The July crisis

july crisis
A cartoon depicting the ‘chain reaction’ of threats and ultimatums in July 1914

The July crisis was a month-long chain reaction of events that followed the assassination of Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. It began with an Austrian ultimatum to Serbia and ended with declarations of war by the Great Powers of Europe.

The July crisis was filled with internal contemplations and debates, diplomatic advice and posturing, nationalistic chest-beating and, ultimately, military mobilisation and threats of war. While historians hold different views about who and what drove the crisis, there is a consensus that it represented a breakdown and failure in diplomacy.

Vienna blames Serbia

Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was arrested and interrogated by police and military authorities. He and his collaborators testified that they had acted independently, without the knowledge or assistance of the Serbian government.

Many in the Austro-Hungarian imperial regime chose not to believe this. They attributed the killings to Serbia and its leaders. Even if the Serbian government did not order or support the assassination plot, they were complicit in failing to rein in the nationalist and terrorist groups active within their borders.

Austrian investigators unearthed circumstantial evidence suggesting that some of the group had received training from a Serbian military officer. Meanwhile, militarists in the Austro-Hungarian imperial government saw the incident as an opportunity to invade Serbia and crush its rebellious elements.

The crisis unfolds

The month-long period that followed the assassination became known as the ‘July crisis’. It drew in most of the major political leaders of Europe in some form or another. Some sought to avoid war while others seemed hell-bent on firing the first shots in one.

At a flurry of meetings, Austro-Hungarian and German diplomats discussed what might eventuate if Vienna was to take punitive action against Serbia. At the top of their list was how Russia might respond in the event of a war against the Serbs.

The Kaiser’s ‘blank cheque’

On July 5th, Kaiser Wilhelm II issued his famous ‘blank cheque’ to Vienna. Austria-Hungary could proceed as it wished and Germany would back them if Russia intervened.

Privately, the Kaiser and his military chief, von Moltke, wanted war with Russia and France sooner rather than later. Both believed Germany was better prepared for war than either. They wanted to strike early before the Russians and French could adequately mobilise.

As a consequence, the Kaiser urged his Austrian allies to deal with Serbia promptly and ruthlessly. He did not believe the Russians would declare war on Austria-Hungary – but if they did, Germany would reciprocate with a declaration of war against St Petersburg.

After the conclusion of this agreement, Wilhelm and several Austrian politicians went on holiday. This was likely a deliberate ploy to suggest their disinterest in the crisis.

The Austrian ultimatum

On July 23rd, four weeks after the assassination, the Serbian government received an ultimatum from Austria-Hungary. It contained a set of 10 firmly worded demands and an obligation for the Serbs to agree to its conditions within 48 hours.

Among the demands made by the Austro-Hungarians upon Serbia were:

  • The banning of Serbian publications which had been responsible for anti-Austrian propaganda.
  • The removal of anti-Austrian individuals from the Serbian military, government and civil service.
  • The removal of Serbian teachers and curriculum that had promoted or incited anti-Austrian feeling.
  • The outlawing and disbanding of the Serbian nationalist group Narodna Odbrana (‘People’s Defense’).
  • A crackdown on cross-border arms trading and the removal of corrupt border officials.
  • A joint Serbian-Austrian investigation into the assassination plot, conducted within Serbia by Austrian officials, and involving the investigation and interrogation of Serbian civilians and military personnel.

Winston Churchill, at the time in charge of Britain’s Royal Navy, called the Austrian ultimatum “the most insolent document of its kind ever devised”.

Serbia responds

july crisis
A German newspaper reports that Serbia had rejected the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum

On receiving the ultimatum, Serbia immediately sought the counsel of Russian. St Petersburg offered to publicly condemn the ultimatum – but aware that Russian military readiness lagged behind Germany’s, refused to offer any military guarantees.

The British foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey, intervened in an attempt to avoid war. Grey suggested a mediation conference between all nations with a stake in the crisis – but this was rejected by both Berlin and Vienna.

Serbia responded to the Austrian ultimatum just before the expiration of the deadline. It submitted to most of the demands but rejected the Austrian-led inquiry demanded in point six, arguing that it was a breach of their sovereignty. They reiterated that their government gave no moral or material support to Princip and the other assassins.

Declarations of war

The Austrian ambassador received the Serbian reply, read it once and immediately left Belgrade for Vienna. After some cajoling from his advisors, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph declared war on Serbia on July 28th, exactly one month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

This declaration of war triggered a chain reaction that quickly dragged in the rest of Europe. Bound by their alliances – or, more precisely, their leaders’ commitment to these alliances – nation after nation was drawn into the spiral of war.

Russia, a long-time protector of Serbia, condemned Vienna’s aggression and immediately began mobilising its forces against Austria-Hungary. Germany’s rulers declared war on Russia on August 1st.

The Schlieffen Plan activated

Berlin also lit the fuse for the much-anticipated Schlieffen Plan, its long-standing scheme to avoid a prolonged two-front war by invading France through neutral Belgium and Luxemburg. This plan was activated the following day.

Germany’s invasion of Belgium triggered Britain’s involvement. This, in turn, led to the governments of British dominions – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa – declaring war on Germany.

By the end of August, most of Europe was at war, though a few countries (Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Spain and the Netherlands) remained neutral for the duration.

Fighting in Serbia

As might be expected, the first military action of World War I occurred in Serbia. Austro-Hungarian troops crossed the border to occupy its July prey.

The aggressors did not fare as well as they had anticipated, however, due to some stubborn Serbian resistance, compounded by blunders by their own generals.

By early August, German forces were implementing the Schlieffen Plan, while another German contingent in the east secured a comprehensive victory over the Russians at Tannenberg. Elsewhere there was little fighting in the first month, as most belligerent nations put their energy into recruitment, training, equipping and mobilising their armies.

A historian’s view:
“The cult of the offensive encouraged German and Austrian expansionism that led to the crisis of July 1914 and to the war. The Germans probably preferred the status quo to a world war against the entire Entente, and they would not have fomented the July 1914 crisis had they known that a world war would result. In my judgement, the Germans did want a confined continental war against France and Russia; and many among the German elite supported the instigation of the July crisis in hopes of provoking just such a war. Moreover, German leaders recognised and accepted the risk that this might entail a wider war against Britain and Belgium.”
Kenneth A. Oye

july crisis

1. The July crisis was a month-long period of ultimatums, diplomatic communications and threats that culminated in the outbreak of World War I.

2. It began the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th 1914. Encouraged by Germany, Austria-Hungary handed Serbia a stringent ultimatum.

3. What followed was a month-long period involving diplomatic advice between European powers, including offers of mediation and promises of military backing.

4. The Serbians accepted most but not all of the terms in the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum. Dissatisfied and backed by Germany, Vienna declared war on Serbia.

5. This prompted Russia to order the mobilisation of its forces, in preparation for a possible war against Austria-Hungary. Germany followed suit by issuing declarations of war in late July and early August 1914.

Title: “The July crisis”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 23, 2017
Date accessed: January 07, 2023
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