Wednesday, August 22, 2012


"The basic chronolgy of the First World War cannot be properly understood without grappling with the War aims of Imperial Russia....This is a story told in the records of the Imperial Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a story thath has been hiding in plain site ever since Trotsky first burgled the archives in 1917. It has been available to any scholar who reads Russian (or German, as many of the Soviet-produced volumes of Tsarist documents have been translated into that language).Drawing on these materials, along wth still-unpublished documents now open to the public in Russian and European archives, I contend in this book that the current consensus about the First World War cannot survive serious scrutiny. The War of 1914 was Russia's war even more than it was Germany's"
Sean McMeekin. The Russian Origins of the First World War. (2011). pp. 4-5.
"The 'threefold sense' of the war was: defence against existing France, preventative war against the future Russia (too late as that), struggle with England for world domination"
Kurt Riezler [Counsellor at the Wilhemstrasse & Personal Assistant to Reich Kanzler, Theobold von Bethman-Hollweg], 1st of August, 1916, quoted in: Fritz Fischer. The War of Illusions: German Policies 1911-1914. Translated Marian Jackson. (1975), p. 549.
'War origins again!' In the words of the late, great British historian, Alan Taylor, Sean McMeekin's book will no doubt to some, inspire this exclamation of impatience for a topic which is now fast approaching its one-hundred anniversary of discussion and exploration. However, that would be a quite unfortunate way of approaching Professor McMeekin's interesting if overly flawed book. First, do allow me to say that as he has demonstrated in his prior scholary works, Professor McMeekin has a way with words and unlike most American academics (or like yourse truly, ex-academics) knows how to employ them in a manner which makes reading the text an exciting activity 1. Unfortunately, Professor McMeekin also suffers from the (sometimes) fatal flaw of those with a facility with words: a tendency to allow his splendid gift to run away from the empirical basis of the text. With that being said, Professor McMeekin deserves thanks I do believe for re-introducing to both the lay educated and the scholary public the works of an unfortunately neglected scholar on this topic: the Italian, entre-deux-guerre writer, Luigi Albertini 2. For reasons mostly to do with the fact that he his magnum opus on the origins of the Great War, was only published and translated a few years prior to the German academic Fritz Fischer's own widely seen seminal work on the war's origins, as well as being published posthumously, Albertini, notwithstanding the unusually wide-range of research that his work contains, as well as the interviews that he conducted with some of the participants (like Graf Berchtold), has been for the most part, relegated to the 'second-eleven' of historical commentators on the origins of the war (`a la Harry Barnes, Sidney Fay and Bernadotte Schmidt). Which is a pity, because Albertini in some ways opened up intriguing avenues of questions for further research that have yet to be fully explored even to-day. This is of course where Professor McMeekin would say he comes in. Unfortunately, Professor McMeekin revisionist thesis: that Russian ambitions over the straits was the prime culprit as per the origins of the war, goes way beyond anything which the evidence that he cites in his text supports. Something which Dominic Lieven in the TLS has already stated 3. Which is not to gainsay the fact that in the crucial days of late July 1914, Russian decision-makers were of course not without fault in allowing the slide towards war to continue. In particular the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Sazonov, deserves (and has received) harsh criticism for not staying the hands of the generals, in the key decisions to go directly from partial to full mobilization vis-`a-vis both Austria and Germany. And indeed to being somewhat cavalier to the fact that any mobilization vis`a-vis Austria would inevitably result in a German counter mobilization and in short order war breaking out. Professor McMeekin of course goes into this history in detail, albeit not the detail that say Albertini does, nor to my mind the sort of detail that this topic deserves given Professor McMeekin argument (in fact only thirty-four pages of text are devoted to this topic).
With that being said, does Professor McMeekin thesis: that it was Imperial Russia and not Kaiserreich Germany which was mostly to blame for the outbreak of war in 1914, hold-up? Unfortunately, it does not. Not in the way that he asserts it that is. The closest that can be said is that Professor McMeekin's hypothesis works if one adheres to the 'post hoc, ergo propter hoc' school of logic...Specifically, that Russia contrived the Great War to occur when it did, by virtue of the fact that it: a) was desperately anxious to fulfill its long awaited conquest of Constantinople, something which an Imperial Planning Conference had agreed upon circa February 1914; b) and, was highly anxious over the fact that the Ottoman Empire was about to take possession of several, top of the line, British battleships come the summer of 1914. Something which would drastically change the naval balance of power between the two powers in the Black Sea, in such fashion that it would almost completely derail Russia's ambitions of seizing the straits by a coup de main 4. Or as Professor McMeekin puts it in a hypothesis that is not entirely logical or linear:
"Russian fears of the growth of the Turkish naval power (thought to be in the service of German interests) were no less rational or irrational than German fears of the growth of Russian power, but the Russian fears of may have been more threatening to Europe's fragile peace because they were invisible to everyone but themselves. A state whose policymakers nurse grudges against both its enemies and its friends is a dangerous animal, ready to pounce at the first fright or whiff of opportunity. Russia in 1914 was a country with much to lose, but for which the risks of inaction seemed, by June or July of that year, to be at least as great, and possibly greater, than those of actions. It was a country in other words, whose rulers would not shrink from going to war to improve her precarious position in a hostile international environment 5."
