Thursday, August 30, 2012


Last week, I posted a review of Professor Sean McMeekin's new book on the Russian Origins of the First World War. Published by Harvard University Press, Professor McMeekin's book has garnered a wide range of attention in both the lay educated press and more recently some online, academic journals. While many of the reviews have been positive, a few have been quite negative (in particular those by Richard Evans and Dominic Lieven). Since the origins of the Great War has always been a subject of deep interest to me, I eagerly read, nay devoured Professor McMeekin's book. And, while I found his revisionist arguments about Russian responsibility for commencing the Great War flawed and muddled in some ways, I did very much enjoy reading his text. Professor McMeekin, uniquely for an American academic, is a good stylist: both easy and enjoyable to read, notwithstanding how difficult the subject matter that he is discussing. Indeed, one is tempted to say, that he may be the best, nay the only possible candidate to be the American equivalent of the Oxonian, Niall Ferguson (now of course at Harvard University). In addition of course one can only admire the fact that Professor McMeekin is able to conduct archival research in so many different languages. A talent which unfortunately, has (at least among American academics of his - our generation) become almost dangerously rare. With all that being said, after posting my review I forwarded to the good people at Harvard University Press the same asking for a response by the author and they sent it off to Professor McMeekin, who is now in Istanbul, teaching in the History faculty of Koc University. Professor McMeekin was most gracious in responding to my review and after querying some aspects of the same informally, sent to me for publication in Diplomat of the Future, the following rejoinder below. Which while still leaving me not entirely convinced on the merits of his revisionist thesis about Russian responsibility, I am sure that all shall enjoy reading and indeed rereading.
Dear Dr. Coutinho:
I want to thank you for being gracious enough to allow me a reply to your interesting review of my book on The Russian Origins of the First World War. I share your enthusiasm for the subject, and for the work of Luigi Albertini. I love the subject so much, in fact, that I am writing a more detailed narrative of the July crisis of 1914 for Basic Books, which will appear in 2013.

The “origins” question is endlessly fascinating, and difficult to resolve to general satisfaction – which must be why books continue to appear on it. In a way, however, I think you may have misunderstood my purpose, through no fault of your own. My own working title for this book was “Russia’s Aims in the First World War,” an obvious allusion to Fritz Fischer’s famous volume on German war aims. My “thesis,” stated in my introduction, is a negative one: that “the current Fischer-esque consensus about the First World War cannot survive serious scrutiny of the evidence.” Feeling that not all readers would be satisfied with only a debunking, I added the rider that “the war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s.” If you read these passages carefully, you will see that my book is not really focused on the “war guilt”/origins question. Like Fischer’s, it interprets the conflict as a whole. Another way I say this is with my phrase, “The War of the Ottoman Succession,” which more precisely captures what I am getting at: both Germany’s and Russia’s war aims were central to the origins, the course and consequences of World War I, and these aims were intimately related to the decline of Ottoman power, which reached a critical phase with the Italian and Balkan Wars of 1911-13. I have explained my general interpretation in more detail elsewhere.

When you write that I “overegg the pudding” by “pressing [my] revisionist thesis…further than the evidence,” what I gather you are reacting to is the title of my book, along with the dramatic précis on the jacket, which more or less explicitly links Russia’s Straits ambitions to the outbreak of war in 1914. (The “more or less” reflects my own parsing of the even bolder things my publisher wanted the jacket to say). In the end, I gave in regarding the title and book jacket, believing that stirring up controversy was probably the price of getting people to read a serious historical essay. I am by no means adverse to controversy, but I do wish that reviewers would grasp that book jacket hype does not always accurately convey an author’s true argument or “thesis.”

I mean this not only in terms of my analysis of Russia’s Ottoman Straits policies, which is far subtler in the text than the book jacket implies, but in the more basic sense that many reviewers give the impression that Russian Origins is about the war’s outbreak – although that subject comprises only one of its nine chapters.

Still, because the “origins” question seems most interesting to you, as to many if not most readers, I will take up your challenge. I do not agree that, as you write, “the status quo ante bellum, was au fond, quite acceptable to each of the Entente powers.” Britain, certainly. Not Russia, and not France. Before I tackle Russia, I will mention here an important recent revisionist work on France: Stefan Schmidt’s Frankreichs Aussenpolitik in der Julikrise 1914: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Ausbruchs des Ersten Weltkrieges (2009). Schmidt’s book, because not translated into English, is not yet widely known outside specialist circles. But it should be. It is a tour de force, which gravely undermines the consensus view, associated with the work of J. F. V. Keiger, that France was “the most passive of the great powers” during the July crisis. Russia, as I show in my book, was several days ahead of Germany at every stage in the march to war, beginning with her inauguration of the Period Preparatory to War at midnight on 25-26 July, and France’s leaders rallied right behind Russia’s every move, fully cognizant (at least in Poincaré’s case) of where Russian mobilization was leading, and fully approving. I discuss the timeline of the July crisis in greater depth in my forthcoming July 1914.

