The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

Archive for the tag “Diplomacy”

047 Victor Emmanuel III and the five-foot tall kingship

Victor Emmanuel III

Victor Emmanuel III

Turbulent Italy rushes into war

It is Sunday 16 May 1915. It is the 47th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

The Battle of Festubert gets bogged down in skirmishes, which eventually result for the allied forces in a gain in ground of one kilometre, at the cost of 16,000 lives.

The Russians occupy the town of Van in the east of Anatolia while the Turks withdraw to the Kurdish town of Bitlis.

Based on a telegram from war correspondent Charles à Court Repington an article in The Times  is published, which attributes the Aubers Ridge catastrophe that happened a week earlier to a shortage of grenades. 

In the House of Lords the ‘Shell Crisis’ is then met with Lord Kitchener’s plea to increase the production of ammunition.

Under the command of August von Mackensen the Germans unleash their artillery on Przemyśl in Galicia. The Russians try to evacuate the town by a counter attack.

On the Gallipoli peninsula the Anzacs manage to hold their own against the dominance of the Turks, but Lord Kitchener already speculates on a retreat.

In the wake of this Gallipoli fiasco British prime minister H.H. Asquith chooses to discharge Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and form a coalition government.

And the Italian government decides to mobilize, after having been entrusted with far-reaching powers. Thus the war party has won the battle for king Victor Emmanuel III.

When in May 2004 the Spanish crown prince gets married, the Italian pretender to the throne is also invited as a high ranking guest. If only this invitation had not been sent. After dinner this Victor Emmanuel IV will start bashing one of his cousins, who also claims to have a right to the Italian throne. Oh well, they must have thought in Italy. Perhaps our republic is not everything, but return to the monarchy? We had better not do that.

The longest ruling monarch of Italy was the grandfather of the present number four, Victor Emmanuel III. He wore the crown in both world wars, but the second one led to his downfall. The prince had adopted a too favourable stance regarding Mussolini’s fascists to serve his time after the war. He had already had to give up questionable titles of ‘Emperor of Ethiopia’ and ‘King of Albania’ halfway through the Second World War. When peace had come, his son Umberto II could try to save the monarchy for another month, but that turned out to be a hopeless challenge.

Victor Emmanuel III had already come to the throne in 1900, as a direct result of what in those days was called the ‘anarchism of the deed’. In the first year of the new century Victor Emmanuel’s father, King Umberto I, lost his life in the same way Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand would experience in Sarajevo fourteen years later. In the case of the Italian king there were four bullets.

Umberto’s assassin was called Gaetano Bresci. He was Italian by birth and had moved to America in order to build a life as a silk weaver. In 1900, however, he returned to his native country for a special mission, to kill the king, thus unleashing the revolution. A few moments before his arrest he would formulate this more exactly: ‘I have not shot Umberto. I have killed the king. I have killed a principle.’

The killing of Umberto fits in a series of anarchist assassinations of dignitaries. In June 1894 president Sadi Carnot of France is the first. In August 1897 prime minister Canovas of Spain is next. September 1898 Empress Elisabeth, Sissi, of Austria-Hungary. September 1901 president McKinley of the United States. November 1912 prime minister Canalejas of Spain. May 1913 king George I of Greece. They were all killed by radical individuals, who were driven by social despair and were possessed by the ideal to create a society of equals. It would only take one spark, they thought.

Four of the six ‘tyrant murders’ were committed by Italians. French socialist Jean Jaurès commented: ‘For many years all anarchist hooligans have been Italians. And that is no coincidence. It is because the misery and the reaction there are very intense and the violent passion and the destructive instinct lead to murder’.

The Italian Errico Malatesta is a prominent teacher of anarchism. In June 1914 he thinks he can put his violent theory into practice. Italy is in the thrall of The Red Week. Turmoil in the streets. Workers who go on strike. But The Red Week will not only expose the division of Italian society as a whole, but also the fragmentation within the political left. When socialists and republicans decide to end the general strike, Malatesta has to go into exile again.

On the eve of the Great War Italy is a young nation, filled with assertiveness, just like Germany. But even less than Germany it is a colonial world power. As early as 1896 Italy suffered a humiliating defeat against Ethiopia, that was supported primarily by Russia, France and Great-Britain.

It should be noted that the Italian nation is very much subject to the opposite forces of left and right, republican and monarchist, agricultural and industrial, and also north and south. All these antagonisms were already visible at the time of the Risorgimento, the multicoloured movement that had indeed successfully sought to achieve Italian unification after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Before that the peninsula had been a collection of kingdoms and duchies, and on top of that the pope in the holy middle.

The annexation of the Papal States in 1870 seemed to be the completion of the Italian resurrection, but there remained a crown on the work: the territories that fell under the rule of the Austrian emperor. This desire of the irredentists would be the main motive to declare war to Austria-Hungary in May 1915, despite all German diplomacy.

The Italians were also familiar with opportunism. Prime minister Antonio Salandra called the principle of his foreign policy ‘Sacro egoismo’ (i.e. sacred egoism). Before the war Italy had chosen the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Dreibund, but this triple friendship proved to be of little or no value when it came to mobilizing in 1914.

Initially Italy emphatically declares itself neutral, but in the first months of 1915 Rome begins to estimate that the allied have the best papers. Germany is stopped at the Marne and the British attack on the Dardanelles looks promising. It encourages the Italians to sign the secret Treaty of London on 26 April 1915. The Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia) grants Italy a lot more territories as spoils of war than pre-war partner Austria-Hungary had wanted to give up.

‘We want war’, a prominent socialist shouts at the king of Italy over the heads of a crowd in Milan. ‘When you, as our monarch who has the power to send our soldiers to the front, renounce your right, you will lose the crown.’ This socialist is called Benito Mussolini. He has been a self-confessed opponent of the Libyan war that Italy had fought with the Ottomans, but now the same Mussolini joins the war effort as a true patriot.

