Belgian Reaction to Austria's Ultimatum, 24-26 July 1914

Reproduced below is the text of a series of letters despatched from Berlin during the period 24-26 July 1914 by the Belgian ambassador to Germany, Baron Beyens.

In his letters Beyens demonstrates increasing anxiety over the prospect of an apparently engineered war against Serbia by both Austria-Hungary and Germany.

Beyens, as with the other European powers, expressed shock at the strict terms of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia of 23 July 1914, the latter comprising Vienna's response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand the previous month.

Two days following Beyens last letter - on 28 July 1914 - Austria-Hungary duly declared war on Serbia, setting in train events that led to the First World War.

Official Report by Baron Beyens
Belgian Minister at Berlin in 1914

Berlin, July 24, 1914

The publication of the ultimatum addressed yesterday by the Cabinet of Vienna to that of Belgrade goes far beyond anything that the most pessimistic anticipations of which I informed you in my report of the 16th of this month had anticipated.

Evidently Count Berchtold and Count Tisza, the responsible authors of this sudden blow, have come under the influence of the military party and the Austro-Hungarian General Staff.

The result of such a lack of moderation and discretion will inevitably be to attract the sympathies of the great mass of European public opinion to Serbia, in spite of the horror caused by the murders of Serajevo.

Even at Berlin, to judge by the Liberal papers, one has the impression that the Austro-Hungarian demands are considered excessive. "Austro-Hungary," says the Vossische Zeitung this morning, "will have to prove the grave accusations which she brings against Serbia and her Government by publishing the results of the judicial inquiry held at Serajevo."

Her von Jagow and Herr Zimmermannn (note: the German Secretary of State and Under-Secretary) had assured us last week that they did not know the decisions taken by the Vienna Cabinet, nor the extent of the Austro-Hungarian demands.  How can we believe in this ignorance to-day?

It is improbable that the Austro-Hungarian statesmen should have made up their minds to such a step, the most dangerous stroke which their diplomacy has ever ventured against a Balkan State, without having consulted their colleagues at Berlin, and without having obtained the assent of the Emperor William.  The fact that the Emperor has given a free hand to his allies in spite of the risk of bringing on a European conflict, is explained by the fear and horror which he has of regicides.

"What is Serbia going to do?" was the question which the majority of my colleagues were asking this morning; "Will she turn to Russia and beg for her support by telegram?"  If she does so, she cannot receive any reply before the expiration of the time limit in the Austrian ultimatum.

Russia will be obliged as a preliminary to concert measures with France and, very astutely, the Cabinet of Vienna has postponed the outbreak of the storm until the moment when M. Poincare and M. Viviani (note: the French President and Prime Minister) are on their voyage between St. Petersburg and Stockholm.

The threatening tone in which the Austro-Hungarian note is couched is all the more unfortunate because the Russian Ambassador at Vienna, I learn, had recently informed Count Berchtold that his Government would support the Austro-Hungarian demands with the Pashitch Cabinet if those demands were moderate.

To-day a new crisis has begun, recalling the crisis of 1909 after the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The best we can hope is that it will not develop in a more tragic manner, in spite of the bellicose wishes of the Austrian General Staff, which are perhaps shared by that at Berlin.  The best advice to give to Serbia would be to invite the mediation and intervention of the Great Powers.

Berlin, July 25, 1914

The situation has grown no worse since yesterday, but this does not mean that it has grown any better.

As unfavourable symptoms, mention must first be made of the language used at the Wilhelmstrasse to the members of the diplomatic body: The Imperial Government approves the demarche made by the Austro-Hungarian Government at Belgrade, and does not consider it excessive in form.  An end must be made of the murder plots and revolutionary intrigues which are hatched in Serbia.

Herr von Jagow and Herr Zimmermannn would not talk in this way if they had not received orders to this effect from the Emperor, who has determined in the interests of dynastic friendship to support Austria-Hungary to the last, and who is susceptible to the very legitimate fears inspired by outrages against Royal personages.

It should, further, be remarked that the German press, with the exception of course of the socialist papers, appears to have recovered from the first astonishment caused by the Austro-Hungarian note.  It plays the part of chorus to the press of Vienna and Budapest, and contemplates coolly the contingency of war while expressing the hope that it will remain localized.

Finally, the view gains ground more and more among my colleagues - and I believe it to be well founded - that it is not so much a desire to avenge the death of the Hereditary Archduke and to put an end to the pan-Serbian propaganda, as an anxiety for a personal rehabilitation as a statesman which has induced Count Berchtold to send to Belgrade this incredible and unprecedented note.

From the moment when his personal feelings and reputation are at stake it will be very difficult for him to draw back, to temporize and not to put his threats into execution.

The favourable signs are less evident.  However, they deserve to be pointed out.  Not to mention European public opinion, which would not understand the necessity for taking up arms to determine a dispute whose settlement is undoubtedly within the sphere of diplomacy, it appears impossible not to notice the general movement of reaction and disapproval which manifests itself outside Germany and Austro-Hungary against the terms of Count Berchtold's ultimatum.

The Vienna Cabinet, which was right in substance, is wrong in form.  The demand for satisfaction is just; the procedure employed to obtain it is indefensible.

Although Count Berchtold has skilfully chosen his moment to act - the British Cabinet being absorbed in the question of Home Rule and Ulster, the head of the French State and his Prime Minister being on a journey, and the Russian Government being obliged to put down important strikes - the fact that the Austrian Minister has thought himself bound to send to the Great Powers an explanatory memorandum, gives to those Powers, and particularly those of the Triple Entente, the right to reply, that is to say, to open a discussion and intervene in favour of Serbia, and enter into negotiation with the Cabinet of Vienna.

