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The Russian Origins of the First World War [Hardcover]

Sean McMeekin

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Book Description

Nov. 30 2011

The catastrophe of the First World War, and the destruction, revolution, and enduring hostilities it wrought, make the issue of its origins a perennial puzzle. Since World War II, Germany has been viewed as the primary culprit. Now, in a major reinterpretation of the conflict, Sean McMeekin rejects the standard notions of the war’s beginning as either a Germano-Austrian preemptive strike or a “tragedy of miscalculation.” Instead, he proposes that the key to the outbreak of violence lies in St. Petersburg.

It was Russian statesmen who unleashed the war through conscious policy decisions based on imperial ambitions in the Near East. Unlike their civilian counterparts in Berlin, who would have preferred to localize the Austro-Serbian conflict, Russian leaders desired a more general war so long as British participation was assured. The war of 1914 was launched at a propitious moment for harnessing the might of Britain and France to neutralize the German threat to Russia’s goal: partitioning the Ottoman Empire to ensure control of the Straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Nearly a century has passed since the guns fell silent on the western front. But in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, World War I smolders still. Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Jews, and other regional antagonists continue fighting over the last scraps of the Ottoman inheritance. As we seek to make sense of these conflicts, McMeekin’s powerful exposé of Russia’s aims in the First World War will illuminate our understanding of the twentieth century.


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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
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #195,938 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

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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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
74 of 88 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Absolute Gem of World War One Historical Writing and Expose Dec 1 2011
By S. Heminger - Published on Amazon.com
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.
35 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bold and Interesting Revisionist Interpretation. Dec 26 2011
By James B. Casey - Published on Amazon.com
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.
53 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Russian Complicity in the Start of the Great War Nov. 27 2011
By Paul - Published on Amazon.com
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.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bought this book based solely on Amazon Reviews Jan. 6 2012
By Writing Historian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I must say that I was not disappointed. Very thought provoking. Very well researched using diverse primary sources. The only problem, to quote another reviewer, was that the book was too short. McMeekin is such a good writer that the narrative flew by rapidly. Although several revisionist views of the origins of WW1 have come out recently (Terence Zuber's book on German War Plans comes to mind) this is the one you should read first.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Partisan historiography Nov. 14 2012
By R. L. Huff - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I also agree with Professor Evans' review (deconstruction being the better term) of McMeekin's revisionist attempt to whitewash Germany's WW I agenda. Professor McMeekin rehashes Wilhelmstrasse rationalizations that were thin gruel at the time. His position at a Turkish university doubtless explains his partisan desire to portray the Armenians as a Russophile Fifth Column who "deserved" retribution for their disloyalty; and for laying war guilt at the feet of Russia's imperial ambitions.

As all students of this period should know, there was not a single antagonist in this war who did not have imperial ambitions, nor who didn't plot out a war trajectory a decade in advance to achieve them. Barbara Tuchman laid the issue to rest, in my mind, when quoting German Naval Minister von Tirpitz, who asked why it was necessary to declare war on Russia and appear the aggressor if Germany did not plan invasion? Germany's object was to saddle war guilt on Russia, to convince the German people its leaders were fighting in self-defense, to keep Italy to its commitments, and in the words of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, to "get the Socialists to fight." ("The Guns of August," pp. 104 & 514.) But it couldn't prevail on Austria not to give Russia the excuse, via attacking Serbia. Germany's prior commitments gave it no alternative, nor did it ever really seek any except as temporary tactics. The added revelations of Fritz Fischer also nailed the German General Staff dead to rights.

Anyone remotely familiar with the road to war in 1914 is aware that Britain and France were primarily preoccupied with West European affairs and domestic repercussions. Concern over violations of Belgian neutrality was their casus belli, not aiding Russia or dismembering the Ottoman Empire, however important these later became. For Russia, Serbia was as strategically vital as Poland after 1944; any invasion thereof made a Russian response inescapable. McMeekin's attempt to lay war guilt on imperial Russia ties in nicely with his host Turkey's traditional anti-Russian, pro-German policy, now enshrined in its NATO alliances. It does not square with the facts of history.

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