Military Review

"Now or never". Why did Austria-Hungary start World War I?

"Now or never". Why did Austria-Hungary start World War I?

With the murder of the heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand, the hope of reforming and renewing the Austro-Hungarian Empire was lost. The main obstacle preventing the involvement of Austria-Hungary in the disastrous war for it was removed.

Background that brought Austria-Hungary into the war

In June, Foreign Minister Count Berchtold ordered 1914 to the Imperial and Royal Foreign Ministry adviser, Franz von Macheko, who was considered the most intelligent diplomat analyst, to compile a memorandum analyzing the international situation, primarily on the Balkan Peninsula. The document was going to be provided to Berlin in order to push the ally to joint actions with Vienna in the Balkans. Initially, it was about the diplomatic activity of the Central Powers. But after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Macheco reworked the document, and in early July it served as a justification for a radical (military) solution of the Balkan issue.

The first version of the memorandum was ready 24 June 1914 g. Macheco noted that the situation, compared with the period between the two Balkan wars, has worsened for Austria-Hungary and the Triple Alliance. The Austrian diplomat saw the reason for this position, on the one hand, in enhancing the activity and powers of the Entente (especially Russia and France), on the other - in the absence of the Central Powers of a clear strategy of action aimed at strengthening its position in the Balkans.

The Austrian diplomat paid special attention to relations with Romania and Bulgaria, in which in Vienna they wanted to see allies in a future war. The unexpected visit of the Russian Tsar to the Romanian port of Constanta and June 1914, a warm welcome to Nicholas II, the reinforcement of the Entente's supporters in Bucharest and the bold outburst of the Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov, who during a car trip with his Romanian counterpart I. Bratianu, as if by chance Hungarian Transylvania (Romania claimed it) - all caused great concern in Austria. The Vienna court came to the conclusion that the chances of keeping Romania in the orbit of the influence of the Triple Alliance are very small (the way it happened). Bulgaria was considered as another possible ally. But much depended on Berlin. Bulgaria was in a difficult financial situation and needed money. Only the Germans could provide a large loan to the Bulgarians. Vienna had little money. Therefore, Bulgaria was hoping to win over to its side. Austro-Hungarian diplomacy believed that the best option would be the performance of Bulgaria on their side and the benevolent neutrality of Romania.

Severely disturbed Austria and Albania. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, Albania formally gained independence. However, there was no order in this impoverished and wild corner of Europe. This tried to take advantage of Rome. The Italians dreamed of the glory of ancient Rome and hoped that Albania would become their springboard for further expansion in the Balkan Peninsula. In addition, Serbia and Montenegro claimed part of Albania.

The Albanian question confronted Italy and Austria-Hungary, the allies of the Triple Alliance. At the same time, Rome laid claim to the Austrian regions inhabited by Italians. Many in Vienna, especially from the party of the "hawks", no longer doubted that the Italians were the enemies of Austria. As a result, even Serbia faded into the background until the Sarajevo murder, when there was a question about Albania and the position of Italians in a future war (Italian "jackal" enters the war) The Italians and the Habsburgs had long, historical resentment.

However, the main headache of Vienna was Serbia. In 1913-1914 there were persistent rumors about the upcoming unification of Serbia and Montenegro, which led to the strengthening of Belgrade and the weakening of the positions of the Hapsburgs on the Balkan Peninsula. The Great Serbia project challenged the Habsburg state. The accession of Bosnia and the presence of a large Serb minority in the southern provinces of the empire made the conflict between Vienna and Belgrade practically intractable. Either Belgrade had to abandon its “Great Serb” project and voluntarily become a client state of the Habsburgs, as it was under King Milan Obrenovic; either Vienna needed to come to terms with permanent separatism in Bosnia, which was supported from the outside, with a threat that could lead to the collapse of the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the same time, the Austrians saw the roots of the Great Serbian project and Pan-Slavism in Petersburg, believing that Belgrade’s self-confidence was due to the support of the Russians. Macheko believed that the aggressiveness of the Russian Empire, associated with the expansion of its sphere of influence in the Balkans, the elimination of the remnants of Turkey’s influence and the ousting of Austria-Hungary, is due to the course of the historical development of the Russian power. The great Russian Empire was still cut off from the "free seas", that is, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It was in the interests of the Central Powers to stop the expansion of Russia in the Balkans.

