The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
IT is the thesis of Count Montgelas that the Great War ended with nobody knowing why he had fought. On that point views will continue to differ so long as history is recorded. It will remain a question of absorbing interest, not only to our generation which fought the war, but also to our children's children. Every thread, therefore, that can be collected and woven into the story is worth preserving, and not alone threads that lead us to understand why the war developed but those also that tell us something of the precise way in which it developed. In the second of these categories falls the following brief account of what took place in Belgrade when Count Berchtold, Foreign Minister of Austria-Hungary, at last showed to the world the hand which he had been carefully arranging ever since the murder of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28 by a young Serb subject of the Hapsburg Emperor.
The month of July, 1914, was an anxious one for Serbia. The murder at Sarajevo had at once awakened fears in Belgrade that Austria-Hungary would seize the event as a pretext for beginning the war which persons high in Austrian and Magyar official and military circles made no secret of regarding as the only possible means of preventing the disintegration of the Dual Empire. That at first Belgrade expected the worst, is shown by the interesting anecdote told by a Serbian who happened to have an appointment to see Premier Nikola Pashitch on the afternoon of the day when news reached Belgrade from Sarajevo of what had been done there. This Serbian, at that time a close friend of the Premier, learnt of the murder on his way to the Pashitch house. M. Pashitch, he found, had been dressing when the news was brought him. Immediately he took off his clothes and went to bed, and was lying there alone, thinking, when his friend arrived. His first words were: "It is very bad. It is very bad. It will mean war." At that time the report was that the assassin was a Serbian from Belgrade.
This first impression did not persist. It is true that the recriminations of the Viennese and Budapest press, and the retorts of the newspapers of Belgrade, did not allow popular tension to lessen. But as time passed the cloak of calm thrown about the matter by Count Berchtold lulled not alone the Serbian Government but the Entente Powers as well into a false sense of security. By July 19 M. Pashitch, who was Foreign Minister as well as Premier, felt the skies enough clearer for him to be justified in leaving Belgrade to begin an electioneering tour in a remote mountainous district near Prishtina.[i] He must have been influenced in this decision by his habitual absorption in domestic politics at the expense of foreign affairs, because as recent as July 15 he had received anything but reassuring telegrams from Jovan Jovanovitch, the Minister in Vienna, while the Minister in London, M. Boshkovitch, spoke in a dispatch dated July 17 of the possibility that Austria-Hungary had "a plan afoot to bring pressure upon Serbia which might transform itself into an attack by force of arms."[ii] It is not easy, then, to absolve Premier Pashitch of blame for having failed to see through the screen behind which Count Berchtold, discreetly aided from Berlin by Herr von Jagow, was building his plan for the destruction once and for all of the Jugoslav movement, for the reduction of Serbia to a position of vassalage, and for the smashing of Russian prestige in the Near East.
A little after nine o'clock on the morning of Thursday, July 23, Dr. Slavko Grouitch reached the door of the Serbian Foreign Office, of which at that time he was Secretary General.[iii] When M. Pashitch left the capital four days earlier it had been agreed that in his absence his duties should be exercised by Finance Minister Pachu, but as the appointment was regarded largely as a matter of form, and as the actual order had only been issued the preceding day, M. Pachu had not yet been to the Foreign Office. On this morning the staff were preparing to begin their usual duties, not suspecting that the day was to be marked in letters of red in their national history, and that the first brief scene in the prelude to the greatest of all wars was about to take place in Dr. Grouitch's office.
