Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Just Before the July Crisis: The Final Months of Peace in Europe

Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 The La Belle Époque It Celebrated Would Crash in 1914

Samuel R. Williamson, Jr.

[Editor's Note:  Professor Williamson with Russel Van Wyk is co-author of July 1914: Soldiers, Statesmen, and the Coming of the Great War. Waveland Press: 2015]

In the spring of 1914 Sergei Sazonov (1860–1927) could look back on four years of steady success for Russian policy since his appointment as foreign minister in 1910. A secret agent behind the Balkan League, Sazonov had seen the efforts exceed his highest expectations. Serbia, doubled in size and population, had enhanced his standing with the Pan-Slavs. Moreover, he had just forced Berlin to capitulate and accept changes to the appointment status of General Otto Liman von Sanders (1855–1929) in Constantinople. Rather than command Ottoman troops, Liman von Sanders would instead supervise their training efforts. St. Petersburg, still coveting the Straits, would have less to fear if push came to shove. Further, during the ministerial realignment of the tsar’s government in February, the aged Ivan Goremykin (1839–1917) became premier. However, the real power rested with the agriculture minister, Alexander Krivoshein (1857–1921), who zealously wished for the Straits. Sazonov had a crucial ally.

Another Sazonov effort also showed promise: weaning Bucharest off of its secret accord with the Triple Alliance. Sazonov’s support of the Romanian leader, King Carol I, King of Romania (1839–1914), during the Second Balkan War had helped, as had continuing friction between the Romanian government and Hungary over the status of the three million Romanians living under hostile Magyar rule in Transylvania. In early June the tsar visited the Romanian port of Constanta, with Sazonov provocatively crossing into Transylvania. Romania’s possible defection created new alarms in Vienna, while giving St. Petersburg an additional chess piece.

Relations with Serbia continued on an intimate basis. Minister Hartwig and Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić (1846–1926) were seen together almost daily in Belgrade. With the Turks ousted, Hartwig now focused his attention on Austria-Hungary. While he cautioned the Serbs that recovery had to come, he stirred the pot of South Slavic irredentism. Still, not all the news from Serbia was pleasant. In the newly conquered lands Serbs persecuted Turks and other non-Turks. More significantly, the civilian and military authorities were in total disagreement over which group should administer the new gains. By late May Pašić and his government had essentially fallen, thanks to the efforts of the army and its hidden supporters in the conspiratorial Black Hand. The crafty Serbian leader only regained power thanks to Hartwig’s intervention, a further sign that St. Petersburg had great influence. Still, even the Russians could not assure Pašić and the civilian leadership that the military would not, as it had in 1903, mount a coup. In Belgrade in June 1914 domestic politics had an unusually fractious aspect as political and military leaders vied for administrative control of the newly conquered Turkish lands.

More reassuring to Sazonov were his ties with the French. Two allies of Poincaré, first Delcassé and then Maurice Paléologue (1859–1944), had come as ambassadors to St. Petersburg. Both men were unequivocal in their support of Russia and of the alliance. French financial assistance for rail construction continued unabated and President Poincaré had scheduled a state visit for July.

The French, moreover, had tried to assist Russia with Britain. In April, when Grey visited Paris, the French pressed for Anglo-Russian naval talks. The foreign minister agreed and got Cabinet assent as well, though he soon publicly denied any such talks were underway. German intelligence quickly learned of the new developments so that Grey’s denials damaged his credibility in Berlin, a consideration that did not help in the July crisis.

Another, far more subtle transformation of Russian (and French) policy was also underway. Paris found itself pulled into the Russian imperial games in the Balkans. Desperate to have Russia threaten Germany, the French now expanded their alliance commitment to an arena far from France. For their part, the British were less committed to Balkan dealings, but the Foreign Office increasingly saw Vienna as an extension of Berlin. The practical effect of this attitude became evident in July 1914, when Vienna found it could make no move of any kind to punish Serbia for the assassination in Sarajevo without confronting unyielding Russian and French opposition.

In 1914 the third partner in the Triple Entente, Britain, focused almost completely on the Irish question. The prospect of Home Rule for Ireland brought paroxysms of anger and despair to the Tory leadership. General Henry Wilson, when not plotting with the French, virtually fomented mutiny during the Curragh incident. These severe domestic tensions led some to think, in July 1914, that a war in Europe might just prevent a civil war in Britain.

