3: July Crisis Pt. 1


The diplomatic maneuvering of July 1914 would go down in history as the July Crisis. This week we begin navigating the complicated waters of this crisis by introducing the primary diplomatic players in the crisis and then covering the events of the crisis that occurred between July 12 and July 18 1914.



Hello and welcome to History of the Great War episode 3. Last week we discussed some of the military conflicts and innovations of the 19th century that would have a lasting effect on World War 1. I then told you that we would be covering the armies and commanders of August 1914 in this episode. After looking at my notes I realized I had everything completely out of order so I have shuffled the content of the next three episodes. What this means is that today we will be looking at the major diplomatic players of July 1914 we will then talk a bit about the events of the first 3 weeks of July. These events are often referred to as the July Crisis and for good reason the events took the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand and turned it into an avalanche that gained speed and size all the way until declarations of war started flying in the last week of July.

This week I will start by introducing the cast of characters that will play a role in the next three weeks. These men were the diplomatic leaders of their nation and threw their actions and words they took what might have been a manageable crisis and turned it into a global war. They all had their own motivations and intentions and many of them were able to manipulate their counterparts in other countries to achieve their aims. Don’t worry about remembering all of these names right now, but you will be hearing a lot about them in the next few weeks and I will try to drop in reminders here and there about who each of them are.

I have mentioned several times that the British pushed for peace right until the 11th hour and the main force for this push was Sir Edward Grey the British Foreign Secretary. In the years preceding the war Grey had pushed strongly for better relations with France and Russia and it was during this time that the non-binding agreement to come to the aid of the French was created. Over the next three weeks he tries several times to get the parties in the Crisis to the negotiation table, without much success. Grey is attributed with saying at the end of July, and most histrorians believe he may have actually said this, that “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

With their role in continental politics you could reasonably assume that the French would play a very big part in the events of July 1914, however there was one small problem, their President and Prime Minister were at sea. Raymond Poincare, the President, and Rene Viviani, the Prime Minister had went to Russia for a conference with the Tsar at for some very critical days in July they were at sea traveling back from St. Petersburg this somewhat limited France’s role in the events of July although even if they would have been more involved it probably wouldn’t have altered the outcome.

On the other hand, the Russian Tsar Nicholas the second and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov would play a huge role in the July Crisis. Nicolas the second had been in power for 20 years and in July he wavered on his course of action more than most other leaders of Europe. However he did eventually authorize the full mobilization of the Russian forces after a lot of prodding from his military advisors. Sazonov served as Russian Foreign Minister from 1910-1916, and since the war historians have debated the role he played in the events of July. Some blame his quick push for Russian partial mobilization for escalating the Crisis at a critical moment. We will be encountering Sazonov often over the coming episodes, especially when it comes to his communications with Serbia.

Russia’s ally in the Balkans, Serbia, was at the very center of the storm. Serbia was led by Nikola Pasic who was the Prime Minister in 1914 and it was he who received the Ultimatum from Austria-Hungary that we will spend a good part of Today and next week talking about. He was under a lot of pressure from both sides on whether he should accept or reject the ultimatum, in the end he accepted all but one demand.

The country that presented Serbia with the ultimatum was Austria-Hungary. We will be talking a lot about Austria-Hungary today so be prepared for me to botch the pronunciation of these names several times. We will start with the Emperor Franz Joseph, he was on vacation in July and spent most of his time on his yacht, he didn’t really play an active role in any of the developments. It was Austria’s Foreign Minister Count Berchtold that really led the formation of the diplomatic response from Austria-Hungary. He very strongly advocated for war with Serbia even if it meant going to war with Russia. Some cite the accusations of indecisiveness that were directed towards him due to his choices in the Balkan Wars as one reasons he pushed so strongly for war in 1914. His associate was Count von Hoyos who was sent to Germany in July to assist the ambassador in Berlin during such a busy time. He also advocated strongly for a war with Serbia and he would also be the secretary in the meetings where the final touches to the ultimatum were put into place. The Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Germany was Laszlo Szogyeny-Marich who, as I mentioned last week, was the one who received the infamous “Black Check” from the Kaiser. In 1914 he was old and partly deaf, which is why von Hoyos was sent to assist. Finally, the Hungarian Prime Minister was Count Tisza and he was the lone voice for negotiation with Serbia. For several weeks he was against going to war with Serbia and the harsh wording of the ultimatum. It was only when he became concerned that Germany would break its alliance with the Empire that he assented to war.

Austria-Hungary was in constant contact with Germany through the weeks of July. Germany was led by Kaiser Wilhelm the second and he strongly supported the war, going so far as to guarantee that Germany would be with Austria-Hungary regardless of what it meant. It was only late in July that he would get cold feet when it was all but confirmed that Britain would not stay neutral in the coming war. Arthur Zimmermann was the Under Secretary of State, the Secretary of State von Jagow was on honeymoon in July and that left Zimmermann in an active role in events. He gave similar guarantees to Count von Hoyos, that Germany would stand by Austria, and he also was a member of the group that reaffirmed these promises a few days later. Finally we have the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. I have left Bethmann-Hollweg for last because there are groups of historians who place a large amount of the blame for the events of the July Crisis squarely on his shoulders. He pushed very strongly on Austria to go to war with Serbia and lied to them about Britain’s attempts to mediate. In the pre-war years he had worked hard to increase relations with Britain and, much like the Kaiser, after it became clear that Britain would be on the other side of the war he began to get cold-feet. At the eleventh hour he attempted to halt the trains, so to speak, but it was far too late.