As he came down the street Dr. Grouitch had been surprised to notice a carriage standing at the door of the Foreign Office. This was unusual, as clerks were not accustomed to arrive at work in carriages, and diplomats came by appointment or between 11 and 12, the hour set aside for their visits. Going upstairs, he found the Secretary of the Austro-Hungarian Legation waiting. The Secretary said that his Minister, Baron Giesl von Gieslingen, wished to see Premier Pashitch that afternoon at 4 o'clock. This was in itself strange, as diplomats habitually asked when they might be received, instead of themselves setting an hour. Dr. Grouitch explained that (as the press had made well known in Belgrade) M. Pashitch was in southern Serbia and would not be back for several days. The Secretary enquired what responsible official the Minister might see. Dr. Grouitch said that he was at Baron Giesl's disposal, or if the latter preferred he was sure the Foreign Minister ad interim, M. Pachu, would receive him. The Secretary said that in that case the Minister would like to see M. Pachu at 4 o'clock. To Dr. Grouitch's enquiry as to the reason for the requested interview, the Secretary merely replied, "for an important -- wichtige -- communication." Dr. Grouitch said that he would telephone later if the appointment could be made, and the Secretary left.
It has been stated that on July 21 or 22 Baron Giesl informed the Serbian Foreign Office that they might expect an important communication on the afternoon of the 23rd, and indeed the Diplomatische Aktenstucke[iv] gives the text of Count Berchtold's dispatch of July 21 instructing him to do so. Dr. Seton-Watson in his interesting new volume, "Sarajevo," alludes to these instructions, but without mentioning the fact brought out by Dr. Grouitch, -- namely, that for some reason Baron Giesl did not carry them out. Dr. Grouitch states categorically that no notification of the imminence of an important Austro-Hungarian declaration was received until the appearance of the Secretary the morning of July 23. Moreover, the Secretary in making his request for an appointment for Baron Giesl that afternoon expressed surprise at hearing that Premier Pashitch was absent, though as a matter of fact both Vienna and Berlin knew it well.[v]
As soon as the Secretary had left, Dr. Grouitch hastened over to see M. Pachu at the Ministry of Finance. The peremptory manner in which the request for an appointment had been made showed that the communication to be made by Baron Giesl was probably not only important but unpleasant. Furthermore, as Dr. Grouitch pointed out to M. Pachu to overcome the latter's initial lack of concern, the anxiety to hand in the note at a certain hour evidenced a desire to arrange a "point de depart," and a diplomatic note containing a time element at least partakes of the nature of an ultimatum. M. Pachu was only partly convinced, remarking that even so the time named by Austria-Hungary for replying would probably be several weeks; but he agreed to Dr. Grouitch's request that Premier Pashitch be at once informed. It was then discovered that there was no telephone in the village where M. Pashitch had spent the night, so it was arranged after much telephoning that a gendarme with a message should be dispatched to him on horseback, and at the same time orders were given for the preparation of a special train at the nearest railway station in case he wished to return at once to the capital.
It happened that it was the Sultan's birthday, and therefore that the chiefs of mission and Serbian officials had to call at the Turkish Legation to present their felicitations. As Dr. Grouitch's carriage arrived at the door of the Legation in Posorishna Ulica (now the American Legation), the motor of Baron Giesl drew up behind. The Austro-Hungarian Minister exchanged greetings and then said, "Have you told M. Pashitch that I wish to see him at 4 o'clock this afternoon?" Dr. Grouitch replied that, as he had already informed the Minister's Secretary of Legation, the Prime Minister was out of town, but that M. Pachu, acting Foreign Minister, would be glad to receive him at the hour named.
As the day wore on M. Pachu came to share Dr. Grouitch's alarm. There were only three other Cabinet Ministers in Belgrade at the moment, but they included two of the government's most experienced and influential servants -- Stojan Protitch, and Ljuba Jovanovitch, Minister of Education. The remainder of the Ministers were busy electioneering in their constituencies. After consulting Messrs. Protitch and Jovanovitch, Dr. Grouitch sent Premier Pashitch a second message, urgently advising him to return to the capital immediately, and in the course of the afternoon word came that he had started by special train.
