There are actually three questions.

First Question:

It is often stated, especially in English-speaking media, that the terms of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia 1914 were unreasonable. Sometimes the demands are also summarized, but emphasis is often placed on the minutes of the meeting between Austrian ministers and Winston Churchill's note, that more or less state that the demands were unacceptable, or even drafted to be rejected.

Europe is trembling on the verge of a general war. The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia being the most insolent document of its kind ever devised

I've long since wondered what these unreasonable demands that a sovereign state cannot possibly comply with were, so i went through the trouble to actually read them and i can't really understand which demand specifically was meant with those words. Could anybody help out?

Second Question: The prosecution of those involved with the murder of the crown prince shouldn't be even a demand: that should be done anyway in any country with the rule of law. Murders just get punished.

Ceasing propaganda against Austria and shutting down terrorist organizations seams reasonable; it's not unlike the demand that US and NATO countries actually demanded from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Austrians were even polite enough to issue the demands before mobilizing troops and offering to make an investigation and to issue a formal declaration of war afterwards.

Did the ultimatum have any reasons for being unreasonable that were specific to that time and its customs, like prestige or some geopolitical implications, that might not be culturally or politically relevant today (and make it thus more difficult to understand why it was unreasonable)?

Third Question: Also, I've read on several occasions that Serbia was willing to meet Austria halfway, but i did not find any sources for this. Do you know of any sources that might state if Serbia was willing to comply with certain points or to compromise on some issues, or otherwise?

  • 1
    I tried to mark out what your three questions are; I hope it's correct.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 14, 2014 at 10:03

3 Answers 3


Short answer: points 4-6 were unreasonable to the point of being unacceptable, because they gave Vienna so much power over Serbia that it amounted to a forfeiture of Serbian independence.

This isn't unique to the time period or Serbia. Countries generally are not happy to subjugate themselves to a hated enemy. Whether they could afford to resist is another matter, of course; but whether they bow to reality or not doesn't diminish the humiliation of harsh terms.

Lastly, Serbia indeed tried to appease Vienna. It (on paper, anyway, and conditionally) accepted every demand except one.

Much of the ultimatum could be deemed unreasonable. But with regards to being unacceptable, Serbia actually folded to every Austrian demand and accepted all terms except one:

  1. to institute a judicial inquiry against every participant in the conspiracy of the twenty-eighth of June who may be found in Serbian territory; the organs of the Imperial and Royal Government delegated for this purpose will take part in the proceedings held for this purpose;

Bringing murderers to justice was probably not very controversial. The real issue is the second phrase, which is a thinly veiled demand for Serbia to submit to the jurisdiction of Austrian police. This was of course unacceptable, since it is tantamount to a surrenders of Serbian sovereignty without a fight. As the Serbian reply said:

The Royal Government considers it its duty as a matter of course to begin an investigation against all those persons who have participated in the outrage of June 28th and who are in its territory. As far as the cooperation in this investigation of specially delegated officials of the I. and R. Government is concerned, this cannot be accepted, as this is a violation of the constitution and of criminal procedure. Yet in some cases the result of the investigation might be communicated to the Austro-Hungarian officials.

A less righteous read of the refusal is that the Serbian government feared Austria would discover that Serbia knew about the assassination. Alternatively, Serbian leaders might (perhaps reasonably) simply fear that given the authority, the Austrians would simply frame them.

Two other points were also generally deemed unacceptable but "accepted" by Serbia:

  1. to remove from the military and administrative service in general all officers and officials who have been guilty of carrying on the propaganda against Austria-Hungary, whose names the Imperial and Royal Government reserves the right to make known to the Royal Government when communicating the material evidence now in its possession;

  2. to agree to the cooperation in Serbia of the organs of the Imperial and Royal Government in the suppression of the subversive movement directed against the integrity of the Monarchy;

These were ultimately was agreed to in principle by the Serbian government, but carefully laced with enough conditions so that non-compliance was all but assured. As was the case with point six, these articles were unacceptable because they would have given Austria extreme authority over Serbian internal affairs. Consequently, although it is usually said that Serbia accepted these terms, the Serbian reply actually noted that:

The Royal Government is also ready to dismiss those officers and officials from the military and civil services in regard to whom it has been proved by judicial investigation that they have been guilty of actions against the territorial integrity of the Monarchy; it expects that the I. and R. Government communicate to it for the purpose of starting the investigation the names of these officers and officials, and the facts with which they have been charged.

Which limited the arbitrary power to dismiss anyone they want that Austria sought to those proven "guilty", and:

The Royal Government confesses that it is not clear about the sense and the scope of that demand of the I. and R. Government which concerns the obligation on the part of the Royal Serbian Government to permit the cooperation of officials of the I. and R. Government on Serbian territory, but it declares that it is willing to accept every cooperation which does not run counter to international law and criminal law, as well as to the friendly and neighbourly relations.

Which placed restrictions of "international law and criminal law" on what the Austrian government could do under the excuse of pursuing terrorists.

