On this date in history, one week after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, who was the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Germany took a critical step necessary for Austria to declare war on Serbia.
Less than a week after Franz Ferdinand’s murder, the Austrian Foreign Ministry sent an envoy to Berlin to press the case for action in the tumultuous Balkans region, accompanied by a personal letter to the same effect from Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Josef to Kaiser Wilhelm.
The Emperor, in his letter, accused France and Russia of conspiring against the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy), stating that “those in charge of the foreign policy of Austria-Hungary are convinced that it is in the common interest of the Monarchy, as in that of Germany, to oppose energetically and in time in this phase of the Balkan crisis, the development foreseen and encouraged by Russia by a pre-concerted plan.”
Austria’s ambassador to Germany, Ladislaus Szogyeni-Marich, passed the letter to Kaiser Wilhelm over lunch on July 5, in Potsdam. Wilhelm promised Germany’s “faithful support” for Austria-Hungary in whatever action it chose to take towards Serbia, even if Russia intervened. Later that afternoon, Wilhelm assembled a crown council, attended by the Imperial Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann, and War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn, among others. From this meeting, a consensus emerged backing the kaiser’s decision.
The kaiser’s pledge, which historians have referred to as the carte blanche or “blank check” assurance, marked a decisive moment in the chain of events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. Without Germany’s backing, the conflict in the Balkans might have remained localized. With Germany promising to support Austria-Hungary’s punitive actions towards Serbia, even at the cost of war with Russia, whose own powerful allies included France and Great Britain, the possible Balkan War threatened to explode into a general European one.
As Bethmann-Hollweg, in a telegram to Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, wrote on July 6:
The Emperor Francis Joseph may . . . rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.”
Historian Max Hastings believes Germany’s support for Austria was the necessary trigger. He writes in Catastrophe: 1914 – Europe Goes to War:
The case … seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame. Even if it did not conspire to bring war about, it declined to exercise its power to prevent the outbreak by restraining Austria. Even if Berlin did not seek to contrive a general European conflagration, it was willing for one, because it believed that it could win.”