WWI: the idea of a conflict of widespread dimensions

Alfred Dumaine - authorAlfred Dumaine, the French Ambassador at Vienna, wrote to René Viviani, the French Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, on 19th July 1914:

The Chancellor of the Consulate, who has sent me his half-yearly report, in which he sums up the various economic facts which have been the subject of his study since the beginning of the year, has added a section containing political information emanating from a trustworthy source.

I asked him briefly to sum up the information which he has obtained regarding the impending presentation of the Austrian note to Servia, which the papers have for some days been persistently announcing.

You will find the text of this memorandum interesting on account of the accurate information which it contains.


The extract from a French Consular Report on the Economic and Political Situation in Austria:

From information furnished by a person specially well informed as to official news, it appears that the French Government would be wrong to leave confidence in disseminators of optimism; much will be demanded of Servia; she will be required to dissolve several propagandist societies, she will be summoned to repress nationalism, to guard the frontier in co-operation with Austrian officials, to keep strict control over anti-Austrian tendencies in the schools; and it is a very difficult matter for a Government to consent to become in this way a policeman for a foreign Government. They foresee the subterfuges by which Servia will doubtless wish to avoid giving a clear and direct reply; that is why a short interval will perhaps be fixed for her to declare whether she accepts or not. the tenour of the note and its imperious tone almost certainly ensure that Belgrade will refuse. Then military operations will begin.

There is here, and equally at Berlin, a party which accepts the idea of a conflict of widespread dimensions, in other words a conflagration. The leading idea is probably that it would be necessary to start before Russia has completed the great improvements of her army and railways, and before France has brought her military organisation to perfection. But on this point there is no unanimity in high circles; Count Berchtold and the diplomatists desire at the most localised operations against Servia. But everything must be regarded as possible. A singular fact is pointed out: generally the official telegraph agency, in its summaries and reviews of the foreign press, pays attention only to semi-official newspapers and to the most important organs; it omits all quotation from and all mention of the others. This is a rule and a tradition. Now, for the last ten days, the official agency has furnished daily to the Austro-Hungarian press a complete review of the whole Servian press, giving a prominent place to the least known, the smallest and most insignificant papers, which, just on account of their obscurity, employ language freer, bolder, more aggressive, and often insulting. This work of the official agency has obviously for its aim the excitement of public feeling and the creation of opinion favourable to war. The fact is significant.

Note that the “singular fact” was pointed out by Yov. M. Yovanovitch, the Serbian minister at Vienna, to Nikola Pašić, the Serbian Prime Minister, in correspondence of Tuesday 14th July.

On the same day, Nikola Pašić, the Serbian Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs sent a long telegram to all the Serbian legations abroad:

Immediately after the Serajevo outrage the Austro-Hungarian press began to accuse Serbia of that detestable crime, which, in the opinion of that press, was the direct result of the Great Serbian idea. The Austrian press further contended that that idea was spread and propagated by various associations, such as the “Narodna Odbrana,” “Kolo Srpskich Sestara,” &c., which were tolerated by the Serbian Government.

On learning of the murder, the Serbian Royal Family, as well as the Serbian Government, sent messages of condolence, and at the same time expressed severe condemnation of and horror at the crime that had been committed. All festivities which had been fixed to take place on that day in Belgrade were immediately cancelled.

Nevertheless, the press of the neighbouring Monarchy continued to hold Serbia responsible for the Serajevo outrage. Moreover, the Austro-Hungarian press began to spread in connection with it various false reports, designed to mislead public opinion, which provoked the Belgrade press to reply in self-defence, and sometimes to active hostility in a spirit of embitterment aroused by the misrepresentation of what had occurred. Seeing that the Austro-Hungarian press was intentionally luring the Belgrade press into a awkward and delicate controversy, the Serbian Government hastened to warn the press in Belgrade, and to recommend it to remain calm and to confine itself to simple denials and to the suppression of false and misleading reports. The action of the Serbian Government was ineffectual in the case of some of the less important papers, more especially in view of the fact that newly invented stories were daily spread abroad with the object of serving political ends not only against Serbia but also against the Serbs in Austria-Hungary. The Serbian Government were unable to avert these polemics between the Serbian and the Austrian press, seeing that Serbian law, and the provisions of the constitution itself, guarantee the complete independence of the press and prohibit all measures of control and the seizure of newspapers. These polemics were further aggravated by the fact that the Vienna and Budapest journals selected passages from such of the Serbian newspapers as have practically no influence upon public opinion, strengthened still further their tone, and, having thus manipulated them, passed them on to the foreign press with the obvious intention of exciting public opinion in other European countries and of representing Serbia as being guilty.

