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The Russian Origins of the First World War Hardcover – Nov 30 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Nov. 30 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674062108
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674062108
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.4 x 2.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 680 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #302,941 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


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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By Elfrad on Aug. 6 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
McMeekin belongs to a line of historians whose research challenges the view that the Germans bear the primary responsibility for WWI. He certainly makes a convincing case that the Russians greatly contributed. The work is well-written and researched but does not overwhelm the reader. I found it particularly interesting to read about the Russian plans in 1914 of partitioning Germany after their victory.
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By joe vick on Nov. 5 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
All good thanks!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 32 reviews
79 of 94 people found the following review helpful
An Absolute Gem of World War One Historical Writing and Expose Dec 1 2011
By S. Heminger - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In the arena of history of the First World War, Fritz Fischer has for decades stood above all other historians with his narrative, `Griff nach der Weltmacht' (or `Germany's Aims in the First World War' in English). This work, demonstrating a mastery of German and Austrian sources, for decades stood as THE overwhelming proof of Germany's bid to begin the Great War in order to secure its place as a world power. Numerous historians since its publication have delved into it and included it as an indispensible addition to the bibliographies of their own works.

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.
37 of 43 people found the following review helpful
Bold and Interesting Revisionist Interpretation. Dec 26 2011
By James B. Casey - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Sean McMeekin's interesting and skillfully written study of The Russian Origins of the First World War offers a plausible array of evidence delineating the motives and long term ambitions of the Russian Imperial government for encouraging the onset of the First World War. Whereas the theories of Fritz Fischer and A. J. P. Taylor fixing the primary guilt for starting the slaughter on either German/Austrian strategies for pre-emptive war (in Fischer's case) or on the military strategists on both sides for setting up a chain reaction of doomsday scenarios impelling civilian governments to mobilize or face destruction, McMeekin shows how the all consuming ambition of the Russian power structure for control of Constantinople and the Middle East impelled them towards a war in which their cynical calculation was to use France and Britain to assist in achieving these objectives. The evidence presented is impressive, but not terribly convincing. It was, after all, the Austrians who fired the first shots and pushed the matter of Sarajevo from incident to international crisis. While downplaying the motivation of Russian power brokers in protecting their Serb brothers from Austrian attack, McMeekin insists that the major concerns of Russian planners was the danger from Turkey in the Black Sea and the ultimate dream of controlling the Bosphorous with the opportunity of using British and French power to secure the prize. McMeekin's thesis fails to emphasize sufficiently the fact that Russian military forces on land and sea had suffered a catastrophic disaster only nine years before in the war with Japan and that the revolts in 1905 and subsequent strikes right up to 1914 could not have failed to cause hesitation on the part of the Tsar's government when it came to jumping into war. While it is evident that Russia did have territorial objectives and preferences and employed their western allies with considerable skill during 1914-17, the fragile and tenuous situation facing the Russian ruling class could not have escaped any of the planners of the time. --- McMeekin's study is, nevertheless, important and adds a dimension of understanding that partially redefines many of the assumptions held about the causes of the First World War. It is extremely well-written and presented, and should be an essential acquisition for any libraries featuring collections on European history.
55 of 68 people found the following review helpful
Russian Complicity in the Start of the Great War Nov. 27 2011
By Paul - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Not knowing the author, Sean McMeekin, or any of his works, I took a chance on what appeared to be an interesting argument on the origins of the war. It is likely the greatest pleasant surprise of the year for me.
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Cui bono? Aug. 24 2014
By Jos - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
"Cui bono?" - "Who profits from it?" This is the ultimate question one should ask when one wonders who brought about the First World War. Sean McMeekin gives the answer: the Russians. Indeed, it were the Russian politicians who hoped to gain profit from a war that, eventually, would finish off the ailing Austrian-Hungarian empire. Then, without Austrian-Hungarian interference, Russia could become the master of the Slavonic and Orthodox nations in the Balkan, conquer Constantinople, the spiritual capital of Orthodoxism, and gain control of the straits between Europe and Asia Minor, Russia's economic lifeline between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. But in order to get rid of decaying Austria-Hungary, the Russians had to wage war against the latter's allies, the Germans, too. Here they found a natural ally in France, that was all too eager to reconquer Alsace-Lorraine with the help of its Russians friends.

This book has added to my personal belief that, as far as the First World War is concerned, it is unfair to lay the blame at the Kaiser's door. The Germans would have been completely mad to have wanted a war against the three colonial superpowers of that time (Russia, France, Britain), by which they were encircled.

As for the British, I still don't understand what they were up to. Or, maybe, it is easy enough: in the nineteenth century the British government had waged so many wars everywere on earth - most of them unjust ones - that waging war had become a (bad) habit of Albion's upper class.
21 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Donut History and Pretzel Logic... June 20 2013
By ReasonableGuy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Why do I refer to this as "Donut History"? It's not because the author fails to provide the reader with evidence to support his thesis. The problem is that there is a great gaping hole in the midst of his presentation of evidence. McMeekin provides the reader with such evidence as supports his thesis. He ignores the evidence that would easily lead the reader to alternative conclusions. With respect to the evidence he does provide, he only interprets its significance in a manner that supports his thesis, while ignores its relevance to alternative interpretations.

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.