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)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


"Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has launched a fresh diplomatic effort in a bid to ease escalating tensions with China, reignited over a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea. The Japanese government is keen to smooth relations with its largest trading partner and hopes a letter written by Mr Noda on Tuesday to Hu Jintao, China’s president, will help “the stable development of relations” between the two countries, said chief cabinet secretary, Osamu Fujimura. The move follows an incident on Monday when a car carrying Japan’s ambassador in Beijing was attacked. Japan has called for a full investigation into the incident. Uichiro Niwa was travelling with his wife and two staff on a congested road when two cars blocked the vehicle, an official at the Japanese embassy said. “A man jumped out of one of the two vehicles, ran over to the ambassador’s car and ripped the Japanese national flag off it,” the official said. No one was injured. The incident comes as both governments are trying to contain a dispute over the Senkaku islands, a group of tiny rocky outcrops controlled by Japan but also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu islands. The archipelago, home to rich fishing grounds and believed to hold natural gas reserves, has repeatedly been a source of contention between the two countries. Beijing and Tokyo have struggled in recent years to build constructive ties and break free from a past loaded with the memory of Japan’s wartime aggression and decades of anti-Japanese propaganda in China".
Kathrin Hille & Michiyo Nakamoto, "Noda looks to ease China-Japan relations." The Financial Times. 27 August 2012, in
"August 15 marks the anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia. Japan’s defeat was complete, and its losses unprecedented. Today, Japanese television coverage traced the final days of devastation, with those who lived through the war (now in their 80s) narrating accounts of the firebombing that ruined most of Tokyo and the atomic bombing that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For Japanese it continues to be a day of national mourning for those lost, and an annual opportunity to remind the nation and its neighbors of Japan’s postwar commitment to peace. For Japan’s neighbors, however, it seems that August 15 is increasingly an opportunity to demonstrate their own national narratives of the war.... Hong Kong activists took the opportunity to send ships to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, small islets whose sovereignty is contested by Taiwan, the PRC, and Japan. Despite warnings from the Japan Coast Guard (JCG), seven activists dove overboard to swim to the islands—with five making it to land and two turning back to the ship. The JCG, the Japanese police, and agents from the Japanese immigration service met the activists who were subsequently detained. The Hong Kong ship and its remaining nine-member crew have since also been detained. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda tersely stated that they will be treated in accordance with Japanese law.... Japan has long had to cope with activism such as this. Taiwanese and Hong Kong based activists have focused on the territorial dispute over the Senkakus since the 1970s, and in 2002, a group of Chinese activists also landed on the islands. The Japanese government has treated these incidents as violations of domestic law, but has more often than not promptly returned activists to their home countries. Detentions have been the norm, but the consequences have ranged from warnings to fines. In September 2010, the dangerous behavior of the Chinese trawler captain upped the ante, however, and his detention opened the possibility that he would be prosecuted.... Leaders of all Northeast Asia nations must recognize the costs to the entire region of the nationalisms of the 20th century. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese peoples have all paid the tremendous cost of war. Yet they have rebuilt dynamic and prosperous societies, and while the wounds of last century’s wars are still raw, reactive nationalism is not the salve that will heal them. Blame and retribution will only create conflict, and if unchecked, could lead yet again to war. Territorial disputes today can be adjudicated under international law, and scientific evidence and legal argument should be the armaments in that battle. Reflection on the costs of war should be part of every nation’s conversation on days of memorial. But the leaders of each nation must find the courage to remind their nations to look forward while working to create the path to reconciliation with those who were once enemies. There are too many opportunities to demonstrate the value of cooperation among the countries of Northeast Asia for anyone to persuade me that the hurts of the past cannot be overcome. It is a difficult task, but for the political leaders of Japan, South Korea, and China, it is perhaps the most pressing one".
Sheila A. Smith. "Sixty-seven years After WWII, Northeast Asian Nationalism Flare Again." The Council on Foreign Relations. 15 August 2012, in
"Situation is quiet on the surface so much so that many people are inclined to believe even now that Chiang Kia-shek does not seriously intend to embark on large scale hostilities though I hold the opposite view. Apart from continuous movement of Central Government troops northwards along Peking-Hankow line there are numerous other indications that extreme measures are intended....There is a very deep current of anti-Japanese feeling which is only restrained because people feel that the Generalissimo is at last about to lead them forward; but my impression is that if he failed them now there would be serious danger of an outburst of national feeling which would destoy him."
