The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

003 Count Leopold von Berchtold and the stick to hit Serbia

Count Leopold von Berchtold

Count Leopold von Berchtold

Austria-Hungary wants war

It is Sunday 12 July 1914, the third week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

Demonstrations in Northern Ireland seem to foreshadow civil war.

French president Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani who has recently taken offfice set sail for Russia on battleship France for a most friendly state visit.

The French senate is trying to tackle the backlog in weaponry.

Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill has his navy standing by.

King George V of Great Britain proceeds to inspect 260 Royal Navy ships.

On the Berlin Exchange prices of Canadian Pacific Railway shares are rocketing.

Hungarian prime minister István Tisza resigns himself to a tough way of dealing with Serbia.

According to an Austro-Hungarian report the Serbs are drafting their reservists.

 In Sofia Austro-Hungarian diplomats try to set Bulgaria against Serbia.

The Vienna government decides to give Serbia an ultimatum, prompted by Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Leopold von Berchtold.

In the July crisis of 1914, which drags on for over a month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Count Leopold von Berchtold und Ugarschitz, Fratting und Pullitz plays a crucial role. Has the Foreign Minister been egged on by the war party in his country? Is he conscious of the dangers of a punitive expedition against Serbia? The ultimatum which is finally given to Serbia is indeed signed by Berchtold. Thus the Sarajevo fire is fanned into a world-wide inferno.

The charming Berchtold is of high aristocratic descent. His ancestry is rooted in Tirol. In 1859 a biography with the catching title ‘Der Menschenfreund’ is dedicated to an earlier Count Leopold von Berchtold. With German, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian blood flowing through his veins young Count Leopold von Berchtold represents the multicultural Danube monarchy itself. He has a sophisticated taste. His heart rather  seems to go out to the arts, literature and horse racing than to politics. Although he seemed to be a career diplomat, he made it to ambassador in St Petersburg because of the fact that he was one of the richest men in the empire. In his Russian period he is a true advocate of a relaxed relationship with the tsarist empire, but he lacks the understanding which is needed to take the sting out of the conflict in July 1914. That sting is embodied by the German-Slavic differences.

Under the responsibility of Berchtold, who is easily frightened, things in the Balkans derail in the summer of 1914. Even though Russia is not committed by treaty to come to the rescue of Serbia in case of war, yet the small kingdom in the Balkans can feel supported by its big Slavic brother. Berchtold is bound to realize that, still he is convinced that he can force the Serbs on their knees without the help of the Russians. On top of this he was warned in February 1913 by the German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg that things might escalate in the Balkans. ‘According to me it would be an error with extremely grave consequences if we rushed into a solution with violence’. After all, France supports Russia, too.

In order to truly understand the rivalry between Russia and Austria-Hungary we need to go back to September 1908. The scene of the action is Buchlau castle, in the present-day Czech republic. Lord of the castle is Count Leopold von Berchtold. In all secret he receives the foreign ministers of Russia and Austria-Hungary, Alois Lexa von Aerenthal and Alexander Izvolski. The Austrian Aerenthal is the cunning one. He worms the promise out of Izvolski that Russia will let the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina pass. In exchange Aerenthal promises to support Russia’s claim to gain access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea via the Dardanelles, without changing the status of Constantinople. This has been the ultimate desire of the Russians for centuries, free passage to the world seas.

In the margin of the talks which are completed without any reports, thereby allowing various interpretations, Aerenthal also leaves space in the Balkans for expansion of Serbia and Montenegro, in case these two small states accept the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Vienna loses no time. The day after Bulgaria has officially declared itself independent of the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Vienna this is merely seen as formalizing what had been laid down in 1878 in the Treaty of Berlin. As of that year Austria-Hungary was to govern the Ottoman province.

Grabbing Bosnia and Herzegovina leads to international tensions thirty years later. The indignation is especially noticeable in neighbouring Serbia. This self-confident  kingdom sees the road to the Adriatic Sea  blocked by the annexation. It mobilizes its troops and turns to its big brother Russia for help. Russia, however, gives priority to its own agenda in the spirit of Buchlau, which means free passage from the Black Sea via the Aegean to the Mediterranean. Poor Izvolski. His ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Aerenthal turns out to be soft as butter. Austria-Hungary leaves the Russians out in the cold in the international playing-ground. Especially the British secretly value barbaric Russia to be deprived of hot water.

Germany is the only country that has not openly declared to be against the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In that sense the Bosnian crisis of 1908 with its Germanic bond of brothers resembles a dress rehearsal of WWI. But first two smaller wars will have to be fought in the Balkans in 1912 and 1913.

