Origins of the July Crisis: Lighting the Fuse

Franz Ferdinand
Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

One day the great European war will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.

– Otto von Bismarck, 1888  

On July 4, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife, the Countess Sophia, were buried at Artstetten, about 50 miles west of Vienna. The archduke had never been particularly popular in Austria-Hungary. His uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, had chosen him only reluctantly as his heir after the suicide of his only son, the Crown Prince Rudolph. His disdain for his heir was so great, that, even though he was in residence in Vienna at the time, he did not even bother to attend his nephew's funeral.

The funeral occurred a week after the assassination of the archduke and his wife, on June 28, while they were on an official visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. A Serbian "paramilitary organization" -- today, we would call them terrorists -- committed to the unification of Bosnian Serbs with the kingdom of Serbia had organized an assassination attempt while the archduke's motorcade traveled along the Apple Quay in Sarajevo. The plot failed, resulting in the injury, from a bomb blast, to several of the archduke's aides.

While attempting to find the hospital where his aides were being treated, the archduke's driver mistakenly turned into Franz Joseph Strasse. Attempting to reverse, he stopped directly in front of Schiller's Delicatessen. Inside, one of the six Serbian conspirators, a 19-year-old student named Gavrilo Princip, was buying a sandwich. Seizing the opportunity, Princip rushed out and fired two fatal bullets at Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The murder set off an avalanche of events that would culminate in a few short weeks with the start of World War I.

What if Franz Ferdinand had lived? Would World War I have been avoided? He did survive the first assassination attempt. Only an unfortunate driver's error gave the Serbian conspirators a second chance to assassinate him. Without that error, or even if the timing had been off by just a few minutes, it is likely that the archduke would have lived. What then?

Without such a dramatic casus belli, would the Austrian government have had less reason to confront Serbia? Or would the attempt itself still have given them enough of a pretext? Is it possible that one of the most destructive wars in human history was the result of a teenager's lunch choice?

Probably not. While it is tempting to speculate that the occurrence, or lack thereof, of such a chance event could have inexorably altered the timeline of 20th-century history, such speculations properly belong to authors of historical fiction and not the professional historian.

The Serbian group that organized the assassination attempt went by the name "Unification or Death." They were also known unofficially by the moniker "The Black Hand." It was the paramilitary wing of a secret society called Narodna Odbrana (National Defense), which was committed to the creation of a "Great Serbia" that would encompass all the Serbians in the Balkans.

There is no question that this organization enjoyed broad support and received funding from elements of the Serbian government, including Prince Alexander, the heir to the Serbian throne and commander of Serbia's military forces.

Several years earlier, they had attempted to assassinate the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph. They had also been implicated in other assassination attempts against other Austrian officials. Regardless of the outcome of the plot against the archduke, it is likely that Serbian nationalists would have continued their attacks against Austrian officials, choosing whatever targets of opportunity presented themselves, in their quest for Serbian unification.

In the summer of 1914, the Balkans was a powder keg primed to explode. Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand merely provided the spark that would detonate it. Had it not been that spark, it is likely it would have been another.

The July Crisis

The assassination of the archduke marked the beginning of a period between June 29 and Aug. 1, which has been called the "July Crisis." During this period, and especially in the two weeks from July 5-19, the Austrian government formulated its reply to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. On July 5, the German government pledged its unconditional support for whatever action Austria took against Serbia in reprisal.

On July 23, the Austrian government presented the Serbian government with a 10-point ultimatum and gave it just 48 hours to accept them. The 10 demands had been specifically chosen to be so intrusive of Serbian sovereignty, so humiliating to the Serbian government, that Serbia would have no option but to reject them out of hand. Armed with the political cover that its attempt at a political solution had failed, Vienna would then be free to launch an attack on Serbia. Within a week of its ultimatum, Europe had begun an all-out mobilization. In less than two weeks, the "great European war" predicted by Bismarck had begun.

If only the Austrian government had been less vengeful, if only the German government had acted to constrain its Austrian ally, if only Serbia had been more willing to support the Austrian investigation into the assassination, or had initiated its own investigation and moved to arrest the conspirators. If only Russia had been less adamant in its support of Serbia, if only diplomacy had been given more time to craft a peaceful solution.

The list of "if only(s)" is endless. But would any of these "if only(s)" have made a difference in the end? To answer that question, we need to consider the underlying factors that shaped the actions and positions of the principal actors in the July crisis.

The Austrian government was convinced that Serbian aspirations to unify the Serb people, both those inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire and those in the surrounding area, would prove destabilizing to the empire and could trigger a revolt of other minorities and ultimately the collapse of Austria-Hungary. Russian diplomatic initiatives to organize, under Russian leadership, an alliance that consisted of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro, were equally worrisome. Though it would be difficult to maintain, much less organize, such an alliance would, in Austrian eyes, have only one purpose -- to roll back or dismember the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

On June 14, two weeks before the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the Austrian foreign minister, Count Leopold Berchtold, circulated a memorandum in which he called for the destruction of Serbia. That memorandum, along with an accompanying letter by Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, was presented to Kaiser Wilhelm on July 5.