Newspapers that want to remain neutral are swamped with popular anger. And on 18 May Giovanni Giolitti therefore leaves the capital. Giolitti was the elder statesman in Italy. As prime minister he had prevented an escalation of the class struggle with social reforms and liberal politics. In these years the king had also been willing to grant his people greater freedoms.

In May 1915 Giolitti, the ‘godfather of Italy’, expects more benefit from neutrality than from war. According to him Italy is not ready for war yet. In the years to come this will prove to be an accurate observation. With his point of view Giolitti falls out with his former protégé, prime minister Salandra, but it also results in fierce demonstrations here and there in favour of war. Under this public pressure Victor Emmanuel chooses the side of Salandra.

Did ‘the people’ want war? Doubtful. ‘The street’ was not the voice of the majority as such. But this voice as so often remained silent while war was endorsed by parliament, the senate and the king.

Perhaps Victor Emmanuel III did not play a leading role in the ‘glorious days of May’, but he was a willing puppet in the hands of the warmongers. He is often described as shy and hesitant. His appearance was certainly not imposing. ‘Little Victor Emmanuel’ was only five foot tall. Kaiser Wilhelm II simply called him ‘the dwarf’. There is a photograph showing the Italian king walking next to the Belgian king Albert, as if a father is taking his little son for a stroll.

During the great War Victor Emmanuel will not leave the side of his troops. He likes the business of war. But strong man on the front is general Luigi Cadorna, a ruthless character who does not mind a few more dead bodies. The Italians therefore pay a high price for their participation in the war: 650,000 of their soldiers lost their lives. The biggest defeat is the Battle of Caporetto in 1917.

Victor Emmanuel was of the House of Savoy, which had first ruled the kingdom of Sardinia and from 1861 presided over all Italy. His father gave his only child the following poor advice: ‘Remember: to be a king all you need to know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper and mount a horse.’ But for Italy he really needed to do more than that. Between 1900 and 1922 the king had to intervene ten times in a parliamentary crisis. But after that Mussolini took control to the satisfaction of the king, who just hated squabbling politicians.

The popularity of the monarchy also remains considerable during the fascist years. The beauty of the queen, born as princess Elena of Montenegro, gives a substantial impulse to this. She bears Victor Emmanuel five children.

In 1938 the monarch commits the biggest sin of his political life. He tacitly agrees with the racial laws that are mainly aimed at jews, thus breaching the oath he had sworn at his coronation.

As the Second World War progresses Italy’s little monrach tries to get rid of Mussolini, but the latter keeps the support of Adolf Hitler. When in 1943 Victor Emmanuel reaches a ceasefire with the allies, his daughter has to pay the price. Princess Mafalda is married to a German. Although this prince is a loyal nazi, Mafalda is imprisoned by the nazis, apparently in an attempt to put pressure on her father. Eventually Mafalda ends up in the concentration camp of Buchenwald. There the princess is mortally wounded during an allied bombardment in August 1944.

After his abdication in 1946 Victor Emmanuel III moves to Egypt in exile, where he dies in 1947 at the age of 78. During a referendum a year earlier the Italian people voted for the republic as a form of state. After a reign of almost a millennium the House of Savoy has no more subjects.

The royal residence in Turin has been put on the list of world heritage, but the members of the family were not allowed to enter Italy until the year 2002. That was painful. In 2007 Victor Emmanuel IV, the heir-apparent with the dark image, filed a claim for damages with the Italian government. He wanted 260 million euros for the injustice done to his family during all those years of exile. This is just one of the unpaid bills of the history of Italy.

Next week: John Condon

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

034 Bernhard von Bülow and the fatal tutu

Bernhard von Bülow

Bernhard von Bülow

Weltpolitik lacks diplomatic ingenuity

It is Sunday 14 February 1915. It is the 34th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

Germany declares only to discontinue its war zone if the British stop their blockade of the German ports. 

The French start the attack on almost the full length of their front, but only record a slight profit at Verdun and in Artois, Champagne and the Vosges.

On the eastern front the fighting in the Carpathians and Galicia continues.

Albanians are driven across the Serbian border.

A new French-British air raid on the Flemish seaside towns of Zeebrugge and Ostend is undertaken.

The two zeppelins which bombed the English east coast in January are forced to make an emergency landing in Denmark.

An imposing English-French navy bombs Turkish fortresses at the entrance of the Dardanelles, which marks the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign.

The Germans gain some territory at Ypres.

The Austrian conquests, notably of Czernowitz, are followed by a successful counter attack of the Russians.

And in Rome the Germans do everything they can to keep Italy away from the allies, which is a special job for former chancellor Bernhard von Bülow.

Kaiser Wilhelm II is an unpredictable man, to which also Bernard von Bülow can testify. In 1917 he stood a good chance to succeed Von Bethmann Hollweg as chancellor. The latter was dismissed because he was too soft to the liking of the military. But Wilhelm did not want to have anything to do with Von Bülow, the man whom he had cherishingly called ‘my own Bismarck’ years before.

Von Bülow served the kaiser as chancellor nine years, from 1900 till 1909. It was the same Von Bethmann Hollweg who had come to take over from him in 1909. The liberal-conservative block that Von Bülow had managed to keep together for a long time, eventually came to grief on the budget. Von Bülow had very nearly been forced to pack his bags already a year earlier. The reason was a rather unfortunate interview his emperor had given to the London Daily Telegraph. Wilhelm had planned to talk firmly to the English. What got into their heads to refuse his gestures of friendship time over again. This made it very difficult for him to remain a good friend of England. The Prussian chest-beating transcended the British newspaper columns.