In the First Balkan War the Ottoman Empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’, will have to face a League of Balkan States, consisting of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece. The Turks are defeated and have to withdraw from Europe, but afterwards the victorious Balkan states are left divided about Macedonia. In the ensuing confusion the Ottomans manage to retaliate. Remarkably, however, Serbia appears to have taken a much stronger position on the map when the fog has lifted. The recently created state of Albania may have closed the road to the Adriatic sea for the Serbians, the contours of a South Slavic state in the Balkans are clearly taking shape.

This is quite a setback for Count Leopold von Berchtold, the new Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister. Berchtold finds it difficult anyhow to follow in Aerenthal’s footsteps. His cunning predecessor, in whom emperor Franz Joseph had put a blind trust, died in 1912.

In the heart of Europe the Slavs are rattling the doors of Austria-Hungary. Among other things Berchtold has to cope with pro-Russian sentiments among Ukrainian speaking Ruthenians. In June 1914 he writes to the Austrian prime minister Karl von Stürgkh. ‘I am not exaggerating when I say that our relations with Russia, which are so very important, will in future be determined by the question if we succeed in preventing Russification of the Ruthenians.’ But that’s where Berchtold is wrong. The Russian danger is to come from the Serbian corner that very same month.

On 28 June 1914 Serbian terrorists even dare to eliminate the Habsburg descendant to the throne. Berchtold appeared rather hesitant at earlier crises in the Balkans, but he knows that he cannot let the Serbians get away with it this time. Within the many-headed decision making structures of the Habsburg monarchy Berchtold had a powerful ally in Franz Ferdinand. His assassination is the perfect opportunity to avert the Serbian threat. By analogy with the Italian unification this small kingdom is quickly growing into the ‘Piedmont of the South Slavs’.

Besides Berchtold feels hawks like Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of the general staff of the army, breathing down his neck. Von Hötzendorf would gladly have invaded Serbia the day after the assassination. But there are also moderates, particularly count Tisza, prime minister of Hungary. Tisza warns the old emperor Franz Joseph for the collision course Berchtold is taking. But on14 July Tisza, too, eventually agrees with the ultimatum that Berchtold will present to the Serbians nine days later. This ultimatum is preceded by a free hand of the German emperor. On its way to Belgrade Vienna is finally supported by Berlin.

The list of ten demands presented by Austria-Hungary in Belgrade should be read as an ostentatious attempt to create a ‘casus belli’, an act to justify war. Before the strict deadline of two periods of twenty-four hours has expired, Serbia gives in. The answer to the ultimatum carries an appendix containing the results of the police investigation of the assassination in Sarajevo. The answer to this ultimatum is truly a diplomatic tour de force. Belgrade humbly promises to stop making hostile statements to the address of Austria-Hungary. To that end it is willing to work together with Vienna. The smuggle of weapons and explosives between Serbia and Austria-Hungary will also be ended.

There is, however, one condition that Serbia cannot accept as a sovereign state. The condition dictated by Austria-Hungary to look in Serbia itself for the conspirators behind the assassination. This downright violation of Belgrade’s own jurisdiction is the stick Berchtold has found to hit Serbia with. Vienna declares war on Belgrade on 28 July with disastrous consequences. The attempt to compromise of the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey is too late.

To many this declaration of war comes like a bolt from the blue. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was already a month ago. Europe had passed to the order of the day. In France in July for example the front pages carried many stories about the court case against one Henriette Caillaux. She is the wife of the minister of finance, Joseph Caillaux, who got into political trouble as a result of articles published in Le Figaro. Henriette revenged her husband in March 1914 by shooting Gaston Calmette, the editor of that newspaper, in cold blood. She stands trial mid July. That dominates the news in France. And certainly not the outbreak of a war that might cover the entire world.

***

Berchtold does not survive the war politically. Already in January 1915 count Tisza convinces emperor Franz Joseph that his minister of foreign affairs is but a feeble-minded character. He has not succeeded in getting Italy to side with Austria. To that purpose Rome has made the necessary territorial demands to Vienna. Initially Berchtold braces himself against concessions in the Trentino, but German pressure makes him reconsider. In order to evade a war with Italy, he advises his colleagues also to give up parts of the Albanian coastline. Both Tisza and chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf do not want to know about this.

Berchtold disappears from the centre of power, the Ballhausplatz in Vienna, into the background. In 1916 he is appointed Obersthofmeister  at the court in Vienna. Later he is allowed to advise the new emperor Karl as Oberstkämmerer. In 1942 Berchtold dies in Hungary at the age of 79. The man who walking around with his eyes shut took up the shovel to dig the first mass grave of the First World War is himself buried in the family tomb at Buchlau.

Next week Sir Edward Grey

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

Advertisements

Single Post Navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: