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?"
Military historian Dr. A. A. Nofi told me that Wilhelm definitely believed the Austrians had won the diplomatic struggle over the murder. However, he failed "to fully grasp that the Austrians wanted a war to crush the Serbs." Austrian hardliners wanted to destroy Serbia as a Balkan adversary, and the assassination gave them the perfect excuse.
Dr. Nofi added, "The Kaiser made the mistake of letting his weaker ally control the game."
Perhaps that vaguely echoes the 21st-century phrase "leading from behind"; it definitely describes the flailing situation of a great power, one with multiple interests and commitments, losing control of events.
The signaling, posturing and reasonable demands for justice framing the diplomacy of July 1914 did not have to lead to the deadly guns of Aug. 1914 and the subsequent four-year long bloodbath. However, the diplomacy exposed the weakness (and fears) of two medieval empires, the Russian Romanovs and the Austro-Hungarian Habsburgs. Three short wars involving Ottoman Turkey (Turco-Italian of 1911-1912 and the First and Second Balkan Wars) had confirmed the Ottoman Empire's decay and weakness. Austrian hardliners wanted to demonstrate that they were not as fragile as the Ottomans.
July 31: Romanov Russia commenced full-scale military mobilization. Do not trifle with the Czar. He is a Russian Slav committed to defending his ethnic Slavic brethren Serbs. France, Russia's ally, began military mobilization. Germany declared war on Russia on Aug. 1, and began mobilizing. German mobilization was well-planned; Germany faced a two-front war. On Aug. 3, Germany declared war on France and Belgium and attacked both. France declared war on Germany. On Aug. 5, the U.S. declared neutrality.
The war that shaped -- and devastated -- the 20th and 21st centuries had begun.