In England they were not amused. But in Germany the article was not welcomed either. Von Bülow wanted to take his responsibility for the diplomatic damage by resigning. The interview had been presented to him for checking, but he had put it aside on his desk because of busy work.

Von Bülow, however, had to stay. In parliament he subsequently said he was confident that the kaiser would understand that he had to express himself more prudently in future in order to avoid damaging the unity of policy and the authority of the crown. Wilhelm II would indeed keep quiet in the time to come, but the kaiser’s love for his chancellor was over.

Even before the Daily Telegraph affair Von Bülow had been very busy dealing with the impetuous kaiser, but in 1907 the chancellor himself was staring in the full glare of the spotlights. In a pamphlet a man called Adolf Brand had argued that the German chancellor was blackmailed with his homosexuality. Von Bülow started legal proceedings for defamation. Brand, who could not provide evidence for his statement, was convicted to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

The affair did not appear out of the blue. It was part of the scandal around Philipp zu Eulenburg, a confidant of both the kaiser and the chancellor. Another writer, Maximilian Harden, had painted a homosexual picture of the highest circles in the empire, with Eulenburg as the lecherous key-figure. At the end of his life none less than Bismarck himself was to update Harden over a glass of wine on the love for men which was rampant around the kaiser. According to Harden’s analysis it was small wonder that German foreign policy so hopelessly derailed with all those effeminate protagonists at the top.

It did not help publicity either that a senior military figure, Dietrich Graf von Hülsen-Häseler, had died of a heart attack in the presence of the kaiser when doing a little dance dressed in a tutu. Ottokar von Czernin, an Austro-Hungarian diplomat who was to become Foreign Minister in the second half of the First World War, saw the kaiser himself panic: ‘In Wilhelm II, I saw a man, who for the first time in his life, with horror-stricken eyes, looked upon the world as it really was.’

Wilhelm was hardly informed by Von Bülow about all the spicy innuendo in the press. It was Wilhelm’s son, the crown prince, who had to convince his majesty of the seriousness. Embarrassed by the situation, Wilhelm decided to dismiss Eulenburg. This is how a true anglophile was removed from the kaiser’s entourage, somebody who had repeatedly urged the kaiser to engage in friendly relations with England.

When Von Bülow took on the office of chancellor, he seemed to fit in perfectly with the selfish ambition of Wilhelminian Germany. As far as that is concerned he would certainly not come forward as the new Bismarck. After all the Iron Chancellor had adopted a conservative political attitude after the proclamation of the German Empire was announced in 1871. The new Germany had better guard the status quo on the European continent first. But the young kaiser, who had climbed on the throne in Bismarck’s later life, wanted more than just mind the store.

It was Von Bülow who expressed as foreign minister the ambitions of imperial Germany in 1897 as follows: ‘We wish to throw no one into the shade, but we demand our own place in the sun.’ Gone were the days when the Germans left the earth to one neighbour and the sea to the other, while they only kept the sky for themselves.

Germany’s Weltpolitik really took off in the beginning of the twentieth century. It was especially the spectacular build-up of the navy that testified to this. In Von Bülow’s  first year as chancellor the Germans also went to China to curb the Boxer Rebellion with a lot of fuss. In German Southwest Africa the German Imperialism of the days of chancellor Von Bülow showed its ugliest face. From Berlin kisses in the air were blown to the Boers in South Africa and to the muslims in the Ottoman Empire. But then Germany did support Austria-Hungary when it annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 at the expense of the Ottomans.

It is especially the German experience in Morocco which is of importance for the relations with the two biggest European powers on the world stage, Great Britain and France. In 1905 Von Bülow sees an opportunity to play a nasty trick on the eternal enemy France. The French have a problem in unruly Morocco, where the sultan tries to forward from under the shadow of Paris. A year earlier the French were more or less given a free hand by the English in Morocco. In exchange for this Paris promised London to relinquish any claim on Egypt. This bargaining forms the basis of the Entente Cordiale, the affectionate commitment between England and France

Von Bülow now hopes to drive a wedge between the two by promising Germany’s support to the Moroccan sultan. The climate is favourable as Russia, the closest ally of the French, is lying in the corner, knocked out after the defeat against Japan.

The kaiser himself may deliver the message. On 31 March 1905 he moors his yacht in Tangier. Von Bülow has arranged a beautiful white horse on which the kaiser can ride through the packed streets of Tangier. ‘I landed because you wanted me to in the interest of the Fatherland’, Wilhelm will later tell his chancellor. ‘I sat upon a strange horse despite the riding problems my disabled left arm causes, and I came within a centimeter of that horse taking my life. I had to ride against Spanish anarchists because you wanted me to and because it was your policy to gain from this.’

It was certainly not a masterstroke of Von Bülow. The international turmoil around Morocco resulted in the Algeciras Conference. It was decided that France could continue to consider Morocco as its protectorate. The German point of view on international control was only taken over by the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

In 1911 the Second Morocco Crisis takes place when German gunboat Panther enters the Moroccan port of Agadir. By then Von Bülow has already left as chancellor. And again Germany exits by the side door. England appears to stand foursquare behind France, which can also rely on Russia. After the pathetic Panther-leap of Agadir, Germany finds itself alone against the rest of Europe.

Einkreisung is the right word for this sentiment. In his time Von Bülow tried to escape this encirclement by strengthening the Dreibund. It is quite alright between two of the three, Germany and Austria-Hungary. The third partner, Italy, however, is not always in line. It even fails to inform both friends when it suddenly invades Tripoli in 1911. But the French appear to be at peace with the Italian presence in that part of North Africa.

