The Russian Origins of the First World War Hardcover – Nov 30 2011
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This book should forever change the ways we have understood the role of Russia in the First World War.
--Michael S. Neiberg, author of Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I
A bold reinterpretation of the Russian Empire's entry into the First World War. McMeekin argues that Russia believed a European war to be in its interest, that it sought to humiliate Vienna, and that it hoped to conquer Constantinople and the Ottoman Straits.
--Mustafa Aksakal, author of The Ottoman Road to War in 1914
The Russian Origins of the First World War is a polemic in the best sense. Written in a lively and engaging style, it should provoke a much-needed debate on Russia's role in the Great War.
--Michael Reynolds, author of Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918
Going against a century of received wisdom, Bilkent University professor McMeekin offers a dramatic new interpretation of WWI...Rifling the archives, analyzing battle plans, and sifting through the machinations of high diplomacy, McMeekin reveals the grand ambitions of czarist Russia, which wanted control of the Black Sea straits to guarantee all-weather access to foreign markets. Maneuvering France and England into a war against Germany presented the best chance to acquire this longed-for prize. No empire had more to gain from the coming conflict, and none pushed harder to ensure its arrival. Once unleashed, however, the conflagration leapt out of control, and imperial Russia herself ranked among its countless victims. (Publishers Weekly 2011-09-26)
Casting a contrarian eye on the first major conflict of the twentieth century, Sean McMeekin finds the roots of WWI inside Russia, whose leaders deliberately sought--for their own ends--to expand a brawl that the Germans wanted to keep local. The author tracks the fallout of these antique plots right down to the present geopolitical landscape. (Barnes & Noble Review 2012-01-13)
An entirely new take on the origins of World War I comes as a surprise. If war guilt is to be assigned, this book argues, it should go not only (or even primarily) to Germany--the long-accepted culprit--but also to Russia...Bold reading between the lines of history.
--Robert Legvold (Foreign Affairs 2012-01-01)
As Sean McMeekin argues in this bold and brilliant revisionist study, Russia was as much to blame as Germany for the outbreak of the war. Using a wide range of archival sources, including long-neglected tsarist documents, he argues that the Russians had ambitions of their own (the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, no less) and that they were ready for a war once they had secured a favorable alliance with the British and the French.
--Orlando Figes (Sunday Times 2012-01-01)
The book is a refreshing challenge to longstanding assumptions and shifted perspectives are always good.
--Miriam Cosic (The Australian 2012-03-03)
About the Author
Sean McMeekin is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University in Turkey.
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Top Customer Reviews
His focus on Russia is both good and bad, however, as he brings something almost unknown basing himself on a lot of primary documentation, but the author tends to forget and minimize the role of other nations. For example, after reading his account, the reader can get the idea that the British Empire was very passive in the events leading to the war, but in fact London had a very aggressive and manipulative role, as historian Webster Tarpley demonstrated.
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But what if Fischer's research was incomplete? What if that fact led to mistakes that made nearly all his conclusions only partially correct-or worse yet-outright wrong? That is precisely the argument that Professor Sean McMeekin lays out in compelling fashion in his new narrative `The Russian Origins of the First World War'. In laying out the focus of this work he issues a broadside directed at the current state of the historiography of World War One. He writes, "Understanding of the First World War may be said to have regressed after the Fischer debate taught several generations of historians to pay serious attention only go Germany's war aims (3)". Thus, the focus on his current work is to rectify what he believes to be a serious deficiency in the historical record. In other words Russia's war aims must be examined every bit as exhaustively as those of Imperial Germany. McMeekin believes that "the current consensus about the First World War cannot survive serious scrutiny (5)".
Indeed, the scrutiny that the author applies to the existing documents and historical record is withering in regards to the preconceived views of so many past historians. Right away he goes to work explaining the Russian desire for control of Constantinople and the Black Sea straits the city commands as not romantic. With an admirable command of the primary sources, he goes to work proving that control of the city was anything but romantic. Instead, he argues that it was cold hard logic and the understanding of Russia's leaders of the threat to economic growth that lead to active war planning for the city's seizure as early as the last decade of the 19th century. These plans only developed and became more urgent as time went by and particularly with outbreak of regional wars during the early 20th century as well as ongoing improvements to the Ottoman navy. Indeed, McMeekin points out the purchase of Dreadnought class warships from Britain as a tipping point which solidified planning of an amphibious invasion. Russian military leaders knew that once these powerful Battleships were in Turkish possession, the balance of power in the Black Sea would swing inexorably to their favor, making any attempt at seizure of Constantinople a foolhardy venture.