Sir Hugh Knatchbull-Hugessen (Nanking) to Foreign Office, 3 August 1937. In Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, Volume XXI: Far Eastern Affairs. (1984), pp. 204-205.
The latest contretemps between Peking and Toyko are a reminder that contrary to some of the bien-pensant reasoning akin to that of Sheila Smith, there are currents of Chinese behavior and policy which run very deep indeed. As can be seen by the dispatch of the British Ambassador to Nationalist China at the time of the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. Which is not to excuse Japanese culpability in allowing the Marco Polo incident of July 1937 to lead to a tragic outbreak of hostilties between the two countries. Merely that the decision to go to war, was au fond a Chinese one, driven as we can see by domestic political considerations, id. est., primat der Innenpolitik considerations. As the various news stories and the more intelligent analyses of Chinese politics and policy show, nationalist drum banging on any and all issues relating to so-called irredentist territories, is part and parcel of Chinese government policy to shore-up domestic support for the same 1. Strictly speaking, the PRC has absolutely no case, in its various disputes with not only Japan, but Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries in the surrounding area 2. That empirical fact has not prevented the PRC from endeavoring to browbeat and or intimidate neighboring powers on issues relating to the off-shore island chains in either the South China Seas or the East China Seas. Given the domestic basis of Chinese policy, it is quite impossible to imagine anytime soon that the regime in Peking will be at all minded to allow 'international law, scientific evidence and legal argument' to settle these disputes. Sancta simplicitas! Doctor Panglosss where indeed are you? That being said, the role for the Western powers in this situation can and must be to ensure that Peking is not allowed to run roughshod over its neighbors. Either now or in the future. In particular the United States can and must retain the role of balancer and stabilizer of the regional equilibrium between the PRC and its smaller neighbors 3.
1. For a thoroughly splendid discussion of how domestic political currents over-determine PRC foreign policy, see: Zheng Wang. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, (2012). Which amplifies to the tenth degree the primat der Innenpolitik analysis that I have been putting on the PRC's foreign policy for quite awhile now.
2. For an interesting discussion of the confused manner in which Peking approaches this entire question from a diplomatic standpoint, see: James R. Holmes, "The Korean War meets the South China Sea." The Diplomat. 9 August 2012, in
3. For a mostly similar view of what American policy should be in this matter, see: Douglas Paal, "Dangerous Shoals: U.S. Policy in the South China Seas." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 15 August 2012, in

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.

Sunday, August 05, 2012


"Two of the three women in the Moscow courtroom are young mothers. Their alleged crime: bursting into Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral in February in balaclavas and thrashing out a “punk prayer”, “Mother Mary, Drive Putin Out!” In many countries, they might have been fined or cautioned. In Russia, if found guilty on hooliganism charges, the women could be jailed for seven years. The trial of feminist punk band Pussy Riot, under way in Moscow, is highlighting the darker turn Russia’s political system has taken since Vladimir Putin returned for a third presidential term in May. It is only one element in a broader clampdown on civil society in recent weeks, apparently aimed at snuffing out opposition protests that flared in the winter.... Today’s system looks much more repressive than the one put in force a decade ago. Back then – though the Kremlin never admitted openly what it was doing – advisers and officials, on background, would lay out a pragmatic justification for “Putinism”. The Kremlin needed to re-establish centralised power, they said, to end the chaos resulting from Russia’s deeply flawed 1990s attempts at democracy-building, and allow its economy to develop. Russia had to nurture a responsible, property-owning middle class that would not vote for communists or fascists.... This system carried inherent dangers. In a country where the rule of law had not taken root, rules had to be bent to guarantee control. Rather than being based on fear, moreover, the system used tolerance of corruption to ensure at least minimal loyalty – making Russia’s age-old problem of graft ever more institutionalised. The assumption was that once society was ready, the screws would gradually be loosened, and democratic choice returned to the people.... Many Russians believe that the time has come, and that the Pussy Riot trial shows Russia’s leadership is flunking it. The benign interpretation of Putinism is becoming unsustainable, they say.... Instead, Mr Putin’s return further hollowed out Russia’s institutional framework, restoring overtly personalised rule. The unexpected anger that this provoked found expression in the demonstrations that erupted after December’s manipulated parliamentary elections. But Russians’ very willingness to demonstrate on the streets shows that Putinism, helped by soaring oil prices, has worked. The middle class is here. Russia’s nominal gross domestic product per capita was $14,000 last year, well above the level at which many countries have embraced democracy. The middle class is small, and almost entirely urban. But it is growing. Rather than engaging with it, however, as the harbinger of a widening phenomenon capable of transforming Russia, Mr Putin’s Kremlin is fighting it. That makes Russia’s leadership look ever less like an agent of modernising change and more like what critics have long accused it of being: a group too comfortable with power and wealth, striving to cling on at all costs. Yet unless it is prepared to become much more repressive, the Kremlin’s efforts to stifle protest appear to be futile. Opponents are finding inventive ways of getting round the laws. If that opposition continues to spring up, Hydra-like, Mr Putin may eventually face a challenge from within the leading group. If oil prices tumble and the economy stalls, some commentators believe he could yet face a Tahrir Square-like uprising".
