On 7 July 1914, Austria-Hungary’s top decision-makers met. The Crown Council meeting, whose minutes are below, is arguably the first step on the road to war with Serbia. Only the Hungarian Prime Minister István Tisza (pictured) refused to sanction immediate action against Serbia.
Council of Ministers for Common Concerns. 7 July 1914.
Protocol of the council of ministers for common concerns held in Vienna with the Minister of the Imperial and Royal House and Foreign Affairs Count Berchtold in the chair.
The Imp. Roy. President of the council of ministers Count Sturgkh,
the Roy. Hungarian Premier Count Tisza,
the Imp. and Roy. Common Finance minister Dr. Ritter von Bilinski,
the Imp. and Roy. War minister Ritter von Krobatin,
the Imp. and Roy. Chief of the General Staff Baron von Conrad,
the Representative of the Naval Commander, Vice-Admiral von Kailer,
Keeper of the Protocol: Secretary of legation Count Hoyos,
Subject of Council: Bosnian concerns. The diplomatic action against Servia.
The President opens the sitting remarking that the council of ministers had been called together to advise on the measures to be taken for meeting the evils which in Bosnia and Herzegovina have resulted from the catastrophe of Sarajevo. According to his view there would be a number of internal measures which the critical state of Bosnia has made desirable; but before deciding in their favour there should be clearness whether the moment has not come when an enunciation of power might put an end to Servia’s intrigues once and for all. A decisive stroke of this kind cannot be dealt without previous diplomatic preparation, and for this reason the German government was informed and consulted. The discussions with Germany brought about a most satisfactory result, since Emperor William as well as Herr von Bethmann Hollweg solemnly promised the support and aid of Germany in the eventuality of a warlike complication with Servia. We must still take into account Italy and Roumania, he agreed with the Berlin cabinet that it would be better to act first and wait for eventual claims to compensation afterwards.
He is by no means convinced that an expedition to Servia must necessarily involve us in a war with Russia, Russia’s present policy, which is farsighted, is aiming at a league of the Balkan states including Roumania, which it would at a suitable moment play out against our monarchy. It is his belief that we must take into account that in the face of this policy our situation must become more precarious as time goes on, all the more because if we do not act, our own South-Slavs and Roumanians will interpret our attitude as weakness, and would be all the more disposed to lend a willing ear to the persuasions of our neighbours across the frontier.
The logical result of what has been said, would be to get in advance of our foes and by coming to terms with Servia, to stop the development of the process at present going on, a result which we may not be able to attain later on.
The Royal Hungarian Premier agrees with us that during the last days the situation has changed on account of the facts which judicial examination has brought forth and also on account of the attitude of the Servian press, and fully admits that the possibility of a warlike action against Servia seems nearer than he believed just after the crime of Sarajevo.
But he would never consent to a surprise attack upon Servia without a previous diplomatic action, such as he is afraid is being intended and he is sorry to hear, has been discoursed about by Count Hoyos in Berlin.
We should, he believes in this case play a sorry figure in the eyes of all Europe, and should draw upon ourselves the enmity of all the Balkan states with the exception of Bulgaria, which is too weak just now to be of any effective help.
It is absolutely necessary that we address demands to Servia and if these are rejected we must make out an ultimatum. Our exactions may be hard, but not such that they cannot be complied with. If Servia accepted them, we should have a splendid diplomatic success and our prestige in the Balkans would gain immensely. If our demands are refused, he would also vote for a warlike action, but he must call attention to the fact that by a war we could reduce the size of Servia, but we could not completely annihilate it. Russia would fight to the death before allowing this and he, as Hungarian Premier could never consent to the Monarchy’s annexing any part of Servia.
It is not for Germany to decide whether we ought to go to war with Servia just now or not. Personally he holds the belief that it is not absolutely necessary to begin a war at the present moment. We must remember that agitation against us in Roumania is exceedingly busy just now and that in view of the excited feelings of the population we should almost certainly have to look forward to a Roumanian attack and we should doubtless have to protect Transylvania by a strong force to intimidate the Roumanians. Now that Germany has happily opened the way to Bulgaria’s joining the Triple Alliance, a promising perspective for successful diplomatic action in the Balkan opens out, since by the accession of Bulgaria and Turkey to the Triple Alliance we may outbalance Roumania and Servia and perhaps induce Roumania to return to the Triple Alliance. With regard to European countries it must be considered that the forces of France when compared to those of Germany are diminishing on account of the continual reduction of the figures of its births, so that Germany will be in a position to muster more troops against Russia.
