Episode 11:

Ultimatum

         Last week, we took a look at how three of the principal players in the July Crisis – namely Serbia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany – reacted to news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie in the week or so following their murder. Today, we are going to broaden our focus a bit, specifically to see how the countries that will form the Entente in the First World War will react, not so much to the assassination itself, but to German and Austro-Hungarian diplomatic and military moves in reaction to that event.

         We ended last week, not including our little tangent on the legacy of Otto von Bismarck, with the issuance by Kaiser Wilhelm II of what is called “the blank cheque,” that is a promise that Germany would support Austria-Hungary no matter what the latter did with regards to Serbia, even if it meant full on European War. Now this “blank cheque” was of course secret, nothing about this promise was published for obvious reasons. But soon enough, the other European Powers would start to notice…potentially troubling signs coming out of Berlin and Vienna. For now though, we are going to move into Vienna to see how the leaders in the government there responded from news that Alexander Hoyos and László Szőgyény had secured from Kaiser Wilhelm an incredibly expansive promise to support Austria-Hungary in the coming crisis.

         Now there are going to be a lot of people introduced in this episode, all of whom are important to the July Crisis but only some of whom will be important for the rest of the story of the First World War. I’ll try to simplify this as much as possible, and for the most part I don’t want you to worry too much about remembering who exactly these people are, as it will hopefully be clear from the context who is doing what, where, and why. So first, and most importantly for the story right now in Vienna, we have to introduce Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Foreign Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now one of the funny quirks about the Austro-Hungarian system of government was that most of the positions we think of a government having – such as the head of the government, the chief law enforcement officer, minister of the interior, to say nothing of the legislature – were not held in common by the Dual Monarchy. Rather, both Austria and Hungary had devolved and mostly independent governments all their own. So there was both an Austrian parliament and a Hungarian parliament, an Austrian Prime Minister and a Hungarian Prime Minister, an Austrian Interior Minister and a Hungarian Interior Minister. Only three governmental offices were held in common in Austria-Hungary, not counting the Emperor. Those offices were the Minister of War, the Minister of Finance, and the Foreign Minister. As I’ve said in previous episodes, Austria-Hungary was unlike basically every other country in Europe at this time, and in many ways it wasn’t really a country at all, but rather two countries sharing a single monarch.

         Anyway, the Foreign Minister at this time was the aforementioned Count Leopold von Berchtold. Berchtold was 51 years old during the time of the July Crisis, and in July of 1914 he had been Austria-Hungary’s Foreign Minister for only two years and was the youngest Foreign Minister in Europe (at least among the Great Powers). He’s a tricky guy to characterize, as his biography has been through numerous revisions over the years and even in his own time there were multiple opinions on the man. But in the context of July 1914, I think it’s fair to say that Berchtold was firmly in the camp of those who feared a possible anti-Austrian alliance forming amongst the Balkan States, and that like many in the government he was chiefly afraid of Serbia taking away Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Empire, by hook, crook, or invasion. Thus, while I don’t think he in any way wanted to spark a general European War, he was willing to risk that possibility in order to use the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to nip the Serbian problem in the bud. And more than that, he did not want to address this problem by securing an official apology from Serbia for abetting the assassination (whether or not they actually had anything to do with it), but that he more specifically wanted a war with Serbia to teach them a lesson, and possibly even annex them out of existence. As Berchtold himself wrote in the 1920s reflecting on his decisions during the July Crisis, “The continuance of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was unthinkable without a definitive elimination of the Serbian menace…the new [Serbian] dynasty was bound to further the Greater Serbia program of the organization of officers to which it owed the throne – a program the realization of which was based on the destruction of the neighboring Monarchy.” In short, Berchtold believed that if Austria-Hungary did not strike at Serbia soon, then Serbia would be able to first take from Austria-Hungary the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina and, ultimately, destroy the empire both from within and without. This analysis of Berchtold’s position is further supported by the fact that it was Berchtold who sent Hoyos on his secret mission to Berlin, giving him explicit instructions to secure support from Germany for an Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia.