Neil Buckley, "Punk Band Trial reveals Putin's Dark Side." The Financial Times. 31 July 2012, in
"'What could a handful of young students do? They destroyed themselves for nothing!' All that is very sensible, and people who argue in that way ought to be gratfied at the good sense of the younger generation of Russians that followed us. After our affair, which followed that of Sungurov, fifteen years passed in tranquillity before the Petrashevsky affair, and it was those fifteen years from which Russia is only just beginning to recover and by which two generations were broken, the elder smothered in violence, and the younger generation poisoned from childhood, whose sickly representatives we are seeing to-day....The savage punishments inflicted on boys of sixteen or seventeen served as a stern lesson and a kind of hardening process; the paw of the beast hung over every one of us, proceeding from a breast without a heart, and dispelled for good all rosy hopes of indulgence for youth. It was dangerous to play at Liberalism, and no one dreamed at playing at conspiracy. For one badly concealed tear over Poland, for one boldly uttered word, there were years of exile, of the white strap and sometimes even the fortress."
Alexander Ivanovich Herzen. My Past and Thoughts. Volume One. Translated by Constance Garnett. Revised Edition. (1968), p. 133.
The 'Pu--y Riot' case provides to a small extent an open window on the evolution of 'Putinism' as a system of government in Russia. On the face of it, the original actions of this group of mauvais ton, ill-bred, ill-educated, devushkii is quite farcical. In the 'old days', say circa London 1939, they would have been arrested, flogged by the public hangman and be 'bound over' for twelve months. Unfortunately, here in the decadent West, we live in needless permissive times, so that idiotic 'performances' of the type that was seen in Moskva's Christ the Saviour Cathedral, are almost par for the course in this day and age. Au fond, in terms of strict morality, my own surmise is that the Russian authorities would have been quite content to issue a stern warning to the young ladies and let them go, if the original demonstration was a purely non-political event. However, the event in the aftermath of the first mass demonstrations in Moskva against Putin and Putinism for another Presidential term, was seen, and in a fashion correctly, as quite political in nature by the authorities and they reacted accordingly. Hence the current trial. Which provides a convenience backdrop, along with the charging of the oppositionist Navalny, that the regime, has decided at least for the present, to endeavor to snuff out, all traces of overt opposition, whether peaceful (which so far is all they have been) or not. Of course, Matushka Rossiya has in the past, as the memoirs of the first, Russian dissident, Alexander Gertsen show, seen a political regime, for reasons real or imagined, go all out and criminalize, acts and statements, whether they are in fact 'political' or not, simply because in a particular atmosphere, everything was viewed and seen by the authorities as 'political'. Just as in Prague, under Husak, the private performances of some poshlost, 'Rock and Roll' band, was deemed by the authorities to be a political act 1. The upshot of this type of politicization is inevitably that almost anything and everything is regarded by both the ruling regime and its opponents and indeed the population at large, as being 'political'. With the result of course that normal and rational politics, as we usually understand it in the West, goes out the window and the subterfuge 'politics' of full-fledged authoritarian regimes comes into play 2. Russia is not of course quite at that stage of the game. And it is not clear to me, if the regime as a whole wishes to go down this route. I can well imagine that in the conflicted and multi-dimensional political regime that is Putin's Russia, that there are a good number of people of the Alexei Kudrin sort, who wish to go down another road, than what Kudrin's former chief appears to wish to travel. No doubt, Kudrin, et. al., would prefer to engineer a 'soft-landing' and to stage a liberalization and modernization from 'above', `a la say the two greatest twentieth century Russian statesmen, Pyotr Stolypin and Graf Witte endeavored and failed to travel in the years before the Great War 3. Unfortunately, it also appears that a majority of the regime's insiders, including