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Austro-Hungarian entry into World War I

On 28 July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Within days, long-standing mobilization plans went into effect to initiate invasions or guard against them and Russia, France and Britain stood arrayed against Austria and Germany in what at the time was called the "Great War", and was later named "World War I" or "First World War." Austria thought in terms of one small limited war involving just the two countries. It did not plan a wider war such as exploded in a matter of days. British historian John Zametica argued that Austria-Hungary was primarily responsible for starting the war, as its leaders believed that a successful war was the only way it could remain a Great Power, solve deep internal disputes caused by Hungarian demands, and take control of the Balkans before the Russians moved in.[1]


Key players and goalsEdit

A small group made the decisions for the Empire. They included the aged emperor Franz Joseph;[2] his heir Franz Ferdinand;[3] army chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf,[4] foreign minister Count Leopold Berchtold, minister-president Karl von Stürgkh, and finance minister Leon Bilinski --all Austrians. The key Hungarian leaders were prime minister István Tisza, minister István Burián, and advisor Lajos Thallóczy.[5][6]

Austria-Hungary avoided major wars in the era between 1867 and 1914 but engaged in a number of minor military actions. The general staff maintained plans for major wars against neighboring powers, especially Italy, Serbia and Russia.[7] The major decisions on military affairs 1867-1895 were made by Archduke Albrecht, Duke of Teschen, who was the nephew of the Emperor Franz Joseph and his leading advisor. According to historians John Keegan and Andrew Wheatcroft:

He was a firm conservative in all matters, military and civil, and took to writing pamphlets lamenting the state of the Army’s morale as well as fighting a fierce rearguard action against all forms of innovation…. Much of the Austrian failure in the First World War can be traced back to his long period of power…. His power was that of the bureaucrat, not the fighting soldier, and his thirty years of command over the peacetime Habsburg Army made it a flabby instrument of war. [8]

Franz Ferdinand realized that the rise of Pan-Slavism would rip the Empire apart, and he had a solution called "Trialism". The Empire would be restructured three-ways instead of two, with the Slavic element given representation at the highest levels equivalent to what Austria and Hungary now had. Serbians saw this as a threat to their dream of a new state of Yugoslavia; it was a factor in motivating the Archduke's assassination in 1914. Hungarian leaders had a predominant voice in imperial circles and strongly rejected Trialism because it would liberate many of their minorities from Hungarian rule they considered oppressive.[9]

Zametica argues that by 1909 war with Serbia was the main plan. Vienna's long-term goal was to stop Russia from forming a Balkan league that would permanently stifle Austria's ambitions:

Defeating Serbia would effectively destroy what Vienna saw as a potentially menacing, Russian-inspired Balkan league, because such a league without Serbia would simply be a non-starter....Last, but not least, a successful war against Serbia would at the same time solve the Monarchy's South Slav question--or at least ensure that Serbia could no longer play a role in it because the country would either not exist at all or it would be too small to matter....In short, smashing Serbia would make Austria-Hungary the unchallenged master of South Eastern Europe. It was a dazzling prospect.[10]

Relations with key countriesEdit

Austria made several overtures for friendlier relations with Russia after 1907. However these were undermined by espionage, propaganda, and hostile diplomacy by France. Austria decided the villain was probably Théophile Delcassé, the French ambassador to Russia. Russian foreign minister Sergey Sazonov supported detente with Austria but was under attack by a faction led by Nicholas Hartwig, who was intensely supportive of the South Slavs against Austria.[11]

Although Germany and Austria knew full well they would be outnumbered in a major war, they made no effort to develop joint plans, or to familiarize themselves with the other's strength and weaknesses. After the war started they remained far apart. Austria had deceived itself by trusting Conrad's elaborate plans, not realizing how bad was the Army's morale, how inefficient and cumbersome was the reserve system, how thin were its stocks of munitions and supplies, or how badly its rail network had deteriorated with respect to Russia in recent years. Year-by-year as Germany discovered the depth of the weaknesses of Austria's military, and Vienna's inability to remedy deep defects, it was increasingly necessary for Germany to take more and more control of Austrian military operations. [12]


On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand visited the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. A group of six assassins (Cvjetko Popović, Gavrilo Princip, Muhamed Mehmedbašić, Nedeljko Čabrinović, Trifko Grabež, Vaso Čubrilović) from the nationalist group Mlada Bosna, supplied by the Black Hand, had gathered on the street where the Archduke's motorcade would pass. Čabrinović threw a grenade at the car, but missed. It injured some people in the next car and some bystanders, and Franz Ferdinand's convoy could carry on. The other assassins failed to act as the cars drove past them quickly. About an hour later, when Franz Ferdinand was returning from a visit at the Sarajevo Hospital, the convoy took a wrong turn into a street where Gavrilo Princip by coincidence stood. With a pistol, Princip shot and killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The reaction among the Austrian people was mild, almost indifferent. Historian Z. A. B. Zeman notes, , "the event almost failed to make any impression whatsoever. On Sunday and Monday [June 28 and 29], the crowds in Vienna listened to music and drank wine, as if nothing had happened."[13]

