last opportunity to do so before it was too late.
So off Hoyos goes to Berlin, with personal instructions from Foreign Minister Berchtold to secure German support for an Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia. Hoyos was clearly a good choice for this mission. Not only had he proved his capability during the 1908 Bosnian Annexation Crisis, but Hoyos was vociferously anti-Serb and fervently believed that Austria-Hungary must invade and if necessary conquer Serbia as soon as possible. As Hoyos himself wrote later reflecting upon the July Crisis of 1914:
“No country in the world was more peaceful, no country had more reason to avoid a European war than Austria. But we could not remain neutral onlookers when a small State like Serbia began working with bombs, assassins, and treacherous propaganda, with the clear intention of separating our Southern States from the Habsburg Monarchy. There were no limitations to Serbia’s actions as long as Serbian statesmen could shield themselves behind the belief that Austria would keep the European peace at any sacrifice.”
Now Hoyos, of course, was not to work alone on this mission to convince Germany to support Austria-Hungary in case of an Austro-Serbian War. He was to work in concert with the official Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Germany, Count László Szőgyény, a wily Hungarian nobleman who had been the ambassador to Berlin since 1892. Szőgyény was, by 1914, an old wizard and was a well-known and well-liked fixture of the court in Berlin. He had been born way back in 1841, and so he had been a child during the Revolutions of 1848 and a young adult when the Austrian Empire transformed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire back in 1867. In July of 1914 Szőgyény was 72 years old and nearing the end of a long and fairly brilliant diplomatic career. He had, as I mentioned previously, been ambassador to Germany since 1892, very early on in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign, and the Kaiser affectionately referred to Szőgyény as “my Gypsy,” an inaccurate if friendly nickname.
Hoyos arrived in Berlin early on Sunday, July 5, 1914. This timing was important as it gave Hoyos only one day to meet face to face with Kaiser Willhelm, who was scheduled to go on a two-week holiday to the Norwegian fjords the very next day. Hoyos first went to meet with Szőgyény, presenting him with a letter for Kaiser Wilhelm written personally by Emperor Franz Josef, whereupon they both traveled together to the Imperial palace in Potsdam, a neighborhood just outside of Berlin proper. There, before having an official audience with Kaiser Wilhelm, Hoyos met with the German Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office, a one Arthur Zimmermann.
Zimmermann is actually a pretty interesting dude, whom we will have dealings with throughout this series, especially towards the end of the First World War. For those of you reading ahead, yes, this is the same Zimmermann who will issue the famous Zimmermann Telegram of 1917, which more or less provoked the United States into declaring war on Germany in April of 1917. But we will worry about all of that in a much later episode. Zimmermann was born in the Kingdom of Prussia in 1864, and in July of 1914 was a seasoned 49-year-old member of the German Foreign Office. Unlike most of his colleagues in the upper echelons of the German government, Zimmerman had no aristocratic ancestry at all, and was descended from a common family of bourgeois lawyers. He had first risen to prominence in 1900, where he had served as the German consul to China during the Boxer Rebellion. In China, Zimmermann had actually met Hoyos who was also in China at the time, and the two survived the siege of the Foreign Legation in Beijing by the Boxers together. Despite this common ordeal they had endured, Hoyos had a rather sneering disdain for the bourgeois Zimmermann, as Hoyos himself took great pride in his illustrious noble ancestry. This led to an interesting dynamic between the two men, as though Hoyos was far superior to Zimmermann in terms of family ancestry, he was also more than 10 years younger and held a less powerful office than Zimmermann did.
Regardless, when Hoyos met his old colleague Zimmermann, he did not mince words about his mission to Berlin. He told Zimmermann that he wanted to carry out quote, “a surprise attack against Serbia without prior diplomatic action,” and that Austria-Hungary, “had to strike and present Europe with a fait accompli. In Austria a complete partition of Serbia is contemplated.” What Zimmermann thought about this extremely provocative declaration is not at all clear, as like most people in a position of power in 1914, Zimmermann would later give several contradictory accounts of his role in these critical few weeks. What is clear is that Zimmermann likely did support this potential move by Austria-Hungary, as he believed that with global public opinion currently sympathizing with the Austrians after the murder of their crown prince and princess, this would be the best opportunity to nip any aggressive stance by Serbia in the bud. But he also seems to have stressed to Hoyos that this invasion of Serbia must be carried out as quickly as possible, while the world was still reeling from news of the assassination. As historian Thomas Otte wrote of Zimmermann’s opinion during this period, “What is clear…is that Zimmermann…was left with the impression that Austria-Hungary would act without delay. On that assumption, any military conflict was likely to remain confined to the two belligerents.”
