Skip to main content

by Stephen Yellin

This is part of a series of daily articles that covers the run-up to the catastrophe of World War I in July 1914. The diplomatic crisis exactly 100 years ago was sparked by the murder of the main force for peace in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Archduke Franz Ferdinand, together with his wife Sophie – by a Serbian terrorist. Backed by Germany’s offering of unconditional support in using force to retaliate against Serbia – the infamous “blank check” – the Viennese authorities began preparing a list of demands for the Serbian government to accept or face war. The demands were deliberately made to ensure war would occur.

The ultimatum was finally issued on July 23, 1914, over 3 weeks after the Archduke’s murder. The 12 days that followed are the focus of this series.

Feel free to refer to my list of important figures in keeping track of who's who.

Previous days:
Wednesday, July 23rd
Thursday, July 24th

Saturday, July 25th – “We stand upon the edge of war”

As the clock ticks down to the hour Serbia must reply to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, the “Great Powers” of Europe all recognize the possibility of a far greater conflict. Meanwhile a violent thunderstorm erupted across Central Europe on July 25th. As Max Hastings relates in Catastrophe 1914:

Outside the Parliament building in Budapest a statue of Gyula Andrassy, one of the architects of the Dual Monarchy [Austria-Hungary], was allegedly seen to totter. Troubled citizens told each other than their ancestors deemed such occurrences portents. But, as Finance Ministry official Lajos Thalloczy demanded in his diary: “for whom?”

Having received the assurance of “help”, albeit unspecified, from the Russian government the evening before, the Serbian government under Prime Minister Nikola Pasic rewrites its response to the Austrian ultimatum. In truth Pasic has little choice but to reject the Austrian demands and risk war; the powerful Serbian military is vociferously against the public capitulation Vienna is demanding of Belgrade, and is perfectly willing and capable of carrying out a coup d’état if the civilian authorities back down. With Russia likely to intervene there is at least a chance of Serbia escaping a war against a much-larger power; at worst, Serbia will have an ally in the war to come.

Knowing that refusing even 1 of the 9 points in the ultimatum means war, the Prime Minister has already ordered the National Bank reserves and Foreign Ministry archives evacuated from Belgrade to safer territory to the south, while also commencing the country’s mobilization plans. It is the third time in 2 years that Serbia will be at war. They had joined with their Balkan neighbors to oust the Ottoman Empire from the peninsula in 1912, and then joined with Greece and Romania to crush Bulgaria in 1913, nearly doubling the nation’s size in the process. Now they face a war against an empire capable of crushing it, whose armies are poised across the Drina River from the Serbian capital, while having yet to fully recover from the last 2 conflicts.

Prime Minister Pasic
Just before the expiration of the 48-hour deadline to answer the ultimatum – 6PM, Vienna time – Pasic delivers his country’s response to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Serbia, Baron Giesl von Gieslingen.  He and his government have agreed to most of the Austrian demands, albeit with some conditions attached, but have refused to accept Point 6: to allow Austria-Hungary to run a judicial investigation of the Sarajevo murders on Serbian territory, which would violate the Serbian constitution and its sovereignty. “Part of your demands we have accepted,” Pasic tells Giesl in broken German. “For the rest we place our hopes on your loyalty and chivalry as an Austrian general.”

Pasic’s “hopes” are, as he knows perfectly well, futile. Giesl is under strict orders from Vienna to promptly break off diplomatic relations and leave Belgrade if Serbia responds with anything short of total capitulation. By 6:15 he, his wife and his staff have burned the embassy’s diplomatic codebooks (used to protect official dispatches from interception) and evacuated the building; catching the 6:30 train to Vienna, the party is across the Austrian border 10 minutes later. American historian Sidney Fay would later term this “the speed record for the rupture of diplomatic relations”.

