Carte blanche for Austria-Hungary
5 July 2014
A Century of Industrialized Warfare:
Germany Signals Support for Austria-Hungary
One hundred years ago this 5th of July, a letter from Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, carried by Count Alexander Hoyos, was delivered to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Hoyos, like many Austrians, wanted to see the Serbs punished for the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and is supposed to have said of the ultimatum issued to Serbia by Austria-Hungary, “…the demands were really such as to make it really impossible for a state with any self respect and dignity to accept them…” Franz Josef’s letter was discussed by the Kaiser and the Austrian Ambassador to Germany, Count L. de Szögyény-Marich. No documents survive from this meeting, but this was the occasion of the famous “blank check” given by Germany to Austria-Hungary, that Austria-Hungary could “rely on Germany’s full support” in any actions taken in relation to the “Sarajevo outrage.” Later the same day the Kaiser reviewed his assurances to Austria-Hungary with Bethmann Hollweg, Moritz von Lyncker, chief of Wilhelm’s military cabinet, and Erich von Falkenhayn, Prussian War Minister, who concurred with the Kaiser’s support for Austria-Hungary. This was not a hasty decision taken in isolation, but a matter discussed and reviewed at the highest levels of government.
The next day, a Telegram from the Imperial Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, was sent to the German Ambassador at Vienna, Heinrich Leonhard von Tschirschky und Bögendorff (15 July 1858 – 15 November 1916), which read as follows:
Berlin, July 6, 1914
Confidential. For Your Excellency’s personal information and guidance
The Austro-Hungarian Ambassador yesterday delivered to the Emperor a confidential personal letter from the Emperor Francis Joseph, which depicts the present situation from the Austro-Hungarian point of view, and describes the measures which Vienna has in view. A copy is now being forwarded to Your Excellency.
I replied to Count Szögyény today on behalf of His Majesty that His Majesty sends his thanks to the Emperor Francis Joseph for his letter and would soon answer it personally. In the meantime His Majesty desires to say that he is not blind to the danger which threatens Austria-Hungary and thus the Triple Alliance as a result of the Russian and Serbian Pan-Slavic agitation. Even though His Majesty is known to feel no unqualified confidence in Bulgaria and her ruler, and naturally inclines more toward our old ally Rumania and her Hohenzollern prince, yet he quite understands that the Emperor Francis Joseph, in view of the attitude of Rumania and of the danger of a new Balkan alliance aimed directly at the Danube Monarchy, is anxious to bring about an understanding between Bulgaria and the Triple alliance […]. His Majesty will, further more, make an effort at Bucharest, according to the wishes of the Emperor Francis Joseph, to influence King Carol to the fulfilment of the duties of his alliance, to the renunciation of Serbia, and to the suppression of the Rumanian agitations directed against Austria-Hungary.
Finally, as far as concerns Serbia, His Majesty, of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence. The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.
This isn’t quite the “smoking gun” that we would like to see, but it is clear enough is asserting that the Kaiser, “will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary,” and it also demonstrates a certain degree of prescience in “Serbian Pan-Slavic agitation” — which would, eventually, bring Russia in the fray.
In the run up to the First World War, this blank check given to Austria-Hungary by Germany was one of the pivotal triggers of the July Crisis. Although I don’t want to undermine the assertion that the assassination in Sarajevo was a trigger of the First World War, I would insist that it was a trigger and not the trigger, and it would be just as profitable, from an historiographical perspective, to consider a sequence of triggers of which the assassination was the first. In other words, there is not single, unique trigger for the First World War, but a sequence of escalating triggers, each contingent upon the preceding the the following trigger for the events of 1914 to eventually pass the threshold of openly declared war and thus to become the first global industrialized war.
This sequence of triggers might as well be called a continuum of triggers, and we might plausibly select and argue for any arbitrary point along the continuum as the crucial trigger that made the whole of the First World War possible. To recognize a continuum of triggers, one following another, is to understand that the triggers occur in the context of structure forces that make it possible for the trigger to be a trigger. If the structural forces, both local and global, and causes both short-term and long-term, were not already in place, the trigger would have come to nothing. The understand the origins of the First World War, then, one must attempt to understand the whole of the European system on the even of the First World War, because it was the entire military, political, diplomatic, and social system of the time that was ultimately the “cause” of the First World War. Let us, then, consider a little more context in order to make sense of the outbreak of the First World War.
Europe has a long history of descent into shockingly violent fratricidal warfare, followed by a period of reflection, in which social and political measures are taken in an attempt to prevent another similar outbreak in the future. This pattern is not limited to the twentieth century. The Hundred Years’ War witnessed several cycles of political violence followed by uneasy peace, the Thirty Years’ War was a particularly brutal nadir, though the settlement of the Thirty Years’ war resulted in the nation-state international system we have today, and eventually a reaction against superstition and religious absolutism that we call the Enlightenment (which I discussed yesterday in The Right of the People to Alter or to Abolish). After the series of Napoleonic Wars that drew in most of Europe, the victors — or perhaps I should say the survivors — as always sought to construct an international order that would prevent political violence on this scope and scale from again breaking out.
One of the results of the settlement of the Napoleonic Wars was the emergence of Belgium as an independent kingdom. This was a process that began with the Belgian Revolution in 1830, which led to the 1830 London Conference in which Europe’s major powers recognized the independence of Belgium on the condition of strict Belgian neutrality. The Dutch didn’t sign on to the Treaty of London until 1839, so that the formation of Belgium as we know it today required about ten years of political negotiations. Belgium has been called “the crossroads of Europe” as so many armies have marched across its territory — the Battle of Waterloo was fought in what is now Belgium — and it was thought, in the best tradition of European good intentions, that a Kingdom of Belgium formally committed to neutrality would contribute to ongoing balance of power politics that would prevent (or, at least, hamper) any one of the great powers from causing the kind of trouble that Napoleon caused for the other European powers. In fact, German violation of Belgian neutrality in August 1914 became an additional trigger that brought England into the war on the side of France.
In 1914, the whole of Europe was predicated upon a war that all the great powers expected, but no one knew exactly when or where or how it would start. Europeans had been expecting and planning for a war between the great powers literally for generations. The attempts to create an international order that would make war less likely ironically created a climate in which the whole of Europe was primed for war, prepared for war, and ready to go to war on a moment’s notice. The international system as it existed in the Europe in 1914 was not, appearances to the contrary, a stable and peaceful equilibrium into which a random and arbitrary trigger brought death, misery and suffering on an unprecedented scale. Rather, the period between the Napoleonic wars and the First World War was more like the Cold War — a peace not worthy of the name, so we call it something else. All through the Cold War we lived in fear of a random, arbitrary trigger that would mean a massive nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union. Fortunately, this did not occur, but if it had occurred, it would not have occurred in a vacuum. A match can light a fire only where tinder and fuel are ready to hand.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
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