If it is done at the earliest moment possible, a great gain in favour of the maintenance of European peace will result.  Even a hasty military demonstration by the Austro-Hungarian army against Belgrade, after the refusal of the Serbian Government to accept the ultimatum, might, perhaps, not produce irremediable consequences.

Lastly, the three members of the Triple Alliance are not in perfect agreement in the present dispute.  It would not be surprising if the Italian Government should determine to play a separate part and seek to intervene in the interests of peace.

Berlin, July 26, 1914

What I have to tell you on the subject of the crisis is so serious that I have decided to send you this report by special messenger.  Yesterday's reports which I have committed to the post, with a fear lest they should be read by the German cabinet noir, necessarily contained opinions of a much more optimistic nature.

Repeated conversations, which I had yesterday with the French Ambassador, the Dutch and Greek Ministers, and the British Charge d'Affaires, raise in my mind the presumption that the ultimatum to Serbia is a blow prepared by Vienna and Berlin, or rather designed here and executed at Vienna.

It is this fact which creates the great danger.  The vengeance to be taken for the murder of the hereditary Archduke, and the pan-Serbian propaganda would only serve as a pretext.  The object sought, in addition to the annihilation of Serbia and of the aspirations of the Jugo-Slavs, would be to strike a mortal blow at Russia and France, in the hope that England would remain aloof from the struggle.

To justify these conclusions I must remind you of the opinion which prevails in the German General Staff that war with France and Russia is unavoidable and near - an opinion which the Emperor has been induced to share.

Such a war, warmly desired by the military and pan-German party, might be undertaken to-day, as this party think, in circumstances which are extremely favourable to Germany, and which probably will not again present themselves for some time: Germany has finished the strengthening of her army which was decreed by the law of 1912, and on the other hand she feels that she cannot carry on indefinitely a race in armaments with Russia and France which would end by her ruin.

The Wehrbeitrag has been a disappointment for the Imperial Government, to whom it has demonstrated the limits of the national wealth.  Russia has made the mistake of making a display of her strength before having finished her military reorganization.  That strength will not be formidable for several years; at the present moment it lacks the railway lines necessary for its deployment.

As to France, M. Charles Humbert has revealed her deficiency in guns of large calibre; and apparently it is this arm that will decide the fate of battles.  For the rest, England, which during the last two years Germany has been trying, not without some success, to detach from France and Russia, is paralyzed by internal dissensions and her Irish quarrels.

In the eyes of my colleagues as well as in my own, the existence of a plan concerted between Berlin and Vienna is proved by the obstinacy with which the Wilhelmstrasse (note: Offices of the German Ministry) denies having had knowledge of the tenor of the Austrian note prior to Thursday last.  It was also only on Thursday last that it was known at Rome, from which circumstance arises the vexation and dissatisfaction displayed here by the Italian Ambassador.

How can it be admitted that this note, which, owing to the excessive severity of its terms and the shortness of the period allowed to the Cabinet of Belgrade for their execution is destined to render war immediate and unavoidable, was drafted without consultation with and without the active collaboration of the German Government, seeing that it will involve the most serious consequences for that Government?

An additional fact, which proves the intimate cooperation of the two Governments, is their simultaneous refusal to prolong the period allowed to Serbia.  After the request for an extension formulated by the Russian Charge d'Affaires at Vienna had been refused yesterday at the Ballplatz, here, at the Wilhelmstrasse, Herr von Jagow evaded similar requests presented by the Russian and English Charges d'Affaires who, in the name of their respective Governments, claimed the support of the Berlin Cabinet for the purpose of inducing Austria to grant Serbia a longer interval in which to reply.

Berlin and Vienna were at one in their desire for immediate and inevitable hostilities.  The paternity of the scheme, as well as of the procedure employed, which are, on account of their very cleverness, worthy of a Bismarck, is attributed here, in the diplomatic world, to a German rather than to an Austrian brain.  The secret had been well guarded, and the execution of the scheme followed with marvellous rapidity.

It should be observed that, even if the secret aim of the statesmen of the two empires is not to make the war general and force Russia and France to take part, but merely to destroy the power of Serbia and prevent her from carrying on her clandestine propaganda, the result is the same.

It is impossible that that result has not been perceived by the far-seeing rulers of the German Empire.  On either of these assumptions, the intervention of Russia would appear inevitable; they must have deliberately faced this complication, and prepared themselves to support their allies with vigour.  The prospect of a European war has not caused them an instant's hesitation, if, indeed, the desire to evoke it has not been the motive of their actions.

Diplomatic relations between Austria and Serbia have been broken off since yesterday evening.  Events are developing rapidly.  It is expected here that the Serbian King, together with his Government and the Army, will withdraw to the newly-annexed territories, and allow the Austrian troops to occupy Belgrade and the country abutting on the Danube, without offering any resistance.  Then, however, arises the painfully acute question: what will Russia do?

We too must put this disquieting question to ourselves, and hold ourselves in readiness for the worst eventualities, for the European war, of which people were always talking on the agreeable assumption that it would never break out, has now become a threatening reality.

The tone of the semi-official German press is more moderate this morning and suggests the possibility of a localization of the war, only however at the cost of the desinteressement of Russia, who is to content herself with the assurance that the territorial integrity of Serbia will be respected.

Is not the aim of this language to give some satisfaction to England and also to German public opinion which, in spite of yesterday's Austrophile demonstrations in the streets of Berlin, is still pacific and alarmed?  In any event, the denouement. of the crisis, whatever it may be, is apparently to be expected soon.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. I, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

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