Austro-Hungarian Red Book: Giesl to Berchtold, 21 July 1914

On 21 July 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Belgrade Baron Wladimir von Giesl (pictured) sent a private telegram to the Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Leopold Count Berchtold. In his telegram, Giesl comments on Serbian attitudes towards Austria-Hungary, and shares his pro-war sentiment with Berchtold.

Wladimir Giesl

Wladimir Giesl

Baron von Giesl to Count Berchtold. Belgrade, 21 July 1914.


I have been here for some time after the disastrous crime of the 28th of June and I believe I can judge the general feeling entertained in this country.

Before the plot, and indeed ever since the crisis connected with the annexation, the relations between the monarchy and Servia were on the part of the latter, poisoned by national chauvinism, hatred and a most effective propaganda of the aspirations of Greater Servia among our provinces where Servians live. Since the last two Balkan wars the success of Servia has caused chauvinism to reach a climax, resembling a paroxysm, whose mad outbursts may be everywhere observed.

You will spare me proofs and examples, they are to be had everywhere and always, in political society as well as among the low people, whatever party these represent. I assume that it is a well-known axiom, that Servia’s policy aims first at disjoining the provinces inhabited by South-Slavs and later on at the annihilation of the monarchy as a Great Power.

No one, who is constrained to spend one week in this political milieu will fail to recognise this truth.

The latest events which have influenced public feeling in this country, — the plot in Sarajevo, the death of Hartwig [the Russian Ambassador in Belgrade] and the electoral campaign, — though so different in themselves, in their causes and aims, have all had the same effect, they have deepened the hatred against the monarchy and have increased the contempt felt for it.

The murder of Sarajevo strengthened the belief of the Servians — long entertained — that the Habsburg states would now fall asunder, that the South-Slav provinces would be disjoined, that revolution would break out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that the Slav regiments could no longer be relied upon. All nationalist madness seemed justified and could be put into a system.

The Servians believe this detested Austria-Hungary to be powerless, and scarcely worth waging a war with — hatred is supplemented by contempt. A disabled body, it will fall to the share of Greater Servia, so soon to be realised.

Newspapers, which are far from being the most radical, in their daily articles comment on the impotence and decay of the neighbouring monarchy and sully all its organs and institutions, beginning with the venerable person of the monarch, without fear of being as much as reprimanded. Even the government organ has attributed the crime of Sarajevo to the present condition of the Empire. Our prestige is trodden under feet. There is no longer any fear of being responsible for what one says or does. The Servian people receives its education from the press; and its policy depends entirely on which party press is uppermost. The propaganda in favour of Greater Servia is the fruit of this education and its latest result is the crime of Sarajevo.

Herr Pasic [the Serbian Prime Minister] gave a representative of the Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten an interview and some of the remarks it contains, cannot in the mouth a premier, be qualified otherwise than as most imprudent. The interview was ‘”partly” denied, but in the meantime it has done its work and its phraseology reproduces the mind and expressions of Pasic so completely as to leave no doubt that the interview was honest.

Pasic has used the same arguments in the election campaign to avoid being suspected of giving way to Austria-Hungary. This proves that all parties are agreed in hating the monarchy and are all equally convinced of its impotency.

I pass over the mad accusations and denunciations after the death of Hartwig which the Times calls insane and also over the press campaign, redolent with lies and vulgarity, which however has the effect that the government and the representatives of Austria-Hungary are considered as outlaws by the public and may with impunity be called murderers, ragamuffins, infamous Austrians etc.

All this vulgarity extends even to the members of the Imperial House, as is proved by the forged letter of the countess Lonyay, published in the Zeon.

The political world of Servia, understanding the irreparable loss, which the death of Hartwig has caused, is now devoting itself to a fanatical cult of the deceased, in which not only gratitude for past favours is shown, but the fear for the future. Slavish submission towards Russia is the chief note sounded to make sure of its goodwill in times to come.

