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2.2.2023 : 0:17 : +0100

Why did Austria-Hungaria go to war in 1914?


The study of the origins of the First World War is still relevant to students today. While the divisions of Europe into the two major blocks of the Cold War seem to be over, the whole world is again preoccupied with the Balkans and its wars. Beside this, another even more current reason appears, showing why especially the Austrian-Serb situation in 1914 is so up-to-date. Several analogies occur with 11. September 2001.  The major points are: in both cases a world power is attacked in a malicious and brutal way. It is forced to respond but the lack of clear and convincing evidence makes it difficult to target the reaction. We can assume that the attacked government believes that the moral advantage gets lost with any delay of the counter measure. This becomes very obvious in the Austrian case. The severity of reaction is determined by the matter of opinion: is it a political event, is it a crime or an act of military violence? The situations seem to be comparable because the essential structure of contemporary international politics has not changed, and neither has human nature. Thus we can engage historical knowledge on the past in service to the present. It is an example how history can either help us to understand the present or at least provide us with a reservoir of possibilities to think about. The crucial questions I try to answer in this essay are what was the difference of the Balkan Crisis of 1914? Why did the Austrian-Hungarian actions that followed this crisis lead to the Great War, when many other crises before were resolved without martial means?

The immediate trigger of the war was the murder of the Austrian heir to the throne. At 11:15 AM, on June 28, 1914, in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip. He was a sympathizer of the radical nationalistic secret organization Black Hand (Crna Ruka) which operated from Serbia.

The political motives of the assassination were connected with the unsolved nationality problem of the Austro-Hungarian multinational state. A variety of Slavs which strove for their national liberation and autonomy lived in the state immediate to the privileged and state supporting Austrian and Hungarian social strata. Since the beginning of the 20th century primarily the Serbians, Croats and Slovenes living in the south of the monarchy demanded to be able to decide free and independently on their existence. The Slavs were confirmed in their separatist endeavours particularly since the increasingly Slav hostile politics of Hungary, which feared for its pre-eminence in the double monarchy. Further support was granted by the kingdom of Serbia. This was at top of a large movement with the aim of a unification of all Southern Slavs to a great Serbian empire (Großserbien). In this attempt it could rely on the backing of Russia which, as the protecting power of Panslawism, wanted to extend its influence spheres on the Balkans and would finally be given unhindered access to the Mediterranean. These centrifugal strengths represented an existential threat to the Habsburg monarchy. To counteract this, archduke Franz Ferdinand developed a plan which should enlarge the previous Dualism in the Habsburg empire of Austria and Hungaria to a Trialism Austria-Hungary-Southern Slavia. In addition he wanted to grant the individual Slavic population groups equal rights and far-reaching inner autonomy.  Ferdinand thought that this would be the way to keep them in the empire association and to safeguard the continuance of the multinational state. However, putting this idea into action would have endangered the aims of the Panslawists and destroyed the hopes for a large Serbian empire. Hence the Black Hand, decided to kill the heir to the throne in order to withdraw the integration figure of the “Trias plan”.

Austria-Hungary then considered the newly enlarged and Russian-backed Serbia to be the principal threat to its security, especially because Serbian military intelligence supported anti-Habsburg groups and activities in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevi?, head of Serbia’s military intelligence was under the alias “Apis” also head of the society Union or Death (Ujedinjenje ili Smrt), which was pledged to the pursuit of pan-Serbian ambition . Inspired by nationalism he was one of the main plotters and instigaters of the assassination.

The reaction to the killing took two forms. On the one hand, anti-serbian disturbances broke out not only in Sarajevo but in the whole Empire. The police and the courts in Bosnia undertook a series of arrests and investigations. Many suspicious people were arrested or questioned, sometimes in a very violent way. On the other hand, the Austrian foreign ministry and the emperor’s closest advisors thought about what to do with Serbia and its role in the plot. Investigators quickly learned that the murder weapons came from Serbian Army sources, but Austrian intelligence failed to distinguish between the roles of the Serbian government and unofficial nationalist groups. Even more the lack of evidence that the Paši? administration had been involved was a significant reason against a martial solution.