         Supporting this position of Berchtold’s, if in a far more aggressive and belligerent way, was General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Chief of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff and effectively the head of the Austro-Hungarian military. Hötzendorf had been born back in 1852 to a family with a long history of service in the Austrian Army. His father had in fact fought in the Austrian Army during the Napoleonic Wars, and so Hötzendorf was all but destined from birth to be an Austrian Army officer. He graduated from the Austrian Kriegsschule or War College in 1876, and was posted to the General Staff, a position filled with young and ambitious officers like Hötzendorf himself. At some point in his career he became personal friends with the heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, and with his friend’s help was made Chief of the General Staff in 1906. Throughout this period Hötzendorf garnered a reputation for himself of being a belligerent warmonger, constantly advocating for preventive wars against alternatively Serbia, and on at least one occasion against Austria-Hungary’s nominal ally Italy, whom Hötzendorf did not trust. This belligerency led Hötzendorf to be dismissed from his position in 1911, but he was reinstated the very next year due to the influence of his friend Franz Ferdinand.

         To be honest, as I touched on last week, I am not really sure why Ferdinand and Hötzendorf were such close friends, as the two held very different political and military views, with Ferdinand always advocating for compromise with and concessions to Austria-Hungary’s neighbors and Slavic subjects, while Hötzendorf repeatedly called for immediate war at the slightest provocation with virtually all of the Empire’s neighbors. And while this is personal speculation, I would bet that it was the friendship between Ferdinand and Hötzendorf that gave rise to the belief that Ferdinand was somehow the leader of the Austro-Hungarian “War Party,” even though nothing could be further from the truth. I suppose that personal friendship can often supersede political disagreements.

         So on July 7, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Ministerial Council met in Vienna to discuss the issues in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the assassination, whether or not to officially blame Serbia for the assassination, and if so how to punish them. Present at this meeting were a number of important political and military leaders, among them Berchtold and Hötzendorf, as well as Hoyos who as the most junior member of the council was obliged to take minutes for the meeting (minutes which we have access to which is a really cool source for anyone wanting to check it out, link attached to the show notes). Now not present at this meeting was the Emperor, Franz Josef, who at this point in his reign being 84 years old was fairly well checked out of most day to day affairs of state, and mostly left it to his Ministers to make policy decisions.

         At this meeting, it was pretty much taken for granted by the ministers that Serbia was to blame for the assassination, either by failing to contain organizations like the Black Hand or by actually supporting them. The only real question left to these ministers was whether to demand that Serbia apologize for the assassination and be satisfied with a “diplomatic victory” over them, or to use the assassination as an excuse to actually invade and perhaps conquer Serbia. The only person at this meeting who really objected to any of this was the Hungarian Prime Minister (which, remember, was a position distinct from the Prime Minister of Austria), a one István Tisza. Tisza was 53 years old at the time of the July Crisis, and had been an influential force in Hungarian politics for the last twenty or so years. During this meeting, and indeed throughout the July Crisis, Tisza again and again called for rapprochement and compromise with Serbia rather than starting a war with them. But this was not because Tisza was some kind of peacenik. Rather, Tisza opposed military action against Serbia because such an invasion would almost inevitably result in Austria-Hungary annexing some or all of Serbia’s territory, which would bring in a huge number of new Slavs into the empire, and the empire already had enough Slavs to deal with thank you very much.

         Tisza, you see, was a Magyar nationalist, whose principal political aim was to maintain the ethnic Magyar position within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This position was already pretty dicey, as ethnic Slavs made up a much larger proportion of the Empire’s population than ethnic Magyars. Incorporating any more Slavic land (and therefore Slavic peoples) into the Empire was unacceptable to Tisza, as this would threaten the power and influence of the Kingdom of Hungary within the Dual Monarchy system. So, no, Tisza was no peacenik; to be blunt, he was a racist, and his resistance to a punitive war against Serbia stemmed from his racist disdain for Slavic peoples, and his aversion to adding any more Slavic peoples to the Empire.

         Before the meeting on July 7, Tisza had made his position regarding war with Serbia crystal clear. Berchtold had met privately with Tisza, and impressed upon him the need (as he saw it) for an aggressive strike at Serbia as soon as possible, arguing that this might be the last opportunity Austria-Hungary had to attack Serbia while she was still weak, before Serbia formed an anti-Austrian coalition. Berchtold further made the point that the rest of the ministers of state shared his view on this issue. To this, Tisza had coolly replied by saying, “if they want that, then the Emperor will have to look for a new minister.” This was a deadly serious threat, as this would shatter what political cohesion the Empire had, and would make an attack on Serbia politically impossible, as the Hungarians would be too busy trying to find a new Prime Minister to focus on a potential war with Serbia.

