On 25 July 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Leopold Count Berchtold (pictured), sent a private telegram to the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Russia, Frigyes Count Szapary. In his telegram, Berchtold sets out Austria-Hungary’s Serbian policy. This is one of the key documents of the 1914 July Crisis as it describes Austro-Hungarian motivations and expectations at the outbreak of the First World War in great detail.
Count Berchtold to Count Szapary. Vienna, 25 July 1914.
At the time when we decided for serious action against Servia, we were of course aware that the possibility existed, that out of our difference with Servia might grow a collision with Russia. But we could not allow this eventuality to prevent us from taking the steps against Servia, which reasons of State had made necessary, nor could we accept the situation according to which a Russian charter would give Servia a lasting right to threaten the safety of the Monarchy [i.e. Austria-Hungary].
Should Russia think that the moment for the great settling of accounts with the Central Powers has already come, should it be resolved for war, then the following instructions to Your Excellency are indeed superfluous.
But it is still possible that Russia may consider the present occasion as embarrassing, that it is not so much inclined towards war, or even sufficiently prepared for it, as the Nowoje Wremja and the Birschewija Wjedomosti try to make us believe, and [French President] Monsieur Poincaré and [the Russian Ambassador to France] Herr Iswolski perhaps desire.
It is just possible that Russia, after the eventual refusal of our demands by Servia, in the face of the armed action, to which we should be forced, thinking matters over twice, might not give way to the intoxicating Slav feeling of solidarity, and might remain a spectator to what follows. To such a situation the following exposition is applied, which Your Excellency would make use of, at the right moment and in the way most acceptable to you, in your conversations with [the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs] Herr Sazonov and with the Russian Premier.
I have no doubt that under the present circumstances you have established close relations with your German colleague [i.e. the German Ambassador to Russia], who has certainly been instructed by his government not to leave the Russian government in doubt that in case of a conflict with Russia Austria-Hungary would not stand alone.
It is not probable that Your Excellency will succeed in convincing the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs of the necessity and the justice of our step in Belgrade [Note: Here Berchtold is referring to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia].
But there is one argument that cannot fail to impress the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and that is the fact that Austria-Hungary, firmly adhering to the principles upheld for many years, has no egotistical motive in this crisis or in the armed controversy with Servia, that may follow.
Territorially the monarchy is saturated, and does not wish to possess any portion of Servia. If we are forced to go to war with Servia, it will not be a war for territorial gain, but a means of self-defence and self-preservation.
The contents of the circular decree which is eloquent in itself will be still better explained by the perusal of the dossier giving the details on the Servian propaganda against the Monarchy and explaining the connection between this propaganda and the crime of 28 June.
The dossier will reach you with a special decree (to avoid mistakes, let me repeat that the dossier is to be given to the Powers only in the eventuality of Servia declining our demands) and I must beg Your Excellency to call the Russian Minister’s [i.e. Sazonov] special attention to this document, and at the same time to remind him that there is no example in history that any Great Power has suffered revolutionary agitation from a small neighbouring state for so long a time with exemplary patience as Austria-Hungary has done towards Servia.
The main reason why we remained inactive so long was that we did not like to call Servia to account during the period of its political development, when it had to resist the old Turkish enemy.
Our policy was not directed against the Christian Balkan States, and although we knew the value of Servian promises, we consented, after the annexation crisis in 1908, to Servia’s aggrandisement to almost double its size.
Today everything is changed. Servia has nothing more to ask of Turkey and the Monarchy can attend to its rights without having to reproach itself for hindering the free development of the Servian State.
On the other hand, the subversive movement nourished in Servia against the Monarchy has grown to such dimensions that monarchical and dynastic interests are threatened and endangered by it.
We must assume that conservative Imperialist Russia will understand and even find necessary an energetic action on our side, where the tranquillity of our State is threatened.
I have said already that we by no means wish to suppress orthodox Slavdom. Your Excellency might illustrate this argument by the fact that though we are at the present moment engaged in a conflict with Servia, we are at the same time on normal and even neighbourly terms with Montenegro.
With regard to the agitation for Greater Servia, spreading persistently to Austria-Hungary, we have nothing whatever to complain of in Montenegro’s case, and the dossier which you placed at the disposal of Herr Sazonov, contains no material concerning Montenegro. When Your Excellency, in conversation with Herr Sazonow, will have reached this point, the time will have come to add to the explanation of our reasons and our intentions, the fact that though we certainly do not wish for territorial gain and will not in any way touch the sovereignty of the kingdom, still to enforce our demands, we would not shrink from taking extreme measures, even if European complications should arise from our attitude.
The history of the last forty years and the fact that our gracious Majesty [Emperor Franz Joseph] has gained for himself the glorious name of a “Preserver of the Peace” is sufficient proof that we have done all we could to maintain peace, which we regard as the most precious possession of all peoples.
We should deeply regret a disturbance of the peace for many reasons. We always held the belief that the breaking up of the Turkish Empire and the strengthening of the Balkan States to political independence must remove the possibility of a conflict between us and Russia. We were always prepared to consider the greater political interests of Russia when our own political plans were made, and we never doubted that the identical conservative, monarchical and dynastic interests of the three Empires [i.e. Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia] would for all times have a beneficial influence on their political relations.
If we had continued to suffer Servian agitation in our country, our existence as a State, our position as a Great Power, and European equilibrium would have suffered. We are convinced that it is in Russia’s own interest, which the peace-loving Russian statesmen understand so well, that the present European equilibrium and world peace be maintained. Our action against Servia, whatever form it may take, is absolutely conservative, and its only aim is the necessary conservation of our place in Europe.
Source: 1919 Austro-Hungarian Red Book, with minor edits.