Austria-Hungary and Serbia

Austria-Hungary and Serbia Essay Sample

Jul 10, 2020 at Superb Free History Essays Online

Austria-Hungary and Serbia: War of Retribution

On June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip ended the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife, Sofia Hotek (McMeekin, 2014). The effects of this assassination are widely known –Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia, which, in particular, contained the requirements for an investigation on its territory. After Serbia’s refusal on this point, the war against it has started. On the same day in support of Serbia, Russia announced partial mobilization. Germany demanded to stop it, threatening to start its own. France supported Russia, also announcing general mobilization. Again, Germany, in the form of an ultimatum, demanded its cessation. As a result, it declared war on Russia and France, immediately invading their territory and the territory of neutral Belgium. In response, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Later, Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, being backed up by England and France. Finally, Japan laid claim to China, joining the conflict (McMeekin, 2014). Thus, the First World War began, claiming the lives of ten million people.

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However, it is well known that the murder in Sarajevo was an excuse, not the cause of the war. However, since these shots gave the start to the conflict, after which the good old world of the last century was rebuilt completely, and considering the consequences of this event that largely determined the further historical picture of the XX century, it will be interesting to dwell on its details. For example, the very beginning of this historical chain usually remains in the shadow – namely, the reasons for presenting the ultimatum to Serbia since Sarajevo was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and all the arrested perpetrators of the terrorist were Austrian nationals. Thus, the following research is dedicated to the study of the reasons of the Austro-Hungarian policy towards Serbia, namely in the terms of war.

Austria-Hungary and Serbia Prior to 1914

Serbian-Austro-Hungarian conflict, which triggered the World War, was not an accidental deterioration of the relations between the two countries as a result of the Sarajevo assassination. On the contrary, the armed conflict between the neighbors had been developing consistently and steadily. A fire could break out at least three times during the four years: in 1908-1909, during the Bosnian crisis; during the First Balkan War in 1912; in 1913, during the Second Balkan War, when the army of Serbia was marching towards the Adriatic coast of Albania, which Austria-Hungary could not accept (Despot, 2012). Gradually, starting from 1908, if not since 1906, when the Empire provoked the so-called war on pork by vetoing the import of cattle from Serbia, the situation escalated steadily. By banning the import of cheap Serbian cattle, Vienna and Budapest acted in the interests of the Hungarian and Austrian landowners and were guided by the desire to impose on Serbia an order on weapons produced at Skoda factory. Austro-Hungarian imperialism constantly threatened the independence of Serbia, as well as the other Balkan countries. Since 1906, the ruling circles of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy were obsessed by the desire to deal with Serbia (Despot, 2012).

In order to understand the background of the Austro-Hungarian aggressive policy towards Serbia, one should bear in mind that it has a long and complicated history. Serbia, which was a part of the Ottoman Empire, received the status of an autonomous principality after the Russian-Turkish war of 1828-29. In 1876, during the anti-Turkish uprising in the Balkans, Montenegro (which was independent since 1796) and Serbia declared war on Turkey (Copeland, 2001). They were defeated, and Serbia was recognized as a subordinate of Istanbul. However, Montenegro did not obey, and the hostilities resumed during the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78 (Copeland, 2001). In accordance with San Stefano peace treaty that followed the defeat of the Turks, the independence of Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania, as well as the autonomy of Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Herzegovina were recognized and later provided to Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, and northern Bulgaria while Austria-Hungary received the mandate of the temporary management of the areas with a mixed population – Bosnia, and Herzegovina (Copeland, 2001).

After obtaining independence, Serbia developed the policy of expansionism. In union with Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro, it declared war on Turkey (the First Balkan War), capturing Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, and a part of Albania. Moreover, in 1913, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro attacked Bulgaria and managed to capture more than the others. They were immediately joined by Romania and even Turkey. A month later, Bulgaria was defeated and surrendered, losing South Dobrogea (to Romania), South Macedonia and Thrace (to Greece), and Northern Macedonia (to Serbia) (Despot, 2012). These years showed the powerlessness and futility of Austro-Hungarian diplomacy. For the first time in the history of European-Ottoman confrontation, Balkan problems were solved without the direct involvement of the Habsburg Empire. Its authority of a great power suffered significant damage. However, the prestige of the empire was damaged even more in the eyes of its citizens, especially Slavs. The burning feeling of humiliation and powerlessness played a significant role in the behavior of the ruling circles of Austria-Hungary in July 1914 (Lowe, 1994).