  • Good answer, thanks. Whether a participation of i&r officials is to be interpreted as a cooperation with or a submission to a-h authority though, is a matter of interpretation...former would be very common nowadays. What i kinda understand, is why Serbia didn't like 3th and 4th point, however just the part about reserves the right to name the officials in question.
    – Matthaeus
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:50
  • 4
    @Matthaeus Well, you're looking at it from a strictly textual stand point. Diplomatic speech is in its own special universe. At the time, the language was understood to mean that Austria-Hungary will control the proceedings. Actually, that the term is subject to "interpretation" is one of the reasons - when a term is subject to interpretation, the side with the (much) bigger battalions have a correspondingly more persuasive interpretation.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:57

Austria had annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1908, and was looking to swallow Serbia next. It is in this context that the ultimatum be understood.

The Austrian ultimatum not only demanded that Serbia allow her to prosecute the perpetrators of the assassination, but help Austria find and punish officials that may have helped them. It went much further by asking that Serbia allow Austria to suppress "anti-Austrian" feelings in Serbia in the press, and allow Austria to dictate the firing of any educator, military officer or government official deemed by Austria to be "anti-Austrian,.

Article 6, the one term Serbia rejected outright, was that Austrian officials would be allowed to enter Serbia to oversee the enforcement of the terms of the ultimatum.

Serbia also hedged on articles 4 and 5 by claiming that she would accept them under the terms and conditions provided by international law. She categorically denied only Article 6. Basically, Serbia was willing to accept "justice," just not "Austrian" justice.

The result of the Austrian ultimatum was that Austria could fire any official in Serbia who was "anti-Austrian" to the slightest degree, replacing them with pro Austrian officials, thereby leading to an annexation of Serbia. Put another way, Austria tried to impose an Anschluss on Serbia like the one that was actually imposed on Austria some 24 years later by Hitler, who demanded that the existing Austrian government resign in favor of a Nazi government led by Artur Seyss-Inquart.

The only document even remotely close in International Relations, was Japan's 21 demands on China in 1915.

Even Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was more than satisfied with Serbia's response, stating that "Serbia had made a capitulation of the most humiliating kind." Only the Austrians were dissatisfied, because they wanted an immediate war and annexation, not a "crawling" takeover of Serbia.

  • 2
    Actually, A-H already had the assassins in custody before this. They wanted other 'supporters' of the assassins prosecuted or turned over to them.
    – Oldcat
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:32
  • Article 6 doesn't state that A-H officials are to enforce the terms, it just states that Austrian officials have to be allowed to participate in the investigation. This is a practice which is still deemed acceptable, as it seems, or at least is still common practice. Examples of this include Interpol, the investigation into the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, demands of extradition, investigations into abuse of human rights etc.
    – Matthaeus
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:38
  • 2
    @Matthaeus: Technically, you're right, but that comes dangerously close to violating Serbia's sovereignty. Note my discussion of Articles 4 and 5, whereby Serbia agreed to "enforcement" by international standards, but not Austrian standards.
    – Tom Au
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:43
  • And yes, as a document it is relatively unique or at least one of the last of its kind, as the practice of enforcing demands (with or without casus belli) became rather rare afterwards. As became the practice of formally declaring war, in favour of invading countries without calling it officially a war. As in this question: history.stackexchange.com/questions/259/…
    – Matthaeus
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:57
  • 1
    @FelixGoldberg: Let's just say that the feeling was "mutual," but that Austria was (by far) the greater "sinner." It's like saying that Poland was a bit of a hyena when she swallowed a small portion of the Czech Republic in 1939, but was nothing compared to Germany in that year.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 6, 2016 at 16:42

The main reason the demands were unreasonable is that A-H wanted to force the issue with Serbia in order to end the troubles with their disaffected minorities in the neighboring districts. Getting an 'attaboy' support blank check from Germany helped stoke the fire.

Serbia actually accepted virtually all the unreasonable demands, if not all of them. But since the ultimatum was basically a pretext, A-H went to war anyway.

To their embarrassment, they found that they had no way of actually attacking Serbia right off, as their army was in other locations and being moved toward Russia. By the time they got that straightened out and invaded, the Serbs gave them a bloody nose.

Here's the ultimatum - and response

The insolence is partly just claiming that the Serbian government was guilty of spreading anti AH propaganda. The demands include:

  • Firing any educator that A-H might demand without proof

  • Firing any military officer or government official A-H might name without proof

  • Requiring A-H participation in Serbian judicial processes and criminal investigations.

Serbia basically agreed to most everything, except turning over Serbians to A-H without any proof, and denied responsibility for private citizens talk about A-H.

  • 3
    This is the reasons why AustroHungary MADE the terms unacceptable, and not what was unacceptable about the terms.
    – user5001
    Nov 14, 2014 at 12:06
  • I can see the reasons why A-H might have had an interest in making the terms unacceptable, but i was wondering what exactly in the demands they issued was unacceptable.
    – Matthaeus
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:25
  • 2
    The hectoring tone was what created the most international outrage. Requiring A-H nationals to be judges in trials in Serbia was rejected as being against the Serbian constitution.
    – Oldcat
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:29
  • 3
    @user5001 - the final bullet list describes what was unacceptable about the terms. It is a blow to your sovereignty if another country can have your government officials fired at will, can dictate to your schools and courts what it will teach and who can do so.
    – Oldcat
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:31

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