The Austro-Hungarian ultimatum of 1914

The birth and death of Yugoslavia were the most extraordinary and public of any country in history; the twentieth century was framed, indeed defined, by her painful creation and dissolution. Lost in the annals of history are two documents which were issued by the Great Powers to Serbia; both contain the same ultimatum: “sign your own death warrant, or we’ll shoot”.

The prospect of comparing Austria-Hungary’s 1914 ultimatum to Serbia with Rambouillet’s infamous “Annex B” in 1999 was daunting. Yet within 85 years a nation was twice presented with a document that had been deliberately designed to be rejected and lead to war.

The contexts were indeed different. In 1914 Austria-Hungary felt that Serbia presented a threat that had to be removed once and for all. In 1999, NATO needed to justify its raison d’être, Clinton’s extra-curricular activities had been discovered and “peacemaker” Blair was embarking on his first Great Crusade; all this plus a vicious ethnic insurgency seeking to amputate Serbia’s cultural and spiritual heartland and a total mismanagement of the situation by Milošević & Co.

The two documents differed in their sophistication yet both reflected Serbia’s international position at the time. Austria-Hungary’s eloquent ten-point ultimatum of 1914 was carefully scripted to present a veneer of “civilisation” in recognition of the fact that Serbia had allies. It accused Serbia of harbouring “subversive movements” and of inciting hatred towards Austria-Hungary and of planning the assassination in Sarajevo. Ten measures demanded the elimination of any perceived subversion or propaganda; Serbia was given 48 hours to respond to an ultimatum that was designed to humiliate and more importantly, was impossible to comply with.

The Serbian Government agreed to all but one of the demands - the involvement of Austrian agents in Serbia – arguing that this violated the Serbian Constitution. Prime Minister Nikola Pašić urgently appealed to Russia, France, Great Britain and Greece; Britain and France stated that Serbia should offer no resistance if Austria-Hungary invaded, and withdraw its troops into the interior, allowing the capture of Belgrade if necessary! Interestingly, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was satisfied with the skill and compliance of the response and concluded that there was “no case for war”. But Vienna’s mind was already made up long before the response was received; a state of war declared. That same evening the Serbian Government moved to Niš and ordered the evacuation of Belgrade.

By comparison to 1914, Serbia had few allies in 1999 and the 25 points of Annex B formed possibly the most cynical document ever presented to a state. With the Yugoslav Government appearing willing to compromise on autonomy for the Kosovo Albanians, Annex B was deliberately added to scupper agreement and give NATO justification for launching air attacks on Yugoslavia. As one US official put it: “We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that’s what they are going to get.”

The 1999 ultimatum was tantamount to complete NATO occupation. NATO would quite literally have had a free hand in Yugoslavia, occupying and using whatever it needed with complete immunity from any legal process. Unsurprisingly, the Yugoslav Government rejected the ultimatum and NATO began its 78 day bombing campaign shortly afterwards.

The 1914 ultimatum was designed to make Serbia politically subservient to Austria-Hungary; education and freedom of speech would have been completely suppressed and any perceived “disloyalty” dealt with by arrest or dismissal.

And thus the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was born, and, as Yugoslavia, died.

By Aleks Racić