Leopold Berchtold

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Leopold Berchtold
Count von Berchtold
Joint Foreign Minister of Austria-Hungary
In office
17 February 1912 – 13 January 1915
Preceded byAlois Graf Lexa von Aehrenthal
Succeeded byStephan Freiherr Burián von Rajecz
Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Russia
In office
28 December 1906 – 25 March 1911
Preceded byAlois Graf Lexa von Aehrenthal
Succeeded byDuglas Graf von Thurn und Valsássina-Como-Vercelli
Personal details
Born(1863-04-18)18 April 1863
Vienna, Lower Austria, Archduchy of Austria, Austrian Empire
Died21 November 1942(1942-11-21) (aged 79)
Peresznye, Sopron County, Kingdom of Hungary
Countess Ferdinanda Károlyi de Nagykároly
(m. 1893)

Leopold Anton Johann Sigismund Josef Korsinus Ferdinand Graf[a] Berchtold von und zu Ungarschitz, Frättling und Püllütz (Hungarian: Gróf Berchtold Lipót, Czech: Leopold hrabě Berchtold z Uherčic) (18 April 1863 – 21 November 1942)[1] was an Austro-Hungarian politician, diplomat and statesman who served as Imperial Foreign Minister at the outbreak of World War I.



Born in Vienna on 18 April 1863 as the son of Count Sigismund Berchtold von und zu Ungarschitz, Frättling und Püllütz (1834-11900) and his wife, Countess Josephine von Trauttmansdorff-Weinsberg (1835-1894). He belonged to a wealthy Austrian noble family that owned lands in Moravia and Hungary.[2][3] He was also reputed to be one of Austria-Hungary's richest men. Tutored at home, he later studied law and joined the Austro-Hungarian foreign service in 1893. In the same year, he married Countess Ferdinanda Károlyi de Nagykároly (1868–1955), the daughter of one of the richest aristocrats in Hungary, in Budapest. He subsequently served at the embassies in Paris (1894), London (1899) and St. Petersburg (1903).[4]

In December 1906, Count Berchtold was appointed as the successor of Count Alois von Aehrenthal as Ambassador to Russia upon the latter's appointment as imperial foreign minister. He served with distinction for five years in St. Petersburg and experienced Russia's distrust and fear of Vienna.[1] In September 1908, he hosted a secret meeting between Aehrenthal and the Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky at his estate at Buchlau in Moravia. This meeting produced the so-called Buchlau bargain and led to the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.[5]

At the death of Aehrenthal in February 1912, Count Berchtold was appointed as his successor and thus became, at the age of 49, the youngest foreign minister in Europe.[6] His appointment reportedly came against his own will and despite lack of experience in domestic affairs, as well as in military matters.[7]: 117 

Balkan Wars[edit]

Portrait by Philip de László, 1906

As imperial foreign minister, Count Berchtold focused almost exclusively on the Balkans where his foreign policy aims were to maintain peace, stick to the principle of non-intervention and preserve the territorial status quo. The Balkan Wars in 1912/1913, however, quickly made such a policy illusory.[5]

At the outset of the Balkan Wars, Count Berchtold pursued a hard-line policy and flirted with the idea of war against Serbia, but vacillated and pulled back from intervention at the last moment.[1] Although he managed to prevent Serbia from securing an outlet to the Adriatic Sea by support given to the creation of Albania, the Balkan Wars resulted in a failure to contain the rising Russian influence in the Balkans and thwart Serbian ambitions for a united Yugoslav state.[8] It meant diplomatic defeat for Austria-Hungary and also a reputation of being weak and indecisive for Count Berchtold.[1]

Count Berchtold's focus on Serbia was grown out of a fear of Serbian territorial expansion in the Balkans and also a complication of frictional matters within the multinational Dual Monarchy, and would eventually result in the dissolution of the empire itself.[9]

July Crisis[edit]

Following the Balkan Wars, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was therefore a culmination of the heightened tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.[8] If Count Berchtold had been accused of indecisiveness and diffidence during the Balkan Wars, he gave proof of more resolve during the July Crisis. Pushed by the so-called Young Rebels at the Ballhausplatz led by Count Hoyos, his chef de cabinet, Count Berchtold seized the opportunity to launch punitive action against Serbia and deal the country a mortal blow.[7]: 118 