All these circumstances must be considered, when a resolution involving such exceedingly heavy responsibility was to be taken, and he must again declare, that notwithstanding the crisis in Bosnia, where a great deal might be done by a reform of the administration,
he could not make up his mind in favour of the war,
but still thought that a marked diplomatic success, which would cause a deep humiliation of Servia, would decidedly improve our situation and give us a chance of initiating an advantageous policy in the Balkans.
The presiding Minister (Berchtold) took up this argument and remarked that diplomatic successes against Servia had increased the Monarchy’s prestige for the time being, but had in the end also increased the tension in the relations with Servia. Neither our success in the crisis of the annexation, nor that of creating the Albanian state, nor yet Servia having had to give way after the ultimatum of the autumn of last year changed any of our circumstances. A radical solution of the question raised by the propaganda for a Greater Servia, which is systematically set to work in Belgrade and whose corrupting effects we feel from Agram to Zara, can only be brought about by the exertion of main force.
With regard to the danger of hostilities on the part of Roumania, mentioned by the Hungarian premier, the presiding minister was of opinion that it is less to be feared at the present time than in the future, when the partnership of interests between Roumania and Servia will have developed. King Carol it is true, has expressed doubts whether under present circumstances he would be able to do his whole duty as an ally by giving active help when it was wanted. But we cannot assume that he would consent to a warlike operation against the monarchy, or that he would be unable to oppose public feeling in such an eventuality. Besides it must be remembered that Roumania stands in fear of Bulgaria and would not be free to act at pleasure, even under present circumstances.
As to the Hungarian Premier’s remark with regard to the proportion of forces between France and Germany, he thought it right to call attention to the fact that the diminution of the population in France was more than balanced by the increasing number of inhabitants in Russia, so that the assertion that Germany would in time have more troops at its disposition against France cannot be taken into account.
The Imp. Roy. Premier (Sturgkh) remarked that the present council of ministers had been called for the purpose of discussing the measures to be taken in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to ensure the success of the judicial examinations on the assassination and to counteract against the movement in favour of Greater Servia observed in Bosnia. These questions must go to the rear if the greater question arises, whether we might not solve the Bosnian difficulty by exercising force against Servia.
Two reasons make this question very pressing just now; in the first place the chief commander in Bosnia and Herzegovina declares that it is his belief that no successful measures could be applied in the interior of these provinces unless we deal Servia a forcible stroke first. His opinion is founded on his own perceptions and on his thorough knowledge of the country. These perceptions on general Potiorek’s part make it imperative to ask, whether we are at all able to stop the decomposing activity which originates in Servia, and whether we are able to keep the two provinces in question if we do not promptly deal a blow to Servia.
During the last few days the whole situation has changed. It now shows a psychological character and is decidedly more than ever pointing to a solution at the point of the sword.
He cannot help agreeing with the Hungarian premier that it is for us and not for the German government to decide whether a war is necessary or not;
still he must say that our decision should be influenced strongly by the fact that where we look to for the faithfullest support of our policy in the Triple Alliance, we are promised unreserved loyalty and are advised to act without delay. Count Tisza should consider this circumstance and remember that by a weak and hesitating policy we might risk not being so certain of German support at some future time. This is surely of the highest importance, next to the interest we have in restoring order in Bosnia, and should be well considered.
It is but a question of detail how we are to begin and if the Hungarian government thinks that a surprise attack, sans crier gare [without warning] as Count Tisza expresses it, is not feasible, we will have to find some other way; but what he thinks is absolutely necessary is to act without delay and to spare our national economy a protracted period of suspense. But all this is mere detail considered side by side with the question of principle, whether it is absolutely necessary to have a war or not. Here the prestige and the existence of the monarchy must decide, whose South-Slav provinces speaker holds to be lost if nothing is done to prevent it.
We should therefore decide in principle to-day that action must and shall follow.
He shares the presiding ministers belief that a mere diplomatic success would not improve the situation. If a foregoing diplomatic action is therefore resorted to for international reasons, it should be taken with the firm resolve that this action can only end with the war.
The Common Finance-minister (Bilinski) remarks that Count Sturgkh based his opinion upon the fact that the chief commander of Bosnia desires the war. It is two years since General Potiorek holds the belief that we must measure our forces with those of Servia if we wish to keep Bosnia and Herzegovina. We must keep in mind that the chief commander, who is on the spot, is by far the best judge of things.
Herr von Bilinski is also convinced that a decisive conflict is unavoidable sooner or later.
He never doubted that when matters became serious, Germany would stand on our side and had received binding assurances to this effect from Herr von Tschirschky as long ago as 1912. The recent events in Bosnia had produced a very dangerous state of feeling in Servia. Especially the Servian pogrom in Sarajevo excited and embittered all Servians to such a degree that it is impossible to decide, who among our Servians is still loyal and who is for Greater Servia. It will be impossible ever to change this situation by measures taken within our frontiers; the only means will be to bring about an ultimate decision, whether the idea of Greater Servia may be successful in the future or not.
