US Ambassador’s Reaction to Austria’s Ultimatum Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on June 28, 1914, by a Serbian nationalist precipitated a crisis in Europe because of a complex web of alliances. Austria was part of Austria-Hungary, a multinational empire allied with Germany, which was thought by many to be the most belligerent nation in Europe. Serbia was allied with Russia, which was, in turn, allied with France. The time, nearly a month, between the assassination and the ultimatum that Austria-Hungary sent to Serbia on July 23, was spent with each country involved in assessing their allies and potential opponents. High-level diplomats, like Henry Morgenthau, US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey), tried to ascertain whether and when war would be declared. Morgenthau left no doubt in his memoirs that Germany and Austria-Hungary had long planned a war with Serbia, knowing that this would also mean war with Russia and France, and that the assassination was only an excuse to move quickly.

Summary Overview

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on June 28, 1914, by a Serbian nationalist precipitated a crisis in Europe because of a complex web of alliances. Austria was part of Austria-Hungary, a multinational empire allied with Germany, which was thought by many to be the most belligerent nation in Europe. Serbia was allied with Russia, which was, in turn, allied with France. The time, nearly a month, between the assassination and the ultimatum that Austria-Hungary sent to Serbia on July 23, was spent with each country involved in assessing their allies and potential opponents. High-level diplomats, like Henry Morgenthau, US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey), tried to ascertain whether and when war would be declared. Morgenthau left no doubt in his memoirs that Germany and Austria-Hungary had long planned a war with Serbia, knowing that this would also mean war with Russia and France, and that the assassination was only an excuse to move quickly.

Defining Moment

Europe in 1914 was defined by its alliances, and for many years, these alliances ensured that peace would be maintained, since attacking one country would mean attacking its allies. Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary, and Serbia was allied with Russia, who was allied with France and so on. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Bosnia (part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, it was clear that there would be some sort of military reaction, but it was not certain what that would be. Serbia had close cultural ties to Bosnia, and both Germany and Austria-Hungary were concerned that Serbia would expand into their territory. On July 23, 1914, Austria-Hungary sent an ultimatum, or list of demands, to Serbia. Though Serbia acquiesced to most of these demands, Austria-Hungary declared war one month after the assassination–July 28, 1914–effectively beginning World War I.

During the month between the assassination and the declaration of war, diplomats all over the world were working hard to determine the position of the competing powers in the European conflict that seemed imminent. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau was in a unique position to gather information about the European powers because, though the United States had a powerful role in European politics, it was technically neutral.

Many people in Europe believed that the German and Austro-Hungarian leadership had been planning some sort of attack on Serbia for a long time. Serbia had gained significant territory as a result of the First and Second Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, but Bosnia, which had significant ethnic and cultural ties to Serbia, remained in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Serbia was viewed as a dangerous neighbor by Austria-Hungary, who stood to gain territory if Serbia was weakened. Serbia, for its part, had significant ties to Russia, whose military was gaining strength. Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany would have to contend with Russia if they attacked Serbia, which would activate a complex web of alliances throughout Europe.

Nonetheless, the leaders of Austria-Hungary wanted a reason to invade Serbia, and the ultimatum of July 23 gave them one. Though Serbia acceded to almost all of their demands, the two that went unmet gave Austria-Hungary, and then Germany, the cover they needed to go to war. Germany declared war against Russia on August 1. Diplomats in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople showed Morgenthau evidence that Austria-Hungary and Germany were planning to go to war whatever the outcome of the ultimatum. In his conversations with Baron Hans von Wangenheim, the German ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, it was revealed that a meeting of top-level German officials had been called on July 5, and that Germany had begun war preparations then, to commence about two weeks later, when they expected to be better positioned financially. Morgenthau also recalled a conversation he had with an Austrian diplomat about the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, who was quoted as saying that only a general European war would settle who controlled territory in the Balkans, where Serbia was located.