Putin himself, appear to go down the road to repression, rather than liberalization. Which in some ways is a genuine tragedy, as for all its faults, as the Financial Times correspondent, aptly points out, for a time and to a good degree, the first six to seven years of 'Putinism', did indeed 'work'. Albeit, with astronomically high levels of corruption and governmental incompetence. But, in giving the country years of stability as well as solid (admittedly uneven & resource dependent) economic growth, Putin's regime did 'deliver'. Now of course, all that is potentially at risk. Given the fact that there are many, myself included who think that the regime will inevitably implode if it continues on its present path, perhaps via the long predicted crash in the price of oil, below say eighty-dollars a barrel (currently brent crude is priced at a one-hundred and eight dollars), it is not entirely without reason for many to look at the situation in current day Russia and repeat those horrible words, so well known to Russian ears in the past two hundred years and say: pire ca va, mieux ca est! Or as the Russian analyst Lilia Shevstova, recently characterized the current situation in a more elaborate and elongated fashion:
"By censoring the media, discrediting moderate opposition, and provoking popular discontent, Putin is playing with fire. It is impossible to predict when Russia will detonate, but the system’s fissures are undeniable – and growing. The Kremlin, far from being able to control the situation, does not fully grasp what is happening. Russia is moving toward precipice. Massive capital flight and efforts by Kremlin cronies to engineer a safe landing for themselves in the West show that, even in the eyes of Putin’s cohorts, the end of his époque is approaching" 4.
1. For Czech example of the politicization of the ordinary, see: Vaclav Havel. Disturbing the Peace. Translated by Paul Wilson. (1990), pp. 126-132. For an example from Russian history, See: "Introduction", in Landmarks: A collection of Essays on the Russian Intelligentsia, 1909. Translated by Marian Schwartz. Edited by Boris Shagrin & Albert Todd. (1977), p. xlviii & passim, where the future Orthodox theologian, Nikolai Berdyaev noted: "On the soil of autocracy and lawlessness not only is political activity impossible, not only economic activity , but so is any kind of creative activity in general, any, it would seem, politically innocent cultural work; spiritual creativity in religion, science, literature and the education of the nation are all impossible". For an example from Sovietskaya Vlast, the so-called, 'Stiliagi', in the 1940's and 1950's, see: Vladislav Zubok. Zhivago's Children: the last Russian Intelligentsia. (2009), p. 39-59 & passim. If my strictures on these young ladies, seem excessively harsh, it is perhaps due to the fact that unlike most readers of the Anglophone press, I am aware of the fact that all two of three of these young ladies, took part in the infamous, performance art, 'orgy' in the so-called 'Museum of Biology' in Moskva, awhile back. Under the circumstances, being flogged would be very much par for the course for such young rabble rousers.
2. For examples from Russian history of 'full-fledged authoritarian regimes', see: Marc Raeff. Understanding Imperial Russia. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. (1984), pp. 147-226; Richard Pipes. Russia under the Old Regime. (1974), pp. 281-312; Martin Malia. Russia Under Western Eyes. (1999), pp. 85-160; Robert C.Tucker, "Swollen State, Spent Society: Stalin's legacy to Brezhnev's Russia." Foreign Affairs. (Winter 1981 / 1982), pp. 414-434; Marc Reaff. The Well-Ordered Police State. (1983), pp. 250-256.
3. For perhaps the best introduction in the English language, to contemporary, 'high politics' in Putin's Russia, see: Andrew Monaghan, "The vertikal: power and authority in Russia." International Affairs. (January 2012), pp. 1-16. See also: Stephen Holmes, "Fragments of a defunct State." The London Review of Books. 5 January 2012, in; Peter Pomerantsev, "Putin's Rasputin." The London Review of Books. 20 October 2011, pp. 3-6. On Witte & Stolypin, see: Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution. (1990), pp. 31-36 & 166-187 & passim; Dominic Lieven. Nicholas II: the twilight of the Empire. (1993), pp. 70-85, 170-181 & passim.
4. Lilia Shevstova, "Putin's Ironic Potential". The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 26 June 2012, in