In his letter, the Austrian emperor declared that the only way of preventing the disintegration of Austria-Hungary was "to eliminate Serbia as a state." He also stated unequivocally that the decision to invade Serbia had already been made even before the assassination of the archduke.

This was the fourth time since 1912 that the Austrian government had sought Berlin's support for an invasion of Serbia. Germany had declined on the previous three occasions, citing the fact that the German military was not yet ready for a general war. This time, the Kaiser assured the Austrian government that Berlin would unequivocally back whatever action Vienna took toward Serbia.

It was generally accepted by everyone, including Serbia's Russian and French allies, that the Serbian government had been complicit in the assassination plot. The weapons used by the six conspirators had all come from a Serbian military depot in Belgrade. Five of the conspirators were 19 years of age or younger and lacked the experience to organize an assassination attempt or procure the needed weapons. They had, in fact, been recruited and assisted by several Serbian military officers and government officials.

On July 13, however, the Austrian investigators of the assassination plot advised Count Berchtold:

"There is nothing to prove or even to suppose that the Serbian government is accessory to the inducement for the crime, its preparations, or the furnishing of weapons. On the contrary, there are reasons to believe that this (is) altogether out of the question."

Moreover, it was later disclosed that Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic had instructed the Serbian ambassador to Vienna to advise the Austrian government of a potential plot against the archduke during his visit to Sarajevo. It is possible that the Austrian government sent the archduke to Sarajevo, knowing that an attempt would be made on his life.

Why then did the Serbian government refuse all requests by Austrian authorities to assist with their investigation or to launch their own investigation into the assassination and move to arrest any of the conspirators? Why did the Serbian government make no attempt to clear itself of the charges that it had been complicit in the plot to assassinate the archduke?

The answer was politics. Serbia was scheduled to hold a general election on Aug. 14. The death of the archduke had been met by widespread rejoicing in Serbia, notwithstanding the fact he had been considered sympathetic to the aspirations of the Bosnian Serbs. Any action that would have appeared as bowing to Austrian pressure would have been political suicide for the Serbian government.

The German response to the July crisis was shaped by three principal considerations: fear of Austrian instability, concern for the growth of Russian military power and a desire to remain in the background while still encouraging a quick and decisive Austrian response. The result was policies that were often contradictory and at times incoherent.

First, Berlin wanted to ensure the stability of its key ally. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would create a bevy of small, Russian-influenced states whose interests would likely run counter to those of Germany. On prior occasions, Berlin had declined to support an Austrian invasion of Serbia, arguing that certain preconditions had to be met before it could risk igniting an all-out war. By the summer of 1914, the last of those preconditions, the widening of the Kiel Canal to permit the unhindered transfer of the German High Seas Fleet between the Baltic and the North Sea, had been completed.

Secondly, the German government was increasingly concerned by what it saw as the growing power of the Russian military. The Great Military Program launched in 1912, planned for a 39% increase in Russian military forces by 1918, and a significant increase in Russian artillery forces as well.

Concurrent with the military expansion, Russia launched a major railroad building campaign in the areas of western Russia immediately adjacent to Germany and Austria-Hungary. There was a vocal group within the German General Staff that believed that a conflict between Russia and Germany was inevitable -- in their view, better to fight Russia now than to fight a stronger Russia in the future.

Finally, the German government was urging swift action on the part of Austrian authorities so it could present Serbia's allies with a fait accompli before they would have a chance to formulate a response. During the Bosnian annexation crisis of 1908, German declaration of support for Austria-Hungary, combined with rapid Austrian action, had been sufficient to keep Russia on the sidelines. Kaiser Wilhelm believed that a similar show of unconditional German support would again keep Russia from intervening on Serbia's behalf.

When it became clear that neither Germany's threat to mobilize its armed forces nor Kaiser Wilhelm's appeals to his "cousin Nicky" to forestall Russian mobilization were effective, the German government switched tack, insisting that any potential conflict could be "kept local."

Kaiser Wilhelm was certain that even in the event of a war with Russia, he could persuade Great Britain, and possibly even France, to remain neutral. At the same time, Berlin was signaling that it was open to finding a diplomatic solution, while still insisting that the issue of any Austrian reprisals against Serbia was strictly an internal Austrian matter and should not be subject to arbitration by third parties.

Between 1905 and 1913, Russia had suffered a succession of military and diplomatic humiliations. Beginning with its defeat by Japan in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, Russia had been forced to stand aside during the Bosnian annexation crisis, and it had been unable to come to the aid of Serbia in either of the Balkan wars of 1912 or 1913.

In response, Russia had begun a program to dramatically expand and modernize its military. As the July crisis unfolded, Russia was determined to exercise its prerogatives as a "great power" and restore the diplomatic and military prestige that had been tarnished in the preceding decade.

