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Diplomacy is often a contest to gain the upper hand in the court of world opinion. The country that can depict itself as victim of aggression even when the facts are more complex may rally greater support abroad than it would otherwise. A case in point is Serbia’s response on July 25, 1914 to Austria’s ultimatum over the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Serbian officials knew far more about the plot than they had let on, and some of them welcomed war with Austria as a way to achieve their ambitions for Serbia in the Balkans. But Belgrade’s skillfully worded response to the ultimatum helped cement the image of imperial Austria using a tragic killing as an excuse to crush its smaller and weaker neighbor.
Austria’s ultimatum hardly came as a surprise to the Serbs. Its preparation was one of the worst kept secrets in Europe. But the reaction of Serbian prime minister, Nikola P. Pašić, when it came was curious. He had spent July 23 in southern Serbia campaigning. Hours before Baron Giesl, the Austrian ambassador, handed the ultimatum to Serbia’s finance minister, Lazar Paču, Pašić suddenly decided he needed to head to Thessaloniki, Greece for some rest. He was waiting for his train to depart when Paču reached him by phone asking that he return to Belgrade. Pašić said no and boarded his train. An hour into his trip he changed his mind and decided to return to the Serbian capital.
No one knows for sure why Pašić felt a sudden urge to take a break from campaign or why he rethought his plans to head to Thessaloniki. When he reached Belgrade on the morning of July 24, his fellow ministers were debating how to respond to the ultimatum. If events had unfolded differently, Belgrade might have capitulated to Vienna to avoid war. But whatever doubts Serbian officials harbored about going nose-to-nose with Serbia had evaporated by the morning of July 25 when they learned that Russia had resolved to “go to any length in protecting Serbia.” Belgrade would fight, not concede.
While welcoming a war with Austria, Pašić and his ministers didn’t want the blame for starting one. So they set out to craft a response that would make Serbia the victim in the world’s eyes. For hours they labored over their text. What they produced was so skillfully written that Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose so-called blank check had encouraged the Austrians to issue their ultimatum, read it as "a great moral victory for Vienna; but with it, every reason for war is removed.” Many of the Kaiser’s contemporaries reacted the same way, and many histories today present the Serbian response as a valiant effort to avoid a war.
But as the historian Christopher Clark argues in The Sleepwalkers, the Serbian response was in fact “a highly perfumed rejection” of Austria’s demands. While accepting a few Austrian demands outright, the response mostly dodged the demands or artfully quibbled with them. On one point the response even lied, insisting that Serbia could not locate one of the men who had plotted the archduke’s assassination, when in fact Serbian police had secretly moved him out of Belgrade. To quote Clark again:
This was a document fashioned for Serbia’s friends, not for its enemy. It offered the Austrians amazing little…[I]t represented a continuation of the policy the Serbian authorities had followed since 28 June: flatly to deny any form of involvement and to abstain from any initiative that might be taken to indicated the acknowledge of such involvement…[T]he text was perfectly pitched to convey the tone of voice of reasonable statesmen in a condition of sincere puzzlement, struggling to make sense of outrageous and unacceptable demands. This was the measured voice of the political, constitutional Serbia disavowing any ties with its expansionist pan-Serbian twin in a manner deeply rooted in the history of Serbian external relations. It naturally sufficed to persuade Serbia’s friends that in the face of such a full capitulation, Vienna had no possible ground for taking action.
No wonder that Baron Musulin, who wrote the first draft of the Austrian ultimatum, called it “the most brilliant specimen of diplomatic skill that I have seen.”
When Pašić handed Serbia’s handwritten response to Baron Giesl with five minutes to spare before the 6:00 p.m. deadline on July 25—a jammed typewriter had slowed things up—the ambassador took the response for the rejection it was—and Pašić made no effort to persuade him otherwise. Giesl ordered his staff to depart Belgrade. Within an hour, they had left Serbia. Three days later, and exactly one month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, Austria declared war.
Although Austria and Serbia both got the war they wanted, Vienna took the lion’s share of the blame. Serbia had understood the importance of courting world opinion, and it had used its response to cast itself as a country that was having a war forced upon it. That image would stick in most foreign capitals, and it would help drive the coalition that would form against Austria and its ally, Germany.