Wilhelm stokes the flames

With the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, European sympathies lay with Austria and against the Serbian radicals. Given the stresses on Europe’s delicate alliance systems, the guiding principle was restraint. But when on June 30 the German ambassador to Vienna cabled German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg that he seriously counseled “against too hasty steps,” Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, in the margin of his copy, scribbled, “Let Tschirschky be good enough to drop this nonsense! The Serbs must be disposed of, and that right soon!”

“Blank checks” assured Austria-Hungary of German support, no matter what actions she took. Wilhelm personally offered “blank check No. 1” in 1889; in 1913, with the kaiser foreseeing a massive conflict between the Slavic and Germanic peoples, “blank check No. 2” “assured the Austrian minister that in the coming life-and-death struggle, ‘I shall stand behind you, and am prepared to draw the sword whenever your moves make it necessary.'”

On July 5, 1914, comes the infamous “blank check No. 3”: Wilhelm has invited the Austro-Hungarian ambassador for lunch at his Neues Palais in Potsdam. As they approach the dining hall, the ambassador hands the kaiser a handwritten letter from Emperor Franz Josef in which the emperor details concerns about what could happen should action be taken against Serbia. Wilhelm confesses aloud that these statements make him “regard a serious European complication possible” and require that he “give no definite answer (regarding German support) before having taken council (sic) with the Imperial chancellor.”

That’s not the way it went.

Immediately after lunch, Wilhelm states that although he must “first hear what the Imperial Chancellor has to say,” nevertheless Austria-Hungary can rely on “Germany’s full support.” The impulsive kaiser has consulted neither his Foreign Office nor Chancellor Bethmann-Holweg, repeating that he has yet to do so – then proceeds to give that “definite answer” he was obligated to withhold. Furthermore, whatever Austria-Hungary’s action, he now urges that it “must not be delayed.” Thus the third “blank check” that Wilhelm himself has offered to Austria since becoming kaiser 25 years earlier – but now with pressure for quick action.

This is restraint?

In the midst of this rapidly deteriorating international crisis, instead of remaining in Berlin to monitor the situation, on July 6, “‘in order,’ as he said himself, ‘not to alarm world opinion,’ the Emperor, after making all necessary dispositions, left for his North Sea cruise.” Emperor Franz Josef, whose letter to Wilhelm had contained those grave observations, then decides to make “HIS (emphasis added) customary summer visit to Bad Ischl, and (Foreign Minister) Berchtold sent away Conrad and Krobatin, the Minister of War, for a holiday until 22 July.” Who is at the controls as Europe hurtles toward the onset of World War I? To label these actions, initiated by Kaiser Wilhelm, as “group insanity” would not be too strong a characterization.

With German support reaffirmed, the qualms of Austria-Hungary’s emperor and military chief of staff evaporated. Scorning as worthless any mere diplomatic humiliation of Serbia, on July 7 the Austro-Hungarian Council of Ministers pressed for military action (as recorded in the meeting’s minutes) to be triggered by “such stringent demands … that will make a refusal almost certain.” On July 10, the German ambassador in Vienna cabled Berlin that Austria’s ultimatum would allow only 48 hours for Serbia’s reply. Thus Germany has been aware of the basics of Austria’s scheme since July 10 and party to complete details of the ultimatum since July 12.

Yet on July 25, the day Serbia received this extreme ultimatum, British Foreign Secretary Grey said that the German ambassador in London had just read him a telegram from the German Foreign Office in which Germany protested that it “had not known beforehand … the stiff terms of the Austrian note to Serbia.” The enormity of this lie is mind-boggling. FOR WEEKS Germany had been FULLY informed of extreme measures Austria wished to take in regard to Serbia, had urged Austria to act as quickly as possible (to preclude intervention by other powers) and had made no effort to defuse the crisis. And Wilhelm remained relentless: On July 26, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry was informed through its Berlin ambassador that Germany considered an “immediate declaration of war to be necessary.”

Conflict would apparently not be able to be contained. On July 27, German’s ambassador in London reported to Berlin that Britain would side with France and Russia if Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia, citing the “far-reaching compliance of the Serbian government” in trying to meet Austria’s extreme demands. Russia would not abandon Serbia, France would not be separated from Russia, and England probably would support both France and Russia against Germany.

But on July 28, the ultimatum’s deadline, the kaiser observed to his foreign minister that the Serbian reply “contains the announcement orbi et urbi (to world and city) of a capitulation of the most humiliating kind, and as a result every cause for war falls to the ground.” Only at this moment did Wilhelm comprehend what he had set in motion. His response? “I am ready to mediate for peace with Austria.” Talk about too little too late!

After Wilhelm’s earlier goading, Austria has already begun to shell Belgrade, protesting it cannot reverse course. Seeing fellow Slavs under attack, Russia begins partial mobilization on July 29. But the next day, the German army’s chief of staff acts on his own: “Without making any attempt to inform the emperor or the Chancellor, Moltke, on the evening of 30 July, sent a telegram to Field Marshal Conrad (the Austrian army’s chief of staff), urging him to mobilize his forces AGAINST RUSSIA (my emphasis) at once.” What was he thinking? It’s bad enough with Wilhelm in charge, but here the kaiser has lost control of his own staff – with horrendous results.

As Austria mobilized against Russia, troops and trains lurched into motion, triggering Russia’s mobilization and a German response whose strict railroad-scheduled momentum quickly became irreversible. Thus Germany launched its Schlieffen Plan – with its attack through neutral Belgium – and declared war on France with a pretext as flimsy as the one Hitler would use in attacking Poland in 1939.

We know the rest.

How unnecessary. For one brief week following the assassination, reason and restraint offered hope: Diplomats in Vienna and Belgrade would, surely, resolve the issue.

But when Austria-Hungary hesitated to act without the backing of its German ally, into that temporary power vacuum stepped the unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose provocative battleship race with Britain and persistent meddlings had long roiled international relationships. Then take his July 5 after-lunch declaration, coupled with implacable pressure on Austria for immediate action. He has lit the fuse: Kaiser Wilhelm’s cataclysm would consume millions of lives, triggering tectonic shifts that would shatter empires and destabilize the rest of the 20th century.

Lee Gaillard lives in Saranac Lake and has taught European history and world history in Greece and the United States. He is a contributor to the “Naval Institute Guide to The Battle of Midway”; his monograph “V-22 Osprey: Wonder Weapon or Widow Maker?” was published in Washington by the Center for Defense Information in 2006. His grandfather, William Coffin, served as American consul general in Budapest, Hungary, from 1913 to 1917 and, following the Versailles Treaty, in Berlin from 1920 until his death in 1927.

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