So at the July 7 meeting, Tisza was basically the only guy in the room who had not already decided that war with Serbia was the end goal of all of this. He was fairly beaten down by the near unanimous support for an attack on Serbia among the ministers, and seems to have been convinced that the Serbian government really had aided or at least failed to stop the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. But he would not budge on the issue of annexing any Serbian land. Thus, an agreement was struck whereby the Austro-Hungarian government would offer an ultimatum to Serbia for restitution, that if Serbia refused Austria-Hungary would declare war, but that no territory would be annexed as a result of any such war. There were however a couple of problems with this. First was the fact that the ministers were divided as to what they hoped this ultimatum would accomplish. The hawks on the council, led by General Hötzendorf, hoped (and indeed all but assumed) that the ultimatum would be rejected, giving Austria-Hungary an excuse to invade. Meanwhile Tisza (basically the only dove in the room) hoped that Serbia would accept the ultimatum, thus defusing the crisis. So clearly, this is not the most well thought out or coherent strategy in the world we’re dealing with here. Second was the fact that although Tisza insisted on not annexing any territory from Serbia, none of the other ministers of state had any intention of keeping this promise. Finally, the last problem was that during this entire meeting, not once had anyone actually suggested what should actually be put in their little ultimatum. To them, the ultimatum was basically a formality, all that mattered was that Serbia refuse it (or as Tisza hoped, accept it). But this oversight will become apparent to everyone once the Austro-Hungarians actually get around to sending this as of yet theoretical ultimatum.

Now while the government in Vienna had not yet decided exactly what this ultimatum to Serbia would include, nor when exactly to send it, it was impressed upon one man in particular that such a document was soon to come down the pipe, and that he best be ready for it. That man was Baron Wladimir Giesl, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Serbia, the man who would be tasked with officially delivering the ultimatum whenever Vienna got around to issuing it. Giesl was a lifelong soldier who had only been made ambassador to Serbia the year before. Though a staunch patriot and a man who was as convinced as Berchtold and Hötzendorf that Serbia planned to steal away the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina from his empire, Giesl was no hawk, and when he learned that his government planned to send an ultimatum to Serbia that was designed to be rejected, he scrambled for a way to avoid war. The reason for Giesl’s desire to avoid war was simple: war with Serbia almost certainly meant war with Russia, probably France too, and even with German support this was a war he did not believe his country could win. So, he set up a meeting with the one man in Belgrade who might be able to help him avoid such a calamity. This was Baron Nikolai Hartwig, the Russian Ambassador to Serbia. Despite his Germanic last name, Hartwig was a Slavic nationalist, and he had for decades pressed for the Slavic nations of the Balkans to unite and drive out the foreign occupiers of Slavic lands. In 1912 this meant the Ottoman Empire, but now it looked like he might have his sights set on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an empire made up of a plurality of various Slavic peoples. In addition to this, Hartwig had more or less gone rogue while serving as ambassador to Serbia, and was much more a Serbian minister of state than he was the representative of a foreign power. When, on one occasion, he had been ordered to read to Serbian Prime Minister Pašić a letter written by the Russian Foreign Minister, on finishing the letter he turned to Pašić and said, “all right! Now we can talk seriously.”

Yet despite all this, Hartwig too wanted to avoid an Austro-Serbian War. This was not because Hartwig had gone soft all of a sudden, but because he believed just as Pašić did that if Serbia went to war with Austria-Hungary now, just months after the conclusion of the successful yet costly Balkan Wars, that Serbia would be crushed. If Serbia was to go to war with Austria-Hungary to finish the goal of freeing all the South Slavic peoples, she needed time to recover. So he was open to meeting with Giesl, despite the fact that their two countries were rivals and the two men did not get along well personally.

On July 10, Hartwig came to Giesl’s home in Belgrade to have a meeting with his Austro-Hungarian counterpart. The meeting was tense, but cordial, as both men wanted to avoid war as much as possible, if for very different reasons. Though their meeting was not recorded word for word, as this was a private and informal meeting rather than an official diplomatic summit, we know in general what the two discussed. Basically, they were feeling out the positions of the other’s country with regards to the current crisis. Giesl needed assurances from Hartwig that Serbia would clamp down on groups like the Black Hand who were fomenting revolution and assassination inside of Austria-Hungary, and Hartwig needed assurances from Giesl that Austria-Hungary would not use the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as an excuse to conquer Serbia. Fortunately, both men found the other open to compromise, and soon enough a rough deal had been struck that would prevent war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. As the meeting wound down, Hartwig turned to Giesl and asked him to reaffirm his statement that Serbia was not to be conquered. Giesl assured him that quote, “Serbia’s sovereignty would not be touched, and that, with some good will on the part of the Serb government, a mutually satisfactory solution will be found.” Hartwig was more than satisfied with this statement, and responded by saying, “Thank you, you have relieved me and now one more thing, but also as a friend…” whereupon he immediately suffered a massive heart attack and died right there on Giesl’s couch. Yeah. I know.