Those who have followed the course of these polemics will know that the Belgrade newspapers merely acted in self-defence, confining their activities to denials and to the refutation of falsehoods designed to mislead public opinion, at the same time attempting to convince foreign Governments (which, being occupied with other and more serious affairs, had no time to go into the matter themselves) of the intention of the Austro-Hungarian press to excite public opinion in its own country and abroad.

The Serbian Government at once expressed their readiness to hand over to justice any of their subjects who might be proved to have played a part in the Serajevo outrage. The Serbian Government further stated that they had prepared a more drastic law against the misuse of explosives. The draft of a new law in that sense had already been laid before the State Council, but could not be submitted to the Skupshtina, as the latter was not sitting at the time. Finally, the Serbian Government stated that they were ready, as heretofore, to observe all those good neighbourly obligations to which Serbia was bound by her position as a European State.

During the whole of this period, from the date of the perpetration of the outrage until to-day, not once did the Austro-Hungarian Government apply to the Serbian Government for their assistance in the matter. They did not demand that any of the accomplices should be subjected to an enquiry, or that they should be handed over to trial. In one instance only did the Austrian Government ask for information as to the whereabouts of certain students who had been expelled from the Pakratz Teachers’ Seminary, and had crossed over to Serbia to continue their studies. All available information on this point was supplied.

The Pakratz Teachers’ Seminary is described in more detail in “Illyrian Letters: A revised selection of correspondance from the provinces of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Dalmatia, Croatia, and Slavonia, addressed to the Manchester Guardian during the year 1877″ by Arthur J. Evans, BA, FSA:

Pakratz, their head-quarters, is a friendly little town in the Slavonian mountains, and has been admirably chosen as a centre to work from, since here, under the superintendence of Professor Josid, is established the training school for schoolmasters of the Serbs of Austro-Hungary, called the Preparandija. This Preparandija is an excellent institution, and it might even afford a subject for reflection to some of our smart writers, whose cue it is at present to ‘write down’ the Serbs and other Slav rabble, that training colleges to teach the art of teaching should exist among them.

The Arthur J Evans, adventurer and reporter from the Balkans, was later to achieve worldwide fame by his archaeological work on Crete: his letters from the Balkans thirty years earlier illustrate the belief that “the Serbs and other Slav rabble” were barbaric and uncivilised.

The Serbian Prime Minister’s 19th July 1914 telegram to Serbian legations, continued:

The campaign against Serbia, however, was unremittingly pursued in the Austrian press, and public opinion was excited against her in Austria as well as in the rest of Europe. Matters went so far that the more prominent leaders of political parties in Austria-Hungary began to ask questions in Parliament on the subject of the outrage, to which the Hungarian Prime Minister replied. It is evident from the discussions in this connection that Austria is contemplating some action, but it is not clear in what sense. It is not stated whether the measures which are to be taken–more especially military measures– will depend upon the reply and the conciliatory attitude of the Serbian Government. But an armed conflict is being hinted at in the event of the Serbian Government being unable to give a categorically satisfactory reply.

