COUNT STEPHEN TISZA, whose hitherto unpublished letter is printed below, was one of the men who counted in the affairs of pre-war Europe. He was a thorough Magyar, a Calvinist, strong-willed and calculating, jealously watchful over the rights of his half of the Dual Monarchy against possible encroachments either by the Germans of Austria or by the Slavs and Rumanians who came within his jurisdiction as Premier of Hungary. These he openly despised, nor did he hold the Germans of Austria in much greater esteem. The annals of the Dual Monarchy are full of his encounters with the various Joint Ministers for Foreign Affairs, for Finance, and for War; and his disputes with the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, who detested him, were innumerable.[i]

We know much of Count Tisza's attitude toward the war (both before the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum was actually sent to Serbia and during the hostilities) from the memoirs of his colleagues.[ii] We also get light from the German, Austro-Hungarian and British collections of documents, among the most important being the Minutes of the two Ministerial Councils held in Vienna on July 7 and 19, 1914.

Since the war many Magyar writers have dwelt upon the doubts entertained by Count Tisza regarding the wisdom of commencing hostilities against Serbia, and thence have argued that Hungary was less responsible for the ultimatum than Austria. This seems only partly justified. A careful reading of the Minutes of the two Ministerial Councils, and of the official correspondence between Vienna and Berlin (in which Tisza's attitude was freely discussed), shows that he had doubts more on the score of expediency than of morals. He was a confirmed opponent of any move which might interfere with the favorable position held by Hungary in the joint affairs of the Empire, and he foresaw that a successful war with Serbia would almost inevitably result in the addition of new Slav provinces, thus strengthening the hands of the Viennese statesmen who were pressing for the transformation of the Dual into a Trial Monarchy, with the Slav peoples on a par with the Hungarians. Besides, he was doubtful whether the war would be successful.

The following letter from Count Tisza was written less than a week after the assassination of the Heir Apparent at Sarajevo on June 28. It is addressed to Ritter von Bilinski, Joint Minister for Finance, apparently in reply to a telegram from Gen. Potiorek, Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a copy of which Bilinski had forwarded to Count Tisza two days earlier. The two annexed provinces were under the general supervision of the Joint Finance Minister, and it was natural that he should have transmitted information to Count Tisza and received his reply. Officials of the Jugoslav Government who were sent to Vienna after the collapse of the Empire found the document in the Bosnian archives of the Ministry of Finance, and it is now in the archives at Belgrade. The writer obtained a copy there recently.

VIENNA, July 3, 1914.

YOUR EXCELLENCY:

Thanking your Excellency most sincerely for the transmission of the code telegram of the "Landeschef" (Governor) of the 1st instant, I take the liberty, immediately following its perusal, to say that I consider it absolutely necessary to discuss the policy to be followed in Bosnia-Herzegovina at a general conference of ministers to be called very shortly. This conference would have to decide in regard to the dissolution of the Provincial Assembly and in regard to eventual "exceptional measures," such as censorship, changes in the electoral laws, etc.

Till then there will be nothing to do but to carry out -- in a firm and consistent manner, to be sure -- the police and administrative measures essential to the maintenance of order and the combating of treasonable agitation.

In view of the revelations contained in Your Excellency's telegram of June 30th regarding the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the local administration can scarcely have the right to lay the blame on Serbia, when they themselves passively watched the agitation spread in their own land and allowed it to grow unchecked until awakened from their optimism by the horrible deed of the 28th.

If facts are produced which justify us in making a démarche in Serbia, then whatever is necessary must be done. Serbia will hardly give us just grounds for warlike measures, and without them it would be an inexcusable mistake to enter upon such a war.

The main thing is, and continues to be, to establish order in our own country, and in this connection I cannot help referring to the genuinely shocking revelations which must be made in the course of the Sarajevo investigation.

That details which ought to have been kept absolutely secret for the success of the investigation, as well as for controlling the political atmosphere, should appear at once in the newspapers, shows a forgetfulness of duty, a frivolity and a demoralization among the officials concerned which surpasses all belief, and I cannot understand why such a situation should be tolerated for a single day.

In the interest of this most important state matter, as well as for the good name and repute of our régime in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I have the honor most insistently to beg Your Excellency to relieve the situation by immediate and energetic measures.

Yours, etc.,

TISZA

This letter must have made unpleasant reading for Count Berchtold and Dr. von Bilinski, even though it did not greatly surprise them. It showed that Count Tisza was preparing to speak his mind about conditions in Bosnia at the Ministerial Council which he insisted should be called "very shortly." It did in fact meet four days later. Dr. von Bilinski attempted to defend Gen. Potiorek by remarking that he was on the spot and could best judge what measures needed to be taken. Turning on him, Count Tisza said (in the third-person paraphrase of the official Minutes): "He had the highest opinion of the present Governor (Gen. Potiorek) as a soldier, but, as regards the civil administration, it could not be denied that it had broken down completely and that reform was absolutely essential." But Tisza's language (at any rate as reported) was less severe than what comes to light in the present letter, nor do the Minutes mention the argument which he here uses, that it would be difficult to blame Serbia for tolerating Jugoslav revolutionary propaganda on her soil in view of the remissness and incompetence shown by the Austro-Hungarian administration in coping with it in Bosnia itself. Even then, however, he seems to have been ready for war in certain contingencies, for he adds: "If facts are produced which entitle us to make a démarche in Serbia, then whatever is necessary must be done."

