Episode 12:

The Lamps Are Going Out

         We ended last week’s show with the delivery of an ultimatum to Serbia by Austria-Hungary on July 23, 1914. Today we are going to take a look at how the various powers of Europe responded to this news, and ultimately, lined up on one side or another of the looming war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Europe during this time period is often described as a powder keg, and by the end of today’s episode we will see why this is such a fitting metaphor. As in less than two weeks following the issuance of this ultimatum, everyone will be engulfed in the first general war seen in Europe since the battle of Waterloo a century before. This is going to be the longest episode of the podcast so far. But the eleven or twelve days covered in this episode are, really, among the most important days in all of world history in the last hundred years. The most critical decisions of the twentieth century were made in these two weeks, as these decisions would determine whether or not the world was consumed by war, a war that would ultimately spark virtually every important political conflict of the last century. So I believe it is worth dwelling on this subject before we get to the final outbreak of the First World War in Europe.

         To start today, let us take a more detailed look at the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum we ended with last week. The ultimatum, the text of which you can read online (link in the show notes), starts off by quoting a statement given by a Serbian diplomat in 1909 saying that Serbia, quote, “undertakes, moreover, to modify the direction of her policy with regard to Austria-Hungary and to live in future on good neighbourly terms with the latter.” However, according to the ultimatum, the Serbian government had been engaged in a conspiracy for the last several years to incite revolution and assassination within Austria-Hungary for the purpose of destroying the Dual Monarchy and annexing much of her territory, especially Bosnia-Herzegovina. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie, which the ultimatum states was the direct fault of this Serbian agitation, was simply the latest result of this conspiracy. Therefore, the Serbian government had to comply with ten specific demands, the failure to satisfy any one of which meant that Austria-Hungary would declare war on Serbia.

         Those ten demands were, and I’m paraphrasing them for the record:

  1. Serbia will suppress any and all publications that call for the annexation of any Austro-Hungarian territory.

  2. To disband the group known as Narodna Odbrana (aka the people’s defense, which we briefly discussed in episode 9) and arrest all of its leaders.

  3. To reform the Serbian education curriculum to remove anything that is negative towards Austria-Hungary.

  4. To remove from military and civilian office a list of specifically named individuals (among them I assume would have been Colonel Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijević).

  5. To allow in Austro-Hungarian police and political agents to suppress anti-Austrian propaganda in Serbia.

  6. To allow Austro-Hungarian police to prosecute any and all conspirators involved in the assassination, even if they were currently in the Serbian government.

  7. To arrest two specifically named Serbian government officials whose names had come up in the trial of Gavrilo Princip.

  8. To clamp down on all smuggling of weapons from Serbia into Austria-Hungary.

  9. To accept blame for and apologize for allowing the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to take place, and finally

  10. To give satisfactory answers to all the above demands within 48 hours (that is, by 5pm on Saturday, July 25).

Now, a couple of things to keep in mind about this list of demands. First, was that most of the demands were relatively easy to follow, and in fact fairly reasonable, given the fact that there were men in the Serbian government involved in the assassination plot. But second, though, was that this was part of the Austro-Hungarian strategy. To make most of the demands appear to be fairly innocuous. Because points five and six, which demanded that Austro-Hungarian police be allowed into Serbia to arrest and prosecute Serbian citizens, were impossible for the Serbian government to comply with. Allowing a foreign power to send in police agents to arrest and prosecute your own citizens would have, for all intents and purposes, eviscerated Serbia’s sovereignty as an independent country, and would have made her little more than an Austro-Hungarian vassal state. Which was the point. The Austro-Hungarian government knew that these demands were certain to be rejected, but since most of the demands in the ultimatum were fairly reasonable, this would hopefully make the inevitable Serbian rejection seem aggressive and uncompromising, giving Austria-Hungary a legitimate pretext to invade. Every historian who writes about the July Crisis, no matter their views on who is to blame for the First World War breaking out, comments on this fact. That this ultimatum was very clearly designed to be rejected.

The Serbian government was at first panicked about what to do. The very fact that such a document had been issued clearly meant that Austria-Hungary planned to declare war on them in the very near future. Unless they answered this list of demands very carefully, especially points five and six, Austria-Hungary was going to invade. And this was a war that the Serbian government knew they could not win alone. So, on July 24, the Serbian Prince Alexander sent a letter to Czar Nicholas II of Russia, asking for advice on how to answer this ultimatum and, if necessary, protection from Austro-Hungarian aggression. “Your Majesty has given us ample proof of your valuable benevolence,” Prince Alexander wrote, “and we are hopeful that this appeal will echo in your Slavic and generous heart. I make myself the translator of the sentiments of the Serbian people who, at this fateful moment, beseech Your Majesty gracefully to engage yourself in the affairs of Serbia.”

While Prince Alexander was writing this fairly emotional and melodramatic appeal, the rest of the Serbian government scrambled to write a satisfactory answer to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum. Prime Minister Pašić, who on July 24 returned to Belgrade after being convinced that this ultimatum was a little bit more pressing than the political campaign he was engaged in down in the south of the country, was primarily focused on buying himself and the Serbian government more time by extending the deadline. They “had to gain time at all costs,” he wrote in an official memorandum, and hoped that he could convince the Austro-Hungarians that, as Serbia was in the middle of an election, they would need an extension on the deadline. He also simultaneously opened up talks within the Serbian Parliament to postpone the upcoming election so that he could focus on the ultimatum. So clearly, the Serbian government was, if not paralyzed, than extremely anxious about how exactly to respond to the ultimatum.