The death of Hartwig scuttled any hopes for this first attempt at a peaceful solution to the crisis. It was immediately suspected by many Serbs (though not Pašić himself) that Giesl had poisoned Hartwig, and any deal the two had struck or were about to strike was dashed. Yet this was merely the first of a series of mistakes and misfortunes that would ultimately result in world war.

         So let’s now shift our focus a bit to France and Russia. In terms of France’s initial reaction to news of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, there was hardly any reaction at all. To get a sense of this, let us focus on the President of the French Republic at this time, Raymond Poincaré. Poincaré is actually a pretty interesting guy who serves as a good window into French political and social culture at this time. He was born in 1860 in the Lorraine region of France, aka one of the two provinces that Germany conquered and annexed from France in the Franco-Prussian War. This meant that at age 10 young Poincaré was forced to flee his home as a refugee, which may explain a lot about his views on Germany. He had long been a prominent and influential force in French politics, helping to organize the center-right Democratic Republican Alliance Party in 1902. He is often described as being a conservative, and in many ways he was, but as this was a time of great social and political upheaval and questioning in Europe (and around the rest of the world), Poincaré often fell on the more liberal side of things in terms of the great questions of the day. For example, he was a supporter of women’s suffrage (at a time when only men were allowed to vote), and beyond that he was a staunch supporter of animal rights, going so far as to refuse to join in the traditional hunts taken place at the official Presidential residence.

His wife, Henriette, is perhaps even more interesting than Raymond. She was a leader in the French Suffragist movement (which perhaps helps explain her husband’s support for that movement), and was a prominent cultural, intellectual, and artistic critic and leader in French high society. Perhaps more shocking than all of that (as at this time in Europe it was still considered somewhat improper for a woman to occupy such a public role) was the fact that Henriette Poincaré was a widow and a divorcee. She had been married previously to an American whom she divorced in 1890, soon thereafter marrying a Frenchman who died in 1892. For any man, let alone a prominent politician like Raymond Poincaré, to marry a widower divorcee who on top of everything else was older than Raymond himself, would have been quite a scandal at the time. Such a potential scandal that the two were actually secretly wed in a civil ceremony in 1904, and only held an official Catholic wedding in 1913, just after Raymond was elected President of France. This was all fine fodder for the gossip columnists and tabloid papers of the day, to say nothing of Raymond’s political rivals. One of those rivals, Georges Clemenceau, who will play a huge role towards the end of our series, criticized the couple so viciously and so publicly that Raymond Poincaré actually challenged Clemenceau to a duel. The duel never took place, quite fortunately for Poincaré as Clemenceau was an expert duelist and almost certainly would have killed his challenger.

Anyway, President Poincaré was at the Longchamps racetrack watching a horse race with a number of foreign diplomats on June 28, 1914, when an aide rushed up and whispered to him that Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie of Austria-Hungary had been assassinated in Sarajevo. Poincaré then discreetly told the rest of his guests the news, and while the Austro-Hungarian diplomat present quickly excused himself visibly white in the face, the rest of the entourage decided that such news was no cause to leave the racetrack. Assassination and violence of all kind was simply par for the course in the Balkans, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was, to these men, just further proof of why it was foolish to visit the Balkans on holiday. Now Poincaré, for his part, was a keen observer of European geopolitics, and was personally most interested in the Foreign Ministry as opposed to any other single office of the French government. He was known to spend a great deal of time at the French Foreign Office building on the Quai d’Orsay, and had actually personally served as France’s Foreign Minister from 1912-1913. So it is likely that Poincaré did at least perk his ears up when he learned of assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Nevertheless, at first this did not seem to be a reason for any great alarm. The French people as a whole were even less concerned about this assassination in the far-off Balkans, and most people in France spent most of their time during July 1914 focused on the scandalous trial of Madame Caillaux. Henriette Caillaux was the wife of an eminent French politician, and when a newspaper editor had published an article critical of her husband, Madame Caillaux walked into his office in March of 1914 and shot the editor dead with a pistol. The trial of Madame Caillaux was of far more interest to the gossip columns in France then the murder of some foreign prince and princess, and it would not be until literally days before war was declared that the French people began to read of troubling news coming out of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The other figure in the French government at this time that we need to meet is René Viviani, the brand-new Prime Minister of France. Viviani was born in French Algeria in 1863 to parents of Italian ethnicity, and while he was not among the most important players in the drama of the July Crisis, he is interesting in one very particular way, that I think deserves some attention. You see, René Viviani was a socialist. Now, he was no fire-breathing Marxist or Communist, rather he was one of the leading figures of a movement of moderate socialism that had been gaining traction in Europe for the last decade or two. Viviani was mostly focused on two aspects of public life in France: increasing the minimum wage and creating more protections for the working class, and of eliminating as much as possible the role of Catholic superstition, as he saw it, from the public stage. The first part of this is relatively self-explanatory, especially for a self-described socialist, but the second is interesting and worth briefly discussing here.