The assassination was not necessarily a great event--it was the reaction of multiple nations that turned it into one. Historian Christopher Clark compares Sarajevo with the September 11 2001 attacks in New York City. They both:

exemplified the way in which a single or symbolic event – however deeply it may be enmeshed in larger historical processes – can change politics irrevocably, rendering old options obsolete and endowing new ones with an unforeseen urgency.[14]

Aggressive strategic plansEdit

Conrad and his admirers took special pride in his elaborate war plans that were designed individually against various possible opponents, but did not take into account having to fight a two front war against Russia and Serbia simultaneously. His plans were kept secret from his own diplomatic and political leadership-- he promised his secret operations would bring quick victory. Conrad assumed far more soldiers would be available, with much better training. The Austrian army had not been experienced a real war since 1866, whereas by contrast the Russian and Serbian armies had extensive up-to-date wartime experience in the previous decade.[15] In practice, Conrad's soldiers were inferior to the enemy and his plans were riddled with flawed assumptions. His plans were based on railroad timetables from the 1870s, and ignored German warnings that Russia had much improved its own railroad capabilities. Conrad assumed the war would result in victory in six weeks. He assumed it would take Russia 30 days to mobilise its troops, and he assumed his own armies could be operational against Serbia in two weeks. When the war started, there were repeated delays, made worse when Conrad radically changed plans in the middle of mobilization. Russia did much better than expected, mobilizing two thirds of its army within 18 days, and operating 362 trains a day – compared to 153 trains a day by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. [16]

Germany made a decisive mistake when it gave Austria-Hungary a "blank cheque", that is a guarantee that Berlin would militarily back any decision made by Vienna. Austria's decision was to not just punish Serbia, but to invade, occupy, and destroy that country. Germany vehemently demanded an immediate invasion of Serbia, but Conrad delayed for over a month. Many Army units were on leave to harvest crops and not scheduled to return until 25 July. To cancel those leaves would disrupt the harvest and the nation's food supply, scramble complex railroad schedules, alert Europe to Vienna's plans and give the enemy time to mobilise. Meanwhile Emperor Franz Joseph went on his long-scheduled three week summer vacation.

Austria depended entirely on Germany for support – they had no other allies[17] – but the Kaiser had lost control of the German government. German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg had repeatedly rejected pleas from Britain and Russia to put pressure on Austria to compromise. German elite and popular public opinion also was demanding mediation. He now reversed himself, and pleaded, or demanded, that Austria accept mediation, warning that Britain would probably join Russia and France if a larger war began. The Kaiser made a direct appeal to Emperor Franz Joseph along the same lines. However, Bethmann-Hollweg and the Kaiser did not know that the German military had its own line of communication to the Austrian military, and insisted on rapid mobilization against Russia. German Chief of Staff Moltke sent an emotional telegram to the Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad on July 30: "Austria-Hungary must be preserved, mobilise at once against Russia. Germany will mobilise." Vienna officials decided that Moltke was really in charge--which was true--and refused mediation and mobilized against Russia.[18][19]

Invading SerbiaEdit

When he was finally ready, Conrad on August 12 sent his army south into Serbia, where it was decisively defeated with the loss of 100,000 soldiers. On 22 August he launched an even larger campaign to the east against Russia through Galacia, leading to catastrophic defeats in the loss of 500,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers. He blamed his railroad experts.[20][21]

Was Austria responsible?Edit

Austria was not ready for a large-scale war, and never planned on one. Its war plans assumed a limited war against Serbia and perhaps also a “defensive” war against Russia—which Austria knew it had no chance to defeat unless Germany joined in, which Berlin had promised to do.[22]

