Today marks the hundredth anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia; Friday will mark the hundredth anniversary of Serbia’s response, after which the outbreak of the First World War, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, became almost inevitable. In terms of the ongoing four-year centenary of the war, then, we’re right now embarking on the very climax of the July Crisis.
The ultimatum and its response are the second-most well-known thing about the July Crisis, after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand itself (which didn’t in fact happen in July, but on 28 June). So now, a hundred years and a few hours after Austro-Hungarian Ambassador Baron Giesl von Gieslingen placed the ultimatum on a table in the Serbian prime minister’s office because the Serbian finance minister, Lazar Paču, refused to accept it physically from his hands, I’d like to take a moment to examine them.
The received history of the July Crisis is that Serbia’s response to the ultimatum was one of almost total acceptance—that the Serbians capitulated on every point but one, and that Austria-Hungary’s decision to nevertheless break off diplomatic relations and mobilise their army is therefore proof that responsibility for the start of the First World War therefore lies with the warmongering, Teutonic leadership of the Central Powers and not at all with the Allies.
This is entirely false.
Serbia’s response was far more nuanced and far more equivocal than that:
The claim often made in general narratives that this reply represented an almost complete capitulation to the Austrian demands is profoundly misleading. This was a document fashioned for Serbia’s friends, not for its enemy. It offered the Austrians amazingly little. Above all, it placed the onus on Vienna to drive ahead the process of opening up the investigation in the Serbian background of the conspiracy, without, on the other hand, conceding the kind of collaboration that would have enabled an effective pursuit of the relevant leads.
In this sense it represented a continuation of the policy the Serbian authorities had followed since 28 June: flatly to deny any form of involvement and to abstain from any initiative that might be taken to indicate the acknowledgement of such involvement. Many of the replies on specific points opened up the prospect of long, querulous and in all likelihood ultimately pointless negotiations with the Austrians over what exactly constituted ‘facts and proofs’ of irredentist propaganda or conspiratorial activity by officers and officials. The appeal to ‘international law’, though effective as propaganda, was pure obfuscation, since there existed no international jurisprudence for cases of this kind and no international organs with the authority to resolve them in a legal and binding way.
Yet the text was perfectly pitched to convey the tone of voice of reasonable statesmen in a condition of sincere puzzlement, struggling to make sense of outrageous and unacceptable demands. … It naturally sufficed to persuade Serbia’s friends that in the face of such a full capitulation, Vienna had no possible ground for taking action.
In reality, then, this was a highly perfumed rejection on most points.
[All paragraph breaks in the above, except for the last one, have been added by me to make the passage readable on a computer screen.]
The myth that Serbia all-but-surrendered to Austria-Hungary’s demands is a comfortable one for us, because it allows us to construct a narrative whereby the Central Powers were set on war and we, the Allies, are aggrieved, attacked party (—a narrative we accept intuitively despite the fact that it was a terrorist attack upon Austria-Hungary that sparked the crisis in the first place). But that’s exactly why it’s important for us to reject it, so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking of the outbreak of the First World War as an act of morality (with, of course, our side being the moral side) rather than seeing it as what it was, an act of (amazingly ill-judged, as it turned out) statecraft.
There are wars with a legitimate good side and bad side, but there are far fewer of them than we like to pretend (because we like to pretend that all of our wars were just wars), and the Great War isn’t really one of them.
Note that I am not attempting to relieve Austria-Hungary or Germany of responsibility for the outbreak of war. It’s true that Serbia didn’t capitulate to Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum in the way histories often tell us they did; but that’s because the ultimatum was deliberately designed to be impossible to accept. The Austro-Hungarian government wanted war, and they gave Serbia an ultimatum that they felt had to be refused. The pro-war faction among the Austro-Hungarian government had ultimately won out because of the strong backing it had received from Germany, where the dominant voices were also pro-war.
But just as Austria-Hungary had German voices in their ears urging them to take a hard line with Serbia, so were Serbia and Russia buttressed in their resolve to oppose Vienna’s demands by France, whose foreign policy had for some time been controlled by the staunchly pro-war, anti-German President Raymond Poincaré. Indeed, French foreign policy had long ago identified a Balkan crisis as their most likely opportunity to bring Russia into a war with Germany—it was felt that if France instead provoked war over a specifically Franco-German conflict, like possession of Alsace-Lorraine or a colonial dispute in Africa, then the Russians would be unwilling to come along with them. The Central Powers were certainly guilty of warmongering in 1914, but just as much were the Allies.
The passage I’ve quoted above, discussing the Serbian response, is from The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, which I recommend for anyone who’s interested enough in the outbreak of the First World War to already have a picture in their head of how it came about. There are things in the book I’d need to read more about in order to accept them, like Clark’s statement that the Franco-Russian alliance was originally an anti-British, rather than anti-German, agreement, or that it was important to France and Russia to bring on a war in 1914 because the British Foreign Office was readying itself to shift Britain’s alignment away from the Entente and back to one of friendship with Germany. And there are things that are usually taken as important factors in the buildup to the war (like the Anglo-German naval rivalry) that Clark, evidently feeling they aren’t important after all, simply doesn’t mention. But the book is a thoroughly detailed, exceptionally well researched work of scholarship that went into a lot of details in areas I hadn’t known about before, and it left me thinking hard about a topic I thought I already had well hashed-out in my head.