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Kaiser Wilhelm concludes meeting with Archduke Franz Ferdinand

On June 13, 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany leaves Konopischt, Bohemia (today the Czech Republic), the hunting lodge and country estate of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, after a weekend visit.

Although Wilhelm had ostensibly come to admire the lavish gardens at Konopischt, the reality was that he and Franz Ferdinand wanted to discuss Austria-Hungary’s insecurities about the tenuous balance of power in the tumultuous Balkan region. In 1908, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, formally still a province of the Ottoman Empire, and populated not only by Bosnians but also by Croats and Serbs. Serbia reacted angrily to the annexation, reasoning that if Bosnia were not under Turkish rule, it should be governed by Serbia. After two successful Balkan Wars—and enjoying support from the Russian empire, the other great European power in the region apart from Austria-Hungary—Serbia had emerged as a more powerful and ambitious nation than ever before, thus threatening the position of the Dual Monarchy, already in decline.

Historical evidence exists to suggest that Franz Ferdinand, at the behest of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, was intending to extract a promise from Wilhelm (similar to a pledge the kaiser had made in November 1912) that Germany would back Austria unconditionally in the case of a confrontation with Serbia. Wilhelm resisted making such a commitment at the time, however, as he disagreed as to the extent of the Serbian threat. Also at the meeting, the two leaders discussed which Balkan nation should be wooed as their main ally in the region.

Though the Austrian government preferred Bulgaria, Serbia’s opponent in the Second Balkan War of 1913, Franz Ferdinand, along with the Germans, favored Romania, despite the latter country’s clash with the Magyars (Hungary’s majority population) over their oppressive rule in Transylvania, ethnically Romanian but part of Hungary. Franz Ferdinand detested the Magyars, and resented the weakness that forced Austria to partner with Hungary in government of the empire. Wilhelm was more inclined to negotiate with the Hungarian prime minister, Istvan Tisza; at Konopischt, he and Franz Ferdinand discussed the possibility of persuading Tisza to look more favorably on an alliance with Romania.

The meeting of June 12-13, 1914, at Konopischt was not, by any means, a war council. Both Wilhelm and Franz Ferdinand—though anxious over the situation in the Balkans and fearful of Serbian and Russian aggression—had up to that point been voices of restraint among their more belligerent colleagues in the government and military of the two nations. Some historians have argued that if the two men had continued to work together to pursue their common aims, the Great War of 1914 might never have happened. Two weeks later, however, on June 28, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were killed by a young Serbian nationalist during a diplomatic visit to Bosnia. Vienna, along with most of the world’s capitals, blamed Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm was stunned, saddened and outraged. Barely a month later, Europe was at war.

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