In McMeekin's subsequent narrative recounting, the July Crisis and the outbreak of the Great War was merely a case of Russia's allowing a chain of events which it eagerly anticipated taking their 'natural' course. And, indeed his chapter, truncated though it is, does well in elucidating in precis form, many of the originally points made by Albertini as it relates to the fact that much of the available evidence (and indeed much of the unavailable evidence) seems to indicate that both Russia and France (or more specifically French Ambassador to Petersburg, Maurice Paleologue) were prepared to 'go to the brink', in resisting the Austria's desire to arrive at a 'final solution' of the Serbian problem in the Balkans 6. However, while McMeekin does well in going over this old ground, with some new bits of evidence and some new pointers, per se, he does not prove his thesis. Meaning, simply that without the declaration of war by Germany on both Russia and France (on respectively 1st and 3rd of August), there is every likelihood that a general war might indeed have been put off. As McMeekin himself admits, if however belligerent both Petersburg and Paris were in the July Crisis, when it came to the crunch, both realized that sans British participation, the Entente was doomed to defeat 7. Which in turn means that however much Sazonov et. al., was willing to gamble on a war in the July Crisis, he was not willing to commence that war. Or in McMeekin's telling:
"Sazonov's game of deception gives us a deception gives us a good idea of what the Russians were up to in July 1914....Sazonov's own strategy was more ambitious: it envisioned a European war, in which he must line up the most favorable coalition possible 8".
Which in fact, in some sense is not so much different to Fritz Fischer's own (admittedly biased in an anti-German fashion as it relates to the evidence, see above and below) take on the Russian responsibility for the slide towards war:
"Russia's responsibility cannot therefore be said to lie in the fact that on 30th of July the Russian government decided to transform the partial mobilisation into a general one [actually it can indeed - C.G.V.C.]; it can be held responsible because it refused to stand by while Serbia was destroyed and it was itself completely pushed out of the Balkans, that is forced to give up hope of the Straits. Russia's share of responsibility for the outbreak of the war in the summer of 1914 lies in the fact that it adhered to this principal of Russian policy, not in the fact that it decided on 30th July to proclaim a general mobilisation 9.
In short, it would be truer to say that Professor McMeekin's revisionist thesis is in part both too ambitious and not ambitious enough. It is too ambitious in the sense that there is no real evidence that Sazonov, et. al., wished to launch a future coup de main against the Straits was so engrained that the mere threat of the delivery of some British dreadnoughts to the Turkish Navy would by itself be enough to cause Sazonov to assist mightily the outbreak of the Great War. Unfortunately, this key revisionist aspect of the text is only proven in a merely post hoc, ergo propter hoc fashion. Indeed, even the correspondence between Petersburg and London on the subject shows almost absolutely that Sazonov did not, repeat did not, make the issue of the British dreadnoughts a make or break one with either the Russian Ambassador Graf Benckendorf, much less with the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, in the months leading up to the summer of 1914. Indeed, merely banal logic, argues against Professor McMeekin on this point: if the dreadnoughts were so vitally important, then indeed Petersburg would have at the very least, issued something equivalent to an ultimatum or something approaching one to London on the topic. But this did not in fact occur (or if it did, the author fails to show us that it did). Instead, the British received some very half-hearted demarches from Sazonov protesting, but not in very energetic fashion the dangers that would ensue from the proposed delivery. At the very best one can say that Professor McMeekin's thesis has not been proven.
As per the characterization of 'not ambitious enough', suffice it to say, that in many cases, Professor McMeekin's charge sheet vis-`a-vis Petersburg echoes that of Albertini and to a lesser extent, even someone with almost the directly opposite view of war origins like Fritz Fisher. I for one am disappointed that more of the text was not devoted to Russian decision-making between the 19th and the 30th of July. Notwithstanding the some of the new details that he provides the reader, it seems to me, that Albertini and of course Dominic Lieven are the best sources to rely upon for an analysis of Russian decision-making in the crisis leading up to the Great War. As for the rest of the book, there I must say that here Professor McMeekin disappoints, sometimes drastically. First there is a chapter devoted to the Armenian Genocide, in which Professor McMeekin's evidently pro-Turkish point of view (nota bene: Professor McMeekin teaches at a Turkish University), makes hash of anything approaching a unbiased discussion of this fraught and emotional subject. The following sentence perhaps being the ne plus ultra of examples on this score:
"It is a far more serious distortion of the truth to tell the story of the Armenian tragedy of 1915 without reference (or with only passing reference) to Russia. it is akin to writing about, say the 'bloodbath in Budapest' during the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution of 1956 without reference to the Soviet Union" 10.
