Balkan diplomacy | 02 Jul 1914

The crisis continues to rumble nastily. First, to Vienna; then, into the recent past.

Count Berchtold

There is one thing that everyone in Vienna agrees on. They’ve got to send an official message to Berlin to ask the German government for backing. Austria-Hungary and Germany have been strong, long-standing allies for a long time. Serbia has cultivated Russian friendship. Backing from Germany will be important for any future diplomacy. If it’s not forthcoming, they’ll have a hard time bringing much pressure to bear on Serbia.

Berchtold puts his thinking cap on. How best can German support be obtained? He can’t just write an official message asking for it. Count Tisza, the Hungarian prime minister, would have to sign off on it, and Tisza is still urging caution.

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Malaya may remain mostly untouched by the war, but we will have a couple of reasons to drop in there that don't involve big game hunting.
Malaya may remain mostly untouched by the war, but we will have a couple of reasons to drop in there that don’t involve big game hunting.

Balkan diplomacy

Today is a day with few developments, so I’m going to have a go work out just why Berchtold and friends are being quite so damn punchy about all this. To do that, we have to look into recent events in the Balkans. (Again, this can be safely skipped past if you’re just looking for a pencil sketch of the crisis itself.) But basically, the July Crisis is merely the latest incident between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. There’s been quite a few of them recently.

The first point to note is Serbia’s alignment with France after the coup of 1903. A critical part of French Quay d’Orsay (the nickname for their foreign office) diplomacy was the provision of loans to smaller countries. This was usually for infrastructure improvements or military spending. Some of them came with caveats that they had to be used to buy goods from French companies. Once a state’s spending was based on the availability of French loans, whoever was in charge of the Quay d’Orsay (and often it was the Quay d’Orsay going into business for themselves) could then use the provision or withholding of further money to apply diplomatic leverage.

Balkan Wars

The second point is the fallout from the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. To grossly over-simplify things. In 1911 Italy attacked and occupied Libya, part of the Ottoman Empire, and nobody seemed interested in condemning them. This encouraged the Balkan states; and so Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro formed the Balkan League and attacked the Ottomans’ last remaining European holdings in 1912. They achieved surprising success and very soon had captured everything except the barest strip of territory on the European side of the Bosphorus, and the Gallipoli peninsula.

Bulgaria and Serbia then fell out after Serbia occupied territory that had been promised to Bulgaria, and refused to leave. (It is often much easier to put an army somewhere than it is to make it go away again once they’re there.) The subsequent war in 1913 saw Serbia kicking Bulgaria in the nuts, right as Romania whacked them over the head from behind, and the Ottomans crept a little way back into Europe while nobody else was looking.

What does any of this have to do with Austria-Hungary? Well, many of the opinion-formers were, unsurprisingly, not too happy to see Serbia enlarging itself. (Let’s remember the importance of Greater Serbia rhetoric. The only way that can be achieved is at the expense of the Dual Monarchy.) Serbia had recently been enjoying support from Russia. In late 1912 and early 1913 there was a protracted partial mobilisation crisis, as Russia activated troops and sent them to the Austro-Hungarian border. (Incidentally, Russia only had a plan for a full mobilisation of its army and had to improvise the partial mobilisation as they went along. Hold that thought; we’ll be coming back to it at the end of the month.)

It was Austria and Count Berchtold who blinked first in that crisis, and this was seen as a humiliation. The practical upshot was that Russia had broken ties with Bulgaria, strongly supported Serbia, and severely damaged Austro-Hungarian prestige. I hate that phrase and try to use it as little as possible; but these people all believed firmly in the concept of national prestige, and it was very important to them. (The Germans, incidentally, promptly stepped in for a little financial diplomacy of their own with Bulgaria, of which more later.) Russia had also become aligned with Romania, and Romania was very interested in occupying all of Transylvania…

This all makes my brain hurt, a lot, so I’ll stop there. The practical upshot is that Serbia is closely aligned with Russia, and Austria-Hungary feels deeply embarrassed by the events that made it happen. They’re also very concerned by the frequent Serbian fulminating in favour of a Greater Serbia. And now Serbs with strong links to important Serbian government officials have just assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

Assassinations and ultimatums

Two more things. In 1910, a Herzegovinan Serb connected to another of the various secret societies tried and failed to assassinate the governor of Bosnia. One of the guys who bottled killing Franz Ferdinand had at the start of 1914 been assigned to assassinate General Potiorek, but also lost his nerve, and ran away. (That attempt was, AFAIK, unknown to the A-H government.) However, the point remains. Taking a deeply uncharitable viewpoint, such as currently exists in Vienna, Serbs have previous when it comes to assassination attempts.

Finally for today, there’s one more lesson from the Balkan Wars. Part of the general dispute was that Serbia was occupying Albanian territory. The situation rumbled on, in the face of widespread international acceptance that Serbia was in the wrong, until the Austro-Hungarian government issued Serbia with an ultimatum. Pull out within eight days, or else it’s war. Serbia accepted the demand, and in so doing showed the potential effectiveness of a well-deployed ultimatum.

We’re not nearly done with this theme, incidentally. This is just recent diplomatic events from the perspective of Austria-Hungary and Serbia, with a small hint of Russia thrown in! This is why there’s been tens of thousands of books written about the July Crisis, you can just go on and on and on. Even I can find an interesting angle buried somewhere in this mess of feuding politicians – it’s in the Serbian people’s oral tradition and how that played into the development of irredentism and dreams of Greater Serbia. Sadly, we don’t really have the time to explore it here…

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July Crisis

Further Reading

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(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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