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Austria-Hungary’s Policy

Austria-Hungary’s Policy toward Serbia in Terms of Wars of Retribution

On the edge of the 19th century, the Europe was a dominant power in the world, which included six largest empires. Those empires established total control over Latin and Northern America (before the USA proclaimed its independence), Africa, colonies in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. The Austro-Hungarian occupational policy towards Serbia and the beginning of the war was the last attempt to save the empire.

General Arguments about the War

The 29th century was a period of an agony of the old monarchy system that used to be based on privileges of the chosen and unequal rights: “The loss of aristocratic values and the weakening of ties were what made the behavior of some of the statesmen in July 1914 possible” (45). The wave of previous revolutions did not bring the expected result to people and the inner aggression and disappointment increased. Moreover, the old system could not work in the established manner anymore.

The first evidence of such conclusion is Magagna Victor’s statement (“Contingent conflict; Russia-Austria-Hungary: Russian expansion; future of Serbia; future of Ottoman Empire”) (2015, Apr. 3rd). The European map and the borders of the colonies did not satisfy any empire, because the economic stagnation demanded new selling markets and cheap natural and human resources. Austro-Hungary lost its value in the European hegemony group as the Great Britain and Germany took the leading role in defining the European policy. Their colonies and resource markets were times larger than Austrian, besides, the political content was more intelligent. Hence, Austro-Hungary (same as the Ottoman Empire) had an illusion that it possessed its previous power; in reality, it counted years before its fall.

Considering the fact of increasing empire ambitions inside Europe and the economical necessity in new markets and colonies, the war was a single chosen solution for changing the world map. An interesting fact is that Great Britain and France were competing in modernization and the marine industry. Thus, Austro-Hungary signed a union agreement with Germany and Italy. The pact of 1887 between Italy and Austria committed both countries to support the status quo on the Balkan territories. In case of any conflict, both countries were supposed to find common solutions on a diplomatic level. Despite this agreement, each country increased the production of weapon and the armies were financed more. Each country expected not more than three weeks of war, after which the new borders would be established. Austro-Hungary was extremely interested in Balkan territories, which was one of the most valuable reasons of participation in World War I.

Austro-Hungarian Protectionism of the Balkans

David Fromkin in his book “Europe’s Last Summer” gives an argumentative evidence of the Austro-Hungarian ambitions over the Balkans before the war: “Austria-Hungary wanted to strengthen its position in the Balkans by crushing Serbia” (277). Indeed, in 1883-1903, the leading position in Bosnia and Herzegovina belonged to the representative of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Benjamin von Kallay. During this time, he managed to build the railroads, open new banks, establish the harvesting industry and tobacco fabrics. Nevertheless, there was a large inner protest against this politician because of his attitude towards the Balkans: Kallay regarded this region as an exclusively colonial land. Also, Bosnia and Herzegovina became a competitive area between Serbia and Croatia. The Austro-Hungarian administration prevented any connection between the provinces and Croatia and encouraged regional national feelings.

The fight for Bosnia and Herzegovina reached its culmination in 1903, when the Serbian throne was taken by Peter I Carageorgievich. Under the conditions of increasing Serbian nationalism, Austro-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina before 1908. As a result, Europe was on the edge of the Great War.

Before the annexation, the control over the Serbian nationalist movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina belonged to the conservative side. Soon after, it was passed to the radical representatives. The younger generation of the Serbian nationalists intended to unite with Serbia. Any methods were acceptable, even terrorism.

The third evidence in Fromkin’s book, dedicated to the development of the war conditions, belongs to so-called “blank-check” (90). Going back to the issue of the Serbian nationalists, the terrorist attack and assassination of Austro-Hungarian prince Franz Ferdinand provided the Austrians with a motive to declare war on Serbia. The Ultimatum (July Crisis) was not a serious attempt to find common solutions by using diplomatic means. On the one hand, Russia could start the war to protect Serbia. On the other hand, Germany promised to support Austro-Hungary despite any Austrian decision, so they went on with the intention to launch war against Serbia.

At the same time, Germany was convinced that the war would not start because Russia refused to participate after the German proclamation of Austrian military support. According to Fromkin, if the political condition in Europe were different, “all that would follow would be another small Balkan war, in which Austria would defeat Serbia and perhaps occupy its territory” (161); so, Serbia would become a protectorate or an unofficial colony. Nevertheless, a part of the German elite (Moltke) expected this war against Russia.

Slavic Nations Crisis

The July Crisis and formation of the Serbian nationalist groups has an important pre-history. Victor Magagna gives an interesting evidence of the empire's motivation to start the war: “Concepts: Instability and the Causes of War. A declining power is threatened by one or more state or rising powers (Austria-Hungary, 1914)” (2015, Apr. 6th). At the beginning of the 20th century, the nationalistic groups of the Slavic people activated in Austro-Hungary. The inspirational basis for it was the independent Serbian Kingdom in the Balkans. The idea of the union of south Slavic people around Serbia had a valuable impact on the Slavs within Austro-Hungary. Some followers kept the radical opinion and were determined to fight with terror: “The Slavs who plotted against him were more reactionary still; they looked back more than five centuries […] to the First Battle of Kosovo, at which, they believed, the greatness of Serbia had been lost” (Fromkin 118). The Serbian nationalists perceived, in an extremely negative way, the appearance of the prince on the Balkan territory as an intended abuse of all Slavic people. After the assassination, it was investigated that all the terrorists belonged to the Habsburg Empire and before the murder they had got the weapon from Serbia. The Austrian police mistakenly established that the initiative belonged to one of the Serbian nationalist organizations. In reality, the control over the operation was made by the Serbian leader Dragutin Dmitrievich. The terrorists confessed that Serbian border officers had helped them to cross the border, so Austro-Hungary had a valuable reason to convict Serbia of terrorism. A part of the Austro-Hungarian politicians and military officers supposed the idea that the solution must have been drastic. They were convinced that the Serbian authority made all possible for destabilization of the monarchy in the Balkan Peninsula.

