The First World War Part 5

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The First World War Part 5

The First World War Part 5

Leading up to the First World War

As will be seen below; a great deal of Tisza’s reasoning would indeed be echoed in the Matscheko Memorandum of 24 June. A further forerunner of Matscheko was undoubtedly the position paper prepared in May by Ludwig von Flotow; a Ballhausplatz expert on the Balkans who had served in Bucharest and Belgrade.95 Flotow was concerned by a public opinion in Romania increasingly inimical to Austria-Hungary, pointing out that “in the event of a war with Russia’ the Monarchy would not only be unable to count on Romania’s help, but would also have to take into account its possible hostility. Like Tisza, Flotow saw a danger of a new, Russian-backed alliance of Balkan states emerging: Romania, Turkey, Greece, and Serbia a grouping aimed against Austria-Hungary, which Bulgaria might have no choice but to join. And, like Tisza, he viewed it as a great menace to the Triple Alliance. What he recommended was a “clarification” of relations between Vienna and Bucharest, to be achieved through a public acknowledgment by King Carol or his Government that Romania had a treaty with the Triple Alliance. Realizing that there would have to be some quid pro quo for this, Flotow thought some concessions should then follow to Romania – to be precise, only two. One of them, he suggested, might be a guarantee of its existing border with Bulgaria. Flotow did not explain how this could be sufficiently attractive to Bucharest when the main problem between Austria-Hungary and Romania, in fact, concerned the position of Romanians in Transylvania. But his other proposed “concession” was genuinely bizarre. Given the friendly relationship between Romania and Serbia, he pointed out; it could be left to Romania to work for a rapprochement between Vienna and Belgrade – in which case Austria-Hungary would demonstrate an accommodating approach towards Serbia. Flotow did not specify, however, what inducements Vienna was ready to offer to Belgrade. In other words, Romania, a country up in arms because of the treatment of its co-nationals in Transylvania, should try and convince Serbia, a country stifled at every turn by Vienna, that the Habsburgs were not so bad after all. Moreover, Bucharest was even supposed to be grateful for being entrusted with such a task.

This absurd game plan for winning over Romania betrayed perhaps the absence of any belief at the Ballhausplatz that anything could still be rescued in relations with that country Flotow, certainly, had alternative proposals ready in the event that Bucharest did not play along: a diplomatic effort to bring about a Bulgarian-Turkish alliance; then, a drawing in of Bulgaria by treaty, to Austria-Hungary and the Triple Alliance; and, significantly, military fortification works to proceed along the frontier with Romania. There was a note of urgency in Flotow’s reflections on the existing Balkan situation. In “this critical moment”, when Russia and France were so intensively at work, all the indicators were pointing towards the destruction of the Monarchy’s position, and it would be ‘ruinous’ to allow such developments to mature through passivity Flotow also deployed what had at the time already begun to figure as characteristic language with regard to Austria-Hungary’s possible involvement in a war, for he wrote about such a war “into which we would be forced”, or “which would be imposed on us”.96 Austro-Hungarian diplomatic and military reports from the first half of 1914 are peppered with this kind of virtuous wording.

Interestingly, the Matscheko Memorandum, or rather the famous draft of it that had materialized by 24 June, is based largely on the assumption that a war was approaching between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. The exact opposite interpretation, it should be noted straight away, has been put on the Memorandum by some recognized specialists. According to P.R. Bridge, it “contained not the slightest hint of war”. What it represented, in Bridge’s view; was “still a long-term policy, an attempt to solve the problem by patient and persevering diplomacy’ Alma Hannig, similarly, sees the Matscheko Memorandum in the context of a consistent Balkan strategy formulated by the Ballhausplatz – a policy ‘without any war plans against Serbia”.97 A closer reading of this rather lengthy document, however, reveals an entirely different picture.98

What is strange in the Matscheko Memorandum, with its detailed review of the Balkan situation, is the near-absence of an obvious theme:

Serbia. The country which had during the Balkan Wars so obsessed the Habsburg establishment hardly gets a mention. Matscheko considers Serbia only in passing, in the introductory section which draws a balance sheet between positive and negative developments in the region over the previous two years. Serbia, according to Matscheko, stood entirely under Russian influence; its policy had for years been inspired by hostility against Austria-Hungary; and, given the “general strengthening of the Great Serbian idea,” its recent additions of territory and population looked like becoming even greater because of the possibility of a union with Montenegro. That was the total of analysis of this dangerous neighbor in the south-east. The implication was that Serbia was an implacable foe certainly not an object for “patient and persevering diplomacy”. It seems reasonable to suppose that had a diplomatic approach towards Serbia been on the Habsburg list of options then the Memorandum would have brought this out. The other negatives in Matscheko’s audit of assets and liabilities were the practical disappearance of Turkey- in-Europe and, in particular, Romania’s shift towards Russia. Echoing Flotow’s memorandum, he wondered whether Romania would not, “in a given moment”, act as an enemy rather than as a friend of the Triple Alliance.

