The murder of Austria’s heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand plunged Europe into a diplomatic crisis in 1914 and finally into the world war. There were chances for peace. However, Austrian politicians and German military men vehemently demanded the use of arms – until the Chancellor also buckled.
Even the German Emperor Wilhelm II seemed to think at the end of July 1914 that war could still be avoided. The Austrian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand had been murdered by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip a month earlier. The attack gave Vienna the opportunity to make humiliating demands on Belgrade. The diplomatic note of July 23 primarily contained two points that were difficult to fulfill: the Serbian government should make a statement that it had broken agreements and supported anti-Austrian activities. In addition, Vienna ultimately asked the country to let Austrian representatives take part in the investigation into the murder plot.
The response of the Serbian government to the sharp ultimatum was surprisingly accommodating – and also made Kaiser Wilhelm optimistic. Nevertheless, the government in Vienna exacerbated the crisis with the declaration of war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. A pan-European conflict now loomed. There is much to suggest that in the night of July 30-31, the allied governments in Berlin and Vienna decided to take the plunge.
The future front lines had been clear for years: Germany and Austria would have to count on Britain’s intervention on the side of their opponents in the event of a war against Russia and France. The prospect of getting into a war against three major powers prompted the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to make several telegrams. With this he wanted to dissuade his Austrian ally from the war course that had already started.
The military is pushing for war
This caused confusion in Vienna. The German Ambassador Heinrich von Tschirschky carried out the Chancellor’s order at noon on July 30th. He told the Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold Graf Berchtold that the ally should try to reach an understanding with Russia, the protecting power of the Balkan state, in the dispute with Serbia. As reported by Tschirschky to Berlin, the Foreign Minister listened to him “pale and silent” and announced that he would immediately give his Emperor Franz Joseph a lecture on Berlin’s changed attitude.
The chancellor’s initiative the following night caused uncertainty and fighting behind the scenes. On the morning of July 31, Count Berchtold received the chief of staff of the imperial and royal army, Franz Freiherr Conrad von Hötzendorf. The highest military in Austria has been campaigning for a “preventive strike” against Serbia for years – although this would undoubtedly make the great war likely. Now he feared that the German ally could strive to resolve the crisis at the last moment. So far, its state leadership had covered Vienna’s dangerous course and approved both the ultimatum and the military action against Belgrade.
Conrad von Hötzendorf, as he reported after the war, had received a telegram from the German chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke, at 7.45 a.m. on the morning of the 31st, demanding that he persevere until the Russian mobilization: “Austria-Hungary must be preserved, right away mobilize against Russia. Germany will mobilize. ” This went far beyond Moltke’s competencies, who had no mobilization and certainly no policy to set for an ally. The last week of July in 1914 was marked by the growing influence of the military in the government. Moltke and the Prussian Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn in particular vehemently called for the war.
Put Russia in the wrong
Conrad von Hötzendorf also received a telegram from Wilhelm Baron Bienerth, the Austrian military attaché in Berlin. Accordingly, Moltke advises to reject all placement proposals. The head of the German military underpinned this recommendation, which is also due only to the government, with the words: “For Austria-Hungary, the last resort to sustain the European war. Germany is definitely going.” Foreign Minister von Berchtold, to whom Hötzendorf read both, commented happily on the news: “It worked! Who rules: Moltke or Bethmann?”
The head of Austrian diplomacy had thus named the two people whom he associated with war or peace. During the course of the conversation, the question seems to have been finally resolved, whether the civilian or the military leadership prevailed. Berchtold’s fears that Germany could back away proved to be unfounded. He received further news and was able to assure Conrad von Hötzendorf that he had “the most reassuring explanation from the most decisive military side”.
The proponents of the war now had things in hand. Moltke also reported this to Vienna; possibly also General von Falkenhayn. He is known to have acted on the Chancellor the same day, saying that he could no longer refuse his consent to mobilization because of the “military disadvantages of a delay”. The wavering of the chancellor and the emperor had irritated the ally at the last moment.
“The attack must come from the Slavs”
These reached so deep that on the evening of July 31 the German military attaché Karl Graf Kageneck had to calm the excited chief of the Austrian general staff. Von Kageneck to Berlin reported that he had done this by praising Conrad von Hötzendorf hesitation as a tactic to “make Russia wrong as the sole aggressor”.
That was also the line that Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg pursued. However, only after he felt that he could no longer counter the pressure from the military and the automatisms of the mobilization plans. Both Falkenhayn and Moltke report how Bethmann Hollweg tried to oppose their demands. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz even observed that the Chancellor made “the impression of a drowning man” after the announcement of the mobilization of Russia, which made the war almost inevitable.
But now Bethmann Hollweg began to work so that the war, which he could no longer prevent, started at least in a convincing way. In those days, the Chancellor emphasized that to ensure internal unity, Russia had to appear as an attacker.
This approach had long been discussed in the government. The chief of staff had repeatedly stated what kind of struggle he expected: a “people’s war” was imminent. As early as 1913, Moltke had demanded that an “effective slogan” be the beginning of a “world war” that he foresaw and increasingly considered inevitable. And he made it clear what he thought it should be: “But the attack must come from the Slavs”.
The fact that this line prevailed in the days of the outbreak of war was also shown when the command to the threat of war, the preliminary stage to German mobilization, was signed. As Falkenhayn reported, Kaiser Wilhelm II gave “an exposé on the situation in which Russia is being blamed” – which the general and minister of war did not believe in his own words.
A successful strategy
At a meeting before the Prussian Council of Ministers on July 30, the Chancellor explained why the conflict had to begin as an act of defense. This is the only way to convince the public of its necessity, above all the workers and the social democrats. He even mentioned an arrangement with the leaders of the SPD not to go on strike in this case. Kurt Riezler’s diary, Bethmann Hollweg’s secretary, shows just how important internal unity was as a prerequisite for war. There is noted on July 27: “For the rest, the Social Democrats are processed from all sides.”
The calculation worked. This became apparent on July 31, when Wilhelm II announced after the Russian mobilization from Berlin Palace that the enemies were forcing Germany to “just defense”. Nobody doubted the representation of the government. Many Germans not only dutifully went to war, but enthusiastically. Nowhere was it discussed that Austria-Hungary’s questionable approach to Serbia had caused the crisis that was now triggering a world war. After Germany’s declarations of war on Russia and France, the emperor was able to make his famous appeal to his people for unity on August 4: “I no longer know any parties, I only know Germans”.
On the same day, the Chancellor asked the parliament to approve the war loans – according to a tried-and-tested strategy: at the end of his speech, he asked for the documents to be “quickly completed”. He affirmed this with words that he spoke to the Social Democrats according to the Reichstag protocol: “Our army is in the field, our fleet is ready to fight – behind it the whole German people! The whole German people til to the last man!”
When the First World War broke out, the state leadership had succeeded in getting the opponents of the war on their line. And this despite the fact that the first information about the government’s actions was already circulating in informed circles. This emerges from a diary entry of the Reichstag MP Eduard David. According to this, in the middle of August, two weeks after the outbreak of war, several SPD MPs were of the opinion that “the German government wanted the war as a preventive war. [Philipp] Scheidemann is convinced of this and seems to have special reasons for it.”
Admiral von Müller, head of the imperial naval cabinet, noted with satisfaction in his diary on August 1, when the declaration of war was made against Russia: “The mood was brilliant. The government had a happy hand in presenting us as the attacked.”