After having dispatched Count Hoyos on a mission to Berlin on 5 July to secure German support for Austria-Hungary's future actions, which resulted in the famous "blank cheque", he became the leading spokesman, together with the Chief of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff General Conrad von Hötzendorf, for war against Serbia during the meeting of the Imperial Crown Council on 7 July.[8] Through the moderating influence of the Hungarian Minister-President Count István Tisza, who had reservations on the use of force against Serbia, it was decided to present Serbia with an ultimatum. The ten-point ultimatum was presented to Emperor Franz Joseph on 21 July and transmitted to Belgrade on 23 July. The previous night, according to his wife Nadine's testimony, Count Berchtold spent a sleepless night, altering the ultimatum and adding clauses, as he was very worried the Serbs could accept it.[10] The Serbian government accepted all points of the ultimatum but the one that permitted Austro-Hungarian authorities to participate in the investigation of the assassination on Serbian territory, which would have been a severe violation of Serbian sovereignty and the country's constitution. As the acceptance of all 10 demands listed in the ultimatum was required, the Austro-Hungarian government made a decision to enter a state of war with Serbia on 28 July, for which he was largely to blame.[5][11]

World War I[edit]

Berchtold in uniform. Photograph by Carl Pietzner

Once war had started, Count Berchtold focused his efforts on the question of Italy's participation, the outcome of which would lead to his downfall. The main problem was Italy's demands for territorial compensation in exchange for remaining within the Triple Alliance. When Rome presented the Ballhausplatz with demands for control over territories in southern Austria-Hungary, Berchtold demurred and refused to offer any Habsburg concessions, especially not in the Trentino.[8]

However, Italian Foreign Minister Baron Sidney Sonnino succeeded in obtaining vague promises of compensations in South Tyrol from Germany and by the end of 1914, Count Berchtold informed the Crown Council that the choice was either acceptance of the Italian demands or a declaration of war. Both Count Tisza and General Conrad von Hötzendorf expressed a preference for the latter.[12] Under mounting German pressure, Count Berchtold, however, indicated that he was ready to cede the Trentino and parts of the Albanian coastline. When he informed Tisza and Conrad of the concessions he was ready to give, they forced him to resign on 13 January 1915. At Count Tisza's insistence he was replaced by the more pugnacious Count Burián.

Berchtold played no further public role during the war, although he was appointed Lord High Steward to Archduke Charles, the heir apparent, in March 1916, and became Lord Chamberlain following the latter's accession to the throne in November.[5] Count Berchtold had been invested as a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1912[13] and bestowed with the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Stephen in 1914.[14]

After the war, he retired as a grand seigneur on his estate at Peresznye near Csepreg in Hungary, where he died on 21 November 1942.[1] He was buried in the family tomb at Buchlau.


Count Berchtold was described at the time as "intelligent and hard-working" and possessed of a "great personal charm" that made him well-liked at court.[7]: 118  Indeed, he possessed all the social graces required at the Hofburg and impressed with his aristocratic background. However he lacked the strength of character and broad experience that would have been desirable in an imperial foreign minister.[1] This contributed to quick reversals of decisions, giving rise to a foreign policy often perceived as inconsistent and vacillating.[7]

Many historians have regarded him as indecisive and diffident.[9] However, during the July Crisis this appears not to have been the case as he "commanded and managed the process" on this occasion.[15] His responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War has been much debated by historians. Without a doubt, he played a leading role in the intransigent formulation in the ultimatum of 23 July, the declaration of war on 28 July, and the rebuttal of Grey's mediation proposal on 29 July. He believed that only the defeat of Serbia could preserve the Dual Monarchy. Despite that, he was not thought of as a warmonger by, for example, General Conrad von Hötzendorf.[9] At the same time, his lack of self-confidence at the helm of Austro-Hungarian diplomacy made him susceptible to persuasion by his pro-war staff at the Ballhausplatz, on whose advice and opinions he was heavily dependent.[7]: 117 

Although Berchtold may have personally pushed for war, the main question is whether he appreciated that a war against Serbia carried the risk of a major European war. According to G. A. Tunstall Jr, "a Russian intervention doesn't seem to had been taken into much consideration by the Austro-Hungarian leaders during the decision-making process".[7]: 145f  In any case, "if he did not apprehend the consequences of his policies sufficiently, he was, however, not alone; as a matter of fact, there were few diplomats at the time who actually did".[9]

In film and television[edit]

Count Berchtold was portrayed by actor John Gielgud in the 1969 film Oh! What A Lovely War.


