‘The most formidable document I have ever seen addressed by one state to another that was independent’ (FO 371/2158, f. 97). This was how the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, described the ultimatum issued by Austria to Serbia on 23 July 1914. This document, perhaps more than any other, set Europe on course for war in 1914. It laid out a series of Austrian demands of Serbia, and gave them only 48 hours to respond. The countdown to war had started. The questions remain, how did it come to this, and why did it matter to Britain?
How did it come to this?
In Britain, as across Europe, the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand provoked shock and indignation, but this was not the first time terrorists had assassinated European royalty so why was this event so important? The incident rapidly turned into a crisis because it reflected tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. In an ethnically diverse region both countries staked claims on territory based on conflicted demographic and historical precedents. In addition the growth of Serbian nationalism had been seen as a threat by the government in Vienna as it undermined the ties which held the diverse nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire together. As the British Ambassador reported, some in the Austro-Hungarian Government felt that the country would ‘lose its position as a Great Power if it does not once and for all make it clear at Belgrade that Servian provocation will no longer be tolerated.’ (at this time the spelling Serbia and Servia were interchangeable)(FO 438/1 No. 9). All of the European powers expected an Austrian response, the question was: what form would it take? Continue reading »