There was a second factor that also shaped the Russian response. Beginning in 1912, miners at the Lena Gold Mines had gone on strike to protest the provisioning of substandard meat in the company's commissaries. That meat had been described as either rotten or consisting largely of offal from a local renderer. The miners claimed it was horse penises.

Either way, it was hardly appetizing. The strike sparked a rising tide of labor unrest that gripped Russia for the following two years. On July 20, during the middle of the July crisis, in an impassioned speech from a balcony at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Nicholas II rallied his Russian subjects with appeals to their patriotism and pan-Slavic aspirations. The resulting tide of patriotic fervor united Russia, as it had not been since 1905, and put an end to most of the labor unrest.

As the July crisis unfolded, Nicholas II was determined to avoid a war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but he was equally adamant that Russia's desire to retain the prerogatives of a great power, and the need to maintain domestic political stability, would not allow him to back down.

In brief, as the Serbian crisis progressed in the weeks between the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and the commencement of general hostilities on Aug. 3, the positions of the four principal antagonists had quickly jelled into inflexibility. Austria was determined to destroy Serbia, seeing it as an existential threat to the survival of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Indeed, that decision had been made before the assassination of the archduke. Domestic political considerations would not allow Serbia the flexibility of being conciliatory. Its intransigence only served to aggravate the crisis further. Bristling from a long series of political and military humiliations, Russia was determined to exercise its prerogatives as a great power.

German policy was inconsistent and at times incoherent. On the one hand, Germany was pushing Austria to invade Serbia, while at the same time trying to neutralize Russia to prevent the outbreak of a wider conflict. On the other hand, elements in the German government and military were in favor of a broader war, convinced that Germany would win it and that the odds with respect to Russia would be less favorable in the future.

Germany seemed to signal that it was open to a diplomatic solution while at the same time insisting that as an internal Austrian matter, outside arbitration by the "Four Powers" was not appropriate. By the time, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, attempted to organize the other European powers to craft a diplomatic solution, the situation was already hurtling toward the abyss of war.

Alea iacta est: The Eastern Front

On July 25, two days after receiving an ultimatum from Austria, the Serbian government ordered a full mobilization of the Serbian army. On July 28, barely a month after the assassination of the archduke and his wife, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia and ordered a partial mobilization of its army. The guns of August had started to rumble.

It could have ended there -- a short nasty war that pitted a small Balkan nation against a European superpower. The sort of war that had gripped the Balkans for centuries, a few bloody battles, then a long, drawn-out peace conference at some stylish European capital. Perhaps a redrawing of a national boundary or two to satisfy wounded pride and Europe would have returned to enjoying an idyllic summer.

Indeed, barring any further intervention by another great power, it was hard to see how any other outcome was possible. Austria-Hungary had the third-largest army in Europe and 12 times the population of Serbia. Along its frontier with Serbia, it already had a three-to-two advantage in manpower, and it had many more troops it could call up, if needed.

The week that followed Austria's declaration of war against Serbia prompted a blizzard of diplomatic activity. Diplomatic cables crisscrossed the continent as foreign offices tried to head off the impending catastrophe. A few days earlier, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign minister, speaking on behalf of his majesty's government, implored Germany, France and Italy to act in concert with Great Britain, "four nations who had no direct interest in Serbia," for the sake of peace. On July 29, one day after the Austrian declaration, Britain once again made an urgent plea to Germany to intervene with Austria to maintain the peace.

Russia, styling itself the protector of the Slavic peoples, of which the Serbs were part, demanded immediate military support for Serbia. On July 29, in St. Petersburg, Tsar Nicholas II, urged on by his generals to show his resolve, ordered the full mobilization of the Russian army in all six of the military districts in western Russia. Then, hesitating, he withdrew his order and opted instead for a "partial" mobilization. In practice, this meant a full mobilization in the three military districts that bordered the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Balkans.

In a desperate plea to the German Kaiser, his cousin, he wrote, "I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure, do what you can, your loving Nicky." The Kaiser, at the request of his government and his generals, had cut short his summer Baltic cruise and returned to Berlin. Responding to Nicholas, he replied, "I am exerting my utmost influence. Your devoted friend and cousin, Willy." Appealing to their family ties, he urged Nicholas to halt the partial mobilization of the Russian Army.

Truthfully, no one in the Russian General Staff had ever contemplated reversing a mobilization in midstream. Even if they had wanted to, they didn't know how to stop, much less reverse the process without leaving the Russian army in a state of complete disarray. Faced with mounting German pressure to stand down, on July 30, Nicholas ordered a full mobilization of the Russian army. The same day, Germany issued an ultimatum to Russia to halt its mobilization within 12 hours or face war with Germany. The next day, Aug. 1, citing the ongoing Russian mobilization, Germany declared war on Russia. All along the 1,000-mile border shared by Russia with Germany and Austria, from the Baltic to the Balkans, the machinery of war slowly and inexorably groaned forward. On the Eastern Front, the die had now been cast.

Joseph V. Micallef is a military historian, bestselling author, keynote speaker, syndicated columnist and commentator on international politics and the future.

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Military History World War I