h i s t o r y b r e n dan s i mms
Dire Straits The Russian Origins of the First World War
By Sean McMeekin (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press 324pp £22.95)
For many years, the ‘Origins of the First World War’ was a familiar topic to generations of British schoolchildren and undergraduates. They learned to use with care the various official collections of documents published by governments shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. In the late 1920s their standard reading became the ‘revisionist’ books by authors such as Sidney Fay, whose argument that primary responsibility for the war should be shared more or less equally among the powers, and certainly did not rest primarily with Germany, survived the Second World War. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, two iconoclastic – if turgid – works by the German historian Fritz Fischer, Germany’s War Aims in the First World War and War of Illusions, purported to prove what Allied propagandists had claimed all along, namely that the Kaiser’s government bore the primary responsibility for the outbreak of the war. He went beyond these critics by arguing that the aggression of imperial Germany reflected her peculiar domestic structure – part modern, part feudal – which required an ever more adventurous foreign policy to contain demands for change from below, especially from the Social Democrats. Over the past forty years, much of the literature on the First World War has confirmed Fischer’s thesis, not least by taking it as a point of departure. Recent work on Germany, to be sure, has modified the picture, but largely by stressing the geopolitical rather than the domestic concerns of policymakers in Berlin, not by questioning their principal responsibility for the carnage.
Now, as the centenary of the outbreak of the war draws near, we can expect a spate of new works marking the anniversary and re-examining its origins. Sean McMeekin, an American historian working in Turkey, has been quick off the mark with The Russian Origins of the First World War. He brings to the table a range of skills in the Russian and
Turkish languages rarely found in the Anglophone world, and more rarely still in combination. After nearly half a century of focus on Germany, McMeekin examines Tsarist Russia, the great power he considers most responsible for plunging Europe and large parts of the world into mass slaughter. He argues that the primary aim of St Petersburg remained what it had been since the late eighteenth century: the capture of Constantinople, known to Russians as ‘Tsargrad’ – the city
Tsar Nicholas II and his son: up for the fight of the emperors. Control of the Straits would provide unfettered access to the Mediterranean and allow them to appropriate the imperial Roman legacy of Byzantium. Throughout the nineteenth century, the British and French had blocked the way, most dramatically in the Crimean War of the 1850s. But from 1893, when the French and Russians joined forces against Germany, and 1907, when Britain and Russia signed a treaty which completed the Triple Entente against the Kaiser, those two powers had been drawn into a pattern of cooperation with St Petersburg.
Moreover, Russia now regarded imperial Germany as the main challenge to her ambitions at the Straits. German military missions to Constantinople and railway projects in Anatolia and Mesopotamia (discussed in McMeekin’s previous book The Berlin–Baghdad Express) threatened to turn the Ottoman Empire from the ‘sick man of Europe’ into a much more formidable competitor. Russian strategists now routinely stated that ‘the path to Constantinople runs through Berlin’. The author shows that far from having time on her side as she modernised with French help, as the conventional view has it, St Petersburg actually felt she was falling behind in relation to the all important naval balance in the Black Sea.
It is against this background that McMeekin closely dissects Russian policy during the ‘July Crisis’ sparked by the murder of the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Bosnian Serb assassins in late June 1914. The assassination was sanctioned by the head of Serbian intelligence in Belgrade, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, also known as ‘Apis’ (‘the bull’), and possibly also by elements within the government. The author does not claim that St Petersburg had prior knowledge of the crime, though it might have done, but he does note that the Russian envoy to Belgrade, Baron Hartwig, was extremely close to Apis. Moreover, McMeekin stresses that the Russian decision to mobilise was effectively taken much earlier than often imagined and at any rate well before that of Austria– Hungary or Germany. This effectively forced Germany to respond and unleashed war not only with France but also with Great Britain. In this way, Russia locked the Western Allies into her Balkan and Near Eastern vendetta against Germany.
Yet if the Russians had war in early August 1914, they did not yet have exactly the war they wanted. Most accounts of the origins of the war lose momentum after the outbreak of hostilities, but it is a merit of McMeekin’s account that he takes the story further. He shows that – to the despair of the French and British – the Russians spent the first few months of the war not pressing their advantage on the lightly held East German frontier, but d e c 2 0 1 1 / j a n 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 9