On the plus side, according to Matscheko, Albania had been established as an independent state and thus served as a counterweight to Serbia’s encroachments. It could even, in time, be included as a “military factor” in the calculations of the Triple Alliance. Looking at the map of South-Eastern Europe almost as if he was a General Staff officer, Matscheko counted Greece among the positives in his survey, noticing that its gradually improving relations with the Triple Alliance meant the country should not necessarily be seen as “an adversary” despite its alliance with Serbia. Bulgaria, finally, had woken up from its “Russian hypnosis” and its Government was seeking a closer relationship with the Triple Alliance. On the whole, however, Matscheko saw the situation as “anything but favorable,” and he was anxious to draw attention to Russia and France. Those two Powers, far from satisfied with what they had already achieved in the region, were pursuing an “aggressive,” indeed “decidedly offensive” policy. Matscheko was also keen to make the point that the only reason why European peace had remained intact in the face of Franco-Russian interferences (Storungen) was the military superiority of the Triple Alliance and in the first place the combination of Austria-Hungary and Germany for which the alliance with Romania was a highly valuable factor.

Probably borrowing from Tisza’s memorandum of 15 March, Matscheko painted Russia as planning to build an alliance of Balkan states by means of which the military superiority of the Triple Alliance would be eliminated. Such an alliance, he insisted, could only be directed against Austria-Hungary. Russia’s plan, he believed, was to direct its Balkan coalition westwards. Such a fragile and complicated grouping of states could only be brought about by the expectation of each member that its territorial cravings would be satisfied – e.g., Bulgaria’s in Macedonia and Serbia’s in Bosnia. Matscheko blithely asserted that Serbia, under Russian pressure, would give up Macedonia to Bulgaria. It should “not be doubted,” Matscheko wrote, that Serbia would “pay an appropriate price” in Macedonia – on the basis that this sacrifice would bring Bulgaria into a Balkan alliance also directed at the conquest of Bosnia. On this point, it should be noted, Serbia did not yield even in 1915, when the Allies badly wanted to prevent Bulgaria from joining the Central Powers and when their pressure on Belgrade to cede Macedonia was enormous. Matscheko, of course, knew that his audience was in Berlin and that Kaiser Wilhelm’s well-known dislike of the Bulgarian King Ferdinand had to be borne in mind. Hence he emphasized that Russia and France were busy working to diplomatically isolate Bulgaria and thereby make it more receptive to their offers to join their coalition directed against Austria-Hungary and indeed the Triple Alliance. He urged that ‘action’ be taken to strengthen Bulgaria’s “spine,” thus helping it to avoid isolation and resist Russian “threats and baits”.

The perceived need in Vienna to impress on the Germans the urgency of the Balkan situation is also apparent in Matscheko’s treatment of the Romanian issue. Here, he expanded on Flotow’s arguments about Romania’s essential unreliability; despite King Carol’s loyalty to the secret alliance, wide sections of the Romanian Army, intelligentsia, and people had been won over to support an anti- Habsburg programme for “the liberation of brothers beyond the Carpathians”, that is to say in Hungary. In the event of “a Russian attack on the Monarchy”, it was “unthinkable” that Romania would side with Austria-Hungary – at best it offered only neutrality, one which depended entirely on King Carol and his ability to control foreign policy; if an armed conflict with Russia broke out “now”, Russia would hardly need to field a single soldier against Romania, whereas Austria-Hungary could not be sure of Romania’s neutrality and would need to fortify the border areas of Transylvania. Matscheko warned, pointedly, that Romania’s change of direction threatened not only the security of Austria-Hungary but also the Triple Alliance system itself (in a “very sensitive point”), as well as “the stability of the existing political relationships in Europe.”

