This article is an edited transcript of The Causes of the First World War with Margaret MacMillan on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 17 December 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
By the time of World War One, Austria-Hungary had survived for a very long time as a series of muddles and compromises.
The Empire was spread across a huge swathe of central and eastern Europe, encompassing the modern-day states of Austria and Hungary, as well as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and parts of present Poland, Romania, Italy, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia and Montenegro.
The notion of a shared national identity was always going to be a problem given the disparate nature of the union and the number of ethnic groups involved – most of whom were keen to form their own nation.
Nonetheless, until the rise of nationalism in the years preceding World War One, the Empire had managed to incorporate a degree of self-governance, with certain levels of devolution operating alongside the central government.
Various diets – including the Diet of Hungary and the Croatian-Slavonian Diet – and parliaments allowed the Empire’s subjects to feel some sense of dual-identity.
We’ll never know for sure, but without the combined forces of nationalism in the First World War, it’s possible that Austria-Hungary could have carried on into the 20th and 21st century as a sort of prototype for the European Union.
It was possible to be both a good servant of the Kaiser and proud of Austria-Hungary and identify as a Czech or a Pole.
But, increasingly, as World War One approached, nationalist voices began to insist that you couldn’t be both. Poles should want an independent Poland, just as every true Serb, Croat, Czech or Slovak should demand independence. Nationalism was beginning to tear Austria-Hungary apart.
The threat of Serbian nationalism
Key decision-makers in Austria-Hungary had been wanting to go to war with Serbia for some time.
The chief of the Austrian General Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, had called for war with Serbia a dozen times before 1914. This was because Serbia was growing in power and becoming a magnet for the South Slav people, including Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, most of whom lived within Austria-Hungary.
For Austria-Hungary, Serbia was an existential threat. If Serbia had its way and the South Slavs began to leave, then surely it was only a matter of time before the Poles in the north would want out.
Meanwhile, the Ruthenians were beginning to develop a national consciousness that might lead to them wanting to join with the Russian Empire and the Czechs and the Slovaks were already demanding more and more power. Serbia had to be stopped if the Empire was to survive.
When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary had the perfect excuse to go to war with Serbia.
Backed by Germany, the Austro-Hungarian leaders presented a list of demands – known as the July Ultimatum – to Serbia that they believed would never be accepted. Sure enough, the Serbs, who were given just 48 hours to answer, accepted nine of the proposals but only partially accepted one. Austria-Hungary declared war.