During the first half of the life of the Third French Republic, which is to say, roughly from its founding in 1871 up until 1914, one of the key ideological and political battles waged in France was between the clerical faction and the anti-clerical faction. Now, these battle lines could be somewhat fluid on the edges, but basically the debate was between first, those who wanted the traditional Catholic Church to wield political influence in the French government, as it was after all the largest religion in the country and the bedrock of traditional French life. Second was the side that argued that France ought to become a more secular state that broke the power of the Church as an independent political power. This was an ongoing debate in France that would run right through the First World War. And since we’re talking about one of the leaders of the anti-clerical side of the debate, namely Prime Minister Viviani, I’ll allow him to sum up his side of the argument, and I’m now quoting from a speech Viviani gave in 1906:

“All together, first our fathers, then our elders, and now ourselves, we have set ourselves to the work of anti-clericalism, of irreligion; we have torn from the people’s soul all belief in another life, in the deceiving and unreal visions of a heaven. To the man who stays his steps at set of sun, crushed beneath the labor of the day and weeping with want and wretchedness, we have said: ‘beneath those clouds at which you gaze so mournfully there are only vain dreams of heaven.’ With magnificent gesture we have quenched for him in the sky those lights which none shall ever again kindle. Do you think our work is over? It begins”

So yeah, Viviani was not a fan of organized religion.

         Not surprisingly for a socialist focused on making lives better for the working class (when he wasn’t writing screeds against the Catholic Church), Viviani’s main goal when he became Prime Minster on June 14, 1914 (yes, just two weeks before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie) was to increase the minimum wage and grant more organizing and labor rights to the working class. What he was not focused on or interested in was foreign affairs. Viviani had previously served as France’s Minister of Labor, and planned to spend his tenure as Prime Minister focused on domestic economic and labor reform. He had almost no experience in foreign affairs, something that was not much appreciated or respected by the President of France, the more conservative and capitalist Raymond Poincaré. In fact, Poincaré noted wryly and not without some alarm that Viviani couldn’t even grasp something as simple as the name of the foreign offices of other European states. The Austro-Hungarian Foreign Office, as I briefly mentioned last week, was known colloquially as the Ballhausplatz. Well, Viviani couldn’t quite get a handle on this name, often referring to it as Boliplatz or Baloplatz. But, thinks our new Prime Minister, that’s no big deal, because I don’t plan to focus on foreign affairs, but domestic ones. It’s not like a great diplomatic crisis is going to start just two weeks after I assume office, right?

         When news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie first reached Paris on the afternoon of June 28, President Poincaré’s first priority was to shore up the relationship between France and her most important ally: Russia. Fortunately, he and Prime Minister Viviani were already scheduled to go on a diplomatic visit to Russia in July. The agenda of the trip called for the two leaders to board a new French battleship, fittingly named “The France,” and sail from the north coast of France to St. Petersburg, the Russian capital, arriving on July 20. They would then spend three days in the city, attending various public parades and celebrations toasting the alliance with Russia, and planned in particular to meet with, among others, the Czar Nicholas II and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Sazonov. The timing of this is actually very important, as we shall see in a minute.