All of which sounded more like a study emanating from the Operations Bureau of the Austro-Hungarian Army than a Ballhausplatz assessment of diplomatic hurdles to be overcome. P.R. Bridge’s insistence that the Matscheko Memorandum ‘contains not the slightest hint of war’ is practically impossible to reconcile with the actual document. Time and again Matscheko argues from the position of “what if?” – emphasizing that events in the Balkans could at “anytime” force Austria-Hungary to come up with a response (Stellungnahme). And he named such eventualities: tensions between Greece and Turkey, the “danger” of a union between Serbia and Montenegro, and the critical situation in Albania. The fact that he was contemplating military rather than political responses is evidenced by the following sentence in the Memorandum: “Such a response would, however, be exceedingly aggravated if the crucial decisions would have to be reached by a political calculation in which Romania represents an unknown quantity.” That is to say; it would be very difficult for the military to allocate troops to war in which they did not know whether their Romanian neighbor would be an ally, an enemy, or something in between.

For Matscheko, there was no time to lose. Thus, “in the case of a European war,” the Monarchy had to make, “immediately,” military provisions for the defense of the border with Romania. Matscheko demanded, along the lines of Flotow’s memorandum, that action be taken, “without delay,” to press Romania to get off the fence and openly declare its allegiance to the Triple Alliance. However, if Romania did not give such guarantees and opted for Russia instead, it was “urgently necessary” for the Monarchy to assess the military consequences. Explaining that the considerable preparatory period demanded by border fortification works was the reason why the matter was so pressing, Matscheko even attached to his Memorandum a separate document dealing with proposed measures for the military protection of the Transylvanian region – i.e., protection from a Romanian attack.

Indeed, contrary to the claims of P.R. Bridge, there is practically nothing in the Matscheko Memorandum that would indicate a “long-term” policy direction or demonstrate a commitment to “patient and persevering diplomacy.” Its recommended diplomatic approach to Romania, moreover, can only be described as preposterous. Matscheko, like Flotow before him, suggested that Bucharest should be offered two inducements to make it choose the Triple Alliance: a guarantee of its territories vis-iI-vis Bulgaria; and the giving of a green light to Bucharest to mediate between Vienna and Belgrade. As noted above, these proposed inducements were hardly meant to be serious. Paul Schroeder pointed out that the offer of a guarantee vis-a-vis Bulgaria would not have impressed Romania, for it already enjoyed such a guarantee through the support of France, Russia, Serbia and Greece – and the sympathy of Germany and Britain. As for Vienna’s promise regarding improving relations with Serbia, “nothing” was likely to come out of it since everyone, including the Austrians, knew that “what Austria and Romania meant by good Austro-Serbian relations were two different things, and that what Serbia said was yet another”.99

Even Matscheko drew a line in his potty pretense at diplomacy. With those two favors, he wrote, the Monarchy’s fund of concessions would be “exhausted.” It was, therefore “self-evident” that the subject, for example, of internal political relations in Austria or Hungary was no business of the Romanian Government. This exclusion of the Transylvanian issue represented, probably, a Hungarian input into Matscheko’s Memorandum, but is in any case proof enough that the Ballhausplatz did not think Romania could – or should – still be courted. Not just in Budapest, but also in Vienna powerful voices were against an accommodation with the Romanians in Hungary. In November 1913 the counselor at Austria-Hungary’s Bucharest Legation, Franz von Haymerle, had suggested that, unless the Romanian national question in the Monarchy were settled, relations with Romania would continue to deteriorate and lead to dangerous, Bucharest-sponsored agitation in Hungary. This had drawn an angry response from Alek Hoyos, Berchtold’s influential chef de cabinet. Any concessions, he argued, would merely open the “doors and gates” to the Romanian irredenta in Hungary and would ultimately lead to the demise of the Monarchy.100

Towards the end of the Romanian analysis in his paper, Matscheko could only offer wishful thinking and distinctly undiplomatic solutions. He considered that even those Romanians most fervently opposed to their country’s association with Austria-Hungary, and the Triple Alliance might, in the end, find it “highly dubious” to definitively destroy the existing bridges, as this would make the country completely dependent on Russia. “The more categorically” Romania was confronted with the choice between the Triple Alliance and its opponents, “the greater are the chances that Romania will sober up … and decide in favor of the first alternative”. One wonders whether this was just a facetious suggestion to be read by the naive Germans.