This is an important omen, as at the outbreak of the First World War the Italians do not feel duty-bound to help their two Dreibund-partners. On the contrary, very soon Italy threatens to tilt over to the allied camp. In order to defuse this calamity, the German government calls on an ‘old’ veteran in the diplomatic profession, Bernhard von Bülow. During his time as chancellor he had been granted the title of prince, Fürst.

He is also married to a princess, who is a piano student of Franz Liszt. She is also of Italian descent. The German government hopes this will be an advantage in Rome. But the charm offensive fails. Von Bülow will not bring his diplomatic job as special ambassador to a successful end.

On 3 August 1914 Italy had emphatically declared itself neutral, but on 24 May 1915 it moves to the side of the allies in the war. Could this have been prevented? In any case, in the first months of the war Germany urges Austria to engage with Italy as constructively as possible. Rome develops a deep-rooted grievance against Vienna, which has to do with the Italian fight for freedom from the nineteenth century. The Austrians have thrown the necessary spanners in the works in that period. And then there are of course the terre irredente, territories in the Austria-Hungary empire that  according to the Italians belong to them. The allies will eagerly start accepting these claims.

From the beginning the Austrians trod cautiously on the eastern front, so there would have been strong arguments to stay friends with Italy. But ingenuity and a sense of reality happen to be scarce qualities in the circles around kaiser Franz Joseph. Vienna does not wish to pay a high price for Italian neutrality. Then Von Bülow of course will have to tell the Italian government that war with Austria-Hungary also means war with Germany. But this threat perishes in the nearly erotically charged desire for battle, which has meanwhile taken possession of the Italian people.

Would Bernhard Fürst von Bülow have looked back with satisfaction on a full political life when he died in 1929? It is difficult to imagine. During the Von Bülow years Germany got bogged down in international isolation deeper and deeper. What he sold as Weltpolitik, proved to be the prelude to a Weltkrieg.

Next week: Rosa Luxemburg

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

020 Kato Takaaki and a quick restoration of the peace

Kato Takaaki

Kato Takaaki

Japan strengthens its grip on China

It is Sunday 8 November 1914. It is the 20th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The British set up Room 40, a special branch for the deciphering of German codes.

SMS Emden goes down off the Cocos Islands and another German cruiser, Königsberg, is trapped in the East African Rufiji delta.

The Germans bomb Ypres after a failed attempt to force a breakthrough.

Austrian troops start a new invasion of Serbia.

General Christiaan de Wet and his Boer rebels flee in South Africa.

In a glowing speech Prime Minister H.H.Asquith announces that the British sword will not be put away until Belgium has recovered, France is safe, the position of the smaller nations is secured and the military dominance of Prussia is ended.

The Ottoman sultan Mehmet V calls on all Muslims to start a jihad, a holy war.

The Germans launch an offensive along the river Vistula with Warsaw and Lodz as destinations.

Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, former commander-in-chief of the British forces, dies 82 years old while encouraging the troops in France.

And the Japanese expand their power base in China after the conquest of the German colony of Qingdao, a masterplan of minister Kato Takaaki.

In its most banal form war is a cost-benefit analysis. Any student of the First World War will get the impression that the cost is weighed a bit lightly, certainly as far as human life is concerned, whereas the benefits are most disappointing, especially in the long run.

One country, however, settled 14-18 most efficiently: Japan. The politician who particularly managed to give his country a boost with minimal effort and loss, was called Kato Takaaki. Bearing the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz in mind, war was only a continuation of politics to a man like Takaaki.

The official number of Japanese soldiers killed in action is 415 at the end of the war, though there are estimates of about two thousand. The Japanese list of the dead of the First World War is in no comparison to the losses of their allies. It is in no comparison either to the number of two million Japanese soldiers to be killed in the Second World War. Civilian casualties were unknown to Japan between 1914 and 1918.

Kato Takaaki was Foreign Secretary in Prime Minister Okuma Shigenobu’s government. Shigenobu had been taught by a Dutch missionary. This Guido Verbeek had familiarised Shigenobu not only with the English language and the New Testament but also with the western ideas about a constitutional form of government.

Around the turn of the century Japan was in a straddle between tradition and modernity. Until 1853 only the Dutch had been allowed to make exceptions to the policy of closed doors. But the days of sakoku were gone. Japan had begun to develop into a modern capitalist nation at a great pace, although tradition appeared to be persistent. When in 1912 the last Meiji emperor died, a hero from the Russo-Japanese war committed harakiri. This general’s wife also cut her throat. A wave of emotion and enthusiasm washed over the country, meaning feudal Japan had far from disappeared behind the horizon.

In the beginning of 1914 the rising sun had collided with hard cash. The German firm of Siemens appeared to have paid bribes to the navy command. The people were furious and the fall of the government was inevitable. This Siemens scandal cleared the way for Kato Takaaki, who was taken with Anglo-Saxon thinking. The Sunday’s child had also been ambassador in London, after he had succeeded in marrying the eldest daughter of the founder of Mitsubishi. His tight relationship with this powerful company would later be held against him as a politician.

It was Takaaki’s objective to have cabinet and parliament dictate foreign policy. The power had to be taken away from the small elite of older people, the so-called genrō, for whom the friendship with England had had its day. To the traditional camp Germany seemed to be much more interesting as a sparring partner. Many officers had followed a Prussian training.

The good relationship with Great Britain already dated from long before the war. The Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 had mainly been aimed at keeping Russia in check. Three years later Japan felt compelled to settle that in a war with the empire of the tsar. Japan had won that battle with surprising ease.

After the victory against Russia, Japan managed to seize power over Manchuria in northeast China, just as it had extended its tentacles to Korea. But in 1911 the tide in China turned against Nippon. The anti-Japanese general Yuan Shikai had succeeded in overthrowing the Manchuria dynasty. So it was about time for Japan to play a new trick in China.

