Sunday, July 23, 2017
The Stumble Toward War, July 1914
The world was shocked when the Kingdom of Serbia agreed to all but one of Austria's demands. There had been hardly anything in the ultimatum that any independent country would have agreed to and, yet, Serbia agreed to comply almost entirely. Why was this? They knew just how high up in the halls of power in Belgrade that the anti-Habsburg secret societies reached and they knew that if they did not comply, war would result and everyone expected that Austria-Hungary would completely crush Serbia in such a war. Serbia's only hope was Czar Nicholas II of Russia, as only the threat of Russian intervention might make Austria think twice about attacking Serbia. Czar Nicholas II was prepared to do the right thing, he was not prepared to tolerate the Austrian conquest of a Slavic, Orthodox nation yet, like Emperor Francis Joseph in Vienna, he did not want war either. Russia's last war, against Japan, had ended in defeat and with the monarchy badly shaken, both by internal unrest that was eager for any sign of weakness and by more professional revolutionaries paid by the Japanese to undermine the Czar. Any threat of war against Austria-Hungary would also surely result in the German Empire coming to the defense of their Austro-Hungarian allies.
Not a few historians have said that, rather than German Kaiser Wilhelm II (who had all blame heaped on him after the war), the real villain of the tragedy was Count Leopold Berchtold, the Austrian Foreign Minister. At Ischl, he presented the declaration of war against Serbia to Emperor Francis Joseph and obtained his signature by a flat out deception. He informed his monarch that the Serbs were already attacking Austria-Hungary, which was simply not true. The Serbs had mobilized first as there were hotheads in Belgrade just as eager for war as some in Vienna, but they had taken no hostile action. Berchtold thus obtained the Austrian declaration of war against Serbia by dishonesty and then allowed subsequent opportunities to stop the conflagration to pass by him on the grounds that Austria-Hungary had already declared war and the time for talks was over. If one were to insist on guilty culprits to blame for the outbreak of the Great War (and there was blame enough to go around), I would have to say that three men dominate the scene and none of them were reigning monarchs. There was the Austrian Foreign Minister Count Leopold Berchtold who lied to his monarch to obtain a declaration of war against Serbia and brushed aside opportunities for peace; there was the French Ambassador to Russia Maurice Paleologue who pushed relentlessly for war between Russia and Germany and finally Sir Edward Grey, the Labour Foreign Secretary of Great Britain who might have put the Germans off the whole affair if he had made it clear from the outset that Britain would intervene on the side of France and Russia.
Did two leftist foreign ministers and one Czech aristocrat start the First World War? No, that would be a considerable overstatement. However, they ultimately had far, far more culpability than did the emperors of Austria, Russia and Germany.