Once McMeekin lays the groundwork demonstrating Russia's need for the seizure of Constantinople on clearly practical grounds, he goes on to demolish, once and for all, the myth of a diplomatically uninvolved Russia. His masterful use of the existing primary source documents clearly proves that leaders such as Sazanov and even the tsar were knowledgeable and cooperated with the entente in developing diplomatic and military responses. In short, the author proves that Russia was indeed a full member of the Entente and not merely led around by the nose or simply following the chain of events to their conclusion. Russia did indeed play a pivotal part in the initiation and escalation of hostilities, as well as the joint diplomatic planning for post war, such as Sykes Picot. They were, McMeekin argues most emphatically, not sitting along the sidelines unclear of their role.
In conclusion, `The Russian Origins of the First World War' is a gem of revisionist history. The author's command of the existing original sources is superb as is the analysis drawn from them throughout the pages of this narrative. His ability to draw the reader in with his writing skill is likewise excellent. Indeed, for me at least, this book was exciting and an absolute page turner with some quality maps to enhance the story. My only complaint with this book at all was that the 243 pages of text flew by far too rapidly. An additional hundred pages or so would have been thoroughly welcome! Bravo for this amazing work Dr. McMeekin. It clearly deserves 5 stars and I certainly look forward to many future ventures in history writing.
“In my opinion we must have one main purpose: the taking possession of Constantinople, in order to establish ourselves once and for all on the Straits and to make sure that they remain permanently in our hands. This is in Russia’s interest; and it is to this that our efforts must be directed; everything else that happens on the Balkan peninsula is of secondary significance from our standpoint. We have had enough of seeking popularity at the expense of the interests of Russia. From now on, the Slavs must devote themselves to the service of Russia, not we to theirs.”
Virtually all of the Russo-Turkish wars, beginning in 1776 and ending in 1878, had been fought to loosen the Ottoman grip on Constantinople. For much the same reason, Russia had dabbled in the murky and complex affairs of the Balkans by supporting various intrigues in Bulgaria as well as Slavic independence movements in Bosnia-Herzegovina—then controlled (and finally annexed) by Austria-Hungary. Not so well known or appreciated is how very large the Straits loomed in Russian strategic planning. McMeekin writes:
“To understand the overriding importance of the Straits question for Petersburg, however, we must go beyond numbers. Russia's principal Black Sea export was grain. Over 20 million tons was shipped in both 1911 and 1912, of which nearly 90 percent was exported through the Bosphorus to world markets: the health of her entire agricultural economy now depended on unfettered Straits access. Stimulating grain production was, moreover, the key to Stolypin's social reforms, which envisioned the creation of a stable class of successful peasant producers who would serve as a bulwark against anarchic social revolution. Ever since 1907 (and particularly following Stolypin's death in 1911) these reforms had been overseen by Stolypin's star protege, Agriculture Minister Krivoshein. Krivoshein was universally believed to be the most powerful policymaker in Petersburg in 1914.”
But eclipsing even such serious economic concerns was the immense geo-political problem as McMeekin notes:
“In view of Russia's increasing export-economy vulnerability and burgeoning Germanophobia in the Council of Ministers, it is not hard to see why rumors about the imminent appointment of Liman von Sanders (and forty-odd other German officers) to command the Ottoman Straits defenses in November 1913 struck Petersburg like a thunderclap. Already on high alert lest the ungrateful Bulgarians usurp Turkish authority in Constantinople, Russia was now faced with the frightening prospect that her most powerful enemy would soon possess a chokehold at the Straits over her export economy, on which depended everything else. In discussions of the Liman affair, Sazonov's famously belligerent reaction to the news is sometimes dismissed as exaggerated because of his personal anger at having been duped (he had recently passed through Berlin, and Bethmann Hollweg had not told him of Liman's upcoming appointment). In fact Sazonov was legitimately terrified in November 1913, and not simply because a German officer was being sent to strengthen-and possibly take over-Ottoman Straits defenses. In a series of dispatches from the Porte that month, Ambassador Girs informed Sazonov ominously that the Turks were arming themselves to the teeth to avenge recent battlefield losses. The new government, dominated by members of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), had just signed a new deal with Krupp for guns which, presumably, would be mounted onshore at the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. The Italians, despite the recent hostilities, were now selling guns and even three small warships to Turkey.”
Even worse . . .
