While vacationing, Wilhelm had tried to follow the events of July 1914 -- a tumult spawned by the June 28 murder of Austro-Hungarian Empire Archduke Ferdinand. Radical Serbian nationalists assassinated Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, to send the world a message. Serb extremists would never accept Vienna's 1908 unilateral annexation of Bosnia.
Wilhelm promised Vienna German support in obtaining restitution. Serbia might resist the Habsburgs' rickety empire, but German power gave Vienna the diplomatic heft to pursue tough, coercive diplomacy. Italy and Austro-Hungary were Germany's junior partners in the Triple Alliance, a defensive pact that did not commit allies to supporting an offensive war. However, Ferdinand's murder by a terrorist hit team had shocked Germany. Yes, we stand with you.
Wilhelm claimed he wanted to stay in Berlin to watch the situation closely, but advisers insisted he go sailing as planned. France, Russia and Great Britain (the Triple Entente) might interpret staying in Berlin as a sign that Germany was preparing for war.
July 28: The Kaiser read the ultimatum Vienna gave Belgrade July 23 demanding Serbia cease its agitation-propaganda campaign, suppress extremists, try Serbs who facilitated the murder and permit Austrian participation in investigations. Belgrade must respond by July 25. Wilhelm read Serbia's July 25 response: Belgrade capitulated to all demands except permitting Austrian police operations in Serbia. Wilhelm thought Austria had achieved its goals.
Note: Serbia had begun military mobilization on July 24. That indicated the Serbs would resist should Austria opt for war. Vienna began mobilizing its forces.
However, on July 26, Vienna had assured the German government that it would not declare war before Aug. 12, when its forces reached full strength. Breathing room? As of July 26 -- though German Army chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke, believed war inevitable -- perhaps time remained for peaceful resolution. Britain offered to mediate the Belgrade-Vienna conflict. Wilhelm was Queen Victoria's grandson. The Brits hated Germany's new, high-tech navy. Well, London would have to accept German power.
During Kaiser Wilhelm's cram course in what we now call 1914's July Crisis, advisers passed along shocking news: Vienna had just declared war on Serbia, and attacked.
In response, the surprised head of state asked a question that resonates 100 years after WWI began: "How did it happen?"
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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