Even if the Royal Hungarian Premier would be satisfied with a diplomatic success, he could not say as much for himself from the point of view of Bosnian interests. The ultimatum, which we sent Servia last autumn made matters worse in Bosnia, and inflamed the hatred against us. The people of Bosnia tell each other everywhere that King Peter is coming to liberate the country. Servians are not amenable to anything but force and a diplomatic success would have no effect whatever in Bosnia, but it might most likely do harm.
The Royal Hungarian Premier (Tisza) remarked that he had the highest esteem for the military merits of the present chief commander of Bosnia; as to the civil administration no one would deny that it had missed fire absolutely, and that a reform was indispensable. He would refrain from speaking on this subject just now, all the more because this was not the time for making changes, still he would like the fact established that the Bosnian police must be in an indescribable state, if it was possible for six or seven individuals known to the police, to take up their position on the day of the assassination along the intended route of the heir to the throne, armed with bombs and revolvers, whilst the police did not observe or remove even a single one of them. He did not understand why a thorough reform of the administration of Bosnia should not improve the situation there.
The Imp. and Roy. War-minister (Krobatin) is of opinion that a diplomatic success would be of no use at all. A success of this kind would be interpreted as weakness. From a military point of view he must remark that it would be better to go to war immediately, rather than at some later period, because the proportion of forces must in course of time change to our disadvantage. As to the modality of the beginning of war, he must call attention to the fact that the two big wars of latter years, the war between Russia and Japan, as also the Balkan war began without a foregoing declaration of war.
It was his belief that we should at first only carry through the mobilisation as it is prepared against Servia, and postpone the general mobilisation to such a time when it becomes clear that Russia is acting.
We have already lost two opportunities for solving the Servian question and have postponed the decision each time. If we do this again and allow this provocation to pass unavenged, this will be taken for a proof of weakness in all South-Slav provinces and would be an encouragement to agitation against us.
From a military point of view it is desirable that the mobilisation should be carried through immediately and as secretly as possible, and that an ultimatum should be addressed to Servia when the mobilisation is complete. This would also be in our favour with regard to the Russian forces, because just now the divisions are incomplete on account of the leave given for harvest work.
After this a discussion began on the aims of a war against Servia, during which the Royal Hungarian Premiers view, that Servia might be reduced as to size but not annihilated out of consideration for Russia, was adopted by all. The Imp. Roy. Premier (Sturgkh) said that he should advise that the Karageorgevich dynasty be removed, and the crown given to a European prince. The reduced kingdom should also be placed in a dependent position towards the monarchy, at least from a military point of view.
The Royal Hungarian Premier (Tisza) still holds the belief that a successful Balkan policy could be created by the addition of Bulgaria to the Triple Alliance,
and calls attention to the terrible calamity of a European war under present circumstances.
It should not be overlooked that all kinds of eventualities are possible in the near future—Russia might be absorbed by Asian complications, Bulgaria, when it regains its strength might want to revenge itself upon Servia, etc. which would all improve our position towards the problem of Greater Servia, to what it is at present.
The presiding Minister (Berchtold) replied to these arguments that certainly one might imagine many possibilities in the future, which would place us in a favourable situation. But he feared that there was no time to wait for such developments. The fact must be taken into account that our enemies are preparing for a decisive conflict with the monarchy and that Roumania is lending a helping hand to the diplomacy of Russia and France. One must not assume that our policy with Bulgaria will be a full equivalent for the loss of Roumania. It is his belief that Roumania cannot be won back as long as Servian agitation continues, because agitation for Greater Roumania follows the Servian and will not meet with opposition until Roumania feels isolated by the annihilation of Servia and sees that its only chance of being supported, is to join the Triple Alliance.
We must furthermore not forget the fact that with regard to Bulgaria’s accession to the Triple Alliance the very first step has not been made. All we know is that the present Bulgarian government a few months ago expressed this wish and was then about to conclude an alliance with Turkey. This has not been accomplished, on the contrary Turkey has since allowed Russia and France to gain influence with it. The attitude of the Radoslawoff cabinet is certainly such, that we cannot doubt that Bulgaria is still disposed to lend a willing ear to any positive propositions we might make in the sense referred to.
Still we cannot make these assumptions a safe cornerstone of our Balkan politics all the less, because the present Bulgarian government has no sound basis; public opinion, which is always influenced by Russia to a certain degree, might object to joining the Triple Alliance and Radoslawoffs cabinet might be turned out. We must also remember that Germany accepted the accession of Bulgaria to the Triple Alliance at the condition only that Roumania should not take offence.