So those were the major players in the events. Foreign policy makers of the great nations of Europe. They would be compelled into the choices they made for a many reasons. Some like Pasic and Serbia did not have any good choices. Some like Grey and Britain just wanted to preserve peace. The leaders of Austria saw an easy conquest of a constant thorn in their sides. Russia was compelled by treaties and the desire to not look weak. Germany saw an inevitable war on two fronts and a Russian military that was only getting stronger. Today we begin a three week journey through diplomatic maneuvering that lands us squarely at war.

For several days after the assassination of the Archduke on June 28th the Austro-Hungarian leadership debated what their response should be. This group was led by Berchtold on one side, who pushed for a strong response and war, and Tisza on the other, pushing for a softer response that avoided war. On June 30th Austria-Hungary, backed by Germany, officially requested an investigation into the events of the assassination by the Serbian government and they also began their own investigation into the events. During this time there was a lot of discussion occurring between Germany and Austria-Hungary about what the Austro-Hungarian response should be and on July 2nd the German ambassador made it clear to the Austro-Hungarian leadership that Germany was prepared to support Austro-Hungarian military action.

The German leadership was also meeting very frequently at this time and on July 3rd they told the German ambassador to Austria-Hungary to stop advising that Austria-Hungary restrain from military action. This was the beginning of the push that Germany would give Austria-Hungary to begin the war over the next few weeks. As we discussed last week it was on July 5th that the Kaiser gave the blank check guarantee to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador that committed Germany to following whatever action Austria-Hungary chose. It was around this time that Austria-Hungary began drafting the ultimatum that they will send to Serbia on July 23rd.

The leadership of Austria-Hungary was very strongly in favor of war with only Count Tisza opposing this idea. The group met to begin drafting the ultimatum to Serbia and they made it clear up front that the goal was to create an ultimatum that Serbia simply could not accept due to the harshness of the terms. Over the next several days Tisza consistently attempted to temper the language of the ultimatum so that it isn’t so harsh. Berchtold was on the other side of the coin and pushed strongly for harsher and harsher wording in the ultimatum. After the ultimatum was mostly drafted on July 13th the results of the Austro-Hungarian investigation are reported to that Austro-Hungarian leadership. The investigators tell Berchtold, and the council, that they could not link Serbia directly to the assassination but at this point the momentum for war in Austria-Hungary was simply too strong to stop.

During this time Germany had sent a message stating that Germany expected Austria-Hungary to act and on July 12th Szogyeny reported that everybody in the German government wanted war. On July 14th and 16th there were two communications by Germany that made it clear how strongly they wanted the war to occur. On July 14th Germany sent a message to its ambassador in London stating that the German government had decided to do everything that it could to cause an Austro-Serbian war and on the 16th Bethmann-Hollweg told the State Secretary of Alsace-Lorraine that he didn’t care if Serbia was involved in the assassination he just wanted war.

On July 14th, under strong pressure from the other members of the government, and out of the fear that Germany would break their alliance with Austria-Hungary if the war wasn’t started, Tisza gave in and agreed to support a war against Serbia. Over the next few days Austria-Hungary would massage the wording of the ultimatum, out of concerns that it wasn’t harsh enough, after assuring Germany that there was no way the Serbians could accept the ultimatum once it was presented to them.

We have talked a lot about this ultimatum today, and it is an important historical document, but we haven’t discussed its contents. The ultimatum contained ten demands that Serbia was required to accept if they wanted to avoid war. The first set of demands, which made up the first three points of the ultimatum, dealt with Serbia having to remove from their society any publications, school books, public documents, groups, associations, or societies that Austria-Hungary thought spread hatred and contempt for Austria-Hungary within Serbia. The fourth demand in the ultimatum gave Austria-Hungary a blank check to demand the removal from office of any member of the Serbian military or the civil administration. Points 5 and 6 of the ultimatum would allow Austro-Hungarian officials into Serbia to take part in the investigation around the assassination and for the “suppression of subversive movements.” Serbia would then have to arrest and punish a group of people provided to them that were connected to the assassination, for example officials who were responsible for the border crossings that the assassin’s used on their way to Sarajevo. Serbia would then have to provide and I quote “explanations regarding the unjustifiable utterances of Serbian officials” with regards to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Finally, Serbia must notifiy the Austro-Hungarian government when the measures had been executed. If you would like to see the exact wording of the ultimatum it has been posted to historyofthegreatwar.com in the show notes for this episode.

This ultimatum was what the government of Austria-Hungary spent the first few weeks of July crafting, it was an ultimatum that was designed to be rejected. Tune in next week to see the Serbian response to the ultimatum. Also next week we will be taking a closer look at the armies, and their commanders, who would go to war in early August as the military’s time in the spotlight draws ever closer.

On a podcast note I have setup a Twitter account and Facebook page for the podcast if you would like the follow or like the podcast these are at twitter.com/historygreatwar and facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar the podcast is also now available on Stitcher and iTunes. All of these links, and the full text of the Austrian ultimatum, can be found on the show page at historyofthegreatwar.com.