Ultimatum to Serbia | 23 July 1914

The gathering storm is about to break. Today is the day of the ultimatum, the day when the July Crisis changes from being any old diplomatic dispute and becomes a proper twelve-story crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage, and an enormous sign on the roof, saying ‘This Is a Large Crisis’.

Franco-Russian summit

And a large crisis requires a large plan. But of course, the Entente governments are well aware that Austria-Hungary is planning to give Serbia a harshly-worded note this afternoon, immediately after President Poincare takes ship. And so, one of the last things to be discussed is what they should do about it. (Perhaps it would have been better if they’d just put their underpants on their head, two pencils up their nose, and said “Wibble”. If nothing else, it would surely have confused the hell out of the Central Powers.)

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The three governments

Viviani and Sazonov hold joint discussions with the British ambassador, Sir George Buchanan. Buchanan agrees to recommend that the British government do what the French and Russian governments are about to approve. Before the French leave Russia, all three ambassadors in Vienna will together present a diplomatic note to the Austro-Hungarian government. It will recommend that they act moderately and do nothing that might compromise Serbia’s honour or its independence. It’s precisely defined to interfere with the impending ultimatum to Serbia, and provide a “We told you not to…” should the situation deteriorate.

The entire Austro-Hungarian strategy for dealing with the assassination has now completely unravelled. They’ve failed to act quickly and deny opposing powers a chance to react to the situation. They’ve failed to keep their ultimatum a secret and lost any chance of wrong-footing anyone by delivering it after a period of calm. France and Russia have spent the last twenty days building up a counter-narrative to Austria-Hungary’s, one that entirely denies A-H any moral right to take serious action in response to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to their throne.

Perhaps it might have been better if their government had accepted what would have been a mildly embarrassing but mostly private climbdown, issued a more realistic memorandum, and cut their losses. Or perhaps it would just have led to war breaking out a little later, over some other crisis, in some even more horrible and deadly way. Who can say?

The ultimatum is delivered

The Prime Minister of Serbia, Nikola Pasic, is not at home to visitors. In fact he’s not at home at all, far away from Belgrade in Nis, ostensibly on the campaign trail for the upcoming Serbian election. His appointed deputy was the finance minister, Lazar Pacu.

So it is Pacu who has to stand in front of Baron Giesl and receive the ultimatum to Serbia. The government has exactly 48 hours to respond, at which point diplomatic relations will be broken off and Giesl will quit the country. Pacu refuses to read the note, stalling for time, eventually saying he can’t accept the ultimatum on his own authority. Giesl later said that his response was “Then I shall place it on the table, and you may do what you like with it.”

With the bottom threatening to drop out of his world (and possibly with the world threatening to drop out of his bottom), Pacu immediately gathers all the ministers left in Belgrade. They go through the document, point by point. Some preliminary discussion is had. The implications of the note are obvious to all. However, they can’t really do anything without the Prime Minister. In the meantime, the official response is that the demands are such that “no Serbian government could accept them in their entirety”.

Where’s Pasic?

Pasic, having received in the morning a telephone call from Pacu begging him to return immediately to Belgrade, has done something rather odd. He’s had his special train carriage put onto the back of a train to Salonika, allegedly intending to go to Greece for a short holiday.

Quite what he was playing at is entirely unclear. Count Berchtold has claimed in a message to Giesl that his sources, whatever they are, have told him that Pasic intended to resign immediately on receiving the note. We do know that in the summer of 1903, on being informed of the plot to assassinate the King and Queen that would bring him to power, Pasic responded by going to a seaside town in Austria-Hungary while the consequences shook themselves out.

We also know that in the event, the train stopped at Lescovac, and Pasic was given a telegram from Alexandar, the Prince Regent. After reading it, he eventually decided to return to Belgrade; but he’s far enough away that he won’t return until tomorrow.

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