“Most worrying of all were the two state-of-the-art dreadnought-class battleships being built for Turkey in British shipyards, the launching of even one of which, the Naval Staff had pointedly warned Sazonov as early as 1912, would immediately make obsolete Russia's entire Black Sea fleet. These dreadnoughts were expected to arrive in Constantinople, Girs informed Sazonov in an urgent 27 November 1913 dispatch, by March or April 1914. All this, coupled with the prospect of an experienced German officer directing the shore defenses of the Bosphorus, meant that Russia's window for seizing the Straits might soon close forever. "In the event of a crisis, which must sooner or later transpire in Turkey," Girs warned Sazonov, "the [improved] Turkish fleet will be able to strike a decisive blow against us. This blow will not only be devastating to our Black Sea fleet, but to our entire position in the Near East, the unassailable right to which we have acquired through centuries of immeasurable sacrifices and the shedding of Russian blood" (bezspornyiya prava na kotoroe priobreli vekovyimi niezmerimyimi zhortvami i prolitoi za nikh'russkoi krov'yu).”
Sean McMeekin. The Russian Origins of the First World War (Kindle Locations 362-368). Kindle Edition.
Added to these compelling reasons was the fact that Russia was certain of strong French support and reasonably certain of support from Great Britain. These were the considerations that motivated Russia to roll the dice by issuing the fatal order for general mobilization at 6:00 P.M., July 30, 1914.
Sean McMeekin. The Russian Origins of the First World War (Kindle Locations 347-351). Kindle Edition.
McMeekin also weighs in on the current state of the “kriegschuldvrage” (war guilt question). He writes:
“In a real sense, historical understanding of the First World War may be said to have regressed after the Fischer debate taught several generations of historians to pay serious attention only to Germany's war aims . . . It has been fifty years since the publication of Fritz Fischer's Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961 (literally "Grab" or "Bid" for World Power, published in English as Germany's Aims in the First World War) and, judging by the Fischer-esque tone of a recent boomlet in popular books on the First World War, historians are still in Fischer's shadow, massaging the same basic argument about German responsibility for the conflict. Although few scholars accept any longer Fischer's extreme thesis that World War I was a premeditated ‘German bid for world power,’ histories of the war's outbreak still invariably focus on decision making in Berlin and, secondarily, Vienna.”
Sean McMeekin. The Russian Origins of the First World War (Kindle Locations 49-70). Kindle Edition.
The “Fischer thesis” continues to be cited despite a veritable mountain of statistics which confirm that in the summer of 1914, Germany was fat and happy. In virtually every conceivable category - economic, cultural, military - Germany was first among equals according to numbers provided by (among others) the International Monetary Fund. Why would Germany attack a vastly superior military combination in order to gain continental hegemony, which she already possessed in spades and was increasing year by year? But the Fischerites remain undeterred. They cling to the “Fischer thesis” like a life preserver lest they be submerged by the looming questions: If hegemony was not the German motive, what was it? If Germany did not start the Great War, who did?
Russian leaders ordered general mobilization in the full knowledge that this would trigger a European war. They issued the fatal order even though Bethmann-Hollweg was leaning heavily upon Vienna to submit to some form of arbitration and even threatened Austria with abandonment if she refused. Russia was in no military danger from Austria and certainly not Germany. The July crisis of 1914 seemed on the cusp of a diplomatic solution when Russia pulled the trigger even as Bethmann-Hollweg was awaiting an answer to his urgent telegrams from Berchtold, promised for the 31st. She would never have done so without strong support from France and the consent of silence from London, as German leaders (Wilhelm II, Bethmann-Hollweg, von Jagow) have correctly pointed out. Why did France incite Russia into escalating the crisis beginning on July 20th? Why did Great Britain fail to moderate Russia as Germany had done with Austria starting on July 28th? The answers to these questions will address the riddle of who started the First World War. The approaching centennial commemoration of the First World War seems an appropriate occasion to finally lay the “Fischer thesis” to rest - right next to Article 231- in the proverbial dustbin of history.
The author presents a solid case regarding the Russians and their duplicity in helping to start the war. While the Ottoman Empire was "the sick man of Europe" it is very interesting that their control of the Black Sea, and the geographical points in conjunction to it, were a tremendous threat to Russia. Russia's main Black Sea export was grain, to the tune of 20 million tons shipped in both 1911 and 1912. This financed the nation's economic development and was vital to Tsar Nicholas II and his rule of this vast nation. While much has been made about the Russian concern for the Serbs, their real concern was to keep open their warm water ports which were threatened by the Ottoman Empire.
Even before their entry into the war, Turkey had no less than five imported dreadnoughts on order. This would completely allow them control of the Black Sea. Russia was not able to launch a Black Sea dreadnought until the end of 1916!