A sense of urgency pervades the whole of Matscheko’s Memorandum. Following Flotow, he proposed that the Monarchy should respond to Bulgaria’s overtures and enter into a treaty with it – as a counterweight to Romania. At the same time, and again along the lines of Flotow’s recommendations, he urged that an alliance also is established between Bulgaria and Turkey. But he warned that, in the light of Franco-Russian activity in the region, it was “uncertain how much longer the road to Sofia and Constantinople will remain open.” Appropriately for a memorandum conceived for German consumption, a concluding observation was that Russian hostility was not aimed at Austria-Hungary as such, but rather against the most exposed part of “the Central European bloc” which barred Russia’s from realizing its “world-political plans.” Breaking the military superiority of Germany and Austria-Hungary by enlisting ‘auxiliary Balkan troops’ was the Franco-Russian aim, but it was not the ultimate Russian aim. Russia, in essence, cut off from the open seas, was pursuing an aggressive policy in Europe and in Asia, and doing so in the knowledge that it would harm Germany’s important interests and provoke its resistance. Accordingly, the manifested tendency to encircle Austria-Hungary was designed to make impossible Germany’s resistance to a Russia which was determined to attain “political and economic supremacy.” It was “short-sighted,” Matscheko protested, to describe specific Austro-Hungarian interests as being far removed from those of Germany’s own, or to see Germany’s support for them as arising merely out of loyalty to an ally. Finally, “at this stage of the Balkan crisis,” it was in Germany’s interest, no less than that of the Monarchy, to act energetically and promptly to counter Russia’s advancement, for later it would perhaps be “impossible to reverse it”.101

Christopher Clark had seen the Matscheko Memorandum much as P.R. Bridge before him, since “there was no hint in it whatsoever that Vienna regarded war – whether of the limited or the more general variety – as imminent, necessary or desirable.” He regards its focus as, “on the contrary,” being “firmly on diplomatic methods and objectives.”102 Again, as with Bridge, this is a baffling interpretation. Even a superficial reading of the Memorandum reveals that the Ballhausplatz considered some conflict as at least likely in the short term. Its hypothesis of a war with Russia “now” (“a Russian attack on the Monarchy”), its emphasis on the “decidedly offensive” Franco-Russian policies in the Balkans, its questioning of what Romania might do at a given moment’, its warnings about the looming threat to the military superiority of the Triple Alliance, its reference to the possibility of “a European war” – all these, and indeed all its proposed “diplomatic methods and objectives”, as mentioned by Clark, assumed and anticipated war. In fact, Matscheko had proposed almost no diplomacy. Serbia was to him a hopeless case and Romania was practically in the same category, except that – and this cannot be emphasized strongly enough – given the pro-Romanian sentiment of Wilhelm II and his Government, the Ballhausplatz felt obliged to rehearse a semblance of an Austro-Hungarian diplomatic effort to keep Romania tied to the Triple Alliance.

As is known, a somewhat shortened and modified Matscheko Denkschrift was presented to Wilhelm II on 5 July in the context of the so-called Hoyos mission which sought to obtain German backing for an Austro-Hungarian strike against Serbia.103 Much of the relevant historiography considers the discrepancies between the two versions as evidence of a fundamental transformation of Austro-Hungarian foreign policy in the Balkans: from intending to pursue firm but non-belligerent methods just before Sarajevo, to embracing the war option just after Sarajevo. A great deal of such scholarly confidence rests on the work of H. Bertil Petersson who published, in 1964, an exhaustive, compare-and-contrast type of study about the two memoranda with parallel texts and commentary. He admitted that the two documents were surprisingly identical, but then zoomed in on Romania, arguing that the Matscheko Memorandum of 24 June envisaged “important concessions” to Romania and that, in the light of Romania’s good relations with Serbia, Austria-Hungary was hoping it could relax tensions with Serbia by enlisting Romania’s help. Petersson’s influential study thus concludes that Matscheko’s appraisal was “obviously” a step in the direction of developing a long-term peace policy, whereas the updated variant taken to the Germans was its “diametrical opposite”.104

This, however, is a serious blunder on the part of Petersson who takes the pre-Sarajevo document at face value. As discussed above, Matscheko’s proposed stimulants would probably have been seen as depressants in Bucharest. Moreover, the emphatic refusal to put the nationalities (i.e., Romanian) question in Hungary on the agenda testified to the fact that Vienna was not serious about achieving a diplomatic recovery in Romania. Petersson does not even attempt to show how Matchenko’s “important concessions” would have been concessions at all, let alone important ones. He is a close analysis of two texts, but it lacks historical context. Paul Schroeder, by contrast, argues persuasively that the idea of forcing Romania to make public its adherence to the Triple Alliance or, should this fail, to prepare militarily for it, was “an admission of defeat, a declaration of diplomatic bankruptcy.” Even more importantly, according to Schroeder, “the June 24 diplomatic offensive had no chance of success, as Austrian appraisals of the situation made clear”.105 The truth is that the only meaningful diplomatic offensive envisaged by the Matscheko paper of 24 June was aimed at Berlin and not anywhere in the Balkans. On 26 June Hoyos wrote privately to Pallavicini in Constantinople, informing him that a long memorandum for Berlin had been prepared and that Berchtold was in the meantime doing his utmost to “open the eyes” of Tschirschky, the German Ambassador.106 And it is quite wrong of Peters son to suggest that, in trying to clear up its relationship with Romania, the Habsburg Monarchy was seeking to establish a “secure foundation for a long term Balkan policy.”107 The Matscheko Memorandum does not betray at any point a concern for the pursuit of a stable, long term Balkan policy. It talks, instead, about the “important interests of imperial defense.108