The Serbian problem was for the Habsburg state the most serious, but not the only one. Another national thorn was in Galicia. Eastern Galicia stretched to the Russian Empire. Among the Ruthenian (in fact, Russian) population, “Moskofil” moods were strong. In turn, the Austro-Hungarian authorities actively developed Ukrainian nationalism in the easternmost province of the empire. “Ukraine” was considered not only as a counterbalance to the natural aspirations of the Rusyns, to the national aspirations of numerous Galician Poles, but a project to tear away the Russian lands themselves (Little Russia). The Austrians continued the project “Ukraine” begun by the Vatican and Poland, aimed at dismembering the Russian civilization and the single super-ethnos of the Rus (Russians). The project “Ukraine” became especially active already during the First World War, when the Ruthenian intelligentsia in Galicia was “mopped up”, freeing the field of activity for the Ukrainian nationalist intelligentsia.

A similar situation, although not as dangerous, was in the provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which bordered on Italy (Tyrol, Trieste) and Romania (Transylvania). Here, the Austrian authorities also had to deal with separatist sentiments, which were supported from abroad.

This interweaving of internal and external problems was complemented by the fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire became decrepit and, with the exception of the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, could no longer boast anything. As a result, the Austro-Hungarian elite got the feeling that Vienna is not respected and they want to destroy it. Hence the opinion that in the event of another crisis, Vienna should give the strictest possible answer to the received call. Otherwise, as believed in Vienna, the empire is doomed. The feeling of weakness, combined with the ongoing crises in the Balkans, sharply increased Vienna’s readiness to resort to tough unilateral measures.

Austrian caricature "Serbia must perish"

Austria-Hungary enters the war

The “hawks” party in Vienna took the murder of Franz Ferdinand as an excellent chance to solve the Serbian issue, to get rid of the “Balkan Piedmont” (Piedmont united most of Italy). “Now or never” - under this slogan were the longtime supporter of the war with Serbia, the head of the Austrian General Staff, Conrad von Hoettsendorf, and the ministers of foreign affairs and defense, Leopold Berchtold and Alexander Krobatin. Serbia would be excluded from the number of political factors in the Balkans. In Vienna, they hoped that there would be a quick local war, in which Austria would crush Serbia, and Russia would not have time to intervene. France and England in this case will not start a war.

To begin with, Vienna clarified the position of Berlin. Germany promised to fulfill its obligations towards the Habsburg state. The Kaiser believed that the rally against Serbia could not be delayed until Russia was ready for war and therefore did not decide to take on weapon. In Berlin, they made a fatal mistake, underestimating Russia's determination, and also believing in the neutrality of Britain.

Hope for a quick start of the war and the defeat of Serbia before the intervention of Russia, did not materialize. First, the hawks did not immediately succeed in winning over the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Tisza. Count Tisza was against the territorial expansion of Austria-Hungary. Such a victory led to further internal destabilization of the empire. Several new millions of Slavic subjects, and even Serbs, angry about the loss of independence, did not promise Austria-Hungary anything good. Tisa understood this well. In addition, Tisa feared that a victory over Serbia would lead to the strengthening of the Vienna Court, centralizing tendencies, a radical disturbance of the dualistic balance between Vienna and Budapest. On July 7, at the ministerial meeting, the head of the Hungarian government strongly opposed the war. However, a week later he was persuaded to change the decision, July 14 Tisza supported the proposal to present an ultimatum to Belgrade, compiled in the strongest terms. Apparently, the pro-German positions of Tisa played a role, the position of the emperor inclined toward war and the strengthening of militaristic sentiments among the Hungarian elite.

Secondly, there was an order in the Austro-Hungarian army when a significant part of the soldiers (mostly from the countryside) provided leave in July-August so that they could help families harvest. As a result, the defense capability of Austria-Hungary was weakened every summer. 1914 year was no exception. In the middle of July, von Hötzendorf was informed that the corps could be completed no earlier than July 25. Austria-Hungary could not start a war earlier than this period.