Likewise the British were worried about the urge for expansion of friendly Japan, but it was mainly the Americans who watched Japan suspiciously. It especially concerned China, whose door America wanted to keep open for free trade, whereas Japan rather saw China as its vast back garden. Many Japanese politician foresaw in the long run a decisive clash of the yellow and the white race. Pearl Harbour was to be the opening scene of this in 1941.

To the Anglophile Takaaki the British model implied imperialism. The war which set Europe on fire in 1914 offered him a chance in a million to start really working on this. Soon after the war had started Japan was requested by England to eliminate Maximilian von Spee’s German navy. Von Spee’s cruisers formed a threat to the allied merchant vessels and troopships. Japan had an imposing navy, the Kongo being their flagship.

Takaaki was there like a flash to declare war on Germany after an ultimatum. ‘Although I regret that Japan is forced to take up arms against Germany’, he declared, ‘I am pleased that the army and navy of our illustrious sovereign will show the same loyalty and courage with which they distinguished themselves in the past, so that all may be blessed by a quick restoration of the peace.’

Fine words, but meanwhile Takaaki went further than the British had in mind. Japan did not restrict itself to hunting Von Spee, but also had their eyes set on a series of German islands in the Pacific Ocean. The Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands and Caroline Island came under the flag of Japan without much of a fight.


The Japanese forces had to make more efforts for the German colony of Qingdao on the Chinese peninsula of Shandong. In 1898 the Germans had managed to get a 99-year lease from the Chinese. As the German empire was quite young, it had been late in speeding up its colonial ambitions. Initially Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chanchellor,  wanted to know nothing about it. But at the end of the nineteenth century Germany claimed its place in the sun. Qingdao was the German springboard to Asia.

Von Spee’s navy had already left its home base Qingdao before the outbreak of the war, but one garrison had stayed behind. It managed to hold its position against Japan’s superior strength for two months. General Kamio Mitsuomi went about it cautiously. He hatched an amphibian plan: an attack from the sea and across the land. In order to make the attack across the land work, he had to violate China’s neutrality. This was fine to the British, who added two battalions to the Japanese army of 60,000 men.

The Germans capitulated on 7 November. A day later an officer who had served in Qingdao stuck up for himself in a German newspaper: ‘We, here at home, will never cease to repeat to our children not to forget 7 November, not to forget to pay back  those yellow Asians, who have learned so much from us, for the huge injustice they have done to us. Even though they have been provoked as mercenaries by those narrow-minded English.’

With a new foot in the Chinese door, Kato Takaaki can put up a good show at home in Japan, even though the genrō keep on sulking. Takaaki manages to pull the initiative of diplomacy towards himself and catches oligarchy in his constitutional net. He can be held accountable for quite a confrontation with the pro-German Field Marshal Yamagata Aritomo.

In January 1915 Japan lays down a list of 21 demands in Beijing. Taken together they mean a considerable tightening of Japan’s grip on China. The European powers have had to remove their hands from the vast country. Eventually the Chinese will agree with 13 of the 21 demands. The indignation about this among the Chinese people is big, but Japan will also lose the sympathy of the United States. On 13 March 1915 the American State Secretary William Jennings Bryan presents a twenty-page memorandum to the Japanese ambassador in Washington. The warning to Japan is to refrain from ‘political, military and economic dominance over China’.


It is generally expected that the war in Europe will be over before Christmas. To a large extent this appears to be true for Japan in the Far East. The allied forces will begin to insist on sending Japanese troops to the European battlefields, but Tokyo will keep its distance as much as possible. Japanese ships leave for the Mediterranean to keep the dangerous U-boats under control, but that’s about it.

Japan’s economy is growing fast during the war, mainly thanks to orders placed by the allies and to the loss of a competitive merchant navy. Export to Great Britain and the United States doubles, but to China the Japanese export is four times as much and to Russia even six times. Yet inflation emerges at the end of the war resulting in rice revolts and the fall of the government.

The Russian October revolution also plays tricks on Japan. The Soviets refuse to pay off debts of the tsar. Participation of the Americans in the First World War is not cheered in Tokyo either. A more active role of the neighbour on the other side of the ocean is seen by Tokyo as a threat of Japanese interests. In September 1914 a general like Tanaka Giichi was still daydreaming of taking on the United States.

Whatever the case may be, in 1918 Japan is going to share in the flush of victory of the allies. In 1925, preferring diplomacy to aggression, Takaaki, who is now Prime Minister, makes a treaty with the Soviet Union. He also prepares general conscription and extends universal suffrage to men over 25 years of age. He dies in 1926 in office as a result of pneumonia at the age of 66.

Extreme militarism and nationalism are going to prevail, a development which Kato Takaaki could not stop in time. In his autobiography the Japanese statesman Yukio Ozaki, ‘Father of the Japanese Constitution’, blames this failure on all the favourable winds Takaaki had experienced in his life. ‘He allowed himself to think that he was a great man and could not imagine a side of life unknown to him.’

What happened to Qingdao? Well, it remained in Japanese hands until 1922. The Germans have never returned,  but the brewery they started there in 1903 has grown into the biggest of China.

Next week: Oskar Potiorek

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)






015 Carol I and a crowned night’s rest

Carol I

Carol I

Romanians pass by Hohenzollern

It is Sunday 4 October 1914. It is the 15th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Both warring parties in the west try to manoeuvre around each other as if they are involved in a Race to the Sea.

The allies in Cameroon take the initiative.

The German cruiser Emden is mooring on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Its inhabitants are not even aware there is a war going on.

Antwerp has to surrender to the Germans and British marines commanded by Winston Churchill hurriedly leave the town.

A new flood of a quarter of a million Belgian refugees starts to move towards France and the Netherlands.

The Austrian offensive in Galicia comes to a standstill.