So basically, the leadership of the Serbian government didn’t sleep for the 48 straight hours between July 23 and July 25 as they scrambled to come up with a response to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum. Their official response was not completed until just an hour or two before the deadline of 5pm on July 25, with several last minute additions and revisions hastily added on to the final draft. Though rushed, the response was a diplomatic masterstroke. It started off by stating that, first, the Serbian government could not be held responsible for the quote “manifestations of a private character, such as articles in the press and the peaceable work of societies.” It went on to say that the Serbian government was quote “pained and surprised at the statements, according to which members of the Kingdom of Serbia are supposed to have participated in the preparations of the crime.” However, it also stated that the Serbian government would be happy to comply with demands for prosecuting people specifically culpable in the plot to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Now this was basically meant to establish, not so much to the Austro-Hungarian government but to the rest of the world, that Serbia should not be held responsible for the assassination, but that she was nevertheless willing to be cooperative and helpful in prosecuting those people whom had been directly involved in the assassination plot. This was all in an effort to show that Serbia A) was not guilty, but was also B) prepared to be magnanimous and generous to the demands of her neighbor.

The response then went down the list, point by point, of the ten demands laid at their feet by Austria-Hungary. For almost all of these demands, they readily agreed to follow in as cooperative a way as possible. But for those sticky points five and six, the ones that were obviously designed to be rejected, the Serbian government had a clever deflection. They said that the Serbian government, quote, “does not clearly grasp the meaning and scope of the demand…that Serbia shall undertake to accept the collaboration of the representatives of [Austria-Hungary], but they declare that they will admit such collaboration as agrees with the principle of international law, with criminal procedure, and with good neighbourly relations.”

         This was, really, a stroke of genius, and I wish I knew who exactly to give credit to for this wording. Points five and six of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum put the Serbian government in a real bind. Either they could reject those demands and face almost certain conquest by Austria-Hungary, or they could accept them and tacitly concede that Serbia was to effectively become a vassal of Austria-Hungary. It was a real case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But by saying that Serbia did not quite understand how to carry out the demand of allowing Austro-Hungarian police into their country, but that they would submit to the “principle of international law,” Serbia had effectively flipped the Austro-Hungarian demand, or more importantly how that demand was meant to be viewed, on its head. The whole point of laying out eight or nine relatively benign demands but by hiding in the middle of them one that was designed to be rejected, the Austro-Hungarian government had tried to make themselves appear to be the aggrieved party, while Serbia – a state of bomb throwing regicides – appeared to be belligerent and unreasonable. Well now, those roles had reversed. Now it was Austria-Hungary that appeared belligerent and unreasonable, while Serbia would appear to be acting in good faith and acting within the accords of international peace. Like I say, this was a hell of a well-crafted document.

         And as if to completely back up my point, I love it when that happens, Kaiser Wilhelm II appeared to completely agree with this sentiment. Wilhelm had a reputation, both then and now, of being a bellicose warmonger, and that reputation is not entirely undeserved. As we know, he had been pressing for Austria-Hungary to use the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to attack Serbia, and throughout his reign he had a habit of saying rather incredibly controversial and confrontational things, even in public. For example, he once casually told King Leopold of Belgium (he of the rape of the Congo) at a public banquet that Belgium and Germany should ally against France, and that when France was conquered Wilhelm would reward Leopold with the ancient crown of Burgundy. This rather ludicrous suggestion had so flustered King Leopold that he immediately stood up, put his helmet on backwards, and excused himself from the table. On another occasion, Wilhelm gave an interview with a British newspaper in which he said that all he wanted was to be great friends with Britain, but that the British were too stupid – or as he put it, “mad as a March hare” – to recognize that fact. And beyond all of that, in his personal relations Wilhelm had a well-earned reputation as being rude, boorish, and insulting towards pretty much everyone he talked to.

         Yet despite all of that, when Wilhelm read the Serbian response to the ultimatum he wrote, quote, “this removes every reason for war…I would never have ordered mobilization in response.” To Wilhelm, the Serbian reply to the ultimatum would end the crisis. The Serbs had agreed to most of the demands of the ultimatum, and the one demand they had not fully agreed to would be submitted to some summit of the Great Powers, where both he and Austria-Hungary would be able to send delegates, to settle the matter. Wilhelm just did not grasp that by encouraging Austria-Hungary to use the assassination as an excuse to conquer Serbia, he had made it almost impossible for them to accept any Serbian response. The Austro-Hungarian government had already pretty much decided they needed a war with Serbia to teach them a lesson, and rather than ending the crisis, the Serbian demand just spun it further out of anyone’s control.