Now, as to why Russian leaders may have been so keen to mobilize, that is the central question of Russian Origins. I find it interesting that, to discredit my view of the importance of Russian war aims in 1914, you lean on D. C. B. Lieven’s authority, and his TLS review. Of course Lieven is an expert on Tsarist Russia and its foreign policy, and a scholar of great erudition, but this does not mean that he is infallible or unbiased, particularly on a book presenting a viewpoint opposite to his own.

Lieven does indeed deploy, as you note, the phrase “…not sustained by any evidence that I have seen,” but he was not saying this, as you suggest, about my “revisionist thesis.” Lieven writes, rather, that “[McMeekin’s] argument that Russia was seeking to pre-empt the arrival of new Turkish battleships in Constantinople is not sustained by any evidence that I have seen.” If it is true that Lieven has not “seen” this evidence, then this means either 1) he has not read chapter 1 of my book, nor its highly detailed source notes, or at least not read them very carefully; or 2) he doubts the veracity of my evidence – evidence ranging from reams of diplomatic correspondence, much of it published by the Soviets decades ago; to the transcript of a high-level Russian naval planning conference held in February 1914 (a version of which was published in the 1920s; I discovered the original, unedited transcript in the Russian diplomatic archives); to the exchanges in May-June 1914 between Sazonov, Russian Ambassador to Britain Count Benckendorff, His Majesty’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill relating to the imminent delivery of the British-built dreadnoughts to Turkey. (I discovered this fascinating material in the Russian diplomatic archives in Moscow).

Considering that the critical February 1914 strategic planning conference was specially postponed owing to the illness of Admiral A. A. Lieven, a former chief of Naval Staff and D. C. B. Lieven’s own ancestor, the idea that Lieven would not know of these matters is bewildering. The only explanation I can think of is that, having neglected to discuss them in his own 1983 book on Russia and the Origins of the First World War, Lieven is being defensive. (This book, unlike most of Lieven’s later works, is now out of print).

One may argue about such evidence, and its importance, but I do find it peculiar when reviewers pretend that it does not exist. In the same vein, a blanket dismissal of my chapter on “Russia and the Armenians,” which does not mention my ground-breaking research in the Imperial Russian diplomatic and military archives on the subject, does not strike me as given entirely in good faith.

I do see your point about my analogy between the “bloodbath in Budapest” and the terrible events of 1915. If one reads the whole book, it is clear that I was continuing there an ongoing leitmotif regarding the Cold War: the idea being that books on the collapse of the Ottoman empire which fail to discuss the role of Russia, Turkey’s primary antagonist for centuries and especially during World War I, are akin to studies of the Cold War written without reference to the Soviet Union (or the United States).

Of course Russian “agency,” as you put it, is quite different in the two cases, especially if you believe that Ottoman Armenians were the “Hungarians,” i.e. the only victims in a simplistic morality play. But the way you put this indirectly proves my point about viewing history with blinders on: Russians, Cossacks, and Armenian partisans also killed civilians in eastern Turkey and the Caucasus in 1915, predominantly Muslims, just as Kurdish militiamen and Ottoman troops killed Armenian civilians. Certainly, far, far more Armenian civilians perished that year in the region than did Muslim ones, but this does not mean that atrocities were not committed by many parties (including Russians) on (and behind) one of the most bitterly contested fronts of the entire First World War. My point was that, by neglecting Russia’s outsized role as both catalyst and actor in these terrible events, historians have ignored an enormous elephant in the room. Perhaps “elephant in the room” is a better analogy than Budapest.

On a subject this explosive, reasonable people may disagree. Still, to dismiss my work because I teach in Turkey is absurd. In Russian Origins, I draw on my own research in Ottoman, Russian, German, Austrian, French, British, and American archives. Should I have ignored the Ottoman sources? Or the Russian sources, many of which no one before me had seen – several of which I even reproduced in full, as unedited photostats, in case readers were curious about this new evidence? Are we to dismiss as “almost completely biased” the archival discoveries of anyone who teaches in Turkey? Or the work by hundreds of Turkish historians, writing their own country’s history? Should Armenians not write their own history, or Americans theirs?

As to the larger point implied here, that freedom of expression is somehow curtailed in Turkish universities, I have to laugh. Many of America’s elite universities now accept, and some actively solicit, professorships sponsored by foreign governments (or shadowy foundations representing them), a profoundly disturbing development. Still worse is the atmosphere of political correctness. After following years of such episodes, I was not surprised when, only last week, a public campaign was launched to have Niall Ferguson fired from Harvard because of an op-ed he wrote in Newsweek.

Me? I’ll take the universities of Turkey, where I have not been told – not once in ten years – that I am to hew to any party line, or censor myself so as not to offend someone. Nor has anyone asked to have me fired because I wrote an op-ed they disagreed with.

I relish this freedom to conduct research on any subject I choose, and to draw my own conclusions. I suggest that my readers, too, make up their own minds after reading Russian Origins, and I encourage those interested in a fuller discussion of the outbreak of the First World War to read my forthcoming book on July 1914.
Sean McMeekin
Koç University, Istanbul (and Brant Lake, NY)


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