Now before we really get into the nitty gritty details of this meeting in Berlin, there is one more player we need to meet who will play a critical role in the coming negotiations. This was Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the chancellor of the German Empire. Bethmann-Hollweg was descended from one of the wealthiest and most illustrious noble families of the old Kingdom of Prussia. He had been born in Prussia just outside of Berlin in 1856, and at this time was 57 years old and had been the Chancellor of Germany since 1909. Bethmann-Hollweg was famous for being as jittery and nervous as he was pessimistic, and was known among the political leadership in Berlin as “the dancing bear,” for his habit of hopping up and down from one foot to the other whenever he was about to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm, whom by all accounts utterly terrified Bethmann-Hollweg. His one major policy initiative, at least in terms of foreign policy, was to try to reduce diplomatic tensions between Germany and Great Britain that had been rising ever since the beginning of the Anglo-German naval arms race in 1900, and if possible to even form an alliance with Great Britain, whom Bethmann-Hollweg believed could be persuaded to abandon her friendly ties with France and Russia, the latter of whom presented a potential threat to the British Empire in India. As we shall see, Bethmann-Hollweg was perhaps a bit naïve in this dream, and despite his usual pessimism was hopeful about the prospect of an Anglo-German alliance right up until the outbreak of war between the two countries.
So on the morning of July 5, 1914, three of our players – Hoyos, Szőgyény, and Zimmermann – attended an art gallery of the German artist Georg Schöbel with Kaiser Wilhelm in the Neues Palais in Potsdam. At 1pm, the group was scheduled to have a semi-formal luncheon. But just before this luncheon, Szőgyény met privately with Kaiser Wilhelm in the gardens of the Neues Palais, and presented him with the personal letter written by Emperor Franz Josef for Kaiser Wilhelm that had been delivered to Berlin by Hoyos. The letter was filled with friendly references to Wilhelm as Franz Josef’s “friend” and “brother,” but most critically it implored Wilhelm to support Austria-Hungary if and when she attacked Serbia in response to the assassination. At first, Wilhelm demurred, saying that such a move by Austria-Hungary could cause a quote “serious European complication.” This was not just out of a general hesitancy to commit German military forces, but a specific concern Wilhelm had about trouble in the Balkans. Back in 1912, Wilhelm had a meeting with Franz Ferdinand, with whom he was personally close, and at this meeting he had told Ferdinand with regards to the Balkans, “I find you rattle too much – with my saber.” In this, and in his meeting with Szőgyény on July 5, 1914, I think we can see Wilhelm heeding the warning of Bismarck, who had once so famously said that the most likely cause of a general European War would be “some damn fool event in the Balkans,” and that the Balkans, “were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” Even from the grave, the great Bismarck proved to be a deft reader of European geopolitics.
Later that afternoon, after the scheduled luncheon, Szőgyény again pressed for a firmer commitment by Germany with regards to the brewing conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. In this appeal, Szőgyény demonstrated how well he understand the particular personality of Kaiser Wilhelm, as he laced this appeal with multiple references to the necessity for monarchical brotherhood and solidarity in response to the regicidal government of Serbia who had clearly conspired to murder a royal figure. This appeal seems to have touched Wilhelm, as he privately told Szőgyény that no matter what Austria-Hungary decided to do, she would have Germany’s full and unquestioning support, and that Austria-Hungary should quote “not wait with this action.” He went on to say that though Russia would likely object to an invasion of Serbia, that if Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary that Germany would stand in solidarity with her ally, even if it meant total war.
In the history of the First World War, and more specifically the history of the July Crisis, this statement by Kaiser Wilhelm is known as “The Blank Cheque,” a commitment by Germany to support Austria-Hungary in whatever she did no matter what the consequences were. This now leads us into a brief discussion of perhaps the most famous, and easily the most controversial, thesis on the beginning of the First World War. In 1961, a German historian named Fritz Fischer published a book titled “Germany’s Aims in the First World War,” in which he proposed that all blame for who started the First World War should rest solely with Germany, that the German government wanted this war and did everything in their power to provoke it.
I’m going to now quote a fairly lengthy passage from Fischer’s book, to give you a sense of what exactly his thesis was and how he backed it up. As Fischer wrote, “The official documents afford ample proofs that during the July Crisis the Emperor (aka Kaiser Wilhelm), the German military leaders and the Foreign Ministry were pressing Austria-Hungary to strike against Serbia without delay, or alternatively agreed to the dispatch of an ultimatum to Serbia couched in such sharp terms as to make war between the two countries more than probable, and that in doing they deliberately took the risk of a continental war against Russia in France.” To summarize Fischer’s argument, Germany all but forced Austria-Hungary into declaring war on Serbia, that they consciously knew that such an action was likely to spark a war with France and Russia, and that they were prepared for such an eventuality.