The July 7 Ministerial Council was one of the decisive points in the course which Berchtold was shaping towards war. Tisza was driven slowly from one position to another. He argued that the future of the Empire could be protected by bringing Bulgaria into the Triple Alliance as a counter-weight to Serbia, and pointed out "what a frightful calamity a European war would be under present circumstances." Moreover, he argued, Russia might soon become entangled in Asiatic complications, Bulgaria might stage a war of revenge against Serbia, in fact all sorts of things might happen to improve the Empire's situation vis-à-vis Serbia without recourse to war. Above all he insisted that concrete demands must be made on Serbia before an ultimatum was sent or mobilization ordered. This was reluctantly agreed to by the others present, who thought that even a "startling humiliation" of Serbia would be without value, and that the demands on her must therefore be "so far-reaching as to pre-suppose a refusal, so that the way would be prepared for a radical solution by means of military intervention."

At long last, Count Tisza, being "desirous of meeting the views of all present," abandoned his firm ground of political and military expediency and merely maintained that though the demands put to Serbia must be "very hard" yet they "must not be of such a nature as to cause our intention of putting inacceptable demands to become obvious." "Otherwise," he added, and the remark shows how far he had been won to Berchtold's scheme, "our legal position would be an impossible one for the declaration of war." In reporting to Berlin the next day Ambassador von Tschirschky says, "I have the impression that Count Berchtold regards Count Tisza as an element of incumbrance."[iii] His impression was stale or else Berchtold did not reveal his whole mind to his German colleague. Berchtold himself knew that he had won, for in summing up the situation at the end of the Council he had noted that they were all "nearer agreement, inasmuch as the Hungarian Premier's own proposals would in all probability lead to that armed conflict with Serbia which he (Berchtold) and the other members of the meeting held to be necessary."

So, indeed, the event proved. Tisza still talked vaguely about proceeding against Serbia "like gentlemen,"[iv] but his words no longer worried the chauvinists. The military difficulties of delay were pointed out to him, as also Germany's impatience at seeing Austria let slip this chance of chastising her small neighbor. By July 14 Tschirschky was able to inform Berlin of Tisza's statement that he was "now firmly convinced" of the necessity for war; indeed, Berchtold told Tschirschky that Tisza had come to call that same day to go over the ultimatum and "had even introduced a sharper tone at various places."[v] It was a long transition from the position taken up in Tisza's letter of July 3, when he spoke of the difficulty of blaming Serbia and the "inexcusable mistake" that it would be to force a war. But Kaiser Wilhelm was pleased. "Well," he said, "a real man at last."

Our July 3 letter does not add anything startling to what we know of Tisza, but it gives us one of his first considered statements as to what he thought the policy of the Hapsburg Empire should be toward Serbia as a result of the Sarajevo crime, and lets us judge how far away from his original position Berchtold led him in ten days of argument. It is one more bit of vivid glass added to the mosaic picture of the month when war and peace hung in the balance.

[i] Prince Ludwig Windischgraetz writes ("My Memoirs," p. 49) that when news came to Budapest of Franz Ferdinand's death "Tisza's party made no attempt to conceal their joy."

[ii] Among these are the four massive volumes by Field-Marshall Conrad von Hötzendorf, "Aus meiner Dienstzeit," Baron Szilassy's "Der Untergang der Donau-Monarchie," von Musulin's "Das Haus am Ballplatz," Count Czernin's "In the World War," Count Karolyi's "Fighting the World," and the war memoirs of Prince Ludwig Windischgraetz and of Gen. von Cramon, who for four years was the German army representative at the Austro-Hungarian great headquarters.

[iii] Kautsky document No. 19.

[iv] Beside this phrase on the margin of Tschirschky's report Kaiser Wilhelm wrote: "To act 'like gentlemen' to murderers, after what has happened! Idiocy!" Kautsky document No. 29.

[v] Kautsky documents Nos. 49 and 50. But his conversion to Berchtold's thesis did not prevent Tisza from adopting a misleadingly hopeful tone in his replies to interpellations in the Hungarian Parliament, and even on the morning after he had given the Hungarian newspapers copies of the ultimatum he maintained that it was "grave, but not provocative or aggressive." See Max Müller's reports from Budapest in "British Documents on the Origins of the War," Vol. XI.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now