Count Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal
Count Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal (September 27, 1854 – February 17, 1912) was an Austrian diplomat. He engineered the Bosnian crisis of 1908: His major accomplishment was the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 on the basis of a secret agreement with Russian foreign minister Alexander Izvolsky, which appeared to be a triumph for Austria (and won him the title of Count). "It was, however, one of those pyrrhic victories, which seem brilliant at the moment, but which bring more misfortune than success, if looked at from a longer perspective". It stirred deep resentment in Serbia and Russia, caused the rest of Europe to distrust Austrian diplomacy, and was one of the factors that helped bring about World War I.
Born in Gross-Skal, Bohemia (now Hrubá Skála, Czech Republic), he was the son of Baron (Freiherr) Johann Lexa von Aehrenthal and his wife Marie, née Countess Thun-Hohenstein. In his lifetime Aehrenthal was often claimed to be of partly Jewish descent. Examples abound. Thus according to Bülow, Aehrenthal was the grandson of a certain Lexa, a Jewish grain merchant of Prague ennobled in the nineteenth century under the name of Aehrenthal (literally 'valley of grain') in allusion to his calling; this ostensible Jewish strain led Kaiser Wilhelm to refer to him less respectfully simply as Lexa in his marginal notes. Aehrenthal's erstwhile collaborator Lützow wrote after falling out with him that Aehrenthal displayed 'semitic cunning'. Aehrenthal however had no Jewish ancestors. The insinuations of Jewish ancestry may have inflamed his profound antisemitism.
"His diplomacy" wrote Olof Hoijer, was "composed more of hard arrogance and dissolvent intrigue than of prudent reserve and ingratiating souplesse was a mixture of pretention and subtlety, of force and ruse, of realism and cynicism: his readiness to cheat, to circumvent, to outwit hid a harsh and ruthless will." Asquith regarded him as the cleverest and perhaps the least scrupulous of Austrian statesmen. He undoubtedly showed himself to be an able and ambitious diplomat, a cool negotiator, a wide-awake observer, a patient listener, a discreet talker endowed with great outward calm but with a lively and dominating imagination more passionate than clear sighted.
He began his career in the diplomatic service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as attaché in Paris under Count Beust (1877). He went in 1878 in the same capacity to St. Petersburg, and from 1883 to 1888 he worked at the Foreign Office in Vienna under Count Gustav Kálnoky, with whom he formed close relations. In 1888 he was sent as councillor of embassy to St. Petersburg, where he exercised considerable influence with the ambassador, Count Wolkenstein.
Recalled in 1894 to service in the Foreign Office, he undertook important duties, and in the following year went to Bucharest as ambassador. Here he succeeded in strengthening the relations between the courts of Vienna and Bucharest, the secret alliance which King Charles had concluded in 1883 with the Central European Powers being renewed on September 30. In 1899 he became ambassador in St. Petersburg, where he remained until his appointment as Foreign Minister in October 1906. Aehrenthal at this time thought that Austria-Hungary must, even at the cost of some sacrifice, come to an agreement with Russia. In this sense he endeavoured to continue the negotiations successfully begun by his predecessor, Prince Franz Liechtenstein, for the bridging over of the differences on Balkan questions between Vienna and St. Petersburg, in order to create a basis for a permanent friendly relation between Austria-Hungary and Russia. He played a principal part in concluding the Mürzsteg Agreement of 1903. During the Russo-Japanese War he took a strong line in favour of a benevolent attitude on the part of the Vienna Cabinet towards Russia.
In October 1906, he replaced Count Goluchowski as minister of foreign affairs. He at first maintained the views which he had professed as ambassador. He was determined to preserve the interests of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, but also showed himself prepared to meet the Russian wishes in the Dardanelles question. However, in the course of the Bosnian Crisis, he abandoned the idea of a friendly accommodation with the Russian Government.
The principal players in the Bosnian Crisis of 1908-09 were the foreign ministers of Austria and Russia, Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal and Alexander Izvolsky, respectively. Both were motivated by political ambition, the first would emerge successful and the latter would be broken by the crisis. Along the way, they would drag Europe to the brink of war in 1909. They would also divide Europe into the armed camp that it would remain until 1914. Under the Treaty of Berlin, the Dardanelles, controlled by Turkey, would not allow the passage of warships of any country to or from the Black Sea. This agreement bottled up a portion of the Russian Fleet that could have been well used at Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese war four years earlier. Izvolsky wanted this changed to allow the passage of only Russian ships through the straits. This would give Russia a Mediterranean presence and, it was perceived, help her recover some face after the bitter defeat by Japan. Aehrenthal wanted full control of Bosnia-Herzogovina through annexation even though Austria-Hungary had administered the provinces since 1878. His reasons for this lay in the possible recovery of the "sick man of Europe", Turkey. The "Young Turk" revolution of 1908, led in part by Enver Pasha, convinced some that the Ottoman Empire might be on the rise again. Thus, Aehrenthal reasoned, it was now or maybe never. He would discuss this matter with Izvolsky to ensure the Russians would not interfere with the annexation plans. The two ministers held a meeting on 19-Sep-1908 at the Buchlau castle of Count Leopold von Berchtold where they agreed on the following plan: Izvolsky would ignore the annexation and, in turn, Aehrenthal would back the opening of the Dardanelles to Russian warships. At the same time, Bulgaria would declare its independence from Turkey, and both would allow this. The Austrians would also give up some territory in the Balkans to keep Serbia quiet. Not exactly an ethical deal, but it would get them both what they wanted. The key to the plan was timing - their plans would have to be announced simultaneously if the ploy was to be successful.