23 July Serbia was presented an ultimatum. He practically left no room for maneuver to the Serbs, undermining the sovereignty of Serbia. However, the Serbs agreed with almost all requirements, except for agreement on the participation of the Austrians in the pursuit of subversive movements against the Habsburg Empire on the Serbian territory. Belgrade clearly did not want war. In addition, Petersburg had a strong influence on the Serbs. When the text of the Serb’s response became known to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, he said: “There is no longer a reason for war”. The German emperor advised the Austrians to take Belgrade (he stood near the border) as a “hostage city” and continue negotiations, not to fight. However, the Austrians were determined to fight. Moreover, the seizure of even a small portion of the Serbian territory meant war.

Even realizing that Russia's entry into the war will cause a chain reaction, the Austro-Hungarian leadership has gone all-in. 28 July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. At the same time Vienna did not give in to pressure even of Berlin. On July 29, the German Kaiser told the Russian Tsar that he would put pressure on the Vienna Court to settle the Austro-Serbian conflict. 30 July German diplomats made unsuccessful attempts to convince the Austrian Foreign Ministry of the need to either enter into direct negotiations with St. Petersburg, or accept the mediation of London in the conflict with Serbia.

However, it was all in vain. The war machine quickly gained defense. The Austrians began shelling Belgrade. 30 July Austria-Hungary and Russia began a general mobilization. 31 July Germany demanded that Russia stop mobilization, while France was asked to declare its neutrality within 18 hours. France announced a general mobilization. 1 August Germany declared war on Russia, a big war began. Austria-Hungary went to war with Russia 6 August.

Austria-Hungary Plans

Austria-Hungary has been preparing for war for a long time. The first plans for a war with Russia were made back in the 1880s, however, only in general terms, in case of a sharp destabilization of the situation in Europe. As the situation in the Balkans changed in the depths of the Austrian General Staff (especially after it was headed by Conrad von Hoettsendorf), more detailed plans were made for a war with Russia, Serbia, and even Italy.

In 1906, the German General Staff was headed by Helmut von Moltke, nephew of the famous field marshal von Moltke. Moltke Jr. and Höttsendorf worked closely together, were on friendly terms. In the 1909 year, Moltke informed his Austrian colleague that Germany would come to the aid of Austria in the event of not only defensive, but also offensive war. That is, the attack of Austria-Hungary on Serbia caused the war of Germany against Russia.

However, in Berlin they saw the upcoming war differently than in Vienna. Austria-Hungary wanted Germany to cover it from Russia, while the Austrians would fight the Serbs. The basis of the German plan for Schlieffen-Moltke was the rapid defeat of France with the help of the right-flank thrust of the shock corps of Germany through Belgium. After the defeat of France, the Germans planned to crush Russia. The Germans hoped for a blitzkrieg - only six weeks were allotted for the defeat of the French army. This did not suit the Austrians - for at least six weeks they had to fight with Russia and Serbia on their own, with the insignificant participation of Germany, which put up a barrier in East Prussia.

Thus, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was doomed to a defensive war on the Eastern (Russian) front. For the conduct of a full-fledged offensive war against the Russian Empire, Austria-Hungary did not have enough forces and means. In addition, Austria-Hungary was made dependent on Germany. The military-strategic position of Austria-Hungary completely depended on the situation on the fronts, where the German armies fought.

It is clear that this did not suit the Austrians, but they could not change anything. They exchanged military support for Germany in the Balkan issue for independence in the overall strategy of the Central Powers. In turn, the German military-political leadership was interested in the fact that the main forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were thrown against Russia, which made it possible for Germany to calmly deal with France. The Austro-Hungarian army was to forge Russian troops, not giving them the opportunity to deeply invade the German lands.

By the beginning of the war, the Austrian General Staff had several operational plans for future military operations. One of them, “Plan B,” entered into force in the event of a local war with Serbia and Montenegro. In the southern direction, near the borders of Serbia and Montenegro, tons were deployed. "Balkan Minimum Group" is outnumbered in 10 divisions. After the start of the war, at least 12 divisions of “Detachment B” should have joined it. These troops were to strike Serbia and the north and the west and within a few weeks to defeat the enemy army and achieve victory. "Plan P" dealt with the war with the Russian Empire. In this case, the effort - "Detachment B" was sent to the Eastern Front, where "Detachment A" was already deployed - 30 divisions. After the formation of two units, the Austro-Hungarian army was supposed to launch local offensive operations. More serious operations Austrians planned to begin only the transfer of the main forces of the German army on the Eastern Front.