The Boer general Manie Maritz sides with Germany, but other South African leaders such as Louis Botha and Jan Smuts remain loyal to the British.

The French general Ferdinand Foch takes on the defence of Flanders.

In the Pacific Ocean Japanese forces conquer the Marshall Islands, part of German New Guinea.

During the cabinet crisis in Italy war minister Grandi resigns.

And in Romania a native German breathes his last, king Carol I.

In the opening phase of the First World War it becomes painfully clear to the king of Romania that he and his people are not on the same line.

Carol I is of German descent, as betrayed by the architectural style of Peleș Castle, the summer residence which he had ordered to be built in the high mountains. Carol I even has Hohenzollern behind his name, just like the emperor of Germany. It is obvious then that Carol’s sympathy goes to the Central Powers, whereas the still young Romanian nation is to a large extent culturally influenced by France. Besides Romania has a disagreement with the German ally Austria-Hungary. This disagreement is called Transylvania. It is part of Hungary, but ethnically to a great degree Romanian. So a border readjustment would be quite welcome to Bucharest.

Without any publicity Carol has strengthened the bonds with Austria-Hungary in the preceding years. A treaty, secretly concluded in 1883, was prolonged in 1913 without ratification by parliament. In any case Vienna and Berlin count on Bucharest. But just like Italy Romania will not suit the action to the German word. We can only guess if this has initiated Carol’s death on 10 October 1914. There is no doubt, however, that this has spoilt his final days considerably. It is rumoured that he even thought of abdicating when he was 75, but his death came sooner anyway.

In August 1916 Romania will take part in the First World War after all, be it on the allied side. By then Carol I has been wrapped in eternal sleep within the monastery walls for a long time. The plunge into the global bloodbath receives the blessing of Ferdinand, Carol’s far less wayward successor. Just as Bulgaria chooses for the Central Powers because it wants Macedonia, Romania reports to the allied countries hoping to get Transylvania. It is land grab of a dubious nature. Leaders of government of second-class countries do not consider the European carnage as a reason to maintain neutrality. Romania will pay a high price when it is trampled underfoot by German boots, but in the end it will haul in the loot it has been after. In Versailles in 1919 Transylvania is transferred from Hungary to Romania.


Let us proceed now to the House of Hohenzollern, the one of the German emperor and the Romanian king. The name Hohenzollern reminds one of Prussia, but the cradle of the family can be found in the south of Germany. The castle of Hohenzollern is located high up near the town of Hechingen. After various illustrious kings of Prussia, Frederick the Great being the most prominent one, eventually in 1871 a Hohenzollern becomes emperor of the finally united Germany. It is Wilhelm I, grandfather of Wilhelm II. The Second Reich is born.

The first empire, the Holy Roman Empire, had existed for almost a millenium when Napoleon put an end to it in 1806. ‘Holy’ referred to the papal assent, which had not always been taken for granted. ‘Roman’ referred to the Romans. But the Holy Roman Empire was certainly not the powerhouse that had once been built in Rome. It was definitely not an empire, but a patchwork of small and slightly bigger states. An emperor was at the head. For the past few centuries it had always been someone  from the Austrian house of Habsburg. But the central power of this emperor, who was always elected by prince-electors, was limited.

The Holy Roman Empire had no uniform legislation. Each emperor imposed his own taxes. And there was no question at all of a united holy-roman army. The French philosopher of the Enlightenment Voltaire is the spiritual father of the apt characterization that the Holy Roman Empire was not Holy and not Roman and certainly no Empire.

After the Holy Roman Empire was shut down, the German discord remained intact for a considerable part of the nineteenth century. The call for German unification came, strange as it may sound, from left-liberal circles. Conservative forces held on to their  princedoms, which were often governed autocratically.

In this colourful German family the Prussian nephew got the upper hand in the nineteenth century. The proclamation of the Prussian king as German emperor in 1871 was the climax of this success story. Also the branch of the family that had remained closer to the South German cradle, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen region, had passed on its sovereignty to the distant relative in Prussia.

Then the throne in Spain had become available. Leopold, a Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was to be pushed forward by the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1870 as the new Spanish king. That will never happen, a German in Madrid, said the French emperor Napoleon III. All the fuss appeared to be enough for Leopold to give up Spain. But Bismarck was not interested in the vacancy in Madrid. The diplomatic conflict was to him a reason to start a war against France and to get all Germans under one banner after the Prussian victory, that of the Hohenzollerns.

Leopold had a brother who did become king four years earlier. That particular brother was Carol I. A cheering crowd of people greeted him in Bucharest in 1866. A nation in the making deserved a fresh monarch and Berlin had one on offer. It had been quite a job for Carol to reach Romania. In 1866 the war between Austria and Prussia was raging. Bismarck needed this war for his big plan, just as he had needed the war with the Danish two years earlier. In this Danish conflict Carol had taken an active part on the side of the Prussians and the Austrians. Then, in 1866, the two German tribes had fallen out with each other.

Therefore the German Karl Eitel Friedrich Zephyrinus Ludwig von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen had to make the train journey across Austrian territory incognito in order to settle at the head of Romania. The country had only four years earlier been formed from Wallachia and Moldova. Alexander John Cuza had centralistically carried through a series of liberal reforms in the style of Napoleon III. To the dissatisfaction of the middle classes and the large landowners his new Romania, however, gradually got into financial problems. Cuza was forced to sign his abdication as monarch, after which he disappeared into captivity.

In 1866, the year when Karl was welcomed as Domnitor and changed his name into Carol, Romania was still under the influence of the Ottoman Empire. The primacy of foreign policy was in Constantinople. This would be ended at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Bismarck convened this congress to reshuffle some cards in Europe after a war between the Russians and the Turks. Romania, which had secretly been rubbing against the Russians in the preceding years, presented itself afterwards as a fully fledged player on the world stage.