         To get a sense of this, let us now move to a country that we have hardly talked about in our discussions of the July Crisis, but who would arguably play the most crucial role in how the resulting war would play out. The British government had largely stayed out of the squabbling going on in the rest of Europe for most of July, 1914. Partly this was due to Britain’s longstanding “splendid isolation” of which they were so proud, but partly it was due to the fact that there were more pressing concerns going on in their backyard. At this point in history, and indeed for many centuries beforehand, Ireland was controlled by the British government in London. From the very beginning of English rule over Ireland back in the 1500s, this had never been a popular state of affairs in Ireland. So by the beginning of the 20th century, a movement to establish Home Rule in Ireland, that is to make Ireland a more or less autonomous unit within the British Empire, was growing in popularity not just among the Irish themselves but also a lot of English and Scottish politicians in London. Now you would think that this idea of granting internal autonomy to the Irish would find its fiercest critics among English politicians who disdained the Irish as a bunch of backward Catholic foreigners not fit to rule themselves, but by 1914 it was not leaders in London who were most opposed to Home Rule but rather Northern Irish people centered around the region of Ulster. Now I don’t want to get too lost in the details of all of this, but the conflict between proponents of Home Rule and the so-called Ulster Unionists is an important conflict that will run right through the First World War. To somewhat oversimplify matters, Northern Ireland was by this time mostly made up of Protestants who were descendants of English and Scottish colonists who had settled the region back in the 1600s. The rest of Ireland was made up mostly of ethnically Gaelic and religiously Catholic natives, and these two groups famously did not get along with each other at all. This conflict, in fact, will essentially be the same conflict that will eventually lead to the famous “Troubles” of the middle of the 20th century, an ethnic and religious sectarian war between those who wanted a united Catholic Ireland and those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain a part of the British Crown. In 1914, a bill had been introduced into the House of Commons in London that would grant Ireland, all of Ireland, Home Rule, but in Northern Ireland this proposal was so unpopular that armed militias made up not just of Northern Irish civilians but also a fairly large number of British Army officers had begun to form promising an armed rebellion if the bill passed. This brewing civil war in Ireland was of far more concern to the British people and the British government for most of July 1914 than some squabbles over on the continent caused by the murder of a foreign prince. And it was really not until the Austro-Hungarian government issued its ultimatum to Serbia on July 23 that the British government started to grow concerned about a war breaking out on the European mainland. And one man in particular who will play a key role in the final days of peace in Europe was especially nervous about this potential war. That man was Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary. Before we get to the specific actions Grey took during the July Crisis, I’d like to spend a little time discussing his background and the debate amongst historians over his legacy, so you can form for yourselves your own opinion on the man.

         Grey was born in April of 1862 in London to a family of English gentry with a long history of service in the British parliament. Although the most famous member of the Grey family today was not just a political leader but also a culinary one, as Sir Edward Grey was descended from Charles Grey, aka Earl Grey for whom the tea is named. But in terms of politics, the Greys were prominent leaders of the Liberal Party, a name which might be a bit confusing to modern American listeners. This party was not exactly “liberal” in the way we use that word today, rather they were “liberal” in the sense that they supported liberal laissez-faire economics, though they also supported basic welfare for the poor of Britain, which the Conservative Party was generally opposed to. The liberals were also divided on the issue of Home Rule for Ireland, though the Liberal Prime Minister at this time Herbert Asquith as well as Sir Edward Grey himself were publicly (if somewhat hesitantly) supportive of the idea. But most importantly for our story, Sir Edward Grey and his liberals were wary of any moves that could spark a war with Britain’s most obvious rival, the German Empire. The Liberals, in fact, had supported forming an alliance with Germany back in the 1890s, though that dream was essentially killed by the Anglo-German naval arms race of the early 1900s which we have discussed a few times here.

         Sir Edward Grey had been made British Foreign Secretary back in 1905, and up until 1914 his greatest achievement had been the leading role he had played in negotiating the 1907 Anglo-Russian convention which decreased diplomatic tensions with Russia, and subsequently forming the Triple Entente with both Russia and France. He had also established a series of joint military exercises, both land and naval, with the French which were premised on repelling an invasion of France by Germany. Yet at the same time Grey demurred from making a formal hard alliance with France and Russia, preferring to preserve Britain’s neutrality in any conflict that did not directly involve her interests. Grey, you see, is kind of a hard guy to decipher. He was reserved and quiet and rarely gave unequivocal policy positions on any subject. More than anything else, he saw himself as an English gentleman, who in the tradition of so many English gentlemen was uncomfortable around foreigners, and he did not speak any other language than English despite being Foreign Secretary.

Some historians, particularly Christopher Clark in his book “The Sleepwalkers,” have argued based on Grey’s leading role in forming the Triple Entente that he was a hawk who was in favor of war with Germany should the Germans make any moves to increase their military or political power in Europe. Thomas Otte, on the other hand, portrays Grey as practically the only political leader in Europe in 1914 who was steadfastly opposed to war and very nearly negotiated a peaceful end to the July Crisis. I fall somewhere in between these two interpretations. I agree with Otte that Grey was against war in general, famously at one point during the July Crisis he slammed his fist down on a table repeatedly exclaiming, “I hate war, I hate war.” But on the other hand, he was not in any way neutral on the issue of conflict between the Entente and the Central Powers; when push came to shove, he was willing if not eager to commit Britain’s military resources to defeating Germany. This somewhat confused posture is I think best summed up in Grey’s personal memoirs, published in 1925, in which he first wrote, “a great European war under modern conditions would be a catastrophe for which previous wars afforded no precedent…under modern conditions whole nations could be mobilized at once and their whole life-blood and resources poured out in a torrent.” But just a few paragraphs later he wrote, “that, if war came, the interest of Britain required that we should not stand aside, while France fought alone in the West, but must support her.” But finally, after making these somewhat contradictory statements, Grey wrote one last thing that I think says the most about his role before and during the July Crisis. He summarized his previous points by writing that in July 1914 he believed that, “no pledge must be given, no hope even held out to France and Russia, which it was doubtful whether this country would fulfil. One danger I saw so hideous that it must be avoided and guarded against at every word. It was that France and Russia might face the ordeal of war with Germany relying on our support; that this support might not be forthcoming, and that we might then, when it was too late, be held responsible by them for having left them in a disastrous war…This was the vision of possible blood guilt that I saw, and I was resolved that I would have none of it on my head.”