As soon as Giesl reaches the first station he stops to inform his superiors in Vienna. By 7:45 the government has been notified, as has Emperor Franz Joseph at his villa at Bad Ischl. Foreign Secretary, Count Leopold Berchtold and War Minister Krobatin immediately go to the Emperor to convince him to issue the order to mobilize the Austro-Hungarian army. Berchtold tells Franz Joseph that Serbian troops have fired on Austrian steamers on the Danube River. It is a lie, but enough to persuade the 83-years old, increasingly frail Emperor. With the words “Also doch!” (German for “So, after all!”), the Emperor consents to mobilization. With the army’s reservists having returned from harvesting crops earlier that day, General Conrad’s war plan is right on schedule. It is 9:23 PM, barely 3 hours since Giesl’s reception of Serbia’s reply.

St. Petersburg
The Russian Imperial Council of Ministers meets once again, this time with Tsar Nicholas II himself presiding. As a virtually absolute monarch the Tsar’s approval is required for Russia to take any action in response to the Austrian ultimatum. As Foreign Minister Serge Sazanov and his colleagues had unanimously agreed to act the day before, however, it was a foregone conclusion that the weak-willed, easy persuaded autocrat would support his ministers. As one unkind, but accurate observer of Tsarist Russia under Nicholas had noted, the policies adopted were those proposed by the last man the Tsar listened to prior to making a decision.

The Tsar asks his War Minister, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, if the Russian army is ready for war. Sukhomlinov admits that their rearmament program is not yet complete, nor is their project to be able to move soldiers and supplies to the German border more efficiently. Nevertheless, Sukhomlinov tells the Tsar, the Russian army is ready to fight. With this the Tsar consents to the proposal to partially mobilize the Russian army for the 4 military districts on the Russo-Austrian border. By leaving the Russo-German border free it is hoped to demonstrate to Germany that Russia’s actions are geared against preventing an Austrian invasion of Serbia. That partial mobilization had been rejected as infeasible and futile by former Prime Minister Kokovtsov in 1912, on the grounds that Germany would hardly stand aside and let Russia crush its only ally in Europe is apparently forgotten. The Russian army’s chief of staff is not consulted on this point.

Vladimir Sukhomlinov, Russian Minister of War in 1914.
War Minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov
The Russian government is not committed to war as of Saturday, however. When British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey proposes a conference of neutral powers to resolve the crisis (i.e. not Austria-Hungary and Serbia), Sazanov agrees to support it. While St. Petersburg has begun executing its “Period Preparatory to War” plans, it had done so in the 1912-3 Balkan Crisis without pulling the trigger on mobilization. Yet a major “dove” at the Tsar’s court, albeit an unorthodox one is absent. He is Grigori Rasputin, the “mad monk” and spiritual advisor for Nicholas and the Tsarina Alexandra, whose astonishing ability to rescue their hemophiliac son and heir from the brink of death gives him equally astonishing power. In July 1914 Rasputin is lucky to be alive himself, and is recuperating back at home after being stabbed in the stomach the month before. His voice, which has firmly warned the Tsar and Tsarina against a war that would destroy the Romanov dynasty, is absent from those influencing his master in the days that follow.

The German government, led at this point by Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow and War Minister Eric von Falkenhaym, continue to push for “localization” of the crisis. Their proposal, to let Vienna and Belgrade settle matters out while the other Great Powers attempt to mediate, is similar to the plan put forward by Sir Edward Grey. To that end Jagow declares that Germany is “quite ready to fall in line with [Grey’s] suggestion as the four Powers [Britain, France, Germany and Italy] working in favor of moderation at Vienna and St. Petersburg.” He passes the message on to his Anglophile ambassador to Britain, Prince Lichnowsky.

