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How Guilty were the Austro-Hungarian regime for the outbreak of the First World War?

  • Mike Parsons
  • 2015/05/22
  • Military History
  • published

Guilt is a difficult word to define, we tend to ascribe more guilt depending on the consequences of an action, rather than focus on the actual actions of the participates. The point of this article is to argue that Austro-Hungarian declaration and subsequent invasion of Serbia did not inevitably lead to the First World War, and their actions were constant with similar events which did and do not attract the burden of guilt that the events of July 1914 attract. The article will focus on the actions and intentions of the various participates and whether those actions could be considered reasonable at the time, rather than consider the catastrophic results of those actions.

It is undoubtedly true, that with the declaration of war on the 28th and the bombardment of Belgrade on 29th July 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire began the final act of turning Grey's European lamps out and plunging Europe into the long night of the First World War One. Austro-Hungary however, that unlike the other Great Powers at the time, faced real and imminent dangers and dealt with those dangers using the tried and trusted methods of the preceding decades. It was, I believe, Germany's reckless intention to start a European war, that betrayed the empire of Franz-Josef to eventual destruction and not the actions of the desperate regime in Vienna.

In the summer of 1914 Austro-Hungary faced, the growth of Serbia, a serious threat on its southern border. The threat posed by an independent state to the empire was not academic to Vienna, this type of threat had been faced before, in Italy. Following the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the Austrian empire had dominated the Italian peninsular. However over the next fifty years the example and encouragement of the independent Italian Kingdom of Piedmont for Italian nationalist within the empire had resulted in progressive lose of power and territory, until by 1866 only a small rump remained of the once extensive Italian provinces. The example of Piedmont is so iconic that it has given its name to the effect of an independent nationalistic state has on its neighbours who share national minorities. This effect is called the 'Piedmont Principle'.

The problem of a determined and dynamic independent state, which could motivate anti-imperial sentiments, was therefore well understood by the regime in Vienna, and Serbia was the self proclaimed Piedmont of the southern Slavs. If the empire lost the Slavic population as it had its Italian, the impact could well prove fatal. This Austro-Hungarian preoccupation with the Balkans and internal matters was even commented on by Sir Edward Grey the British foreign Minister in 1911.

Austro-Hungarian empire was particularly vulnerable to pressures that a nation such as Serbia could exert. The Empire was formed from by an accretion of lands and peoples to the Hapsburg Dynasty, as a result it was made up of an bewildering mix of nationalities and religions, the majority was formed from 10 millions Germans and more than 9 million Hungarians or Magyar, the major other nationalities being Slavs (Slovaks, Croatians, and Serbs), Romanians, Poles, Ruthenes, Czechs and the remaining Italians.

This bewildering collection of people was ruled over by the Dual Monarchy. a Constitution which had come into being in 1867, splitting the empire in two, one part ruled by the Hungarians the other Germans, there were also three imperial ministries, the Ministry of War, the Foreign Office and the Common Finance Ministry. This arrangement placed the Magyars in a privileged position compared to the other nationalities, such as the significant Slavic population, having gained that position they were determined to keep it, ensuring that no other national group would gain similar concessions and thus diminish Hungarian power.

As both German (Austrian) and Hungarian parliaments had to agree any imperial budgets and with Hungary agitating for more control of the army while blocking any concessions which the empire may have considered granting to its minorities. The Empire became paralysed and the fault lines along which the empire would eventually split in 1918 were evident well before 1914. Unable to deal effectively with internal national aspirations due to Magyar intransigents the empire was forced to ensure that external factors did not make the situation worse.

This concern over Magyar imperial supremacy is evident even on the eve of the Great War. Istvan Tisza the Hungarian prime minister opposed the war with Serbia, as the inclusion of so many Slavs would threaten the position of Hungarians within the Empire.

Serbia had begun emerging as a significant threat in 1878 when following the conclusion of the Russo-Turkish War, as part of the treaty of San Stefano, Serbia became a large independent state. In Berlin in 1879 the Great Powers reversed most of the conditions in the treaty, including reducing the size of Serbia, Austria occupied a number of Turkish provinces including Bosnia and Herzogovina supposedly to protect Turkish sovereignty.

In an attempt to reduce the Piedmont effect on the empires Slavic minorities, Austrian policy from this time on was to try to ensure neither Serbia or Bulgaria the two major Balkan Slavic powers became dominate or too large. These efforts were not only Military in nature but had often political and economic dimensions such as in 1906 when Austria placed an embargo on the importing of Serbian livestock in response to Serbian purchasing of artillery from France rather than Austro-Hungary. The main diplomatic card played by the Austro-Hungarian empire in the final years leading to the First World War was however military.

It should not be considered however a uniquely Austrian response to diplomacy, in 1912 for example, Russia used the mobilisation of troops both against Turkey in March, Germany and Austria in September, and this time in support of Turkey in November. 1908 marked a shift in Austrian use of armed diplomacy, the annexation of Bosnia-Herzogovina, and the resulting crisis with both Serbia and Montenegro produced a significant increase in troop numbers. Ultimately the Slavic states backed down, although the tension with Russia in Galicia took longer to resolve.