The comparison of course is nonsensical in the extreme: there were no Russians murdering in the many hundreds of thousands Armenians circa 1915-1916, as there were Russians murdering thousands of Hungarians in the failed uprising in Budapest in November 1956. The agency of these actors are completely different. Only someone who is almost completely biased in a pro-Turkish direction as it would appear is Professor McMeekin make this unfortunate equivalence. The rest of the text, is a short (130 pages) and rather idiosyncratic narrative retelling of aspects of Russia's war, with chapters devoted almost primarily to Russia's war with the Ottoman Empire and the Great Power diplomacy vis-`a-vis its Entente allies. The primary argument of this section of the book being that for the most part, Sazonov, et. al., ran rings around Paris and London in grabbing for Petersburg the 'glittering prizes' which were available from the forthcoming, hoped-for collapse of the Sublime Porte.
To give an overall summary of this review, I would once again state that Professor McMeekin is to be congratulated on raising again the issue of Tsarist Russia's (very partial) responsibility for the outbreak of the Great War. And in resurrecting some of the very pertinent points in that regard which were first suggested by Luigi Albertini so many years ago. Unfortunately, in the course of his argument, Professor McMeekin 'over eggs the pudding' (as the English like to say) and presses his revisionist thesis much, much further than the evidence that he presents can carry it. And, while the original Fischer thesis of German culpability is no doubt passe, something approaching a modified / neo-Fischer thesis is I believe still the best overall description of explaining the 'whys' of the outbreak of the Great War. As Sazonov informed Benckendorf in a dispatch on the 19th of February 1914, unlike the elites of the Kaiserreich Germany (or most of them), the status quo ante bellum, was au fond, quite acceptable to each of the Entente powers:
"The peace of the world will be secure only when the Triple transformed into a defensive alliance without secret clauses. Then the danger of German hegemony will be finally ended, and each of us can devote himself to his own affairs: the English can seek a solution of their social problems, the French can get rich, protected from any external threat, and we can consolidate ourselves and work on our economic reorganization" 11.
1. Sean McMeekin. The Berlin-Baghdad Express. (2010).
2. Luigi Albertini. The Origins of the War of 1914. Volumes I-III. Translated by Isabella Massey. 1952. In volume I of my copy (re-published 2005), there is in volume I an excellent introduction by the noted historian, Samuel Williamson, which goes into some detail as to the whys and the wherefores of the German and Anglophone reception of Albertini's work. See: Albertini, Vol. 1, op. cit.
3. Dominic Lieven. "Sazonov's Dreams." The Times Literary Supplement. 1st June 2012. p. 22. The key mots of Lieven's quite balanced review are that McMeekin's revisionist thesis as per war origins is not: "sustained by any evidence I have seen".
4. McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War. (2011). pp. 35-40.
5. Ibid. p. 40.
6. Ibid., pp. 51-53,68-69. See also, Albertini, op cit., Volume II, pp. 290-310,322-327, 528-537 & passim. Even a confirmed adherent to the Fischer thesis, like Immanuel Geiss, makes note of the importance of the intervention by Paleologue in Petersburg at this crucial time: Imanuel Geiss, Edited. July 1914: The outbreak of the First World War, selected documents. (1966), 162-163, 273.
7. McMeekin, The Russian Origins, op. cit., p. 72. Geiss, has in full Sazonov's telegram to Izvolsky of the 29th of July, wherein, the carte blanche given by Paleologue several days earlier is cashed in full: "As we cannot comply with the wishes of the Germany, we have no alternative but to hasten on our own military preparations and to assume that war is probably inevitable. Please inform the French Government of this, and add that we are sincerely grateful to them for the declaration which the French Ambassador made to me on their behalf, to the effect that we could count fully upon the assistance of our ally France." Quite a different attitude by Paris than assumed circa the Bosnian Crisis of 1908-1909.
8. McMeekin, The Russian Origins, op cit., pp. 72-73. Or for that matter, even closer to McMeekin's language is A.J.P. Taylor's. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918, wherein he notes that for Russia, the war was for: "preserve free passage of the straits". See: A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1914. (1954), p. 527.
9. Fritz Fischer. The War of Illusions. Translated by Marian Jackson. (1975), p.491 .
10. McMeekin, The Russian Origins, op. cit., p. 142 .
11. A.J.P. Taylor, op cit., p. 511. This point is reinforced by Neil Ferguson own attempt at a 'revisionist' look at the Great War and its Origins. See: Neil Ferguson. The Pity of War: explaining World War I. (1998), pp. 149-154.


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