13 January 1915 – Count Berchtold

Leopold Anton Johann Sigismund Joseph Korsinus Ferdinand, Count von Berchtold, Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Even knowing nothing else about him, just to hear his name and title read aloud is enough to know the most important fact about Berchtold: he is a creature of the aristocracy, born and bred to courtly manners, adroit in his political engagements and fiercely loyal to the dual monarchy. Commonplace wisdom about the Great War holds that these are exactly the sort of antique political and cultural institutions which bear responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict, not just in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but across Europe. This conventional explanation does not explain the entire phenomenon we now know as the First World War, but it does explain a lot, and there is no better example than Berchtold.

It was his ambition to punish Serbia because he understood the decrepit Hapsburg empire was replacing the Ottoman one as the ‘sick man of Europe.’ (The Turkish caliphate, it was generally felt, had become a terminal patient ready for hospice care and a probating of assets.) Indeed, the internal dynamics of the Austrian and Hungarian confederation were also weaker than they appeared, and imperial enlargement at the expense of the Ottoman Empire was a primary source of tension with Serbia before the assassination of the archduke. In turn, King Peter’s upstart nation is also weaker for her recent wars with neighbors, including the Ottomans.

That the Great War was caused not by a perceived abundance of arms, but by a chain of imperial ambitions among militarily weak states, is perhaps a counterintuitive conclusion about the 20th Century’s first great apocalypse, but it is no less true for not being so obvious. Berchtold was the Foreign Minister of a rickety, feeble, highly-decentralized state in July of 1914. The ubiquitous term ‘imperial and royal’ is a hint of the absurd complexity and unnecessary duplication of twelve languages, two postal systems, and an economy with no common coin in Kaiser Joseph’s supposed dominions. Many of these limitations are being eroded in the wartime emergency, which speaks again to the Great War as a study in nations compensating for their weakness.

We must examine Berchtold’s contribution to the outbreak of the war in that context, especially today, for he is resigning his post.

Hoffburg Imperial Palace in Vienna, the traditional Winter home of the ruling Hapsburg family

Hoffburg Imperial Palace in Vienna, the traditional Winter home of the ruling Hapsburg family

Berchtold’s role in the outbreak of war is well-understood even at the time. He wanted to punish the Serbs with an immediate invasion, giving the Russian Tsar no opportunity to insert himself into a diplomatic imbroglio. Under pressure from the Hungarian Prime Minister Count Istvan Tisza de Boros-Jeno, Berchtold — who must not be misunderstood as a warmonger — agreed to exhaust all diplomatic avenues before resorting to military means. His ultimatum to the Serbs was thus intended as a last opening for peaceful resolution rather than a pretext for invasion; Berchtold was quite willing to continue diplomatic discussion of the two most difficult items in the note as long as necessary. But the delay granted the Tsar exactly enough time to intervene, energizing the Serbian government to reject the entire ultimatum. At that point, the weak Hapsburg regime saw no alternative to war.

Berchtold is not going out like Oskar Potiorek, the incompetent Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina whose inadequate security arrangements allowed Gavrilo Princip to murder Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in an open-topped motorcar without any bodyguards around. After being allowed to lead three successive failed invasions of Serbia to try and salve his wounded honor, Potiorek was finally sacked and replaced with a rival three days before Christmas. Instead of punishing Berchtold for the Empire’s battlefield setbacks, Kaiser Joseph awards him the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Stephen and extols his service to the crown.

A map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire bordering on eight countries, five of which wanted a piece of it

A map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire bordering eight countries, five of which wanted to carve off a piece of it in 1915

Ostensibly resigning for personal reasons, his departure is nonetheless reported in newspapers around the world as a domestic political capitulation to Hungarian militarists. His replacement, Stephan Burián von Rajecz, is an indication of Prime Minister Tisza’s growing influence in the Empire as well as the hardened attitudes now setting in across the continent. Tisza’s dovish attitude in July has given way to an absolutist rejection of Berchtold’s policy towards Italy and Romania, two more neighboring states with designs on Viennese territory. Berchtold wants to keep them neutral by negotiating concessions of land; Tisza is opposed to any such accommodation, and so is Emperor Joseph. Just as Berchtold fears, both countries will eventually join the alliance against Austria-Hungary to seize the lands that they covet.

One Austrian army has already been destroyed by combat in Galicia, and another has been broken in Serbia. A third army is being devastated by Russian attacks in the Carpathian Mountain passes and in the Polish salient. More than a million Hapsburg soldiers are already dead, wounded, or captured, yet the killing has hardly begun. A wealthy landowner, Berchtold goes into opulent retirement to watch his beloved Empire dissolve in blood and fire.

A map of the Eastern Front in 1915 shows the furthest line of Russian advance in January

A map of the Eastern Front in 1915 shows the furthest line of Russian advance in January