Despite the political tensions, in April 1914 Grey traveled to Paris to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the entente. It was his first and only trip outside Britain as foreign secretary. No outsider could doubt the intimacy of London’s ties with Paris. But Britain, despite agreeing to naval talks, was having friction with St. Petersburg over Persia and other colonial issues. Rather than suggest a possible break with St. Petersburg, the Foreign Office renewed its effort to keep the Anglo-Russian entente intact.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Anglo-German relations had entered a period sometimes described as one of détente. Because Britain had clearly won the Naval Race between Germany and Great Britain, naval competition eased between the two countries. Trade remained at high levels and there were talks of a possible way to divide Portuguese colonies in Africa in the future. Wilhelm had fewer personal issues with his cousin, George V, than with his deceased uncle, Edward. Bethmann Hollweg and his associates could not agree on what Britain might do in a crisis, though the chancellor hoped that Britain might stay out. In any event, on the eve of the assassination, ships from both navies gathered at the German port of Kiel in a festive celebration of maritime activity.

In 1914 the Triple Alliance showed less coherence and more internal tensions than its rival, a fact that contemporaries realized. While the alliance itself had been renewed in late 1912, complete with newly-agreed upon military and naval plans, there were problems. Political turmoil in Italy did little to assure confidence, and Austro-Italian tensions increased as they vied openly for the upper hand in Albania. Italian irredentism over the Tirol had resurged. Even a visit by Berchtold in April to see San Giuliano had done little to ease the situation.

In Berlin, the spring of 1914 brought increasing political concerns over the growing power of the Social Democrats; their electoral strength in the Reichstag alarmed the center and right parties. Fallout from the Zabern incident in which a German officer insulted civilians in Alsace and then later German soldiers further retaliated against civilians also reverberated. Russian behavior over the Liman von Sanders’ appointment affair engendered new animosity toward St. Petersburg. Indeed, in March the military press of both countries launched newspaper salvoes at each other. Still more troubling, the Prussian General Staff and the Kaiser expressed almost frantic concerns over the growth of the Russian army and economy. Increasingly, leaders indiscreetly talked of preventive war before Russia’s rearmament would be complete in 1917. These talks appear to have had little influence on the July crisis, but that has not always been the prevailing analysis. These bellicose effusions were cited as proof that Germany almost unilaterally set the pace, a view much overstated and at odds with the new information about French and Russian moves in the months before Sarajevo. Nor does it square with Vienna’s key decisions in July 1914.

Germany also worried, rightly so, about its chief ally: Austria-Hungary. The Balkan Wars had not been kind to the old monarchy; further, Germany and Austria-Hungary disagreed on many aspects of the future. Wilhelm still thought the Romanians could be kept in the alliance; disdained any talk of Bulgaria as a counterweight to Serbia; and even sought to convince Vienna that the Serbs could be contained. The Austro-Hungarians, including Berchtold, István Tisza (1861-1918), and especially General Conrad von Hötzendorf, were less sure. Indeed, even Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a staunch opponent of a military showdown, worried about the future.

Just before Sarajevo, the Ballhausplatz (home of the Habsburg foreign ministry) drafted a new policy that sought to contain Serbia by forging an alliance with Bulgaria and pushing for a final effort to corral Romania. The document called for a more assertive policy, but one that clearly needed financial and moral support from Berlin to assist in the new show of strength. Then came Sarajevo.

The years from 1898 to late June 1914 saw a nearly complete transformation of European diplomacy and the emergence of global international politics. Imperialism and armaments were themes that linked many of the changes. The major actors, especially the Triple Entente powers, took steps that helped to divide Europe into two competing alliances, even if the powers occasionally dealt with members of the other grouping. On the continent, Berlin remained the fulcrum around which Russian, French, and Habsburg policy revolved. But the centrality of Germany’s position did not make it the only actor; its three neighbors also had their agendas. The British, though always mesmerized by imperial concerns, gradually but steadily linked their fortune to those of France and Russia. 

However much Grey might pretend, even to himself, that Britain was not committed, the facts and milieu suggested otherwise. Still more critical in the July crisis, Grey’s central role in keeping the Liberal government in power gave him clout. If he left in a huff because Britain did not help France, the Cabinet would almost certainly collapse and a Tory-Liberal Imperialist coalition would come to power. If Grey played a key part in London, Foreign Minister Berchtold was his counterpart in Vienna. The de facto imperial chancellor, Berchtold’s decisions would shape the Habsburg response. The aged Emperor Francis Joseph would almost certainly accept whatever course Berchtold advocated.

Source: 1914-1918 Online, "The Way to War",  8 October 2014

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