Two days have passed since Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. But, apart from some gunboats on the Danube firing on targets in Belgrade (without much effect, we might add), the Hapsburg Empire has not done much to move against Serbia, apart from moving soldiers toward the Serbian frontier. Austria-Hungary is looking to its eastern border, anticipating that the Russians will mobilize in support of Serbia, their fellow Slavic state.
In fact, the Russian Czar, Nicholas II, cancelled the order for general mobilization late in the day on July 29. Russia’s cancellation of general mobilization, and the fact that Germany also had not yet mobilized, should have given a breathing space for diplomacy and deescalation. But the Austrian government was not interested in deescalation or in waiting for diplomats from other countries to assemble and negotiate what Austria should get from Serbia — which, the thinking must have been, would be less than could be gained from war.
There was also some meddling by the German Chief of Staff, General Helmuth von Moltke — Moltke the Younger, as history has come to call him, so as to distinguish him from his uncle, who directed Bismarck’s wars. The Younger Moltke was eager for Germany to mobilize, but the Kaiser and the German chancellor were still pursuing diplomatic avenues to contain the conflict to a “local war” between Austria and Serbia. German mobilization would almost certainly compel Russia mobilization, making it less likely that the war would be contained.
On Wednesday afternoon, July 29, Moltke left a meeting with the chancellor, war minister, and naval minister, where Moltke had again argued for mobilization and again been denied. He then ran into the Austrian liaison officer to German Great General Staff. The Austrian officer outlined his country’s current dispositions, which concentrated troops against the Serbian frontier but not against the Russian frontier. This was not optimal for Moltke, who was counting on a strong Austro-Hungarian force to help keep Russia busy while Germany hurtled seven of its eight armies against France. Moltke sent a telegram to his Austro-Hungarian counterpart, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf:
Stand firm against Russian mobilization. Austria-Hungary must be preserved, mobilize at once against Russia. Germany will mobilize.
John Keegan comments (The First World War, p. 64): “Even in militaristic Germany, Moltke thereby vastly exceeded his powers. What made his meddling even more reprehensible was that the Chancellor and the Kaiser were still seeking to persuade Austria to localize the war against Serbia and limit its objectives: ‘Halt in Belgrade’ was the phrase in circulation.” Still, the reassurance from Moltke seems to have given a push to the Austrian government, which ordered general mobilization shortly after 1200 on July 30. (In fairness, it is entirely possible that Austria would have initiated general mobilization even absent Moltke’s meddling.)
At this remove, it is difficult to understand why the leadership of Austria-Hungary was so eager to go to war. It’s not clear to me what Austria-Hungary saw as the end-game and what great gains or advantages the Empire would gain from war even if it was wildly successful. Perhaps they acted because they were more afraid of not acting, due to the nationalist forces that were straining to tear apart the anachronistic Dual-Monarchy ruling over subject peoples. This site has as good an explanation as any I’ve seen so far:
Austria-Hungary…had to bear in mind the experiences of the Ottomans, the recently destroyed southeastern Europe empire. This ‘Sick man on the Bosporus’ had been defeated by Serbia in the Balkan Wars. The increasing Serbian power and thus the Pan-Slavic nationalism threatened the Dual Monarchy and it did not want to share the Turkish fate. As Tisza put it: “The Monarchy must take an energetic decision to show its power of survival and to put an end to intolerable conditions in the south-east.” The predominant conviction was that not to crush Serbian nationalism and not to act in the summer of 1914 would lead to greater turmoil later. The military especially Conrad pressed for a preventive war. This policy resulted out of the sense that any delay would cause an imminent loss of military advantage.
Meanwhile, in Russia, some of Czar’s ministers and courtiers spent much of July 30 trying to convince Nicholas to issue the order for general mobilization. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Sazonov, met with the Czar at 1500 on July 30. Germany’s actions, and especially its failure to “bring her ally [Austria] to reason,” indicated that Germany wanted to bring about a war, according to Sazonov. Based on his conversations with the generals, the Foreign Minister’s understanding was that to delay mobilization further would put Russia at a disadvantage.
FWIW, Nicholas seems to have had some sense of the gravity of the decision he was making:
By the conclusion of Sazonov’s remarks, the tsar was “deadly pale.” As sovereign, he felt a heavy weight on his shoulders. Finally he replied, “in a choking voice”: “Just think of the responsibility you are advising me to assume! Remember it is a question of sending thousands of men to their deaths.” Another long silence followed. As the fate of Europe hung in the balance, suddenly and without warning, General Tatistchev spoke up. … “Yes,” Tatistchev intoned gravely, “it is hard to decide.” Russia’s sovereign replied “in a rough and displeased tone, ‘I will decide,'” making clear that he would brook no further intervention. At last, shortly before four PM on Thursday, July 30, Tsar Nicholas II agreed to order general mobilization. Sazonov, on cue, rushed down to the palace telephone, called Yanushkevitch, and uttered the magic words: “Now you can smash your telephone!”
(Sean McMeekin, July 1914, pp. 301-02; footnotes omitted. General Yanushkevitch had earlier threatened to smash his telephone if he got the order for general mobilization again, so that no one would be able to cancel the general mobilization order a second time.)
Well, in the absolute monarchy that was Russia in 1914, Nicholas was The Decider, I suppose. His estimate of “thousands” was woefully low, but we’ll come back to that.
The announcement of mobilization was published throughout the Russian Empire that evening. Reservists were to begin reporting to their depots on the next day, Friday, July 31.