Author Biography

Henry Morgenthau, Sr. was born in Germany in 1856 into a large and wealthy Jewish family. Morgenthau immigrated with his family to the United States in 1866 after his family suffered financial setbacks. Morgenthau graduated from Columbia Law School in 1877 and began a successful career as a lawyer. He was also very influential in New York’s Reform Jewish community. Morgenthau supported Woodrow Wilson’s presidential campaign, and when he won the presidency, Wilson appointed Morgenthau to serve as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He served in this position from 1913 to 1916 and was one of the first to express concern about the killing of Armenians in large numbers by the Ottoman military. Morgenthau was active after the war as a foreign emissary and an advisor on Middle East affairs. He died in 1946 in New York. His son, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., would become treasury secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Document Analysis

Morgenthau published his memoirs in 1918. In this excerpt from that work, he recalled the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and offered insight into the evidence he thought proved beyond a doubt that war had been planned by German and Austro-Hungarian leaders even before the assassination and had solidified their plans before the ultimatum given to Serbia on July 23, 1914.

Morgenthau was in a unique position as the ambassador of a neutral nation in the Ottoman capital, Constantinople. The diplomats there were “nearer the centre than most people.” Morgenthau recorded the strange calm with which the assassination was received, since diplomats like Morgenthau knew well that it would have far-reaching implications for Europe. Morgenthau met with the Austrian ambassador, Marquis Johann von Pallavicini, and was given the first hint that there would be an ultimatum given to Serbia, who was accused of encouraging the spread of violent nationalist groups. The Austrian government felt that perhaps “a punitive expedition into Serbia would be necessary” in order to “prevent such outrages.” This was proof to Morgenthau that the Austro-Hungarian leadership was already committed to invading Serbia.

Morgenthau described, in detail, one very important absence from the memorial service given for the archduke–that of the German ambassador, Baron von Wangenheim. He notes with some poignancy that the service, on July 4, was the last time that all of the other diplomats in service were together. Morgenthau was offered an explanation for Wangenheim’s absence later: He had been called to a secret meeting in Berlin, where the kaiser (the German emperor) had gathered his highest-level military staff and his ambassadors, along with “great bankers, railroad directors, and the captains of German industry” to discuss Germany’s preparation for war. All indicated readiness to go to war except the financial leaders, who asked for two additional weeks to “sell their foreign securities and to make loans.” Morgenthau used this information and the fact that there was significant action on the stock market, even though only a few people thought there would be a large-scale war, to point the blame for the beginning of World War I squarely at the German government for deciding in secret to go to war almost exactly two weeks before the Austro-Hungarian government issued the ultimatum to Serbia.

The Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, had also been planning for large-scale war for some time, according to the Austrian ambassador. Morgenthau recalled a conversation with the ambassador that quoted the aging emperor as saying that “a European war was unavoidable” in May of 1914, the month before the archduke and his wife were assassinated. This was conclusive proof in Morgenthau’s eyes that German and Austro-Hungarian leadership had anticipated and planned for a large-scale war.

Essential Themes

Morgenthau’s primary motive in this piece was to provide evidence that both the German and Austro-Hungarian leadership not only anticipated, but desired a large-scale war previous to the ultimatum they gave to Serbia on July 23, 1914. As the war consumed Europe, Germany sought to distance itself from the role of aggressor, blaming Serbia for not acquiescing to Austria-Hungary’s demands. Morgenthau was convinced, based on personal experiences and conversations he had as a diplomat in Constantinople, that Germany intended to wage war, whatever the outcome of the ultimatum, and that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had long planned for a war that would spread across Europe. It seemed to Morgenthau that the assassination of the archduke was a convenient, if unplanned, excuse to put these plans into action. Morgenthau’s recollections add firsthand information to our understanding of the actions taken by key European governments in the critical month between the assassination and the declaration of war.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. Print.
  • Hall, R. C. “Balkan Wars.” History Today 62.11 (2012): 36–42. Print.
  • McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War. New York: Basic, 2013. Print.
  • Morgenthau, Henry, Sr. Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story. New York: Cosimo, 2010. Print.
  • Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. 1962. New York: Ballantine, 2004. Print.
Categories: History Content