Moreover, the policy paper of 24 June assumed, to all intents and purposes, the loss of Romania. Berchtold, it should perhaps at this point be emphasized, had as far back as August 1913 pointed out to FranzJoseph that the newly-established solidarity of interests (Interessengemeinschaft) between Romania and Serbia was “for the time being” directed against Bulgaria, but could also be turned against Austria- Hungary 109 Nothing had happened by June 1914 to remove this anxiety. In the Matscheko paper, the only diplomacy that could really be conducted concerned Bulgaria and Turkey. Bringing these recent foes together seemed in 1914 to be a perfectly feasible project. As Matscheko himself noted, “favorable dispositions” for it existed in both states.110 In the light of the entire tone of his Memorandum, however, this would have been no Bismarckian endeavor to prevent war but rather to prepare for it. As for the proposal to make Bulgaria an ally of the Triple Alliance, the main obstacle would have been in Berlin because the Kaiser took a dim view of King Ferdinand. On the other hand, Franz Ferdinand, another sharp critic of the Bulgarian King, had by the summer of 1914 begun to see the usefulness of Bulgaria. In an important disclosure about what the Archduke had discussed at Konopischt with Wilhelm II, Jozsef Galantai cites from Burian’s letter to Tisza, dated 16 June: “According to Berchtold – and this would be an achievement – the Heir to the Throne now recognizes the necessity that we keep Bulgaria warm and should support it politically as a counterweight to Romania’s possible trespasses in the future”.111 No wonder, then, that Matscheko had felt so free to question Romania’s loyalty.

It will be remembered, however, that Franz Ferdinand had at Konopischt also said that Russia was not to be feared because its internal difficulties were too great to allow “an aggressive foreign policy”. Yet the Matscheko Memorandum stands in astonishingly sharp contrast to this assessment, for it is bristling with denouncements of aggressive Russian action already taking place in the Balkans – a prelude to no less than a “political and economic supremacy” that Russia was purportedly trying to achieve. Moreover, leading Austrian authorities (Hantsch, Rauchensteiner) agree that the Memorandum had been coordinated between Franz Ferdinand and Berchtold at their meeting on 14 June. Is it really possible that Matscheko’s major policy review should contain an assessment so much at odds with the view held by the Archduke? The latter was still alive and well on 24 June. If Russia was internally too weak to afford an aggressive international posture, who would start the European war being anticipated by Matscheko? It has been shown above that the German Kaiser, too, did not think Russia was yet fully prepared for war. One must therefore emphasize that this seemingly glaring contradiction between expert and Archduke disappears if one interprets Franz Ferdinand’s words to mean that, in the event of an Austro-Hungarian action against Serbia, Russia would not move.

The Matscheko Memorandum only makes sense if it is seen as a discussion of issues that would become hugely important if Austria-Hungary were to move to knock out Serbia. That, surely, had been the main subject of discussions at Konopischt. The telling absence of references to Serbia in the surviving records of the Konopischt meeting is matched only by Machiko’s studied inattention to this pivotal country. The elimination of Serbia – the elephant in the room – was the unspoken assumption in Austro- Hungarian planning just days before the Sarajevo assassination. In his important 1975 article Paul Schroeder stated as much. The Matscheko Memorandum, he wrote, “even though it did not explicitly envision a resort to violence to regain a lost position of strength, paved the way for it and logically required it. Had the assassination not intervened, and had the Austro-German political offensive been tried [i.e., in Romania] its failure would quickly have compelled the Central Powers to seek the sort of ground for preventive war that the assassination gave them.”112 Habsburg Minister to Bucharest Ottokar Czernin had by early June 1914 got a pretty good idea that Austria-Hungary had set itself on a collision course. He had by now come round to the view that the Monarchy should try and reach a settlement with Belgrade. “If we cannot smash Serbia,” he told J.M.Baernreither, “we should abandon all prejudices.” But coming to terms with the Serbs, he said, was a view which could get “no hearing either in Vienna or Budapest”.113

