The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; heir to the Habsburg Empire, led to war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary because of the over whelming fear within the Habsburg Empire of the Slavic National movement groups at home and throughout Serbia.
The Habsburg Empire defeated in two wars during the mid nineteenth century against France in 1859 and Prussia in 1866 was left feeling military weak and ostracized by her German brothers of Prussia. This led to her introducing a dual monarchy, ‘the Ausgleich’ in 1877. The introduction of the Ausgleich was an attempt to regain some control over the empires restless subjects (mostly Slavs) and to try and regain her military strength. The Ausgleich gave Hungary her own parliament and prime minister. Hungary looked at this as a step towards her total independence.
Slav nationalism was still a major concern. The Ausgleich, instead of bringing a sense of stability to the Empire, seemed to agitate the Slavic population further. The Hungarians did not deal with the needs of the Slavic people, but instead tried to instill their own beliefs and language upon them. In the Austrian sector of the empire things remained much the same as before, ‘stagnant’, Slavic subjects very much unsettled and ignored.
In 1877, a very significant move in favour of the Slavic nations was unfolding. Russia declared war on Turkey. “By tradition Russia was the protector of the Slav peoples of the Balkans”. (Russia & Pan Slavism, Michael Lynch, Recetion and Revolutions – Russia 1881-1924 (1992)). The Russo-Turkish war 1877 brought about the Treaty of San Stephano 1878. Serbia, Austria-Hungary’s Slavic neighbour and other Balkan states gained independence. Freed from the ‘claws’ of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). This major development only added to Austria-Hungary’s problems, as the balance of power in the Balkans changed.
The Ottoman Empire (Turkey), also referred to as the ‘sick man of Europe’, was loosing its grip of her European territories; it was a crumbling empire. The Russians used their romantic notions of Pan-Slavism as a front, to force the Turks out of the Balkans, freeing Slavic nations from the Turks.
Serbia, one of the Balkan states was populated with a majority people of Slavic origins. Her newfound independence was a major threat to the stability of the already shaky Habsburg Empire. Serbia could potentially bring the Habsburg empire to its knees if the Pan-Slavic ideas where brought to fruition through her. The great powers were well aware of the potential threat to their empires and thus the Treaty of Berlin 1878 gave Vienna administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina to quash any dreams of a ‘Greater Serbia’.
Serbia’s independence made other Slavic subjects in other empires more restless and determined to gain their freedom from dictatorships. Nationalistic movements rose, especially in the Habsburg Empire where many of Serbian’s ancestors had fled during the fifteenth century from the invasion of the Turks.
Relative peace lasted until Serbia’s new monarch; Peter Karajordjevic’s (1903) democratic approach spread throughout the Balkans. Serious rioting began. Nationalist organizations were formed, notably the ‘Black Hand’.
The Black Hand organization wanted to unite all Serbian subjects, many of whom resided within the Habsburg Empire. Revolutions ensued; the monarchy responded to these revolutions by annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, this inflamed the situation. More revolutions followed, the Habsburg monarchy chose to ignore these as best they could. The Empire ‘had drifted helplessly into the maelstrom of the Slav nationalist movement’. (I.Geiss, The Origins of the First World War).
Otto Von Hotzendorff, the leading statesman of the Habsburg Empire was well aware of the disastrous course the Empire was heading. He wrote a letter to the heir of the Habsburg throne on the 14 December 1912 stating that the unification of the South Slav race was a problem that could ‘not be ignored nor kept down’. The question was ‘whether that unification will take place within the boundaries of the Monarchy- that is at the expense of Serbia’s independence or under Serbia’s leadership at the expense of the monarchy’. (I.Geiss, The Origins of the First World War). The latter would relegate the Monarchy to the status of a small power.
‘Hotzendorff was so concerned with a Serbian threat that in 1913 and 1914, he asked the imperial government twenty four times to be allowed to wage a defensive war against the southern neighbour’. (Martyn Housden, ‘The past of the present – Yugoslavian Hostage of History’ (History Review, March 1992).
The unification of the Balkan league (Greece, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Serbia) and the Balkan wars saw Serbia’s confidence grow, doubling in size within a year, to the further detriment of the Ottoman Empire and she was posing as an even greater threat to the Habsburg Empire than before.
Serbian nationalist movements had gone too far for Austria-Hungary to regain control. The Habsburg Empire had ‘abandoned themselves to a chivalrous mood of decline’ but wished to go down fighting, as only a Neanderthal leadership knows how.
The Habsburg Empire could not declare war on Serbia because it was losing control of it own subjects, they needed a viable reason to wage war. The shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand provided that viable reason. The insurmountable ultimatum given to Serbia was merely procedure, war was already inevitable.