On 26 July 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Leopold Count Berchtold (pictured), sent a private telegram to his Ambassadors in Rome and Berlin. In the summer of 1914, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Germany were all members of the Triple Alliance. The telegrams detail Austria-Hungary’s attitude towards Italy when the Kingdom attacked, and later annexed, Libya in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912 against the Ottoman Empire. It was hoped that Italy would show as cavalier an attitude towards Austro-Hungarian military action in Serbia as Austria-Hungary had in Libya two years previously.
Count Berchtold to the Imperial and Royal Ambassadors in Rome (von Merey) and in Berlin (Szogyeny). Vienna, 26 July 1914.
- Herr von Merey in Rome.
- Count Szogyeny in Berlin.
A decree of 20 July communicated to your Excellency the arguments, which we should make use of, if on the Italian side an attempt would be made to raise difficulties against our action in Serbia, by an arbitrary interpretation of Article VII of the Triple Alliance Treaty.
Your Excellency has also been informed that I think it undesirable that a discussion, which could scarcely lead to satisfactory results, should be the cause of even the slightest irritation between the governments in Vienna and in Rome.
But we must reckon with the possibility of Italy’s insisting, and it is not altogether improbable that the [Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the] Marquis di San Giuliano will attempt to describe our attitude during the Libyan War [1911-1912] as having been a hindrance to Italy’s action and will use the argument that we then referred him to Article VII.
The question of the interpretation of Article VII in the case of the territory of the Balkan States has nothing whatever to do with the application of the article to the fact of Italy’s occupation of islands in the Aegean Sea. What I am anxious about is that we should succeed in refuting a reproach from Italy that we had at that time acted in an unfriendly manner, and not stayed true to with the duties of an ally.
For this end, I think it desirable that your Excellency should receive a short summary of the attitude we observed during the Libyan war.
Although the Duke of Avarna [, the Italian Ambassador to Austria-Hungary,] on 26 September 1911 declared, in the name of his government, that Italy’s action would be circumscribed by the Mediterranean and that nothing would be undertaken that could collide with Italy’s present policy of maintaining the status quo in the Balkans, the Marquis di San Giuliano one month later had changed this point of view: “nous nous sommes toujours reservé la liberté des operations militaires en dehors des côtes ottomans de l’Adriatique et de la Mer Ionienne”. (We always reserved for ourselves the liberty of military operations outside the Ottoman coast of the Adriatic and of the Ionian Sea).
All that Count Aehrenthal [i.e. Berchtold’s predecessor as Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs] did in view of this situation, marking at the same time the exceedingly friendly attitude of Austria-Hungary, was to call attention to dangers that might arose in the Balkans if Italy decided for a military action on the coast of the Aegean Sea, and to explain, that even a temporary occupation of the coast of the Aegean Sea by Italy would not be in accordance with the provisions of Article VII.
Our reserved attitude in the face of Italy’s subsequent plans of action were explained by the fact that had Austria-Hungary given its consent, it would have had to bear the responsibility if Italy acted in opposition to the declarations made at the beginning of the war, or if it departed in any way from its duties as an ally.
Our friendly attitude and our honest efforts to avoid any disruptive discussion between the allies while Italy was involved in war is plainly shown by what Count Aehrenthal said to the German ambassador (end of November 1911). Herr von Tschirschky was told, that we should endeavour to avoid entering into the details of how far the Italian operations would extend to the Asian coast. We had no intention to make difficulties for the Italian government, or even to let the government suppose that we could have made such difficulties.
We gave a further proof gf our friendly attitude when, in February 1912, England proposed demanding the assurance from Italy, that it would renounce every kind of action against the Dardanelles. It was our declining attitude— assumed at the instances of the Marquis di San Giuliano— that prevented the English proposition from being accepted. The Monarchy did more; it denied the rumours that Austria-Hungary had received promises with regard to the Dardanelles from Italy, both in London and in Constantinople.
When Herr von Tschirschky [the German Ambassador to Austria-Hungary], on 6 April 1912, again spoke of Italy’s intentions to extend the theatre of its operations, he was told, that we must adhere to our belief that we should hear a portion of Italy’s responsibility, if we consented to its action, but at the same time we admitted, that Italy might, if it planned a temporary action on territory which excluded danger to the Balkans, count upon our silent, passive attitude. It would however be better to avoid the discussion of special operations.
In the conversations, held with the Duke of Avarna on 13 and 15 April 1912 we declared that, to show our complacency towards the allied government, we would take exception to the islands at the Southern end of the Aegean Sea, which might be considered as lying in the Mediterranean, that is Rhodes and Karpathos, as also the reef of Stampaha (Astropalia), and would not protest against their occupation. The only condition we made, was that the Italian government should guarantee the temporary character of the occupation.
We have a report from [the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Germany] Count Szogyeny, dated 21 May 1912, stating that ,[the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the time,] Herr von Kiderlen-Waechter acknowledged our conciliatory attitude in the Italian action of the archipelagos with thanks. On the following day, in a conversation with the Duke of Avarna, referring to the meanwhile accomplished occupation of Kos and a number of small neighbouring islands, the ambassador reproached us for protesting against the occupation of the islands. Of course we did not admit this rebuke as justified, and declared there had been no “protest”, but that we had merely mentioned our legitimate rights, deduced from Article VII, but would for the present not make use of them.
Then followed negotiations with Italy to obtain in writing the promise given in April, that the character of the occupation should be temporary, but this had no chance of leading to a satisfactory result, on the contrary, so many points of differing had arisen in the course of discussion, that a real dissension seemed about to arise. To avoid this, we withdrew our demand for a declaration in writing; this was towards the end of June 1912. Our friendly attitude was acknowledged in a letter from the Duke of Avarna, dated 5 July 1912, in which he said that his government would in future exert itself to make the ties of friendship and of the alliance closer than ever.
From all this it may be clearly seen, that though we took care of the right conferred by the Treaty [of the Triple Alliance] in an unequivocal manner, still we did not in any way hinder Italy’s actions. We refused our expressed consent to actions, from which we apprehended dangerous consequences for the Balkans, and because we would not share the responsibility for these, all we did, was to warn Italy with regard to the threatening consequences. Subsequent events proved that we were right. What has here been said proves that we acted according to our duties as an ally and showed all possible courtesy, but avoided discussions, which might have had a perturbing effect upon the intimate relations between Vienna and Rome.
The above is for the present to the exclusive personal information of your Excellency, and only in case the Marquis di San Giuliano should reproach us with having neglected the duties of friendship and of an ally, you will use the arguments, that will seem most likely to convince him of the contrary.
To conform with the contents of my telegram of 22 July, I am sending Your Excellency a copy of a private decree, written for Herr von Merey, of which you will only make use if [the German Minister of Foreign Affairs] Herr von Jagow attempts to show that our attitude towards Italy during the Libyan campaign was otherwise than perfectly friendly and in accordance with the duties of an ally.
Source: 1919 Austro-Hungarian Red Book, with minor edits.