Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Sarajevo and the July Crisis

‘It's now or never!’ was the reaction to the news from Sarajevo that the successor to the Austrian-Hungarian throne and his wife had been assassinated. By July 1914 it was clear that a conflagration could not be avoided. The will to war and alliance-driven dynamics enjoyed greater favour than moderation and the willingness to compromise.

However, it was not seemingly inevitable mechanisms that proved inevitable, rather clearly identifiable actions carried out by key figures; actions that at closer examination were by no means uniform. So it seemed as though the German Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg supported for a while attempts at agreement with Britain, whilst in the Habsburg Empire the Hungarian Prime Minister, Stefan Count Tisza, initially advised against the Habsburg Empire taking up arms. The Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold and Emperor Franz Joseph first sounded out the Hohenzollern Empire, until eventually the Austrian diplomat Alexander Count Hoyos returned with the so-called ‘blank cheque’, i.e. Berlin’s support for the Danube Monarchy commencing hostilities against Serbia, the latter held responsible for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. 

The aim of this was a short punitive expedition, a short and local conflict, since especially Wilhelm II and those around him expected a reserved attitude on the part of the other Great Powers. However, this turned out to be a grave miscalculation. The Habsburg Army proved itself in no way adequately prepared to carry out a quick ‘penalty kick’ against Serbia. Added to this was the hesitant attitude of some of the decision-makers. The Habsburg Foreign Minister Berchtold wanted to send an ultimatum to Belgrade only after the departure from Russia of the visiting French President, so as to give the potentially hostile allies in Paris and St. Petersburg no opportunity for immediate consultation.

Once the Serbian government had replied in a most conciliatory tone to the conditions of the Habsburg Empire, it became clear that Vienna in particular had little interest in de-escalating the situation. The Sarajevo assassination, in which the heirs to the throne had been struck down by the young Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, was certainly not the direct cause of the great catastrophe. It served more as a pretext, after almost a month, to launch the final strike. Within just a few days at the end of July and beginning of August 1914, this attitude led to the conflagration, the war that engulfed all the great powers of Europe.


Clark, Christopher: Die Schlafwandler. Wie Europa in den Ersten Weltkrieg zog, München 2013

Mombauer, Annika: Die Julikrise. Europas Weg in den Ersten Weltkrieg, München 2014

Moritz, Verena/Leidinger, Hannes: Die Nacht des Kirpitschnikow. Eine andere Geschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs, Wien 2006

Stevenson, David: The Outbreak of the First World War: 1914 in Perspective, New York 1997

Strachan, Hew: The Outbreak of the First World War, Oxford/New York 2004

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    Power blocks

    At the start of the war France, Britain and Russia formed the Triple Entente, extending the existing Entente Cordiale between Britain and France. The aim was to curb the ambitions of the German Empire under Wilhelm II to become a major power. Italy joined the war in 1915 on the side of the Entente. On the other side were the Central Powers consisting of the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. In 1917 the USA entered the war on the side of the Entente, marking a decisive turning point that was to lead to the military collapse of the Central Powers.

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Person

    Gavrilo Princip

    The 19-year-old grammar school student shot the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914

  • Person

    Leopold Graf Berchtold

    Berchtold was the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister at the outbreak of war in 1914.

  • Person

    István Graf Tisza

    Tisza was the “strong man” in the political scene of the Hungarian half of the Empire. He was assassinated during the revolts of 1918.

  • Person

    Wilhelm II.

    Kaiser of the German Empire since 1888, Wilhelm as its ruler emphasised the new role of Germany as a great power.

  • Person

    Franz Joseph

    Thanks to his long reign of 68 years, Franz Joseph was a determining figure of the Habsburg Empire in the last decades of its existence. In 1914, he signed the declaration of war on Serbia that triggered the First World War – a war that he would not live to see the end of.

  • Event

    Assassination in Sarajevo

    Assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in the Bosnian capital.


  • Development

    The "Balkan powder keg"

    The decline of the Ottoman Empire created a vacuum waiting to be filled by new forces. The Balkans became an unstable theatre in which the interests of the major powers clashed with the national programmes of the emergent peoples of south-eastern Europe.

  • Development

    Austria-Hungary and Germany: complicated relations

    Vienna and Berlin became closely associated following the Dual Alliance of 1879, although the Habsburg Monarchy was the junior partner. Its dependence in terms of foreign policy became all the more clear after the political unification of Germany in 1871 made it the dominant power in Central Europe. In domestic policy as well, dependence on the Hohenzollern empire made the German element predominant in the multi-ethnic state. The German-speaking populations were split in their identification with Austria and Germany.