The Austro-Russian clash of interests in the Balkan Peninsula would mean a local war becoming international. Russia’s aims in the Balkan Peninsula (after the Russo-Japanese war) dealt with controlling the Straits which were vital for Russian trade and her status as a European power. And their duty as a “Slav brother” was to liberate the Balkan Christians from Turkish oppression and create their respective independent Slav states under Russia’s control. Russia therefore was encouraging Slav nationalism, which directly threatened the multinational Hapsburg Empire. And just as Russia’s prestige was at stake, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in jeopardy.
Serbia can be seen as having mismanaged the crisis because her aim of maintaining peace was not achieved. But Austria-Hungary’s deliberate and cold-blooded decision of making war was not mismanaged, but a very precise manipulation of the circumstances. Upon 28 June, the Serbian national day, Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, visited Sarajevo in order to demonstrate Austrian firmness on the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The date chosen could have been selected at random or also could have been chosen deliberately to alarm the Serbs and let them know that their days of Pan-Slav dreams and the creation of Yugoslavia are not to be realised. Prior to this day, the Serbian government warned the Austro-Hungarian government of a possible attack by a terrorist group but the Austrian government did not give too much importance to this. On this day Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and this would present Austria-Hungary with an opportunity to pursue their objective. Austria was deliberately looking for a reason to eliminate the Pan Slav threat.
The reluctance to make a quick decision changed the whole situation. The Austrian responsibility for the outbreak of war may be all the greater because of her delay in responding to Franz Ferdinand’s death. Every nation was shocked; even Russia was shocked at what had happened. Upon 5 July, Berchtold consulted the Kaiser and his Chancellor. Bethmann-Hollweg showed support by giving Austria-Hungary the “blank cheque,” or unconditional support. It then took Austria three weeks to draft the ultimatum that would be presented to Serbia. But three weeks later, the murder of Franz Ferdinand was no longer a burning grievance, which would now have dire consequences.
The government of Austria-Hungary was willing to declare war even without drafting an ultimatum. Count Tisza, the Hungarian Prime Minister, wanted to avoid “the terrible calamity of a European War” and therefore demanded an ultimatum of demands to the Serbian government. The Dual Monarchy accepted this idea, but Berchtold made the demands extremely difficult to accept so that Serbia would either lose its independence to Austria or go to war with the Hapsburg Empire. The ultimatum was so harsh that it was seen as a prelude to war by many Europeans. It was now obvious that Austria-Hungary was not merely reacting in shock to the death of Franz Ferdinand, but deliberately manipulating the situation to declare war on Serbia on her own terms.
The Serbian response to the ultimatum is often seen as a conciliatory reply. But Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia upon 28 July, and the bombardment of Belgrade began from the militarized gunboats upon the Danube River upon 29 July.
Upon the same day Russia ordered partial mobilisation of her army in order to defend Serbian rights. Russia was not looking for general war because everybody could see that involvement in a full-scale war would mean the end of Tsarist Russia. Russia mismanaged the crisis because not only did they transform a localized war into a European war, but they also fell into Germany’s trap and would be portrayed as the aggressor and culpable of this European War. The reason Russia’s actions were misread was because Russia was the first one to mobilise; Germany could now portray her as the aggressor and Austria-Hungary as a victim. But it would be correct to say that Russia had been encouraging an alliance that made Austro-Hungarians suspicious. Because of the long-term Austro-Russian clash of interests in the Balkans, and Russia’s long-term support of Serbia, it is possible to understand Austro-Hungary’s insecurity and their solution of waging war as to be the only alternative left.
Russia fully backed Serbia during the July Crisis. When the Austro-Hungarians presented the ultimatum to Serbia, Russia would support her even if it unleashed a great war. “This means a European War” as Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, labelled the ultimatum; a deliberate provocation. Although Russia’s entry would mean German involvement on Austria-Hungary’s side, Russia believed that her prestige, the dignity of the Slav states and her influence in the Balkans was at stake. Russia was not fully prepared for war but if war was to break out, Russia would defend her prestige and the dignity of the Slav state. Eventually Russia was left with no alternative. Russia mismanaged the crisis when partially mobilising her army upon 29 July after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, because Russia was exposed as the aggressor. The German Junker elite celebrated the fact that they achieved their aim, war, and in portraying Russia as the aggressor. Although the Tsar declared that he only wanted to defend Serbia from an unfair attack, he would still be portrayed as the one to transformed localised war into a general European war. Russia did not want European war but public opinion did support a defensive war to defend Serbia from Austria-Hungary. Therefore Austria-Hungary, taking into account her long-term rivalries with Russia in the Balkans, along with Russia’s responsibility towards Serbia and Russia’s mismanagement, could certainly achieve the war they wanted.
