July 1914

Countdown to War


By Sean McMeekin

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When a Serbian-backed assassin gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June 1914, the world seemed unmoved. Even Ferdinand’s own uncle, Franz Josef I, was notably ambivalent about the death of the Hapsburg heir, saying simply, “It is God’s will.” Certainly, there was nothing to suggest that the episode would lead to conflict — much less a world war of such massive and horrific proportions that it would fundamentally reshape the course of human events.

As acclaimed historian Sean McMeekin reveals in July 1914, World War I might have been avoided entirely had it not been for a small group of statesmen who, in the month after the assassination, plotted to use Ferdinand’s murder as the trigger for a long-awaited showdown in Europe. The primary culprits, moreover, have long escaped blame. While most accounts of the war’s outbreak place the bulk of responsibility on German and Austro-Hungarian militarism, McMeekin draws on surprising new evidence from archives across Europe to show that the worst offenders were actually to be found in Russia and France, whose belligerence and duplicity ensured that war was inevitable.

Whether they plotted for war or rode the whirlwind nearly blind, each of the men involved — from Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold and German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov and French president Raymond Poincaré- sought to capitalize on the fallout from Ferdinand’s murder, unwittingly leading Europe toward the greatest cataclysm it had ever seen.

A revolutionary account of the genesis of World War I, July 1914 tells the gripping story of Europe’s countdown to war from the bloody opening act on June 28th to Britain’s final plunge on August 4th, showing how a single month — and a handful of men — changed the course of the twentieth century.



28 June 1914

assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

5–6 July 1914

Count Hoyos mission to Berlin leads to the “blank check”

10 July 1914

Berlin first learns of Austrian plans for a Serbian ultimatum

14 July 1914

Tisza converts to the Austrian “war party”

18 July 1914

Sazonov returns from vacation and learns of Austrian ultimatum plans

19 July 1914

the Ministerial Council in Vienna approves text of Serbian ultimatum

20–23 July 1914

the French presidential summit in St. Petersburg

21 July 1914

Sazonov threatens Berchtold: “There must be no talk of an ultimatum”

23 July 1914

France and Russia try to warn Vienna not to issue a Serbian ultimatum; Vienna issues its ultimatum to Serbia anyway

24–25 July 1914

Russia’s Council of Ministers decrees “partial mobilization”; Tsar Nicholas II ratifies this; France’s ambassador gives imprimatur

26 July 1914

Russia begins its “Period Preparatory to War”

28 July 1914

Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia

29 July 1914

Tsar Nicholas II orders general mobilization, then changes his mind

30 July 1914

Russian general mobilization is ordered

31 July 1914

Germany issues ultimatum to Russia to halt its mobilization

1 August 1914

first France and then Germany orders general mobilization; Germany declares war on Russia

3 August 1914

Grey gives speech to the Commons, making case for war if Germany violates Belgian neutrality; Germany declares war on France

4 August 1914

German troops enter Belgium; Britain issues ultimatum to Germany; it expires at eleven PM London time; Britain and Germany at war




Vienna: Anger, Not Sympathy

IT WAS A GORGEOUS DAY ACROSS EUROPE, typical of the glorious summer of 1914. “Throughout the days and nights,” the novelist Stefan Zweig recalled, “the heavens were a silky blue, the air soft yet not sultry, the meadows fragrant and warm.” On Sunday afternoon, 28 June, Zweig, like nearly everyone in Austria, was outdoors enjoying the weather, sitting on a park bench in the spa town of Baden, reading a Tolstoy novel. Shortly after two PM, a notice announcing the death of the heir to the throne was posted near the bandstand. Seeing the announcement, the musicians abruptly stopped playing, which alerted everyone that something was amiss. Before long, everyone in town knew the story.1

News of the murders in Sarajevo spread quickly across the country. Among government officials, Chief of Staff Conrad, who had taken leave of Franz Ferdinand just hours before the archduke was murdered, was the first to know. Conrad had taken the ten thirty PM train from Sarajevo to Croatia, where he was to supervise maneuvers. Shortly after noon on Sunday, as Conrad passed through Zaghreb, Baron Rhemen, a general of cavalry, entered his coupé and passed on the terrible story. At his final stop, in Karlstadt, Conrad received an official telegram informing him of the deaths of the Habsburg heir and his wife, and that the assassin was a “Bosnian of Serbian nationality.” Conrad concluded right then that the assassinations could not have been “the deed of a single fanatic,” but rather must be “the work of a well-organized conspiracy.” In effect, the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was “the declaration of war by Serbia on Austria-Hungary.” This act of war, he resolved, “could only be answered by war.” Without delay, Conrad wired to Emperor Franz Josef I at his alpine villa at Bad Ischl, asking whether he should break off the planned maneuvers in Croatia and return to the capital. The answer was yes. For the second evening in a row, Conrad boarded the night train, this time en route to Vienna.2

Conrad’s coolly belligerent reaction to the news was wholly in character. Army fit and ramrod-thin, the chief of staff was every bit as stubborn as Franz Ferdinand, to whom he owed his elevation to the position. The slain archduke had secured Conrad’s appointment in 1906 and his reappointment in 1912 following a short-lived sack the previous November, both times over the objection of Emperor Franz Josef, who found Conrad’s ambitious military reforms irksome. (It had not helped that the ever-belligerent Conrad had advocated invading Italy, Austria’s nominal ally, in November 1911, when Italy was at war with the Ottoman Empire.) That Conrad was keen to crush Serbia was one of the worst-kept secrets in Europe. As Cato the Elder had signed off his speeches in the Roman Senate with the reminder that “Carthage must be destroyed,” so Conrad had been consistently urging his colleagues to “solve the Serbian question once and for all” since the First Bosnian Crisis of 1908–1909.* Although, thanks to Germany’s firm backing against Russia in this crisis, Vienna was able to win European recognition of Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbian nationalists had never accepted its legitimacy: both Narodna Odbrana and the Black Hand had been formed in order to overturn the annexation. Although unsuccessful so far in overthrowing Austrian rule in Bosnia, Serbs were scoring victory after victory elsewhere. Serbia had nearly doubled in size and population during the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, gaining at the expense of Turkey and Bulgaria. Serbia’s prestige was skyrocketing, while Austria’s, owing to her failure to intervene in the Balkan Wars, was plummeting. Small wonder the Bosnian Serbs had embraced irredentism—and political terrorism.3

Rounding out the atmosphere of menace facing Vienna, Russia, Serbia’s Great Power patron, was flexing her muscles again. In a period of internal weakness following her humiliation in the Russo-Japanese War and her subsequent Revolution of 1905, Russia had backed down during the First Bosnian Crisis. Four years later, her pan-Slavist minister to Belgrade, Nikolai Hartwig, had all but single-handedly organized the Balkan League (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro), which declared war on the Ottoman Empire in October 1912, launching the First Balkan War. True, Russia had not mobilized herself in this conflict, which saw Turkey defeated on all fronts, nor did she in the Second Balkan War, launched by Bulgaria against her former allies in June 1913 in a quarrel over the spoils from the First (a quarrel Bulgaria lost soundly, after Romania and Turkey piled on her, too). But then, with Austria sitting on the sidelines during both wars even as her Serbian archenemy won victory after victory, Russia had not had to get involved. With the Serbs humiliating Turkey and scaring off Austria from intervening even without Russian backing, Conrad feared that the dual monarchy was running out of time to resolve its smoldering problems with Slavic minorities. That Franz Ferdinand had himself disapproved of Conrad’s belligerent line during the Balkan Wars did nothing to dampen Conrad’s fire—nor did the archduke’s death now prompt a reconsideration. Conrad spared no time for sentiment as he plotted Austria’s vengeance. It was now or never.

Count Leopold von Berchtold, foreign minister of Austria-Hungary, found himself at the center of the diplomatic storm of July 1914. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2004-1110-500.

Count Leopold von Berchtold, Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, was attending a country fair at Buchlowitz, near his ancestral estate at Buchlau, when he learned the news. He and his wife, Nandine, had been close with Ferdinand and Sophie. Not long ago, they had all spent a happy weekend together at the archduke’s estate at Konopischt, where the brilliantly redesigned gardens were in full springtime bloom. Berchtold, a handsome, fashionable, stupendously wealthy aristocrat not taken terribly seriously at court—he had been the emperor’s third choice when appointed to the post in 1912—had neither the Habsburg stoicism of his friend Franz Ferdinand nor the ruthless focus of Conrad. Intelligent, well-mannered, and thoughtful, Berchtold was believed to dread making decisions. It was Berchtold who had stood in Conrad’s way during the Balkan Wars, teaming up with Franz Ferdinand and the emperor against the war party and consigning Austrian policy to a listless, reactive passivity that had done nothing to keep Serbia in check. True to form, the foreign minister was stunned with grief upon learning of his friend’s death, which left him speechless. After taking a long moment to compose himself, Berchtold walked to the station and boarded the next train to Vienna, arriving late Sunday afternoon.

Berchtold found the city “seized by a kind of monstrous agitation.” In part because the government was cagey at first in revealing details about the assassinations, wild rumors were spreading through the city. Some thought the attacks were some kind of inside job, cooked up by German or Austrian intelligence; others fingered the Freemasons, while yet others heirs of the deceased Crown Prince Rudolf, who might have wished to avenge their father’s 1889 suicide based on the idea that Franz Ferdinand, Rudolf’s successor as heir to the throne, had murdered him. Some even suspected Stefan Tisza, the Hungarian minister-president, who may have seen Franz Ferdinand as a threat to Hungary’s privileged position in the dual monarchy (the archduke had disliked Tisza intensely, and the feeling was mutual). Others were certain of Serbian involvement in the crime, naming (correctly, as it turned out) the intelligence chief Apis, already a notorious bogeyman of Serbian villainy. Franz Ferdinand had been unloved at court and not better liked in Viennese society; his murder was not so much mourned in the city as appreciated for its titillating shock value. Guessing at the motivation for the crime became something of a parlor game, which added to the general air of festivity during a long holiday weekend—Monday, 29 June, was the Catholic feast day of Peter and Paul. In the Prater, after a brief interruption to digest the news from Sarajevo, the music played on through the night as if in defiance of the Sarajevo assassins, whosoever they might be.4

There was a curious parallel to the holiday gaiety in Vienna out on the “blackbird field” of Kosovo Polje in Serbia that Sunday, where the nationalist ecstasies of Vidov Dan were ramping up to fever pitch when a report of the Sarajevo assassinations reached the crowd around five PM. In a remarkable instance of life imitating art, the traditional reenactment of the Serbian martyr’s assassination of Sultan Murad I had, in recent years, featured Austrians rather than Turks as the villains, and now here was news that a real Austrian “sultan” had been slain, presumably by a Serb. The crowds, an eyewitness told Ritter von Storck, the Austrian chargé d’affaires in Belgrade, “collapsed in each other’s arms out of joy” when they heard that Franz Ferdinand had been murdered. “We have waited so long for such news,” said one. Another Serb, more political, declared that the assassination was “small vengeance for the annexation” of Bosnia-Herzegovina. (After citing this remark, Ritter asked, “and what, I wonder, would be large vengeance?”) Although the Vidov Dan ceremony officially came to a close at ten PM, Ritter informed Berchtold that the euphoric celebration had continued long into the night.5

At Bad Ischl, the alpine spa town southwest of Vienna where the Habsburg sovereign preferred to spend the summer months, the atmosphere was more somber. Late Sunday evening, a telegram reporting the murder of the Habsburg heir was presented in the formal manner, on royal plate, to Franz Josef I by his adjutant-general, Count Paar. Like Berchtold, the emperor fell momentarily speechless, although his own thoughts were less sympathetic. At last, he is said to have told the count: “Horrible! Horrible! It is God’s will.”* Having not yet learned about the Serbian connection, Franz Josef saw in the murders, at this stage, something like divine punishment for Franz Ferdinand’s morganatic marriage to Sophie Chotek, a punishment that had, at least, cleansed the Habsburg line of dynastic impurity. The emperor coldly forbade the burial of the slain archducal couple in the Habsburg vault in Vienna’s Church of the Capuchins.6

At the Ballplatz, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian government, the mood was just as serious as at Bad Ischl, although considerably less somber. As Berchtold noted in his diary, during the first cabinet meeting following the Sarajevo outrage, “one noted, yes, consternation and indignation but also a certain easing of mood.” The picture beginning to emerge in reports from Sarajevo was disturbing but also clarifying: there had been multiple assassins on the Appelquai, all of them, it seemed, Bosnian Serbs with murky ties to secret societies inside Serbia. While it was not clear yet whether there was any official Serbian involvement in plotting the assassination of the Habsburg heir, strong evidence suggested that “threads of the conspiracy . . . come together in Belgrade,” as Berchtold told Germany’s ambassador, Heinrich von Tschirschky, in a phrase he would repeat over and over in the coming weeks. Tschirschky sympathized with Berchtold’s concerns but, lacking clear instructions from Berlin, strongly urged caution.7

Few Austrians did so. “The word ‘war,’” Berchtold recalled of the Monday following the assassination, “was on everyone’s lips.” As if to preempt any possible wavering on the part of the foreign minister, Berchtold was besieged all day by officials hoping to put steel into him for a clash with Serbia. Opinion was nearly unanimous. Austria’s minister-president, Count Karl Stürgkh, was all in for war, as were General Alexander Krobatin, the war minister, and Leon von Biliński, the common imperial finance minister. Because Biliński was also minister for Bosnia-Herzegovina, sharing blame with Potoriek for the lax security arrangements in Sarajevo (Biliński was later exonerated by the emperor for any wrongdoing), he had extra motivation to avenge the crime. The burgeoning war party need not have worried. Berchtold’s blood was now up.8

This was made clear in a fateful encounter that took place sometime late Monday afternoon. Tisza, the Hungarian minister-president, had shrewdly called on Franz Josef I that morning, offering condolences for the loss of his nephew—having no inkling, if we are to believe his protestations, that the murder of the Habsburg heir would have any impact on imperial foreign policy. Tisza first learned something important was brewing when he stopped by the Ballplatz, where he was astonished to find the normally harmless Berchtold breathing fire. There is no record of what was said, but the conversation made a dramatic impression on the Hungarian, who went so far as to compose a letter of protest to Franz Josef I that the Habsburg foreign minister intended “to make the Sarajevo outrage the occasion for a settlement of accounts with Serbia.”

Tisza was a formidable figure in the dual monarchy, whose opinion Berchtold could not ignore. Stern and colorless where Berchtold was dapper and charming, Tisza was a man of few words, but he meant what he said. Like many ambitious Magyars of his generation, he preferred Germany to Austria, seeing in the former all the go-ahead dynamism the worm-eaten Habsburg empire now lacked. Tisza had studied at Berlin and Heidelberg in the early 1880s, at the height of Otto von Bismarck’s glory and prestige, and admired the founder of the German Reich so fervently that he devoted a book to him. A strict and somewhat dour Calvinist, Tisza was closer in faith and temperament to the sober Prussian Protestant-dominated Reich than to Catholic Austria, with her elaborate ceremonial and pretensions of grandeur. Despite viewing Hungary as the strongest nation in the realm, Tisza was loyal to the crown, and he believed too much in German efficiency to countenance weakening Austria’s army by giving in to nationalists who wanted Hungarian added to German as a second language of command.

Tisza had no love for Serbs or Serbia, but for that very reason he wanted the dual monarchy to avoid deeper involvement in Serbian affairs, or in the southern Balkans more generally: any enlargement of the empire could only undermine Hungary’s privileged position within it, by bringing in yet more Slavic minorities (as it was, Magyars barely made up a majority even in Hungary). Above all, Tisza believed it his duty, as a Calvinist, to oppose war in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. Going to war with Serbia, Tisza told Berchtold on Monday (or at least, this is what he claimed to have said in his protest note to the emperor, delivered two days later), “would be a fatal mistake.” “We have no sufficient grounds,” Tisza objected, “for holding Serbia responsible [for the crime] and for provoking a war with her.” If Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia in retaliation for the assassination of the archduke, Tisza warned Franz Josef I, “we should appear before the world as the disturber of the peace and would kindle the fires of a great war in the most unfavorable conditions.”9

Monday evening, Conrad arrived at the Ballplatz to sound out Berchtold, without knowing that the foreign minister had just taken a hawkish stand in conversation with Tisza. The chief of staff had endured enough of Berchtold’s prevarications over the years; this time he wanted a decisive course of action. Skipping the usual pleasantries, Conrad proposed straightaway that Austria-Hungary mobilize against Serbia, beginning on Wednesday, 1 July. Berchtold, taking a markedly different tack than he had with Tisza, replied that “the outward occasion [for mobilization] was lacking” and that “public opinion must first be prepared.” To create the necessary impression, he suggested that the Ballplatz send a sharp note to Belgrade, asking the Serbian government to dissolve “certain societies” such as Narodna Odbrana, the more respectable public face of the secret Black Hand—the latter’s existence was apparently unknown to the Austrians—and sack its minister of police. Doing this, Conrad objected, would achieve nothing: Serbia would simply appoint another minister and carry on as before. “Nothing will have the slightest effect,” the chief of staff argued, “but the use of force.” Berchtold agreed that the time had come for some kind of reckoning with Serbia, but he cautioned Conrad that he would have to speak with the emperor before authorizing any military measures. Conrad then left the Ballplatz with three parting words for Berchtold, intoned with monotonous gravity, of which Cato would have approved: “War. War. War.”10

Despite what these blunt remarks suggest, the chief of staff was a reflective man who had given serious thought to the roiling national tensions that threatened to tear asunder the dual monarchy. The imperial army (or Common Army, as it had been officially designated since the Ausgleich, or Compromise, granting Hungary autonomy in 1867) was an almost perfect microcosm of the multiethnic empire. Germans, to be sure, dominated the officer corps, of which they comprised 76 percent (as against 24 percent of the population), and German was the language of command. Nevertheless, the remaining quarter of officers was drawn from a broad mixture of national groups, led by the Hungarians (at 11 percent), Czechs (5 percent), and Croats (a bit less than 5 percent, although this was far larger than their share of the population). Recruits were expected to learn at least a dozen or so words of “command German” (Kommandosprache) and the German terms for their rifle parts and other essential equipment, but officers in turn were expected, and strongly encouraged, to learn the language of their men (Conrad himself spoke seven languages). For the most part, it worked—better, certainly, than did the empire’s parliamentary assemblies, which had all run aground on “tower of Babel” language difficulties (the main Reichsrat, in Vienna, had shut down indefinitely by 1914; the Hungarian Diet in Budapest functioned, barely, only because the Hungarians had kept most non-Hungarian speakers, such as Serbs, Slovaks, and especially Romanians, out of it).11

Giving Hungary equal status in the empire had been, to Conrad’s thinking—a view shared prominently by the slain Franz Ferdinand—a gross political error, inviting Hungary’s persecution of its minorities, such that all the empire’s other national groups were jealous for autonomy they could use to persecute their enemies, too. Austria’s failure to intervene during the Balkan Wars had left an “impression of impotence,” Conrad believed, encouraging irredentists of all national stripes and calling forth the Sarajevo outrage, as clearly as night followed day. The assassination of the Habsburg heir presented the empire with a final test of strength. Would Austria fight to preserve the unity of the Habsburg empire, or would it allow the Serbs to pry Bosnia-Herzegovina loose, thus signaling the empire’s final dissolution into a seething morass of jealous nation-states?12

The answer to this question would depend largely on Berchtold, the man in the middle. Conrad, who spoke for the Common Army, was bent on war, backed by Austria’s minister-president and the common imperial finance and war ministers. Tisza, speaking for Hungary, was dead-set against. To Conrad, Berchtold had come off sounding like his usual wavering self, but to Tisza, the hitherto doddering foreign minister now seemed just as dangerous a warmonger as Conrad.

In truth, Berchtold was still unsure of what to do, as he confessed to the emperor at Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna on Tuesday, 30 June. Any course of action would bring peril, but the worst thing of all would be to show weakness. If Austria let this act of terrorist aggression go unpunished, Berchtold told the emperor, “our southern and eastern neighbors would be so certain of our powerlessness that they would consequently bring their work of destruction [of the empire] to its conclusion.” Nevertheless, the foreign minister reassured his sovereign that he would not act hastily—not until he had reliable information confirming Serbian involvement in the crime. Once a guilty verdict was in, Berchtold wanted to prepare “a clear plan of action against Serbia.” The emperor was agreed that Berchtold should wait, but his own primary concern was not the investigation into the crime per se, but rather the need for imperial unity. Any policy Berchtold wished to pursue, the emperor insisted, must have Tisza’s, and thus Hungary’s, full backing.13

Franz Josef I, now eighty-three, had ruled Austria, and then Austria-Hungary, since 1848. In those days, the Holy Roman Empire was still in living memory, such that the Habsburg emperor could, and did, see himself as heir to a “Mandate of Heaven reaching back a thousand years to his ancestor, Charlemagne.” The emperor demanded of everyone at court rigid adherence to the “stiff, Burgundian rituals” of the Habsburg dynasty. He spoke all fifteen official languages of his realm (or at least, Vienna wags retorted, he could utter platitudes in them), and he claimed, in a swipe at the chauvinistic trend of the age, not to favor any single national group. In the later years of his reign, Franz Josef I had come to truly embody the ancient empire as a living symbol of its grace, manners, style, and stubborn refusal to modernize (except for the Hungarian Ausgleich, which he had accepted reluctantly), and not least in that both were visibly showing their age and fragility. The octogenarian emperor had just recovered from a bout of bronchitis severe enough that, in April, Franz Ferdinand had “kept an engine under steam” for several days to whisk him to Vienna if the emperor died.* Many had feared, even before the murder of the heir, that once the old man went, the empire, too, would die, as reverence for his august figure was the last bond holding its many nations together.14

Emperor Franz Josef I, emperor of Austria-Hungary, proud custodian of a Habsburg mandate to rule “reaching back a thousand years.” Source: Harris and Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.


  • "Almost impossible to put down...A punchy and riveting narrative."—R.J.W. Evans, New York Review of Books
  • "Gripping and well-researched...In prose of admirable clarity, [McMeekin] relates the enormously complex events of that fateful summer."—National Review
  • "Lucid, convincing and full of rich detail, the book is a triumph of the narrative method and a vivid demonstration that chronology is the logic of history."—Independent (London)
  • "A fascinating and original study of the opening stages of World War I."—Philadelphia Inquirer
  • "A work of meticulous scholarship...Irresistible."—Sunday Times (London)

On Sale
Apr 29, 2014
Page Count
480 pages
Basic Books

Sean McMeekin

About the Author

Sean McMeekin is a professor of history at Bard College. The award-winning author of several books, including The Russian Revolution, July 1914, and The Ottoman Endgame, McMeekin lives in Clermont, New York.

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