Gottlieb von Jagow, German Foreign Minister in 1914
The difference is that Berlin, having given Vienna its guarantee of full support should Russia intervene, is looking to “mediate” in order to let her ally squash the Serbs uninterrupted. The “localization” gambit has been made largely without consulting Kaiser Wilhelm II; the “all-highest warlord” continues to cruise off the Norwegian coast with only gradually increasing awareness of the gravity of the situation. The assumption behind Berlin offering the “blank check” had been that Russia would back down from the threat of going to war with Germany as well as Austria-Hungary. With the German military attaché in St. Petersburg reporting home the sudden rush of military activity, however, the German government begins to seriously consider the possibility of European war.

The German military high command – Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Younger and his staff, firmly believing that now is the best chance Germany will ever have again for winning a European war – is hastily summoned back to the capitol. So is the Kaiser, whose ship begins heading home that evening. The Kaiser’s brother cancels a planned trip to Britain for the annual Cowes yachting festivities. The days that follow will see the civilian and military authorities in Berlin attempt to come to grips with a promise they’d not intended to keep, with its highly erratic autocrat at the center of the storm.


President Poincare and Prime Minister Viviani remain in the Baltic Sea en route from their summit with their Russian allies in St. Petersburg. The country remains fixated on the sensational, carnival-like atmosphere of the trial of Madame Caillaux, wife of the Finance Minister, for having murdered a newspaper editor publically opposed to her husband’s politics. Caillaux’s attorney, as mentioned in an earlier article, has claimed that Caillaux’s womanly weakness had caused her to commit a “crime of passion”, not premeditated murder. Whether the jury will accept that defense remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the absence of the Republic’s leaders leaves War Minister Adolphe Messimy and the French Army’s commander, General Joseph Joffre as the leading government figures in Paris. Joffre informs a delighted Messimy that, if needs be, he is willing to mobilize the French army in the absence of orders from Poincare and Viviani should war become imminent. “Bravo!” says Messimy. Orders are given that evening for French officers to report for duty, though the army itself is left undisturbed for the moment. In St. Petersburg the French ambassador continues to pass on the Russian government’s plans, keeping Paris in the loop even while its leaders at sea are cut off.

Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, as already noted, begins making the diplomatic rounds to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis. He had hosted a successful conference in 1913 to settle the last Balkan dispute between Austria-Hungary and Russia, and sincerely hopes it can be repeated. He presents his proposal for mediation to the other 3 “non-involved” Great Powers: France, Germany and Italy. All agree to consider his offer. Reassured by Jagow’s pledge that Germany will try to mediate between Vienna and St. Petersburg, Grey leaves London that evening for his estate in the country for a day of relaxation (he is an avid fly-fisher). First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill departs with his family to spend Sunday at the beach.

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, 1905-1916.
Sir Edward Grey
The British public becomes aware of the crisis for the first time that day, as the newspapers begin turning their attention away from the Irish Home Rule crisis that has threatened to cause civil war in the United Kingdom. “We stand upon the edge of war,” writes The Times
“and of a war fraught with dangers that are incalculable to all the Great Powers…Austria-Hungary leaves a small and excitable Balkan kingdom to decide at a few hours’ notice whether there is, or is not, to be a third Balkan war, and a Balkan war this time in which one of the Great Powers will be involved as a principal from the first.”
Prime Minister Asquith, writing to his mistress Venetia Stanley the day before, describes the crisis as the most dangerous Europe has faced since the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Yet he sees a silver lining in it: “[it] may have incidentally the good effect of throwing into the background the lurid pictures of “civil war” in Ulster [over Irish Home Rule].” Across the Channel at a party in the neutral Netherlands, his daughter Violet is nervous enough to head home; taking their cue from the Prime Minister’s daughter, a number of other well-heeled British citizens take the next boat back.

Earlier that day, 2 friends sat near the Russian army base at Krasnoe Selo. They were Baron Grunwald, a Russian aristocrat and officer of German descent, and Berlin’s military attaché, General Chelius. Grunwald, while unable to give Chelius details as to his country’s plans, told him that he should “assume…that the outlook is grave”. As Sean McMeekin relates, “The two friends then toasted one another as if in farewell: ‘hopefully we will meet again in happier times’.”

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site