Conclusion Sarajevo 1914

The remarkable fact about Austro-Serbian relations in the months before the Sarajevo assassination is that they were reasonably good. All tensions had subsided with the ending of the October 1913 crisis over Albania. The murders in Sarajevo, of course, immediately revived and dramatized the old antagonism. Yet the assassination of Franz Ferdinand succeeded only because of the self-obsession and incompetence of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Landeschef Oskar Potiorek (we can go in to detail about the exactly why and how but this will take another long article). The story of 28 June 1914 is as much about the personal aspirations of this Austrian General as it is about an amateurish conspiracy against Franz Ferdinand. However, a dead Archduke now became a useful tool in Vienna’s pursuit of pocket imperialism in the Balkans, expressed by Austria-Hungary’s resolve to place Serbia in the dock. This despite the fact that the Ballhausplatz had no proof of the Serbian Government’s complicity in the Sarajevo assassination and that its own investigator Friedrich von Wiesner had actually ruled out such complicity.

For more than a hundred years, generations of historians have likewise failed to provide any convincing evidence that official Belgrade was involved in the conspiracy to kill Franz Ferdinand. What they have invariably pointed to, ever since the publication of Professor Stanojevic’s unsourced pamphlet in 1923, is the involvement of Lieutenant-Colonel Apis, the head of Serbian military intelligence and also the leader of the so-called Black Hand organization. Apis’s own confessions that he had organized the Sarajevo assassination – first revealed in Serbian memoir literature of the early 1930’s and confirmed at his posthumous 1953 retrial – appeared to substantiate the view that official Serbia, albeit in the shape of a rogue officer heading a secret nationalist society, had stood behind the Sarajevo outrage.

And so the Black Hand story became the gospel truth even though Apis’s various statements on the subject were contradictory as well as generally absurd. As this book has argued, Apis was a braggart and a liar. What is clear, however, is that he was sufficiently alarmed before the assassination to try and stop it once he learned that some youths loaded with weapons had been assisted to cross into Bosnia. He knew that Serbia was not ready for another war, let alone one against Austria-Hungary Equally important was his realization that a major complication in relations with Austria-Hungary could fatally undermine the plan he was actively pursuing in May-June 1914 to take power in Serbia through a military putsch and with the cooperation of Serbia’s opposition parties. The famous and to this day misunderstood Serbian warning to Vienna in June 1914 appears to have been his work. So why, then, if Apis had tried to prevent the assassination, did he later brag that he had put it all together? The answer is, of course, that a world war had intervened. In the middle of that conflict Apis happily took credit for what many Serbs viewed as the patriotic act of assassinating an Austrian Archduke. Moreover, at his 1917 Salonika trial, he thought he would save his skin by claiming responsibility for Sarajevo. Interestingly – and very tellingly – in his Salonika confidential report Apis failed to mention what he privately admitted in 1915: that he had actually taken steps to halt the assassins. In 1917, obviously, with his life at stake, Apis had to adjust his story to fit his reduced circumstances, for it was of no advantage to him to say, as he had been doing, that he had both organized the patriotic work of assassinating the Archduke and also that he had tried to stop it.

In 2011 Sean McMeekin in his “The Russian Origins of the First World War” concluded with a dose of pomposity that, since the 1920S, ‘few informed observers have doubted Apis’s – and thus semi-official Serbian – culpability in the crime. No serious historians do today.’7 It should, however, be incumbent on serious historians to look closely at the foundations of established versions of history, especially those set in controversial contexts. Upon re-examination, the established thesis of Apis and the Black Hand organization as culpable for Sarajevo is shown to be a complete falsehood. For, rather than organizing the assassination, it is clear that Apis tried to prevent it.

Many of the tendentious evaluations that have associated official or semi-official Serbia with the Sarajevo assassination have then moved seamlessly on to the outbreak of the war, equally tendentiously presenting it as an inevitable consequence of the murders. Yet those historians who have argued in this manner have wrongly fused the question of who bore responsibility for the assassination with a second, separate question of what subsequently impelled the Habsburg decision-makers to react as they did. Certainly, Vienna was not weighing up any Black Hand linkage – if for no other reason than that no one was claiming that this organization was involved; nor indeed was such a claim made until long after the end of the Empire, becoming a theme only in 1923. For this reason, the impact of Apis and his Black Hand on the Austro- Hungarian decision for war was nil, and any opposite contention is, in fact, a complete red herring. This matter was pointed out a long time ago with elegant simplicity by AJ.P. Taylor: “Berchtold determined to force war on Serbia, though he had no proof of Serbian complicity and never found any … The later evidence of Serbian complicity, even if accepted, is therefore irrelevant to the judgment of Berchtold’s policy.”

