Never hit a man with your fist if someone else will hit him with his car.

Flimsy Excuse for WWI

By Jay Holmes

An intelligence agency ignored its own government and ordered an assassination.

No, not in Pakistan….

Yesterday marked the 97th anniversary of one of the worst diplomatic moves in the history of mankind. On July 23, 1914, Austrian diplomat Baron Giesl von Gieslingen delivered an ultimatum to the government of Serbia. In response to the killing of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia the previous month, the Austria-Hungarians demanded control of the Serbian investigation. They also demanded the outlawing of anti-Austria-Hungary statements or activity, and the arrest of groups that Austria felt had a hand in the assassination, such as the Serbian  “Black Hand.”

A young killer named Gavrilo Princip succeeded in murdering the Archduke on June 28, 1914, shortly after a failed attempt by one of his nine co-conspirators. The conspiracy seems to have been arranged by the head of Serbian Army Intelligence, Dragutin Dimitijevik, without the knowledge or approval of his government.  Princip has often been described as an “anarchist,” but he was apparently part of a popular movement that sought the formation of a new nation-state that would come about by the joining of Serbia with Herzegovina and Bosnia.

Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie

Princip fired on the Archduke at close range, striking the Archduke in the neck and hitting the Archduke’s wife in the abdomen. Princip turned his pistol on himself, but police and spectators took him under control before he could fire. According to Serbian law, Princip could not be sentenced to death because he had not quite reached his 20th birthday. Instead, he received a 20-year prison sentence, but died in prison of tuberculosis four years later.

The ultimatum that Gieslingen had delivered had been carefully crafted by the Austrians and their German allies to ensure a negative response from Serbia. The letter demanded a response within 48 hours.

Germany and Austria-Hungary had calculated that Serbia would reject the ultimatum, and that they would then invade, capture, and annex Serbia before its ally, Russia, could mobilize a response. They assumed that, when presented with a fait accompli, Western Europe would loudly protest, but not mobilize against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

On July 24, 1914, in response to Serbian pleas for help, Russia ordered a partial mobilization of its large, but poorly equipped army. On July 25, the Prime Minister of Serbia, Nicola Pasic, ordered the Serbian army to mobilize, and he personally delivered a response to the Austria-Hungarian embassy. He agreed to all terms but one. Serbia would not violate its constitution by allowing Austria-Hungary to take full control of the investigation of the assassination; however, it would allow international observers to participate.

On the flimsy excuse that Serbia would not turn over the investigation, Austria-Hungary broke diplomatic relations with Serbia. On July 28, Austria-Hungary initiated World War One by declaring war on Serbia, and it launched what it was sure would be a fast and successful military campaign.

The leaders in Vienna envisioned a cheap victory that would result in a vast expansion of the Austria-Hungarian empire. Four years and 16,500,000 dead people later, the Austria-Hungarian empire had vanished. Most of Europe was left in ruin, and the conditions for World War Two were in place.

Serbia’s conciliatory response had no chance of stopping the war. Had Serbia agreed to every last condition, new demands would have been made. The flimsy excuse for the war was even flimsier than it might seem. One of the terrible ironies of the crisis is that the Austria-Hungarian royal family and its government were not enamored of Archduke Ferdinand and might have eventually assassinated him themselves had Princip and his co-conspirators not accommodated them.

Archduke Ferdinand had become a source of consternation to his Hapsburg family by declining to agree to any marriages that his father wished to arrange, and by insisting on marrying Sophie Chotek. Chotek was a member of a royal family, but not a direct descendant of a European ruler, and, therefore, was not eligible to marry Crown Prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

When WWI was explained to me in my fifth grade history class, I felt that the class must have been too short, because clearly some critical detail had been excluded. I was certain that the killing of an Archduke from central Europe could not lead to such a horrendous war. It didn’t. It was the excuse for the war but not the reason.

The War was caused by competition between imperial empires. The Austria-Hungarian leaders saw an opportunity that didn’t exist.  If the Archduke had never been killed, it would not have changed anything. Germany and Austria-Hungary were waiting for the moment to strike. If need be, they would have created another excuse for the war. They outsmarted themselves, and in the bargain brought a hitherto unimaginable tragedy to Europe, leaving it vulnerable to another war.

That next European war would be triggered by an even flimsier contrived excuse presented by an even less likeable Austrian, but that’s a story for another day.

Any questions over Austria-Hungary or its flimsy excuse that started WWI?

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14 thoughts on “ Flimsy Excuse for WWI

  1. on ,
    Texanne said:


    So Serbians wanted to grab part of the Austro-Hungarian empire while the Austro-Hungarians wanted to grab Serbia, or prevent it from merging with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

    Stuff like this makes me tired. Look around: the bigger a country is, the harder it is to run. Yet so many want to race for land.