For Aehrenthal, a German-Hungarian nobleman and staunch monarchist, there was a direct threat in the Pan-Slav emergent nationalism of the kind that a consolidated Yugo (south) Slav Confederation led by Serbia represented. The gradual consolidation of the Yugo-Slavs (in the name of the new centuries’ idea of national self-determination for all ethnic/racial/religious groups) led by Serbia, while harmless to the Ottoman Empire (which the “Young” Turks would later complete by the their withdrawal to Anatolian peninsula, save for control of the Straits) retreating from Europe; was a deadly threat to Aehrenthal’s Austria-Hungary. For Aehrenthal, Moravia, Bohemia, and Silesia, were the Crown lands of his Ost-Mark German nobility, which ruled over a host of emergent Slav and Pan-Slav ethnicities; Pole, Czech, Ruthenian, Slovakian, and Ukrainian. In Serbia’s consolidation of Bosnia-Hertsagovina into herself, there was the clear roadmap to the dissolution of most of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Or more importantly, this Pan-Slav self-determinant nationalism pointed the way to the loss of the defendable military, political and economic boundaries of the Empire.
In Aehrenthal’s Hungarian noble half, Hungary an equally strong threat to the loss of its historic Slavic provinces should Pan-Slav take root; equally threaten its military security and economic future. Aehrenthal moved quickly, faster than his partner in crime, Izvolsky. He acted on 3-Oct-1908 under the premise that Austria-Hungary was taking control of Bosnia-Herzogovina so that the people there could enjoy the benefits of the Empire as a reward for economic advancement since first being administered back in 1878. A seething Serbia could hardly believe this action and demanded Russian intervention. This left Izvolsky holding the bag. He announced his plans for the free passage of Russian warships though the Turkish straits but was shot down by every other signatory to the treaty - especially England. The British said they would consider opening up the straits to all warships but would not limit it to Russian ships alone. This is hardly what Izvolsky had in mind since this had the potential of letting belligerent ships into the Black Sea.
Germany, at first, viewed the whole tangle with disdain taking the Turkish side. The Kaiser had been working on strengthening relations with Turkey and, now with the chance of Ottoman recovery, he wished to stay this course. As the Crisis continued, the Kaiser was forced from the diplomatic scene by the Daily Telegraph Affair. Events reached a fever pitch when, in early November, the Serbian army mobilized. Germany now took the Austrian side stating it would stick by its ally. Russia, wishing to support Serbia, but not really ready for war with Germany and Austria was forced to back away when the Austrians threatened to publish the details of the agreement between Aehrenthal and Izvolsky. The fact that she had betrayed her Slav ally beforehand was not a fact that Russia wished widely publicized. Izvolsky remained at his post for three more years but his reputation was ruined beyond repair. The Russians backed down and urged Serbia to do likewise, which she did and declared publicly that the annexation was none of her business. War was averted for the time being but the results were a bitter Russia and an enraged Serbia. Russia vowed, if ever confronted in this manner again, she would not back down—a vow that would be kept in a few years.
In 1902, Aehrenthal married Pauline, Countess Széchényi.
- Fay, p. 394.
- Wank, Solomon (2009), In the twilight of empire: Count Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal (1854-1912), Volume 1: The Making of an Imperial Habsburg Patriot and Statesman), Bohlau. p. 27. ISBN 3-205-78352-2
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Alfred Francis Pribram (1922). "Aehrenthal, Aloys Lexa von, Count". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York.
- A Case of Aristocratic Antisemitism in Austria Count Aehrenthal and the Jews, 1878–1907 BY SOLOMON WANK, Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, 1985
- Albertini, Vol. 1, pp. 190–91.
- Albertini, Luigi (tr. and ed. Isabella M. Massey, 1952). The Origins of the War of 1914 ISBN 1-929631-31-6, ISBN 978-1-929631-31-5
- Encyclopædia Britannica, article "Aloys, Count Lexa von Aehrenthal"
- Fay, Sidney B. (1928, repr. 1966). The Origins of the World War, ISBN 0-02-910100-X, ISBN 978-0-02-910100-1
- Hoijer, Olof (1922). Le Comte d'Aehrenthal et la politique de violence
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