The Chief of Staff General Conrad, wanted a military response from the beginning. Up to that time Conrad had argued that the Monarchy was surrounded by enemies who needed to be defeated separately, before they could unite. This led him to the notion that the best plan was a war against the Serbs and Russians, followed later by a confrontation with Italy. Conrad regarded the July crisis as the last chance to settle the unfavourable strategical and political situation of Austria-Hungaria.  The Habsburg foreign minister Leopold Count von Berchtold generally agreed with Conrad. His doubts could easily be dispelled and, convinced by Conrad, his only hesitation resulted out of the need to prepare public opinion for war.

Minimal opposition to a policy of confrontation and war came from the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Stephan Tisza. He condemned militarism and took the risks of war more seriously than Conrad. As a Magyar he was aware that a Habsburg victory would be a domestic defeat for Hungarians. Tisza was convinced that there were quite enough Serbs in Austria-Hungary already, in particular in Transleithania. If Austria were to annex Serbia, the fragile ethnic balance in the Dual Monarchy would get lost.

Austrian plannings after the assassination included another element that shows slight interest in peace. When Vienna first considered the advantages of a military response it sought the reaction of the German ally. The Austrian ambassador in Berlin found that the Germans, especially Kaiser Wilhelm, supported a war to punish Serbia and offered full German support.  This was in clear contrast to events during the Balkan War of 1912, when Berlin refused to back Vienna in any intervention. Now in 1914 the Germans feared, like the Austrians, the possibility of a future war with Russia and preferred to fight at once immediately, before their enemies grew stronger (Russia’s rearmament programme peaked in 1917).

Tisza and the rest of the ministers, of which a majority favoured war, agreed on 7 July to the idea of presenting the Serbian government with a series of demands. In the belief that a diplomatic victory alone would not be enough to destroy Serbia as a threat, the demands were written in such extreme terms that Serbia could not accept them. A Serbian refusal to comply would then become the excuse for war.  Within a week, Tisza himself consented to this plan however he insisted that no Serb territory would be incorporated within the war.

The final drafted ultimatum consisted of 10-points and demanded the dissolution of the secret societies, namely the semi-official Narodna Odbrana. It required an end of anti-Austrian propaganda, and requested the Serbian Government “(…) to institute a judicial inquiry against every participant in the conspiracy (…); the organs of the Imperial and Royal Government delegated for this purpose will take part in the proceedings held for this purpose.” This point seriously interfered in Serbian sovereignty as well as the point “to agree to the cooperation in Serbia of the organs of the Imperial and Royal Government in the suppression of the subversive movement directed against the integrity of the Monarchy.”

Though the terms of the ultimatum were finally approved on July 19, delivery to Belgrade was postponed to the evening of July 23 since by that time the French president, Raymond Poincaré, and his premier René Viviani who had set off on a state visit to Russia on July 15, would be on their way home and therefore unable to concert an immediate reaction with their Russian allies. Another reason to delay the despatch of the ultimatum was because it “(…) would give more time for the completion of the harvest before the disruption to agriculture which mobilization was bound to cause.”  When the delivery was announced on July 24, the Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov declared “C’est la guerre européenne.”

Serbia replied to the ultimatum on July 25. Accepting most of its demands it had a few reservations and requests for clarification. As time passed, however, it became clear that Russia would support Serbia regardless of the situation. After that, Paši? gave up seeking peace. Serbia rejected the key points about Austrian interference in domestic judicial and police work and Paši? knew this meant war. The Serbian army began to mobilize three hours before the reply was handed over.  This might be rational but it does not imply a strong effort for peace. Due to the Serbian response not accepting every point, Austria broke off diplomatic relations on July 25 and Francis Joseph ordered the partial mobilization of Habsburg troops, as of July 28.