    This particular situation reminds me of some corporate moves. Corp A wants to gobble up Corp B while Corp B wants to gobble up Corp A. Stockholders are courted, backroom deals are made. Soon Corp C emerges–later to be renamed Corp A, because Corp A was the real winner of the secret war. Stockholders who didn’t sell at the right time are left with empty pockets.

    Is there any rule against selling shares in countries? Instead of invading, Country A could just purchase a majority share of Country USA. Much simpler than mobilizing an army.

    Thanks for the post, Holmes. Once again full of Stuff I Did Not Know. I hope this means you are going to follow up with more info about The War to End War or whatever the ad slogan was.

    • Great point about the similarity to corporate wars, Texanne. I think that’s what China is doing with us right now. What do you think, Holmes?

    • on ,
      J H said:


      Hi Texanne. Yes I will eventually write up a few posts on WW 1. Like WW 2 it was so vast in scale that it requires caution to avoid accidental misinformation. I will have to select representative topics that are workable for short articles. The next article on WW 1 will not be presented within the month. I think a brief mention of the Krupp steal dynasty and their love of weapons development will be the next topic.

      • on ,
        Texanne said:


        Um, I think that weapons development is a good thing. The fact that we, and then–as soon as they could cadge the tech–the Russians both had nuclear arms kept the cold war from getting out of hand. It’s so easy–as we have seen all too often recently–to hurl a force here or there to teach some despot a lesson. Not much blowback, and the only losses are of military members, who typically don’t come from the power castes. (Yes, Snark.) Different thing entirely to set off a nuke anywhere except Nevada. And, if I have Mondo Death Ray, then that tends to make the despots better behaved.

        Krupp is a funny business. Coffee machines and more!

  2. What an interesting post. I’m a history buff, but I’m more into WWII and Civil War history. I didn’t know about this, so thank you for the lesson.

    Isn’t it always the same for wars? The final straw is never the real reason. Countries with bad blood are always looking for a reason to fight. And of course, with the Civil War, slaves were the underlying issue. The real reason was states rights. While he was an abolitionist, Lincoln freed the slaves to gain an upper hand/support.

    Great post!

    • on ,
      J H said:


      Hi Stacy. Thanks for the visit. I also enjoy reading WW 2 history. If you have not yet enjoyed it I recommend that you read “The Great Sea War” by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and E.B Potter. It offers very succinct and accurate explanations of the naval engagements. “The Pacific War” by John Costello is the other book that I consider essential for students of WW 2.

      Author/Publisher Bob Mayer is publishing a series of historical novels on the civil war. Bob is a West point Graduate and West Point was the professional home of most of that war’s important generals. Sharing a West Point experience left leaders on both sides with a sort of “extended family” relationship. I have not yet read the first book in the series but I am looking forward to it.

  3. on ,
    Dave said:


    Power and its proxy, money. If I’ve got power, I can get the money. The only problem is that there’s usually someone else with a plan that has them ending up winning. Too bad that, in this case, everyone lost.

  4. on ,
    J H said:


    HI Dave. You make a great point. Everyone did lose. The United States entered the war late and lost the least yet of all the belligerents involved in WW-1 it was the United States that remained the most isolationist and anti war. Perhaps it was a function of the level of influence that public opinion had on government versus how much influence corporations had.

  5. on ,
    Sasha said:


    Serbians didn’t want to grab Austro Hungarian territories. Bosnia is and was populated with Serbs among other groups, Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina isn’t populated with Austro Hungarians. That is one mayor difference.

  6. on ,
    Sasha said:


    Serbians didn’t want to grab Austro Hungarian territories. Bosnia is and was populated with Serbs among other groups, Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina isn’t populated with Austro Hungarians. That is one mayor difference.

    Gavrilo Princip was a nationalist not an anarchist. Serbs outside Serbia wanted to join Serbia before during and after world wards. It ended at the end of 20th century as a complete disaster for Serbian nation. See for example Jasenovac (WW2 camp of death).
    “According to Serbian law, Princip could not be sentenced to death because he had not quite reached his 20th birthday. ”
    His trial was in Bosnia Herzegovina which was at the time Austro Hungarian protectorate, not in Serbia.AC

  7. on ,
    Sasha said:


    WW1 was a complete disaster for Serbia as we have never recovered from this “victory” of ours.

    • on ,
      J H said:


      Hello Sasha. Thank you for adding your personal perspective. The conflicts between Serbia and it’s neighboring nations predated World War One but I agree that that war created turmoil for the entire region and all of Europe. My personal opinion is that western civilization has yet recovered from world wars one and two.

      I welcome your personal views on this or any other post on this blog.

  8. I don’t get why other nations would attack another and not think about the lives lost. Don’t they care about the common citizens that had nothing to do with their fightings?

    • on ,
      J H said:


      “Don’t they care about the common citizens that had nothing to do with their fightings?” No.

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