Vienna, repeatedly and successfully, resorted to the threat of war during the 1st and 2nd Balkan wars no less than three times. The first two as a result of Serbian expansion to the Adriatic coast, which Austria sought to prevent by the creation of Albania. The third mobilization was in support of Bulgaria during the 2nd Balkan war. In all of these crisis the immediate goals of the empire where met, this would have reinforced an expectation that military force could be used successfully to control the southern Slavic states. However Serbia came out of the Balkan Wars stronger in both territory and population. Also emerging as the leading Slavic state, due to defeating her main rival Bulgaria, was able to become more belligerent towards the Austro-Hungarian rule.

Another downside for the Austrians of repeated mobilisations was the cost, 200 million crowns had been spent to fund the mobilisation in December 1912 alone, the Prime minister of Austria declared that a war would be cheaper than continuously mobilizing the army.

By the summer of 1914 an number of factors conspired to effect Austrian decision making. Continuously threatening war, while successful in the short term, was not effective in the medium to long term, as Serbia continued to grow in strength, while the cost of this policy was proving unsustainable. The threat of Serbia to the empire was not diminishing and needed to be resolved, particularly as Serbia had doubled in size and, once the effect of this increased population was assimilated into the army, would soon become a significant military force. These pressures meant that the next crisis would need to provide a final resolution to the Serbian problem.

The crisis which would provide that opportunity to resolve the issue with Serbia occurred on the 28th June 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand the heir to the imperial crown. The actual involvement of the Serbian government in the killing is confusing as while governmental figures such as the chief of military intelligence were personally involved, the civilian government did not approve, but made only ineffective steps to prevent the attack. The connection was enough however for the imperial council in Vienna to decide two days later on the 30th June to make this the casus-belli for a war with Serbia.

As Serbia had a powerful ally in the shape of Russia, no action could be successfully taken without German support and Count Hoyos was duly sent as an emissary sent to Berlin to gain German support. On 6th July Bethmann Hollweg, the Chancellor of Germany, informed him, that Germany would indeed support any action against Serbia, this was the famous 'Blank Cheque'.

The question of Austrian guilt for the start of the war largely rests on what was expected from Germany in the way of support. The normal process, which had existed for a hundred years, was that following a crisis such as Austria's ultimatum to Serbia, Germany would summon a conference of Great Powers, by the time the conference convened Austria would have expected to have defeated Serbia and the conference would resolve the aftermath peacefully, with suitable concessions all round. From an Austrian perspective German actions between the 6th and 25th of July appeared to follow this pattern, with the encouragement from Berlin urging quick and decisive action to deal with Serbia once and for all. Vienna thus continued with its plans to defeat Serbia, in a localized conflict, having Germany to politically trump Serbia's Russian ally.

Not until 30th July when Molkte, the German chief of staff, contacted Conrad von Hotzendorf, his Austrian equivalent, to urge a quick resolution to the Serbian conflict as Germany expected significant Austrian support to defend the joint eastern borders is any hint of the wider conflict raised, but even that message ambiguously placed Serbian defeat before the conflict with Russia. It was the telegram of the 31st from the Kaiser to Franz Josef which starkly defined the actual German position.

'In this gigantic struggle on which we are embarking shoulder to shoulder, Serbia plays a quite subordinate role, which demands only the absolutely necessary defensive measures.'

This telegram illustrates how the Austrian plan for a localized war with Serbia had been hijacked by German intentions. Instead of dealing with a manageable Serbian war the Austro-Hungarians were expected to defend Germany, their supposed supporter, while German armies invaded Belgium and France a continent away from Austrian concerns. This was clearly not what Hoyos had travelled to Berlin in early July to request. The scale of this misunderstanding and the shock produced by the realisation can be seen by the reaction of the Austrian high command.

Austria had two war plans, one aimed Russia the other Serbia, with the 2nd Army providing the decisive superiority when committed on either the Galician or Serbian theatre, depending on the war plan chosen. If the empire had expected the call to Germany for aid as a military intervention rather than political, it would have been easier and far more sensible for Austria to support its German ally against Russia by mobilized its armies in Galicia as planned for, but Austria only ordered a partially mobilisation aimed a Serbia, of all the countries which mobilised during those fateful weeks only Austria that had to change its mobilization plan once initiated, with unsurprising chaotic results.

Is the Austro-Hungarian regime therefore to carry the burden of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War? Of all the Great Powers in 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire faced the most severe threat to its existence. Handicapped by Hungarian intransigents over concessions to other minorities within the empire, the pressures of an expanding and aggressive Serbia could easily have shattered the empire along similar lines, which in 1918, the strain of losing the First World War provided. Using the same techniques which were part of a successful and well laid 19th century diplomacy, Austria committed to resolving the problem in the only way left to her. The Austro-Hungarian empire declared war on 28th July not to start a pan-European war but to preserve its position in the Balkans and therefore secure its own domestic stability. If Austro-Hungary must carry any burden of guilt it is the naivety of its dealings with Germany that it lies. It was not Austrian plans for war, but their betrayal for the larger German scheme, which ultimately changed a manageable local conflict into the catastrophic affair which would last for the next five years and which still reverberates to this day.


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