This condition is rather difficult to comply with and might at some future time be the cause of misunderstandings. A lengthy debate on the question of the war followed. The result of the discussion may be reassumed as follows:
1. That all present wish for a speedy decision of the controversy with Servia, whether it be decided in a warlike, or a peaceful manner;
2. that the council of ministers is prepared to adopt the view of the Royal Hungarian Premier according to which the mobilisation is not to take place until after concrete demands have been addressed to Servia and after being refused, an ultimatum has been sent.
All present except the Royal Hungarian Premier hold the belief that a purely diplomatic success, even if it ended with a glaring humiliation of Servia, would be worthless and that therefore such stringent demands must be addressed to Servia, that will make a refusal almost certain, so that the road to a radical solution by means of a military action should be opened.
Count Tisza remarked that he was anxious to meet the others halfway and was prepared to concede that the demands addressed to Servia should be hard indeed, but not such as to make our intention of raising unacceptable terms clear to everybody. Otherwise we should not have a lawful basis for our declaration of war. The text of the note must be composed with utmost care; and he should very much beg to be allowed to see it before it is sent. He must also clearly state, that if his point of view was disregarded, he would draw the unavoidable consequences.
After this the sitting was interrupted to be reopened in the afternoon.
When the council of ministers met again, the Chief of the General Staff and the Representative of the Naval Commander were also present.
The War-minister (Krobatin) at the request of the presiding minister spoke first to ask the Chief of the General Staff three qjuestions as follows:
1. Whether it is possible to mobilise against Servia only at first and against Russia not until necessity arises.
2. Whether it is possible to retain a large body of troops in Transylvania to intimidate Roumania.
3. Where the conflict with Russia could be taken up.
The Chief of the General Staff answered these questions privately and begged that the answers should not appear in the protocol.
A lengthy debate followed these explanations, touching upon the proportion of forces and the probable course of a European war, which being of a private character are not adapted to be taken into the protocol.
Before the debate was closed the Hungarian Premier (Tisza) again explained his point of view on the question of the war and appealed again to all present to consider carefully what they were about to decide.
The points which were to be contained in the note to Servia were then discussed.
With regard to these points the council of ministers did not take a resolution; but they were formed, so as to give a clear idea of what might be asked of Servia.
At this point the Chief of the General Staff and the Representative of the Naval Commander left the council.
The internal situation of Bosnia and the necessary measures to be taken were then discussed. The Common Finance-minister was the first to speak, saying that in conferences with the party leaders held a few days ago, he had learnt that it would not be wise to dissolve the diet [parliament] just now, as political losses would thereby be incurred. It was not possible to hold any sittings just now while everybody was so exceedingly excited; he would therefore close the diet and recall the deputies for a short session in September.
He hoped that it would then be possible to get the budget and the Kmeten-bill voted. This would depend in the first place upon Dimovich not renouncing the leadership of the government party, as in this case the majority would still be for the government. When the diet is closed, the deputies are not paid and immunity ceases, so that the Chief Commander’s and the War-minister’s wish could be fulfilled without resorting to the dissolution of the diet.
Herr von Bilinski then mentioned a number of other measures, which he thought desirable, among them the dissolution of the great Servian society Prosvjeta.
The Royal Hungarian Premier would not like to propose any great changes just now. He again refers to the state of the police in Sarajevo and declares that the decline of the administrative apparatus in Bosnia is the consequence of the overpowering position of the chief commander, who being a soldier cannot possibly have the experience necessary to the administrator of a large country. The Common Finance-minister speaks for the Chief Commander’s merits as an administrator, but freely admits that it would be desirable that civil administration should be entirely separated from the military and that Bosnia should have a governor besides the chief commander, as is the case in Dalmatia.
Special measures to be taken in Bosnia, proposed by the Imp. and Roy. War-minister are then discussed.
All present agree that some of General Krobatin’s propositions should be accepted, whilst others went too far. That it was not possible to decide definitely over measures relating to administration, before the great question whether there was to be war with Servia or not, was decided.
The presiding Minister (Berchtold) declares that though there were still differences of opinion between the members of the council and Count Tisza, still an agreement had been arrived at since the propositions of the Hungarian Premier would in all probability lead to a war with Servia, the necessity of which he and all the other members of the council had understood and admitted.
Count Berchtold then told the council that he intended going to Ischl on the 8th of the month to report to His. Imp. and Roy. Apostolic Majesty. The Royal Hungarian Premier begged that the minister would present to His Majesty a letter in which he (Tisza) would record his view of the situation.
After a communication to the press bad been agreed upon, the presiding minister closed the setting.
Source: edited from the English translation of the Austro-Hungarian Red Book