July 23, 1914: Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen, Austria-Hungary’s ambassador to Serbia, presented a ten-point ultimatum to the Serbian government, demanding a response within 48 hours. The Austrian government had carefully crafted the ultimatum to be unacceptable, thereby either providing the Austrians with a pretext for war or fatally undermining the authority of any Serbian government craven enough to accept it.
It had been nearly a month since the assassination by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The Austrians were caught on the horns of a dilemma. The natural horror at the assassination of the Archduke and his wife had temporarily rallied popular sympathy for Austria. The Austrian Empire was, however, incapable of taking advantage of that fleeting moment, and not simply because the proverbial (and often overstated) incompetence of its bureaucracy.
Of Europe’s five great powers—Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, Austria-Hungary was on the verge of slipping to the next rank to join Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Its population was smaller and its military more impoverished than Europe’s other powers. Most importantly, any confrontation with Serbia immediately raised the possibility of war with Russia, which shared ethnic and religious ties with the Serbs and was engaged in a long-term contest with Austria for influence in the Balkans. The Austrians could not provoke a crisis with Serbia without first assuring themselves of German backing. They had gotten German support, but it took time.
By July 23, rumors of Austria’s plans to issue an ultimatum to the Serbs circulated through Europe’s foreign ministries, though the precise nature of Austrian terms was still unknown.