On 27 July 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Russia, Frigyes Count Szapary (pictured), sent a private coded telegram to the Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Leopold Count Berchtold. In his telegram, Szapary describes his conversation with the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Sazonov. A common theme throughout the document is the danger of escalation into a European war.
Count Szapary to Count Berchtold. Saint-Petersburg, 27 July 1914.
Have just had a long conversation with [the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs] Herr [Sergei] Sazonov.
German ambassador had told me before noon that he had found the Minister much more quiet and amenable when he visited him in the morning. He had advised him to speak with me, whom he knew to be well-disposed towards Russia, and filled with regret that our action against Serbia met with so little sympathy in Petersburg. Herr Sazonov’s reception contrasted vastly with his reserved manner last Friday. He told me what [the German Ambassador to Russia] Count Pourtalès had said to him and added, that if I had not come of my own accord, he would have asked me to visit him, as he was desirous to have open discussion with me. Last Friday he had been somewhat surprised and had not quite mastered his temper, besides our conversation was then a purely official one.
I answered that I also wished to be able to speak sincerely with him, as I had the impression that in Russia a mistaken idea prevailed on the character of our action in Serbia. We seemed to be suspected of wanting to get an advance on the Balkans, with a view to marching to Salonica or perhaps even to Constantinople. There were others who regarded our action as a kind of preface to a preventive war against Russia, which Germany was planning. All these suppositions were partly mistaken and partly altogether unreasonable. The aim of our action was self-preservation and defence against a hostile propaganda of words, script and deed, which threatened our integrity. Nobody in all Austria-Hungary was thinking of threatening Russia’s interests or seeking a quarrel with that country. We are, however, firmly resolved to attain the end we have proposed to ourselves and we consider the way we have chosen the most practicable. As an action of self-defence is in question, I would not conceal from him that every consequence which might arise had been considered. I was quite clear on the point, that if a conflict with the Great Powers became unavoidable, the consequences might be tremendous, and the religious, moral and social order of the world might be at stake. In glaring colours, I propounded the thought, which also appears to alarm [the British Foreign Secretary] Sir Edward Grey of, what might follow, if a European war broke out.
Herr Sazonov fully agreed and seemed rejoiced that I entertained such thoughts. He repeatedly assured me that in Russia not only he, but all the ministers, and what was still more important, the sovereign himself — all felt the same for Austria-Hungary. He could not deny that in Russia there were some old grudges rankling against Austria-Hungary, he sometimes felt them himself, but these were things of the past, and must not interfere with practical politics. As to the Slavs—he ought not to say as much to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador—he had no heart for the Balkan Slavs. They are a heavy burden for Russia, and we had no conception what Russia has already suffered through them. Our aims, such as I had described them, were perfectly legitimate, but in his opinion the way we were taking for attaining them, was not the safe way. The Note [i.e. the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia] we had presented was not happy in its form. He had studied it since my visit, and if I could find time, he would like to look it through with me again. I replied that I held myself at his disposition, but that I was not authorised to discuss the Note or to interpret it. His remarks would, of course, be full of interest. The Minister then one by one discussed all the points of the Note and declared that of the ten points, seven were acceptable without great difficulties, but that the two points, referring to the collaboration of Imperial and Royal officials in Serbia, and the point in which we demand ad libitum [at one’s pleasure] the dismissal of officers and officials, which we name, are in their present form altogether unacceptable. With regard to the fifth point I was able to give a full interpretation, having been instructed by your Excellency’s telegram of 25 July. With regard to the other two points, I said I did not know how my government interpreted them, but that both were absolutely necessary. Herr Sazonov suggested that a consular intervention might have been proposed and as to the dismissal, proof of the guilt of the persons in question should have been given.
Otherwise King Peter [of Serbia] would risk being killed directly. I answered that the Minister’s view of the case was the best justification of our action in Serbia. Herr Sazonov said that we should always remember that the Karageorgevic dynasty was without any doubt the last Serbian dynasty. We surely did not desire the neighbourhood of an anarchist witch’s cauldron. I answered that we certainly look an interest in the monarchic form of the Serbian State, but the last remark of the Minister had again proved, how very necessary a firm attitude was in Serbia’s case. While recapitulating what had been said, the Minister declared that he could not help feeling that the whole affair was an affair of words, and that it might surely be possible to get over the difficulties as they stood at present. Would we be prepared to accept the mediation of our ally, the King of Italy? Or would we accept the King of England? I answered that I was not in a position to reply to these questions, that I did not know what dispositions my government had already taken, that certain matters were on the move, and that certain things could not be retracted once they had been started. Moreover, the Serbians had ordered their mobilisation for yesterday and what might have happened since then was unknown to me.
Herr Sazonov, at the conclusion of the conversation, again in warm words, expressed his pleasure at what I had explained to him and declared himself much comforted. He would report to Tsar Nicholas about it, whom he was to see the day after tomorrow, on the day of reception.
Russian politics have travelled over a long distance in two days—from the discourteous rejection of our plans with regard to Serbia, and the hard judgement on our dossier, to the proposition of making a European question out of the whole affair, and the search for a mediator. Still we must not overlook the fact, that side by side with this retrograde diplomatic movement, there is energetic military influence at work, which threatens to change the Russian situation against us.
P.S. Over the course of conversation Herr Sazonov asked me if I could not give him our dossier, and when I answered that I was not in possession of a copy, he said would it not be possible for [the Russian Ambassador to Austria-Hungary] Herr Schebeko to obtain one in Vienna?
Source: 1919 Austro-Hungarian Red Book, with minor edits.