Grey, you see, was most worried that France and Russia might start a war with Germany believing that Britain would join the war on their side. But this was not a promise Grey as Foreign Secretary could guarantee, and was worried that the rest of the government would oppose joining in such a war, leaving France and Russia to their fate. This was the main reason why he was so coy about forming a hard alliance with France and Russia, and why until the very end of the July Crisis he did not draw a firm line in the sand over what Britain would go to war over. But in my opinion, this was a disastrous decision on Sir Edward Grey’s part, as it not only made France and Russia nervous about the strength of the Triple Entente, but as we shall see, left Germany unsure about how far they could push the British government, and indeed what issues Britain would even go to war over, until it was far too late.

But we will expound more upon that at the end of today’s episode. For now, let us discuss what Sir Edward Grey proposed following the issuance of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum and the Serbian response to it. The first thing Grey did, after having a series of conferences with the French, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German ambassadors (the last of whom we will discuss more in a minute), was to ask Austria-Hungary to extend the deadline for their ultimatum. He believed that the main risk here was Austria-Hungary and Russia going to war over the fate of Serbia, and so he made overtures to Germany on the one hand and France on the other to rein in the ambitions of their respective allies. The reason Grey desired an extension to the deadline of the ultimatum was to give him time to organize a summit of all the Great Powers of Europe to come together in a single spot to peacefully work out their differences. In this, we can see Grey channeling his inner Metternich, believing as he did that the balance of power in Europe could be maintained if the Great Powers could just listen to and cooperate with each other. But Grey was coming to realize that his reasonable call for a gentlemanly summit was falling on deaf ears. On July 24 he received word from the British ambassador in St. Petersburg that the French ambassador to Russia, rather than trying to reign in the Russians, was instead encouraging them to mobilize their army along their border with Austria-Hungary.

In response to this news, Grey sought out the German ambassador to Great Britain, Prince Karl Lichnowsky. Not only was it imperative for Germany to advise their ally Austria-Hungary to exercise caution, but Lichnowsky and Grey were on good personal terms and had a strong working relationship going back to 1912 when the former was made Germany’s ambassador to Great Britain. Lichnowsky was a firm believer in promoting an Anglo-German friendship, even more so than the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. He admired and liked the British, and believed that Germany would be best served by befriending and perhaps even allying with Great Britain. Lichnowsky, in fact, would later go on to write a scathing article about the German role in the July Crisis in which he wrote in no uncertain terms that, “it is no wonder that the whole of the civilized world outside Germany places the entire responsibility for the world-war upon our shoulders.” Lichnowsky was so publicly in love with the British, in fact, that throughout the July Crisis he was kept in the dark about German moves; he had no knowledge of the blank cheque issued by Kaiser Wilhelm on July 5, and had no prior warning to any of the moves the Germans were about to make in the coming weeks.

Despite this, Lichnowsky did support the German alliance with Austria-Hungary, but did not support Austria-Hungary attacking Serbia for any reason (which is probably why he was so thoroughly kept in the dark). More than anything, Lichnowsky believed that an Austro-Hungarian war with Serbia would not solve the problem of Slavic agitation within and without the Habsburg Empire, but would only increase it, driving the other Balkan states into firmer alliance with Russia who would not suffer any affront on Slavic dignity. For this reason, and for his general Anglophilia, Lichnowsky and Grey worked well together forming the basis for a Great Power summit to settle the question in the Balkans without resorting to war.

Yet all of this planning would come to naught, as Austria-Hungary had pretty clearly already decided that war with Serbia was the end result of all of this. When, just before the Serbian government issued their response to the ultimatum, the Serbian Minister of War paid a visit to Austro-Hungarian Ambassador Giesl, the minister found Giesl had already packed his things and was ready to depart Serbia; clearly, he was expecting (or had been ordered to expect) the Serbs to refuse the ultimatum. And indeed on receipt of the Serbian response, despite the fact that the ultimatum had mostly been accepted and none of the demands were explicitly refused, within an hour or two Giesl formally severed diplomatic relations with Serbia and was aboard a train taking him back to Vienna. Prime Minister Pašić was quote “deeply shocked” by this news. And yet despite the fact that the Austro-Hungarian government was clearly making diplomatic moves that leaned towards war with Serbia, on the military front they were hopelessly unprepared. None of the Austro-Hungarian reserves had been mobilized in preparation for such a war, and on July 26 the Austro-Hungarian Chief of the General Staff Hötzendorf said that he would not be ready to launch a campaign into Serbia until at least August 12. So rather than the lightning attack upon which German support for Austria-Hungary was premised, the Austro-Hungarian government had waited for more than three weeks after the assassination to issue an ultimatum to Serbia, and now General von Hötzendorf was saying they needed another three weeks before they could actually launch an invasion. This, I think, is a perfect example of the indecisiveness and lack of communication that plagued the Austro-Hungarian government at this point in history. The diplomats in Vienna had all set up a plan to invade Serbia, but had apparently not coordinated this plan with the military leadership, who claimed they were nowhere near ready for such an invasion. And neither of them had coordinated their plans with the Germans, who had been pressing the Austro-Hungarian government for weeks to get the attack on Serbia over with as soon as possible. The German government often referred to this style of governance in Vienna as Schlampigkeitskrämerei, a compound word that roughly translates to “Government by means of sloppiness.”

When German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg heard that the Austro-Hungarian government would not be ready to invade Serbia for three weeks, he was apoplectic. He had already been nervous about issuing the Blank Cheque to Austria-Hungary back on July 5, but by now it seemed as though the Entente was lining up to oppose Austria-Hungary militarily if she actually went through with an invasion of Serbia. And that would give Germany no choice but to join in the war in Austria-Hungary’s defense. “Did it have to go this far?” Bethmann-Hollweg mused aloud during this period. Nobody answered him, but I can answer: no Chancellor, no it did not have to go this far. So, Bethmann-Hollweg met with Kaiser Wilhelm on July 28, two days after Wilhelm had returned from his holiday in the Norwegian fjords, and together the two crafted what has been dubbed by history the “Halt in Belgrade” proposal. Wilhelm, as we saw earlier, was convinced that the Serbian reply to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum quote “removes every reason for war,” but he was wary of simply abandoning his ally after giving assurances that he would support them no matter what, even if it meant fighting a general war with France and Russia. So he came up with a plan that was approved and transmitted to Vienna by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. Basically, the idea was that Austria-Hungary would indeed go to war with Serbia, invade her territory, but stop short at the Serbian capital of Belgrade, which was only a few miles away from their mutual border. They would then declare victory and immediately withdraw from Serbian territory, not annexing any of it, thus both preserving their honor and preventing Russia from coming to Serbia’s defense. Simple.

So, obviously, this is not exactly the most well thought out plan in the world. Although, how could it be since Kaiser Wilhelm had pretty much come up with it by himself in a couple of hours. First of all, the Austro-Hungarian government was already pretty well settled on a plan to invade all of Serbia and strip at least some of her territory away, if not completely dismember and partition her. Second though, and more importantly, was the fact that such a move would almost certainly not be accepted by the Russians, who had made it plain that they opposed any military action against Serbia, and would defend their ally. In the end, the Halt in Belgrade plan went nowhere. On Tuesday, July 28, the same day that Bethmann-Hollweg issued the Halt in Belgrade plan to Vienna, Austria-Hungary declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia. The next day, July 29, Russia broke off diplomatic negotiations with Austria-Hungary, and began to mobilize their forces along the Austro-Hungarian border. As French ambassador to Russia Paléologue observed in his diary, “this time, it is war.”

Paléologue I think was only partially right about this. Obviously, he when he wrote, “this time, it is war,” he meant war between Russia and Austria-Hungary, which assuredly meant war between France and Germany. But while Austria-Hungary had now declared war on Serbia, the European powder keg had not quite yet exploded. The fuse was still burning, and was growing ever closer to the powder keg, but the final explosion had not yet erupted. There was still time, I think, to avert world war. Let us now take a look at the last decisions made by the players in this tragedy to see how things ultimately ended in Armageddon.

As the ball was now effectively in Russia’s court, let’s first see how they reacted to news of war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. As mentioned before, on July 29 they declared mobilization, but this was only a partial mobilization of some of their forces along the border with Austria-Hungary. It was not yet a full mobilization of the entire Russian Army. This was done with the direct support of Foreign Minister Sazonov, who though opposed to a war was concerned about Austria-Hungary mobilizing their army and attacking Russia while Russia was caught unprepared.

It is worth dwelling for a minute on the Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov, as he not only played a critical role in Russia’s decision making during this period, but would be party to perhaps the most tragic moment in the whole of the July Crisis. Sergei Sazonov was born in a small Russian town southeast of Moscow in 1860. Not only was he basically a provincial, but his family was of a very low noble rank for someone to climb to so high a post as Foreign Minister. Yet Sazonov had a friend and brother-in-law in the former Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, who advocated for and helped advance Sazonov’s career. Sazonov was not a bad man nor an unintelligent one, he had for example, been instrumental in brokering the Baghdad Railway, a joint Russo-German railroad project that was to link Germany with the Ottoman Empire; this, he did so as to reduce diplomatic and military tensions between Russia and Germany, as he genuinely wanted to avoid war with them. But though no dummy, Sazonov was neither a man of brilliance nor vision, and displayed at best a kind of stolid, uninspired workmanship in his role as Russia’s Foreign Minister. He was eager to please everyone he met to the point of spinelessness, and his only true conviction was in his Orthodox Christian faith. It was in fact said of Sazonov in Russian high society that had Sazonov pursued theology rather than politics, Russia would have gained one more saint and lost one more incompetent Foreign Minister. This was harsh, even unfair, but it is true that a firmer statesman may have been able to either force Austria-Hungary in backing down from its move against Serbia, or crafted a more coherent and more unified strategy with regards to the current crisis. One more interesting thing to note about Sazonov was that of all the various ambassadors he worked with as Foreign Minister, the one with whom he had the longest and best working relationship was Friedrich von Pourtalés, the German Ambassador to Russia. These two men were not just colleagues but true friends, a fact that will play a large part in that tragic side story of the July Crisis I just alluded to. Nevertheless, on July 29 Sazonov instructed his Ambassador in London to tell the British that any plan for a summit of the Great Powers to mediate the crisis must be left entirely in Britain’s hands. Russia, for her part, was preparing for war.

