Count Berchtold | 30 Jun 1914

Having yesterday looked at the most important Serbian figure of the crisis, prime minister Nikola Pasic, today we’ll head to Vienna and do the same thing for Count Berchtold, foreign minister of Austria-Hungary.

War! War! War!

Speaking some time later, this is how Berchtold summarised the advice given to him in the days immediately following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. (It particularly refers to the attitude of the chief of the army, General Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, of whom more later.) Over the past couple of days, Berchtold has received an endless parade of subordinates, official reports, sycophants, and hangers-on. The vast majority of them are all urging war with Serbia as soon as possible.

Even the joint finance minister, Leon Bilinski, who before the assassination had gone to considerable lengths to lobby for calm and encourage a better relationship with Serbia, is joining the cavalcade. One of the few important voices at this stage who still urges caution is the prime minister of Hungary, Count Tisza, but he’s in a definite minority. Berchtold is, for the most part, hearing only one word with three letters.

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Berchtold and Franz Joseph

And, when he has an audience with his boss, those are the sentiments he brings to him. He may not have outright been advocating for war at this stage, but he certainly does talk at length about the need to take tough action. (In a little while, we’ll be looking at some more potential reasons for why he came to take this line.)

Berchtold recalls Franz Joseph being in broad agreement with him, but he does throw in an annoying curveball. Any further action in dealing with the crisis must first be agreed with Count Tisza. It’s a prudent step, but it’s still a potential brake on Berchtold’s desire to act quickly and firmly. More to come…

Tisza and Conrad

Count Tisza is not necessarily opposed to tough measures, but he is worried about the consequences of doing so without a good reason. He’s also deeply concerned about the position of Romania if it should come to war. Transylvania is currently split between both countries. And naturally, both of them believe that all of it should be theirs. Romania is closely aligned at the moment with Serbia (and with Russia), and Tisza wants to be sure that war with Serbia doesn’t also mean trouble in Transylvania.

Meanwhile, General Conrad von Hotzendorf has estimated that it would in any case take about sixteen days to fully mobilise the army for war with Serbia. This is, to say the least, a ridiculous under-estimate. However, it does give Berchtold a little room to think and to see how the situation will develop.

What the hell is Austria-Hungary, anyway?

OK, that’s the bare minimum for today. I’m now going to delve very slightly deeper into exactly what Austria-Hungary is. To modern eyes, it’s rather a strange concept. If you don’t really care about what Austria-Hungary was, or how it functioned, feel free to click “next” and move on to tomorrow. For anyone else; the Austro-Hungarian Empire, sometimes known as the Dual Monarchy, is an extremely odd concept to wrap one’s head around. Let’s see if I can do it with anything even approaching brevity.

The monarch, Franz Joseph, is at the same time Emperor of Austria (and her possessions) and King of Hungary (and her possessions). Austria and Hungary are both officially of equal status and the Dual Monarchy is based around a constitutional agreement and a customs union that each must be renegotiated every ten years. Franz Joseph himself doesn’t have absolute power, but the constitution gives him the ability to take an active and extensive role in government. However, he’s mostly been content to take people’s advice and to allow them to act in his name. A semi-constitutional system has developed over the course of his long reign.

Both Austria and Hungary have national parliaments, cabinets, and prime ministers. Individual regions within both states also have their own parliaments and local governments. The regions mostly have names that are now long-gone from the map of Europe. Trentino, Tyrolia, Bohemia, Galicia, Dalmatia. Austria itself is often referred to as “Cislethania”. The empire includes a vast mass of different ethnicities. It has fifteen major languages and more smaller ones. It’s a bizarre mix of contradictions and tensions that somehow manages to function, sort of, mostly by making it up as it goes along.

There is no joint imperial political structure or treasury. (We’ll look at the army in a little while.) There’s something called a “Common Council”, which is kind of like an imperial cabinet and kind of not. Due to all this, there’s here’s ample opportunity for power to flow to unexpected places. Ambitious individuals can, by hard work, good connections, and a little luck, carve out a power-base for themselves. Although they hold theoretically junior positions, they can exert considerable influence on wider policy.

Where does Berchtold fit in?

The only joint imperial ministers are the civilian war minister, the head of army finances, and the foreign minister. That last is the post that Berchtold currently holds. All this makes the state sound like a complete basket case, but again, that’s too simplistic. The constitution was flexible enough to keep the economy moving and the population fed despite the frequent political ructions. For the past twenty-five years, the empire’s economy has been growing, and Hungary in particular has developed considerable industries.

It’s certainly possible to make a case that Austria-Hungary was a creaky empire on the point of collapse, but it’s also possible to paint it as something that was uniquely placed to evolve in response to a changing world had the chips fallen slightly differently. This is a Matter of Some Debate that will likely never be settled…

Actions in Progress

Austria-Hungary reacts to the assassination

Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

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

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