The Russian Origins of the First World War

March 1, 2012

Who was responsible for the First World War? That Germany was largely to blame has become the established view, but Sean McMeekin points his finger at a different culprit, Russia. His thesis is supported by his research in the Imperial Russian archives, accessible since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The prevailing consensus argues that Germany, which had planned for the prospect of fighting on two fronts against France and Russia in any future war, was increasingly alarmed by Russia's growing military potential. Convinced that time was not on their side, German politicians and generals used Austria-Hungary's desire to punish Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as an excuse to bring about a pre-emptive war with the Russian Empire, thus - as France was bound to come to Russia's aid - turning a minor dispute into a general European conflict instead.

McMeekin argues, however, that it was Russia, rather than Germany, that used the crisis to deliberately launch a war with Austria-Hungary and Germany. It did so with such skill as to maintain the French as "willing collaborators in Russian plans", while retaining the sympathy of a bamboozled Britain. He does not entirely exonerate Germany for its role as the unfolding crisis moved from Russia's order for a "Period Preparatory to War", to partial mobilisation, general mobilisation and finally to war, accepting that it "takes two to tango", and that it was, after all, Germany that declared war on Russia on 1 August. But the Russians knew that, once their mobilisation was under way, the Germans were bound to respond or lose any advantage and, as this book reveals, although Russia's decision for a general mobilisation was announced on 31 July, a secret mobilisation had been under way since 25 July.

But why did Russia wish to start what it knew would become a major European war? Here we come to the really radical dimension of a thoroughly revisionist book that seeks to change our entire understanding of the First World War. Rather than dwelling on the ambitions and fears of the German Empire, whose emergence had destroyed the pre-existing European balance of power, and its relations with France, we have to shift our focus to the issue that had dominated international relations since the late 18th century - the "Eastern Question". The First World War, McMeekin argues, could well be called the "War of the Ottoman Succession", the final explosion of the decline of the great Turkish Empire. Russia's aims were no less than the destruction of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires, Russian seizure of Constantinople, the command of the Black Sea straits and, even more ambitiously, the domination of Persia. The outbreak of war in 1914 was the result of the successful manoeuvres of the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, who had arranged the "most favourable belligerent coalition possible" and given Russia a head start in a war to achieve these ambitions.

Britain, thanks in large part to Germany's fatal error in invading Belgium, was part of that coalition, and McMeekin's work strengthens the case of those historians who are convinced that Britain's involvement in the First World War was a fundamental error. Britain had, throughout the 19th century, supported the Ottoman Empire against the designs of Russia, but in 1914, duped into an unnatural alliance against many of its most basic interests, it accepted Russian claims on Constantinople and in 1915 expended ships and the lives of thousands of British and Empire soldiers on the Gallipoli campaign, to which the Russians made not even a minimal contribution.

By 1916, it appeared that Russia was about to achieve its ambitions. It had experienced defeats at the hands of Germany, but had been successful in the war against the Turks in the Caucasus, encouraged the Armenian rebellion in Eastern Anatolia, and achieved a powerful position in Persia. The Sykes-Picot Agreement with Britain and France saw Russia on the brink of fulfilling its long-term aim of the partition of the Ottoman Empire. But then came the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the end of Imperial Russia, which thrust Russia's war into "the deep freeze", from which this exciting and most important book retrieves it.

The Russian Origins of the First World War

By Sean McMeekin. Harvard University Press. 344pp, £22.95. ISBN 9780674062108. Published 24 November 2011

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