Blank Checks

The Peril of Letting an Ally Determine Foreign Policy

No competent adult would write a blank check allowing the recipient to fill in the amount. Blank checks in the affairs of nations are another matter. On July 5, 1914, German Kaiser Wilhelm II issued such a check to his ally Austria and gave the world a metaphor that sums up the surrender of one nation to the caprices of another. That blank check was issued to an envoy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who had come to Berlin after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to inform the Kaiser that an unspecified ultimatum would be delivered to the Serbian government. What if Germany had read the ultimatum before Austria sent it? What if Tsar Nicholas II of Russia had restrained Serbia’s rejection of the ultimatum and negotiated with Austria? What if he, too, had not issued a blank check to his ally?

As the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I approaches, these what-ifs plague efforts to understand how war could have broken out when most European leaders and thinkers thought war unnecessary and unlikely. The English saw the assassination as one more skirmish in the long-running Balkan imbroglio. European nobility regarded the archduke’s anniversary visit to Sarajevo with his commoner wife as a vanity tour. Neither the French nor the English military were prepared for war, nor, as it turned out, were the Russian or Austrian armies. The short war that everyone anticipated dragged on for four dreadful years.

Would Kaiser...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.