A little before the hour appointed for the reception of Baron Giesl, Messrs. Pachu, Jovanovitch and Protitch (though the last named was ill) assembled at the Foreign Office. At five minutes before 4 the same Secretary appeared and said that the Minister asked to be excused, but that he would come instead at 6 o'clock. Dr. Grouitch expressed some surprise to the Secretary, calling his attention to the fact that M. Pachu was waiting as arranged. The Secretary, very tense and pale, merely said that Baron Giesl was not ready, and left. M. Pachu was indignant, and thought of leaving Dr. Grouitch to see the Austro-Hungarian diplomat, but on reflection realized that he must swallow his pride and wait. Wait they did, discussing what could be the reason for the delay. They agreed among themselves that some work of translating or copying must have held the Minister up, but even so failed to understand why he had not been more polite in giving notice and asking a change in the appointed hour.
The little group waiting anxiously in the Foreign Office did not know that the German Government (which had been informed of the hour set for the delivery of the ultimatum) had made inquiry of its Ambassador in St. Petersburg, Count Pourtalès, as to the exact time when President Poincaré would leave the Russian capital on his sea-voyage to Stockholm, Copenhagen and Christiania, and that the delay in Baron Giesl's arrival was due to the alertness of the German Foreign Minister, von Jagow. On receiving word from Count Pourtalès that the French President would not sail from Kronstadt at 10 o'clock (as originally scheduled), but at 11, von Jagow figured out that this would be only 9.30 o'clock Central European time, and that there was a bare possibility that word of the ultimatum might meanwhile reach St. Petersburg from Belgrade, thus robbing the Central Powers of the advantage which they hoped would accrue from the circumstance that the chief of the French Republic was cut off from communication during the moment of gravest crisis. The German Ambassador passed this hint on to Count Berchtold, and was able to telegraph Berlin at 1.45 p. m. on the 23rd the "warmest thanks" of the Austro-Hungarian Government and the information that Baron Giesl had been instructed to "postpone delivery for one hour."[vi]
The proceedings when Baron Giesl appeared at 6 o'clock were very short. He came alone, and was shown into the Foreign Minister's ante-room. Messrs. Pachu and Grouitch went out to him, while Stoyan Protitch and Ljuba Jovanovitch waited inside. The Austro-Hungarian Minister said: "I have instructions from my Government to deliver you this note, and to add that unless a satisfactory reply is given on all points by 6 o'clock on Saturday, the day after tomorrow, I shall leave Belgrade with all the personnel of my Legation." So saying, he laid the note on the table. Without picking it up, M. Pachu said that it would be difficult to reply to an important communication so rapidly, the more so because, as the Minister knew, Premier Pashitch was absent. Baron Giesl merely smiled and said sarcastically that in Serbia distances were negligible, adding that in any case there were always the telegraph and telephone. M. Pachu said that he could make no further comment, and the Minister left.
At once the fateful document was taken back into the other room, and the Ministers and Dr. Grouitch began to turn over the pages, reading bits aloud and translating here and there as they went along. The emotion grew as the tenor and object of the note became clear. Finally the end was reached. Nobody cared to be the first to speak. At last Ljuba Jovanovitch got up, walked the length of the room once or twice, and said: "Ne ostaje nista drugo nego da se gine" -- "Well, there is nothing to do but die fighting."[vii]
The first thought was to notify the foreign legations,[viii] to translate, code and send off the ultimatum to the Serbian legations abroad, and to reach Premier Pashitch and tell him of the terrifying demands of Austria-Hungary -- of which Sir Edward Grey said to Count Mensdorff when he read the text the next morning that he "had never before seen one state address to another independent state a document of so formidable a character." Vain efforts were made to communicate with Pashitch at Stalatz, at Chuprija, at Jagodina. For some hours he could not be reached. When he finally got back to Belgrade early the next morning he still had not seen the complete text of the ultimatum.
The two days of grace were feverish with consultations and frantic preparations for every contingency. It was realized that even though the demands of Vienna were met on every possible point compatible with the maintenance of Serbian independence and sovereignty, war was imminent. That doubtless meant the immediate bombardment of Belgrade, which lay at the mercy of Austrian artillery across the Danube. Orders were given, therefore, for a special train to be prepared on Saturday afternoon at Topchider, just outside the city, to transport the foreign diplomats and members of the government and their families to Nish. A second train, for the Prince Regent and his suite, was to wait in the Belgrade station. The city was not to be defended. All troops were withdrawn, except a couple of hundred men of the "last defense" who were left to maintain order, and a few engineers who were retained to blow up the Danube bridge after Baron Giesl's train had crossed to Semlin.