The Austro-Hungarian political elite was disturbed by the influence Serbia had on the Slavs within the empire. Any small attempt of the Serbians to organize national separatism was regarded as a straight threat to the existence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In addition, the monarchy was not able to compete with Serbia in occupation of the largest territories after the Balkan wars anymore.

The military chairman announced the immediate mobilization. In such a way, this could enable the Serbian government to establish strict control over the terrorist groups with the purpose of stopping anti-Austrian activities. Nevertheless, there was one valuable argument against the military attack on the Serbians: it could provoke the Czechs and cause a revolution.

Success of any action against Serbia depended on the possible Russian support . The government of Austro-Hungary was aware of it but relied on German support since the Bosnian Crisis. Soon after, the Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the military chief decided to visit Germany and gain support. Keizer convinced Austrians that he was biased towards help even in case of Russian military participation.

Austrian Ultimatum

The final row of evidence was a statement about the decline of Austria-Hungary that incited the empire to fasten the process: a) external threat; b) Serbia-rising minor power; c) Russia; d) ethnic conflicts and secession; e) benefits – costs of security > benefits – costs of secession (Magagna Victor, 2015, Apr. 20th). On July 7, the Prime-Minister of Austro-Hungary announced active decisions about Serbia. On July 14, the government agreed the Hungarian Ultimatum project, and, on July 19, the final text was accepted. The ultimatum was planned to be granted to the Serbian government on July 23. According to Austrian statements, Serbia had to agree to such conditions: a) forbid anti-Austrian propaganda in Serbia; b) lustrate the officers and civil servants who were noticed in anti-Austrian propaganda; c) arrest the officers who were suspected of covering Franz Ferdinand assassins; d) forbid the Serbian nationalist party's activity; e) retain total control over the Austro-Hungary-Serbian border; f) the representatives of Austro-Hungary were supposed to participate in the Serbian investigation of the anti-Austrian groups and suppress revolts against Austria.

Austro-Hungary assumed that this was the most appropriate situation for the beginning of the war, even if Russia could participate (Russia was not ready to fight). Waiting for a few more years could disrupt the plan, because the Russian empire could enlarge its power. Germany few times announced support for Austria few times, but the government hoped that Russia would not take part. Nevertheless, Russia and France were getting ready for Hungarian and German aggression.

On July 23, the Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum was granted to the Serbian government, which had to reply during the next 48 hours. The Russian Minister Sazonov mentioned this act as the beginning of the new European war. This Ultimatum was unexpected for Serbia because the country was weak (due to two previous wars and the economic crisis). Thus, the Serbian government relied on the support of Italy. Nevertheless, the Austrian authority demanded an immediate reply. According to one version, Serbia was ready to accept the Ultimatum, but the new evidences in Franz Ferdinand’s assassination case appeared. It was enough for strengthening the Ultimatum and, if Serbia refused to accept it, the diplomatic relations would be absolutely distorted.

Diplomatic Tension

In Addition to the facts mentioned above, Victor Magagna has given substantial evidence why Austria fastened the war: “a) the assassination as a tipping point; b) threat of German war; c) rational choice of Austria-Hungary to start war (against Serbia); d) mobilization and strategic vulnerability (partial or total mobilization); e) a chain effect (Alliances)” (n. p.). On July 25, the Serbian government gave a negative reply to the Austrian Ultimatum. The Austro-Hungarians supposed that the reason was connected with Russian support of Serbia, which was agreed before. Nevertheless, the Regent of Serbia personally applied to the Imperator of Russia only on July 24. The Serbian position had a form of complaining about Austrian demands and limited time for its acceptance. The Russian reply was strict and obvious: Austria was convicted of conscious provocation of the war and Serbian was accused of spreading the information that the Russian Empire mobilized the army. During the entire crisis, the Austrian and German governments supposed that Austrian demands on Serbia would provoke Russian active participation in the European war. During the entire period of the July Crisis, Austro-Hungary and Germany were aware of the consequences that Austrian Ultimatum could provoke. The Russian position dedicated to Serbian protection caused repeated attempts to fasten the war before Russia increased its military power. On the opposite side, Europe relied on Austro-German union that could change Russian plans to participate in the conflict.

On July 25, the Austro-Hungary had begun particular mobilization. The German government insisted on immediate military actions of Austria against Serbia. An extension was considered as a danger due to the risk of involvement of other countries. However, the Austro-Hungarian military chief recognized that the mobilization plan did not allow them to attack Serbia before 12 August. Despite all the facts, it was decided to start the Serbian occupation before this date. Moreover, Serbian reply to Austrian Ultimatum was given in an unacceptable manner of the informal dominion towards the great empire. On the diplomatic level, it meant the loss of Austria and its fall under conditions of increasing roles of France and Great Britain. Thus, on July 28, Austro-Hungary announced war against Serbia. The motive was a rumor about the Serbian attack on the Austro-Hungarian group on the border with Bosnia.


On the verge of 19t-20th centuries, the political and economic circumstances predicted an increasing military activity. European empires were not satisfied with the territorial division and relied on possible domination over less developed regions in the future. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were going through agony and it was a question of years when they would lose their power. Austro-Hungarian historical influence on the Balkans convinced the government of the fast victory over Slavic nations. Nevertheless, the government did not take into consideration the fact of the united powers of British colonies and the ethnic Serbian opposition, which crushed any chance to establish total power over the Balkans.

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