To further frustrate the Russians, three of these were being built in England.
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei D. Sazonov knew very well how important this area was to Russia, and the author skillfully shows his genius and deceit in making agreements highly beneficial to Russia at the expense of England and France. The British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, is shown as not extremely effective with the Russians and Sazonov. Sazanov was able to extract large commitments from the British (and French)with giving up hardly anything. I always thought the British masters of negotiations and quid pro quo, but it appears, in this book, that they were more obsessed with Belgium and Flanders and willing to give Russia about anything in other areas, Sazanov was too clever not to take advantage of east concessions vital to Russia.
The Russians early on determined that the Ottoman Empire must be destroyed and Russia's warm water ports protected. Just days before the start of the war, two dreadnoughts scheduled to be delivered to Turkey, were retained in England. But two German warships from the Mediterranean Sea, the Goeben and Breslau were sent to the mouth of the Dardanelles on 10 August, 1914. These ships in effect would neutralize the Russian fleet in the Black Sea.
But Russia,largely through the work of Sazonov, greatly improved their position by proposing and getting an Allied commitment to launch an attack through the Dardanelles, and while it was a failure, Russia committed nothing to the effort but had the British and French singing from her book.
The author makes clear that Russia knew she could not control the Black Sea by herself and must have the help of the other members of the Entente, and when she entered the war, she hardly "fell on the sword for France", but was lightly committed against the Germans and more concentrated in the Balkans. She bungled her offensive into Prussia at the Mansurian Lakes, and while she had a vast population only about 30 per cent of her army was literate, while all of the German Army was.
The author covers the Russians in the Middle East, primarily Persia, the cruelty in Armenia and the massacres, the events of 1917, and the drawing up of the maps of the Middle East by the Allies.At the end of this book, you realize the forcefulness of the argument and how this book will challenge all interested parties to reevaluate previous beliefs about the start of this terrible war.
I am going to buy another copy of this first edition because I believe it will become an important and revealing work on the Great War, and I not only consider it an excellent presentation, but also a long term investment.
I would highly recommend this work.
In so much as other reviewers have already addressed other problems with this work, I'm going to focus my review on what I regard to be the core failure of this book. Specifically, I intend to analyze the author's presentation and interpretation of the actual crisis timeline.
That Russia had imperial ambitions which, if acted upon, would come into conflict with those of its rivals is not news. The same could be said of its rivals. Europe was a rough neighborhood. "Stable" is not an adjective that one would use to describe it. Again, this is not news. If we are going to accept the notion that the outbreak of WWI can be traced to a Russian origin, then we need to ask specifically what actions did Russia take that allow us to accept that thesis. Moreover, we have to consider those actions in the context of the crisis timeline. Does the evidence support the argument that the Russians were acting or that they were reacting? Do their actions preclude the peaceful resolution of the crisis, or is it the actions of others which push the crisis over the threshold to war?
Did the Russians have foreknowledge of the assassination plot? Claims that they did have been around for some time. Albertini reported them in his The Origins of the War of 1914 (3 Volume Set) which McMeekin references. Albertini suspected that they did, though both Albertini and McMeekin acknowledge that the Russian defense attaché, Artamonov, denied the charge. Of course, if he did in fact have foreknowledge, then he certainly had motive to lie. On the other hand, those that claimed that he was in on the plot also had motive to lie. The greater problem is that no corroborating evidence has ever been found to prove that foreknowledge of the plot ever found its way back to Russian decision-makers. Thus, the most we can say is that there are claims and denials as to whether Artamonov knew about the plot in advance. If he knew, we don't know how much he knew. We don't know if he reported anything he might have known. We don't know who received any information he might have reported. We don't know if any these things which might or might not have happened were sanctioned by the Russian government. While I don't believe that McMeekin was wrong to bring the fact that were charges that the Russians had foreknowledge of the plot, I do believe that he could have done a better job of alerting the reader to all of the critical uncertainties that surround these claims. The bottom line is that it is not an established fact that the Russians knew that there was an active plot to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand.
The real problem with McMeekin's work emerges in his treatment of the crisis timeline after the June 28th assassination. For one thing, he's neither methodical nor thorough in his presentation of the key events of the crisis timeline. He skips over things that shouldn't be skipped. One gets the sense that he wants to move on to the issuance of Russia's pre-mobilization orders on July 24th, and that everything that transpires between June 28th and July 24th is only relevant to the extent that it furthers his indictment of Russia. However, it is what transpires between June 28 and July 24 that provides the context of Russia's actions! It is also what transpires between June 28 and July 24 that provides the evidentiary counter-argument to McMeekin's thesis.
