The rising prominence of Serbia due to its victory in the Balkans War; and its independent spirit fighting for the rights of South Slavs had long frightened the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. While the peaceful nature of the Kaiser, the emperor Franz Joseph, and his nephew Franz Ferdinand restrained the bellicose intentions of some part of the Austria-Hungarian government and their ally, Germany, after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand nothing could have prevented the war with Serbia. Although the Dual Monarchy attempted to furnish the invasion of Serbia as a retribution war to revenge for the death of their future monarch, they gave away their truly occupational intentions with a series of actions. They included such as late marching off and a rather categorical memorandum.
According to the Hypothesis I of a General Theory of War, “in systemic anarchy, the single most robust predictor of state behavior is the balance of power” (Magagna, 2015). Explaining the situation in Europe in the summer of 1914 in his book Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?, the historian David Fromkin (2004) says: “Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina upset the fragile balance of power in the Balkans” (p. 72). After the Dual Monarchy had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, Serbia reacted very vehemently and frightened Austria that it could have wanted to expand (Fromkin, 2004, p. 71). In this situation, Germany saw its chance to dispose of an enemy represented by the growing power of Russia. After having used to be allies in the nineteenth century, Germany and Russia became rivals. The victory of Serbia in the Balkans Wars and its desire to gather other Slavic countries together made possible an increase in power of the Balkan states, “the equivalent of a new Greater Power” united by Slavic origins and Greek Orthodoxy (Fromkin, 2004, p. 95). The role of Russia in this situation was eminent. Being infamous for a mysterious Russian soul and its enormous size, Russia was becoming stronger due to its industrialization and financial support of France. Germany feared the Russian growth in power and needed Austria to stay powerful. In its turn, Austria felt threatened by Serbia’s expending intentions. All that created an explosive situation that resulted in the First World War.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an heir to the Hapsburg throne, and his consort Sophia were killed during a state visit to Sarajevo (Fromkin, 2004, p. 136). The Dual Monarchy believed that Serbia was involved into this terrorist act. Germany saw its chance to convince Austria-Hungary to launch a quick retribution war against Serbia to teach them a lesson and, thus, strengthen their positions in Europe. The major premise was that they had to act quickly before European countries could react and protect Serbia. In fact, the majority of politically conscious people in Germany and Austria found the assassination of the heir quite a convenient crime. It would be a great pretext to clamp down on presumptuous Serbia. On the surface, the murder was a tangible reason to react in a military way. By killing the Hapsburg heir “upstart Serbian terrorists threw down a public challenge to the very existence of the empire” (Fromkin, 2004, p. 153). Therefore, Austria had to respond. This argument was used in negotiations between the Austria-Hungarian government and Germany promising to support each other against Serbia and its ally, Russia, if it chose to intervene.
However, in its core, the aggression of Austria against Serbia was not the act of retribution. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand played a curious role in igniting the conflict. On the one hand, it was a pretext to launch an offense, but on the other, his death made it possible because the heir was one of those who had been opposing to the warlike actions against Serbia. Therefore, Count Leopold von Berchtold, the foreign minister of Austria and Hungary, who was in charge of war with Serbia, had to play the conflict as if it was the war of retribution. However, when Berchtold presented the memorandum for the Kaiser it had been composed before the assassination. Not using the word war its conditions were so humiliating for Serbia that no other outcome came to mind apart from war aggression (Fromkin, 2004, p. 155).
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand stunned so much the emperor Franz Joseph and the German emperor Wilhelm II that they agreed to precede with a vengeful plan against Serbia. The Kaiser gave Austria-Hungary a carte blanche, an unconditional support in their actions against Serbia. It was warning that it would be done quickly; otherwise, it would not look like a passionate revenge (Fromkin, 2004, p. 157). The time worked in their favor as it was summer and European statesmen, officials, and royal families usually took to the seaside for their summer vacation. It would make any negotiations in the support of Serbia more difficult.
