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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)






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)

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