Before proceeding any further, we need to dispense with a big fat Red Herring. This is not about Fritz Fischer, or whether one agrees of disagrees with any particular interpretation of the "Fischer School". Even if Fischer had never been born, the primary source evidence is what it is. One can find much of it in Albertini, or if one is lucky and has access to good library, you can go all the way back to the Kautsky collection. One can set aside all of the interpretations that historians have proposed over the past 99 years and go straight to words of the actual participants. What they have to say is illuminating.
So what relevant facts have gone missing in the donut hole? Here's a sample...
1) McMeekin doesn't tell the reader that on June 30th, German ambassador in Vienna initially counseled against "hasty measures", or that Zimmerman, the acting German foreign minister initially advised "against making humiliating demands on Serbia". More importantly, he doesn't tell the reader that the Kaiser rejected the actions of his ambassador as "utterly stupid" and "nonsense".
2) McMeekin's devotes all of ONE sentence to Germany's July 5th "Blank Cheque"! He accurately characterizes it as Germany's commitment to "stand by Austria if she attacked Serbia", but he fails to include any reference to its discussion of the possibility of escalation. He fails to note A-H ambassador Szogyeny's report that Kaiser Wilhelm II "would deplore our not taking advantage of the present moment which is so favorable to us".
3) While McMeekin will later make a great deal out Russia's decision to commence pre-mobilization measures on July 24th, for some reason he doesn't bother to inform the reader that Germany decided to commence its pre-mobilization measures 18 days earlier on July 6th!!!
4) McMeekin suggests a "gap in the record" opens in mid-July. However, even a cursory reference to Albertini provides abundant primary source documentation of German pressure on A-H to attack Serbia, as well as the decision to issue an ultimatum to Serbia which was intentionally to be composed so as to be impossible for the Serbians to accept. The Germans knew in advance that A-H intended to launch a punitive war against Serbia in preference to a diplomatic approach, and they approved of that decision.
None of this is interpretation. It's all there in the primary sources.
McMeekin picks up the crisis narrative by informing the reader that the Russians received intelligence on July 16th that A-H intended to impose severe demands on Serbia. McMeekin uses this to impugn subsequent Russian claims that they were "shocked" when they learned of the ultimatum's terms. What he neglects to acknowledge is that it would have idiocy for the Russians to risk compromising an intelligence source on the eve of a possible war. Nor could the Russians have been sure of the reliability of their intelligence prior to the ultimatum being published on the July 23rd. Moreover, there is nothing that the Russians have done that would have precluded a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the crisis had A-H been inclined to seek one. By far the biggest elephant in the room that McMeekin fails to acknowledge is that the Russian had just received, and later seen confirmed, intelligence that A-H was planning a deliberate, pre-meditated, punitive war on Serbia, with the full knowledge and approval of Germany!
Golly Gee! Is it possible that such knowledge might have influenced the Russians' subsequent decision-making?! Is it possible that they informed and consulted with their French allies regarding the probability that a pre-meditated war was about to be launched in the Balkans?! McMeekin's pretzel logic serves up a Franco-Russian conspiracy. His language literally describes consultations between the French and Russians as "conspiring". (Gosh, no bias there!) However, a reader who is aware of the context McMeekin has omitted or glossed over may well see instead a rather understandable reaction. The Russians may have miscalculated by imagining that they could deter an attack on Serbia through partial mobilization, but the Russians were not the one's who first decided to cross the threshold of war with the full knowledge that the conflict could escalate.
McMeekin wants to talk about Russian mobilization, and in particular, secret Russian pre-mobilization measures which were ordered on July 24th, and commenced on either the 25th or 26th depending on which source one credits. Unfortunately, he's not all that interested in acknowledging any inconvenient facts which might lead the reader to the conclusion that Russia's military preparations were a response, because to do so would undermine the thesis of the war as having a Russian origin. For McMeekin, the fact that WEEKS in advance of any Russian military move, A-H deliberately committed itself to pre-meditated war in the tinderbox that was Europe just doesn't seem to register as significant. The fact that Germany actively urged it to do so doesn't seem to register as significant either. The fact that diplomatic alternatives to war were not exhausted prior to resorting to war doesn't count as a mark against Germany or A-H. In this book, they seem to be able act in the most incredibly irresponsible manner, and yet it is the Russians and the French who are the bogeymen. Certainly, the Russians and the French are not beyond legitimate criticism, but in this book, the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians are clad in Teflon, while the Russians and French are dressed out head-to-toe in Velcro.
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