According to the theory of conflicts, the opposition of Germany and Russia was an objective conflict. They were “mutual potential hegemons in Central and Eastern Europe” (Magagna, 2015). However, Austria’s conflict with Serbia was contingent and depended on some historically specific paths (Magagna, 2015). The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was declining. Apart from Serbia’s rising minor power as an external threat, the Dual Monarchy had been torn in internal conflicts among ethnic groups and their desire for secession. Therefore, the Austrian government had to be sure of its power in order to start war; otherwise benefits of war would not exceed its costs. Only the support of Germany could make Austria-Hungary strong enough to begin the conflict of retribution. After Vienna promised its military support and provided a signed agreement, the Austrian-Hungarian government could commence hostilities.
One of the prerequisites for the act of retribution is a quick launch. In case of Serbia, it had to be three weeks at the most. Both Austria and Germany had a misperception about that war believing that it would be short (Magagna, 2015). However, Berchtold lost much time in a preparation stage; and the Austrian’s actions did not look as a revenge for the assassination any more. Count Istvan Tisza, the Hungarian Prime Minister, was against the war. He feared it would involve Russia and cause a world war. Berchtold had spent a week persuading him. With the revised memorandum most ready to be sent to the Serbs, on July 14, Berchtold found out the following fact. The Austrian army was on a leave of absence to harvest crops until July 25. Later, it would need some time to get ready (Fromkin, 2004, p. 168). In total, Berchtold realized that the attack would be possible before August 12, which was too late (Fromkin, 2004, p. 169). Eventually, Berchtold’s decision was to present the memorandum to the Serbs on July 23 at 5 o’clock in the morning. Such actions left very little time for discussions and demanding an answer on July 25 (Fromkin, 2004, p. 178).
The note to be delivered to the Royal Serbian Government was composed in such a manner that it would be nearly impossible for them to accept it. Berchtold’s ultimate goal was to crush Serbia. Therefore, the conditions of the note eliminated Serbian independency. Upon receiving it, the Serbian Cabinet of Ministers began urgently demanding the support from other European countries for negotiations. Austria stubbornly did not want to allocate more time to allow Serbia a room for negotiations. Meanwhile, Russia did not advise it any violent motions in this situation as the Russian government had not felt enough powerful to be involved into another war and suggested a compliant behavior on Serbia’s part. The only supporting action the Russian Council of Ministers carried out was to decide to request the Czar’s permission for the partial mobilization (Fromkin, 2004, p. 190). Therefore, the Serbs realized that they were alone against the Austrains. Although, wishing at first to decline the Austrian note, the Serbian government eventually accepted all conditions except one. However, for Berchtold, the exact wording of the Serbian response did not matter. He did not want any bargains as his intention was to destroy Serbia economically and politically. In fact, when preparing the memorandum Berchtold had received the following information. There was no evidence linking the killings of June 28 to the Serbian government. Nevertheless, he did not reconsider his decision to commence hostilities against Serbia.
Believing that they were doing it right and with Germany’s support they would conquer Serbia, the Austrian government proceeded with its aggressive plan. However, at that point, the Austrians could have called off the war. On July 27, the Kaiser gave orders to his government to stop supporting the Austria-Hungarian aggression against Serbia but the cabinet did not comply (Fromkin 2004, p. 263; 284). Fromkin (2004) claims that it could have been “a dazzling diplomatic triumph for German-speaking allies” as peace would be advantageous for Austria, while “Serbia would have been severely punished” (p. 284). Fromkin (2004) also remarks that the unanimous consent between Austria and Germany had contributed to the war with Serbia (p. 289). Usually, allies withhold each other from unwise actions, as it was the case with Germany’s bellicose intentions in Morocco in 1911, which Austria did not support (Fromkin, 2004, p. 289). However, in the case with Serbia, Vienna and Berlin acted unanimously. After preparing all the necessary things for declaring the war Berchtold acted upon the order of Gottlieb von Jagow, the foreign minister of Germany in order to do in such a way.