In fact, Austria-Hungary had to fight simultaneously on two fronts - in Serbia and Galicia. “Plan B-R”, which provided for such a possibility, existed, but was worked out by the Austrian General Staff worst of all. Although the option of war on two fronts has long been the most likely scenario for the development of war. Therefore, when 6 August 1914 Austro-Hungary and Russia were at war, the 2-I Austro-Hungarian army (“Detachment B”) was already on its way to Serbian borders and had to be transferred to the Eastern Front. Moreover, in order not to cause chaos on the already overloaded railways, the army was allowed to reach the place of the initial destination and only then it was again loaded into trains and sent to the Russian border. This confusion and slowness could be costly for Austria-Hungary if Germany were its adversary. But fortunately for Vienna, the “Russian steamroller” warmed up slowly, Russian vast distances, a weak rail network and poor organization played into the hands of the Austrians.

To be continued ...
Articles from this series:
Part 1. Austria-Hungary in the First World War
Part 2. The imperial and royal army of Austria-Hungary on the eve of the First World War
Part 3. Towards a catastrophe: the foreign policy of Austria-Hungary on the eve of the First World War
Part 4. Hope for the preservation of the Habsburg Empire. Plans for the Archduke Franz Ferdinand

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  1. parusnik
    parusnik 2 June 2015 07: 34
    Why exactly Austria-Hungary began the First World War- Austria-Hungary skillfully directed to her death .. And did not interfere with her .. playing on her political ambitions ..
  2. slovak
    slovak 2 June 2015 09: 02
    1. There is one important detail that is almost never mentioned, even in extensive works on the First World War, it began with deception. Berchtold deceived Franz Joseph that Serbian forces attacked the Austrian troops near Temes-Kubin (now Kovin, near Belgrade) and therefore, Franz Joseph agreed to the declaration of war (Nikolai Pavlovich Poletika: The Emergence of World War I, Moscow, 1964, pp. 92–93). So, as in many other cases, the First World War began with a lie.
    2. The Batican and Poland did not start the Ukraine project. That project was started by individuals in anti-Christian organizations (Potocki, Grushevsky, Petliura, Lenin, etc.) Many events of world history were prepared in these organizations many years before their implementation, such as the death of Austria-Hungary.
  3. Standard Oil
    Standard Oil 2 June 2015 09: 08
    It’s probably good to argue now, knowing what will happen in the future and how this war will end, but didn’t the rulers of Austria-Hungary understand that they already controlled Frankenstein, pulled from various pieces? will Frankenstein be sewn another foreign piece or a third hand, and then what? In my opinion, Austria was doomed to die anyway, there was only a choice between a quiet death in one’s own bed (relatively quiet, yet the collapse of the state is not calm and quiet) or you can it was a fight and died on the battlefield. It is a shame that, dying, this Austrian Frankenstein dragged the Russian Empire into his grave with him.
  4. Asily 50
    Asily 50 2 June 2015 09: 33
    Even now they are trying to shift the blame for the WWII to anyone. The discussions about * Christianity * are touched by a Slovak, a true Christian, a Catholic. Always someone is to blame, well, * cultural Europeans * did not want to fight, forced all sorts of revolutionaries and those who do not pay the Vatican. Is this preparing an excuse for the future? Some gangster judgment, at first rushed to rob, and, having received it in the face, it talks about justice, and even about legality.
  5. abvgde
    abvgde 2 June 2015 13: 16
    Austria-Hungary had options to save the state from collapse. But this could only be done in peacetime, while having a margin of time.
    Pursue a policy of centralization, smoothing out national, class, social contradictions. And thereby achieve cohesion of the state. But the war deprived AB of this opportunity. Franz Ferdinand, do not be a fool, I understood all this. For which he was killed. And Franz Joseph is Leonid Ilyich of the last years of his life, do what I want, no one will pull away.
    War is crazy. All interested people understood this. Including those who pushed their countries to WWI. So, there is reason to talk about a world conspiracy.
  6. Robert Nevsky
    Robert Nevsky 2 June 2015 15: 40
    Alexander, thanks for the article!