Much has been made by scholars and historians of the so-called “blank cheque”, or promise of diplomatic and, ultimately, military support, given by Germany to Austria-Hungary during the July crisis of 1914. Indeed, many have argued for Germany’s” war guilt”, primary if not sole responsibility for starting the Great War, and cited this as crucial, irrefutable evidence.
Never mind that the guarantee given in early July to the Austrian envoy, Count Hoyos, by Kaiser Wilhelm II and his advisors supposed that Vienna would move against Serbia quickly, before the Russians even realized what was afoot, and while European opinion was still sympathetic after the assassinations in Sarajevo. In the event, the Austrians didn’t even deliver their ultimatum to Belgrade until 23 July, almost three whole weeks later. More importantly, the decision makers in Berlin anticipated and planned for a localized conflict in the Balkans. After the fateful council meeting of 6 July the Kaiser departed for his annual North Sea cruise not to return until 27 July, while his ministers, both civilian and military, also went on holiday, leaving the capital. After the Serbian response to the Austrian note on 25 July, a partial acceptance of the demands levied, Wilhelm enthusiastically declared that as far as he could see there existed “no more reason for war.” Germany was, in fact, the last of the Great Powers to mobilize, almost a whole week after Russia began to implement mobilization procedures (the Period Preparatory to War). Even the most Germanaphobe historians must agree that Austria-Hungary had a legitimate right to respond to such an egregious act of terrorism, plotted on Serbian soil and with the fill support of the Serbian army and many elements within the government itself. German support for Austrian policy is Southeastern Europe was actually strikingly unusual and atypical; for the previous thirty five years, since the conclusion of the Dual Alliance in 1879, Berlin had always sought to restrain Habsburg ambitions in the Balkans so as not to alienate Russia. That sort of caution was not, however, exercised by Russia and her ally, France.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazanov and war minister Sukhomlinov inaugurated the Period Preparatory to War, an essential partial mobilization, in a Council of Ministers meeting, on 25 July, before Austria had mobilized or even declared war on Serbia. Five days later, when Tsar Nicholas II decreed full mobilization, he did so in the full knowledge that such an action would necessarily and inevitably provoke a reciprocal German mobilization, not just to protect her Austrian ally but her own territory in East Prussia. The Russians would have never acted so boldly aggressive had it not been for the explicit support of France for their belligerant, expansionist policy on the Balkan peninsula. Unlike the Austro-German Alliance, which was primarily defensive, the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, by contrast, had been converted since the turn of the century into an offensive pact; indeed German cries of “Einreisung!” were not by nature baseless. Following the two Morrocan crises of 1905 and 1911, the rival armed political and military blocs in Europe had hardened. Unsure of British support in the event of a general conflagration and dependent upon Russian cooperation, French politicians such as President of the Republic Raymond Poincarè, former prime minister Theophile Déclassé and ambassador to St Petersburg Maurice Paleologue made a Faustian bargain, binding French security against Germany to Russian pan-slavist policy in Southern Europe. Bismarck was correct, as always, when he remarked that the next Great War would begin over “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” And just as dangerous and disastrous for Europe as the “blank cheque” supposedly given by Germany to Austria was the one given to Russia by France.