On the sudden death of the Russian Minister, M. de Hartwig, at the residence of the Austrian Minister, the polemics in the newspapers became still more acute; nevertheless this sad event did not lead to any disorders even during the funeral of M. Hartwig. On the other hand, the Austro-Hungarian Legation was so perturbed by certain false reports that Austrian subjects began to conceal themselves, some of them taking refuge in the Semlin and Belgrade hotels, and others in the Legation itself. At 5 p.m. on the day of the King’s birthday [29th June Gregorian/13th July, Julian calendar], which passed in the most orderly manner, I was informed by the Austrian Minister, through the Vice-Consul, M. Pomgraz, that preparations were being made for an attack that night on the Austrian Legation and on Austro-Hungarian subjects in Belgrade. He begged me to take the necessary steps for the protection of Austro-Hungarian subjects and of the Legation, stating at the same time that he held Serbia responsible for all that might occur. I replied that the responsible Serbian Government were not aware of any preparations of this kind being made, but that I would in any case at once inform the Minister of the Interior, and beg him at the same time to take such measures as might be necessary. The next day showed that the Austrian Legation had been misled by false rumours, for neither any attack nor any preparations for attack were made.

This may be pure coincidence, but the night of 13th July was the same day Friedrich von Wiesner reported to Count Von Berchtold his findings on the Sarajevo assassination and “the Ministers of the Dual Monarchy held a meeting” – the highly confidential meeting whose secrecy was discussed by Yov. M. Yovanovitch, the Serbian Minister at Vienna, in a letter to Nikola Pašić on 15th July.

The Serbian Prime Minister’s 19th July 1914 telegram to Serbian legations, continued:

Notwithstanding this, the Austro-Hungarian press took advantage of this incident to prove how excited public opinion was in Serbia and to what lengths she was ready to go. It went even further and tried to allege that something really had been intended to happen, since M. Pashitch [Nikola Pašić] himself had stated that he had heard of such rumours. All this indicates clearly the intention to excite public opinion against Serbia whenever occasion arises.

Pan Slavic Flag 1848When all that has been said in the Hungarian Parliament is taken into consideration, there is reason for apprehension that some step is being prepared against us which may produce a disagreeable effect upon the relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. There is still further ground for such apprehension, as it is abundantly evident that the enquiry which is being made is not to be limited to the perpetrators and their possible accomplices in the crime, but is most probably to be extended to Serbia and the Great Serbian idea.

The Great Serbian idea is the Serbian nationalist idea of Velika Srbija (Greater Serbia), which was to include most of Croatia, all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and the present-day Republic of Macedonia. This was initially an offshoot of the Pan-Slavist movement, a federation of South Slavic peoples, first described by a Polish emigré, Adam Czartoryski. But as a Serbian government official Ilija Garašanin described Velika Srbija in his 1844 paper Načertanije, Greater Serbia focused specifically on Serbs rather than Slavs in general.

The Serbian Prime Minister’s 19th July 1914 telegram to Serbian legations, continued:

By their attitude and the measures they have taken, the Serbian Government have irrefutably proved that they are working to restrain excitable elements, and in the interests of peace and the maintenance of good relations with all their neighbours. The Government have given their particular attention to the improvement and strengthening of their relations with the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, which had lately become strained as a result of the Balkan wars and of the questions which arose therefrom. With that object in view, the Serbian Government proceeded to settle the question of the Oriental Railway, the new railway connections, and the transit through Serbia of Austro-Hungarian goods for Constantinople, Sofia, Salonica, and Athens.

The Serbian Government consider that their vital interests require that peace and tranquillity in the Balkans should be firmly and lastingly established. And for this very reason they fear lest the excited state of public opinion in Austria-Hungary may induce the Austro–Hungarian Government to make a démarche which may humiliate the dignity of Serbia as a State, and to put forward demands which could not be accepted.

I have the honour therefore to request you to impress upon the Government to which you are accredited our desire to maintain friendly relations with Austria-Hungary, and to suppress every attempt directed against the peace and public safety of the neighbouring Monarchy. We will likewise meet the wishes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the event of our being requested to subject to trial in our independent Courts any accomplices in the outrage who are in Serbia –should such, of course, exist.

But we can never comply with demands which may be directed against the dignity of Serbia, and which would be inacceptable to any country which respects and maintains its independence.

Actuated by the desire that good neighbourly relations may be firmly established and maintained, we beg the friendly Governments to take note of these declarations and to act in a conciliatory sense should occasion or necessity arise.

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