The British, it seemed, were of two minds, or possibly three minds, about how to respond. Grey sent word to the French ambassador in London quote “don’t count upon our coming in,” and to the German ambassador Lichnowsky quote “don’t count on our abstention.” This, Grey hoped, would rein in the French on the one side and the Germans on the other, but all it really did was muddle the already very confused diplomatic waters in Europe. Meanwhile Grey still harbored dreams that a great summit of all the Great Powers could solve this crisis peacefully, but none of the other ministers of any of the other Great Powers sent any positive messages towards this plan.

Speaking of the French, by this time the French President and Prime Minister, Poincaré and Viviani, had finally returned to Paris after their long sea voyage from St. Petersburg. In particular, Poincaré seems to have been convinced by the time that he returned to Paris (or perhaps even while on the voyage from St. Petersburg) that war was all but inevitable, and his main goal at this point was to maintain military preparedness both within France and in Russia, but to not appear as though it was France who was provoking this war. Poincaré even went so far as to order that all French troops on the border with Germany and with Belgium, and we’ll get to Belgium in a minute, should pull back ten kilometers so as, in the words of one French minister, “to show the English public and government that France, like Russia, would not be the first to fire.” This was key. The leadership of both the French and Russian governments knew that Britain’s support in this looming war was not at all inevitable, and so it was imperative to make it appear that it was Germany and Austria-Hungary who were the aggressors, not France and Russia. Fortunately for them, Germany was about to start making far more aggressive moves than anyone had made so far during the Crisis.

A key factor to understand about why Germany is about to start acting more aggressively was the German plan to deal with their dilemma of fighting a two-front war. The fact that Russia did not immediately declare war on Austria-Hungary was reassuring to the Germans, but Russia’s mobilization, even if it was only a partial mobilization, was deeply worrying. This was not only for the obvious fact that it meant that Russia was preparing for a possible war, but more important than this were the German plans for how they would deal with a two-front war with both France and Russia. We will get more into the famous “Schlieffen Plan” in the next few episodes, but for now suffice it to say that German plans for a war with France to the west and Russia to the east were to first smash France, and then turn around and smash Russia. But this meant that Russia could not be allowed to have a head start on mobilization, meaning that the timetable for Germany to work out a peaceful solution with her neighbors was about to shrink drastically.

But before we get to these more aggressive moves Germany is about to make, let us take a look at one of the most famous and melodramatic episodes to come out of the July Crisis. Though the Russian government in St. Petersburg was clearly preparing for war, Czar Nicholas II was growing more and more despondent about this possibility. As we’ve seen, Nicholas viewed the world of international diplomacy and geopolitics through a highly personal lens, and he believed that if he could just talk one on one with his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm, that he could avert their two countries from a disastrous war. So, in the early morning hours of July 29, Czar Nicholas II sent a telegram to Kaiser Wilhelm II, a telegram which he wrote in English, a language the two both spoke well. As Wilhelm had only just recently returned from his holiday in the Norwegian fjords, Nicholas wrote to him:

“Am glad you are back. In this serious moment, I appeal to you to help me. An ignoble war has been declared to a weak country. The indignation in Russia shared fully by me is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war. To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far.


Within the hour, Wilhelm wrote back to Nicholas saying:

“It is with the gravest concern that I hear of the impression which the action of Austria against Serbia is creating in your country. The unscrupulous agitation that has been going on in Serbia for years has resulted in the outrageous crime, to which Archduke Francis Ferdinand fell a victim. The spirit that led Serbians to murder their own king and his wife still dominates the country. You will doubtless agree with me that we both, you and me, have a common interest as well as all Sovereigns to insist that all the persons morally responsible for the dastardly murder should receive their deserved punishment. In this case politics plays no part at all.

On the other hand, I fully understand how difficult it is for you and your Government to face the drift of your public opinion. Therefore, with regard to the hearty and tender friendship which binds us both from long ago with firm ties, I am exerting my utmost influence to induce the Austrians to deal straightly to arrive to a satisfactory understanding with you. I confidently hope that you will help me in my efforts to smooth over difficulties that may still arise.

Your very sincere and devoted friend and cousin


In the affectionate tone of these telegrams, and in particular the signing of these notes with the nicknames “Willy” and “Nicky,” we can see that Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas really were good friends, and even at this late stage found it hard to believe that they would lead their respective countries into war with one another. Over the next two days, Willy and Nicky wrote numerous telegrams to each other, feeling each other out and trying to find a peaceful solution to their differences. Tragically, however, as events grew more and more dire, the tone of these telegrams becomes less and less friendly, more and more hostile. By the afternoon of August 1, Wilhelm was writing to Nicholas:

“Thanks for your telegram. I yesterday pointed out to your government the way by which alone war may be avoided. Although I requested an answer for noon today, no telegram from my ambassador conveying an answer from your Government has reached me as yet. I therefore have been obliged to mobilize my army.