From what we have seen about the background and the decisions taken by the Austro-Hungarians and the Serbs, we can add some further reasons why those two states went to war in 1914. Undoubtedly, both governments believed their prestige and credibility were on the line. Not only in the international context, but also at home. Today we know that war is not the only way out of an intense political conflict but during the time it was thought that an “Empire according to contemporary values could only defend its interests honourably by force of arms; to compromise or give way without a struggle was to invite dishonour.”

The Emperor Franz Joseph saw the assassination as a personal attack on the royal family and this required a strong response This notion was intensified by the Serb involvement. Two events had humiliated the Dual Monarchy however they arguably arose through Austria’s own fault: these were the Pig War and the Friedjung Trial. During the trade war with Serbia in 1906, Austria Hungary closed its borders to pork imports. Eventually, the policy of economic intimidation did not work and Austria duped itself whereas Serbia’s self-confidence grew. The inappropriate tactic of economic pressure was replaced by more direct methods to establish some sort of control in Serbia. These would finally peak in the war. The other setback for Vienna occurred when the Austrian historian Heinrich Friedjung was asked by Ballhausplatz officials to examine documents from Belgrade in order to assail South Slav politicians for disloyality. He published a report but had to learn that the documents had been forged. A trial followed which became a fiasco for Habsburg. The events alienated both the educated as well as the peasant classes in Serbia from the Monarchy.  For the Serbian regime, the humiliating Austrian terms of the Ultimatum would have undone all the progress made since 1903 in achieving independence from Habsburg interference.

On the international stage, both sides were one pace away from being marginalized. Serbia detested the prospect to be treated as a simple protectorate. Austria-Hungary on the other side had to bear in mind the experiences of the Ottomans, the recently destroyed southeastern Europe empire. This ‘Sick man on the Bosporus’ had been defeated by Serbia in the Balkan Wars. The increasing Serbian power and thus the Pan-Slavic nationalism threatened the Dual Monarchy and it did not want to share the Turkish fate. As Tisza put it: “The Monarchy must take an energetic decision to show its power of survival and to put an end to intolerable conditions in the south-east.”  The predominant conviction was that not to crush Serbian nationalism and not to act in the summer of 1914 would lead to greater turmoil later. The military especially Conrad pressed for a preventive war. This policy resulted out of the sense that any delay would cause an imminent loss of military advantage. With the murder of Franz Ferdinand a vital opponent of the non-violent strategy and “consistent advocate of peace”  was removed.
Another considerable factor is that in 1914 both sides believed that they were in a strong position to win if war came. The Austrians were backed by Germany and Serbia had promises from Russia. Neither side considered the prospect that the war would spread across Europe and that their differences could be settled by negotiation. The Austrian ambition was a short and victorious but localized war against Serbia aimed at destroying the military potential of its restless neighbour.  A little warfare had become nearly commonplace, a normal aspect of foreign relations. The Balkan had seen so many conflicts in the pre 1914 that war was not unusual. Hence there was very little fear of war combined with a great portion of fatalism.

What are the outcomes for the mentioned debate about analogies between the Balkan Crisis and 11 September 2001? I do not think the situation in the U.S. and Austria-Hungary is directly comparable. However the contrasts are instructive. This essay might have shown that the understanding of the past can provide some context for analyzing and predicting future events. Conversely what is happening in the present may give us new insight into the events of 1914. The aspect of an offended sense of honour may become especially more comprehensible. Honour and prestige was certainly involved in Austria’s case. The threat of a growing Serbian empire, both in territory and in power as well as the fear to become isolated in the international context convinced the liable persons in Vienna that a pre-emptive war was the best solution. The Dual Monarchy had the unconditional will to start fighting and to finally handle the Southern Slav question. Too many leaders on all sides in 1914 deliberately decided to risk a crisis and even war. Eventually the initial Austro-Serb warfare was the spark of a global fire.