Carol I, whose Romanian troops had joined the Russian army, was recorded in history as the founding father of modern Romania. Now his popularity could use a shot in the arm. In the Franco-Prussian war he had submitted to Bismarck’s party. And even then this German predilection was not favourably received by all Romanians. Their language was not related to German but to French.

Meanwhile internally corruption was rampant. Despite an abundance of oil the country had not succeeded in building an infrastructure according to western standards. Without a doubt Bucharest had its charm, but there were slums everywhere along streets that had no pavements. There was an atmosphere of oriental lawlessness. Both men and women were dedicated users of cosmetics. The orthodox church allowed three divorces, as long as both parties were in agreement.

Carol, the German, must have felt a stranger in his own kingdom. What kind of man was he? Severe, conscientious and dutiful. According to his wife he slept with his crown on his head, but this must have been poetic freedom from her part. Elisabeth zu Wied, who was also of German descent, had a career as a poetess, whose pen name was Carmen Sylva. She easily wrote in German, Romanian, French and English. Elisabeth was an excentric character, who confided to her diary that a republic was to be preferred to a monarchy. She had been offered Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, as marriage partner, but the British heir to the throne had pushed her aside on the basis of photos shown to him.

The marriage to Carol which she then contracted was far from  happy, though towards the end of it they must have come to some sort of understanding. But they were complete opposites. Her only child Maria, lovingly called Mariechen, had died of scarlet fever at the age of three. Elisabeth had the admonition of Jesus from Luke’s gospel put on Mariechens grave: ‘Stop crying, for she is not dead, but asleep’. Romania’s throne was not to be granted to Maria anyway. The constitution from 1866 was generally speaking quite liberal, but only permitted succession by paternal descent.

It was Carol’s firm intention to anchor his dynasty tightly in Romanian soil. His brother Leopold’s son Ferdinand came on the screen for this purpose. At some stage Elisabeth decided to pair him off with Elena Vacarescu, one of her ladies-in-waiting. It turned into an affair, for the law required a monarch to find a wife outside Romania. For punishment Elisabeth was sent into exile in Germany. Ferdinand was to marry Marie of Edinburgh, a granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria.


A native German Carol I had led his Romanian subjects for no fewer than 48 years, sometimes with the utmost severity. The liberal reforms of his predecessor and the sympathy for social-democracy which his wife had felt were unknown to him. He had crushed a peasant revolt in Moldova in 1907 at the expense of thousands of lives.

In 1914 he could not get his people on his side on the road to Germany. Whatever way you look at it, this was finally a good moment to give in.

Next week: Sir Robert Borden

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


004 Sir Edward Grey and the charm of birds

Sir Edward Grey

Sir Edward Grey

British government hesitates in July crisis

It is Sunday 19 July 1914. It is the fourth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

King George V announces a conference to solve the Home Rule problem for Ireland.

Strikers at St Petersburg throw up barricades against the police.

French president Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani prepare to leave Russia.

Austria-Hungary lets this moment coincide with an ultimatum to Serbia. It must comply with ten demands within 48 hours.

After deliberating with big brother Russia Serbia decides to react to the demands as favourably as possible. It promises to take a firm line with anti-Austrian statements and groupings. 

Serbia, however, adds that it cannot comply with one particular demand. It will not allow Austrian government officials to hunt down the assassins of Franz Ferdinand on Serbian territory.

The Austrian ambassador in Serbia returns home and his emperor decides to mobilize.

Military commanders in Germany return prematurely from their summer holidays.

Yet an offer to arbitrate in the Austrian-Serbian conflict is made by the British government in the person of its foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey.

When on 23 July 1914 Austria-Hungary burdens the Serbians with an almost impossible ultimatum, in London Sir Edward Grey’s finest hour is supposed to come. Unfortunately the British Foreign Secretary tarries and tarries. Grey is a fervent flyfisher, but now that it comes to the crunch, he casts his bait into the water too late. He ventures to mediate, but neglects to make clear to the fighting cocks on the continent where England itself stands.

Suppose Grey had told France and Russia from the start: ‘Do not count on us, we have our hands full with Ireland ’. Would those two indeed have chosen to turn a blind eye after all while Austria slapped Serbia? Suppose Grey had said to Germany and Austria without hesitation: ‘You will upset the balance in Europe over my dead body. England is solidly behind France and Russia.’ Would Berlin have insisted much more strongly that Vienna should not bring things so much to a head?

He did not pull either scenario from the drawer of his desk. Grey’s indecision eventually cost him his reputation, even though he became especially famous because of that one oneliner. Staring from a window of the Foreign Office on the eve of the Great War, Grey is supposed to have said to a friend in a moment of lucidity: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

There is no British Foreign Secretary who served his Majesty longer than Sir Edward Grey. He took office under prime minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in 1905 and did not step down until David Lloyd George took over government from that other liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, at the end of 1916. No other European foreign minister had such a strong position of power in the preceding years.

Grey, who was a representative of the Liberal Party, descends from a family of office holders, among whom Earl Grey, later well-known because of the tea. Edward is the oldest of a family of seven. He is educated in Winchester and Oxford. In the pre-war years Grey proves to be a competent minister. In 1907 he signs for a détente in the hitherto strained relations of the conservative governments with Russia. For Grey it is certain that Russia is an indispensable factor in European politics for the balance of power. In Central Asia he agrees with the Russians on defining their mutual spheres of influence.

Grey also strengthens the bonds with France. When the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Marchand started an expedition to the upper course of the Nile, he called this an ‘unfriendly act’. But that was in 1895 when Grey was assistant foreign secretary. War with France was then still far from unimaginary. In the new century we see cordiality appear between London and Paris, though Grey as architect sees to it that this Entente Cordiale does not end in a straightjacket for the British, who after all are so attached to their splendid isolation.