Yet some historians are stubbornly clinging to the thesis about Serbia’s culpability for the assassination which they then use to account for Habsburg decision-making in July 1914. In a major recent study of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff, Gunther Kronenbitter explains Vienna’s decision for war on the grounds of Serbia supposedly being a rogue state in the existing international system: “Serbia”, he writes, “challenged the existential basis of the Habsburg Empire because, with regard to the Serbian propaganda, it dodged an interstate resolution. The Belgrade Government was not ready to accept responsibility for the nationalist underground.” Kronenbitter has apparently not studied the Serbian reply to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, nor does he seem aware of Berchtold’s private admission in July 1914 of the difficulty of finding any Great Serbian propaganda material aimed against the Monarchy. Count Hoyos’s own post-war confession that he did not, in July 1914, believe Belgrade guilty of the assassination, taken together with Serbia being cleared by Vienna’s own investigator at the time, show that the Ballhausplatz knew Serbia’s Government was innocent of assassinating the Archduke, and indeed of spreading propaganda. Thus Austria- Hungary was not acting on a misplaced assumption of Serbian guilt, but rather on the basis of its wider strategic self-interest. Its regional strategic ambition is clearly revealed in, among other documents, Franz Joseph’s handwritten letter to Wilhelm II, delivered by Hoyos on 5 July 1914.

Equally noteworthy has been the general inability of Vienna-focused historians to distinguish between ‘South Slav’ and ‘Great Serbian’ concepts. The two are normally lumped together, as indeed they were at the Ballhausplatz. Yet there was not a great deal of interest in Serbia for the South Slav idea – this was a Croat nationalist construct which had evolved into a demand for Trialism, a different name for Great Croatia. To be sure, some Serbian intellectuals, such as Skerlic and Cvijic, were proponents of Yugoslav unity – though not under a Habsburg roof Serbian politicians, on the other hand, were interested in a Great Serbia. But Bosnia-Herzegovina, the main building block of such a state, looked unattainable to them. Therefore, Serbian policy had focused on Kosovo and Macedonia long before the annexation, and it continued on that course after the annexation. Pasic was forever telling his Austro-Hungarian interlocutors that Serbia’s perspective ‘lay in the south’ and that there was nothing it was hoping for in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The South Slav issue, in truth, was entirely a domestic Habsburg affair.

The Yugoslav ideology that reached Gavrilo Princip and his friends in Sarajevo did not come from Serbia. It was native to Austria and Hungary or, to be more precise, to their provinces of Dalmatia and Croatia. Representing a new variant of Yugoslavism, one that began to be associated with Croat students from the mid-1890’s onward, it had nothing to do with Trialism or Great Croatia. It was a “nationalist and revolutionary” movement asserting the existence of a single Serbo-Croat nation and calling for the overthrow of the Monarchy Maintained by Hungarian misrule in Croatia and led by such able agitators as Tartaglia and Ujevic, it attracted the support of both Croat and Serb students in Croatia and, more importantly, it had a very significant effect on high school students in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Young Bosnia” was born in 1912 of a student riot in Sarajevo that had been organized as a manifestation of solidarity with students in Croatia. Princip, one of the most active participants in the riot, was of Serbian birth, but to describe him, as is so often the case, as a “Serbian nationalist” is to impute to him the antithesis of his actual political orientation. Princip and his fellow assassins, with one exception, were believers in Serbo-Croat unity and would actually call themselves “nationalists”, meaning by this “Serbo-Croats” or “Yugoslavs”. The exception was the one Muslim in their number, M. Mehmedbašić, whose loyalties were pro-Serbian rather than Yugoslavian. Otherwise, they were South Slav nationalists and Yugoslavs were to them a single nation that needed its state – but not within the Habsburg Monarchy.

The rationale for war against Serbia as a means of mending and reinvigorating the Empire internally runs like a red thread through the reasoning of Habsburg officialdom regarding the South Slav question. Important as this rationale is in the context of 1914, however, this book has also pointed out the wider regional considerations that guided Vienna’s decision for war. On three occasions in 1912-1913 Austria-Hungary was on the brink of military intervention against Serbia over matters (in Albania) which had nothing to do with any South Slav issues – but had everything to do with projecting its Great Power status. It was only a question of time before Berchtold, Conrad and, indeed, Franz Ferdinand decided to strike out. In July 1914, the necessity to act appeared all the more urgent because of the deterioration in the regional situation. In particular, Romania’s apparent defection from the Triple Alliance set the alarm bells ringing in both Vienna and Budapest. Seldom had a little war looked more enticing: Serbia would basically disappear, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania would all be secured, and Russia would be dislodged from the region. Provided that Germany could ward Russia off, this war in the Balkans could be a game changer for the long-suffering Habsburg Empire. The strategy was risky,  but quite irresistible.