Russia’s participation in the war meant Germany’s direct involvement and would lead also to French involvement because of the Schlieffan Plan. On the French side, it is difficult to see any kind of mismanagement. She was dragged into the war, not so much because of her wishes to fight but because Germany decided to her pre-emptively. France could be seen as a victim in the outbreak World War I, rather than an aggressor like Germany or Austria-Hungary. “France does not want war, but she would not refuse it at the cost of honour.” That had been the cry of French public opinion during the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911. And that sentiment remained valid in 1914. France’s honour was at stake because during the Bosnian crisis of 1908 France had not supported Russia, and now France could not let her ally down again. So by 1912, France presented a “blank cheque” to Russia promising French support under any circumstances. The Schlieffen Plan also removes any doubt of mismanagement from France’s behalf. Also, the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 created revanche (revenge) which was supported by a nationalistic group of the French Right but it was no longer a burning grievance in 1914.
The government of Britain can also be blamed for mismanaging the crisis. British involvement in the Moroccan Crises had created tension between Germany and Britain, but Great Britain barely played any part in the Balkan Crisis, other than being a mediator, a failed mediator. One way Britain mismanaged the situation was because Germany no longer trusted Britain after Edward Grey’s false denial speech upon 29 July in which he denied Anglo-Russian Naval talks. This created suspicion and insecurity in Germany. Another way Britain mismanaged the situation was because Britain did not clearly warn Germany that the invasion of Belgium would mean British entry in the war. Grey wanted to fight against Germany but the British cabinet and the House of Commons were divided on the issue. Britain’s intervention was not ultimately linked with the neutrality of Belgium and “not merely a duty of friendship. It is… an elementary duty of self-preservation… We cannot stand alone in a Europe dominated by any single power.” Britain was against the goal of Weltpolitik and felt threatened by it, because it meant the end of the British Empire.
Anglo- German naval rivalry was the cause of this insecurity and anxiety that existed in Great Britain and eventually was one of the factors that convinced Britain to ignore her policy of splendid isolation and take part in the European concert of diplomacy. The German Navy Laws of 1898 and 1900 marked the beginning of the naval arms race. This alarmed Britain because Admiral Von Tirpitz’s fleet was seen as a “power-political instrument” rather than a defensive fleet. When Haldane was sent to Germany to end the arms race, Germany passed the fourth Navy Law. The Kaiser was obsessed with “his fleet” and wanted to be the “Supreme War Lord.” Obviously British newspaper editors were anxious as early as in 1905, as the daily mail stated: “any power which challenges Britain’s supremacy offers her a menace which she cannot ignore.” The government of Britain was very alarmed. In 1914 Britain could not allow Germany take over France and Belgium because their Dreadnoughts might then be situated on the opposite bank of the English Channel, and that might mean the end of Britain as an imperial power, as a naval power and as a world power.
This would realise the dream of the German government. Germany, similar to Austria-Hungary, cannot be held responsible of mismanaging the crisis because their deliberate aim to wage war resulted in success, and not only this, but to portray Russia as the aggressor. But the Kaiser and the Junker aristocratic elite had different notions about handling the crisis of 1914. The Kaiser’s intention had been to urge Austria-Hungary to declare war against Serbia without the intervention of any other nation, and immediately after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand upon 28 June 1914. The Kaiser did not want a general European war. He was disappointed at the failure of Austria-Hungary to act quickly and decisively as he said: “They seem to need an eternity to mobilise.” The Kaiser constantly pressed his ally to act quickly and hoped that the war would remain localised. But the Dual Monarchy’s delay caused the war that Bethmann Hollweg and the Junker aristocratic elite wanted; a European war. They wished for war because they viewed war as the solution to Germany’s problems. They wanted to preserve the social and political status quo in Germany. The Social Democratic Party was gaining popularity in Germany which would mean sooner or later, the end of this militaristic elite.
In the 1960s the debate about German culpability was reopened by Fischer. He mentioned that “primat der innempolitik” (supremacy of domestic politics) was the main and crucial reason of the outbreak of World War One. In July 1914 Germany was preparing for war; war was foreseen previously. Upon 25 July the Kaiser commented on a telegram to Vienna that the cause of war as now been removed with the Serbian response, and expected Vienna to halt any mobilisation. His comments were altered by Bethmann Hollweg and the Junkers. Now his comments instead of suggesting Austria-Hungary to withdraw and compromise, it gave the Austrian government the push which encouraged them even more to declare war against Serbia. Russian mobilisation was then celebrated by the militaristic elite. Now the SPD’s hostility towards war had evaporated and the Junkers had achieved their goals. Each step had been planned. Germany did not mismanage the crisis, but used the crisis to solve their internal problems and to try to achieve their ultimate goal; Weltpolitik.
It is clear that the Balkan Crisis provoked World War I. But the Balkan Crisis itself was a product of long-term Austro-Russian rivalry caused by the declining Ottoman Empire. Many elements of the crisis were mismanaged by the European powers, but Austria and Germany certainly did not. As Williamson declared, the “fateful meshing of aggressive German Weltpolitik with an even more aggressive, irresponsible Hapsburg Balkanpolitik” resulted in the war both Empires felt to be inevitable and winnable.
-The Road to Sarajevo (London 1967) pg.378
-John Lowe ‘Rivalry and Accord: International Relations 1870-1914’
-James Joll ‘The Origins of the First World War’
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