The first round of scholarship from the 1920s to the 1950s, emphasized Austria's basic responsibility for launching the world war by its ultimatum to Serbia. In the 1960s German historian Fritz Fischer radically shift to the terms of the debate. While not denying Austria's responsibility, he shifted the primary blame to Germany, for its longtime goal of controlling most of Europe. According to Fischer, the reason for that goal was to suppress growing internal dissent inside Germany. In the 1960s and 1970s historians briefly summarized Vienna's actions. Samuel Williamson in 1983 returned to an emphasis of the centrality of Vienna's decisions. He says that Austria's policy was not timid or indicative of second-rate power pushed forward by Berlin. Austria acted like a great power making its own decisions based on its plan to dominate the Balkan region and hurl back the Serbian challenge. Berlin's "blank check" gave it freedom to act. The most important event was the ultimatum that was designed by Vienna to start a war. It ignored protests from Berlin and everywhere else.[23][24][25]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ John Zametica, In Folly and Malice (2017)
  2. ^ Joseph Redlich, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria (1929) online
  3. ^ Dedijer, 1966)
  4. ^ Lawrence Sondhaus, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf: architect of the apocalypse (2000).
  5. ^ Bridge, pp 10-19.
  6. ^ Gerard E. Silberstein, "The High Command and Diplomacy in Austria-Hungary, 1914-1916." Journal of Modern History 42.4 (1970): 586-605. online
  7. ^ Gunther Rothenberg, The Army of Francis Joseph (1976) pp. 97, 99, 113–17, 124–25, 159.
  8. ^ John Keegan and Andrew Wheatcroft, Who's Who in Military History: From 1453 to the Present Day (2001) p, 12.
  9. ^ Spencer Tucker et al. eds. (1999). The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 269.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  10. ^ Zametica, 2017, pp 562-63,
  11. ^ J. F. N. Bradley, "Quelques aspects de la politique etrangere de Russie avant 1914 a travers les archives Française," Études Slaves et Est-Européennes/Slavic and East-European Studies (1962): 97-102.
  12. ^ Gordon A. Craig, "The World War I Alliance of the Central Powers in Retrospect: The Military Cohesion of the Alliance" Journal of Modern History 37#3 (1965) pp. 336-344 online
  13. ^ David Fromkin (2005). Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?. p. 143.
  14. ^ Christopher Clark, The Speepwalkers (2012) page xxix.
  15. ^ James Lyon, Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914: The Outbreak of the Great War (2014)
  16. ^ Herweg, 1997, pp 53-56.
  17. ^ Italy was nominally a member of the Triple Alliance but refused to support Austria and Germany in 1914 and instead joined the Allies (the Entente powers) in 1915.
  18. ^ Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013) pp 605-607.
  19. ^ Gordon A. Craig, The politics of the Prussian army 1640-1945 (1955) pp 293-95.
  20. ^ Herweg, 1997, pp 52-53.
  21. ^ Richard F. Hamilton; Holger H. Herwig (2004). Decisions for War, 1914-1917. p. 64.
  22. ^ Hall Gardner (2015). The Failure to Prevent World War I: The Unexpected Armageddon. pp. 34–35.
  23. ^ Langston, "Emerging from Fischer's Shadow," p 67.
  24. ^ Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., "Vienna and July 1914: The Origins of The Great War Once More," in Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., and Peter Pastor, eds. Essays on World War I (1983) pp 9-36, at pp pp 9, 29.
  25. ^ Williamson. Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War (1991).
A French propaganda poster from 1917 portrays Prussia as an octopus stretching out its tentacles vying for control. It is captioned with an 18th-century quote: "Even in 1788, Mirabeau was saying that War is the National Industry of Prussia." The map ignores the Austro-Hungarian role.

