July Crisis

Herbestal, at the border between Germany and Belgium
Herbestal, at the border between Germany and Belgium

Hectic diplomatic activity behind the scenes Sophie travels to Belgium.

[Rhineland and Belgium, July 1914] Some days lay after the fatal shots in Sarajevo, Sophie was visiting family and friends at the Rhine, her daughter Lottie, her son-in-law Matthias, her grandchildren Kathi and Walter, and her lifelong friends, that the Bergmanns.

Serbia and Bosnia seem far away

July 1914 was hot and most people enjoyed it. Some newspapers spoke of a war, yet a local one against Serbia that, as most people thought, was no match for the Habsburg Empire, and Serbia was far away anyway. The children were looking forward to their summer holidays. This year, Marie Bergmann would graduate from Commercial College, and all her family and friends would come together for a celebration in her honor.

Sophie’s granddaughter Kathi had just persuaded her to go to the fair together. While Kathi was standing by an ice-cream van, Sophie was sitting on a bench. The cheerful noise and the music was drifting over to her, but her thoughts had wandered far away.

Diplomatic activity behind the scenes

After so many years in diplomatic service, she knew that it were critical weeks, and guessed what was going on behind closed doors. While one was celebrating the summer, dancing and laughing, hectic diplomatic activity was going on behind the scenes, and military leaders were secretly planning for a war. Kaiser Wilhelm would back Austria-Hungary, and Russia would be on Serbia’s side. Count Hoyos, Chief of Cabinet of Foreign Minister Berchthold, had travelled to Potsdam and met Kaiser Wilhelm. Sophie did not let herself be deceived by the fact that the Kaiser and all the political and military leaders were on vacation. Certainly, they already were planning troop deployment and strategies.

Now Kathi came over to her, and she immediately sensed something was wrong. “You’re sad, Grandma, surely you think of poor Sophie in Austria, she must have been a nice lady.” “Yes, she was,” Sophie replied, “she deserved so much that Emperor Franz Joseph had welcomed her, but he never did. The Court made it clear that she was not an eligible consort to the heir to the throne. Even at the mourning ceremony their unequal rank was shown. At least Kaiser Wilhelm liked her and openly spoke in her favor.” Kathi nodded. “Granddad Andras and you, you also have been through a lot before you could finally live happily together, and then Mama and Uncle Joscha were born.” Sophie was touched, her granddaughter knew her well. Yes, Sophie and Andras had been through hard times, and now even harder times would come. But she did not want to frighten Kathi with the whole truth. “You’re right, my darling girl,” she said affectionately, “but it’s always right to marry for love.”

A “blank check”

For years, the Austrian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, had kept calling for a preventive war against Serbia. After the fatal shots in Sarajevo, the war party won out. They demanded that Serbia should be “turned off as a political power factor in the Balkans”. Kaiser Wilhelm had agreed. He had even given a “blank check”, “Emperor Franz Joseph could rely on His Majesty being faithfully on the side of Austria-Hungary in accordance with his alliance commitments and his old friendship.” In Vienna, the Council of Ministers decided to send an ultimatum to Serbia with such harsh terms as to make it impossible for the proud Serbian Kingdom to accept.

A last visit to Brussels

Since the fatal shots at Sarajevo, forebodings about a war and German troops marching through the neutral Belgium onto Paris had been haunting Sophie. One last time she wanted to travel to Brussels where she had living and working for so many years, to make sure all her friends and protégés were well taken care of, and to visit the graves of her beloved grandfather and her Belgian grandmother. Her husband Count Andras Csabany insisted on accompanying her. Before the children’s summer holidays and Marie’s graduation party they would be back.

So they both got on the train from Cologne via Aachen, Herbesthal on the border, Leuven to Brussels. Sophie’s grandfather had been on the maiden trip when the track was opened, and she knew the route well. Soon soldiers heading to the front might ride on this train. Having arrived in Brussels, they visited the house where Sophie had been living as a child, and their home during the years of the diplomatic service in Brussels. In order not to arouse any excitement, they were accommodated in a guest room of the Austro-Hungarian Embassy.

Farewell to Sophie

Tirelessly on the way in these hot July days, Sophie took on too much. She felt weak, but there so much left for her to do. Then she collapsed. Her husband was by her side at once, a doctor was fetched, but Sophie’s heart had stopped beating. She had died of a sudden heart failure.

Count Csabany was shaken. His voice broke when he told his children Lottie and Joscha about their mother’s death. A few days later they stood together at her grave in Brussels cemetery where Sophie was buried next to her grandparents. “The only thought that comforts me is that this is the death she always hoped for,” Count Andras said quietly, “quick, without any suffering, busy until her last breath.”

The ultimatum is sent

Right after the ceremony, an officer of the Austrian Embassy approached them. Austria was about to send the ultimatum to Serbia, and Andras and his son Joscha had to go back to Vienna. They all should better get home soon.
Together they travelled back to the Rhine. A little later Count Andras Csabany and Joscha had to leave for Austria. With a heavy heart, they said good-bye to Lottie, their family and friends. “Don’t you want to come with us to Vienna?” Count Andras asked, almost against his own better knowing, “the Rhine is so close to France.” Lottie smiled tearfully. “Not closer than Vienna to Serbia,” she replied, “take care of yourself, Papa!”

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