Ever since this argument was first proposed by Fischer in 1961, it has been an extremely contentious debate among historians, and I am personally hesitant to put in my two cents on this issue lest I bring down an academic fire storm upon my head. But personally, I am more convinced by Thomas Otte’s arguments on this subject than Fischer, though I do see where Fischer is coming from. Otte proposed in his book that Germany did not so much force Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia, but rather foolishly allowed her to do so. He in particular sites a conversation held just after the issuance of the so-called “blank cheque” among Kaiser Wilhelm, Zimmermann, and Bethmann-Hollweg at around 6pm on July 5. At this meeting, the three men all agreed that the quote, “undiminished preservation of Austria,” was crucial to Germany, and that their alliance must be maintained at all costs. But the three men also agreed that, as the Kaiser put it, “Whatever the measures taken by Austria-Hungary against Serbia as a result of the Sarajevo crime might demand, we should refrain from all suggestions or incitement in this regard. It [is] Austria’s affair for her to settle in her own way, and it [is] not our business.”
Otte makes the case, based on this account and others, that, in his words, “In 1914 the Austro-Serbian war came about because Vienna willed it and, more importantly, because Berlin had relinquished its political leadership…Bismarck knew how to present a reasonable case to the outside world; Bethmann…did not. Moreover, [he was] prepared to sacrifice Germany on the altar of the Habsburg Empire’s regional interests.”
And this leads us into a discussion of a personal theory of mine, or at least, one that I have not seen elucidated elsewhere, that I would like to close this week’s episode with. Otto von Bismarck cast an enormous shadow over this generation of European politicians and diplomats; they all knew with what resounding success he had come to both personally and for Germany, and they all, for the most part, wanted to emulate that success. But this was perhaps Bismarck’s darkest legacy, and the reason that while I admire his creativity, wit, and political skills, I am actually not that big a fan of him. Bismarck’s left a legacy for Europe for politicians and diplomats to always see the worst in each other, to always believe that their counterparts in other countries were trying to outsmart and get the edge on them, and so in turn that they must try to outsmart and get an edge on their opponents. And of course, the culmination of each of Bismarck’s grand plans was a war, so naturally the statesmen and diplomats of Europe began to think along the same lines. High diplomacy and geopolitics is always cynical, but Bismarck took this cynicism to a high art, and in my personal opinion, he had such a great impact on European history that it was all but inevitable that future diplomats, less skilled than he, would stumble into a disastrous war for all sides. There is in academic circles a theory called “Sonderweg,” which is a German word roughly translated as “the special path.” This is a theory that because German unification through peaceful speeches and elections failed in 1848 but succeeded in 1871 through Bismarck’s “iron and blood,” that a great world war and ultimately fascism and naziism were inevitable for the world generally and Europe specifically. I do not personally ascribe to this theory. However, while I don’t believe that Bismarck’s cynical plotting, back-stabbing, and war-mongering made the rise of Hitler inevitable, I do think it made a disastrous war in Europe all but inevitable. And the stone for that war has now been unwittingly rolled down the hill by the German government when they foolishly issued their blank cheque to Austria-Hungary.
Before we go this week, I’d like to give a quick shoutout first to a new patron on Patreon who asked to be anonymous, as well as to donor Charlie, for their efforts in helping to make this show possible. So, thank you anonymous, and thank you to Charlie, though I plan to show you no mercy in our next game of Diplomacy. Anyway, next week, we will return to the plot proper. Kaiser Wilhelm and his advisors have just effectively told Austria-Hungary that they will have full German support whenever they decide to attack Serbia. Next week, we will see how the Austro-Hungarian government reacts to this news, as well as explore how the other Great Powers of Europe began to prepare for the inevitable retribution against Serbia for the murder of her crown prince and princess.
Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.
Fischer, Fritz. Germany’s Aims in the First World War. English Translation: London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1967 (originally published in German, 1961).
Macmillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace. New York: Random House, 2013.
Neiberg, Michael. Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Otte, Thomas G. The July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Hoyos, Count Alexander von. Russia Chief Culprit in Precipitation of World War. From Current History, July 1928. http://net.lib.byu.edu/estu/wwi/PDFs/Germany%20Incite%20Austria.pdf