As a result of the two Balkan wars, the main territorial prize went to Serbia. Such success fired up Serbian ambitions that were embodied in the idea of the Greater Serbia, uniting all South Slavic nations and becoming an independent factor in world politics in the Balkans. For Austria-Hungary, the creation of that state would mean the loss of all South Slavic lands. As a result, on the eastern borders of the empire, there were too many intertwined interests. On the one hand, there was the Serbian elite that sought to implement its imperial project while ignoring the interests of other people in the region. Moreover, in these endeavors, Belgrade relied on the Russian Empire, which viewed Serbia as an ally. On the other hand, the Croats and the Bosnians living under the Austro-Hungarian did not want to succumb to the imperial Magyarization policy or exchange their humbled status in Austria-Hungary for that of the new Serbia (Cornwall, 2002).

The dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary could not offer an effective solution to the accumulated problems. The existence of such a multinational state with only two eponymous ethnic groups (Austria and Hungary) could sooner or later lead to an explosion. There was a need for a full reboot of the imperial system, with federalization as one of the options. The most interesting fact is that the project did exist and had a realistic chance of implementation. The most logical solution to the tangle of contradictions was the spread of the special status bestowed by the empire to Hungarians and to the other nations of the dual monarchy. The project was supported by the Crown Prince of the Empire, in other words, Archduke – Franz Ferdinand. It involved the creation of a new tri-united state (Austria-Hungary-Slavia) and the formation of twelve national autonomies (Cornwall, 2002).

In case of success, the Habsburgs would have received the support of the Slavic population of the Empire, especially the Czechs, Slovaks, and Serbs, who, by obtaining autonomy, would have given up the struggle for overthrowing the Habsburgs. For the Empire, it was a bold step, and the heir to the throne was ready to go for it. However, the idea of the further federalization met fierce resistance from the Hungarian elite, which wanted special rights and privileges only for its people. Namely, Prime Minister Istvan Tisza claimed that if the heir tried to carry out his plan, he would start the national revolution of the Magyars. Another force that felt threatened by the new project of the government was radical Serbian nationalists. Full autonomy was contrary to their ideas of a pan-Slavic state and would lead to a drastic reduction of nationalist sentiment. As a result, the terrorist groups – Bosnian Mlada Bosna and Serbian Black Hand began preparations to the assassination of the members of the Austrian royal family, including Franz Ferdinand (Cornwall, 2002).

Austria-Hungary and Serbia in 1914

As it can be seen from the previous section, Austria-Hungary entered the year 1914 with many pressing political problems, of both internal and external nature. However, the Serbian nationalist policy was among the major ones. Being closely related, each of these issues could become a pretext for the war as a way to solve them. Austro-Hungarian political circles were worried about the impact that Serbia could produce on the Slavs living in the Empire. Any attempts of Serbs at the slightest national separatism were regarded by the Monarchy as a direct threat to the safety and integrity of the Austro-Hungarian state.

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The country desperately sought an excuse for aggression against Serbia, which would eliminate the threat. In addition, the ruling circles of the Monarchy were obsessed with a desire to prove the viability of the Empire, show that it was strong, full of vitality, and sustainability. It was a reaction to the unofficial talk about the weakness of Austria-Hungary and its impending disintegration. Such rumors began to walk through the diplomatic chancelleries of Europe during the two Balkan wars. Indeed, in the course of these epoch-making events, the Austro-Hungarian diplomacy was passive. As it was mentioned before, for the first time in its history, the Habsburg Empire was outside the scope of decisions of the Balkan affairs. Thus, the upcoming war against Serbia was meant to be a war of retribution. However, it should be noted that Serbia, the victim of the Austro-Hungarian aggression, also craved for a local war. However, since it could not defeat the northern neighbor in order to reconnect with the Serbs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone, the local war had to involve a Slav colossus, namely Russia (Otte, 2014).

Thus, the war with Serbia was considered inevitable, only an excuse was required to start it. On June 28, 1914, in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife were killed by a Serbian nationalist (Fromkin, 2005). The Serbian government knew about the plot but did not approve it because the country was exhausted by the two Balkan wars. Still, it was a perfect opportunity for Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia. However, between Sarajevo crime and the decision on the further actions, there were two full weeks of tension and waiting, during which diplomats, politicians, and the military were engaged in the convulsive search for an adequate response to the Serbian challenge. Generals demanded general mobilization and declaration of war on Belgrade immediately after the attack, otherwise, they argued, the prestige of the monarchy would be irreparably damaged, and it would cease to exist as a great power. This point of view was supported by the Emperor, Franz Joseph himself.