National orders and decorations[16]
Foreign orders and decorations[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Regarding personal names: Until 1919, Graf was a title, translated as Count, not a first or middle name. The female form is Gräfin. In Germany, it has formed part of family names since 1919.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Herwig, Holger H.; Heyman, Neil M. (1982). Biographical Dictionary of World War I. London, England: Greenwood Press. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-313-21356-4.
  2. ^ Regarding personal names: Until 1919, Graf was a title, translated as Count, not a first or middle name. The female form is Gräfin. In Germany, it has formed part of family names since 1919.
  3. ^ Berchtold's nationality has sometimes been subjected to attention by historians as his aristocratic bloodlines made him part German, part Czech, part Slovak, and part Hungarian. An anecdote of this identity dilemma can be found on 'Graf Leopold Berchtold von und zu Ungarschütz, Frättling, und Püllütz', Solving Problems Through Force
  4. ^ "Berchtold, Leopold Anton Johann Sigismund Joseph Korsinus Ferdinand Graf". Neue Deutsche Biographie. Vol. 2. Berlin, Germany: Duncker & Humblot. 1955. p. 65.
  5. ^ a b c d "Berchtold Leopold Graf". Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon 1815–1950 (PDF). Vol. 1. Vienna, Austria: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. 1957. p. 71.
  6. ^ "Leopold, Graf von Berchtold | Austro-Hungarian foreign minister". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 4 October 2018.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Tunstall., Graydon A. Jr. (2003). "Austria-Hungary". In Hamilton, Richard F.; Herwig, Holger H. (eds.). The Origins of World War I. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-10218-6.
  8. ^ a b c d Blum, George P. (1996). "Berchtold von und zu Ungarschitz, Fratting und Pullitz, Leopold Count von (1863–1942)". In Tucker, Spencer C. (ed.). The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia. New York City: Garland Press. p. 123f. ASIN B00HDE2TVY.
  9. ^ a b c d Roider, Karl (2005). "Berchtold, Leopold, Count von (1863–1942)". In Tucker, Spencer C.; Roberts, Priscilla Mary (eds.). Encyclopedia of World War I: A Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. p. 200f. ISBN 978-1-85109-420-2.
  10. ^ MacMillan, Margaret (2014). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. New York City: Random House. p. 569. ISBN 978-0-8129-8066-0.
  11. ^ "First World War.com – Who's Who – Count Leopold von Berchtold". www.firstworldwar.com. Retrieved 4 October 2018.
  12. ^ Stephen Pope & Elizabeth-Anne Wheal, The Macmillan Dictionary of the First World War, London, Macmillan, 1995, p. 68.
  13. ^ Chevaliers de la Toison d'Or
  14. ^ Magyar Királyi Szent István Rend Archived 22 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Samuel R. Williamson, Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War, New York, Bedford, 1991, p. 191.
  16. ^ a b "Hofstaat Seiner Kaiserlichen und Königlich Apostolischen Majestät", Hof- und Staatshandbuch der Österreichisch-Ungarischen Monarchie, 1918, p. 18, retrieved 19 March 2021
  17. ^ a b c "Ritter-Orden", Hof- und Staatshandbuch der Österreichisch-Ungarischen Monarchie, 1904, pp. 51, 53, 57, retrieved 19 March 2021
  18. ^ Italy. Ministero dell'interno (1920). Calendario generale del regno d'Italia. p. 58.

Further reading[edit]

  • Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Austro-Hungarian red book. (1915) English translations of official documents to justify the war. online
  • Godsey, William D., and William D. Godsey Jr. Aristocratic redoubt: The Austro-Hungarian foreign office on the eve of the First World War (Purdue University Press, 1999).
  • Gooch, G. P. Before The War Vol II (1939) pp 373–447 on Berchtold online free, scholarly biography
  • Hantsch, Hugo. Leopold Graf Berchtold: Grandseigneur und Staatsmann, Graz, Verlag Styria, 1963, in German.
  • Wank, Solomon. "The Appointment of Count Berchtold as Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister" Journal of Central European Affairs 23 (July 1963): 143–51.
  • Williamson Jr., Samuel. "Leopold Count Berchtold: The Man Who Could Have Prevented the Great War," in Günther Bischof, Fritz Plasser and Peter Berger, eds., From Empire to Republic: Post-World War I Austria, Contemporary Austrian Studies, Vol. 19 (2010), p. 24-51.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by Joint Foreign Minister of Austria-Hungary
Succeeded by
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Russia
Succeeded by
Duglas Graf von Thurn und Valsássina-Como-Vercelli