Of course, it all ended with the break-up of the old Monarchy The Austrian writer Anton Mayr-Harting opined that this was the predictable outcome. There is a sense in which, however, the Empire lived on even after 1918, for at the conclusion of the Great War the Serbs created a large, multi-national “Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes” – instead of setting up a nationally compact Great Serbia, which would have been an equitable and befitting end result of their enormous blood sacrifice since 1912. It was to prove the costliest mistake in their history. There is a tendency in Western writings to see the new state, ruled from Belgrade, as having in effect been a Great Serbia. But it was nothing of the kind. It inherited from Austria-Hungary the same problem that had plagued that empire: disaffected nationalism, in this case the Croat variety. In 1929, King Alexander changed the name of the country into ‘Yugoslavia’. But no amount of camouflage could compensate for the absence of unity. In 1941, when Hitler invaded, Yugoslavia collapsed like a house of cards. Interestingly, in the horrendously bloody civil war of 1941-1945 that ensued, the opposing royalist Cetnik and the communist Partisan forces both contained units named “Gavrilo Princip.”

In communist Yugoslavia nations and national minorities were sheltered and even pampered in a laudable federal system, and formerly non-recognized national groups became recognized nations. Soon after the death of its dictator Marshal Josip Broz Tito, however, Yugoslavia entered a period of vicious nationalist strife and then fragmented again in conditions of escalating violence. This time it would not be resurrected. One wonders how long a reformed, federated Habsburg state would have lasted had it ever been created along the national principle and even abstained from pursuing Balkan hegemony. In 1948, writing about the new Yugoslavia towards the end of his study of the Habsburg Monarchy, AJ.P. Taylor dwelt on the subject of common loyalty and reflected on what could appease national conflicts. He could not have foreseen at the time just how right he would turn out to be when he described Tito as “the last of the Habsburgs.”

More on this when we look at the famous 1914 “July Days” in part two of this extensive case study.


95. ÖUA, vol.8, no.9627, memorandum Flotow; May 1914 – no exact date is given.

96. ÖUA, vol.8, no.9627.

97. F. R. Bridge, From Sadowa to Sarajevo,1972, p.368; Alma Hannig, Austro- Hungarian foreign policy and the Balkan Wars, pp.240-241.

98. ÖUA, vol.8, no.9918, memorandum Matscheko. The editors of ÖUA point out that the memorandum carries no date, but stipulates “vol 24. Juni”, i.e., before 24 June.

99. Paul Schroeder, Romania and the Great Powers before 1914, Revue roumaine d’histoire, 14,1975, pp.45-46.

100. ÖUA, vol.7, no.8945, private letter Haymerle to Berchtold, I November 1913; no.8961, private letter Hoyos to Haymerle, 6 November 1913.

101. ÖUA, vol.8, no.9918, memorandum Matscheko. A much abridged version of the Matscheko Memorandum is provided in English translation in Bridge, From Sadowa to Sarajevo, pp.443-447.

102. Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers, p.115.

103. ÖUA, vol.8, appendix to no.9984.

104. H. Bertil A. Petersson, Das osterreichischungarische Memorandum an Deutschland vom 5. JuIi 1914, Scandia, vol.30, no.1, 1964, pp.145, 157, 159 and 173.

105. Paul W. Schroeder, Romania and the Great Powers before 1914, Revue Roumaine d’Histoire, XIV, 1,1975, p.45.

106. ÖUA, vol.8, no.9926.

107. HBA Petersson, Das österreichisch-ungarische Memorandum, P.154.

108. ÖUA, vol.8, no.9918. memorandum Matscheko.

109. ÖUA, vol.7, no.8498, address Berchtold to Franz Joseph, 28 August, 1913

110. ÖUA, vol.8, no.9918, memorandum Matscheko.

111. Cited in Jozsef Galantai, Die Österreichisch Ungarische Monarchie und der Weltkrieg,1979, p.202.

112. Schroeder, Romania and the Great Powers before 1914, p.46.

113. Josef M. Baernreither, Fragments of a Political Diary,1930, p.302.

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