There were alternatives. The beginning of the war was neither an inevitable disaster nor was it blind fate that struck the Habsburg monarchy. The assassination of the Imperial Successor Franz Ferdinand did not automatically cause war against Serbia. The elite in Vienna knew that a third Balkan War could perhaps or probably result in a major war on European soil. But they accepted this risk because they were guided by wide-spread imperialist ideas and an aggressive politics of self-interests in the Balkan trouble spot. Austria-Hungary intended to defend its status as great European power, despite all accounts of it being the „sick man on the Danube“ (Friedrich Engels).
Serbia, which had been successful in its expansion efforts in both Balkan wars (1912 to 1913), was not interested in getting into a direct confrontation with the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. Nevertheless, Serbia, given its aim of unifying all Southern Slavs, was a competitor with Austria-Hungary in the new distribution of the Osmanic provinces in Southeastern Europe. Even more important for the declaration of war were the Habsburg’s domestic policies: A war was to subdue existing national and class conflicts, demonstrate the power of the state against the parliament and generate a specific Habsburg-Austrian patriotism.
An opportunity to demonstrate strength
As early as the annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina (1908), and later during the founding of the state of Albania (1913), the Habsburg monarchy was able to carry out a policy of political and military strength. The assassination of the heir to throne provided an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that „patience had run out“. The military command had been pressing for a preventive war for years, and now it was finally getting its will. Immediately after the assassination in Sarajevo, the emperor and the government, followed by a hesitant Hungarian Prime Minister, headed into war.
After having received the so-called „blank check“ (unconditional support in case of war) from Berlin, the Austrian elites felt assured that it was indeed the right time to go to war. In addition, all existing media outlets joined in the patriotic chorus, anticipating without any doubt that Austria-Hungary would win such a confrontation. Side by side with Germany a mood of megalomania arose: in the shadow of „Nibelungentreue“ (unswerving loyalty), Austria-Hungary perceived itself as a forceful superpower that had decided to put an end to the tiresome competitor in the Southeast.
When, in the evening of July 25 after an ultimatum to Belgrad, the decision to go to war had been made, people in Vienna were eager to get their hands on the special editions of the newspapers. They marched jubilantly through the streets, singing patriotic songs. At the changing of the guards at the Imperial Palace (Hofburg), accompanied by music bands, all those present gave three cheers to the Emperor. Many writers contributed to the enthusiasm, with some, like Stefan Zweig and Leo Trotzki, describing the maelstrom of patriotism.
The mobilization for the war became a success story. In an unprecedented endurance test the multiethnic empire did not break apart. The different ethnicities did not oppose the war. Neither did the Social Democrats nor the Peace and Women’s Movements. The machinery of recruitment worked without any visible resistance as the dramatic start of the war silenced all critical voices. The declaration of emergency law was used for repressive purposes only in individual cases. The army lured young recruits with the promise of excellent supplies at the front.
National awakening and team spirit
Anyone in the international community who was convinced that the declaration of war would be followed by a rapid dissolution of the Habsburg Empire, was surprised by the strength of the united patriotic front. Vienna’s writers, artists, and intellectuals were fascinated by the newly found sense of community and were enthusiastic about national redemption and awakening. This new social cohesion inspired them greatly. It seemed in those days that the Emperor with his call to arms had rejuvenated the Habsburg monarchy.