         So I’m going to skip ahead a couple of weeks so we can focus on this meeting between the French and the Russians in St. Petersburg. The two had been strongly allied since 1894, and since then had begun coordinating their military strategies in the eventuality that war with Germany ever occurred. And in particular, the French government and private French banks had been sending massive, massive loans to the Russian government so that the Russians could develop and modernize their country. This included just about everything you might think of, but the two most important were for the modernization of the Russian military and the construction of railroads. The French had essentially told the Russians since 1894: “we will loan you money to build railroads for your country, but on the condition that at least some of those railroads are designed to move troops to the border with Germany in case of a war.” The Russians were all too happy with this arrangement, and by 1914 had built thousands of kilometers of railroad tracks linking various cities with the Russo-German border, and were in the middle of significant military reforms. These reforms, when completed, would hopefully make the Russian Army, which was quantitatively the largest in Europe, as qualitatively rigorous as the French or German Armies.

         The meeting in St. Petersburg had been scheduled months before the assassination of June 28, and was meant to re-entrench and solidify the existing alliance. With the looming crisis coming out of the Balkans, this trip would also allow the French leadership and the Russian leadership to discuss the military situation directly with one another, which was no doubt a huge relief to Raymond Poincaré. Poincaré, a conservative who had been made a refugee by the Germans in 1870, did not necessarily believe that war with Germany was imminent, but did definitely believe that France and Russia needed to present a strong, unified front against what he saw as German aggressiveness. He even went so far as to call the Franco-Russian alliance quote, “the supreme guarantee of the European order.” Viviani was much less hawkish than his colleague Poincaré, and saw no reason why France should be dragged into a war with Germany because of a diplomatic tiff in the far-away Balkans. But Poincaré was always of the opinion that, as he put it, Germany only understood the quote “language of force.” He had observed in back in 1912, “whenever we have adopted a conciliatory approach to Germany she has abused it; on the other hand, on each occasion when we have shown firmness, she has yielded.” So, it was fortunate for Poincaré that he would be able to converse directly with the Russian Czar and Foreign Minister at a time when it seemed possible that Germany might try to squeeze some military advantage out of the Balkans, through her proxy the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the timing of this meeting would in fact come to have rather disastrous consequences, as we shall see in a minute.

         Poincaré and Viviani arrived in St. Petersburg on Monday, July 20, 1914. The two were welcomed by appropriate fanfare and pomp and circumstance, with bands bombastically playing first the Russian and then the French national anthems. The best account that I have found of the following meeting comes to us by way of a, how shall I put this, controversial figure in the historiography of the July Crisis. Namely, Maurice Paléologue, the French Ambassador to Russia. Not to get too deep into this, but Paléologue has a reputation among some historians as being one of the chief culprits in pushing Europe into war in July and August 1914. Paléologue had an independent streak as the French Ambassador to Russia. He had only been appointed to that post a few months before the July Crisis began in 1914, yet he was brimming with a self-confidence that bordered on insubordination. Before the arrival of Poincaré and Viviani to St. Petersburg, he had told Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov – whom we will discuss more next week – that Russia would have France’s complete military support if war broke out with Germany and Austria-Hungary. This was not a totally unreasonable thing to say given the long-standing Franco-Russian alliance, but Paléologue had no official instructions to give this kind of promise. It is debatable how much influence Paléologue actually had on the Russian government, but he was certainly as vociferous in his belief in presenting a strong front to Germany as President Poincaré, if not more so.

         The first meeting of the visit was held on Czar Nicholas II’s personal yacht, the Alexandria, where Poincaré and the Czar held a personal conference about the strength of the Entente, and whether or not Great Britain could be brought into firmer alliance with France and Russia. Czar Nicholas II, whom we will explore more fully in future episodes, had a fairly emotional and melodramatic view on international politics. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who was of course leader of the country most likely to go to war with Russia, was Nicholas’ third cousin, and Nicholas’ wife Alexandra was Wilhelm’s first cousin, both grandchildren of Queen Victoria of Britain. Nicholas and Wilhelm were friends, and to Nicholas at least, this personal friendship superseded their roles as Czar of Russia and Kaiser of Germany. “I can't believe the Emperor wants war,” Nicholas said of Wilhelm on July 20, speaking to Paléologue. “If you knew him as I do! If you knew how much theatricality there is in his posing!... Emperor William is too cautious to launch his country on some wild adventure, and the Emperor Francis Joseph's only wish is to die in peace.”  