In these pre-war days Grey, too, thinks that the greatest threat comes from Germany. He estimates that the Germans are seriously considering an invasion. The British foreign secretary is not unfamiliar with germanophobia. He assumes that during their holidays German officers are strategically mapping the British coasts. Grey’s policies, however, are not aimed at a military conflict with an economically vital Germany. The starting point is ‘containment’: Grey tries to keep Germany under his thumb by isolating it together with other superpowers, France and especially Russia.

His cautious manoeuvres and the resulting military obligations take place in an atmosphere of ‘hush hush’. War prime minister David Lloyd George for example complains in his memoirs about the inadequate intelligence from the Foreign Office during Grey’s term in office. ‘His striking physiognomy with the thin lips, the firmly closed mouth, and the chiselled features gave the impression of cold hammered steel,’ characterizes Lloyd George. ‘Add to this exterior the reticence of speech and the calm level utterance on the rare occasions when he spoke and you were led to expect imperturbable strength in an emergency.’

But Lloyd George painfully makes clear that during the July crisis of 1914 Grey fell short of expectations. Three years earlier, however, Grey had nicely lived up to his promise, when Germany and France collided again about Morocco during the Agadir crisis. The Germans despatched the gunship Panther to North Africa and escalation was imminent. Together with prime minister Asquith Grey preferred to warn Germany using bold language. This proved to be effective. Germany went into its shell. Grey however did not learn his lesson to act accordingly in recurrent matters.

It is generally assumed that Grey, who was cautiousness personified, did not anticipate the danger in that lovely summer of 1914. Great Britain was especially busy with the Home Rule matter: the Irish who want to break away from Great Britain. When during a cabinet meeting the shadow of the July crisis finally fell across the Irish matter, Winston Churchill described this moment as follows: ‘The quiet grave tones of Sir Edward Grey’s voice were heard, reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to the Serbians. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began to fall and grow upon the map of Europe’.

A week after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand the German ambassador arrives to point out to Grey that tensions might rise considerably. Grey is requested by Germany to admonish Russia to be calm. It is Grey’s choice to play the role of sympathetic mediator who now and then calls out to ‘…take it easy’, whereas he should have banged his fist on the table. Also on 23 July, the crucial day of the Austrian ultimatum, he loses valuable time. Yet he makes an attempt to prolong the 48 hours within which Austria expects Serbia to react, but this message is not received in Vienna.

In Berlin they still rather like Grey’s proposal for international mediation between Russia and Austria. After all it is not the German emperor’s aim to get involved in a large-scale conflict. He only wants to create the conditions for Austria to make short work of Serbia. This variant virtually goes down in history as ‘Halt in Belgrade’. Shortly before midnight of 25 July the German ambassador in London is charged to inform Grey that they are to talk about his mediation plan. Unfortunately Grey has already left London to spend the weekend on his estate.

So the wartrain thunders on and will eventually reach Sir Edward Grey’s station. Without consulting the British cabinet Grey directed some admonishing words, ‘entirely calm but very grave’, to the German ambassador on 29 July. Should the conflict between Austria and Serbia not be ‘localized’, it would not be ‘practicable’  for Great Britain to stay aside. Grey links this with the horrifying prediction that a war would be the ‘greatest catastrophe’ the world has ever seen. It is all too late. From Berlin the emperor and his chancellor are no longer able to assume control in Vienna. Later both Grey and his Russian colleague Serge Sazonov will put the blame for the escalation of the conflict on Germany.

When on 4 August Germany declares war on Belgium, England’s aloofness is also finished.  Grey did not connect Britain’s fate inextricably to Serbia, France or Russia, but Germany should keep its hands off neutral little Belgium. Historically Grey was proved right by a treaty from 1839, which had guaranteed the neutrality of the young Belgian nation. It was also signed Prussia. To Grey this treaty was a matter of honour, but the German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg is said to have dismissed this during a conversation with the British ambassador as a ‘scrap of paper’. In his memoirs Grey observed that even though the invasion of Belgium had been the reason to participate in war, his own premonition inspired him to help France in the first place.

During the war Grey gradually discovers that foreign policy can hardly withstand military dynamics. He works hard to strengthen the ties with France and Russia. It is agreed that neither of the three will strive for individual peace. You can also hold Grey accountable for the important London Pact of april 1915, according to which Italy sides with the allies. But he misinterprets the political mood in Turkey and Bulgaria who will join with the Central Powers. Neither does he succeed in winning over Greece and Romania for the allied cause fully and in time. His reputation which was so sparkling before the war has begun to do justice to his name, greyish.

When David Lloyd George becomes prime minister in 1916, Grey has to step down as foreign secretary for Arthur Balfour, who used to be prime minister for the Conservatives. That same year Grey joins the House of Lords as Viscount Grey of Fallodon. During the First World War he already makes out a case for the formation of a League of Nations, something which also the American president Woodrow Wilson will start promoting.

A diplomatic mission, which he leads in September 1919 in order to persuade the United States to accept the Treaty of Versailles, fails. Grey is British ambassador in the United States for two years. Meanwhile his eyesight deteriorates. In 1925 his memoirs are published under the title of Twenty-Five Years. In these memoirs he speculates about an English-American-German alliance to guarantee world peace. Another world war is to precede the realisation of this atlantic thought.

Before he dies in 1933 at the age of 71, childless after two marriages, one more important book of his is published: The Charm of Birds. Exactly! The other side of Sir Edward Grey is that of the ornithologist. It is a pity that he did not make a better study of the German eagle.

Next week: Jean Jaurès

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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)

Post Navigation