In his personal message to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, he stressed that Sarajevo's assassination resulted from Serbian Pan-Slavic propaganda, the sole purpose of which was to weaken the Triple Alliance and destroy Austria-Hungary. There could be no peace talks with Serbia, as long as there was a center of the criminal agitation in Belgrade, which threatened a peace-loving policy of all the European monarchs (Lowe, 1994). Thus, Austria-Hungary made one more step to its retribution war.

Ultimatum and the Beginning of War

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo triggered the armed conflict. However, in order to start a war against Serbia, an ultimatum had to be issued with unacceptable demands. The refusal to meet the claims was to be used as an excuse to declare war. Such advice also came from Berlin. The ultimatum was handed to the Serbian government on July 23, 1914 (Otte, 2014). The time was not chosen by chance since that day Poincare, the French President left Serbia to visit Russia. The ultimatum was handed to Serbia so that this message came after the departure of Poincare. Thus, the Allies – France, and Russia – would not be able to quickly come to an agreement on joint actions, and to Poincare, it would be difficult to contact the French government (Otte, 2014).

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The ultimatum consisted almost entirely of items that affected the dignity of Serbia as a sovereign state and meant a blatant interference in its internal affairs. It prohibited all Serbian anti-Austrian organizations, condemned propaganda directed against Austria, dismissed the officers from the army according to the lists submitted by the Austro-Hungarian government, and punishment border guards that contributed to the border crossing of the organizers of the murder of Franz Ferdinand. The final demand was the admission of representatives of the Austro-Hungarian command to Serbia to participate in the investigation into the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne. The Serbian government was granted a period of a total of 48 hours to respond. In case the ultimatum was not adopted in its entirety, Austria threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Serbia, which was tantamount to a declaration of war (Fromkin, 2005).

Serbia accepted the terms of the ultimatum but did not agree to the participation of the Austrian police in the investigation of Sarajevo assignation in Serbia, on the grounds that it would be contrary to the Serbian Constitution. Thus, the refusal was the formal pretext to break off diplomatic relations with Serbia, and issue an order on the partial mobilization of the Austrian army against Serbia. The first day of mobilization was appointed on July 28 (Fromkin, 2005).


However, the Empire did not rush to declare war on Serbia, in order to finish the mobilization and concentration of troops, as it was urged by the Austro-Hungarian General Staff. The concentration of troops near the Serbian border was supposed to be completed by August 5, and military actions were to begin on August 12. However, the hostilities began on July 26 before the official declaration of war: the Serbian bank of the Danube and the Serbian ships were shelled (Keene, 2006).

Thus, Austria-Hungary played the title role in the sad outcome of the July Crisis, and many consider the country the primary instigator of the war. However, it is clear that the ruling circles of the Monarchy were an influential and powerful group of public and military figures that deliberately led the country to war, not the World or European one, but local, against Serbia, to receive retribution for the loss of authority during Balkan Wars and the murder of the heir. However, this war was never meant to be against the West, with which the Monarchy had nothing to share.


The behavior of Austria-Hungary towards Serbia was shaped by various internal and external factors. The first one was the expansionist and nationalist policy of Serbia after its acquisition of independence, as well as the propaganda of Pan-Slavism, which posed a threat to the integrity of the Empire, meaning the loss of its southern regions. In addition, after rather an unsuccessful diplomacy during the Balkan Wars, the authority of Austria-Hungary on the political arena was damaged severely. In order to restore it, it was required to deal with the country that had ignited the conflict – Serbia. Finally, the war against Serbia was a way to prove the viability of the Empire, show that it was strong, full of vitality, and sustainability. By taking into account all the above-mentioned factors, it is possible to say that the Austro-Hungarian policy towards Serbia was dictated by ambitions of the country’s ruling circles. The assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, was only a trigger to a bloody confrontation, rather than its cause.

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Austria- Hungary is considered a country that created the conditions for the conflict. The complex system of diplomatic intrigues was not enough to resolve the situations both during the Balkan Wars and in July 1914. The exorbitant ambitions of Austro-Hungarian, as well as Serbian leaders, their desire to prove their superiority and establish the order, led to the outbreak of the war – not for the retribution, but the one that shook the entire world.

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