Immediate affirmative clear and unmistakable answer from your government is the only way to avoid endless misery. Until I have received this answer alas, I am unable to discuss the subject of your telegram. As a matter of fact I must request you to immediately [sic] order your troops on no account to commit the slightest act of trespassing over our frontiers.


Clearly, war between Russia and Germany was growing more and more likely.

         Part of the reason why these telegrams grew more heated in tone was because of more aggressive moves being made by Russia at the close of July, 1914, moves that caused Germany to respond in kind. By July 30, most of the Russian ministers of state wanted to mobilize the entire Russian army to prepare for war. But the Czar, still exchanging friendly telegrams with his cousin Willy, had refused this. General Nikolai Yanushkevich, the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army, was beginning to panic as he believed now that war with Austria-Hungary and Germany was inevitable, and knew that it would take time for the Russian Army – large but cumbersome and spread out across the whole of the empire – to get in position. Yanushkevich called on Foreign Minister Sazonov and beg him to demand the Czar authorize a full on mobilization, going so far as to say that as soon as he got permission to mobilize the whole army, “I shall go away, smash my telephone and take steps so that I cannot be found, in case one wants to give me opposite orders in the sense of a retraction of general mobilization.” Sazonov then did indeed call on the Czar, and by the end of that day, July 30, the Czar consented to general mobilization. Sazonov the called General Yanushkevich and told him quote, “now you may smash your telephone,” and hung up.

         As soon as general Russian mobilization was announced, Kaiser Wilhelm II declared Germany to be in a state of Kriegsgefahrzustand, which roughly translates to “general preparedness for war,” a small step below general mobilization. He then sent a telegram to the German ambassador to Russia, Friedrich von Pourtalés, ordering him to demand the Russian government cancel their general mobilization, or else. This led to one of the most famous and, in my opinion, most tragic confrontations in the whole of the July Crisis of 1914.

         At 7 pm on August 1, Pourtalés met with Foreign Minister Sazonov at the Chorister’s Bridge building in St. Petersburg. Pourtalés then asked Sazonov, as calmly as he could, for Russia to cancel its general mobilization. Sazonov said that the machinery for mobilization could not be stopped now, but that Russia was still open to negotiating with Germany to avert war. But, as much as Pourtalés hated it, this was not good enough. Pourtalés himself was desperate to avert war at any price, as he believed that, quote, “war would pose an enormous danger for all monarchies,” and so he begged Sazonov, “I implore you to do what you can to avert a calamity.” Though Pourtalés himself was probably open to just about any compromise possible, he had strict orders to demand Russia cancel its mobilization with the harshest possible language. Three times, Pourtalés asked, demanded, pleaded, begged Sazonov to do what he could to cancel the mobilization, each time more and more desperately. And three times Sazonov refused. At the last request Sazonov said with grim finality, “I have no other answer to give you.” To this, Pourtalés fished a piece of paper out of his pocket, hand trembling, and said, “in that case, Monsieur le Ministre, I am charged by my government to submit to you this note.” The note was a declaration of war. After delivering this message with what composure he could muster, Pourtalés moved towards a window and burst into tears. “I could never believe I should leave St. Petersburg under such circumstances.” He then embraced Sazonov who himself broke down weeping, and told his friend “believe me, we shall meet again.” The next day, August 2, Pourtalés boarded a ship that would take him back to Germany. He would never see Russia again.

         So war between Germany and Russia had now become a reality. This was a true calamity, but it was not yet a general European war. But though there was still drama to follow, that general war was now all but inevitable. Let us now see how the great failure of the 20th century played out.

         With German forces now beginning to mobilize, and war declared against Russia, on August 2 German troops occupied the neutral country of Luxembourg on the Franco-German border. Despite this incredibly provocative move that was sure to raise not just French but also British ire, the German Ambassador to Britain Lichnowsky believed he was making good progress in his talks with British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. At around 3 pm London time, Lichnowsky met with Grey, and the latter told Lichnowsky that if Germany did not encroach upon French territory, that Britain would stay neutral in the Russo-German war. He even, apparently, implied that he could convince France to stay neutral in this war as well. However, not only did Grey have no authority to give this kind of guarantee, but many historians have suggested that Grey did not actually promise this but rather said that he hoped France would stay neutral. Nevertheless Lichnowsky, who was as opposed to war as his colleague Pourtalés in St. Petersburg, desperately grasped at what he perceived to be a saving grace for both his country and Grey’s. So he telegrammed a message to the Kaiser in Berlin summing all this up, and further implied that Britain might even stay neutral even if Germany and France went to war. Wilhelm was over the moon at this news, and immediately held a council of war with his senior generals in which he said that, with war in the west apparently now averted, Germany could send all of its forces to the east to fight Russia alone. But one man at this council, the Chief of Staff of the German Army General Helmuth von Moltke, bluntly told the Kaiser that this was impossible. Now this Helmuth von Moltke is not the same Helmuth von Moltke that we met during the Franco-Prussian War. Rather, this is the nephew of the mastermind of the victory in 1870, which is why we usually call this man Helmuth von Moltke the younger. Regardless, Moltke told the Kaiser in no uncertain terms that A) it was almost impossible that France would not honor her alliance with Russia, and B) there was no way that the deployment of the German Army, which involved sending literally millions of men down very specific paths at precisely organized times, could simply be turned around on a dime. As he so famously said, “Your Majesty, it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the east it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganized mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete and once settled, it cannot be altered.” To this, Kaiser Wilhelm rather petulantly replied, “Your uncle would have given me a different answer.” But Moltke put his foot down. If it was to be war with Russia, then war with France had to be assumed as well.