The reply to the ultimatum was written principally by Stojan Protitch. Seven of the ten Austro-Hungarian demands were agreed to unconditionally. Of the others, two were accepted with reservations, and one, the double demand that Serbia at once open a judicial inquiry and that Austrian officials be permitted to take part therein, was accepted as regards the first half, but declined as regards the second half as being contrary to the Constitution and the laws of criminal procedure. In conclusion, the reply emphasized Serbia's desire for a "pacific understanding" and declared a willingness to submit the questions between the two countries either to the Hague Court or to the Powers. The whole tone of the note was conciliatory in the highest degree. Vienna hesitated two days before daring to forward the text to Berlin. When the German Kaiser finally did see a copy (obtained by von Jagow from the Serbian chargé in Berlin) he wrote at the bottom: "A great moral victory for Vienna; but with it every reason for war drops away, and Giesl might have remained quietly in Belgrade."[ix]
Though it is correct to say that Protitch wrote the reply, his text was threshed over by the whole Serbian Cabinet. Every word was discussed and re-discussed, and changes ad infinitum were made up to the last moment. Meanwhile the diplomats besieged the Foreign Office in the effort to discover Serbia's intentions. They could only be referred to Acting Foreign Minister Pachu's first telegram to the Serbian Legations abroad, dispatched after Baron Giesl's visit on the evening of July 23, which had characterized the Austrian demands as "such that no Serbian Government could accept them entirely."[x]
Even the final Serbian text as handed over to Dr. Grouitch for translation and copying was so full of elisions and erasures and corrections and had so many little riders attached to it that only one who had been working on it could decipher the sense. As the hour for its delivery to Baron Giesl approached the government offices were evacuated.[xi] Only some of the most important archives could be packed hurriedly into cases at the Foreign Office and carried in carriages to the train waiting at Topchider. Dr. Grouitch was left alone at the Ministry with two assistants to finish the preparation of the formal document. Even at this eleventh hour, while he was dictating the definitive translation (there being no time to prepare a draft translation, he translated direct to the typist), he was called to the Cabinet meeting, which was in continuous session, to receive instructions for a change in one of the earlier paragraphs. He pointed out that the final typing of the note was in progress, and that to begin over again would be to prolong the work past the hour set for its delivery. What was already written was then allowed to stand, and the work proceeded. The last stage was complicated by the fact that the only remaining typewriter broke, and in the end the text was copied out in rather a shaky hand by M. Todorovitch, later Secretary of the Serbian Legation in London, from the dictation of Dr. Grouitch. Two or three copies[xii] were made, besides the original. The latter Dr. Grouitch put in a long envelope and took over to the Council of Ministers about ten minutes before 6 o'clock -- the closing ten minutes of the forty-eight hours of grace. Premier Pashitch took it, put it under his arm, and started off to deliver it in person at the Austro-Hungarian Legation. As his colleagues watched him go down the steps they knew that the fate of their country was in that envelope.
Baron Giesl can barely have glanced at the note, a document of nine closely written pages, for five minutes after its receipt he had signed the letter (which must have been already prepared) stating that the reply was unsatisfactory; and twenty minutes later he was at the station, bag and baggage, accompanied by the Legation staff. The members of the diplomatic corps were there to salute him. Across the platform, by a bit of irony, stood the Prince Regent's train, waiting to carry him south. By 6:40 -- fifty minutes after receiving Premier Pashitch's visit -- Baron Giesl was across the river in Austro-Hungarian territory. To all intents and purposes the war had begun.