Given the Austrian government’s delay in declaring the war on Serbia, the German government realized as follows. It would lead to a massive war with other European countries and seize its chance to square accounts with Russia. Both countries were under the illusion that they needed to strike first in order to win, i.e. Austria against Serbia and Germany against Russia. That is the reason why Berchtold did not want to participate in any negotiations or conversations about any bargains from Serbia. He considered that the Austrian benefits from the war would be positive and did not want to regain the status-quo. Therefore, Berchtold stepped over the tipping point (Magagna, 2015). However, the fact that Austria took its time in preparing for the war made it possible for Germany to take its lead.
Announcing mobilization the Austrian government intended to send one part of its army to fight the Serbians and the other one to leave as a reserve and additional support of Germany if needed. However, after the Austrians declared the war on Serbia on July 28, the Germans did this on Russia on August 1 (Fromkin, 2004, p. 284). Thus, the intentions of both countries were mutually exclusive. Each state needed the support of another one to win its war. Therefore, feeling more powerful, Berlin ordered Vienna to return with its army close to the Russian borders.
However, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian Chief of Staff, had long desired to attack Serbia and decided that he could quickly finish the Austrian aggression against the Serbs and return back the German army. Fromkin (2004) remarks that such thoughts reveal that Conrad was oblivious to Germany’s true intentions (p. 300). At first, the country intended to keep the European states from interfering into the Austrian-Serbian conflict. However, they were seeing their chance to launch a conflict against Russia, and the German generals changed their heart and required Austria to back them in this (Fromkin, 2004, p. 300).
Thus, Germany’s attitude towards the Austrian war demonstrated that Berlin did not see Serbia as a threatening element. It implied that Austria could return to its war after the score with Russia would be settled. Fromkin (2004) says that for the Dual Monarchy, “The message was: devote yourself to our war, because it is the important one, and postpone your war, which is unimportant, until we are in a position to turn our attention to minor matters” (p. 273). Without Germany’s military support General Conrad nonetheless decided to attack Serbia, still believing that he would do it in no time. Attempting to win some time and create an illusion of backing the Germans, Conrad sent his soldiers to the south instead of north. It created “mislocations and dislocations”; and the Austrian army turned out too weak to win (Fromkin, 2004, p. 301). The Austrians lost the war with the Serbians and joined the German army in fighting Russia.
In playing against Serbia, the Austrian government chose a deceitful policy using a righteous cause of revenging the assassination of their future heir as a smoke screen to hide their real intentions regarding Serbia. Being afraid of the aggressive mood of Serbia the Dual Monarchy anticipated the redistribution of the Great Powers in Europe and wanted to prevent it by attacking first. Therefore, the Austrian government had long been scheming against Serbia. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was like a gift from above because it gave the Austrians not only a pretext to begin reigning Serbia in. However, it also removed the person who had used to quench all aggressive intentions against this country. Berchtold had composed the memorandum two weeks before the killings of July 28; Conrad had been plotting against Serbia long before the declaration of war. They both did not want any bargains and saw the solution of the crisis only in the complete demobilization of Serbia. Only Serbia completely erased from the political map of Europe would do this. However, the foot dragging of the Austrian government changed the situation. Germany seized its chance to substitute the Serbian war for the conflict with Russia. Fromkin (2004) has called the actions of Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff and Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the General Staff, “an unprecedented act of political hijacking” for turning around the Austria-Serbian war and applying it to their own purposes against Russia and France (p. 291).
Thus, the Austrians were left without Germany’s military support against their promise of the carte blanche. It caused Conrad’s army to lose the battle and run the Austrian-Serbian war into stalemate. Although the Dual Monarchy attempted to furnish the invasion of Serbia as the retribution war, they in fact intended to erase the country from the European political life. Believing that they could have a quick victory with the support of Germany, Austria had lost when the Germans pulled off to fight its own war with Russia.