The election unites all parties in one chorus of hostility against Austria-Hungary. Not one of the parties aspiring to power, will allow the suspicion to arise, that it might harbour weakness towards the monarchy. The password of the election campaign is therefore war to the knife with Austria-Hungary.

The present military weakness of Servia, caused by the instability in New-Servia, which demands heavy sacrifices, is, if not overlooked altogether by experienced politicians, still regarded as a quantité négligeable [negligible quantity], for the reason that Austria-Hungary is regarded as altogether impotent and incapable of energetic action. The serious words of warning, which have been spoken on our side are taken as “bluff”‘, otherwise some measures of preparation would have been taken in the army, and the reserves would not be dismissed in small groups without arms from New-Servia to Old-Servia, or the arrangements for the mobilisation of the second summons, would not be neglected. News of a contrary line of action are not confirmed.

The fact that the Imperial and Royal War-minister and the Chief of Staff have gone on leave, have been taken as a proof that Austria-Hungary’s weakness is quite evident.

The fear, felt immediately after the crime of Sarajevo, that the monarchy might raise strong claims, begins to vanish, since the inquiry has taken a prolonged course and the expected step on Austria-Hungary’s part has not been taken and will soon be remembered as a bad dream, which disappears on awakening.

I have taken the liberty to appeal to your Excellency’s patience at some length, not because in what I had to tell, I imagined giving you news, but because I needed this exposition of facts before I could come to the unavoidable conclusion that a settling of accounts with Servia, a war for the prestige and position of the monarchy, indeed for its very existence, cannot be avoided for any length of time.

Whether we ought to wage this war now, or whether we ought to wait, until Servia has recovered from its two wars and Russia would be prepared to send not ten, as at present, but twenty army corps on a war-footing against us, so that we should light under much more unfavourable circumstances, is not for me to decide, or even to give an opinion upon.

To one, who is far from the centre, where all threads meet, it would seem that the present moment is most favourable and that the situation at home as well as abroad, offers opportunities, such as the epoch may not offer again.

The murder of Sarajevo has thrown the diverging aims of the peoples and countries of the monarchy in the background and has given us a happy moral position, estimated as such all over Europe.

If we neglect this opportunity, we make ourselves guilty of the difficulties and the untoward circumstances which are sure to arise when the day comes for the war, which must be fought sooner or later.

To the local observer and the representative of the interests of Austria-Hungary in Servia, the question — quite apart from the general political situation of the world, which he cannot and may not judge—is clear that we cannot expose ourselves to see our prestige lessened and damaged more than it is already. We must—if we do not the power, the opportunity or the will for a general cleaning day on a large scale — not delay showing Servia how patient, how peace-loving, how generous we are. Our excuse will be that we are the stronger of the two. In this case we should have to be content with an apparent success. A. lasting improvement of the situation we should not gain in this way, but we might save appearances.

If at some later period we should make peaceful manoeuvres, Servia would take this as a proof of our weakness; the uncertainty of our policy would estrange our allies, our foes would feel more contempt than ever for our forces.

If, on the contrary, we are resolved to put far-reaching demands in an effective form and under our control—which alone could get over the Servian plotting system—we must overlook all possible consequences and from the very beginning have the strong and firm will to carry out our plans to the end.

The principle of non-interference or of intervention when a perfect understanding had been arrived at between all the Great Powers, was guilty of the Balkan wars. The only thing which can serve is the self-dependent action of the power which alone is threatened, under the motto: “who is not with me, is against me”. It is my belief that this alone could overthrow the enemy who has stood up before us in a threatening attitude, and could give the Empire peace for a number of years.

Half measures, putting forth demands, with long discussions to follow, and a rotten compromise at the end, would be the heaviest blow Austria-Hungary’s prestige in Servia and its position as a Great Power in Europe could experience.

The Imperial and Royal Minister:

(signed) Giesl


Source: 1919 Austro-Hungarian Red Book, with minor edits.


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