         Real talks between the French – represented by Poincaré and Viviani – and the Russians – represented primarily by Czar Nicholas and Foreign Minister Sazonov – began the next day, July 21. Their conversation covered a wide range of topics, everything from the Russo-British relationship regarding Persia to domestic affairs in Bulgaria. But at a certain point talk came to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. It appears that the French and the Russians had suspicions that Austria-Hungary would use the assassination as an excuse to ring some kind of concessions, be they monetary or territorial, from Serbia. There were also rumors discussed that Germany planned to openly support such a move, though by what means they did not know. These rumors came by way of the Italians, who though allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary (and therefore having some inside knowledge as to decision making in Berlin and Vienna), clearly had one foot out the door as they really had no interest in being sucked into a war to help Austria-Hungary snap up some territory in the Balkans.

         That evening, July 21, a formal ball was held attended by most of the various ambassadors in St. Petersburg. There, Poincaré and Viviani met with, among others, the British, Spanish, Japanese, and German ambassadors. The German ambassador in particular, whom Paléologue referred to as the “doyen” of St. Petersburg, will be of interest to us next week. This was Friedrich Pourtalés, a cousin of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg who had been Germany’s ambassador to Russia since 1907, and who was fond of Russia generally and Foreign Minister Sazonov specifically. Probably the most important meeting at this ball was between Poincaré and the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Russia, Count Frigyes Szapáry. Szapáry had actually been absent from St. Petersburg for the last two months, as both his wife and son were grievously ill. But he had unexpectedly returned to St. Petersburg shortly after the assassination, which made many people in the Russian capital nervous as to how serious of a move Austria-Hungary planned for Serbia, if their ambassador had been ordered to abandon his sickly wife and son so suddenly. After expressing sympathy to Szapáry for the death of Franz Ferdinand, Poincaré asked him rather bluntly, “have you any news of Serbia?” Szapáry answered, somewhat coldly according to Paléologue, “the judicial enquiry is proceeding.” Poincaré then pressed for more details on what if any kind of demand Austria-Hungary might make of Serbia, and if Serbia was considered to be officially culpable for the assassination. This caused Szapáry to exclaim, “Monsieur le Président, we cannot suffer a foreign government to allow plots against our sovereignty to be hatched on its territory!” To this, Poincaré warned that, “With a little good will this Serbian business is easy to settle. But it can just as easily become acute. Serbia has some very warm friends in the Russian people. And Russia has an ally, France. There are plenty of complications to be feared!” Szapáry then bowed and left without a word. Clearly, something fishy was going on.

         The next two days saw similar meetings among Poincaré, Viviani, Nicholas, and Sazonov. Mostly these were formal, ceremonial affairs, but when they got down to talk real turkey, it was generally agreed that A) the two powers must present a united front against German/Austro-Hungarian aggression, and B) the preservation of Serbia must be guaranteed by the two powers. Now they were not united on this; Viviani for his part had no interest in getting into a massive war with Germany over tiny, faraway Serbia. Yet he was mostly shouted down by the other three men, who were all in basic agreement over Germany’s duplicity and ambitions, and that they needed to meet this aggression with strength. This caused Viviani to simmer with resentment until July 23, the last day of the visit. That evening, a great banquet was held on board the France, the battleship that had carried Viviani and Poincaré to Russia. Viviani, who had arrived in Russia nervous about the possibility of war, was by July 23 on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Not only was he unversed in and unfamiliar with international politics, but his socialist sensibilities made him entirely averse to the idea of war in general. After three days of talking with the Russians, an absolutist despotism with whom his beloved Republic was somehow allied, it now seemed that France and Russia were prepared to go to war with Germany and Austria-Hungary at the drop of a hat, even though he could not quite understand what was even at stake. Finally, during the banquet Viviani had had enough. He confronted his colleague Poincaré aboard the France, literally standing below the massive 14-inch guns of the battleship, screaming at him in full view of everyone present at the banquet. What he said was not recorded word for word, but he essentially balled him out for bringing Europe to the brink of war over a complete non-issue.

And Viviani…kind of had a point. While he clearly did not really grasp the treacherous character of the web of alliances that made up European geopolitics, and thus could not see the point of view of men like Poincaré who saw Germany as an aggressive, militaristic dictatorship hell bent upon European domination, what would be the point of going to war here? Serbia was a long way away from France, she was not exactly a key ally of France, and even if she was it was Austria-Hungary, not Germany, who seemed poised to threaten her. Why should Frenchmen and Germans start murdering each other once again because of some diplomatic chest thumping on the other side of the continent?