After the war, the Ministry of the Interior of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes installed itself temporarily in the old Austro-Hungarian Legation. One day in 1921 there appeared there an elderly gentleman, a former Austrian subject, who wished to be naturalized as a Jugoslav citizen so as to secure the pension granted to former enemy army officers living in the recently annexed territories. It was the Baron Giesl, seeking amid the ghosts of his vanished Empire a favor from the authorities whom he had brushed aside so impatiently seven years before as he strapped up his brief-case and rattled off to the station.
[i] Incidentally, the Serbian Chief-of-Staff, Voivod Putnik, was absent at the same time taking a cure at an Austrian watering-place.
[ii] Serbian Blue Book, Nos. 25 and 27.
[iii] Dr. Grouitch had been Chargé d'Affaires at the Serbian Legation in London. After the war he became Minister of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in Washington. The writer has many of the facts of the present narrative from him personally.
[iv] The collection of Austrian diplomatic documents published in Vienna in 1919. For Count Berchtold's July 21 dispatch see Vol. I, No. 36.
[v] The same dispatch of Count Berchtold to Baron Giesl tells him that even if the prescribed warning should fail to bring Premier Pashitch back to Belgrade the ultimatum must nevertheless be handed over to the next senior minister. Berlin had been sent a summary of these instructions (see Ambassador Tschirschky's telegram No. 94, filed Vienna 1.45 p. m. July 22, printed as No. 110 of the "Kautsky Documents").
[vi] See Poincaré's time-table furnished to von Jagow by the Admiralty Staff of the German Navy, July 21, 1914 (Kautsky document No. 96), and Tschirschky's No. 96 to the German Foreign Office (Kautsky document No. 127). The Vienna correspondence usually mentions between 4 and 5 o'clock as the original time for the presentation of the note in Belgrade; but 4 o'clock was the hour actually set by Baron Giesl's Secretary when he first visited the Foreign Office.
[vii] "Se gine," literally "perish," but used in the old Serbian ballads in the sense of meeting a violent death after combat.
[viii] The Powers were meagrely represented at Belgrade throughout the crisis. The French Minister had recently had a break-down, and had not even been replaced by a Chargé d'Affaires. Both Russia and Great Britain merely had Chargés d'Affaires.
[ix] Kautsky document No. 271. For von Jagow's efforts to secure the text of the Serbian reply from Vienna see Kautsky documents Nos. 246 and 280.
[x] The general line of Serbian policy plainly had been determined long before any communication was possible with Paris, London or St. Petersburg. Nor does what we know of anxious Cabinet discussions and myriad alterations in the text fit in with the theory, sometimes advanced, that a complete "model draft" arrived from Paris.
[xi] Knowing what was ahead, the Serbian Government about 4 o'clock took the precaution to send out mobilization orders. It may be worth recalling that as early as July 11 Count Berchtold wrote the German Ambassador to explain that the delay in presenting the ultimatum was in order to allow the Austro-Hungarian military authorities more time for perfecting plans for sudden mobilization. By July 19 he was able to give the Council of Ministers the schedule for the surprise presentation of the ultimatum, the receipt of the inevitably unsatisfactory reply, and instant mobilization ("Austrian Red Book," Part I, p. 54).
[xii] One of these copies, in the handwriting of M. Todorovitch, is now in the archives of the Foreign Office at Belgrade. Even this final text shows that at the very last minute one or two changes were made, notably by the elimination of a two-line phrase, within parentheses, in the third of the numbered paragraphs. Perhaps this was the phrase which the Cabinet wanted changed when they sent for Dr. Grouitch. The writer has photostatic copies of this document, as also of the following documents in the Belgrade files: The Austrian ultimatum, together with Giesl's covering letter dated 6 p. m., July 23, 1914; Giesl's letter dated 6 p. m., July 25, severing diplomatic relations; Berchtold's letter of July 26 to Jovan Jovanovitch, Serbian Minister in Vienna, handing him his passports; the telegram from Berchtold to the Serbian Minister for Foreign Affairs, received at Nish, declaring war.