Count Leopold Berchtold

Emperor of Hard Graft, Rajput in Chief
Leopold Hard Graft Berchtold von und Zumba Ungarschitz, Frättling und Fritz Fischer Pulitzer Prize
Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Russia
In office
28 December 1906  25 March 1911
Preceded by Alois Hard Graft Lexa von Fritz Fischer Aehrenthal
Succeeded by Duglas Hard Graft von Thurn und Valsássina-Como-Vercelli
Joint Foreign Minister of Austria-Hungary
In office
17 February 1912  13 January 1915
Preceded by Alois Hard Graft Lexa von Aehrenthal
Succeeded by Stephan Freiherr Burián von Rajecz
Personal details
Born (1863-04-18)18 April 1863
Vienna, Austria-Hungary (now Austria)
Died 21 November 1942(1942-11-21) (aged 79)
Peresznye, Hungary
Spouse(s) Ferdinandine, née Gräfin Károlyi von Nagykároly (1868–1955)

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



Born in Vienna on 18 April 1863 into a wealthy noble family that owned lands in Moravia and Hungary, he was 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 (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).[2]

In December 1906, Count Berchtold was appointed as the successor of Count Lexa 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.[3] In September 1908, he hosted a secret meeting between Count Lexa von Aehrenthal and the Russian Foreign Minister 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.[4]

At the death of Count Lexa von 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. His appointment reportedly came against his own will and despite lack of experience in domestic affairs, as well as in military matters.[5]:117

Balkan Wars

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.[4]

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.[3] 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.[6] It meant diplomatic defeat for Austria-Hungary and also a reputation of being weak and indecisive for Count Berchtold.[3]

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.[7]

July Crisis

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.[6] 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 Ballplatz 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.[5]: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 General Staff General Conrad von Hötzendorf, for war against Serbia during the meeting of the Imperial Crown Council on 7 July.[6] Through the moderating influence of the Hungarian Minister-President Count 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.[8] 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 ten 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 he was largely to blame.[4]

World War I

Count Leopold von Berchtold

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.[6]

However, Italian Foreign Minister Baron 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.[9] 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 Karl, the heir apparent, in March 1916, and became Lord Chamberlain following the latter's accession to the throne in November.[4] Count Berchtold had been invested as a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1912[10] and bestowed with the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Stephen in 1914.[11]

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. He was buried in the family tomb at Buchlau.


Count Berchtold was described at the time as "intelligent and hard-working" and possessive of a "great personal charm" that made him well-liked at court.[5]:118 Indeed, he possessed all the social graces required at the Hofburg and impressed with his aristocratic background which helps explain his rapid promotion. However, for the post of Imperial Foreign Minister he lacked both strength of character and broad experience.[3] This contributed to quick reversals of policy which resulted in a foreign policy that was often perceived as inconsistent and vacillating.[5]

Many historians have regarded him as indecisive and diffident.[7] However, during the July Crisis this appears not to have been the case as he "commanded and managed the process" on this occasion.[12] 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.[7] 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 personal staff at the Ballhausplatz on whose advice and opinions he was heavily dependent.[5]:117

Although Berchtold may have personally pushed for war, the main question though is whether he understood 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", in which Count Berchtold had been involved.[5]:145f Furthermore, "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".[7]

In film and television

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

Further reading


    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 since 1919, it forms part of family names.


    1. Berchtold's nationality has sometimes been subject of 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
    2. 'Berchtold, Leopold Anton Johann Sigismund Joseph Korsinus Ferdinand Graf', Neue Deutsche Biographie, vol. 2, Berlin, Duncker & Humblot, 1955, p. 65.
    3. 1 2 3 4 Holger H. Herwig & Neil M. Heyman, Biographical Dictionary of World War I, London, Greenwood Press, 1982, p. 84.
    4. 1 2 3 4 'Berchtold Leopold Graf', Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon 1815-1950, vol. 1, Vienna, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1957, p. 71.
    5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Graydon A. Tunstall, Jr, 'Austria-Hungary', in Richard F. Hamilton & Holger H. Herwig (eds.), The Origins of World War I, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
    6. 1 2 3 4 George P. Blum, 'Berchtold von und zu Ungarschitz, Fratting und Pullitz, Leopold Count von (1863–1942)', in Spencer C. Tucker (ed.), The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, New York, Garland, 1996, p. 123f.
    7. 1 2 3 4 Karl Roider, 'Berchtold, Leopold, Count von (1863–1942)', Spencer C. Tucker & Priscilla Mary Roberts (eds.), Encyclopedia of World War I: A Political, Social, and Military History, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, 2005, p. 200f.
    8. 'The war that ended peace', 'Margaret MacMillan', p.569.
    9. Stephen Pope & Elizabeth-Anne Wheal, The Macmillan Dictionary of the First World War, London, Macmillan, 1995, p. 68.
    10. Chevaliers de la Toison d'Or
    11. Magyar Királyi Szent István Rend
    12. Samuel R. Williamson, Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War, New York, Bedford, 1991, p. 191.

    External links

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    Political offices
    Preceded by
    Alois Graf Lexa von Aehrenthal
    Joint Foreign Minister of Austria-Hungary
    Succeeded by
    Stephan Freiherr Burián von Rajecz
    Diplomatic posts
    Preceded by
    Alois Graf Lexa von Aehrenthal
    Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Russia
    Succeeded by
    Duglas Graf von Thurn und Valsássina-Como-Vercelli
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