         But before that could happen, Germany needed two things before her plans could come to fruition. First, she needed a formal excuse to declare war on France. So, on August 2, shortly after the occupation of Luxembourg, Germany demanded that France stay neutral in a war between Germany and Russia, and as a guarantee of her good behavior France must surrender all the fortresses along the Franco-German border to the German Army until the war with Russia was finished. Obviously, there was no way the French government was ever going to accept this demand. Not that it really mattered. Reports had been flooding into Germany (all of them false) that border skirmishes between French and German troops had already flared up. So the next day, August 3, the German Ambassador to France was ordered to deliver a declaration of war to the French government and immediately return to Berlin. The Ambassador, Wilhelm von Schön, delivered this declaration of war at 6:15 on August 3. But before departing France, von Schön left a note with Prime Minister Viviani on which he wrote: “this is the suicide of Europe.”

         The Germans however did not just need a formal excuse to declare war on France, but they also needed to make a final demand on a country who, thus far, played no role in the July Crisis and had no quarrel with any of the belligerents: the Kingdom of Belgium. You see, the German war plans, the so-called “Schlieffen Plan” I alluded to earlier, called on Germany to invade France not along the Franco-German border, which was heavily guarded with huge forts and millions of French troops, but along the Franco-Belgian border, which was far less heavily defended. This would allow Germany to crush the French Armies and capture Paris quickly enough so they could then send their forces east to counter the Russians. So, on August 2, just as they were issuing an ultimatum to France, the Germans issued a similar ultimatum to Belgium, which demanded that Belgium allow the German Army to pass through and occupy the country until the war with France was concluded. And here we get to the last great drama, the final scene, of the tragedy of the July Crisis.

         As we have discussed in some detail, Britain was hesitant about signing any hard binding alliance or military agreement with countries on the European continent. However, this rule was not universal. In particular, back in 1839 a treaty had been signed by, among others, Britain, France, and Prussia, that stated unequivocally that Belgium’s neutrality in any European war would be guaranteed by all the signatories of the treaty. This was not a handshake deal like the one Britain had with France and Russia, but a firm guarantee that Britain would defend Belgium’s neutrality with armed force if necessary. So, when Germany’s ultimatum to Belgium was refused and Germany declared war on Belgium in addition to France, the British government, who had been leaning towards neutrality in the looming war, turned on a dime. The British ambassador to Germany, Sir Edward Goschen, was ordered to present an ultimatum to Germany: withdraw your forces from Belgium by midnight (Berlin time), August 5, or we will declare war on you. When Goschen presented this ultimatum to German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Chancellor had what can only be described as a meltdown. This ultimatum was, “terrible to a degree; just for a word – ‘neutrality’, a word which in war-time has so often been disregarded, just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her! At what price will that compact be kept! Has the British government thought of that?” Goschen did not even try to reason with Bethmann-Hollweg. He left the meeting, and did not come back.

         As the deadline approached, midnight August 5 German time, which was 11pm August 4 British time, Sir Edward Grey stood in his office staring out the window. As was customary at the time, the lamplighters of London were going about their nightly routine of lighting the gas street lamps of the city. As he watched the lamps being lit, one by one, Grey muttered to himself, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” As Big Ben struck the 11 o’clock hour, the last peaceful moments in Europe slowly died. With the deadline for German withdrawal from Belgium now expired, Great Britain declared war on Germany. The Seminal Catastrophe had begun.




Before we go this week, I’d like to give two quick notes. First, a big thanks to two new patrons of the Seminal Catastrophe Podcast, one of whom preferred to be anonymous, the second named Austin, whom I must in particular give great thanks to as it was he who helped me come up with the idea for this podcast last year. So, thank you anonymous, and thank you Austin. Second, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet, but on the website, seminalcatastrophepodcast.com, I have been uploading transcripts for each episode if you would like to follow along that way. So, if you’re interested, head on over to seminalcatastrophepodcast.com and click on the tab that says “transcripts,” where the scripts for each episode are organized by arc.

So now, the First World War has begun. But before we get into the action of that much bloodier drama, I want to spend next week exploring what in the hell went wrong in the month of July, 1914. Why was it that the assassination of an Austrian prince by a 19-year-old Slavic nationalist led every major country in Europe to declare war on each other? I hope to figure out the answer to that question together with you all, before we finally close the preliminary episodes of the Seminal Catastrophe.







  • 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).

  • Grey, Sir Edward. Twenty-Five Years: 1892-1916, Vol. 1. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925.

  • Keiger, J.F.V. Raymond Poincaré. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

  • Lichnowsky, Karl Max. My Mission to London: 1912-1914. New York: George H. Doran Company. 1916.

  • 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.

  • Primary Documents: Austrian Ultimatum to Serbia, 23 July, 1914. https://www.firstworldwar.com/source/austrianultimatum.htm

The Willy-Nicky Telegrams. https://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/The_Willy-Nicky_Telegrams

Tsouras, Peter. The Kaiser’s Question: 1914. History Net. https://www.historynet.com/kaisers-question-1914.htm