Now, to be fair to Poincaré and men of his ilk, Germany did definitely pose a threat to France, as had been so clearly demonstrated in 1870-1871. The German government definitely did have ambitions to increase her power and that of her ally Austria-Hungary in Europe, if necessary by war. Though no one in France nor Russia knew it, plenty suspected quite rightly that Germany was encouraging (or at least, not discouraging) Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia at once, even though there was no real evidence that the Serbian government was culpable in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie. And beyond that, it’s not the most unreasonable wish in the world for France to want to reclaim her lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine from Germany, and given Poincaré’s personal attachment to the region this becomes even more understandable. I don’t want to imply that Poincaré was just some bloodthirsty warmonger. But still…in the midst of this incredibly delicate, potentially quite explosive situation here, where the lives of millions of people hung in the balance, Poincaré seemed all too willing to respond to any aggressive move by his opponents with further chest thumping, rather than by trying to open up a dialogue. This culture of belligerence and uncompromising brinkmanship is perhaps the greatest underlying reason why Europe was such a powder keg in 1914.

Regardless, though I am obviously setting us up for the final breakdown of peaceful relations between the Entente and the Central Powers, all this talk of confronting Austria-Hungary was still theoretical. There were troubling rumors coming out of Vienna and Berlin about a possible military buildup, and it was not at all a secret that the Austro-Hungarian government believed Serbia was behind the assassination. But when Poincaré and Viviani sailed away from St. Petersburg back to Paris on July 23, no officially belligerent statements had come out of any of the countries of Europe. However, as this delegation set sail on the Gulf of Finland, the Austro-Hungarian government prepared to take the biggest gamble anyone had made in Europe for a generation. And it was a gamble they will ultimately lose.

You see, as we discussed at the beginning of today’s episode the Austro-Hungarian government had decided by July 7 that they were going to send an ultimatum to Serbia, officially blaming her for the assassination and demanding restitution in the harshest possible language. By July 9, they had decided on the form of this ultimatum, but what remained to be decided was the timing. When should this ultimatum be sent to ensure the best possible outcome? Many were of the opinion that this ultimatum should be sent immediately, with news of the assassination still fresh and while global public opinion still sympathized with Austria-Hungary. But it was decided to wait to send this ultimatum, the form of which we will discuss next week, until July 23. Why? Because the leadership of the French Republic would be on a boat in the Baltic Sea when this ultimatum was issued, and would be unable to coordinate effectively with either their own government or the Russian government for nearly a week, giving Austria-Hungary time to smack down Serbia before the Entente powers could do anything about it. This would prove to be arguably the greatest mistake made during the July Crisis.

So, on July 23 begins a comedy of errors in Belgrade that is too ridiculous not to relate in detail. At 6 pm Baron Giesl calls on the Serbian Finance Minister Lazar Paču in Belgrade. He would have called on Prime Minister Pašić, but Pašić was hilariously enough not in Belgrade at the time, but was rather down in the southern part of Serbia campaigning for an upcoming parliamentary election. So, Giesl tries to present this ultimatum he has been ordered to deliver to Paču, except Paču speaks neither French nor German, and Giesl does not speak Serbo-Croat. So the two have to awkwardly wait around for a few minutes while someone rushes to find a translator. When a translator finally is found, and Paču realizes that Giesl is presenting him with an ultimatum – the failure of which to satisfy meant war – he stammers an objection asking for the deadline to be extended because he needs to speak with Pašić who is unfortunately not home right now. But Giesl responds flatly that if a satisfactory answer to the ultimatum is not given within 48 hours Vienna would sever all diplomatic ties with Serbia. He then stiffly bows and walks out.

Within hours, all of Europe received confirmation of what many had been suspecting for almost a month: Austria-Hungary is blaming Serbia for the assassination, they are demanding Serbia submit to Austro-Hungarian demands for reparations, and if those demands are not met, it will be war.

Before we go this week, I’d like to give a quick shoutout to the newest patron of the Seminal Catastrophe Podcast, Ricker. So, thank you Ricker, and also thank you for correcting my pronunciation from two weeks ago. It is the Appel Quay (Keh), not the Appel KWAY. Next week, we will see how Europe responds now that the Balkans stand on the brink of Armageddon.

 

 

 

          

 

 

Sources: