wilhelm ii

You may remember a post I did on June 28 commemorating the 99th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That incident, as most people know, was the spark that set off the First World War. Today, July 23, is another much less well-known but equally important anniversary: on July 23, 1914, the government of Austria-Hungary sent a telegram to the Serbian government with a list of demands arising from the Ferdinand assassination. If Serbia didn’t accept the demands, Austria-Hungary would declare war. If the killing of the Archduke was the spark, the Austrian Ultimatum was certainly the fuse.

This is far less well known because it’s not as flashy. I mean, some old guys with handlebar mustaches sent a telegram? How exciting is that? Not very, but World War I, and consequently the whole shape of the modern world, wouldn’t have happened without it.

Austria, you see, had been itching for an excuse to wipe Serbia off the map. It had to do with all the restive ethnic nationalities in the Austrian empire. A Serbian nationalist, after all, had assassinated Ferdinand. But Russia, then ruled by Tsar Nicholas II–who had his own historical anniversary last week–wouldn’t stand for it and wanted to protect the Serbs. Austria decided it could do nothing without an assurance of support from Germany. If Kaiser Wilhelm II, the insecure, mustachioed swaggerer with one working arm, backed up Austria, the thinking was that Russia, not wanting to tangle with Germany, would back off and let Austria destroy Serbia. Great plan, right?

The Austrians got what they wanted from the Kaiser. On his way out the door to go on vacation–Wilhelm liked to cruise the Norwegian fjords–he told the Austrians he’d support whatever they decided to do. Then he left, and was incommunicado for several crucial days.

What they decided to do was this: send an ultimatum with conditions so Draconian that Serbia would never in a million years accept it. Then the Austrians could pretend to look “reasonable” by having given Serbia a chance. So they drafted the worst, most angry-sounding diplomatic message they could think of, demanding basically that Serbia surrender its sovereignty to Austria. In case you’re interested, the full text of the message is here.

It almost didn’t work. The Serbians, anxious to avoid war, accepted all of the conditions except number 6–a demand that Austrian police participate in rounding up and judging anyone thought to be connected with the Ferdinand murder. The Austrians did not want to take yes for an answer, though. The holdout on point 6 was enough for them to declare war. Then it went up the chain: did Germany really intend to stand by Austria? Was Russia really prepared to fight a war over Serbia?

Most people find the causes of World War I very hard to understand. I can appreciate that. It’s not like World War II, which is very clear-cut. The first war is a muddle, morally and politically. But the Austrian Ultimatum is a very key piece of that puzzle.

You can read more about the crisis that led to the outbreak of World War I here.