July 5th in German History: Germany Gives Austria-Hungary a Black Cheque in Serbia

Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg.png
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.

Few German diplomatic actions are as derided as the “Black Cheque”, the popular term for the promise of support given by Germany to Austria-Hungary in the latter nation’s dealings with Serbia. On July 5th, 1914, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg communicated to the Austrian ambassador in Berlin, Count László Szőgyény-Marich de Magyar-Szőgyén et Szolgaegyháza, that Germany would support Austria-Hungary in accordance with the terms of the alliance between the two nations.

Although the German Empire was formed largely at the expense of Austria, the two nations had become closely aligned in the final years of the 19th century. Following the breakdown of its alliance with Russia, Germany’s only ally among the five major powers was Austria-Hungary. Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria sought retribution against Serbia, which Austria believed at least partially responsible for the death of the heir to the Hapsburg throne. Austria sent Serbia a series of demands of which Serbia affected all but one. Austria then asked Germany for its support, as Serbia was under the protection of Russia which was itself an ally of France. The German Chancellor’s response was “Finally, as far as concerns Serbia, His Majesty, of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence. The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.” The Austrians took this to mean that Germany would support her regardless of how aggressive her actions towards Serbia were. Austria was thus emboldened, and soon declared war on Serbia, starting the conflict that would become the First World War.

The Black Cheque features predominant in arguments that Germany bears sole or primary responsibility for the First World War. While Germany’s message to Austria certainly was a major factor in their deciding to declare war, we must remember the situation at the time. Germany could not been seen as abandoning its only major ally, and military alliances facilitating wars of aggression were not far departed from the norm of global politics at the time. Further, Austria chose to declare war. Even if German assurances factored into their calculations, it was Austria-Hungary that made the final decision and so bears more of the responsibility for instigating the conflict.

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