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Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. That adage applies to governments as well as to people. A case in point is the ultimatum that Austria gave Serbia on July 23, 1914. Austrian officials were counting on Serbia to reject their demands, which would give Vienna the opportunity it was seeking to wage a swift and victorious war against its upstart neighbor. The Austrians were right on the first count, but horrifically wrong on the second. The result would be the Great War that changed the course of the twentieth century.
The immediate reason for Austria’s ultimatum was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Bosnia on June 28, 1914 by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. Austrian officials suspected, quite rightly and understandably, that the Serbian government either orchestrated the assassination or (as was actually the case) knew who had. But the deeper reason was the contest for power in the Balkans. Both Austria and Serbia had their sights set on acquiring the remains of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. With Franz Ferdinand’s death, Austria had the pretext it wanted to put the smaller and weaker Serbians in their place.
Only one obstacle stood in Vienna’s way: Russia. It was Serbia’s patron. If Austria marched on Serbia, Russia would likely come to Belgrade’s side. If that happened, an easy victory might suddenly become a devastating loss.
Looking to force Moscow to stay on the sidelines, Austria turned to its ally, Germany. On July 5, a week after Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Kaiser Wilhelm II gave Austria what it wanted: the promise of Germany’s “faithful support” if Russia came to Serbia’s aid.
With the Kaiser’s so-called blank check in hand, Austrian officials began drafting an ultimatum to Serbia. The rationale for the ultimatum was simple: attacking Serbia without warning would make Serbia look like a victim. In contrast, an ultimatum would put the burden of avoiding war on Belgrade.
It took Austrian officials a week to persuade Count Tisza, the prime minister of Hungary, the often overlooked half of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to agree to the ultimatum. Even when he did, Vienna had to decide when to send it. French president Raymond Poincaré was scheduled to meet with Tsar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg from July 20–23. Vienna worried that if it delivered the ultimatum while Poincaré was in St. Petersburg, Russia might coordinate its response with France. So Vienna decided to wait until the evening of July 23.
At 6:00 PM on the appointed day, the Austrian ambassador to Serbia, Baron Giesl, delivered the ultimatum to the Serbian finance minister Lazar Paču. He was acting in the place of the Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, who was campaigning in southern Serbia for the country’s August elections. The cover letter to the ultimatum gave Belgrade precisely forty-eight hours to reply.
The ultimatum listed ten demands. The most significant were that Serbia accept “’representatives of the Austro-Hungarian government for the suppression of subversive movements” (Point 5) and that Serbia "bring to trial all accessories to the Archduke’s assassination and allow Austro-Hungarian delegates (law enforcement officers) to take part in the investigation" (Point 6).
The ultimatum caused a stir in foreign capitals. Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov declared that no state could accept such demands without “committing suicide.” British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey declared that he had "never before seen one state address to another independent state a document of so formidable a character." Winston Churchill, then Britain’s first lord of the admiralty, called it “the most insolent document of its kind ever devised.”
Perhaps. From the vantage point of 2014, the Austrian ultimatum looks far less insolent. As Christopher Clark notes in The Sleepwalkers, his magisterial history of the origins of World War I, Vienna’s demands in 1914 fell far short of the demands NATO made on Serbia in 1999 over Kosovo. They also fell far short of the demands that President George W. Bush made of the Taliban after September 11. And Austria’s ultimatum was far more diplomatic than the one President Theodore Roosevelt gave Morocco ten years before Franz Ferdinand’s assassination after the brigand Ahmed ibn-Muhammed Raisuli kidnapped Ion Perdicaris, a Greek-American citizen. Roosevelt’s demand was blunt: "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead."
Whether the ultimatum was insolent or not, Vienna got the answer it wanted. Serbia refused to meet all ten demands. On July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia. The result, however, was not the quick and glorious triumph that Austrian officials expected. What they got instead was a cataclysmic fight that devastated Europe and ended the Austro-Hungarian empire. Be careful what you wish for, indeed.