Further readingEdit

  • Albrecht-Carrié, René. A Diplomatic History of Europe Since the Congress of Vienna (1958), 736pp; basic survey
  • Brandenburg, Erich. (1927) From Bismarck to the World War: A History of German Foreign Policy 1870–1914 (1927) online.
  • Bridge, F.R. From Sadowa to Sarajevo: The Foreign Policy of Austria-Hungary 1866–1914 (1972; reprint 2016) online review; excerpt
  • Bridge, F.R. The Habsburg Monarchy Among The Great Powers, 1815-1918 (1990), pp. 288-380.
  • Bury, J.P.T. "Diplomatic History 1900–1912, in C. L. Mowat, ed. The New Cambridge Modern History: Vol. XII: The Shifting Balance of World Forces 1898-1945 (2nd ed. 1968) online pp 112-139.
  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2013) excerpt
    • Sleepwalkers lecture by Clark. online
  • Cornwall, Mark, ed. The Last Years of Austria-Hungary University of Exeter Press, 2002. ISBN 0-85989-563-7
  • Craig, Gordon A. "The World War I Alliance of the Central Powers in Retrospect: The Military Cohesion of the Alliance" Journal of Modern History 37#3 (1965) pp. 336-344 online
  • Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed. 1922) comprises the 11th edition plus three new volumes 30–31–32 that cover events since 1911 with very thorough coverage of the war as well as every country and colony. partly online
  • Dedijer, Vladimir. The Road to Sarajevo(1966), comprehensive history of the assassination with detailed material on the Empire and Serbia.
  • Evans, R. J. W.; von Strandmann, Hartmut Pogge, eds. (1988). The Coming of the First World War. Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-150059-6. essays by scholars from both sides
  • Fay, Sidney B. The Origins of the World War (2 vols in one. 2nd ed. 1930). online, passim
  • Fromkin, David. Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (2004).
  • Gooch, G. P. Recent Revelations Of European Diplomacy (1940), pp 103–59 summarizes memoirs of major participants
  • Gooch, G. P. Before The War Vol I (1939) pp 368-438 on Aehrenthal online free
  • Gooch, G. P. Before The War Vol II (1939) pp 373-447 on Berchtold online free
  • Hamilton, Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig, eds. Decisions for War, 1914-1917 (2004), scholarly essays on Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, Britain, Japan, Ottoman Empire, Italy, the United States, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece.
  • Herweg, Holger H. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914–1918 (2009).
  • Herweg, Holger H., and Neil Heyman. Biographical Dictionary of World War I (1982).
  • Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire: 1526–1918 (U of California Press, 1974); highly detailed history; emphasis on ethnicity
  • Joll, James; Martel, Gordon (2013). The Origins of the First World War (3rd ed.). Taylor & Francis.
  • McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War (2014) scholarly account, day-by-day excerpt
  • MacMillan, Margaret (2013). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. Random House.; major scholarly overview
  • Mitchell, A. Wess. The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire (Princeton UP, 2018)
  • Oakes, Elizabeth and Eric Roman. Austria-Hungary and the Successor States: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present (2003)
  • Otte, T. G. July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914 (Cambridge UP, 2014). online review
  • Paddock, Troy R. E. A Call to Arms: Propaganda, Public Opinion, and Newspapers in the Great War (2004) online
  • Palmer, Alan. Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995. ISBN 0871136651
  • Redlich, Joseph. Emperor Francis Joseph Of Austria. New York: Macmillan, 1929. online free
  • Rich, Norman. Great Power Diplomacy: 1814-1914 (1991), comprehensive survey
  • Ritter, Gerhard. The Sword and the Sceptre, Vol. 2-The European Powers and the Wilhelmenian Empire 1890-1914 (1970) Covers military policy in Germany; also Austria (pp 237-61) and France, Britain, Russia.
  • Schmitt, Bernadotte E. The coming of the war, 1914 (2 vol 1930) comprehensive history online vol 1; online vol 2, esp vol 2 ch 20 pp 334-382
  • Scott, Jonathan French. Five Weeks: The Surge of Public Opinion on the Eve of the Great War (1927) online. especially ch 4: "The Psychotic Explosion in Austria-Hungary" pp 63-98.
  • Silberstein, Gerard E. "The High Command and Diplomacy in Austria-Hungary, 1914-1916." Journal of Modern History 42.4 (1970): 586-605. online
  • Sondhaus, Lawrence. Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf: architect of the apocalypse (2000).
  • Steed, Henry Wickham. The Hapsburg monarchy (1919) online detailed contemporary account
  • Stowell, Ellery Cory. The Diplomacy of the War of 1914 (1915) 728 pages online free
  • Strachan, Hew Francis Anthony (2004). The First World War. Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-03295-2.
  • Trachtenberg, Marc. "The Meaning of Mobilization in 1914" International Security 15#3 (1991) pp. 120-150 online
  • Tucker, Spencer C., ed. The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia (1996) 816pp
  • Watson, Alexander. Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I (2014)
  • Wawro, Geoffrey. A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire (2014)
  • Williamson, Samuel R. Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War (1991)
  • Zametica, John. Folly and malice: the Habsburg empire, the Balkans and the start of World War One (London: Shepheard–Walwyn, 2017). 416pp.


  • Deak, John. "The Great War and the Forgotten Realm: The Habsburg Monarchy and the First World War,” Journal of Modern History 86 (2014): 336–80. online
  • Horne, John, ed. A Companion to World War I (2012) 38 topics essays by scholars
  • Kramer, Alan. "Recent Historiography of the First World War – Part I", Journal of Modern European History (Feb. 2014) 12#1 pp 5–27; "Recent Historiography of the First World War (Part II)", (May 2014) 12#2 pp 155–174.
  • Langdon, John W. "Emerging from Fischer's Shadow: recent examinations of the crisis of July 1914." History Teacher 20.1 (1986): 63-86, in JSTOR emphasis on roles of Germany and Austria.
  • Mombauer, Annika. "Guilt or Responsibility? The Hundred-Year Debate on the Origins of World War I." Central European History 48.4 (2015): 541-564.
  • Mombauer, Annika. The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus (2002), focus on Germany
  • Mulligan, William. "The Trial Continues: New Directions in the Study of the Origins of the First World War." English Historical Review (2014) 129#538 pp: 639–666.
  • Sked, Alan. "Austria-Hungary and the First World War." Histoire Politique 1 (2014): 16-49. online free
  • Winter, Jay. and Antoine Prost eds. The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, 1914 to the Present (2005)

Primary sourcesEdit

External linksEdit